Broken Boundaries: 5 Most Striking Erotic Poems of All Times
Erotic Poems by Charles Bukowski, W. H. Auden, Mutsuo Takahashi, Federico Garcia Lorca, and Emily Dickenson.
From The Naked Soul: The Erotic Love Poems
Erotic literature has been for a long time a rather controversial and fascinating genre that transgresses boundaries in many respects.
It is by no means new, but it was valued in its own right in antiquity (Sappho’s works or the Kama Sutra are only two examples among the most famous ones).
However given certain restrictions imposed in other historical periods such as the Middle Ages, the Victorian era, and even during times which are closer to the 21st century, erotic literature can still be considered a genre that challenges convention.
Only in our decades can we see more openness towards a new kind of exploration of the erotic.
It is enough to think of work such as Fifty Shades of Grey and its success and you can easily understand why and how the erotic has become a new focus for the literature-loving masses as well as for the critics.
Most Striking Erotic Poems
Erotic poetry is particularly intriguing because this genre has often demanded a higher degree of lyricism through an expression of subjectivity and quite often “complex feelings.”
How do these qualities mesh with the erotic? Is the erotic pure physicality? Does it imply the depiction of mere sensation or it also plays on emotionality and abstraction? What does the aesthetic of the erotic look like?
It is essential to understand that there’s more to erotic poetry than corporeality or sexuality.
The way this interesting and not at all simple genre manifests itself differs, of course, from one historical time to another and even from one country to another, depending on several particularities of the artistic trends that were influential at one point and on preferred kinds of sensitivity/ imaginary in a given cultural space.
Which are the most striking erotic poems of all time? What is extraordinary about them? Does it only depend on the horizon of expectations of a certain era and public? It’s self-understood that many erotic poems written by contemporary authors would have shocked people in the 17th or 18th century.
However, our intention is showing a few remarkable erotic poems in their full historical and artistic context.
For starters, what did erotic poetry look like in the 18th century? It was, of course, much more veiled and metaphoric than nowadays.
Some poets were however more provocative and even cultivated a form of aesthetic perversion (Charles Algernon Swinburne, for instance) while approaching more delicate topics and employing abundant imagery of sensuality.
One relevant example is the eroticization of a religious female figure, for instance.
The erotic was visible in the intent of challenging boundaries (e.g. a Madonna vs. whore binary) and not necessarily in the depiction of overt sexuality.
Others poets preferred a more concealed style. Eroticism was thus often approached under the guise of more â€œelevated and socially appropriate feelings such as love, admiration, fascination, etc.
Let’s go through a few outstanding erotic poems that qualify as the most striking of all times.
Come Slowly, Eden! by Emily Dickenson
However, what is extremely special about this poem comes down to the fact that it was written by a female author who was actually never married.
Emily Dickenson’s life centered on her closeness to her family, on forms of seclusion as well as on a few ambiguous relationships that were probably never consummated. Scholars have investigated the poet’s sexuality and concluded she may have actually had a homoerotic orientation (given her intense friendship and correspondence with Susan Gilbert Dickenson, her sister-in-law).
What makes this poem so interesting? Well, it’s precisely the enigmatic and ambiguous gender imprint and sexual orientations it implies.
The poem consists of two stanzas only and it is constructed along the fertile and powerful metaphor of a bee that circles a flower and ultimately sips its nectars. The amazing imagery depicts the bee as a “he” while the flower is feminized.
What is absolutely fascinating about this short poem is the way in which conventional gender roles mingle and blur: the bee that should be the predator and sip the nectars from the alluring, but passive flower actually ends up being a fainting victim, since he is lost in balms.
Orgasm is thus described as a sensation of Eden for both parties. The flower is deeply sexualized through the image of the chambers (instead of petals), while the bee is metonymically represented through the image of the lips, thus further intensifying the complex sexual connotations of the poem:
Come slowly Eden Lips unused to thee- Bashful sip thy jasmines- As the fainting bee.
The eroticism in this poem is heightened through powerful olfactory and gustative images: jasmines, balm, nectars, etc.
Evidently, the sexual act is veiled through the description of a common phenomenon in the natural world whose beauty could potentially be admired as such without any erotic connotations.
The apparent candor suggested by this poem is telling of the way an erotic poem could be written in an era that did not allow too much freedom of sexual expression.
Intensely figurative, Emily Dickenson’s erotic poem remains among the most striking, especially in the context of the whole mystery surrounding the poet’s own sexual orientation and activity.
Gacela of Love Unforeseen by Federico Garcia Lorca
In the first half of the 20th century, the erotic was already not as taboo as before. Modernist poets experimented tremendously while still retaining a love for highly metaphoric representation or dream-like scenes.
Federico Garcia Lorca is a significant Spanish poet who gained international recognition through the force and the complexity of his imagery. Aesthetic elements that were employed by artists all over the world during that time harmoniously combine with traces of Spanish folklore in Lorca’s poetry.
Similarly the emphasis on subjectivity and imagination one can generally find in modernism gains additional nuances through the passionate and emphatic style that is so appreciated in the Spanish culture.
Lorca has written a lot of erotic poetry, but this particular poem is remarkable through its almost tragic tonality. Can the erotic be tragic?
Strange as it may seem, in Lorca’s poetry eroticism is intensified through anguish or the feeling of loss and death.
The poem starts with a definite impression of the bond (and binding) between a man and the woman he speaks about while also addressing the poem to.
In the man’s words, nobody can understand the secrets of the woman’s body as well as he could. The female body is described through expressive images of bloom and scent which obviously symbolize sexuality and attraction:
Nobody understood the perfume/ Of the dark magnolia of your belly.
Lorca’s poem is striking not so much through its sexual images (which are not exactly shocking for the time when the poem was written).
What singles it out among many other erotic poems is the contrast between absolute surrender and immersion in sexuality and the atmosphere of loss and ceaseless suffering.
Sensorial images are rich and allusive, as the woman’s visceral being is compared to Magnolia and her gaze appears to be between plaster and jasmine, resembling a pale and seeding branch.
Interestingly the natural imagery suggesting compelling scent and color are accompanied by allusions of extreme heat so as to convey intense eroticism:
while I for four nights laced myself/ to your waist, the enemy of snow.
The allusion of the transgression of time boundaries through intense love and sexuality is however crushed in the end, because what seems to last forever is not the connection between the two lovers, as one would expect, but the man’s painful lust.
The woman is now called the garden of my agony instead of being only a source of joy and pleasure. Hardly can one find something more impressive and memorable in the context of erotic poetry than the last stanza of Lorca’s poem:
forever, forever: Garden of my agony, your body fleeing from me forever, the blood of your veins now in my mouth, your mouth already listless for my death.
The ending of Lorca’s poem can be interpreted as a hint that the erotic is only fulfilled in the man’s imagination and death accompanies a dream destroyed. At the same time, we can read it as a confession of an agony that followed the loss of love: the man’s never-ending pain can thus be one that derives from tormenting memories of physical love.
The ending of this poem is quite open as if what actually matters is the acute feeling of death that accompanies the erotic; other meanings are rather fluid.
There is also a suggestion of a strong consciousness of time passage that turns the erotic into an intense, but tragic experience. Aware of implacable death, the man is haunted by cruel images of perdition both in a physical and spiritual sense. The concreteness of pain and the overall feeling of hopelessness are remarkable in a poem whose content is primarily erotic.
It is not accidental that the mouth loses its erotic connotations in the ending of the poem as death seems to cover everything. What was once an uttermost immersion in the other’s body seems now a shockingly concrete image of death (e.g. the woman’s blood in the man’s mouth).
The contrast between pure physicality and a just as unambiguous and concrete loss (and potentially even decay) distinguishes this poem among others in the genre.
The Shower by Charles Bukowski
How can we discuss erotic poetry without mentioning Charles Bukowski? One of the most famous and provocative American poets in this respect, Bukowski has written considerably in the direction of erotic literature.
Unlike other authors, he turned the erotic into one of his major themes and he often used violent and shocking imagery.
In his case, the power of the erotic comes down to an explicit and incredibly concrete style rather than to metaphor and lyrical refinement.
Bukowski is also renowned for bringing â€œcommon people living on the fringes of society into literary focus without distorting their images or trying to embellish them in order to fit convention.
For the first decades of the latter half of the 20th century that was a notable achievement! Bukowski was a major challenger of aesthetic tradition who aimed at redefining the parameters of poetry rather than assimilating tradition. He also performed masterfully in his approach to the erotic.
What is particular about Bukowski’s erotic poetry? The right answer probably comes down to a strange, but a very genuine blend of pure sensation and deeper emotionality such as melancholy, sadness, yearning, etc.
Given the rawness of his erotic imagery, one would except a more frivolous kind of subjectivity when first approaching his poems.
However, this couldn’t be farther from the real substance and effect of Bukowski’s erotic poetry.
The Shower is remarkable through its depiction of post-coital communication between two lovers. It is striking because it doesn’t represent an actual sexual act nevertheless it is extraordinarily erotic.
The poem introduces the shower as a habitual practice between two lovers. What is strange is that gradually the reader has a strong impression of uniqueness, since this intimate act is described as something the man and the woman enjoy as if it weren’t recurrent, let alone boring or monotonous.
The shower thus becomes a mere continuation of the sexual act the two have just disengaged from. Showering together afterward only shows them how powerful the chemistry between them still is and impels them to fully eroticize the new act.
The poem is quite shocking through its language, as there are absolutely no reservations about the explicit depiction (and naming) of the genitalia.
Bukowski intends to use everyday language regardless of what people may consider being slang.
There is absolutely no disguise; every part of the male or female body, no matter how intimate, is named and depicted in full detail as the poem alludes to the (new) erection that will likely culminate in yet another sexual act even though this remains unsaid and the two lovers are further presented as they get dressed:
I grin grin grin, and then I wash her. . . first the ****, I stand behind her, my cock in the cheeks of her **** I linger perhaps longer than necessary, then I get the backs of the legs, the ****, the back, the neck, I turn her, kiss her, soap up the breasts, get them and the belly, the neck, the fronts of the legs, the ankles, the feet, and then the ****, once more, for luck. . . another kiss, and she gets out first, toweling, sometimes singing while I stay in turn the water on hotter
Bukowski’s poem doesn’t limit itself to what one may call concrete cynical eroticism. It also includes some sarcastic gender commentary, since it makes it clear that naming the male genitalia while censoring the female ones is not at all accidental.
The poem thus humorously and ingeniously mocks at the social convention and gender discrimination reflected in what may be considered to be acceptable language.
The irony is extremely charming since sexuality and the body is described in their full organic nature. Physiology takes over figurative language as the poem builds on the purity of raw sensations and chemistry.
The poem surprises the reader in an interesting way: it doesn’t end through a climatic depiction of a sexual act, but rather in a melancholy tone. The unexpected ending is one in which the erotic is endowed with slightly metaphysical/religious nuances.
Only by means of such an abysmal experience can the man’s memories of pain or defeat be appeased.
The erotic is thus acknowledged as a force that helps people overcome negative life experiences and even transcend the mundane.
This poem is unique through the way it combines concrete sexuality with a deeper feeling of sadness and loneliness that would linger in the man’s psychic space unless he had the chance of reveling in such apparently banal moments.
Sleeping Wrestler by Mutsuo Takahashi
Sleeping Wrestler sounds like an aesthetic gem even when you totally disregard the fact that it concentrates on homosexual love. This can be considered to be a rare talent of the poet since homo-eroticism was still a delicate issue in the 20th century.
The poet manages to eliminate any impression of potential discomfort or clumsiness in the expression of homosexual love and lust.
This particular poem simply describes a genuine and deep emotional connection between two men in a rather unique way: the poem can also look like some sort of gay manifesto since apparently only one of the two men is completely aware of the actual attraction between them.
The whole poem thus sounds like a plea for the acknowledgment of homoerotic orientation addressed to the object of the speaker’s attention and affection. Of course, the poem can be interpreted as a man’s attempt to show the other how he represses attraction because of gender pressure and socially constructed impediments.
Repression is described as sleep, struggle, and murder. Giving in to social norms regarding sexuality and fighting to bury his attraction to another man deep inside his psyche, the sleeping wrestler is actually also a murderer, since he destroys sincere interpersonal connection and love.
The atmosphere of the poem is intense and the voice of the man seems both dreamlike and terribly real. The poem builds on the paradoxical blend of a sense of fragility (perhaps strange for the usual images of homosexual love ingrained in the consciousness of the public) and struggle.
Eroticism is represented as a struggle not only in the sense of repression of sexual orientation but also as far as the sexual act is concerned.
Images of wrestling and fight, verbal constructions such as you nail me down, metaphors like a pillar of tendons or the ring of your entangled body and the insertion of the famous figure of the toreador Escamillo (from Bizet’s Carmen) are all very powerful in the representation of homoerotic love as a tense conjoining of bodies:
On your stout neck like a column, like a pillar of tendons
The thoughtful forehead
(In fact, it’s thinking nothing)
When the forehead slowly moves and closes the heavy eyelids
Inside, a dark forest awakens
A forest of red parrots
Seven almonds and grape leaves
At the end of the forest a vine
Covers the house where two boys
Lie in each others arms: I’m one of them, you the other
In the house, melancholy and terrible anxiety
As one man tries to convince the other to give up on repressing his sexuality by urging him to open his eyes, the whole poem seems soaked in a feeling of melancholy and terrible anxiety which, of course, can be caused by the very fact that only one of the men is at peace with his homosexual attraction.
However, this mood intensifies the dramatism of the struggle in the poem and turns eroticism into a fascinatingly complex experience.
All in all this poem can also be read as a more generic call for people who may have homoerotic impulses to stop resisting them and killing the rare and precious feelings of lust and love.
The Platonic Blow by W. H. Auden
If this is not striking enough for its time, namely the 40s it is a poem about homosexuality as well.
It’s essential to mention that this poem differs from the others we have already discussed through its purely pornographic (rather than lyrical) nature.
Auden wrote this poem as a challenge. It was not included among his usual poems meant for the general public, but it secretly circulated around certain circles.
It was only published in 1965 in the American counterculture magazine entitled Fuck You/ A Magazine of the Arts.
Why is this poem so remarkable? Is it only because of its shocking nature? The answer is more complex: Auden’s poem is valuable both through its daring convention-challenging quality and its aesthetic content.
While there is not much emphasis on subjectivity or internalized eroticism, the sexual act is by no means represented as something shameful or disgusting, in spite of all its explicit and highly abundant details.
We should not forget that during the latter half of the 20th-century oral sex was still a taboo topic.
It may actually be a bit taboo even nowadays for a certain public, although doubtlessly the media and the general direction of art and culture allow for much more freedom and open-mindedness.
This poem may well be the most striking erotic poem ever written, given its whole artistic and socio-cultural context: it was written for a well-defined, but narrow public in 1948 by an established poet.
The poem was published by someone else in 1965 in a counterculture magazine. It depicts nothing more and nothing less than a homosexual act of fellatio; it employs extremely direct and yet not vulgar language; it is quite long and captivating almost as gripping as a 15- minute scene in a porn movie. It describes genuine attraction and quite sophisticated, but also raw eroticism. It involves two men and depicts what could be considered to be an unequal, unilateral sexual act and yet everything seems rather balanced, authentic, and appropriate.
The poem has undeniable aesthetic value through the strength of the sensations and feeling the poem represents.
This list of remarkable attributes could continue. What is amazing about Auden’s erotic poem is the fact that it makes use of little figurative language in order to describe the homosexual act.
However the metaphors we come across are impressive and memorable: the male organ is a work of mastercraft, a firm vase of sperm, or a royal column ineffably solemn and wise; during intimacy, all act was clutch.
The actual communication between the two men is strikingly direct, pure, and authentic:
I glanced as I advanced. The clean white T-shirt outlined A forceful torso, the light-blue denims divulged Much. I observed the snug curves where they hugged the behind, I watched the crotch where the cloth intriguingly bulged. Our eyes met, I felt sick. My knees turned weak. I couldn’t move. I didn’t know what to say. In a blur I heard words myself like a stranger speak. “Will you come to my room?” Then a husky voice, “O.K.”
The whole poem conveys an impression of disarming and genuine eroticism between two men who are completely aware of and deliberate about their sexuality. There’s no need to hide or pretend since homoeroticism is regarded and treated as an incredibly natural and pleasant experience in which social convention has absolutely no place.
Auden’s poem thus appears as a climax of erotic poetry in its own right. What may have been or may be further written afterward would find it quite challenging to equal its artistic and erotic force, given its whole artistic and cultural context.
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What do you think about these authors and their out-of-the-time poems? Please leave your thoughts in the comment section below.