The Erotic Spirit: An Anthology of Poems of Sensuality, Love, and Longingby Sam Hamill
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This extraordinary collection of poems—covering thirty centuries of poetry from around the world—celebrates the erotic spirit in all its forms, from the passion of sexual desire to the intense longing for spiritual union. Beginning with anonymous Egyptian love songs from the fifteenth century BCE and continuing up to today's finest poets, the book draws on a broad range of cultural and spiritual traditions, including ancient Greek and Roman erotic poems, ecstatic Sufi songs, Chinese elegies for lost lovers, and bawdy English satires. Many of the poems are presented here in new translations by the editor, Sam Hamill, one of America's premier poet translators.
"From the swift grip and succor of today's Dorianne Laux to the flowers-in-a-shell plums of ancient Tzu Yeh, these are voices echoing off the walls of a cave, becoming one voice, one song of eros. I've seen no better collection."—Lily Pond, editor of Yellow Silk: A Journal of the Erotic Arts
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Read an Excerpt
Thirty-five centuries ago, an Egyptian poet sat down under a sycamore tree and gazed out at a river where hungry crocodiles were sunning themselves on sandbars. And as he thought about his feelings for his beloved, who lived on the other shore, he composed a poem:
The little sycamore she planted
prepares to speak—the sound of rustling leaves
sweeter than honey.
is new fruit and ripe fruit red as blood jasper,
and leaves of green jasper.
Her love awaits me on the distant shore.
The river flows between us,
crocodiles on the sandbars.
I plunge into the river,
my heart slicing currents, steady
as if I were walking.
that gives me strength and courage,
love that fords the river.
thousand years after the writing of this poem, a Greek thinker would observe:
"The soul, to know itself, must gaze into a soul." And that is exactly the place to begin a reading of poems articulating the erotic spirit,
poetry rooted in the experience of interpenetrating fleshly and spiritual delight.
comes from Eros, ancient Greek god of love, a mischievous trickster given to indulging in cruel pranks, but who remains forever seductive, young, and beautiful. Eros was a major deity in a number of mystery cults and represented the embodiment of desire. He was the son of the goddess of love, beauty, and fertility, Aphrodite, whom Hesiod said rose up from the seafoam
Homer called her "the Kyprian"; Plato said she symbolizes intellectual as well as sexual love; modern scholars trace her origins back to the Asian goddess Astarte.
Egyptian poet discovers within himself a love so profound it moves him to risk life and limb, a love larger than life. He's never heard of the Greek god or goddess of love, and has his own gods and goddesses and little godlets of adoration to attend. He longs to let his body and her body become one, unified by love as soul searches soul until self is transcended and they come to know,
in a moment of passion and tender compassion, the very face of God. But how to know the self-indulgent desires of the flesh from the truest spiritual connections that transcend selfish impulses? Poets have wrestled with this equation since the dawn of language. One way to attempt resolution is to explore poetry of the erotic spirit as a handbook, a guidebook for care of the lover's soul.
Desire confounds us, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Jew, atheist, pantheist, agnostic .
. . desire confounds us. Our vocabulary of the erotic spirit is often impoverished. Denis de Rougemont, in
Love in the Western World,
divides love into two types: "Christian love," or agape, a love between equals concluding in a marriage for the purpose of procreation; and eros, a love between "unequal" persons, rooted in passion, rejecting marriage, and growing ever more passionate through separation of the lovers. De
Rougemont claims eros entered Western civilization only through the Catharist heresy of the twelfth century. By my reckoning, he missed the mark by about eighteen centuries. Still, he is right when he claims a devotional foundation for the poetry, a poetics in which the Lady of the poem is representative of
Sancta Maria Sophia, figure of eternal wisdom and "bride of God." In this context, the longing for the perfection of love, for its spiritual realization as well as for its embodiment, is a longing for a physical manifestation of God's love and follows an attitude of adoration established in the "Song of Songs." It took an Inquisition to expel belief in such
The most universally influential anthology of poems of the erotic spirit, "The
Song of Songs," a collection with roots in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and
Egyptian, is an epithalamion, a marriage ceremony in verse, a celebration of the sanctity of the erotic spirit of love between partners. The lovers are
erotically inspired. More than just a collection of poems, "The Song of Songs"
has come to be a single suite that is larger than the sum of its parts,
sequential in gathering power as phrases or images recur. It establishes familial connections. The bride is also a "sister," as are the women who bear witness; and the groom is a "brother," as are all men present. The bride says:
return from the wilderness
on the arm of my beloved whom I awakened
under the apple tree
where his mother bore him.
The groom then is a son of Eve who ate the apple of knowledge and was suddenly shamed by her nakedness and expelled from the perfect garden. The bride has found her groom not in Eden, but in the "wilderness" that is also a wilderness of the imagination. She returns with him to her family and its own garden, the praises of which both shall sing. The garden in such a context becomes a replica or an interpretation of Eden. The bride marries the son of the first mother, the mother of all mothers. The bride is variously described as a "wall" and a "door" and offers the "vineyard of
[herself]." She becomes the embodiment of the garden as wife (
originating in "veiled woman") and is joined to husband (a
"one who patrols boundaries"). Her veil represents the mystery of the garden before love's labors inform its many possibilities. She is a door opening a future, a wall defining boundaries.
Beyond the beauty of rich procreative metaphor in the poem lies the intricate web of devotional love—between lovers, family, community, and God. The garden of the poem is not Eden, but a vineyard, a garden that must be a focus of labor to produce and sustain the wealth and happiness of the household. The garden interprets Eden, the work preparing the couple for the heavenly garden of the next life.
But if there is a heaven, there is also a hell, and there is also a terrible side of the erotic spirit. Few express it as well as Gaius Valerius Catullus
(84–54 CE) who is fond of echoing the ecstatic lines of Sappho while turning them to his own ends, often in an expression of frustration or plainspoken anger.
Your sins have brought my mind so low,
Lesbia, you damn even my devotion.
can neither praise your rare benevolence,
nor love you less for your excesses.
Catullus understands something about the nature of devotion, a lot about passion, but he cannot master the sacred. He becomes a paradigm for all the tortured lovers who will follow him down the centuries, passionately proclaiming his love while simultaneously complaining that his beloved will not change her behavior to his satisfaction. In his own way, Catullus accepts her as she is, happily complaining and proclaiming his devotion all the way, a brilliant albeit decadent poet in a decadent time.
All cultures produce "erotic art" of many kinds, expressing the erotic spirit in poetry, visual arts, music, and dance. From the tantric Buddhist texts of India to Taoist love manuals to the
the erotic spirit has been expressed in inventiveness, in constant discovery in the play of ceremonial (religious) devotion. In the love of the dark lord Krishna for the milkmaid Radha or of the ecstatic Mirabai for Krishna, in the love of
Zen master lkkyu for his Lady Mori or the poems of Robert Herrick, we find again and again the expression of love in which any distinction between the religious or spiritual and the carnal are utterly obliterated. Kenneth Rexroth has written, "Erotic love is one of the highest forms of contemplation."
What People are Saying About This
From the swift grip and succor of today's Dorianne Laux to the flowersinashell plums of ancient Tzu Yeh, these are voices echoing off the walls of a cave, becoming one voice, one song of eros. I've seen no better collection.
Meet the Author
Sam Hamill is the author of more than thirty books of poetry, essays, and translations from the classical Chinese and Japanese, ancient Greek, Latin, and other languages. He has been a recipient of fellowships from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the Andrew Mellon Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission. He lives near Port Townsend, Washington.
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A must have for all poetic souls
This book smutty or cheap. The poetry runs from physical longing to sexual passion to spiritual love and all points in between. The poems are carefully selected to highlight how much the human spirit has remained the same through the centuries when it comes to love and passion. Especially moving are the poems of everyday observations -- missing someone because their shoes are there but they're not -- which may have been made yesterday or 1,000 years ago. I highly recommend this book for the romantic at heart. I gave this book to my husband shortly before our marriage when he had to go out of the country for a few months. I slipped it into his suitcase and he found it when he unpacked. Each day, he typed out one of the poems and emailed it to me with his thoughts so that we could read the book 'together.' By the time we got through the book, it was time for him to come home again.