What I want to talk about today is hard. Not because it's difficult or forbidding, although it might well be both those things, but because it's the erect penis of a Victorian man. The long-dead schlong can be found illustrating two of my poems recently published by the Erotic Review magazine. For me as a writer, this is something of a novelty. I've never had my poetry published next to a picture of an undeniable prick before, though some of you may look at my author photo and disagree.
I've found this new experience strange for a number of reasons. Firstly, when I visited the site I hadn't anticipated that I would be getting an eyeful of the generative organ of a nineteenth-century forebear. In most occasions, it's not something anyone is expecting, making this one of the many ways in which the male phallus is like the Spanish Inquisition. In hindsight, I should have guessed that this was what the site's editor had in mind when he suggested an appropriate accompanying photograph from the archives for a poem entitled 'Victorian Pornography'. I can't say I wasn't warned.
At this juncture, it's hard to envisage exactly what else I thought would happen. Maybe a seaside snap of some out-of-focus breasts from the Empire on which the sun never set; not a direct glimpse into the places where the sun doesn't shine. As it happens, it serves me right to find myself in such distinguished company. The dick daguerrotype puts the poem in direct relation to the world it purports to describe, bringing it vigorously back to life.
It's eerie to see such a clear visual record of carnality from an age we assume to have largely diverted its animal impulses into large, almost tumescent novels and intricate doilies. It not only reinvigorates the past, but re-members it. In an odd way, the Victorian penis hovering above the poem comes to seem like a kind of veiny tutelary deity, a seal of approval delivered from a time when not only upper lips were stiff.
Beyond the initial surprise factor, it also made me think about poetry in a different way. Today, we are less conditioned than we used to be to see the writing and reception of poetry as a sexually-charged act. We rehearse the myth of the poet-as-romantic, but when we do so we're thinking of Shakespearean sonnets, or the Romantics with a capital R. We don't assume that people are going to throw their underwear onstage at the end of Seamus Heaney readings, or write smitten letters to John Kinsella. When Leonard Cohen claims in a 90s Jools Holland interview that he started writing verse to impress women, we laugh; partly because, for Cohen, it appears to have worked, and partly because, for most other people, the idea is inherently ludicrous. Like most myths, it doesn't tally with modern life as we live it.
Until recently, I hadn't even been thinking about reading either of these two poems, let alone sending them to the Erotic Review. I was persuaded to do so by the organisers of I Gaze From My Kitchen Like An Astronaut, a reading tour on which I will be appearing at the end of the year. The process of their creation wasn't especially erotic, and I doubt their reception will be much different. The Erotic Review prides itself on 'giving sex a good name since 1995', which gives them an 11-year headstart. Nevertheless, I'm touched, and flattered to be included.
Maybe publishing poetry is, in fact, exactly the sort of thing the Erotic Review should be doing. But I don't think that's the role our society accords to poetic writing any more; or if it even should be. Larkin mockingly suggests that 'Sexual intercourse began in 1963', giving him a headstart of thirty-two years on the Erotic Review. But there's nothing sexy about Larkin, is there?