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.
To be a love poet is a matter of tone, then, not of personality. The men in John Whitworth’s book ‘go in like whippets’ ‘for fearsome thrashes’ and ‘noholds barred’ – phrases from a single Kingsley Amis poem – and the vocabulary which describes them is notable for rapidity and violence: the penis is ‘rammed’, ‘shot’, ‘shoved’, ‘thrust’, and even in one case ‘posted’ into the vaginal slot. Boasting is compulsory, whether about size of member, speed of conquest, or vigour of performance. Yet disgust is never far away, whether Herrick’s for a ‘slimy kiss’ or ‘wimbling tongue’, or Rochester’s for the fickle Corinna. There is a good deal about shit and buggery and arseholes; about hairiness and dirt and smells and farts; about disease and pox. Certain positions are favoured – the woman’s thighs wrapped round the man’s neck, in particular – and a high premium is placed upon the theft of virginity. The porno-erotic tradition can be coy, but never bashful or ingenuous: it knows what it is on about, even when it ‘dare not name’.
The oddest feature of all this blue verse, which might be expected to give out some heat, is that it should burn on such a low flame. Alistair Elliot’s translations of Verlaine aside, there is something very mechanical about the sexual act as here described: it is ‘the thing that people do’ (as a Fenton-Fuller poem has it), but not the thing called love, nor just one of those things. Instruments suggest it or stand in for it: fiddles, notably, which are more vigorous than the lutes of love poetry, but also dildos, a more literal kind of substitute. Jauntiness is its keynote – a jauntiness heard in T.S. Eliot’s three little pieces of naughtiness and in Craig Raine’s image of an excited watering-can and a peculiar rose – and this is because, more than anything, the blue verse tradition is about being in control – of your verse-form as well as your feelings. There is no room in this tradition for a poem about sexual compulsion such as Ted Hughes’s ‘A Childish Prank’.
Instead of Hughes, we get (three times) Kingsley Amis’s nonplussed Evans, who straight after his father’s funeral arranges to meet his mistress in the pub:
You’ll know me easy, because
I’m wearing a black tie love.
This is supposed to be cool and disengaged, to have its wits about it. The same cool is displayed in the two anonymous bawdy ballads which begin and end Whitworth’s collection, ‘Eskimo Nell’ and ‘The Ball of Kirriemuir’. It would be possible to enlist the former as a proto-feminist work, since its point is that, after much male bravado, Deadeye Dick gets his comeuppance (or downance) from the eponymous Amazonian ice-queen. But this would be as perverse as claiming that Stanley and the Women is feminist: whatever their contradictions, both works finally leave the cheery male value-system intact.
The pricks felt in John Fuller’s anthology are not Mexican Pete and Deadeye Dick’s but the stings, darts and arrows of love, which is a sickness, a torment, a dryness at the mouth, a flush in the cheeks, a butterfly in the stomach, a catching at the heart. There are many lovely things in this anthology, but precious little that conveys a living sense of the loved one. She is composed of polished ivory, red coral, alabaster, cherries, snow, diamonds and rubies, none of which thinginess helps bring her into focus. Even Carew, who begins boldly by describing the mole on Celia’s bosom as a bee, is soon enough onto the romantic staples of aromatic dew, ambrosial meat, phoenix fire and Elysian plains. We come to believe any clinching detail, so long as it is a detail: ‘the vaccination mark on your upper arm’ of a Seamus Heaney poem. Heaney goes on to tell us that the vaccination mark is on his beloved’s thigh, which is a warning that poets are apt to make things up, but at least what is here seems to be a particular human thing, not a naming of parts.
In this sense, the love poet is as guilty as the porno-erotic poet: however obsessional may be his attachment to something beyond him, what we end up hearing most about is himself – that’s enough about me, now let me tell you what I feel about you. The most powerful and moving poem in Fuller’s anthology is, for this reason, Gavin Ewart’s ‘one-word love poem’, ‘You!’, which focuses on love-object, not poet, and which achieves the difficult feat of making a universal declaration while addressing itself to her eyes only. Ewart’s exclamation mark hints at a widely felt exasperation with all attempts to convey the beloved’s uniqueness. ‘How should I know your trew love/That have met many one,’ asks the stranger in a Walter Ralegh poem, to which the reply comes:
She is neither white nor browne
But as the heavens fair
There is none hath a form so divine
In the earth or the air.
But this is what all inamorata look like, and so can be of no help at all. A pop song from the heyday of Tamla Motown plays the same trick:
And you can tell her by the way she walks
And you can tell her by the way she talks ...
So if you see my baby, Stop her On Sight
(I’m sending out an SOS).
Fuller, unsurprisingly, finds no room for this: indeed he doesn’t include any popular songwriters later than Cole Porter and Ira Gershwin. This is a mistake, not only because there are so many post-war songwriters to choose from but because popular song is now the art-form through which most people confirm or recreate the experience of being in love. Love is nothing if not the common touch, and without Lennon-McCartney and the rest the Chatto Book of Love Poetry is denied some essential warmth and accessibility.
There are, it should be said, some fascinating discoveries in Fuller, but such discoveries aren’t sufficient to suppress the feeling that love is not the natural mode of expression for most English poets. Donne and Hardy are the triumphant exceptions, and Fuller also bravely includes a good deal of Lawrence. Elsewhere, it seems, love, like happiness (which need not be but is sometimes part of love), writes white – as Larkin liked to quote Montherlant saying. The necessary detachment to compose love poetry is acquired only retrospectively (as with Hardy), or, if present in the heat of the moment, raises the suspicion of some coldness or lack of commitment on the part of the lover (as with Donne). Silence seems to be an essential part of it: the male speaker silences the complaining or difficult woman (‘For Godsake hold your tongue and let me love’), but then finds he can’t speak himself for the lump in his throat. So when Hammond, reflecting on the infrequency of Celia’s letters, consoles himself that love and writing have little to do with each other, one is inclined to believe him.
Hugo Williams, who has a good poem about the sticky relationship between making love and making verse (LRB, 8 December 1988), is one of the few contemporary English poets who makes a good showing in both the Whitworth and the Fuller. That particular poem appears in neither, nor in his own new collection, Self-Portrait with a Slide, perhaps because one of its themes, sexual humiliation, is treated more successfully in a poem like ‘Toilet’, where the girl he fancies sitting opposite him on the train is imagined ‘peeing all over my face’. The collection recounts many other humiliations. Its central character is an ageless being called Sonny Jim, whose strange milieu lies somewhere between the nursery and the death-bed, the classroom and the old people’s home. Part of the strangeness of the poetry comes from Sonny Jim – or the ‘I’ of Williams himself – not really knowing what is going on, or finding out in ways that suggest a weird disembodiment from the self: ‘It’s sad to see me going so far away all alone,’ ‘What shall we do with me?’ The Williams/Sonny Jim figure is essentially irresponsible, unable to get a grip on things. He is pictured often in front of a mirror, vainly trying to gain control of his hair, and his failure in this respect is symptomatic of a larger incapacity. A recurrent figure is the nurse, and the ‘I’ she cares for may be Williams/Sonny Jim as a child or senile patient or both. The numerous girls hungered for at a distance or frankly propositioned are also sought, you feel, primarily in a nursing capacity, not as sexual objects. There is, nonetheless, something ideologically unsound about Williams’s imaginative world, as a student from his Creative Writing class points out:
You seem to see everything
from the man’s point of view
exactly like my husband.
Williams, while listening to this, is fingering in his pocket the foil wrapper of a condom, which duly splits open in
of spermicide and vaginal lubricant.
It is a characteristic Williams image, the persona at once recoiling from the mess it makes of things, and also owning up to that mess. That is the awful tension in a seemingly artless collection.
The Virago Book of Love Poetry and Erotica promise healing female alternatives to such disassociation. They redress an imbalance firstly by existing at all, by reclaiming the right to speak rather than be spoken for. Women’s love poems differ from men’s, Wendy Mulford argues, by not exploiting the love object or muse: instead of veneration they express cussedness and bad temper, and cut their men down to human size. Women’s erotica differs from men’s, Jeanette Winterson argues, by seeking ‘to return women to their bodies by offering a looking-glass and not a distorting mirror’; men ‘picture the whole world as a giant reflection of their prick’, whereas ‘in fact, the world is round. In fact, it is women, not men, who are intimate with their bodies.’ There is a sexual triumphalism about some of this, as when both Jeanette Winterson and Margaret Reynolds point out that women possess the only anatomical part, the clitoris, that exists solely for pleasure. But triumphs, as John Major might say, must be won on the field of play, not in dressing-room interviews, and here both anthologies fall short. Erotica is the stronger, as far as the male reader is concerned, though he suspects this may be because extracts like those from Anais Nin and Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room share most of the qualities of male erotica – in Nin’s case, to an extent that questions the whole basis of the anthology. It is hard to see how the passage from Delta of Venus, about a nymphomaniac (Nin’s word) enslaved by a masterful South American, serves the cause of female sexual independence.
The problem with many of the alternative voices in the Virago Book of Love Poetry is that they are alternatives to women’s poetry even more than they are to men’s: Wendy Mulford excludes most ‘establishment’ women poets. No Fleur Adcock, Carol Rumens, Carol Ann Duffy and certainly no Fiona Pitt-Kethley or Wendy Cope – which means denying herself, out of petty literary in-fighting, poems that would have strengthened her case. The best poems she does include are the toughest, not just Marina Tsvetayeva’s and Anna Akhmatova’s, but the no-messing blues rhythms of Ntozake Shange, who advises women to exploit men as best they can (‘just take what/he’s got for you .../ get it and feel good’), and Ida Cox (‘Go home and put my man out/If he don’t treat me right’). But strong moments like these are diluted by Mulford’s decision to allow love poetry to mean poems about ‘love for children, for home, for parents and friends, and indeed for art, for God, for flowers, for one’s country’, which means letting in the whole works, except of course works written by men.
Not that poems about parents, for instance, can’t also be love poems, as Paul Durcan’s Daddy, Daddy shows. Faced with the problem that so many poets of recent years have written movingly about their fathers – Tony Harrison, Craig Raine, Hugo Williams, Paul Muldoon, Michael Hofmann – Durcan carries the filial art to new extremes. ‘Daddy and I were lovers,’ one poem begins, ‘... and when I was six/ We got married.’ Another poem picks up the story thirty-odd years later when the estranged lovers remarry, have the wedding photographs taken while lying on their backs, and spend a second honeymoon in the lakes of Sligo. One might call this surrealist if there weren’t an Oirish whimsicality about it, mixed with some hard documentation and narrated always in a flat prosiness which sits strangely with the intensity of the feeling. Strangest of all is that the more fantastical Durcan becomes about the father-son relationship the more this authenticates the emotions described.