Sex and the Sonnet

If the mixed-metaphor police are lurking, I’m about to get busted. In thinking, these past few days, about sex and the sonnet, why they seem to be two great tastes that taste great together, I was reminded on the one hand of what Kafka said about literature, that “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside of us,” and on the other, of what Adrienne Rich said about her early work in form, that form was “part of the strategy—like asbestos gloves it allowed [her] to handle materials [she] couldn’t pick up barehanded.” Between the bittercold glaciers of our psyches and the hot, pressurized magma of our hearts—the mixed-metaphor cops are about to cuff me—Officer, please, give me a minute here!—we could just have another Eyjafjallajökull on our hands.

But no. Within and because of the graceful confines of the sonnet, it’s not going to blow.

At least, not in a bad way.

* * *

I love sonnets. I love reading them, writing them, teaching them. It almost seems to me that, more than any other form of poetry, sonnets embody Yeats’s comment about how a good poem closes with that gratifying click of fitting the lid onto a well-made box. Whether it’s a swervy, curvy Italian sonnet with its few rhymes looping up, back, and around, or a solid Shakespearean argument bearing down ineluctably to its neat, closing couplet, it makes me infinitely happy to go along for that short, sweet, 14-line ride, the satisfied little gasp at a strong volta, the purr-like whirring of what stays with me after I’m done.

Sounds like I’m talking about something else, doesn’t it? I am.

Iamb. I am reminded of a student who, having done a presentation on a couple of my “naughty sonnets,” relayed to me how her classmates had noticed that “the music and rhythm of [my] poem acted as a stand in for the rhythm during sex.” Smart kids, those.

Iamb. I am reminded of how consensual participants understand that a large part of the fun is in the specificity of the constraint. The containment of the safeword, the safety of ritual: ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. Therein, everything can be dared. Or ABBAABBA CDECDE. The strict carapace of the sonnet, I am convinced, both allows for and engenders various human truths that are difficult: difficult to utter, sometimes difficult to read.

And to make matters even more interesting, this is the tradition that, for centuries, embodied the all-too-human, almost-always male, debased speaker attempting to say to his unattainable, beautiful, bordering-on-inhuman object of desire: I love you, I want you, I adore you. Not necessarily in that order, of course.

Granted, Shakespeare put us well onto the path of defying these idealized traditions: “When my love swears that she is made of truth,” indeed. And what fun it is for modern (and contemporary) sonneteers to take the centuries-long trope and really turn it on its ear. Edna St. Vincent Millay was expert at taking the libidinous mess that lurks in most of us and putting that “Chaos into fourteen lines.” She admits that she too, like a cat in heat, has howled beneath the moon of “almighty Sex.” She tells us freely how the “propinquity” of a man’s body has led her own “stout blood” to rebel against her brain, and in a couplet that borders on the macho, concludes that the consummation of that lust won’t be cause enough to talk to the guy, should they meet again. I have to admit, I admire that macho stance. Let’s call it macha.

Let’s imagine Beatrice jumping down from the marble pedestal, cracking her whip; Laura turns around and says, “Francesco, please please please stop talking to me like that.” Or an honest and unfettered (in this case, I mean the word figuratively) 21st century poetess who puts her hand on her hip and tells the man sitting at the bar beside her, “I want to fall in love, but not forever.”