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Private Parts: Erotic Poetry By Wome...

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Staff Joyce Nower
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Post Number: 7
Registered: 12-2009


Posted on Saturday, January 23, 2010 - 10:56 pm:   Edit Post Print Post

Explicit sex had not been, until the 1960’s, in the literary arsenal of most Western writers, and women poets in particular. The usual perspective, even in love poems, had been psychological or spiritual, in the romantic love tradition as, for example, in the love sonnets of Elizabeth Barrett Browning or those of Christina Rossetti. And even where there is a recognition of the fact that, after all, people do sleep together as, say, in the poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay, there is still little or no reference to the mechanics of sexual intimacy. Neither male nor female genitals are ever mentioned, although there is an occasional reference to the female breast.

The reasons for the historic female silence on the subject of sexuality lie, of course, as much in the condition of women under patriarchy as in the conventions of the Western poetic tradition itself, with its ideological origins in the mores of a Judeo-Christian, or Christianized, ethos.

By contrast, some ancient pagan poetry deals with explicit sexuality in a quite open manner. In the Latin poet Catullus (84B.C. – 54 B.C.), for example, one finds a full array of voices on sexuality. (1) They range from poems on sex-for-sale (#110: “an honest girl, Aufilene, an artist at her trade of love…”), to casual liaisons (#25: “O mellow, sweet, delicious little/piece, my Ipsithilla…”), to humorously boastful multiple homosexual encounters (#37: “Come now, line up,/ bent double in a circle, a hundred of you, or two hundred,/ come, do you think I am not able to take on/two hundred of you in one grand bout of pederasty?”), to the famous sequence of heterosexual love poems to Lesbia. In the Lesbia poems, Catullus traced what, in later centuries, became accepted as the conventional route of love: love-at-a-distance-for-a-married-woman (#2), the call-to-love (#6), impatience (#7), love-to-lust (#72), idealization of the Beloved (86), and love’s-eternal-torment (#85). Strangely enough, in the midst of the often sordid reality described so brilliantly in these poems is a paean of praise to marriage, virginity, truth, fidelity, monogamy, and children (#61). In this epithalamion, lust is reconciled with “the higher virtues,” including procreation. It is a poem of transcendence in which the crassness of human interaction has been reconciled – at least for the time being – by monogamous marriage. One discerns in Catullus the sexual neurosis of some men: the separation of love and sex which becomes, at best, only partially resolved in an idealized monogamous marriage!

But while in Catullus’ poetry women appear in various conditions – debased, exalted, on level ground – they are not stereotyped. It is post-pagan Christianity that did that, via the mythic figures of Eve and the Virgin Mary. Medieval courtly poetry, for example, developed the perspective of a romantic love, in which the Beloved is perceived as an idealized human version of the Virgin Mary, and participates through her virtues in the spiritual transformation of the Lover. Dante’s Beatrice and Petrarch’s Laura exemplify this attitude. (This attitude persisted in poetry throughout the Thirteenth Century, even though by then male scholars and saints began to view Woman as a source of danger to Man’s soul.) Thus, as a result of the tradition of romantic love, Idealized Woman is robbed of her sexuality. (2)

We are, by now, familiar with the constraints on the mind and behavior of women resulting from female roles. In The Death of the Moth and other Essays, for example, Virginia Woolf refers to our inhibitors as the “Angel in the House” and the “internalized Man.” In the “Angel in the House” are our traditional virtues of sympathy, charm, unselfishness, self-sacrifice, and purity. It is just these “virtues,” Woolf observes, that have kept us from making decisive appropriations of the events of the world. The “Internalized Man,” on the other hand, is our inability to write about the experience of our bodies – being imbued with the social definition of what is an appropriate subject matter.

Whereas the first wave of the Women’s Movement (1848-1920) initiated the struggle against the “Angel in the House” stereotype, the Second Wave, in the Sixties, took on the “internalized Man” – one of the last psychological stumbling blocks to women’s defining themselves in accordance with their own experience. Consequently, since the rise of the Second Wave, women poets began to write more and more freely about the experience of their bodies. (It is important to note at this point that the Fifties and the Sixties also saw the loosening of sexual taboos in male writing, especially after the free-speech legal victories over the works of James Joyce and Henry Miller and the rise of the San Francisco Beat Movement – all of which clearly had an impact on women’s writing.)

So what have women poets been saying throughout these long centuries of patriarchal hegemony? (3) There are known to us only a few female voices from the Western classical period, and the fragments of their poetry are insufficient to lead us to any conclusion regarding their views of the world, society, and themselves. The earliest voice, that of Sappho (b. 612 B.C. , a poet, teacher, and choral leader from the island of Lesbos), tells us of her own loves, jealousies, and rivalries, as well as those of the young women who apprenticed to her poetic and musical skills; but whether or not she wrote erotic poetry, we’ll never know. All we have left are fragments based on hearsay, and truncated lines on strips of papyrus found in Egypt in mummified crocodiles. The Greek poet Nossis, a later example (c. 290 B.C.), was also reputed to be passionate, but we have no examples of her passion either!

Marie de France, one of the best known women poets between pagan and Renaissance times, wrote love poems in which love takes on the twin burdens of fostering self-awareness and of providing a vehicle for overcoming the sorrows of the world. No eroticism here, however.

As far as English literature is concerned, we have to wait until the late Seventeenth Century for our first example of erotic poetry by a woman, Aphra Benn (1640-89). In her poem “The Disappointment,” the classical pursuit of Lysander after Cloris ends in a “lone Thicket made for Love.” After Lysander strokes the “snowy Brest” of Cloris – she lies panting in his arms – he, emboldened, now moves his hand to her genitals, that “Altar…/Where Gods of Love do sacrifice:/ That Awful Throne, that Paradice/Where Rage is calm’d, and Anger pleas’d;/That Fountain where Delight still flows,/And gives the Universal World Repose” (The World Split Open, Ed. Louise Bernikow, Vintage Books, 1974). Unfortunately for Lysander, however, his agitation has become so great that his penis won’t stiffen. Cloris, still panting, gives him a hand – literally:

Her timorous Hand, she gently laid
Upon that Fabulous Priapus,
The potent God, …


Thus does a woman poet write the first Western burlesque of the sex act in which the male proves unequal to the task: ”… the o’er Ravish’d Shepherd lies/Unable to perform the Sacrifice.” (The “Sacrifice” is her eagerly anticipated loss of virginity.) Cloris, disdainful and resentful, flees the scene, still a virgin. And “that Fabulous Priapus”? It certainly did not perform up to its lineage. Priapus, a Latin word for penis, is, in classical lore, the god of male procreation, son of Dionysus and Aphrodite.

If you thumb through the Penguin Book of Women Poets, you’ll find several women from the eastern half of the world who wrote poems that either infer sexuality, or are sexually explicit. The Chinese poet Huango O (1498-1569) is an example of both types:

If you don’t know how, why pretend?
Maybe you can fool some girls,
But you can’t fool Heaven.
I’d dreamed you’d play with the
Locust blossom under my green jacket,
Like a eunuch with a courtesan.


But lo and behold
All you can do is mumble.
You’ve made me all wet and slippery,
but no matter how hard you try
Nothing happens. So stop.
Go and make somebody else
Unsatisfied.


These few courageous pioneer women poets of the erotic were quite isolated because of the social milieu in which they wrote. We have to wait for the American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950), writing in the Twenties, Thirties, and Forties of the Twentieth Century, to find a pioneer who, as the result of political changes in women’s status, was able to insist on eroticism as a valid female theme - and to actually push the theme of female eroticism towards the mainstream – although her eroticism itself seems moderate in comparison with some of the earlier examples. (See Collected Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Harper & Row, 1956.) In love, she insists on her right to inconstancy (“Oh, think not I am faithful to a vow”), thus flaunting the double standard criticism of the fickle woman – and striking a blow against both ghosts described by Virginia Woolf. She refers to the body as a “temple of delight” in the poem “As to some lovely temple tenantless,” and mentions the lover’s weight upon her breast in “I, being born a woman and distressed.” She even mentions sleeping with her lover in “What lips my lips have kissed.” And, finally, in the most blatant statement of all, she writes a sonnet addressed to “almighty Sex,’ which concludes with the line ‘And lust is there, and nights not spent alone.”

But the first attempt by an American woman poet at explicit eroticism seems to be Lenore Kandel’s “holy/erotic” poems in The Love Book (Stolen Paper Review, San Francisco, 1966). Innovative and daring, the book, unfortunately, reads with all of the awkwardness of someone writing in an unfamiliar language: a few heretofore “forbidden” nouns and verbs are held onto for dear life! This poetry comes out of the heady post-World War II poetry renaissance, inaugurated by the group of poets who circulated mainly between San Francisco, Berkeley, Black Mountain college, and New York City. It comes out of the confluence of post-war alienation, Southern civil rights sit-ins, protests against the House Un--American Activities Committee, the Berkeley Free-Speech Movement, the Black Movement, the Anti-War Movement, the influx of Eastern religion, self-imposed semi-nomadic life styles, rock and soul music, and so on. These liberating movements, trends, and protests were created by those segments of the population who looked for a basic reorientation of American society. One aspect of this total reorientation was a challenge to traditional mores, including conventional language and sexuality.

Into the lexicon of this rebellious generation stormed the so-called “street language”: “cock,” “fuck,” “cunt,” “shit,” and so on – the four-letter words traditionally shunned by “polite” society. The more crucial fact about this language was, however, that it often implied the threat of masculine violence! This was not understood until the Women’s Movement in the late Sixties created a general heightened awareness, and an awareness of language in particular. But at first the scene was a heady one, and male – as well as several women – poets incorporated this new language into a poetry that called for, and practiced, greater freedom of expression. One of these women poets, probably the first, was Lenore Kandel.

The Love Book, subtitled “To Fuck with Love,” is an historically interesting book of poems; aesthetically, it is a five-page example of unimaginative verbal overkill. Within this brief space, we can find each of the following words at least once: “fuck,” “cock,” “cock-god,” “suckfucking,” cuntdeity,” “cocksucker,” “cunt,” “love-fuck,” and “cuntmouth.” The acts described range from caressing the penis to copulation to oral sex, interspersed with a putatively intoxicating brew of juices and smells. But, of course, such a collection of nouns and verbs is no substitute for poetry; yet it paved the way for genuine erotic poetry by proclaiming that women are erotic beings who enjoy sex. (4)

Eventually, bonafide erotic poetry did enter through the doors forced open by the rapidly changing times, exemplified by these pioneers as well as the Feminist Movement. One of the crucial results of the Movement was the emphasis on revealing the real responses and experiences of women. A corollary to this was getting to know and understand how the female body really works. Movement creations – such as CR (consciousness raising) groups, the Self-Help Health Movement, feminist counseling, etc. – gave rise to a psychological and verbal environment in which reliance on street language was no longer necessary or appropriate. What was created instead was a much fresher and precise sexual language, both connotative and denotative; and the search for egalitarian relationships in which the keynotes of communication and honesty were emphasized, created, with much struggle, a framework in which both heterosexual and lesbian relationships were variously validated in the arts. The upshot of all this was the rooting out, to a significant extent, the second inhibitor described by Virginia Woolf as the “Internalized Man.”

Since the 1960’s, the output of erotic poetry by women has increased manyfold. One might almost be lead to guess that every poet writing since that time wrote at least one erotic poem. (5)

Nikki Giovanni’s “Seduction” (Black Feelings, Black Talk, Broadside Press, 1968) taps into the humorous side of eros. The poem presents a man and a woman at cross-purposes with each other: the man discusses some abstract revolution while the woman tries to shift his attention to making love. Ellen Bass’s “In Celebration” (No More Masks, eds. Howe and Bass, Anchor Press, 1973) is a robust and humorous cataloging of metaphors for an erection. The penis is compared to 1) bread baking, 2) a helium balloon, 3) a soufflé, 4) the head of a turtle, 5) an accordion, 6) an expandable drinking glass, 7) a lollipop, 8) a plum, 9) a mitten, 10) a cup, 11) vintage wine, and a few other items on a gourmet menu.

Maxine Kumin’s “Together,” dated as early as 1970, (No More Masks), describes sex thus:

Now we are new round
mouths and no spines
letting the water cover.
It happens over
and over, me in
your body and you
in mine.


Two well-known poets who come readily to mind are Carolyn Forche and Adrienne Rich. Forche’s poem ”Kalaloch” (Gathering the Tribes, Yale University Press, 1976) is as much about nature as it is about a sexual moment between two women, two women who are living and working together in a natural setting. Here the arousal mechanism of the clitoris is referred to as the “clit,’ an informal form of the word, forced in part by the rhythm of the surrounding words. Oral sex is described realistically, and with pleasure; there is nowhere any reliance on ideology, on idealization, or on dehumanization:

A woman’s mouth
is not different, sand moved
wild beneath me, her long
hair wiped my legs, with
women there is sucking, the
water slops our bodies. We
come clean, out clits beating
like twins to the loons rising
up.


And in Rich’s “Unnumbered Floating Poem” (The Dream of a Common Language, W.W. Norton & Co., 1978), a sexual moment is all but one aspect of a longer relationship between two women. The “thighs,” “fingers,” “tongue,” and “nipples” are the named parts used in lovemaking, and the word “come” has the standard meaning of “arrive’ as well as “achieve orgasm.” An accurate and original metaphor for the vagina is used: the “rose-wet cave,” and its use extends the meaning of the poem to the psychic lair of woman-ness. Here again we find a direct sexual statement without the use of such overused commonplaces as “fuck” and “cunt,” words which have been so demeaned that the possibility of their reclamation in the foreseeable future is doubtful. Here are the last four lines of the poem:

your touch on me, firm protective,
searching me out, your strong tongue
and slender fingers reaching where I
had been waiting years for you in my
rose-wet cave – whatever happens, this
is.


Marilyn Hacker is another one of our pioneers. In “Alba: March “ (Separations, Knopf, 1976), the poet refers to lovemaking the night before, including a specific reference to oral sex. Here the male penis is referred to as a flower: “I kissed his knees, ate honey from the flower between his thighs, and felt it rise with sap against my tongue.” In other poems – “Chagrin D’Amour,” “Two Farewells,” and “Return” are good examples – she makes explicit sexual references, but always within the context of a relationship.

This observation also applies to the wonderfully erotic poems of Olga Broumas. Broumas’s poems in Beginning with O (Yale University Press, 1977) differ, however, in that over the dozen or so erotic poems the sexual partner changes more frequently. In fact, the poems seem to commemorate the various partners. So how can we tell if the relationships extend beyond the sex act itself? I take clues from the evidence of tones of tenderness, biographical data, and the camaraderies evident in the work. In “Amazon Twins,” for example, the title itself is a sign of camaraderie. In this poem, the poet and her lover are described as “crustacean-like” from the dried sweat of their love-making.

Everything live
(tongue, clitoris, lip and lip)
swells in its moist shell. I
remember the light
warped, round our bodies
finally
crustal, striated with sweat.


This observation is at once new and accurate. Again, the poet relies on the evocative nature of words, and on precise description, rather than on stock clichés whose only power is to evoke a stock response.

In “Love Lines,” the speaker remembers a man whom she had loved, and a moment of love marred by her inability to reveal a secret. The word “cock” is appropriate because it is used as an instrument of passion, and not as a word selected merely to titillate.

love orbits
us, all night
long, your cock is an instrument
in my palm to gauge by, at break-
fast you pour

the coffee, I hold
my tongue, what I keep from you
keeps me from you, the ship

is fading like sunlit frost, silver
gleams on our table, mugs shine
red as cranberries, blue as frostbite,
I want

to hold
on, not back, brave
morning’s fierce tangibility
tell you


And again in “Four Beginnings/For Kyra,” the eroticism is conveyed through an accurate yet dense image:

I take your hand
hesitant still with regret
into that milky landscape, where
Braille is a tongue for lovers,
where tongue, fingers, lips
share a lidless eye.


In this poem, the relationship extends to concerns about the wounds the lover had acquired on her journey to that new moment. Sex and love
are certainly close companions here.


It seems clear so far that, where contemporary erotic poetry by women is concerned, there is usually the intimation of a relationship extending beyond the physical one; but not in the sense that the sexual component is of lesser importance, to be gotten beyond because it is less worthy. No. The earmark of female erotic poetry, at least so far, is that sex exists as a component co-equal, in most instances, with other components of the relationship. This means not only that sex and love, or at least companionable feeling, are not divorced as, say, in Catullus, but also that sex is a pleasurable activity not to be “spiritualized out” of the female personality. In general, women’s erotic poetry seems practical, realistic, self-aware, sensual, and embedded in the meaning of unique relationships. This is an important tradition to be yet firmly established. For in order to expunge completely Virginia Woolf’s inhibitors – the “Angel in the House” and the “Internalized Man” – women artists must chart in precise detail an ever-growing psychological independence from a world that has distorted our image.


*This essay appeared most recently in Anthology One, The Alsop Review Press, 2004. It first appeared in a somewhat different form in The Longest Revolution, CWSS, 1982.

(1) The Poems of Catullus, tr. by Horace Gregory, Grove Press, 1956. The only known Latin female poet, Sulpicia (c. 20 B.C.) is reputed to have been a skilled writer of love poems. Unfortunately, there is only one tame poem by her extant.

(2) For an exciting and scholarly analysis of courtly love literature, see Joan Ferrante’s Woman as Image in Medieval Literature, Columbia University Press, 1975.

(3) Two good sources are The Penguin Book of Women Poets, Eds. Cosman, Keefe, & Weaver, Penguin Books Ltd., 1978 and The World Split Open, Ed. Louise Bernikow, Vintage Books, 1974.

(4) A case could be made for pioneer status for African American female blues singers. “If you don’t like my ocean/Don’t fish in my sea,” lamented “Ma” Rainey. And Memphis Minnie tells us: “Baby drives so easy/I can’t turn him down.” Is it poetry? This question will not be answered here.

(5) One of the shortest erotic poems on record, called “Gardening,” was written by the author: “Everything grows lush within your sight:/ You look at me – my breasts rise up a nipple’s height.”


© Joyce Nower 2006
Staff Joyce Nower
Columnist, Intersections
The Alsop Review
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Melanie L Huber
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Username: Melanie_l_huber

Post Number: 103
Registered: 01-2010


Posted on Monday, January 25, 2010 - 09:44 am:   Edit Post Print Post

Huh. Well I replied to this yesterday but it looks like I didn't push the save button to post.

Anyway, this is a great article, lots of good research. I'd heard about the lost writings of Lesbo. Unfortunate that much has been disregarded simply because of the gender of the author. Also unfortunate, trends like that seem to take forever to change. If you look at the publishing statistics related to poetry and awards in the past 100 year history (here in America) you'll find we've a long way to go to catch up with our masculine counterparts. I don't think that's because there are less woman poet/writers than men or that the quality of the writing is not there...I just think traditionally speaking publishing has been and is something of a male dominated biz. Though I do see evidence that this is changing, due in large part to small press publishing and more women editors...

Thanks for sharing...

Mel
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Stephen Bunch
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Username: Stephen_bunch

Post Number: 61
Registered: 01-2010


Posted on Monday, January 25, 2010 - 10:11 am:   Edit Post Print Post

Thanks for this. It reminds me of how much I like Gregory's translations of Catullus. And I'd almost forgotten Lenore Kandel. I think your assessment of her place historically and her work is accurate. (What chagrin she must have felt to be referred to as the "female Michael McClure," but someone needed to do what she did.) H.D. has some erotica interspersed in her great body of work, but it's fairly low key. I sometimes fantasize about what Emily Dickinson would have written if she'd allowed herself to cut loose. Anyway, interesting read.

Oh, and while I can't cite any particulars off the top of my head, I suspect Diane Wakoski, Marge Piercy, and Diane DiPrima have a place at this table you've set.
"Entrapment is this society's sole activity...& only laughter can blow it to rags." (Edward Dorn, Gunslinger, Book III)

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