Wednesday 13 May 2015

Walt Whitman's Disturbing Sex Poetry

When I was writing the essays that would never just be DONE already last week, I spent a lot of time Facebook messaging my lovely friend Christine from my course, sharing woes and Harry Potterness and all that good stuff (seriously, she's like meeting a person from the internet in real life, THAT'S HOW GOOD). One of our many discussions started with my complete fatigue with Sylvia Plath (I can't talk anymore about how you shouldn't use biography as a method of criticism in poetry, you guys, I just CAN'T) and how I kind of hate poetry, but then I remembered I liked much of the sexy poetry in this Book Riot post.

And then Christine told me that Walt Whitman wrote sexy (the various meanings of which we will discuss in a minute...) and I was super interested because I read some Whitman as an undergrad (19th Century American Lit ftw) and if I'm going to say I like a poet, he's probably up there, and also because this:
I can't.
So, I dug out my old copy of Leaves of Grass and read some Whitman sex poetry, and Oh. My. God. You guys. It's so incredibly unsexy that I could hardly bear to read it, but I also couldn't look away from it. It was like an incredibly unerotic car crash that was trying to be erotic and I don't really know where I'm going with this sentence.

But anyway. Please observe:

I am stern, acrid, large, undissuadable, but I love you,
I do not hurt any more than is necessary for you,
I pour the stuff to start sons and daughters fit for these states, I press with slow rude muscle
I brace myself effectually, I listen to no entreaties,
I dare not withdraw till I deposit what has so long accumulated within me

I DARE NOT WITHDRAW TILL I DEPOSIT WHAT HAS SO LONG ACCUMULATED WITHIN ME?! That sentence has to be among the top 10 sentences that you don't want to hear anyone say, ever. Probably the number one response to that would be 'actually, you're withdrawing RIGHT NOW, you freak' because, ew. 

It got better though. This is an entire poem about hymens.

O Hymen! O hymenee! Why do you tantalise me thus?
O why sting me for a swift moment only? 
Why can you not continue? O why do you now cease?
Is it because if you continued beyond the swift moment you would soon certainly kill me?
I texted Frances throughout this entire revelatory episode (because, obviously), and her only response to this poem was 'WHAT DOES THAT EVEN MEAN?' I mean, answers in the comments, obviously you guys, but seriously... Has anyone ever been killed by a hymen? Is there something they're not telling us about their murderousness. And sure, I know, it's a metaphor. But WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

And that's not all. In my important Whitman investigations (I read his disgusting sex poems so you don't have to!), I encountered the following words, phrases and lines that made me shudder:

"phallic thumb of love"

"the full-grown lady-flower"

"love-flesh tremulous aching" (love-flesh may be the worst thing I've ever read)

"Limitless limpid jets of love hot and enormous, quivering jelly of love, white-blow and delicious juice" (NO)

"This poem, drooping shy and unseen that I always carry, that all men carry." (A MILLION TRILLION NOES)

There is a point to this, apart from sharing with you some truly horrifying lines of poetry (I think basically the section 'Children of Adam' in Leaves of Grass is all the sex stuff, if you want to cringe some more) and that point is this. There's a difference between sexy, and just sex. Whitman's poems are about sex, but that doesn't make them... Pleasing in any way. It's similar to the difference between watching actual hardcore porn (sex) and having sex generously implied but not necessarily seen (sexy). Now, far be it from me to tell you what you find sexy, and if you find that porn and these poems (God help you) really ring your bell, so to speak, then you go with that and godspeed. But, I think I need a little more sexy implications, and a little less 'quivering jelly of love' and 'love flesh' from my poetry, and I don't think that's a bad thing.

Shakespeare? He can write some good sexy poetry. The sonnets aren't really amazing for it, but there's this bit in Romeo and Juliet where Juliet is waiting for night so Romeo can come and bone her, and just...

Come, gentle night, come, loving black-browed night.
Give me my Romeo, and when I shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night.

I mean, right? I'm not alone in this, right? Shakespeare is totally hot, let's just deal with that fact together. And then, also, this:
 Unspeakably. Amazingly. Erotic.


  1. I feel physically sick after that hymen poem. So so not sexy. Agree about Shakespeare though, dude can do sexy verrry well!

    1. But what DOES it even mean?! I honestly don't know! Shakespeare can talk dirty to me anytime haha

  2. So, this is going on MY top 10 list of sentences I never thought I'd read on the internet:
    "Actually, you're withdrawing RIGHT NOW, you freak."
    Thanks for ensuring that I will never, ever both reading Whitman - I'll stick with Shakespeare, thanks. >:(

    1. SEE I AM SO GRATEFUL I ACCIDENTALLY WROTE THANKS TWICE. *applies mind bleach liberally to brain*

    2. hahaha, you're so welcome! My theory behind this post: If I had to read them, I get to share. DEMS THE RULES.

  3. "So, I dug out my old copy of Leaves of Grass and read some Whitman sex poetry, and Oh. My. God. You guys. It's so incredibly unsexy that I could hardly bear to read it, but I also couldn't look away from it. It was like an incredibly unerotic car crash that was trying to be erotic and I don't really know where I'm going with this sentence."

    Hahahaha I thought you were going to say Whitman was secretly sexy or something and this was 100x better than that.

    It's sort of unfair to compare Shakespeare's sexy poetry to Whitman. Or anyone. Cos Shakespeare is THE BEST.

    1. Haha, I feel like if that had been the case I would have been too shy to talk about how sexy it was? I dunno. BUT IT'S SO BAD THAT IT'S HILARIOUS/DISGUSTING!

      It is pretty unfair to compare anything Shakespeare with anything anyone else does. But I think it was a good counterpoint. Sexy sexy Shakespeare

  4. Haha I love Whitman's sex poetry. It's so mechanical. It's the poetry version of sex Ed "then you put your phallic thumb of love in her love flesh
    Then pour in the stuff to make sons and daughters. Boom. Baby."

    1. No no no Kayleigh- the phallic thumb of love and the love flesh are BOTH penis euphemisms, please pay attention! He puts his love flesh in the full grown lady flower and then I DIE. Some more. But yes, yes, you are very correct. AND IT IS HORRIBLE haha.

  5. ...Haha, oh dear. Maybe the poems would have been sexier at the time they were written?? Possibly?

    Anyway, this post amused me greatly! Not sure I am ever going to really try reading any Whitman now, although I am sooo not into poetry so it wasn't that likely to happen anyway.

    1. I'm not sure they were ever sexy- maybe Kayleigh's onto something and he was trying to write a poetic sex manual... Haha

      I'm really not very into poetry (which is what spurred the whole reading of Whitman in the first place!) but then whenever I say that I also go "apart from Emily Dickinson of course. And Shakespeare's ok. And actually Sylvia Plath is amazing." And then I kind of have to admit that I sort of do like poetry and saying I don't is kind of bullshit lol

  6. Hahahahahaha, totally worth putting off minithonning to read this. Bless you.

  7. Looks like I'm 3 years late to this party, and I come with an unpopular opinion, but oh well--I'll leave this here anyway, for posterity's sake. In any case, this will testify that some people do in fact like Whitman's sex poetry. (I’m going to divide this up a bit, since it won’t fit in one section.)

    As a Whitman fan, I have to come to his defense (phrasing?) a little bit here. Yes, Whitman is, as you put it, a bit 'disgusting' at times--but that's precisely the point. In his own words, he is "hankering, gross, mystical, nude"; he speaks in "barbaric yawps," after all, not the high romance of Shakespeare. (I could also point out that if you're going to use a literary romance model, isn't a cheerful bisexual vagabond as good, if not a bit better, than melodramatic minors?) Whitman wrote what he wrote--impossibly expansive and experimental free verse--precisely to escape the mamby-pamby of most poetry of the time. Are Keats and Wordsworth really erotic? No. Is Shakespeare even really erotic? Not so much as he is by turns bawdy or romantic. I think there is, as you rightly point out, a difference between sexiness and sex. Whitman is unabashedly sex-over-sexiness, I think. And why not, after all? It's easy to write about romance and the fun bits of sex--the mountains of cheap erotica can testify to that. It is much rarer, even these days, let alone in Whitman's day, to write the "gross" and "nude" parts of sex, the funny noises and unnatural fetishes and kink and regular old bizarreness of this all-consuming urge we humans have. (And though bawdy poets (like Shakespeare, at times) made good fun of sex, it is much more difficult to acknowledge both the mystic AND the awkward, especially in the same poem, as Whitman does.)

  8. To address, specifically, your criticism of "O hymen! O hymenee!", let me say this: you certainly cannot accuse Whitman of not being familiar with mythology. (See his long catalogues of foreign gods.) And it is certainly possible to read this as not only a reference to the physical 'maidenhead' but to Hymen, the Greek god of marriage, who Shakespeare also used as a character (As You Like It). And if you think Shakespeare wasn't aware of the double entendre in that image, I think you're sorely mistaken. (Phrasing!) I'm not necessarily saying that's what Whitman's doing, but I think writing him off as just a freak is a little simplistic. (Not that he'd mind, actually--in fact, he'd likely agree with you on his freakiness, and embrace it, and embrace you for saying so.) In fact, even the quintessential romantic play, the one you yourself cite, Romeo and Juliet, begins with bawdy humor--and not only bawdy humor, but bawdy humor about the selfsame hymen you criticize Whitman for extolling:
    Sampson: 'Tis all one, I will show myself a tyrant: when I
    have fought with the men, I will be cruel with the
    maids, and cut off their heads.

    Gregory: The heads of the maids?

    Sampson: Ay, the heads of the maids, or their maidenheads;
    take it in what sense thou wilt.

  9. Moreover, Whitman makes a constant point of saying it's not exactly him writing the poetry, nor should it be taken as some kind of model--in fact, one of his most famous poems, "Song of Myself," is not even just about "his-self." He becomes, just as a very abbreviated example, himself, a baby, a hay-worker, a hunter, a sailor, a slave-helper, a slave auctioneer, a widow--I could go on, but the idea's there. He sings "the evil as much as the good." His point is that no one of us is any better, any more interesting or romantic, than any of the rest of us.

    And moreover, I think, despite the comment section here, that Whitman is indeed capable of romance:
    "Loafe with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat,
    Not words, not music or rhyme I want, not custom or lecture, not even the best,
    Only the lull I like, the hum of your valvèd voice."

    Let me say this, too: I enjoyed reading this, actually. Quite amusing! I certainly am not offended or angry. But I think you've sold ol' Walt short. And in this post's reverence for Shakespeare, a "sexy" poet, clearly, we are not only selling Whitman short, but selling Shakespeare short, who was not at all opposed to using the awkward, unromantic, lustful, dangerous and horrifying. After all, the entirety of Taming of the Shrew is sexist jokes. And even the "sexy" plays aren't so easily sexy--Twelfth Night and Midsummer Night's Dream, for instance, are not so easily romantic as they appear at first glance.

  10. What bothered me most about this post was actually the comment section. It was so unified in mocking poor Walt, and simultaneously so unanimously starstruck by Shakespeare. Take Ellie, who will "never, ever" read Whitman, or Jimjamjenny, who will "[n]ever really try reading any Whitman": really? You're taking one miniscule section of a massively ranging work, and not only are you judging the entire work on that section, but you're dismissing the entire rest of the work without even seeing it. And what's worse, you're not even bothering to see it for yourself. Or the disgust cited by Bex--can we only stomach the pretty and romantic? Wouldn't sex be boring if it was always amazing, without flaw, homogenous and easy and free of hymens and "treacherous tips" and lusts and kink? Is this the level we've arrived at as fans of literature?--a dismissal of the unfamiliar, the hankering, gross, mystical, and nude, simply because it's uncomfortable? Can we no longer read Lolita because it's perverse, or Moby Dick, because they're mean to the whale? Will we ignore Shakespeare's talk of adultery, of gender roles, of bad sex in general, in favor of rosy glasses and romantic speeches?

    In short: if someone stumbles upon this, as I did, learn from the humor--author Laura has an incisive sense of it. And don't take Whitman too seriously, certainly. But in the meantime, let this stand as proof that there's an opposing side, one that respects Whitman deeply, and maybe doesn't view sexiness as the be-all and end-all of a good poet.

  11. Let me add one thing to this, at risk of overstaying my welcome (you've awoken a very equanimous dragon by attacking Whitman)--your title, "Devouring Texts." First off, I like it. Specifically, I like the sexual/oral connotation/connection/whatever. Roland Barthes would approve. But, as I've been reading "Pleasure of the Text" recently, and since this was all about sex, consider this: "The text is a fetish object, and this fetish desires me [the reader]." If Barthes is correct, this is where Whitman outshines Dickinson and basically every other poet to ever exist--he preceded Barthes, and outshone even him, by speaking directly to the reader, as a lover, a friend, a companion, and, in a way, a product and aspect of even himself. By "devouring" Whitman, by "stripping" his text (an act both sexual and consumptive) to what you saw as its essentials, you are very much becoming that sexual partner Whitman envisioned. You may not be waiting by the door wearing nothing but a figurative smile--that is to say, you may not be Whitman's ideal or loving partner--but you nonetheless are a part of the vast erotic textual enterprise. By devouring, you are devoured. And the poem you quoted in such shock, "A Woman Waits for Me," also contains this:
    "Now I will dismiss myself from impassive women,
    I will go stay with her who waits for me, and with those
    women that are warm-blooded sufficient for me,
    I see that they understand me and do not deny me,
    I see that they are worthy of me, I will be the robust
    husband of those women."

    Perhaps acceptance is the true message in all this eating that we do.

    In any case, thank you--you've given me some food for thought. (Pun intended.) I hope you may have received the same.

  12. Whitman = God; Shakespeare = merely mortal...

  13. i just stumbled in here as i'm writing my bachelor's thesis on whitman and sexuality, homosexuality, and gender roles

    and the whole point whitman made was that debauchery and oversexualisation (porn and prostitution was basically everywhere on the streets) was paired with the puritan morality and distaste for the body in 19th century america. He absolutely hated it.

    he wanted people to embrace sexuality as something natural, pure, even the gross parts?
    he wasn;t looking to entice or ... turn on anyone with his erotic language. He was trying to normalize sexuality. Whitman himself said that he preferred outright honest nudity to half draped

    also most scholars and researchers agree that whitman was gay, and first wrote "calamus" - a part of leaves of grass that was dedicated to loving men, and then wrote "children of adam" (collection that includes the poem above) to kind of... brush off the allegations of his "abnormality"

    so that's why the straight sex described by him is probably not the most... sensual...

  14. The fully grown lady flower...I'm surprised he didn't add "and the big ol' mushroom tip" :/ Yeah I'll stick with the altruistic humanitarian stuff...quivering love, no.

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