Call it lust, lunging or love, actually – now is your chance to seduce us with your celebration of the erotic
The recent discovery of a previously unknown explicit love poem by Vita Sackville-West to her lover Violet Trefusis just happens to coincide neatly with the fifth egg of our Poster Poems dozen; the fertilised egg. Clearly someone tipped off Harvey James, the scholar who discovered and translated the poem, about my intentions. It's a small world, isn't it?
There's a long, if somewhat convoluted history of erotic verse in English, with Chaucer, often regarded as the father of poetry in the language, as something of a pioneer. In fact the Canterbury Tales are such a hotbed of lust that the reader is spoilt for choice. My own favourite is the fairly graphic story of the gulling of the rich man Januarie by his wife May in The Merchant's Tale. The poem contrives to be both funny and proto-feminist in its portrayal of an active young woman ruling the roost over her old and hoar husband.
While the Elizabethans tended to be a bit more high-flown with their poetic expression of desires, the metaphysicals tended more towards the physical, with even the cleric Robert Herrick indulging in a fondness for breasts; maybe the inclusion of the Latin phrase Via Lactea made his lust a touch more acceptable.
If Herrick and his contemporaries could be a bit risque, one poet of the following generation was positively Chaucerian. I'm referring, of course, to John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester, the bad boy of Restoration writing. Rochester's Signior Dildo is a riotous satire on the morals of the court, written to mark, oddly enough, the wedding of James, Duke of York and Mary of Modena. The poem is, among other things, a paean to female sexual desire and masturbation and a caution against an excess of virtue.
Aphra Behn, Rochester's near contemporary, was another who wrote frankly on the theme of women's sexual needs. Her poem The Willing Mistress lacks the crude energy of a Rochester, but it's nonetheless subversive of conventional notions of female chastity. If anything, the balance between frankness and modesty in lines such as "Which made me willing to receive / That which I dare not name" makes the poem more believable, more realistic than the Earl's extravagances.
After the bluntness of the Restoration poets, much of the 18th and 19th centuries seem very staid and respectable. Now, private body parts were not only doomed to go unnamed, they were airbrushed out of the picture entirely. However, the genetic imperative is strong and will generally find a way to break the surface. One such eruption can be seen in Emily Dickinson's Wild nights – Wild nights! Although it is less explicit than either Rochester or Behn, there can be no denying the unrestrained nature of the passion expressed in the poem. Dickinson's sexual knowledge may have been more theoretical than practical, but she was not afraid to explore her desires in verse.
With the end of the Victorian era, the moral restraints on poets and other artists began to loosen and poets began to celebrate their sexuality more openly. It is against this background that we must read Sackville-West's poem; the love that dare not speak its name started speaking, albeit in private and in French. Anna Wickham, born just a few years before Vita, was more interested in men and her The Fired Pot is a poem in praise of the invigorating power of desire and desirability, even if it is not acted upon.
Of course, these poems are relatively tame. It is interesting to compare the uncomplicated celebration of female infidelity of the old Sanskrit poem I Like Sleeping with Somebody Different with Wickham's more circumspect "remembering my duty" to realise how tame. But a mid-century poet like Allen Ginsberg might well be weighed against Rochester and not be found wanting in explicitness. Ginsberg wrote widely about his own sexuality, but perhaps Footnote to Howl is as near as he came to a definitive statement of his position. Sex takes its place among the holy things of the world, an integral part of what makes us human. And whatever you might think of Beat overstatement, it's hard to argue with that basic message.
And so this month's Poster Poems challenge is to celebrate the erotic. You might want to be subtle or forthright, romantic or lustful, the choice is yours. The only thing I ask is that you bear in mind the lexical sensitivities of your fellow poets and keep the use of French to a minimum; we don't have an in-house translator available.