From Catullus to Daniel Craig and Marvell to Wendy Cope, a new volume will gather the most lyrical celebrations of human passion
Is it easier to write about coupling in rhyming couplets than lines of torrid prose? The poet Sophie Hannah is about to test the theory with a Penguin anthology of poetry about sex that puts lusting about Daniel Craig side by side with Andrew Marvell's lascivious 17th-century plea To His Coy Mistress.
Hannah's new selection, The Poetry of Sex, follows last year's controversial Bad Sex Awards and makes a clear argument that a sense of rhythm is the key to good sex. The Bad Sex Awards for novelists, organised by the Literary Review, annually shames authors deemed guilty of embarrassing passages of erotic fiction and has now caused British writers to argue that expressing sexual desire or describing the act of intercourse in print is in retreat.
It is not fair, some complain, to make fun of writers who try to put the essence of such physical exchanges on paper. According to Hannah, an acclaimed poet, any worried novelist should simply turn to poetry. "I am not sure why, but it is easier to write well about sex in poetry than in fiction. Perhaps it is because we want sex (ideally) to be anything but prosaic," she said this weekend. But she concedes that even poets sometimes fail. "We could probably also have a bad-poem sex award… because it's a tricky thing to write about.
"It is a subject about which people do a lot of lying and self-censorship." The difficulty is that everyone's experience is different. "Success depends on whether the written experiences tally with what one has experienced." Hannah says that, although she enjoyed reading Fifty Shades of Grey and could identify with the narrator's experience of finding an ideal man, there was a crucial drawback, and all empathy stopped there. "I couldn't identify much with that one drawback turning out to be a 'red room of pain', because I've never personally encountered such a thing."
Literature about sex should never be seen as a guide for the uninitiated, she warned; the choices for her Penguin anthology were driven by literary merit, not instructional value. "I would never choose on that basis with any literature, because then you are not just thinking about the literature for itself."
She chose poems she has loved all her life – such as Wendy Cope's Message– and sought others by contemporary poets she admires. "I wanted Message because it is a great poem about a woman urging a man to put his skates on and ring up so that they can kiss while they still have their own teeth! It is a variation on the theme of the famous Andrew Marvell poem, which I had to have in the anthology too, of course."
Marvell's poem builds to the entreaty: Let us roll all our strength, and all/Our sweetness, up into one ball;/And tear our pleasures with rough strife/Thorough the iron gates of life. Catullus's attempts to beguile Lesbia are included, alongside Walt Whitman, Shakespeare and Carol Ann Duffy. Gay and straight, unrequited and unwanted love are represented.
There are poems about elephants having sex as well as illicit office relationships – and there are two about Daniel Craig. "I did not think about gender politics or about from which perspective a poem was written. If someone recommended something to me, I thought about whether the poem was saying something that wasn't covered in any of the others. So I put in a poem by Richard Goodson, which is about having a Daniel Craig photograph as the screensaver on his computer and how distracting it is because he fancies [Craig] so much." Goodson writes that Craig "rises like a Christ newly baptised in sky blue trunks".
Hannah sought to look at how poets have approached the subject, so consulted friends and put up requests for help in the Poetry Library in London and on the Poetry Society's Facebook page. Among her favourites is Ernest Dowson's Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae. "It is about how you can be haunted by a previous lover, even while you are trying to pay attention to a new one." She also chose a work by Kit Wright, a poet she regards as among the best now writing. "His Dark Night of the Sole has a woman tell a lover that her husband is 'an odd fish' and then it transpires she means this quite literally."
Edna St Vincent Millay also gets the Penguin seal of approval for her unexpectedly robust sentiments in the poem I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed in which a lover reveals that her interest in a man is entirely physical and that she has no time for talk.
Hannah remains a romantic. "After 42 years I still believe in love, although I think it comes in many forms … It can be an insanity. Yet, since I have been happily married for 14 years, I haven't felt the need to write so much about it. I have written very few poems about my husband, in fact!"