Great Poems About Sex

An anthology for Valentine’s Day.

Here is Slate’s little anthology of love poems for Valentine’s Day, once again trying to have it both ways: accepting the traditional association of love with verse but going light on the sugar. This year, let’s look at sex.

Pop psychology makes an earnest distinction between love and sex, but most of us, on many occasions, have found the difference theoretical or irrelevant. A glib moral separation of sex from love—or flirtation from passion—needs correction, supplied here by Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933) in a poem translated from the Greek by Rae Dalven:


Body, remember not only how much you were loved,
not only the beds on which you lay,
but also those desires for you
that glowed plainly in the eyes,
and trembled in the voice—and some
chance obstacle made futile.
Now that all of them belong to the past,
it almost seems as if you had yielded
to those desires—how they glowed,
remember, in the eyes gazing at you;
how they trembled in the voice, for you, remember, body.

It’s the very brevity of those glances, the pathos of how little happened, that makes the emotion so strong and the verb loved in the first line so appropriate. That Cavafy’s love life was homosexual and covert adds to the emotion.

Robert Frost, equally sensual in his own way, wrote this explicitly and effectively heterosexual poem:

PUTTING IN THE SEEDYou come to fetch me from my work to-night
When supper’s on the table, and we’ll see
If I can leave off burying the white
Soft petals fallen from the apple tree
(Soft petals, yes, but not so barren quite,
Mingled with these, smooth bean and wrinkled pea;)
And go along with you ere you lose sight
Of what you came for and become like me,
Slave to a springtime passion for the earth.
How Love burns through the Putting in the Seed
On through the watching for that early birth
When, just as the soil tarnishes with weed,
The sturdy seedling with arched body comes
Shouldering its way and shedding the earth crumbs.

The daring title of this sonnet reminds me of the sexy double-entendres in the black-and-white screwball comedies of directors like Preston Sturges. The artist gets away with the explicitness of “putting in the seed” partly because the culture of his time had the habit of averting its eyes or declining to hear.  The “arched body” in the next-to-last line has that quality too, as does “slave to a springtime passion”; the arched body of the seedling is precise as well as suggestive, making accuracy itself erotic. Even the more or less innocent phrase “smooth bean and wrinkled pea” is charged by alertness of attention, as well as context.

There’s nothing implicit or mysterious about Robert Herrick’s 17th-century poem about a nighttime erection and wet dream:

THE VINEI dream’d this mortal part of mine
Was Metamorphoz’d to a Vine;
Which crawling one and every way
Enthralled my dainty Lucia.
Me thought, her long small legs & thighs
I with my Tendrils did surprize;
Her Belly, Buttocks, and her Waste
By my soft Nerv’lits were embrac’d:
About her head I writhing hung,
And with rich clusters (hid among
The leaves) her temples I behung:
So that my Lucia seem’d to me
Young Bacchus ravisht by his tree.
My curles about her neck did craule,
And armes and hands they did enthrall:
So that she could not freely stir,
(All parts there made one prisoner.)
But when I crept with leaves to hide
Those parts, which maids keep unespy’d,
Such fleeting pleasures there I took,
That with the fancie I awook;
And found (Ah me!) this flesh of mine
More like a Stock, than like a Vine.

Herrick takes the image of his woody becoming a vine from the ancient Greek of Anakreon, but the wonderful poise of this poem is Herrick’s own. (A stock is the wooden pole supporting a vine.) Rarely has a work of art so effectively, so smilingly, corrected a sexual fantasy with reality. The “fleeting pleasures” are seen without melodrama. One hopes that there was a real Lucia and that the sweet, self-mocking good humor of Herrick’s poem pleased her.

“It goads me, like the Goblin bee—/ That will not state—its sting”: Emily Dickinson’s brilliant phrase for the prurient insistence of sexual obsession:

IF YOU WERE COMING IN THE FALLIf you were coming in the Fall,
I’d brush the Summer by
With half a smile, and half a spurn,
As Housewives do, a Fly.
If I could see you in a year,
I’d wind the months in balls—
And put them each in separate Drawers,
For fear the numbers fuse—
If only Centuries, delayed,
I’d count them on my Hand,
Subtracting, till my fingers dropped
Into Van Dieman’s Land.
If certain, when this life was out—
That your’s and mine, should be—
I’d toss it yonder, like a Rind,
And take Eternity—
But now, uncertain of the length
Of this, that is between,
It goads me, like the Goblin Bee—
That will not state—its sting.

People like to debate the nature of prose poetry; most efforts to define a “prose poem” involve contrasting it to the poetic convention of writing in lines. A better approach might be contrasting the prose poem with conventional prose narratives. Here is Elizabeth Bishop’s translation of “Brazilian Tragedy” by Manuel Bandeira. Its rapid, concentrated movement makes the ordinary novel seem unbearably slow by comparison.  The place-names drive the story ahead at the speed of sound, where film might take an hour, or fiction a hundred pages:

BRAZILIAN TRAGEDY  Misael, civil servant in the Ministry of Labor, 63 years old, 
 …Knew Maria Elvira of the Grotto: prostitute, syphilitic, with ulcerated fingers, a pawned wedding ring and teeth in the last stages of decay. 
 …Misael took Maria out of “the life,” installed her in a two-storey house in Junction City, paid for the doctor, dentist, manicurist …. He gave her everything she wanted.
When Maria Elvira discovered she had a pretty mouth, she immediately took a boy-friend.
… Misael didn’t want a scandal. He could have beaten her, shot her, or stabbed her. He did none of these: they moved. 
 …They lived like that for three years. 
…  Each time Maria Elvira took a new boy-friend, they moved. 
  …The lovers lived in Junction City. Boulder. On General Pedra Street, The Sties. The Brickyards. Glendale. Pay Dirt. On Marques de Sapucai Street in Villa Isabel. Niteri. 
Euphoria. In Junction City again, on Clapp Street. All Saints. Carousel. Edgewood. The Mines. Soldiers Home … 
 …Finally, in Constitution Street, where Misael, bereft of sense and reason, killed her with six shots, and the police found her stretched out, supine, dressed in blue organdy.

Also supercompressed, in a more or less opposite manner, is John Donne’s bravura two-line poem about the mythological lovers Hero and Leander:

HERO AND LEANDERBoth robbed of air, we both lie in one ground,
Both whom one fire had burnt, one water drowned.

Here it is the rhyme and the four-part couplet-and-comma structure, reflecting the four elements, that accomplish the breathtaking speed of poetry.

A classic scene in American romantic comedy is the late-night urban pastoral of the lovers moving happily through the streets of a city that glows back at them—the cop on his beat, the milkman, the ethnic street vendor, in a chorus of social stereotypes, all beam at the lovers. Sterling Brown’s “Harlem Happiness” inverts that scene significantly by making the lovers a black couple. The fantasy is made more alluring, more shadowed by its own unreality, by this reversal. The American lexicon of ethnic terms is softened, made innocuous in this eroticized dream city of unlikely and poignant good will toward the black couple, as though they are Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers:


I think there is in this the stuff for many lyrics:—

A dago fruit stand at three A.M. the wop asleep, his woman
knitting a tiny garment, laughing when we approached her,
flashing a smile from white teeth, then weighing out the grapes,
Grapes large as plums, and tart and sweet as—well we know the lady
And purplish red and firm, quite as this lady’s lips are ….
We laughed, all three when she awoke her swarthy, snoring Pietro
To make us change, which we, rich paupers, left to help the garment.
We swaggered off; while they two stared, and laughed in understanding,
And thanked us lovers who brought back an old Etrurian springtide.
Then, once beyond their light, a step beyond their pearly smiling
We tasted grapes and tasted lips, and laughed at sleepy Harlem,
And when the huge Mick cop stomped by, a’swingin’ of his billy
You nodded to him gaily, and I kissed you with him looking,
Beneath the swinging light that weakly fought against the mist
That settled on Eighth Avenue, and curled around the houses.
And he grinned too and understood the wisdom of our madness.
That night at least the world was ours to spend, nor were we misers,
Ah, Morningside with Maytime awhispering in the foliage!
Alone, atop the city,—the tramps were still in shelter­
And moralizing lights that peered up from the murky distance
Seemed soft as our two cigarette ends burning slowly, dimly,
And careless as the jade stars that winked upon our gladness ….        
And when I flicked my cigarette, and we watched it falling, falling,
It seemed a shooting meteor, that we, most proud creators,
Sent down in gay capriciousness upon a trivial Harlem—

And then I madly quoted lyrics from old kindred masters,
Who wrote of you, unknowing you, for far more lucky me­
And you sang broken bits of song, and we both slept in snatches,
And so the night sped on too swift, with grapes, and words and kisses,
And numberless cigarette ends glowing in the darkness
Old Harlem slept regardless, but a motherly old moon—
Shone down benevolently on two happy wastrel lovers ….

Love poetry satisfies a need by expressing a need, partly as love itself does. The need to be needed is compactly expressed by William Blake:

A QUESTION ANSWEREDWhat is it men in women do require?
The lineaments of Gratified Desire.
What is it women do in men require?
The lineaments of Gratified Desire.

We want not merely to know that the other’s need has been gratified: We want to see it in his or her bodily lineaments.

THE EXPENSE OF SPIRIT (129)The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight;
Past reason hunted and no sooner had,
Past reason hated as a swallowed bait
Laid on purpose to make the taker mad:
Mad in pursuit, and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.