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Poetic Licentiousness

Sex in verse: one writer’s top 10 favorites

by Joe D. Michon-Huneau on February 13, 2014 · 1 comment


1. “Trying to Get Even” – Charles Bukowski

Bukowski notoriously plays the role of the filthy, drunk womanizer. His collection Love is a Dog from Hell is so chock full of examples that it was hard to choose just one representative poem. “Trying to Get Even” starts with the current object of his affection confessing, “look, I’ve had 3 abortions/in a row, real fast, and I’m sick of/abortions, I don’t want you to stick that/thing in me!” She demands that he “BEAT that thing OFF while I WATCH,” and after he’s “waved it all around the/bedroom,” they get down to it. Ever Henry Miller’s rival for blunt explicitness, Bukowski reveals that his efforts in bedding this particular woman are for the sole purpose of getting even with his real girlfriend, who’s probably since cheated on him further, dismissing his current fling’s admission of affection (“you son of a bitch, I love you”) with a plea for a glass of water.

2. “Privilege of Being” – Robert Hass

“Many are making love,” begins Hass, imagining an angel’s perspective on the deed. They look down “at the awkward ecstasy—/it must look to them like featherless birds/splashing in the spring puddle of a bed,” humorous and honest in its imagery. The angels, says Hass, don’t understand or approve of our sex lives. “They shudder pathetically,” as they look upon the lovers who, in their mortal sadness, have “enchanted out of death for an hour or so,” before going back to “reading magazine articles about intimacy between the sexes/to themselves, and to each other . . .”

3. “she being Brand” – E.E. Cummings

This one’s obviously just about cars, right? When E.E. says he “thoroughly oiled the universal/joint tested my gas felt of/her radiator made sure her springs were O./K.” he’s merely talking shop, tuning up, right? When he says he “went right to it flooded-the-carburetor cranked her/up,” he’s just revving his engine, giving it some gas? When he says she—she being the car—“passed from low through/second-in-to-high like/greasedlightning,” he’s talking about how well his transmission is working, right? And Divinity Avenue is a real street in Cambridge, Mass., where he was born and raised, so no metaphors there. Look it up on Google maps! Honestly, there’s nothing perverse in writing that he “touched the accelerator and give/her the juice,good,” or how he “slammed on/the/internalexpanding/&/externalcontracting/breaks Bothatonce and/brought allofher tremB/-ling/to a:dead./stand-/;Still),” so there’s really no use in arguing. Right?

4. “When the Young Husband” – Donald Hall

Adultery is perfectly portrayed in Hall’s “When the Young Husband,” sliding through the stanzas frame by frame. The entire affair balances upon a single moment, just before he makes his move, in which the young husband hears “a prophetic voice” that envisions his entire ruined future splayed out before him, a roadmap of his oncoming failures as a husband, father, person—a paranoid but plausible truth about the consequences of one’s actions—which all trace back to what is about to happen with “his friend’s pretty wife” after “their first lunch together, in a hotel dining room/with a room key in his pocket.”

5. “The Pope’s Penis” – Sharon Olds

Let’s pause for a moment and think about the sex life of the Pope. That poor old penis of his, described by Olds in this short piece as “a delicate/clapper at the center of a bell.” It must get lonely “deep in his robes . . . a ghostly fish in a halo of silver seaweed.” The church life is admittedly (and intentionally) not the sexiest, but surely even the Pope has hidden thoughts, desires. I happily imagine a young Pope-to-be, hiding his erections with textbooks in the hallways, ashamed as I was in my Catholic teens of wet dreams and unattainably sordid fantasies. Repress, repent, repeat. But the Pope, however pious, is still human, and his anatomy knows better, for “at night,/while his eyes sleep, it stands up/in praise of God.”

6. “Another First Kiss: To —” – Bill Knott

Asserting that “A first kiss can occur anywhere,” Knott admits that “Ours came in bed, but after we’d undressed . . . At/Our age you get naked and then you neck,/The opposite of how it was done young.” Just what age? you may ask. Knott specifies in a footnote that “the lovers are 53 and 61.” May be the cutest thing I’ve ever envisioned intentionally about older folks having sex.

7. “My Native Land” – David Ignatow

“I pledge allegiance to the lips of the vagina,/I swear by it and kiss its flag.” Ignatow’s vows are to be admired. In the recognition of his place of origin (“seeing that I come from between two lips/and a beard”), desire, and eventual place of burial (“as I grow in it and die of pleasure”), he accomplishes two things: homage to the life-giving-and-receiving 51 percent, and a hearty punchline to the gut of America, sneaking in at the last three words.

8. “Cuerpo de Mujer” – Pablo Neruda (“Body of Woman” – translated by Mark Eisner)

The first poem in his collection Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair is a loving celebration of the body of Neruda’s lover, her “white hills, white thighs” (echoed later in “White Bee”: “White bee, you buzz in my soul, drunk with honey . . .”). “Body of skin, of moss, of avid, steady milk,” he praises. “Ah the goblets of the breasts . . . the roses of the pubis!” Though more ear-pleasing in its original Spanish form, Neruda writes that his “savage peasant body digs through you/and makes the son leap from the depth of the earth.”

9. “Sphincter” – Allen Ginsberg

A century after Whitman paved the way, it was Ginsberg and then Burroughs who first triggered a censor-happy ruckus in the American academic landscape—a literary sexual reawakening of sorts. “Howl” and Naked Lunch, respectively (both revealing Ginsberg’s fingerprints), were the first to allow academia and suburbia alike to so directly approach the topics of sexuality and homoeroticism, as well as drug use and whatever else was dragged along on the muddy coattails of the Beat movement. But it’s Ginsberg’s brief ode to his asshole, “Sphincter,” that makes this list. Sure, “Howl,” introduced us to the maddened minds of his generation who “let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy,/who blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors” among other things, but it was in “Sphincter” that Ginsberg got really personal, hoping his “good old asshole holds out/60 years it’s been mostly OK.” He worries whether he’ll get “another 20 years” out of it, recalling the good times (“active, eager, receptive to phallus/coke bottle, candle, carrot/banana & fingers”), the bad (“in Bolivia a fissure operation . . . a little blood, no polyps, occasionally/a small hemorrhoid”) and the tragic (“Now AIDS makes it shy”).

10. “Twenty Year Marriage” – Ai

More engine metaphors in this one, but the couple in this poem are having sex like they did twenty-plus years ago, before marriage and the lull, on the seat of a pickup: “the seat, one fake leather thigh,/pressed close to mine is cold.” Ai writes, “Hurry,” as she waits for her hubby to “piss against the south side of a tree.” Her lack of panties “still excites,” and she hopes their nostalgic lovemaking will help them “roll out of here,/leaving the past stacked up behind us;/old newspapers nobody’s ever got to read again.”


“n w” – E.E. Cummings

Try reading this one out loud to your other. Sound it out. Slowly.

“My Old Job” – Michael Robbins

If only for the following lines: “Maybe it’s Maybelline. Why can’t you be true?/You regifted the VD I wrapped up just for you.”

“Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes” – Billy Collins

As Studio 360’s Kurt Andersen put it in response to Collins explaining that he seduces the homely Ms. Dickinson in his mind here: “You dog, you.”

“I Sing the Body Electric” – Walt Whitman

The word engirth isn’t used nearly enough today.

Anything by Sappho

If only more than mere fragments of her Eros-laden poetry (popular around 600 B.C.) remained intact, we could dig further into the meaning of the phrase “limb-loosener.”



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