“At the touch of love everyone becomes a poet.”
What’s sexy about poetry? Sexy in the old-fashioned sense, that is, not as a euphemism for “well-advertised”, but raunchy, libido-lifting, stimulating of particular glands and particularly erratic behaviour. How does modern poetry fit the bill? Neil Astley has collected together a sequence of poems that represent the range of ways that modern poets have addressed the questions of love, sex and their place in poetry, and how poetry should engage with what is, after all, perfectly natural and everyday stuff. Their efforts range from serious to comic, from intellectually precise to hormonally vague, from controlled to wildly abandoned, but always entertaining and sometimes challenging as well.
There are poems here that explore the experiences of desire and lust, the physical manifestations of the erotic, the emotional traumas and triumphs of love, the kinky and the straight, the blatant and the subtle. There are poems that tell stories or simply relate psychological moments; poems that analyse or simply present their themes; poems that revel as much in the passion invoked by words as that caused by other people’s bodies. Throughout, we’re in the capable hands of some of the best twentieth century writers in English, from DH Lawrence and Basil Bunting to Claire Pollard and Michéle Roberts.
Astley’s criteria for this anthology are laid out in the introduction, entitled “Foreplay”. He runs through the censorship-dogged history of erotic poetry, and reverses Yeats’s definition of poetry in general to define contemporary poetry about sex as “passion seen with truth”. Such an anthology has to compete on a terrain mapped out by long literary traditions, from Sappho and Ovid in classical times, through the renaissance and the vigorous erotic writings of John Donne, Robert Herrick and Lord Rochester, up to Lawrence himself and his pivotal role (via Lady Chatterley’s Lover and the notorious censorship trial of 1960) in opening up a legitimate space for erotic writing.
Pleased to See Me offers poems organised in a kind of biographical-chronological sequence, mapping out human sexual relations from the first tentative physical contacts to the recognition of experience that comes with adulthood and settled relationships. From Sharon Olds’s “First Sex” and Claire Pollard’s “The Heavy Petting Zoo” through to the closing extract from Alan Jenkins’s “Missing”, the poems here offer their own takes on different aspects of this trajectory. In following it, we see sex represented from every angle, from Billy Collins’s fantasy of “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes” (“The complexity of women’s undergarments / In nineteenth century America / Is not to be waved off”) to Deryn Rees-Jones’s ‘Lovesong to Captain James T. Kirk (“O slick-black-panted wanderer holding / Your belly in, your phaser gun / On stun, and eyes like Conference pears!”).
Several of the poems here are translations or versions of poems in other languages (Carol Ann Duffy’s version of Paul Verlaine in “Girlfriends”, Linda France’s version of Federico Garcia Lorca in “The Feckless Gypsy”), suggesting that English poetry still on occasion has to reach outside its own linguistic and moral universe in order to find the sexual freedoms that Astley, in his introduction, treats as now acceptable. Nevertheless, there is enough formal variation and energy here, and enough explicitness of language, to compensate for any apparent provincialism, and to prove in particular that Astley is right in identifying the shift of balance of power between the sexes as one motivating force determining the make-up of the anthology.
For my money, the best poem here is Carol Ann Duffy’s “Warming Her Pearls”, a remarkable monologue of sexual and, more potently, class envy, in which sex and class become confused in a way that leaves the reader in ambiguity, marvelling at the tightness and control of the language, shuddering at the hint of menace in the poem’s overt message:
And I lie here awake,
knowing the pearls are cooling even now
in the room where my mistress sleeps. All night
I feel their absence and I burn.
Is it the pearls or the mistress who is more desired here? The poem refuses us the security of safely answering this question, and offers in this way its own subtle comment on how easily (especially in love!) we confuse people with their property, and blur the wealthy together with their splendid goods. Elsewhere Jo Shapcott offers a characteristically unsettling contribution in “Muse”, a two-sentence sonnet of lucid, bewildering clarity, the first sentence offering an extended metaphor that will put most men in their place:
When I kiss you in all the folding places
of your body, you make that noise like a dog
dreaming, dreaming of the long runs he makes
in answer to some jolt to his hormones,
running across landfills, running, running
by tips and shorelines from the scent of too much,
but still going with head up and snout
in the air because he loves it all
and has to get away.
Roles are reversed here — the (presumably) male body inspiring the female poet to produce a rapturous, meandering metaphor of freedom and pleasure.
Every poem is different here, and if there’s some evidence of editorial preference (there are six poems here by Sharon Olds), there’s also enough diversity to satisfy most readers. This book would make a great Christmas stocking filler, especially for those sexy fishnet stockings you bought your partner last year.