Erotic poems are hard to write. Every year, The Literary Review awards a booby prize for bad sex in fiction, and perhaps there should be one for verse too. It’s often given to authors who’ve employed bizarre metaphors and grotesquely elongated conceits, who make us cringe in their questing after both a greater intensity and a greater realism – at the same time. Perhaps sex is something our culture wants to turn unreal, as quickly as possible. It must be ruthlessly structured or scripted (as Barthes observes of de Sade, fantasy is not opposed to structure, but fetishizes it). When writers seek to reaffirm the act as meaningful and character-revealing, they all too often fall into one of the available scripts. Literary fiction degrades into Mills & Boon – or something queasier – because the register is insecure, with an imaginative reach that exceeds its grasp. It’s either too obviously excited by itself – you can always count on an onanist for a fancy prose style – or, on the other hand, naively aspirational. These are those who spurn the romance world of silken heat and throbbing, genitally-unspecific manhood and aim, agonizingly, at something better, more original; whose purple prose would undisenchant fucking. And so Haruki Murakami describes ‘pubic hair as wet as a rain forest’, and buttocks clench across the globe.
What is often found in modern verse – as in serious film; I think also of anti-conventional TV, like Girls – is ‘bad sex’ of a different kind. Sex, that is, which doesn’t work, where the distance between two characters is rawly revealed. This is another way of stressing its importance, and what’s at stake; and of aspiring to, and claiming, a greater, because contrastive, fantasy-undoing, realism. Gillian Rose tells us that ‘love-making isn’t ever simply pleasure’, and that texts which pretend so – she mentions ‘sex manuals or feminist tracts’ (I think of gendered lifestyle magazines, reliably cover-boosted by twenty hot sex tips) – ‘are dangerously destructive of imagination, of erotic and of spiritual ingenuity. The sexual exchange will be as complicated as the relationship in general – even more so’. Sex, then, as deep bodily conversation; an extensive secret, with difficulty shared. D.H. Lawrence, but more so; although its authentic dangers overlap with those (Girls, again) of our bad culture (porn-addiction; narcissism; defensive fantasy) and how it lives in our veins.
Which is all to the good – a way of taking sex seriously – but I do resist the idea that ‘real’ sex in art must be bad sex, that it cannot be thought of, like art itself, as a complex but genuine pleasure. As William Empson notes in a letter about Geoffrey Hill, gloom and suffering aren’t the only criteria of value – except to the power-worshipper, antic for their fifty shades of grey. And so I relish poems like David Sergeant’s: unjaded, self-alert, willing to risk inconsequentiality. A single letter turns our title, ‘In Spring’, into inspiring: creative thought is stirred by the change of season, an instinct is rediscovered. The bony trees forking into the sky mirror, and prefigure, the legs filling out those unzipped jeans. Looking at the poem, I think of those trees reflected in water, making their lovely gesture both above and shimmeringly below – the waistline, as it were. The poet’s mind is indeed ‘there, and then here’, at once quickfire and lingeringly ‘entranced’. Birds do it, bees do it… And the blossom like ‘confetti, entranced’ resembles a wedding photograph of the bits of tiny coloured paper thrown and still hanging in the air.
This is a second thought; the first appears prompted by the rhyme, for, noticing the bony trees like tributaries, the speaker is encouraged to assert: ‘The blossom / Is clouds of pink bees’. We notice the fine mingling of the plural and singular: as in love, and the act of it. Then a marvellous new thought: ‘If I were tiny…’; and ‘clamber’. The idiosyncratic yearning meets the delicious word-sound, which alliterates, of course, with ‘confetti’ and, more so, ‘clouds’. It also assonates with ‘entranced’, although the two words are, loving partners, both acoustically similar and meaningfully distinct, for while the blossoms are motionless, the poet would be, microscopically, on the move among them. And these phonic jostlings leave a trail we can follow. He’s rapid, aerial, but seems to make sense – of an impulse, which might yet become a thought. Tininess doesn’t, to him, suggest powerlessness, but an enhanced delicacy of attention. He wishes both to inhabit and investigate the body of blossom, to ‘open each bud like a letter’. A communication, say, from a loved one. It’s not quite the same as wishing he were himself a bee, for bees don’t clamber; they hover, they alight, they move on. But this is again the deliciously uncertain onward impulsiveness of the poem. The poet seems almost to speak to himself, wistfully. I had forgotten…If I were tiny, I’d clamber through… He’s been missing out and would remedy the matter – if he could; he begins, yes, to fantasize —
So far, so good. But it’s the ending which makes the poem. What it reminds me of are those which run over the page – a break unintended by the author, and sometimes (does anyone else feel this way?) a desirable truncation. The lopped shimmer I first glimpsed is what I desire. Take, for example Frederick Seidel’s ‘Noon’, in the Faber Selected (he’s another of the bad sex brigade – ‘girls lay face up behind their smiles’, etc), where the break after stanza three, quoted below, appears to be the end of the poem:
Her fantasy is to have said to a god deeply
Asleep beside her in bed, in a normal voice, ‘How did you sleep?’
Waking the bastard up. ¡Olé!
7:00. The sun is in heaven.
9:00. The blue is nude.
Noon. The Sag Harbor noon
Siren goes off. The garden flows
Turning over to page 142, we learn that ‘The garden flows // Back and forth’. But I still feel the poem should have ended ungrammatically and abruptly on the recto. ‘Flows’, like ‘unzip’, can carry it. Sergeant’s poem uses normal punctuation until the very end, which might be a sort of cheat – I’ve had students feel this way, about Rae Armantrout’s ‘Generation’, no less – but seems just right to me. The jeans begin to unzip and then we’re tantalisingly arrested, entranced, left hanging, like the blossom-confetti. For what happens here is another new thought. A separate lustfulness, fragmentary, because the analogy with the opened buds isn’t cemented. The personal interrupts, it doesn’t quite turn poetic. It reads like wonderment: ‘How the jeans you wear / Unzip!’ But there’s no exclamation mark either. The poet is no longer speaking to himself, but to a lover, with loving familiarity (the jeans) and also – he’s inspired, resurgent, it’s spring – that shock of inexhaustible surprise we associate with the erotic.
The bony trees
Fork into the sky like tributaries —
I had forgotten.
There, and then here.
Is clouds of pink bees
Or confetti, entranced.
If I were tiny
I’d clamber through
And open each bud like a letter.
How the jeans you wear
From Talk Like Galileo (Shearsman 2010). Reproduced with permission of the author.