In preparation for next week’s delicious Eros: the poetry of sex event, Janey Goulding talks to Dr Linda Grant, one of our guest speakers, about some of the mysteries, motifs and cultural ramifications of the erotic literary form
“I know there’s fire within your unshaped clay, And so, allow me, love, to share my happiness: O let’s make burning passion rule today.”
Louise Labé, O Kiss Me (Sonnet 18)
‘Erotic’ does not have to be a dirty word, although perhaps the more ardent followers of EL James’s ubiquitous 50 Shades trilogy will disagree. Of course, one cannot deny the colossal success of this mass-appeal approach to erotic romance, but there’s a whole planet of ardent wordplay that can exquisitely express those primal human longings, and some of the finest will be covered at our forthcoming event, Eros: The Poetry of Sex.
Such expressions of yearning dating back from contemporary through to the classical transform literary art into something potent and primal. Anyone who appreciates the words of Louise Labé (above), for example, cannot fail to be touched by those heady expressions of passionate love delicately rendered. So while the 50 Shades juggernaut brings passion into the mainstream, we should celebrate the many poetic writers who have plucked on the diverse threads of eroticism, inviting us to yield to a form that is ripe with fascination.
Dr Linda Grant, who will be considering female erotic poetry from Classical Rome to the Renaissance at our Eros event, feels that a study of the erotic literary form brings with it very challenging, but rewarding, ideas about crucial cultural memes. “I’m interested in how ‘erotic’ poetry uses a vocabulary or idiom of sex to talk about other, not disconnected, issues such as power, gender, hierarchies,” says Linda. “Each period reinterprets the past in terms of their own mores. There are all kinds of issues at stake in labelling ‘Shakespeare’ (the poetic narrator) as ‘bisexual’ when those sexual identity categories didn’t exist when the poems were written.” Linda asserts that early societies didn’t regard sexuality in the categorisable way we do. Issues of gender and desire were more fluid in Classical Rome and Renaissance England than they may be for a contemporary audience, where labels relating to sexuality or sexual identity can be easy to come across and more readily applied.
When considering how men and women present themselves erotically, and specifically in a poetic way, Linda points out that while it is not constructive to think of them as being irrevocably different, they have been separated by social and cultural ‘norms’ so their experiences of the world are different, and this does affect both the way they express themselves. Linda, who is especially interested in how women poets ‘write back’ to male writers and the idea of a male canon, points how the likes of Sappho and Sulpicia take the conventions of male-authored love poetry and negotiate a position within this discourse. “For women in the time periods I’m concerned with, to write is already a subversive act and so writing about erotic love in a decisively non-marriageable way embraces and extends their transgression: it’s a way of kicking back at over-riding cultural ideas that say women should be chaste, silent and obedient. This is not merely a pre-modern formulation: Sylvia Plath’s verse is filled with a ferocious and sexualised energy, as she refuses to be the ‘nice’ girl and makes poetic capital out of her ‘not-niceness’.”
The fluid nature of erotic poetry presents its own tangible yet paradoxically elusive tensions: how we feel about desire is one thing, but every experience and expression of desire can potentially galvanise and transform that opinion. Says Linda, “Love and desire, like other ideas, have a history, and are both culturally shaped and also serve in their turn to shape society”. However, some universal themes can still resonate with the individual, irrespective of cultural shift. “The literature of classical Rome and Greece, the Renaissance and the Early Modern period depicts erotic love as a force which overwhelms, is bittersweet [and] is often brutal. The poetry is full of the wounds of love which are psychic and, sometimes, physical. Love isn’t something comfortable or necessarily welcomed.”
It’s tempting to wonder if we gravitate more towards ‘satisfaction’ or ‘yearning’ in our erotic poems. Linda, whose influences include Catullus, Thomas Wyatt and Mary Queen of Scots (the Casket sonnets), notes that most potent literary expressions of love are probably based around the idea of unrequited love: “Lack of mutuality in love is something we see repeatedly through history. Both desire and reading participate in this lack of consummation, that space where desire is still alive because it is unfulfilled. We see this in lyric cycles such as the sonnet sequences of the Renaissance: it’s the endless deferral of desire that keeps the poet-narrator writing, so that sexual frustration is the driving force of poetic energy.” Of course, there is sexual satisfaction to be enjoyed in erotic literature, although it may not always be the rosy afterglow of star-crossed lovers. As Linda warns, there are times, such as in a reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129, when erotic poetry delivers post-coital disillusionment.
So are we suckers for the bittersweet? What is certain is that our yearnings can be affected in the most compelling ways through the erotic renderings of others, so it’s only right to give our heartfelt appreciation to these poems, and The Poetry of Sex provides the perfect forum for revelling in them.
Linda is just one of four speakers discussing erotic poetry on the 9th February. We are delighted to welcome her along with actress, writer and broadcaster Kate Copstick, Professor Richard B Parkinson, and acclaimed poet Adam O’Riordan. Book now by phone or in person at the Kings Place box office, or via the website at www.kingsplace.co.uk. Tickets cost £9.50 if booked online.