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)