|Bertel Thorvaldsen’s Cupid and the Graces, 1820-1823|
This prompt on lust emerged from hearing a Writer’s Almanac podcast on the birthday of American poet and critic Louise Bogan. I admit that I really didn’t know anything about Bogan, though I realized later that I have read some of her poems. Another poet, W.H. Auden, considered her to be the best critic of poetry in America. Writers are not always fans of critics.
Some background – Bogan was born in Maine in 1897. When she moved as an adult to New York City, she was hanging out with fellow writers William Carlos Williams, Malcolm Cowley, and Edmund Wilson. Wilson suggested she start writing reviews to make money.
Her reviews were terse, astute, and sometimes humorous. She was very rough on the poets Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens, writing that “They will never surprise anyone again…They are half-dead already.” Ouch.
She became the poetry editor of The New Yorker in 1931.
The part of her life that inspired this month’s prompt comes from the very private rather than the public part of her life. For example, apparently, even her friends didn’t know she had a daughter from her first marriage.
Photo: Imogen Cunningham via Wikimedia
It was the brief affair that she had in her thirties with fellow poet Theodore Roethke that got my attention.
I don’t think of Roethke as a “sexy” poet, but in a letter to a friend, she wrote:
“I, myself, have been made to bloom like a Persian rose-bush, by the enormous love-making of a cross between a Brandenburger and a Pomeranian, one Theodore Roethke by name. He is very, very large (6 ft. 2 and weighing 218 lbs.) and he writes very, very small lyrics…We have poured rivers of liquor down our throats, these last three days, and, in between, have indulged in such bearish and St. Bernardish antics as I have never before experienced. … I hope that one or two immortal lyrics will come out of all this tumbling about.”
After their affair ended, they remained close friends.
In “Cassandra,” Bogan writes:
To me, one silly task is like another.
I bare the shambling tricks of lust and pride.
This flesh will never give a child its mother,—
Lust is a good topic for poetry. Is there a difference between love and lust? I would say yes, but it seems that not all poets agree with me. Is lust sinful or wonderful? Again, there are two takes on that.
Look at Bertel Thorvaldsen’s statue Cupid and the Graces (shown above) which shows “The Graces.” In mythology, they were sisters who were the daughters of Jupiter. They were the servants of the goddess of love, Venus. That is Cupid – Venus’ son – with the lyre at their feet. But over the centuries, this trio has been associated with grace, beauty, love and both modesty and lust. Lust seems to divide people.
Lust comes in many different forms of poetry. My first poetry professor, Alicia Ostriker, has a poem “The Blessing of the Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog” that has this stanza:
…To be blessed
said the dark red tulip
is to knock their eyes out
with the slug of lust
your up-ended skirt…
Our September prompt is lust, in one or more of its forms. Consider all levels from intense sexual desire to a strong longing, or even the obsolete meanings of pleasure, delight, wish or craving.