Sex’n’Love

Blake Morrison

  • The Chatto Book of Love Poetry edited by John Fuller
    Chatto, 374 pp, £13.99, August 1990, ISBN 0 7011 3453 4
  • The Faber Book of Blue Verse edited by John Whitworth
    Faber, 305 pp, £14.99, October 1990, ISBN 0 571 14095 5
  • Self-Portrait with a Slide by Hugo Williams
    Oxford, 62 pp, £5.95, June 1990, ISBN 0 19 282744 8
  • The Virago Book of Love Poetry edited by Wendy Mulford
    Virago, 288 pp, £6.99, November 1990, ISBN 1 85381 030 4
  • Erotica: An Anthology of Women’s Writing edited by Margaret Reynolds, foreword by Jeanette Winterson
    Pandora, 362 pp, £19.99, November 1990, ISBN 0 04 440672 X
  • Daddy, Daddy by Paul Durcan
    Blackstaff, 185 pp, £5.95, August 1990, ISBN 0 85640 446 2

How much do love and sex have in common? Not enough, it seems, for them to appear together in anthologies, which increasingly cater either for the sentimental or the pornographic market. We need not be surprised by this. Men, at any rate, have often maintained that sexual intercourse may occur without any undue engagement of the emotions, just as love need not hinder the serious business of living and working and getting on. And nowadays a wing of the feminist movement wishes to make similar protestations of disengagement on behalf of women, who have paid a high price for emotional (and economic) servitude. Yet there is something peculiarly English and Victorian, something repressed rather than liberated, about wishing to separate the two, as if the ambiguities of words like ‘desire’ and ‘love-making’ did not exist.

Of the four recent anthologies of this kind or these kinds, the ‘male’ ones – the Chatto Book of Love Poetry and the Faber Book of Blue Verse – are the most obvious offenders (‘male’ here meaning edited by men and overwhelmingly given over to men’s poetry, though not exclusively male in the way the other two are exclusively female). Love, for one of the editing Johns, is, at its least feigning, shy, sly, dry, delicate, subtle, gentle and sensitive, and he confesses himself happy to do without ‘misogynist satire, self-congratulation, smut’. He has left these to the other John, whose anthology is bold, noisy, rude, aggressive and full of itself, all of which things love can be, too, given half a chance. Neither editor is taking any chances, though. Fuller’s book, which has a long and elegant introductory essay, is an immeasurably superior production, but errs on the side of the ethereal, as if afraid that human love cannot bear too much physicality: it is happier trembling flirtatiously on the brink of love, or mourning its departure, than it is with the sexual act itself. Whitworth’s anthology, which represents the rugby song end of the lyric tradition, comes with no introduction at all, as if the motives behind it were too difficult to justify or too shaming to admit.

The partiality of these anthologies is frustrating, and will be so especially to those who have one without the other. Those who have both will find that, among contemporaries, Christopher Reid and Michael Hofmann are classified as love poets but Craig Raine and Tony Harrison as blue versifiers. Only a few poets make both, including Seamus Heaney, who has two poems unworthy of him in the Whitworth (one about unfreezing a vaginal pump, one about a bride-like, much played-on Victorian guitar), and a couple of much better ones in Fuller, though not his great poem of marital sexuality, ‘The Skunk’. Sometimes the same poems appear in different versions, notably in the case of Burns, whose ‘Gin a body fuck a body/Need a body cry?’ is inferior to the better-known version of ‘Coming through the Rye’ printed in Fuller, but whose ‘John Anderson My Jo’ is shown to longer and better effect by Whitworth. Even Fuller himself spans the anthologies, editing the one with a strong authorial hand and appearing twice in the other in the company of James Fenton.

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