Poems of Passion and Sex
PostedDecember 05, 2004
Poets have long been using their poems to aid their passionate pursuits. In the first century BC, Catullus wrote his lyrics to Lesbia, pleading with her to ignore the gossip of old men and instead share thousands of kisses, so many that they lose count:
Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love,
and let us judge all the rumors of the old men
to be worth just one penny!
The phrase "carpe diem," from a quote by Horace, means "seize the day," and is often used to describe persuasive poetry designed to convince the object of the poet’s desire to make love—for time is short, as the argument goes, and anything might happen. Other arguments range from the existential to the absurd, and poets make their points persistently in an astounding variety of ways, using every metrical and technical device to show off their wit and prowess. Perhaps the most famous example is Robert Herrick’s poem, "To the Virgins, Make Much of Time" where he begins, "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may." Another famous example is Andrew Marvell’s argument in "To His Coy Mistress,"
Now let us sport us while we may;
And now, like am'rous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour,
Than languish in his slow-chapp'd power.
Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball;
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life.
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
The form has inspired both imitations and satires. In reply to Christopher Marlowe’s shepherd, who begged his nymph to "Come live with me and be my love," Sir Walter Raleigh let his nymph knowingly reply:
If all the world and love were young,
And truth in every shepherd's tongue,
These pretty pleasures might me move
To live with thee and be thy love.
The companion piece to the carpe diem poem might well be the aubade, a form in which the poet begs his lover to stay in bed and mourns the rising of the sun because it means that they must part. John Donne’s poem, "The Sun Rising," is one of the earliest examples:
Busy old fool, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on us?
For the contemporary take on these traditional forms, Frank O’Hara astutely observed that there’s a natural inclination for poets to "show off" for their lovers; in his mock-manifesto "Personism," he writes, "As for measure and other technical apparatus, that’s just common sense: if you’re going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you." C. P. Cavafy, famous for poems of illicit rendezvous, had this advice for writers in his poem "When They Come Alive":
Try to keep them, poet,
those erotic visions of yours,
however few of them there are that can be stilled.
Some contemporary spins on carpe diem poems and aubades sometimes have little to do with romantic love at all. Joe Wenderoth’s sequence Letters to Wendy’s, for example, twists the longing for a person into a more modern, bewildered, mix of passion and consumerism.
For true romantics—or conniving contemporary shepherds—there is still a wealth of persuasive, loving examples to choose from, as well as poets turning their rhetoric toward an argument for intimacy. Those seeking traditional carpe diem poems, sonnet sequences, aubades or more contemporary meditations on seduction or passion, might look at the following:
"What Do Women Want" by Kim Addonizio
"Carmina V" by Catullus
"Remember, Body ..." by C. P. Cavafy
"lady i will touch you" by e.e. cummings
"Come Slowly—Eden (211)" by Emily Dickinson
"For Each Ecstatic Instinct" by Emily Dickinson
"The Flea" by John Donne
"Privilege of Being" by Robert Hass
"To the Virgins, Make Much of Time" by Robert Herrick
"A Sweet Disorder in the Dress," by Robert Herrick
"Aubade" by Phillip Larkin
"i like my body when it is with your" by E. E. Cummings
"The Elephant is Slow to Mate" by D. H. Lawrence
"Aubade" by Amy Lowell
"Come Live With Me and Be My Love" by Christopher Marlowe
"The Passionate Sheepherd to his Love" by Christopher Marlowe
"To His Coy Mistress" by Andrew Marvell
"Morning" by Frank O'Hara
"He Asked About the Quality—" by C. P. Cavafy
"The Knowing" by Sharon Olds
"Aubade: Some Peaches, After Storm" by Carl Phillips
"Living in Sin" by Adrienne Rich
"Novel" by Arthur Rimbaud
"Aubade" by William Shakespeare
"I Sing the Body Electric" by Walt Whitman
"Arrival" by William Carlos Williams
"Sailing" by Henrik Nordbrandt