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Phalluses and fallacies: Germaine Greer on the poetry of sex

All poetry is driven by sex, whether or not it acknowledges the impulse.

The Poetry of Sex
Edited by Sophie Hannah
Viking, 220pp, £14.99

The Poetry of Sex is a pretty coy title for a collection of occasional verse purporting to be about rumpy pumpy – if that is what Sophie Hannah’s latest anthology is about. “Sex” is slippery stuff; I am reminded of John Lennon’s “Four in Hand”, in which one of four masturbators whose fantasies are being projected on to a screen keeps visualising the Lone Ranger instead of Brigitte Bardot. He gets off on the Lone Ranger but the Lone Ranger ruins it for the other three.

One of many equivalents of the Lone Ranger in The Poetry of Sex is “La Noche Oscura” (“Dark Night”) by Saint John of the Cross, of which Hannah supplies the original Spanish, followed by the translation by Edgar Allison Peers (unattributed), apparently believing the poem to be an account of a sexual encounter. It could certainly be interpreted by unbelievers as evidence of sublimation of sexual tension but that is not what the poet thought it was. Robert Frost too might be surprised to find that his sonnet “Putting in the Seed” is assumed to be about ejaculation. Why the condemnation of the double standard (“Stupid Men”) by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz should be included in the original Spanish together with the translation by Alan S Trueblood (unacknowledged) is similarly incomprehensible.

Other poets are not so lucky. “Carmen 16” of Catullus is not given in the Latin original but in a clumsily inflated version by the American poet G M Palmer, which ought to mean that Palmer and not Catullus is given as the author. Though Catullus threatens to “bugger and stuff” two of his friends, the poem is not actually about sex at all. Penetration in poetry, as in actual speech, is usually a metaphor.

Versification is as sexual a phenomenon as birdsong; it is typically male display, elaborated more to dishearten and drive off competition by other males than to seduce the oblivious female, whether she be an illiterate human or a foraging hen bird. The male display is sexual but it is not about having or doing sex; it seeks to elaborate a fundamentally banal and momentary interaction by artifice and invention. Once penetration has been achieved, silence falls – for bird and poet.

Poems that enact or depict sexual behaviour seldom have actual sexual congress as their true subject. The golden age of sex poetry in English is the 17th century, when rapacious paraphilias and perversities were made to stand for creeping absolutism and its discontents. All kinds of disgusting behaviours were attributed to courtiers, peers, politicians and monarchs, and described in often puke-making detail. Unfortunately Hannah knows nothing of the venerable tradition of Fescennine verse. The most brilliant examples, Nashe’s “The Choice of Valentines” or Rochester’s “A Ramble in St James’s Park”, are way beyond her ken and hence not to be found in this anthology, which is a shame as they are not otherwise easy to find.

Contemplation of other people’s swiving being seldom arousing or even entertaining, Hannah seems to have eventually given up trying to organise her material and simply imposed eight section titles consisting of odd lines from the poems included. The poems are undated and there is no information about their authors or the traditions of which they are a part. Walt Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric” bestrides the first section of the collection like a camp Colossus. No sooner has the reader emerged from beneath this onslaught than she is confronted by Whitman in even less convincing mode trumpeting that a woman waits for him:

I do not hurt you any more than is necessary for you
I pour the stuff to start sons and daughter fit for these States, I press with slow rude muscle,

I brace myself effectually, I listen to no entreaties,

I dare not withdraw till I deposit what has so long accumulated within me.

To interpret the I of the poem as Whitman himself would be to blunder; Whitman was no rapist, but this is the song of the rapist nonetheless.

Commercial pornography, keen to flatter its consumer, always exaggerates the role of the penis; the speaker of Whitman’s poem, best described as a personified phallus, trumpets that he is “stern, acrid, large, undissuadable”. Such fustian, when it is not offensive, is simply tiresome. Whitman’s braying is followed by “My Black Triangle” by Grace Nichols, who can manage no more than feeble tinkle (pardon the pun) in comparison:

My black triangle is so rich
that it flows over
on to the dry crotch
of the world.

Hannah hopes her collection will be the raunchiest poetry anthology of the year, a humble enough aim to be sure. In fact it is far less raunchy than the average collection of rugby songs. A classic such as “The Great Wheel” would kick the whole collection into touch.

Hannah is happy to warn readers elsewhere that she is an “unfashionable reader who loves poems that rhyme, scan and are about something”. There is certainly a plethora of rhymes amid the 130 poems here assembled, some of them utterly excruciating:

Bloody Hell! OMG! Sacré bleu! It’s Barbara!
As sumptuous and stylish as a Gothic candelabra.
I want to dock my dinghy in the safety of your harbour.
A bidet full of ice would not begin to cool my ardour.

How Hannah got this repellent doggerel from a poet as engaging as Luke Wright must remain a mystery, for her source is nowhere acknowledged. The Poetry of Sex offers no help to the inquiring reader; for example, there is no hint that W H Auden never admitted writing “The Platonic Blow (A Day for a Lay)” or that this ebullient burlesque fantasy on an encounter with a flesh-and-blood Tom of Finland character first came to light in 1965 when it was published in New York by Ed Sanders in Fuck You: a Magazine of the Arts. Erotic verse has a history; a great many songs of the schlong are responses and elaborations on hymns to other quims. In Hannah’s anthology the poems are not dated; it would be nice to know who the Elizabeth Barrett who contributed “Intimacy” might be – or at least be able to be sure that she is not the Elizabeth Barrett who married Robert Browning. (She isn’t.)

Great poems are hidden amid 21st-century dross like diamonds in a dunghill. “Foeda est in coitu” in Ben Jonson’s masterful version (“Doing, a filthy pleasure is, and short … ”) is confidently attributed to someone called Gaius Petronius, apparently assumed to be the name of the author of the Satyricon. Petronius is certainly not the author of “Foeda est in coitu”, which can be traced no further back than the now vanished Codex Bellovacensis of the ninth century. Simply including the date of Jonson’s version might have directed the curious reader to the dozens of versions of the same neo-Latin fragment attempted by the tribe of Ben, some of them hilarious.

W B Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan” and Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” are so enmired in the surrounding dreariness that they cannot shine forth. Philip Larkin’s “Annus Mirabilis” has no place in this company either, especially as, though masturbation is the principal 21st-century sex form and Larkin was addicted to it, not a single poem in the anthology deals with it. Not that it’s always easy to work out just what is going on; most of the poems are disfigured by the same coyness as the title of the collection. Marilyn Hacker means to tell lesbian sex as it is but this is the first quatrain of her sonnet:

First I want to make you come in my hand
while I watch you and kiss you, and if you cry,
I’ll drink your tears while, with my whole hand, I
hold your drenched loveliness contracting …

The combination of bullying tone with hyperbolic euphemism is worthy of Whitman himself. There’s more emotional subtlety in the mini classic “Wham!/Bam!/Thank you ma’am” than there is in Hacker’s whole pseudo-sonnet.

Hannah has included a single poem of her own in her anthology. “Rubbish at Adultery” is pretty good, though it is short-changing it to describe it as “poetry of sex”. It is actually invective, another medium that makes copious use of sexual reference without being itself about sex. Its counterpart, “Hombres Necios” (‘Stupid Men’) by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is printed in a different and apparently unrelated section of the collection.

Another gem is Gavin Ewart’s good-humoured description of the essential role of slap-and-tickle in the workplace, demurely titled “Office Friendships”:

Eve is madly in love with Hugh
And Hugh is keen on Jim.
Charles is in love with very few
And few are in love with him.

Myra sits typing notes of love
With romantic pianist’s fingers.
Dick turns his eyes to the heavens above
Where Fran’s divine perfume linger.

Nicky is rolling eyes and tits
And flaunting her wiggly walk.
Everybody is thrilled to bits
By Clive’s suggestive talk.

Sex suppressed will go berserk,
But it keeps us all alive.
It’s a wonderful change from wives and work
And it ends at half past five.

Given current pieties about sexual interaction at work, it would have helped if Hannah had supplied us with the date of the poem’s composition, but all we can learn from the acknowledgments section is that permission for its reprinting was given by Margo Ewart. If Hannah had wanted to present the raunchiest collection possible she probably should have included Gavin Ewart’s “Phallus in Wonderland”, which is hardly ever reprinted.

Sex is as difficult and various as convers­ation; it is to be found on every page of a novel by Jane Austen. It drives every poem that was ever written, whether it makes reference to incidences of sexual congress or not. It is not surprising that when Hannah began to look for the poetry of sex she lost her way, for she was afloat on a vast sea of human endeavour with no guide. An historic overview might have given her something to hang on to, but the attempt to organise such lawless material was always bound to fail. Sex knows no bounds and respects no boundaries. It was folly to think of clapping it up in a single book.

Germaine Greer’s most recent book is White Beech: the Rainforest Years (Bloomsbury, £25)

 

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A nervous breakdown in the body politic

Are we too complacent in thinking that the toxic brew of paranoia and populism that brought Hitler to power will never be repeated?

The conventional wisdom holds that “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”, in Edmund Burke’s familiar phrase; but this is at best a half-truth. Studying the biography of a moral monster triumphantly unleashed on the political and international stage points us to another perspective, no less important. What is necessary for the triumph of evil is that the ground should have been thoroughly prepared by countless small or not-so-small acts of petty malice, unthinking prejudice and collusion. Burke’s axiom, though it represents a powerful challenge to apathy, risks crediting evil with too much of a life of its own: out there, there are evil agencies, hostile to “us”, and we (good men and women) must mobilise to resist.

No doubt; but mobilising intelligently demands being willing to ask what habits and assumptions, as well as what chances and conditions, have made possible the risk of evil triumphing. And that leads us into deep waters, to a recognition of how what we tolerate or ignore or underestimate opens the way for disaster, the ways in which we are at least half-consciously complicit. If this is not to be the silly we-are-all-guilty response that has rightly been so much mocked, nor an absolution for the direct agents of great horrors, it needs a careful and unsparing scrutiny of the processes by which cultures become corruptible, vulnerable to the agendas of damaged and obsessional individuals.

This can be uncomfortable. It raises the awkward issue of what philosophers have learned to call “moral luck” – the fact that some people with immense potential for evil don’t actualise it, because the circumstances don’t present them with the chance, and that some others who might have spent their lives in blameless normality end up supervising transports to Auschwitz. Or, to take a sharply contemporary example, that one Muslim youth from a disturbed or challenging background becomes a suicide bomber but another from exactly the same background doesn’t. It is as though there were a sort of diabolical mirror image for the biblical Parable of the Sower: some seeds grow and some don’t, depending on the ground they fall on, or what chance external stimulus touches them at critical moments.

If what interests us is simply how to assign individuals rapidly and definitively to the categories of sheep and goats, saved and damned, this is offensively frustrating. But if we recognise that evil is in important respects a shared enterprise, we may be prompted to look harder at those patterns of behaviour and interaction that – in the worst cases – give permission to those who are most capable of extreme destructiveness, and to examine our personal, political and social life in the light of this.

***

It would be possible to argue that the anti-Semitism of a lot of German culture – as of European Christian culture overall – was never (at least in the modern period) genocidal and obsessed with absolute racial purity; limited but real possibilities of integration were taken for granted, converts to Christianity were not disadvantaged merely because of their race, and so on. Yet the truth is that this cultural hinterland offered a foothold to the mania of Adolf Hitler; that it gave him just enough of the permission he needed to identify his society’s problems with this clearly definable “alien” presence. In his new book, Hitler: the Ascent, Volker Ullrich compellingly tells us once again that no one could have been under any illusion about Hitler’s general intentions towards the Jews from his very first appearance as a political figure, even if the detailed planning of genocide (lucidly traced in the late David Cesarani’s recent, encyclopaedic Final Solution) took some time to solidify. Yet so much of the German public heard Hitler’s language as the slightly exaggerated version of a familiar trope and felt able to treat it as at worst an embarrassing overstatement of a common, even a common-sense, view. One of the most disturbing things about this story is the failure of so many (inside and outside Germany) to grasp that Hitler meant what he said; and this failure in turn reinforced the delusion of those who thought they could use and then sideline Hitler.

To say that Hitler “meant what he said”, however, can be misleading. It is one of the repeated and focal themes in Ullrich’s book that Hitler was a brazen, almost compulsive liar – or, perhaps better, a compulsive and inventive actor, devising a huge range of dramatic roles for himself: frustrated artist, creative patron, philosopher-king (there is a fine chapter on the intellectual and artistic circle he assembled frequently at his Berchtesgaden residence), workers’ friend, martyr for his people (he constantly insinuated that he believed himself doomed to a tragic and premature death), military or economic messiah and a good deal else besides. His notorious outbursts of hysterical rage seem to have been skilfully orchestrated as instruments of intimidation (though this did not exactly indicate that he was otherwise predictable). Ullrich devotes a fair measure of attention to the literal staging of National Socialism, the architectural gigantism of Albert Speer which gave the Führer the sophisticated theatre he craved. In all sorts of ways, Hitler’s regime was a profoundly theatrical exercise, from the great public displays at Nuremberg and the replanning of Berlin to the various private fantasies enacted by him and his close associates (Göring above all), and from the emotional roller coaster he created for his circle to the dangerously accelerated rate of military-industrial expansion with which he concealed the void at the centre of the German economy.

Theatre both presupposes and creates a public. In the anxiety and despair of post-Versailles Germany, there was a ready audience for the high drama of Nazism, including its scapegoating of demonic enemies within and without. And in turn, the shrill pitch of Hitler’s quasi-liturgies normalised a whole set of bizarre and fantastic constructions of reality. A N Wilson’s challenging novel Winnie and Wolf, a fantasia on Hitler’s relations with Winifred Wagner, culminates in a scene at the end of the war where refugees and destitute citizens in Bayreuth raid the wardrobe of the opera house and wander the streets dressed in moth-eaten costumes; it is an unforgettable metaphor for one of the effects of Hitlerian theatre. Ullrich leaves his readers contemplating the picture of a vast collective drama centred on a personality that was not – as some biographers have suggested – something of a cipher, but that of a fantasist on a grand scale, endowed with a huge literal and metaphorical budget for staging his work.

All of this prompts questions about how it is that apparently sophisticated political systems succumb to corporate nervous breakdowns. It is anything but an academic question in a contemporary world where theatrical politics, tribal scapegoating and variegated confusions about the rule of law are increasingly in evidence. On this last point, it is still shocking to realise how rapidly post-Versailles Germany came to regard violent public conflict between heavily armed militias as almost routine, and this is an important background to the embittered negotiations later on around the relation between Hitler’s Sturmabteilung and the official organs of state coercion. Ullrich’s insightful account of a de facto civil war in Bavaria in the early 1920s makes it mercilessly plain that any pretensions to a state monopoly of coercion in Germany in this period were empty.

Yet the idea of such a state monopoly is in fact essential to anything that could be called a legitimate democracy. In effect, the polity of the Third Reich “privatised” coer­cion: again and again in Ullrich’s book, in the struggles for power before 1933, we see Nazi politicians successfully bidding for control of the mechanisms of public order in the German regions, and more or less franchising public order to their own agencies. A classical democratic political philosophy would argue that the state alone has the right to use force because the state is the guarantor of every community’s and every individual’s access to redress for injury or injustice. If state coercion becomes a tool for any one element in the social complex, it loses legitimacy. It is bound up with the rule of law, which is about something more than mere majority consent. One way of reading the rise of Hitler and National Socialism is as the steady and consistent normalising of illegitimate or partisan force, undermining any concept of an independent guarantee of lawfulness in society. It is the deliberate dissolution of the idea of a Rechtsstaat, a law-governed state order that can be recognised by citizens as organised for their common and individual good. Rule by decree, the common pattern of Nazi governmental practice, worked in harness with law enforcement by a force that was essentially a toxic hybrid, combining what was left of an independent police operation with a highly organised party militia system.

So, one of the general imperatives with which Hitler’s story might leave us is the need to keep a clear sense of what the proper work of the state involves. Arguments about the ideal “size” of the state are often spectacularly indifferent to the basic question of what the irreducible functions of state authority are – and so to the question of what cannot be franchised or delegated to non-state actors (it is extraordinary that we have in the UK apparently accepted without much debate the idea that prison security can be sold off to private interests). This is not the same as saying that privatisation in general leads to fascism; the issues around the limits to state direction of an economy are complex. However, a refusal to ask some fundamental questions about the limits of “franchising” corrodes the idea of real democratic legitimacy – the legitimacy that arises from an assurance to every citizen that, whatever their convictions or their purchasing power, the state is there to secure their access to justice. And, connected with this, there are issues about how we legislate: what are the proper processes of scrutiny for legislation, and how is populist and short-view legislation avoided? The Third Reich offers a masterclass in executive tyranny, and we need not only robust and intelligent counter-models, but a clear political theory to make sense of and defend those models.

***

Theatre has always been an aspect of the political. But there are different kinds of theatre. In ancient Athens, the annual Dionysia festival included the performance of tragedies that forced members of the audience to acknowledge the fragility of the political order and encouraged them to meditate on the divine interventions that set a boundary to vendetta and strife. Classical tragedy is, as political theatre, the exact opposite of Hitlerian drama, which repeatedly asserted the solid power of the Reich, the overcoming of weakness and division by the sheer, innate force of popular will as expressed through the Führer.

Contemporary political theatre is not – outside the more nakedly totalitarian states – a matter of Albert Speer-like spectacle and affirmation of a quasi-divine leader; but it is increasingly the product of a populist-oriented market, the parading of celebrities for popular approval, with limited possibilities for deep public discussion of policies advanced, and an assumption that politicians will be, above all, performers. It is not – to warn once again against cliché and exaggeration – that celebrity culture in politics is a short route to fascism. But a political theatre that never deals with the fragility of the context in which law and civility operate, that never admits the internal flaws and conflicts of a society, and never allows some corporate opening-up to the possibilities of reconciliation and reparation, is one that exploits, rather than resolves our anxieties. And, as such, it makes us politically weaker, more confused and fragmented.

The extraordinary mixture of farce and menace in Donald Trump’s campaign is a potent distillation of all this: a political theatre, divorced from realism, patience and human solidarity, bringing to the surface the buried poisons of a whole system and threatening its entire viability and rationality. But it is an extreme version of the way in which modern technology-and-image-driven communication intensifies the risks that beset the ideals of legitimate democracy.

And – think of Trump once again – one of the most seductively available tricks of such a theatre is the rhetoric of what could be called triumphant victimhood: we are menaced by such and such a group (Jews, mig­rants, Muslims, Freemasons, international business, Zionism, Marxism . . .), which has exerted its vast but covert influence to destroy us; but our native strength has brought us through and, given clear leadership, will soon, once and for all, guarantee our safety from these nightmare aliens.

***

This is a rhetoric that depends on ideas of collective guilt or collective malignity: plots ascribed to the agency of some dangerous minority are brandished in order to tarnish the name of entire communities. The dark legacy of much popular Christian language about collective Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus could be translated without much difficulty into talk about the responsibility of Jews for the violence and poverty afflicting Germans in the 1920s. (Shadows of the same myths still affect the way in which – as recent reports suggest – sinister, vague talk about Zionism and assumptions of a collective Jewish guilt for the actions of various Israeli politicians can become part of a climate that condones anti-Semitic bullying, or text messages saying “Hitler had a point”, on university campuses.)

Granted that there is no shortage of other candidates for demonic otherness in Europe and the United States (witness Trump’s language about Muslims and Mexicans), the specific and abiding lesson of Nazi anti-Semitism is the twofold recognition of the ease with which actually disadvantaged communities can be cast in the role of all-powerful subverters, and the way in which the path to violent exclusion of one kind or another can be prepared by cultures of casual bigotry and collective anxiety or self-pity, dramatised by high-temperature styles of media communication.

Marie Luise Knott’s recent short book Unlearning With Hannah Arendt (2014) revisits the controversy over Arendt’s notorious characterisation of the mindset of Nazism as “the banality of evil”, and brilliantly shows how her point is to do with the erosion in Hitlerian Germany of the capacity to think, to understand one’s agency as answerable to more than public pressure and fashion, to hold to notions of honour and dignity independent of status, convention or influence – but also, ultimately, the erosion of a sense of the ridiculous. The victory of public cliché and stereotype is, in Arendt’s terms, a protection against reality, “against the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence”, as she memorably wrote in The Life of the Mind. Hitler was committed to the destruction of anything that challenged the simple self-identity and self-justification of the race and the nation; hence, as Ullrich shows in an acutely argued chapter of Hitler: a Biography, the Führer’s venom against the churches, despite their (generally) embarrassingly lukewarm resistance to the horrors of the Reich. The problem was that the churches’ rationale entailed just that accountability to more than power and political self-identity that Nazi philosophy treated as absolute. They had grounds for thinking Nazism not only evil, but absurd. Perhaps, then, one of the more unexpected questions we are left with by a study of political nightmare such as Ullrich’s excellent book is how we find the resources for identifying the absurd as well as for clarifying the grounds of law and honour.

The threats now faced by “developed” democracy are not those of the 1920s and 1930s; whatever rough beasts are on their way are unlikely to have the exact features of Hitler’s distinctive blend of criminality and melodrama. But this does not mean that we shouldn’t be looking as hard as we can at the lessons to be learned from the collapse of political legality, the collective panics and myths, the acceptance of delusional and violent public theatre that characterised Hitler’s Germany. For evil to triumph, what is necessary is for societies to stop thinking, to stop developing an eye for the absurd as well as the corrupt in language and action, public or private.

Hitler: a Biography – Volume I: Ascent by Volker Ullrich is published by the Bodley Head

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism