Poet Charlotte Newman takes a closer look at erotic poetry…
It’s a strange time for erotica. In recent weeks we’ve seen the apparent destruction of Page 3, its abominable resurrection like an unwelcome Jesus and we’ve learnt something about mainstream representations of eroticism: that they tend to be aimed squarely at the heterosexual male. But female nudity does not = sex. When people say that sex sells, you can guarantee that they’re thinking of an objectified image of a woman that might sell a product, not ‘sex’ per se.
When the late American film critic Roger Ebert praised Playboy magazine for playing a role in the sexual revolution and helping diminish American puritanism, he was wrong. Playboy is to sex what Fox News is to ‘fair and balanced’ news reporting. It only tells one side of the story: the side in which men are subjects and women are objects. As it is with tabloid newspapers, the advertising industry, and even pseudo-feminist film critics like Ebert, so it has traditionally been with poetry.
And this balance, this attempt for women to be subjects and scribes, to escape simply being muses and recipients of the male gaze – or being used as metaphorical vessels for any inanimate object that may be invaded, conquered or plundered such as lands or ships – is an important task of poetry written by women, and in particular erotic poetry, to redress this so that both sides of the conversation can be heard. After all, if the personal is political, then so is the poetic.
Of course, there have been many counter-poetics from women dealing with the issue of sexuality and eroticism and these are not necessarily modern; Sappho represented a voice of untrammelled and broad-ranging female sexual experience on ancient Lesbos. And she has been avidly added to over the intervening centuries; she’s been the subject of various interpretations, and to be a subject is a wonderful thing. A fine example is by the Canadian poet Anne Carson, whose collection of Sappho translations, If Not, Winter marries Carson’s own slender precision of verse with that of her ancient forbear perfectly. A bilingual edition, the inclusion of the Ancient Greek in mirror image to the modern words is slightly hypnotic.
Sappho handed down her sensual wisdom – and formalism – in unexpected ways. Fast-forward to the nineteenth century and the drunken masochist Swinburne is busy reviving a verse form known as the ‘Sapphic’. Yes, named after the ancient world’s most famous bisexual poet and ellipsis enthusiast, Sappho herself. The originatrix of the erotic poem.
Swinburne was not known for his tenderness, of course. This is, after all, the man who felt disappointed in de Sade for failing to live up to his erotic expectations. In a letter in 1862 he wrote, after feeling underwhelmed by the description of an act of flagellation: “Well? You have asserted a great deal; prove it now, bring it face to face with us; let the sense of it bite and sting and tickle your reader. Assertion is easy work. Shew us how and why these things are as they are…Why there is more and better sensual physiological in that Manon-la-Foutteuse than in all your great lumbering Justine. There one finds some relish of the style, and catches it of the writer.”
The idea that a young Swinburne was enamoured of de Sade without having read him, then felt short-changed upon actually reading him, is rather comical. But there’s a sense of truth in this “relish of the style.” When I think of the male poets whose style is the most sensual – even if their erotic perspective is a little one-sided with its swaggering masculinism – it’s those who attempted to shake things up, form-wise. Look at John Donne: while the content is as niche as anyone else’s expression of lust, it’s the eroticism conveyed through form that is, arguably, all the more powerful. (In)famous for balancing the sacred and profane, he’s also in favour of breaking out of the lilting, soporific strictures of iambic pentameter. Even the ostensibly chaste Gerard Manley Hopkins was a purveyor of some joltingly sensual rhythms: or “the breaking of style”, as Helen Vendler would say.
If these poets were modern business people, in charge of start-ups, they’d be called ‘disruptive’. Donne’s Holy Sonnets are liberally peppered with trochaic first feet – lines of verse with stressed first syllables – often in imperative form. Think of the extraordinarily sexualised religiosity of “Batter my heart, three-personed God”; its assertive exhortations are even more brazen when one considers that they’re aimed at the heavens.
The Sapphic, of which Swinburne wrote several, feel immediately insistent. Each line begins with either a trochee or a dactyl, so the line feels as if it’s leaning flirtatiously backwards. These verses, even with their references to the “white implacable Aphrodite” sound, paradoxically, modern. Perhaps that’s why Anne Carson’s translations of Sappho ring so true and feel fresh; we’ve come full circle on erotic form and it’s a timeless, universal language. And using style or form to do the work allows for a multitude of erotic perspectives to exist simultaneously for the reader. Let’s not forget that the last line of a Sapphic, formally, is called an ‘Adonic’: a dactyl followed by a trochee, short and sweet. Representing an object of female lust hidden in the rhythm, it’s the perfect balancing antithesis to the content’s Aphrodite, who is the poetic equivalent of a Page 3 girl.
by Charlotte Newman
Eros: the poetry of sex takes place on Monday 9th February at Kings Place. Tickets cost £9.50 online and can be booked via www.poetinthecity.co.uk