A Week in Books: Poetry and sex

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The Independent Culture

A couple of years ago, I committed a major act of censorship. I was organising some poetry events at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature and had hit on the not entirely original idea of pairing new poets with old. (There was also, as it happened, something borrowed and something blue, but I'll get to that later.) It was not an overwhelming success. Poetry and God was just about OK, even if one of the poets did decide to race through his piece on transcendentalism in Marvell - clearly borrowed from some academic conference - at a speed that had the burghers of Cheltenham frowning anxiously and fiddling with their hearing aids. Poetry and the Everyday was also fine: nice chunks of Larkin and Dorothy Parker, and of her contemporary equivalent, Sophie Hannah, triggering medleys of polite titters.

Poetry and Nature was a little more problematic. One of the poets, speaking about John Clare, announced that she hated the countryside and couldn't bear to leave London, even for a day. She then attacked the audience for being old and white. A woman sitting opposite me in the front row looked as though she was going to cry.

But it was Poetry and Sex that ran the biggest risk of going belly up. I'd been looking forward to it, had had fantasies of a little gentle titillation, some flushed cheeks, perhaps, and nervous smiles. Three days before the event, one of the poets e-mailed me his selection of poems. He had chosen Catullus. Instead of the gentle love lyrics ("Vivamus mea Lesbia atque amemus") I remembered from A-level Latin, I found an in-box exploding with hairy arse-holes and homosexual rape. This might not, I suggested gently, be quite the kind of steamy sex that the Spa-dwellers sought. His e-mail back accused me, accurately, of being middle-class.

A superb new translation of Catullus by Josephine Balmer is a vivid reminder that there's nothing new about art's ability to shock. In Poems of Love and Hate (Bloodaxe, £8.95), Lesbia's gentle kisses jostle alongside a range of sexual activities that sound exhaustingly eclectic. Among the prostitutes and "bum-boys" there are graphic images and descriptions that range from the scatological to the downright obscene. They are, in circumstances less stressful than the ones I faced, often extremely funny.

In the two-plus millennia since Catullus wrote his poems, we have become infinitely more coy. It's not that long since even heterosexual sex among the bluebells was enough to trigger the most famous obscenity trial in history. In recent years, we've needed extra twists to create a real stir, like James Kirkup's poem about a centurion's fantasies of sex with Jesus, which in 1977 provoked a blasphemy trial against the editor of Gay News. Sarah Kane's play Blasted evaded legal action but got reviews to die for. "Until last night," thundered the Daily Mail's theatre critic, "I thought I was immune from shock in any theatre. I am not."

Artists are still keen to shock us and we are, apparently, still keen to be shocked. There was a glorious example, also in the Daily Mail, a few weeks ago. At the awards ceremony for the TS Eliot Prize, which he had just won, Don Paterson read a poem, which ends with the line: "I kissed your mouth and pledged myself for ever." It was described in the Mail's diary the next day as "a sonnet from one gay man to another". It is, in fact, a poem to his baby son. Clues include the words "dear son" and "four-day-old smile". Elsewhere in Paterson's award-winning collection, Landing Light, there's a poem, "Letter to the Twins", in which the poet gives his sons a lesson in "honouring... your lover". It is one of the most sexually explicit - and beautiful - poems I have ever read. Funnily enough, the diarists missed it.

Boyd Tonkin is away