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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)

 

MARTIN O’NEILL
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The new young fogeys

Today’s teens and twentysomethings seem reluctant to get drunk, smoke cigarettes or have sex. Is abstinence the new form of youth rebellion?

In a University College London lecture theatre, all eyes are on an elaborate Dutch apple cake. Those at the back have stood up to get a better look. This, a chorus of oohs and aahs informs me, is a baked good at its most thrilling.

In case you were wondering, UCL hasn’t rented out a room to the Women’s Institute. All thirty or so cake enthusiasts here are undergraduates, aged between 18 and 21. At the third meeting this academic year of UCL’s baking society, the focus has shifted to a Tupperware container full of peanut butter cookies. One by one, the students are delivering a brief spiel about what they have baked and why.

Sarah, a 19-year-old human sciences undergraduate, and Georgina, aged 20, who is studying maths and physics, help run the baking society. They tell me that the group, which was set up in 2012, is more popular than ever. At the most recent freshers’ fair, more than 750 students signed up. To put the number in perspective: that is roughly 15 per cent of the entire first-year population. The society’s events range from Great British Bake Off-inspired challenges to “bring your own cake” gatherings, such as today’s. A “cake crawl”, I am told, is in the pipeline. You know, like a pub crawl . . . but with cake? Georgina says that this is the first year the students’ union has advertised specifically non-drinking events.

From the cupcake boom to the chart-topping eminence of the bow-tie-wearing, banjo-plucking bores Mumford & Sons, the past decade of youth culture has been permeated by wholesomeness. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), this movement is more than just aesthetic. Not only are teenage pregnancies at their lowest level since records began in the 1960s, but drug-taking, binge drinking and sexually transmitted infections among young people have also taken significant dives. Drug use among the under-25s has fallen by a quarter over the past ten years and heavy drinking – measured by how much a person drinks in an average week – is down by 15 per cent. Cigarettes are also losing their appeal, with under-25 smokers down by 10 per cent since 2001. Idealistic baby boomers had weed and acid. Disaffected and hedonistic Generation X-ers had Ecstasy and cocaine. Today’s youth (which straddles Generations Y and Z) have cake. So, what shaped this demographic that, fairly or otherwise, could be called “Generation Zzzz”?

“We’re a lot more cynical than other generations,” says Lucy, a 21-year-old pharmacy student who bakes a mean Welsh cake. “We were told that if we went to a good uni and got a good job, we’d be fine. But now we’re all so scared we’re going to be worse off than our parents that we’re thinking, ‘Is that how we should be spending our time?’”

“That” is binge drinking. Fittingly, Lucy’s dad – she tells me – was an anarchist with a Mohawk who, back home in the Welsh valleys, was known to the police. She talks with deserved pride about how he joined the Conservative Party just to make trouble and sip champagne courtesy of his enemies. Lucy, though decidedly Mohawk-free, is just as politically aware as her father. She is concerned that she will soon graduate into a “real world” that is particularly hard on women.

“Women used to be a lot more reliant on men,” she says, “but it’s all on our shoulders now. One wage isn’t enough to support a family any more. Even two wages struggle.”

***

It seems no coincidence that the downturn in drink and drugs has happened at the same time as the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Could growing anxiety about the future, combined with a dip in disposable income, be taming the under-25s?

“I don’t know many people who choose drugs and alcohol over work,” says Tristan, a second-year natural scientist. He is one of about three men at the meeting and it is clear that even though baking has transcended age it has yet to transcend gender to the same extent. He is softly spoken and it is hard to hear him above a room full of sugar-addled youths. “I’ve been out once, maybe, in the past month,” he says.

“I actually thought binge drinking was quite a big deal for our generation,” says Tegan, a 19-year-old first-year linguistics undergraduate, “but personally I’m not into that. I’ve only been here three weeks and I can barely keep up with the workload.”

Tegan may consider her drinking habits unusual for someone her age but statistically they aren’t. Over a quarter of the under-25s are teetotal. Neither Tegan nor Lucy is dull. They are smart, witty and engaging. They are also enthusiastic and seemingly quite focused on work. It is this “get involved” attitude, perhaps, that distinguishes their generation from others.

In Absolutely Fabulous, one of the most popular British sitcoms of the 1990s, a lot of the humour stems from the relationship between the shallow and fashion-obsessed PR agent Edina Monsoon and her shockingly straitlaced teenage daughter, Saffie. Although Saffie belongs to Generation X, she is its antithesis: she is hard-working, moral, politically engaged, anti-drugs and prudishly anti-sex. By the standards of the 1990s, she is a hilarious anomaly. Had Ab Fab been written in the past couple of years, her character perhaps would have been considered too normal. Even her nerdy round glasses and frumpy knitted sweaters would have been considered pretty fashionable by today’s geek-chic standards.

Back in the UCL lecture theatre, four young women are “geeking out”. Between mouthfuls of cake, they are discussing, with palpable excitement, a Harry Potter-themed summer camp in Italy. “They play Quidditch and everything – there’s even a Sorting Hat,” says the tall, blonde student who is leading the conversation.

“This is for children, right?” I butt in.

“No!” she says. “The minimum age is actually 15.”

A kids’ book about wizards isn’t the only unlikely source of entertainment for this group of undergraduates. The consensus among all the students I speak to is that baking has become so popular with their demographic because of The Great British Bake Off. Who knew that Mary Berry’s chintzy cardigans and Sue Perkins’s endless puns were so appealing to the young?

Are the social and economic strains on young people today driving them towards escapism at its most gentle? Animal onesies, adult ball pools (one opened in west London last year) and that much-derided cereal café in Shoreditch, in the East End, all seem to make up a gigantic soft-play area for a generation immobilised by anxiety.

Emma, a 24-year-old graduate with whom I chatted on email, agrees. “It feels like everyone is more stressed and nervous,” she says. “It seems a particularly telling sign of the times that adult colouring-in books and little, cutesy books on mindfulness are such a massive thing right now. There are rows upon rows of bookshelves dedicated solely to all that . . . stuff.” Emma would know – she works for Waterstones.

From adult colouring books to knitting (UCL also has a knitting society, as do Bristol, Durham, Manchester and many more universities), it is hard to tell whether the tsunami of tweeness that has engulfed middle-class youth culture in the past few years is a symptom or a cause of the shrinking interest in drugs, alcohol, smoking and other “risk-taking” behaviours.

***

Christine Griffin is Professor of Social Psychology at Bath University. For the past ten years, she has been involved in research projects on alcohol consumption among 18-to-25-year-olds. She cites the recession as a possible cause of alcohol’s declining appeal, but notes that it is only part of the story. “There seems to be some sort of polarisation going on,” Griffin says. “Some young people are actually drinking more, while others are drinking less or abstaining.

“There are several different things going on but it’s clear that the culture of 18-to-25-year-olds going out to get really drunk hasn’t gone away. That’s still a pervasive social norm, even if more young people are drinking less or abstaining.”

Griffin suggests that while frequent, sustained drinking among young people is in decline, binge drinking is still happening – in short bursts.

“There are still a lot of people going to music festivals, where a huge amount of drinking and drug use goes on in a fairly unregulated way,” she says. It is possible that music festivals and holidays abroad (of the kind depicted in Channel 4 programmes such as What Happens in Kavos, in which British teenagers leave Greek islands drenched in booze and other bodily fluids) are seen as opportunities to make a complete escape from everyday life. An entire year’s worth of drinking, drug-taking and sex can be condensed into a week, or even a weekend, before young people return to a life centred around hard work.

Richard De Visser, a reader in psychology at Sussex University, also lists the economy as a possible cause for the supposed tameness of the under-25s. Like Griffin, however, he believes that the development is too complex to be pinned purely on a lack of disposable income. Both Griffin and De Visser mention that, as Britain has become more ethnically diverse, people who do not drink for religious or cultural reasons – Muslims, for instance – have become more visible. This visibility, De Visser suggests, is breaking down taboos and allowing non-mainstream behaviours, such as not drinking, to become more socially accepted.

“There’s just more variety,” he says. “My eldest son, who’s about to turn 14, has conversations – about sexuality, for example – that I never would’ve had at his age. I think there’s more awareness of alcohol-related problems and addiction, too.”

De Visser also mentions the importance of self-image and reputation to many of the young non-drinkers to whom he has spoken. These factors, he argues, are likely to be more important to people than the long-term effects of heavy drinking. “One girl I interviewed said she wouldn’t want to meet the drunk version of herself.”

Jess, a self-described “granny”, is similarly wary of alcohol. The 20-year-old Liverpudlian, who works in marketing, makes a bold claim for someone her age. “I’ve never really been drunk,” she says. “I’ve just never really been bothered with alcohol or drugs.” Ironically, someone of her generation, according to ONS statistics, is far more likely to be teetotal than a real granny at any point in her life. Jess says she enjoys socialising but her nights out with close friends are rather tame – more likely to involve dinner and one quick drink than several tequila shots and a traffic cone.

It is possible, she suggests, that her lack of interest in binge drinking, or even getting a little tipsy, has something to do with her work ethic. “There’s a lot more competition now,” she says. “I don’t have a degree and I’m conscious of the need to be on top of my game to compete with people who do. There’s a shortage of jobs even for people who do have degrees.”

Furthermore, Jess says that many of her interactions with friends involve social media. One theory put forward to explain Generation Zzzz is that pubs are losing business to Facebook and Twitter as more and more socialising happens online. Why tell someone in person that you “like” their baby, or cat, or new job (probably over an expensive pint), when you can do so from your sofa, at the click of a button?

Hannah, aged 22, isn’t so sure. She recently started her own social media and communications business and believes that money, or the lack of it, is why her peers are staying in. “Going out is so expensive,” she says, “especially at university. You can’t spend out on alcohol, then expect to pay rent and fees.” Like Jess (and as you would probably expect of a 22-year-old who runs a business), Hannah has a strong work ethic. She also has no particular interest in getting wasted. “I’ve always wanted my own business, so for me everything else was just a distraction,” she says. “Our generation is aware it’s going to be a bit harder for us, and if you want to support yourself you have to work for it.” She also suggests that, these days, people around her age have more entrepreneurial role models.

I wonder if Hannah, as a young businesswoman, has been inspired by the nascent strand of free-market, “lean in” feminism. Although the women’s movement used to align itself more with socialism (and still does, from time to time), it is possible that a 21st-century wave of disciples of Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, is forswearing booze, drugs and any remote risk of getting pregnant, in order to get ahead in business.

But more about sex. Do the apparently lower rates of sexually transmitted infections and teenage pregnancies suggest that young people are having less of it? In the age of Tinder, when hooking up with a stranger can be as easy as ordering a pizza, this seems unlikely. Joe Head is a youth worker who has been advising 12-to-21-year-olds in the Leighton Buzzard area of Bedfordshire on sexual health (among other things) for 15 years. Within this period, Head says, the government has put substantial resources into tackling drug use and teen pregnancy. Much of this is the result of the Blair government’s Every Child Matters (ECM) initiative of 2003, which was directed at improving the health and well-being of children and young adults.

“ECM gave social services a clearer framework to access funds for specific work around sexual health and safety,” he says. “It also became a lot easier to access immediate information on drugs, alcohol and sexual health via the internet.”

***

Head also mentions government-funded education services such as Frank – the cleverly branded “down with the kids” anti-drugs programme responsible for those “Talk to Frank” television adverts. (Remember the one showing bags of cocaine being removed from a dead dog and voiced by David Mitchell?)

But Head believes that the ways in which some statistics are gathered may account for the apparent drop in STIs. He refers to a particular campaign from about five years ago in which young people were asked to take a test for chlamydia, whether they were sexually active or not. “A lot of young people I worked with said they did multiple chlamydia tests throughout the month,” he says. The implication is that various agencies were competing for the best results in order to prove that their education programmes had been effective.

However, regardless of whether govern­ment agencies have been gaming the STI statistics, sex education has improved significantly over the past decade. Luke, a 22-year-old hospital worker (and self-described “boring bastard”), says that sex education at school played a “massive part” in his safety-conscious attitude. “My mother was always very open [about sex], as was my father,” he says. “I remember talking to my dad at 16 about my first serious girlfriend – I had already had sex with her by this point – and him giving me the advice, ‘Don’t get her pregnant. Just stick to fingering.’” I suspect that not all parents of millennials are as frank as Luke’s, but teenagers having sex is no longer taboo.

Luke’s attitude towards drugs encapsulates the Generation Zzzz ethos beautifully: although he has taken MDMA, he “researched” it beforehand. It is this lack of spontaneity that has shaped a generation of young fogeys. This cohort of grannies and boring bastards, of perpetual renters and jobseekers in an economy wrecked by less cautious generations, is one that has been tamed by anxiety and fear.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war