from Radiant Lyre: Essays on Lyric Poetry, edited by David Baker and Ann Townsend
A connoisseur of kisses, Thomas Wyatt recognized a good kiss whenhe got one. He didn't like to stop at just one kiss.The poem "They flee from Me" tells us that and records one of the sexiest kisses in English literature. What makes a poem feel real enough that we "fall for it," read as if it happened, and in just this way? What compels a reader to make personal claims about this poem, this poet? The question should really be: What pulls us in? Even better: What makes such a poem erotic? The events in "They flee from Me" feel immediate despite their distance from us, despite howdifferent Wyatt's life as a courtier in the service of King Henry VIII was from ours. Eros is eros is eros, across the centuries, and anyone is susceptible to its power. That's one answer. But to speak in a more nuanced way of poetry's power to convince us, we should consider the body of the poem itself. There we would find that Wyatt conjures an ongoing drama, in rhythmically intense language; he enacts his recollections as if they were still in progress. The kisses he describes continue to haunt him; they are, in equal measure, full of pleasure and pain. Although he mourns their loss, he can't forget them, nor the woman whose mouth he kissed:
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small;
Therewithal sweetly did me kiss,
And softly said, Dear heart, how like you this?
Oh, he likes it. And continues to hear her mocking voice even after the event itself has passed. But throughout the poem "all is turned," their intimacy dissolved into painful memory, rejection, "a strange fashion of forsaking," and what remains are questions and no good answers. Good kisses, bad kisses, meretricious kisses: What are kisses for?
Erotic poetry makes its own strategic use of the emotional tactics that lovers have always employed on each other. Poetry enacts a simultaneously frustrating and engaging dance of intimacy: hurry and delay; contact and distance; love and hate; pleasure and pain. Poetry connects readers to the made and shaped lives of strangers. We encounter their inventions, their hopes, their passions. Not only is erotic poetry erotic, but so is all poetry erotic, whatever its supposed subject, intent, or device. It is a truism that poetic language is itself intrinsically erotic. "It is nothing new," as Anne Carson writes, "to say that all utterance is erotic in some sense, that all language shows the structure of desire at some level." Contact: we write when we need it, or when we lack it, when we are driven to speak. We intend to supply a missing thing a body, a notion, an agreement, a delight. Words represent the material, tactile world, words help us find our way into imagined spaces, words are a conduit from a writer to a reader.
In the French troubadour poetic tradition, longing for the absent beloved provides the energy and momentum for hundreds of poems. Longing, always longing. The lovers never meet. Something (a husband, an ocean, a class divide) comes between them. Language sustains the romance. These components (lover, beloved, and what comes between them, in Anne Carson's formulation) derive from ancient poetry about eros, and were later developed and perfected by poets of the courtly love tradition. Such poetry assumes that attraction may only be sustained by placing obstacles between the lovers. The gap of longing must not be breached, the lovers must not meet. The common elements include the perpetually absent beloved, joy intermingled with anguish, and yearning as the governing state of mind. The ingredients are affecting in combination but limited in their forward motion. They prohibit consummation. The key emotional component of this poetics is thus erotic frustration. There's a difference between poems of longing or of seduction (as in the carpe diem tradition) and poems of contact, presence, or beholding. When nothing comes between the lover and the beloved, we enter another realm of erotic poetry. It's in their kiss.
How do poets kiss?
The early Greeks spoke of two souls mingling in a kiss. Roman grammarians categorized kisses into types: friendly kisses (oscula), loving kisses (basia), and passionate kisses (suavia). I am concerned not with oscula or basia, but with suavia, passionate kisses. For if poems of seduction want to hold off the moment of satisfaction or make a game of sexual persuasion, poems of contact seek to enact and replay the kiss itself. A kiss is an intimate greeting. When I kiss you, all my senses are in play; I taste and I touch; my skin encounters yours in an intimate, tactile exchange; I smell your skin, your hair, sense your excitement, hear the sounds you make, how you breathe. If I open my eyes, I see you, kissing me. We couldn't get much closer. That expression of contact in poetry is, for Wyatt, "no dream, I lay broad waking"; and similarly other poets of erotic verse seek to replicate and savor these intense sensory qualities.
Not only poets try to understand the mysteries of kissing. The motives for passionate kisses bewilder and bother Sigmund Freud, who writes: "A particular contact between the mucous membranes of the lips of two people concerned [is] held in high sexual esteem among many nations in spite of the fact that the parts of the body involved do not form part of the sexual apparatus but constitute the entrance to the digestive tract." Later, he notes that kissing is a version of the sexual act itself, both a prelude and an imitation. For Freud, an inescapable truth: kissing is a strange thing to do. E. E. Cummings recognizes that the first kiss is an encounter between strangers, lovers new to each other, and along with pleasure comes physical awkwardness. He describes
a thing most new complete fragile intense,
which wholly trembling memory undertakes
your kiss,the little pushings of flesh...
The narrator doesn't want this odd and pleasing experience to stop, and so the poem, made of a single extended sentence, unfolds in leisure, and even the landscape around them brightens with the power of the kiss. In the time it takes for the sentence to play out, we see how kissing alters perception, alters grammar, alters, even, the world. For when the second dash appears (after five intervening lines) to join the parts of Cummings's sonnet, we behold a changed world, a new space created by the breaching of the gap between them:
to feel how through the stopped entire day
horribly and seriously thrills
the moment of enthusiastic space
is a little wonderful,and say
Perhaps her body touched me;and to face
suddenly the lighted living hills
This turning point takes place at the volta of the sonnet, showing us how contact itself is a turning point. A good kiss, in a poem, has transformative power.
We read and write for contact; thus poetry seeks an audience, recipients who can be convinced to take our breath and touch for their very own. Poetry is a body. We speak of the basic element of poetic language as, rightly, a figure of speech. "The figure," Roland Barthes avers, "is the lover at work." The depiction of a kiss in a poem creates private space, face to face, in what Susan Stewart calls "the moment of beholding." But we guard our personal space in order to feel safe against incursions. A kiss is an intrusion, paradoxically making us feel both alive and endangered. Breaking the boundaries, the invisible bubble that surrounds each one of us, can imperil our sense of integrity. When we kiss, we open ourselves to another, and in turn enter into another body. So kisses nourish and feed even as they frighten by their strangeness.
Alternately, kisses may wound. By their very nature they teach us to recognize our own insufficiency. In his wonderful book On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored, Adam Phillips reminds us that, for real kissing, we need other real people. We can never kiss our own mouths. Kissing the mirror is a poor substitute. And so, Phillips says, we become involved in "the dangerous allure and confusion... of getting muddled up" with someone else." Kissing gives us access thereby to the strange, the otherness of a body besides ones own. I could eat you up, we say. Mouths are exploratory; they take in. Poems about erotic kissing dramatize this connection, play out what we gain and give. Poems of erotic contact often suggest not just a blurring of boundaries between two separate people, but something even more perilous. A kiss may wound, or imprint itself, it may leave a mark, as Cupid's arrow hits its target. These wounds can come not just from kisses but also from the lover's eyes, the gaze that is another sort of incursion, another kind of arrow. The sixteenth-century French poet Maurice Scève recognizes the doubled pain and pleasure in this erotic confusion:
The less I see her, the more I hate her:
The more I hate her, the less anger I feel.
The more I adore her, the less it means:
The more I flee her, the more I want her near.
Love with hate, & pleasure with pain,
The two arrows fall on me in a single rain.
Images of arrows are common in erotic poetry, but also frequent our daily discourse on love; in other clichés of erotic penetration, we say you are "getting your hooks in me," that you are "piercing me with your gaze," getting "under my skin."
In erotic poetry, metaphors of permeability are constantly in play. Edna St. Vincent Millay's narrator in "Sonnet 17," from her sequence Fatal Interview, cries "Sweet love, sweet thorn, when lightly to my heart / I took your thrust, whereby I since am slain, / And lie disheveled in the grass apart, / A sodden thing bedrenched by tears and rain." She blends the pleasures of physical love with the pain of postcoital rejection, first impaled, then overthrown, lying "apart," having become less than human, "a sodden thing."
So many varieties of penetration, so many similar tropes in erotic poems suggest that there is good contact and bad contact. Scève's contemporary, the French poet Louise Labé, writes of being harmed by a kiss, betrayed by a lover, saying "Every arrow makes a wound." Even so, she is greedy for more, as her adaptation of Catullus's poem #5 suggests. In "Sonnet 18" (translated by Edith R. Farrell), the lover vows to give back at least as many kisses as she receives:
Kiss me. Again. More kisses I desire.
Give me one your sweetness to express.
Give me the most passionate you possess.
Four I'll return, and hotter than the fire.
There, did they burn? I'll change that hurt to pleasure
By giving you ten othersall quit light,
Thus, as we mingle our kisses with delight,
Let us enjoy each other at our leisure.
This to teach one a double life shall give.
Each by himself and in his love shall live.
Allow my love this mad and foolish thought:
I'm always sad when living so discreetly,
And never find my happiness completely,
Unless a sally from my self I've sought.
The reciprocal kiss is Labé's subject. One kiss leads to the next, and the next. She argues for the pleasure of having it both ways, alone and connected, "a double life [...] / Each by himself and in his love," maintaining self-integrity while sallying forth into the strange appealing dissolution of a kiss. We have, she says, an insatiable appetite for kissing that reason will not recognize. Adam Phillips agrees, recognizing that kisses satisfy
the appetite for pleasure independent of the desire for nourishment or reproduction. When we kiss we devour the object by caressing it; we eat it, in a sense, but sustain its presence. Kissing on the mouth can have a mutuality that blurs the distinction between giving and taking ("In kissing do you render or receiver" Cressida asks in Troilus and Cressida).
The erotic kiss displays greed, a need for sustenance, a desire to absorb the other while still maintaining some control.
Lovers ask: Where do I stop, where do you begin? Maurice Scève poses this question in his series of Délie poems, which trace the obsessive nature of erotic love. For Scève, kisses create an erotic web:
You were, & are, and shall be DELIE,In another poem, the old Provençal "Car je te cele en ce surnom louable / Pource qu’en moy tu luys la nuict obscure" may be translated as "For I cloak you in this praiseworthy name / Because you light the pitchdark night in me." Richard Sieburth, editor and translator of Scève's poems, says
So knotted by Love to my idle thoughts
That Death itself could never untie us,
The name "Délie" is thus a seal, a pseudonym, a troubadour senhal [or, in contemporary terms, a code name] whose function is not to refer but to hide or, at most, to signify the vocative site of an address, of a place or clearing... where the enigmatic Other might cast its ghostly, mirrored light back onto the obscurity of the subject's desire... the poet and his virtual Object are thus bound together as metaphors of each other, constantly exchanging places and genders, forever lost, like the name Délie itself in translation.
The blurring of boundaries, as well as the potential loss of self is always at the center of the kiss. Even the reader "taking in" the poem, "absorbing" what it says, is susceptible.
Poems about kisses take advantage of the special capacity of poetry to pay attention to a moment in time, to flood that moment with significance, and to apparently seal it off from other events. Erotic contact suggests not only a reciprocal action, boundary-breaking, but also an exchange, as in the Greek notion that souls may intermingle in the breath of a kiss. Xenophon and Socrates argue that it is wise to be cautious in the presence of Eros, that a mere kiss may be dangerous in more ways than one:
"Good heavens," exclaimed Xenophon, "what a sinister effect you think a kiss has... :" "You are thick," said Socrates, "do you think that beautiful people don't inject anything into you when they kiss, just because you can't see it? Don't you realize that the beast they call 'beauty and youth' is much more terrible than a poisonous spider...?"
If we are too susceptible to "beauty and youth," we run the risk of being humiliated by our erotic need. The wound to our dignity is as sharp as any arrow. The clichés of erotic wounding to be pierced, to be burned, to be dissolved or liquefied all bespeak our essential fear of the edge of the known world. We give up our power when we display our hunger and need. The seam where the lips meet marks the border line between us.
"And thus it hapned, Death and Cupid met"
In Eroticism, George Bataille suggests that even as we treasure our existence as "discontinuous beings," we nonetheless "yearn for lost continuity... a total blending of two beings..." The Platonic dream of being made whole, hermaphroditic, competes with the integrity of the solitary self and our self-imaginings. Eros can disrupt our integrity and transport us into chaos. In erotic fusion, the good kiss and the dangerous kiss are the same kiss. A kiss is a conjugation. Even as The Song of Songs emphasizes the kiss's sweet nourishment ("Thy lips drip as the honeycomb, my spouse: Honey and milk are under thy tongue"), poet Richard Banfield's Renaissance sonnet sequence, Cynthia, spells out love and its discontents using nearly the same conceit. In sonnet 17, the lover's kisses carry a sting: "His mouth a hive, his tongue a honeycomb." Some three hundred years later, the pain of betrayal, of vulnerability, of being undone, is similarly exposed in Mina Loy's "Songs to Joannes." Published in 1917 and an early example of European Modernist fragmentation and narrative discontinuity; this poetic sequence is also an extended dance of intimacy, at first close, then distant; desiring, then ambivalent; open, then closed:
Oh that's right
Keep away from me Please give me a push
Don't let me understand you Don't realise me
Or we might tumble together
Into the terrific Nirvana
(from "Song XIII")
"Songs to Joannes" displays the ambiguous status of a troubled relationship, and the pain that ambiguity causes. The loss of control that accompanies erotic fusion is felt in the discontinuity of the sequence itself. As Bataille reminds us in The Accursed Share, in embracing another we put ourselves at risk: "the totality of what is (the universe) swallows me.... In a sense it is unbearable and I seem to be dying. It is at this cost, no doubt, that I am no longer myself, but an infinity in which I am lost."
Sometimes all a writer has are kisses, and when the kisses go, so does the writing. After the death of her husband, Eugen Boissevain, in 1949, after her various lovers had drifted away into other arms, Edna St. Vincent Millay lived alone, increasingly dependent on morphine and alcohol. In the fall of 2004, I spent some days at the Library of Congress, reading her manuscripts, letters, drafts, working on my own poems, thinking about the nature of longing, of appetite. During that time I came across something unexpected: a series of grocery lists, written in Millay's hand, the lists themselves preserved amongst stacks of her literary papers and letters. I was struck by the repetitive nature of these lists, which, with few exceptions, contain the same four sad items, again and again. For at least the better part of a year (1950, the year she died), these lists suggest Millay subsisted on a diet of liverwurst, olives, Scotch, and cookies. As I handled and read each scrap of paper, I recognized someone whose appetite had narrowed to an extreme and impoverished state. She was alone, injecting herself with morphine, drinking heavily, and no longer writing. The passionate poems of her twenties and thirties, the passionate life she lived, must have seemed far away. If kissing is a kind of nourishment, how can we be how should we be reconciled to the fact that, some day, all kissing must end?
In Don Juan, Lord Byron tries to sustain the moment of pleasure, calling attention to the way that strong kisses last a long time:
A long, long kiss, a kiss of Youth, and Love,
And Beauty, all concentrating like rays
Into one focus, kindled from above;
Such kisses as belong to early days,
When Heart, and Soul, and Sense, in concert move,
And the blood's lava, and the pulse a blaze,
Each kiss a heart-quakefor a kiss's strength,
I think, it must be reckoned by its length.
By length I mean duration...
A theory of kisses: Louise Labé's playful "Débat de Folie et d'Amour" asserts that "the greatest pleasure that there is, besides love, is talking about it." Indeed, talking about kisses makes them last, at least for the duration of a poem, in a memory, on the lips. This feels like a paradox because a kiss itself is ephemeral. Despite this, we say: I know you by your kiss. It leaves its imprint on me. It burns me. I remember. That's what erotic poems seek to burn, stay, to relive the moment of presence when my mouth first opened to yours, even though you have gone away. In E. E. Cummings's "in spite of everything," his speaker kisses a pillow in a memorializing gesture, linking love with the relentless passage of time:
in spite of everything
which breathes and moves,since Doom
(with white longest hands
neatening each crease)
will smooth entirely our minds
before leaving my room
through the morning)kiss
where our heads lived and were.
Poetry seeks to prolong contact, and the act of reading a poem replays that contact. In this way, both writer and reader delay the end of kissing, and maintain the possibility of keeping Eros alive.
About the Author
Ann Townsend is the author of The Coronary Garden (Sarabande Books, 2005) and Dime Store Erotics (Silverfish Review Press, 1998). Among her honors are prizes and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ohio Arts Council, The Nation / Discovery Award, and the Pushcart Prize. She is Professor of English at Denison University, where she serves as Director of the Creative Writing Program.
Saint Paul, Minnesota