Yesterday afternoon David Lehman presented “Wild Nights! The Poetry of Eros” in the New School’s Lang Auditorium. The event was the first of the “Fridays at One” series hosted by the IRP, the Institute of Retired Persons. But there weren’t a lot of people who appeared to be in a retired state of mind. Or body. The woman at the reception table had sleek hair and a full, brilliant smile, and while I was giving her my name, a tall, fit man cruised into the auditorium wearing black Lycra leggings and bicycle cleats.
“Wild Nights!” was a perfect title for an afternoon talk because as everyone knows, you can have a wilder night at one in the afternoon than you might have at one at night.
David began by talking about and reading some 17th century seduction poetry, the seize-the-day, gather-ye-rosebuds-while-ye-may poetry. This “sweet style” of poetry, though it can be hot, is a safe style, said David smiling sweetly. Say goodbye to all that. (Under his jacket, David wore a shirt the same deceptive beige as his tie.)
Emily Dickinson wrote poems on scraps of paper that she stuffed in the pockets of her apron, but she was a radical poet, David said. Nothing sweet or safe about her. (“Danger disintegrates Satiety”!) To her, a successful poem was “one that tears off the top of your head.” We heard #249, the “Wild Nights poem.”
We heard “Episode of Hands” by Hart Crane and then “Life Story” by Tennessee Williams, a writer who had loved Crane’s poetry. We heard a sonnet by Edna Millay and a poem by Moira Egan who’d used Millay’s “What lips my lips have kissed” as her first line. We heard Jill Alexander Essbaum’s very funny poem “On Reading Poorly Transcribed Erotica” and Deborah Landau’s sexy “August in West Hollywood.” (In fact, David had started the talk by saying that his idea for an anthology of American erotic poetry came to him in part because so much great erotic poetry is coming from younger female poets these days.)
David read two sonnets by H. Phelps Putnam, “Sonnets to Some Sexual Organs” — Sonnet I, Female and Sonnet II, Male. The last two lines of Male are:
You lead us, master, sniffing to the hunt,
In quest forever of the perfect….
David looked up at the audience. That last word, he said, seems to be missing.
David also read his own poem “When a Woman Loves a Man” from his collection of poetry with the same title. Afterward a woman in the audience said that she thought the poem was more of a love poem than an erotic poem. Maybe the romance poem needs its own category. Compare two lines from George and Ira Gershwin’s “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” with lines in “When a Woman Loves a Man:
“You like tomato and I like tomahto”
“When she says quixotic she mean mercurial”
“So we better call the calling off off / Oh, let’s call the whole thing off!”
“One year they broke up seven times and threatened to do it/another nine times.”
Earlier in the afternoon, David had told us that some erotic poems are “seeming to talk about one thing and sneakingly talking about something else.” Later we found out that Charles Bukowski’s “Hunk of Rock” is not this kind of erotic poem. Here are two lines:
give me that bottle, you
whatever the fuck
you feel like doing,”
her big ass
Isn’t it interesting how that word in the H. Phelps Putnam poem went missing but a fucking whore’s big ass is blazing right where it’s supposed to be?
– Angela Patrinos