June 17, 2019

Eros: the poetry of sex, Poet in the city event

Panel: Chair – Kate Copstick, Dr Linda Grant, Professor Richard Parkinson and Adam O’Riordan

Location: King’s Place, London

Eros: the Poetry of Sex. For the sensationalist? Or the sensualist? And what of the crowd? It seemed an intense bunch that’s for sure with comments including, ‘we have all come here and enjoyed an evening with Eros’. With most of the audience aged over 50, we might expect some very experienced with Eros.

The bill would be the envy of any entertainment chat show.  Kate Copstick chaired the event, wowing with her cheeky assertions, brimming with energy in her readings of e e cummings, in place of a blushing Poet in the City representative. 


The other audience comments were poignant enough to recall – one audience member wished to know why the actual act of sexual intercourse isn’t the subject of more poetry, cumming’s aside, O’Riordan discussed the necessity for sophistication in a modern communication sphere where people are open enough to say ‘I want to fuck you’. I wonder if this is due to the world of internet dating, commodified, framed, three shot human fix, swipeable, interchangeable, where charisma seems shy to come hither. Anyway, Copstick’s suggested that he re-read  O’Riordan’s choice, Artichoke by Robin Robertson, to which he replied, in an unsatisfied manner and under his breathe, I’ve read it many times. I’m not sure what he was looking for that he couldn’t find in the lightly perfumed and dusted metaphor of the ‘quick, purpled beginnings of the male’.

The event opened with a beautiful reading, – Donne and his white linen, set the tone on which to build on both a diverse and sometimes personal discussion on the poetry of sex. Copstick in her soft Scottish lilt related her pubertal poetical awakenings, followed by readings of Catullus, characterising desire with an everlasting sleep, and then Ovid, Spenser and Whitman  – by the time we got to Whitman and his ‘little streams’ the audience was held in the grasp of the way that poetry can make you feel alive, make you relate to other humans across time, and in the genius’ hands, without identifying male or female or casting judgement. 


The readings continued with Verlaine’s Sappho’s ballad and Lorca’s Sonnet of sweet complaint and up flashed Hockney’s drawing of Lorca, in which we seemed to instantly understand the poet’s endeavour. Shedding a light on the history of sex and erotica, Prof Parkinson gave a necessarily academic rendering of ancient Egyptian and Greek historical records. Our bookmarks across the century for homosexual erotic poetry included Michelangelo, Cavafy, and EM Forster and then a slight divergence to Forster’s Maurice, which in the hands of Merchant Ivory in the 1980’s, related a poignant backstory; with a brief discussion on liberation and Pride and the devastating arrival of HIV. O’Riordan read from Michelangelo and Cavafy and Auden.


 And then we were back to Sappho with ‘silence breaks my tongue’, then to Dickinson and to a ‘boundless place’ and perhaps an obligatory Nin. We certainly got through a lot of poetry. Linda Grant shone a brief light on women’s erotic poetry in the renaissance, but she really gave us an insight on which to reflect – women had to operate within language and poetic forms dictated by men – where did this leave female sexuality? Probably not relating much of their actual experience in poetry. She went on to discuss Aphra Behn with a very enjoyable reading. O’Riordan, editor of an anthology of love poetry and prose, and billed as the voice for contemporary poetry, chose the 17th Century poet Andrew Marvell to open his discussion, slightly incongruous perhaps, and then to Carol Ann Duffy’s pearl warmer. He discussed the experience that a poem clarifies in its audience; commenting that erotic desire so often arises through proximity to objects. O’Riordan continued with Robin Robertson’s, Artichoke, asking the audience to consider what makes it erotic and then read his own work, Oysters. The ‘adductor severs’ and ‘vulviform’ brought to life the poetry of sex in a way that is taut with intellectual rigor and at the same time true to the reader’s expectations of poetry in sex.


Readings then continued with more sensual e e cummings, Brian Patten and Emily Berry. Then to Sharon Olds Topography, comic, and yet you are cemented to the ‘what’s not said’. The whole audience was charmed by it. I think the problem with poetry is that it’s not quite fiction – it therefore suits those arenas where our imagination is most called upon; in our private fantasies poetry has a strong currency. The event ended with an image of Klimt’s the Kiss as the backdrop, a dive back into a common visual depiction of intimacy. The short discussion time couldn’t provoke more than a brief reflection from and on the panel.  However this was a fresh and wonderful event that set the clock to Eros, and traversed the history of poetry of sex, another hour next time Poet in the City.

by Lou Clement

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