Great poems about sex.

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Feb. 14 2007 7:18 AM

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

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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 SEED

You 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 VINE

I 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.