For a very long time I’ve been preoccupied with the difficulties involved in communication. Words are patently not up to the task. But what else do we have?
I’ll tell you what: sex.
Men are supposed to think about sex every seven seconds. It’s in The Times so it must be true. I think that must be an average over a whole lifetime. I can go a good minute and a half these days without thinking about anything remotely sexual. When I was a teenager, however, as I imagine most males reading this will agree, there’s no gap between one thought and the next: ‘I think about sex therefore I am’ was pretty much my credo.
Many people communicate through sex. And by ‘sex’ I mean everything from innocent flirting with the opposite sex, where both parties realise that it’s nothing more than a game, to having a quick shag in the loo on the Glasgow to London shuttle. The former I have been guilty of – I enjoy a good flirt if only as a way of flexing my verbal muscles – the latter I have not, never having caught the Glasgow to London shuttle.
From what I know of sex, both from personal experience and from talking to others, sex has similar problems to language: no one knows what the other is thinking about while they’re “communicating” with each other. For some reason it was popular a while back for women to think of England whilst engaged in the act of lovemaking. American males have been known to think of baseball players (at least according to Woody Allen) but I can’t imagine full-blooded British males thinking about cricket whilst in the throes of passion.
Sex, at least certain aspects of sex, has always struck me as an excellent metaphor for the relationship between reader and writer: someone does things and someone else gets things done to them. I’m trying to get my thoughts inside your head. I try to be gentle but occasionally I get a bit excited and forget this is not all about me. Those poems are usually a bit on the self-indulgent side.
I’ve never had much success with erotic poetry however. Or erotica of any shape or form. I just can’t take sex seriously enough and so in the prose at least I tactfully fade to grey and let the readers’ imaginations think what they will.
This was my first ever attempt at a poem about sex. It’s not very good.
The users stripped
and forced themselves on each other
in shared madness
chasing sweating orgasms.
Lost in heat.
3 September 1983
I wasn’t actually having sex with anyone when I wrote this. But I wanted to. Christ, did I want to! I still wanted to six weeks later when I wrote this one. It isn’t quite as clichéd but I have no idea where the biting comes in. The only time I’ve ever bitten anyone I got a thrashing off my dad.
Stroke the flesh
The nipple and the tongue
Naked and sensate
In the warm
Bite and hold
28 November 1983
I like the word ‘sensate’ though I have to say. And that’s it, my entire output of erotic poetry. That doesn’t mean I’ve not used sex as a metaphor but I’m come to that in a minute. I’m not sure why I’ve never written more about sex. It’s not as if I’ve not thought about the subject long and hard (yes, that’s a pun) because I have but I’ve always struggled to express myself in words. Sex doesn’t translate well into poetry, at least I have trouble translating it. (Note, by the way, no punctuation and capitals at the start of every line – what must I have been thinking?)
That nipple is the only body bit I ever mention mainly because there’s nothing remotely poetic about body bits whether you use proper names or rude ones and frankly most of the good metaphors and similes morphed into clichés years ago.
I had a friend who thought oral sex was talking about it. Seriously. But I don’t talk about sex seriously very often either. Perhaps it’s because I find it embarrassing but it’s much easier if you inject a bit of humour into the proceedings.
I have a short story called ‘Sex’. It begins:
Yes! This is it. The groundwork’s been laid, the mood set. We’ve built up to it nicely. The situation couldn’t be more ideal. Nothing’s been rushed. It’s the right time for it. We all can see that there’s a genuine rapport here, an attraction. This is real. It’s not believable if it’s not real. Granted, it’s not central to the plot – it wouldn’t matter if it didn’t happen – but really, all things taken into consideration, it should. We should have sex happening here on this clean white sheet and we haven’t. Now, let’s not panic. Everything’s under control. It’s perfectly normal. Things like this happen sometimes. There’s no point in crying over spilt milk. Then again, perhaps that’s not the most fitting illustration. I’ll think of a better one later. It’ll do as a place marker just now. I’m not the first writer to find himself staring off into the distance when he should be getting stuck in, metaphorically speaking. I mean, what is writer’s block if not a kind of cerebral impotence?
The story, such as it is, is about a writer’s inability to write about what he knows. He’s been married for eighteen or nineteen years and has had sex countless numbers of times throughout that time, a couple of thousand times at least, and yet he can’t bring himself to bung in a quickie just to keep his publisher happy. It’s nothing to do with taking the moral high ground, it’s just he finds he can’t write the words.
I’m much happier when I’m using sex to talk about something else. Like in this poem:
FINDING OUT THE HARD WAY
So, you got inside me finally.
Well, it's where you thought
you wanted to be
but did you ever think
there might be no way out?
Why else do you think
I've stayed here so long?
28 August 1989
No, it didn’t take me six years to have sex with the girl behind the 1983 poems, a while, but not six years. This poem is about reader satisfaction. Why do we read? One of the reasons surely is to get inside someone else’s head; a penetrative act. Do you get my point (pun intended)?
Writing has been linked with another sexual act: masturbation, which is what I liken it to in this poem:
About to be discovered his head bowed low
as his hand worked away at the god in his lap,
a religious act and an old one, an act of faith.
You must believe or he won't come.
11 May 1996
When it comes to masturbation it’s all about you. In that respect there’s a fair argument to suggest all writing is verbal masturbation, whether inspiration comes in the end or not. Of course here I’m linking sex and religion like that’s not been done before. Interestingly I did the same in this poem three weeks later:
POEM ON TISSUE PAPER
I jerked off into a poem today.
I couldn't help myself
and it felt so good too:
the words didn't come easily.
I don't like it to be over too soon;
it's a spiritual thing.
You wouldn't understand.
2 June 1996
Probably the most obvious sexual metaphor when it comes to the reader-writer dynamic is that of voyeurism:
Before we start, gentle reader
tell me what you're looking for;
it helps if I know beforehand.
(Because poems are whores;
they become what you want,
but there's always a price).
Or we could just talk if you like.
What do you want to hear?
Surely not the truth?
Oh, I see: you like mirrors.
Well that's quite all right.
I have just the thing here.
All it takes is a little imagination.
19 August 1996
Even without the sexual dimension people like to watch. They stand around in case something happens so they can see it live. It doesn’t matter if it’s a car crash – seriously motor racing has to be the most boring sport if the world if it wasn’t’ for the accidents – or a politician putting his foot in it. We like to watch.
When she first let me look
all I could think of was an open wound.
Not that I'd ever seen one
so I don't know why I should think that.
All very Freudian if you ask me.
I've heard sex can be a religious experience
especially the first time
what with all that passion and blood
though I still don't see
why Thomas had to push his hand inside.
But maybe I understand a little.
6 March 1996
Sex, religion and psychology this time.
The last examples from my own poetry involve sadomasochism. Not a subject close to my heart I have to say. I don’t get the point of hurting someone or being hurt. Okay that’s not true. I’ve hurt a lot of people with my tongue over the years. I remember a teacher at school once telling me to be careful or I’d cut myself on my barbed wit. I took it as a compliment; it wasn’t.
but I don't want to hurt alone.
I want you to hurt too.
I want to hurt somebody
and you'll do
if only to see the look in your eyes
not understanding why
because there is no reason why.
Let's just do it.
26 July 1996
A title in lowercase! Whatever next?
On paper I can lash out at anyone I want. Do anything. No one can stop me. I have the power. I’m exercising that power now. I’m writing what I want and you’re reading it. You can stop, you can say the safe word any time you like. But that’ll only happen when I’ve gone a bit further than you’d like. And the odds are, since you’ve read me before and you trust me, you’ll let me screw with your mind just a bit longer than someone else. No one is going to stop reading a ten-line poem half way through once they’ve started.
Of course in ‘another darkpoem’ you assume that the ‘you’ is someone else, someone at the time who had hurt me and I want to hurt them back. As best I can remember that wasn’t the case. It’s a poem to the reader of that poem. I wrote that poem to share hurt, a hurt I’ve long gotten over, but the hurt is still out there in the form of this poem. You’re happy to share my sadness or my joy but what about my pain?
Okay I’m stretching a point here. Most of the entries in Google under "masochistic reader" are light-hearted. The expression is used flippantly. But what else do you call someone who goes out of their way to expose themselves to something that will upset or hurt them? And where is a safer place to get hurt then in your own armchair with your book in your lap?
Of course, just as you can play the masochist, you can also play the sadist:
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE POEM
If you want
to hurt me
don't touch me.
Don't touch me.
Don't touch me
over again, in fact
every chance you get
go out of your way to
soon you won't
to be there
for it to
work. Can't you
see, it's working right now?
Friday, 09 July 2004
I don’t think there’s anything you could do to get to a writer than not read his work in front of him. Imagine handing your significant other your latest scribbling, as I do regularly with Carrie, and they put it to the side and say, “I’ll get to that later, pet.” NO! No, no, no, no, no, That’s not how it’s supposed to go. They’re supposed to drop everything (yes, another pun) and fall on your latest thing and tell you how good it was afterwards. That’s what’s supposed to happen.
If there’s one thing that writing and sex have in common it’s the fact that we would rather not do without either. If you’re a writer that is. Sex is available to most people. Writing is not. I have lived without both for extended periods of time and not writing was worse.
In an article in Psychology Today, social psychologist Susan K. Perry, Ph.D. writes about how the creative flow is like sex. She lists four bullet points:
1. In both creative flow and sexual activity, you surrender control.
2. Sex and creativity can each feel blocked.
3. How you experience sex and how you enter a flow state both relate to your personality.
4. Creating can itself cause an erotic charge.
It's a kind of Zen sexual energy, because it's permeating things with a kind of tranquillity also. It's the Zen paradox of energy and tranquillity. But it has to be there, that charge, because of the physicality having to be there. And it may just be that's the way in which, chemically, things are being triggered. But it's not the same sort of sexual energy that happens in a singles bar. I guess things are basically sort of procreative, you're engendering something. It's a rush. – Creating in Flow
I can relate to what he’s doing. The first word that comes to mind is “wash” but I think a rush, probably an endorphin rush comes over me when I’ve finished a piece of writing. It makes sense. For x number of minutes or hours I’ve been caught up with this particular mental exercise and then I’m released from it. Of course one is going to feel good afterwards. Here’s a few thoughts from an author with a name:
For the past two hours he’s been in a dream of absorption that has dissolved all sense of time, and all awareness of the other parts of his life. Even his awareness of his own existence has vanished. He’s been delivered into a pure present, free of the weight of the past or any anxieties about the future. In retrospect, though never at the time, it feels like profound happiness. It’s a little like sex, in that he feels himself in another medium, but it’s less obviously pleasurable, and clearly not sensual. This state of mind brings a contentment he never finds with any passive form of entertainment. Books, cinema, even music can’t bring him to this. . . . This benevolent dissociation seems to require difficulty, prolonged demands on concentration and skills, pressure, problems to be solved, even danger. He feels calm, and spacious, fully qualified to exist. It’s a feeling of clarified emptiness, of deep, muted joy. – Ian McEwan, from Saturday
It’s a description of a guy in an operating theatre actually but I so get it.
For some strange reason people assume that to write about sex you need to have done it. Not so. Says crime novelist Stella Duffy:
People will always assume that I've had the sex I've written about, but not the murder I've written about or the flight across the sky in the magical realist novel I've written. – Is it difficult to write well about sex?, BBC News
The best sex always takes place in the imagination not in the bedroom just as the whole reading-writing experience has less to do with what’s going on between the covers of a book than what goes on in the heads of the writer and the reader. For the record the first time I had sex was not a religious experience. It was nice, don’t get me wrong, but it was decidedly underwhelming. Nothing could have lived up to my expectations. Not that I really had anything concrete in mind. I just couldn’t help thinking: Was that it?
The reason I started writing this post was to highlight a couple of poems that have been published recently. There are three poems actually, two of which are about aspects of sex I’ve not talked about so far, casual sex and rape, both as metaphors for something else. Here are links to both sites: Eclectica and The Pygmy Giant. I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts on them or anything else raised (no, not a pun this time) in this article.