Sunday, February 1, 2009

Bugs and Sex

Please believe I am immune to the poetry-as-pick-up, but that is only because I write the stuff--ick. 

Anyway, I think there is a very real way in which art is supposed to serve as a lubricant in our relations with other people. I mean what do you do on a first date?--you go to a movie. But even larger than that, the lessons we learn from art are (somehow) supposed to enrich our interactions with the world around us and--and most dearly and importantly--other people. 

That being said there has been a lot of poetry explicitly concerned with getting women into bed. Here is John Donne's three-stanza poem "The Flea." 

The Flea

Mark but this flea, and mark in this
How little that which thou deny'st me is;
It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;
Thou know'st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,
    Yet this enjoys before it woo,
    And pampered swells with one blood made of two,
    And this, alas, is more than we would do.

Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, yea more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is;
Though parents grudge, and you, we're met
And cloistered in these living wall of jet.
    Though use make you apt to kill me,
    Let not to that, self-murder added be,
    And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail in blood of innocence?
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it sucked from thee?
Yet thou triumph'st, and say'st that thou
Find'st not thyself, nor me, the weaker now;
    'Tis true; then learn how false, fears be;
    Just so much honor, when thou yield'st to me,
    Will waste, as this flea's death took life from thee.

In the first stanza Donne argues that the blood the flea sucked is insignificant. In the second stanza he completely abandons this argument and elevates the flea to dizzying heights. Then in the third stanza he returns to his original argument. Donne doesn't care about the logic, he only cares about the end result--you, me, sex. In many ways this is a very good poem. It's crafted, it sounds good. But let's not let form let us forget: he's comparing her hymen to a flea--gross. 

Since the dawn of poetry women have been used as symbols or stand-ins for Beauty. Sex has been used as a metaphor for living fully. Carpe Diem. We might be dead tomorrow, so let's get it on today. To quote a contemporary of Donne, Andrew Marvell:

Thy beauty shall no more be found
Nor, in they marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long preserv'd virginity

This poem "To his Coy Mistress" is also very well crafted. In many ways a stunning poem. Still, worms probing between a dead virgin's legs?--BIG ick factor. 

Despite being raised in New England and everything I have said on this blog thus far, I am not a Puritan at heart. I have no moral problems with pre-marital sex, sex between stranger, or bugs. I think sex, fleas, and worms are all fine subjects for poetry. I do, however, have a little bit of a problem with insincerity. And the uneven power dynamics patriarchal society creates between the genders. I think that, partially through poetry, hopping into bed quickly has become a trope of living fully--an absolute necessity in a passionate, poetic life. The problem is--and this is especially true at the time when Donne and Marvel were writing--that having casual sex is very different for a man than it is for a woman. Society still views promiscuous women differently from promiscuous men. It's crazy. It shouldn't be, but it is. Men are still much freer to behave as they like sexually. I'm not saying these things haven't changed since Donne and Marvell were writing, I'm not saying they aren't changing--I'm saying they haven't changed enough. And some of the residual inequality we are stuck with is very connected to poetry like this. I wrote a paper as an undergrad where I compare Donne's poetry to Nelly's song "Get Down Get Your Eagle On" and--and I want to be taken seriously about this--the imagery is strikingly similar. 

I think if women had been writing poetry in the 17th century the poetic trope for a full, free, passionate life would look a little different.  But, of course, women were not writing a great deal of poetry in the 17th century because, by in large, women were not being taught to read and write. 

Jessica asked on the blog if I read older, more formal verse, or if I only read modern poetry. I read it all. The older poems are part of the tradition our modern poetry is built on. I don't even see the two as all that separate. Older, structured verse is FANTASTIC. I love it. This verse is taught, however, as a kind of Bible for English majors, a gold standard. In many ways it is. I aspire to the beauty and intricacy of the unknown author of "Beowulf", Shakespeare, Donne, Keats, Wordsworth, Yeats. I could list all night. All the way back and all the way forward through the history of poetry. But discussing some of this stuff--even the poems I love--frustrates me. If this stuff is going to be taught as a Bible, I guess I'd just like to see a little more justice there. It is hard for me to gush about a poem I find unsettling in its attitude towards women. It is hard for me to hear other people gush. I am left with these recalcitrant objections.


  1. first, i enjoy reading your blog. i tend to be opinionated at times so sorry if i come across as an ass.

    i didn't see the flea/hymen image. hopefully this hasn't affected my future perceptions too much... yuck indeed. i thought the flea was 'being bitten by the love bug'. there certainly are some rather base and profane images there. even a bit of violence, with forces struggles back and forth. and of course blood. but i felt as if both parties had been victimized by this third party of the flea or the synthesis between the two and the mingling of body and more conflictualy, as with the blood, the essence of 'self-murder'. clearly given the time it was written, the narrator is male, but i think it need not be read that way.

    i thought poetry was all about insincerity for the creation of a sincere moment. is it the underlying authentic sincere moment you're looking for or something else?

    years ago i read a bunch of japanese court poetry of the 12th century. the vernacular japanese literary scene was created by women. men at the time were educated in and used chinese. women could only use japanese. it didn't help much in japan, there are some pretty oppressive social tendencies in japan against women.

  2. I don't think you come off as an ass at all. I'd be an ass to say my way of reading things was the only way. I don't think that. Obviously, my way of seeing things is pretty visceral for me. When I write I try to make it visceral for other people, too; but I never intended to say or even imply that there was only one way of looking at a poem.

    What I am looking for in a poem is a good question. So far I've tried to respond to individual poems("The Flea" being one) and explain what was there that I liked and what was there that troubled me. I'm not sure I can come up with an 'I want this' out of a poem in the abstract. It's like pornography: I know it when I see it.

    I will, however, think about it. You bring up very valid points. I don't, for example, think Pound ever meant to communicate purgatory when he wrote "In a Station...". But nonetheless I think purgatory is there. And that is how the poem gets taught.

    I'll think about the what it is I am looking for. And I'll also think about the room for multiple interpretations of poems. I think the multiplicity of interpretations makes many people very uncomfortable, and it makes them not want to read poetry, but it also makes poems last. We would never write about poems 200 years (and more) after their a creation if there were not more to be said. With good poems there is always more to be said.

  3. Oh, and I'm interested by this piece of history you bring up. I've read the Pillow Book series. Liked it, too. But I am certainly not what I would call familiar. I'll look into that, too.

  4. yes, there is a lot to be said for sure.

    quickly, for now, to return to the rather profane...

    in light of your reading of this poem, i couldn't help laughing when i read the wiki article on this guy (a dangerous thing i know) and saw this picture with the below caption:

    "A few months before his death, Donne commissioned this portrait of himself as he expected to appear when he rose from the grave at the Apocalypse.[10] He hung the portrait on his wall as a reminder of the transience of life."