Tuesday, January 09, 2018

The Erotic Paul Verlaine



Rejoice! The latest issue of American Book Review has hit the streets, guest-edited by Anthony Madrid and focused on erotic poetry.  I wrote a little something called "A Feminine Canaan," about Paul Verlaine's erotic poetry.  If you want to see how many kinks there were in that guy's rope, check it out.  It begins like this:
Early on in his literary career, Paul Verlaine swore off most of the traditional sources of poetic ecstasy. "Nature, nothing about you moves me," he writes in the poem "Anxiety," adding "I scoff at Art, and mankind too." Verlaine throws Classical Greek civilization—the source of quickening heart rates for many a European writer from Winkelmann to Rilke, from Pater to Cavafy—into the dustbin of the uninspiring. Out, too go the monuments of Christianity, and God himself, and even love. Well, maybe not love, or at least not all forms of love. Agape he can do without, but in the absence of so many sources of delirious exaltation, Verlaine leaves himself one: the realm of the erotic. 
You'd be forgiven if you hadn't noticed. For one thing, the most explicit parts of Verlaine's erotic oeuvre were long repressed. Les Amies (1867), a little book of poems about fantasy lesbians luxuriating for the male gaze, was published illicitly in Belgium and smuggled into France. A later book, Femmes (1890), in which Verlaine recounts in great detail his encounters with Parisian prostitutes, was a similarly underground document, and its companion volume about men, Hombres (1891), wasn't published until after Verlaine died. The erotic poems have had a checkered publication history since: they didn't even find their way into the otherwise comprehensive and canonical Pléiade edition until a special supplement was issued in 1989. But once you dial into Paul Verlaine's particular erotic frequency—which was less about male or female bodies than about genderless surrender, less about penetrating or being penetrated than about a kind of soul-shattering act of submission, you find that his kind of erotic ecstasy had been hiding in plain sight since the beginning of his poetic career.
You can read the whole essay now at Project Muse, or, if you don't have access to that, you might check from time to time to see when it comes up at the ABR site.



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