(Lesismore’s note: As an introduction to our new contributors, here’s an earlier column written by Carrie Lorig for the Daily Cardinal on February 14, 2007. See author comments annotated below, as well as a mission statement at the end regarding future articles.)
One of contemporary pop culture’s favorite pastimes is pushing the limits of ‘shock value’ when it comes to sex and sexual innuendo. Today, unfortunately, addressing sexuality is not usually associated with making your mother proud, but with making her cringe.
Even though Fergie thinks she’s being really clever with hooks like “How come every time you come around, my London, London bridge wanna go down?,” we know the “meaning” the Duchess is trying to convey does not hail from her previous woes as a working class bridge operator, forced to raise and lower said bridge for perhaps, a large fishing dinghy or cruise ship loaded with those pesky bourgeoisie. (This paragraph was submitted for carbon dating. Samples were compared to the weave Fergie wore on the cover of this horrible album. Results suggest that this was definitely 2007.)
Listeners engage in their own cover-up games. We coyly feign scandal at allusions to sexual excess and exploitation while secretly sliding up the volume on our iPods. In truth, sick beats do their job well and we rarely concern ourselves with the thought that a song can be too vulgar.
But the tradition of covert sexuality in art and culture is capable of engaging in a much more complicated, and probably a much more healthy game of social tug-of-war. When poets imagine sex in a way that challenges or differentiates from what is considered the “social norm,” a space for real conversation and action is created. While they may contain the similar kinds of gratuitous sexual references as these songs, poems seem to strive to retain the intimacy and poignancy of sex in its snapshot-like frame.
The poet John Donne wrote several notorious poems that, under the guise of metaphor, were rather flowery suggestions to his plentiful mistresses as to what they could, you know, do later on in the evening after some very important study of course, some stately court dancing (The Galliard! The Sinkapace!), and maybe some drinks.
Donne was a very religious man, and his poetry directly comprised and contradicted his dedication to a Christian lifestyle. However, he believed in expressing love as his body dictated him to, sans the guilt imposed by conservative (or perhaps simply repressed or tragically unattractive) leaders in the church. Though poetry instinctively caters to the imagistic imagination, Donne’s work was less of a fantasy than the “pure” world Jacobean moralists insisted was reality.
More contemporary poets, like Carol Ann Duffy, covertly address notions of gender and homosexuality. In poems like “Warming Her Pearls,” she creates a female-to-female relationship that is unapologetic and assertive about its sexuality. “She fans herself / whilst I work willingly, my slow heat entering / each pearl.” (This is the only contemporary poet I reference in this whole article. She’s finally the poet laureate of Great Britain now. I would like to know how the cigars taste inside the boys club, Carol.)
And we are not only invited to view a refreshing, and perhaps more accurate view of sex through such poems, but we can also marvel at their abilities to manipulate and flirt with language. “She being Brand” is a scandalous poem by e.e. cummings, but it’s also light-hearted and vibrant, making it suitable for virgins eyes. “she being Brand / new; and you / know consequently a / little stiff i was / careful of her”
Be comforted. There is more to love poetry than meets the Hallmark card. (That’s the closer? Really, 2007 Carrie?)
This article definitely documents my awkward undergrad poetry awakening. I can’t believe I referenced John Donne because I’ve always sort of hated his poetry. (That doesn’t mean I don’t respect him, though.) I think I did it to feel credible. A big name like that is safe and easy and sure to get you in the door. Anyone moderately interested in literature is acquainted with the same poets for the most part. Someone mentions Pound was a fascist and wins a pie wedge in a game of trivial pursuit. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” remains as lovely as ever, doesn’t it? We all agree.
But I’m not going to write about those poets we’re comfortable with. I want to talk about poets who are putting out issues of magazines that are available online for free, making free e-books, and keeping small presses alive with their print work. It’s nice to think of a poet checking the same 10-day weather forecast as you. You see your own issues inside their poetry and it feels like a place of resistance and your local Perkins at the same time. I hope I can show readers that young poets are saying and doing exciting, relatable things. They are driving some fast cars. Let’s go hack their blogs while they’re out, okay?