This website is dedicated to the art of poetry. More specifically, to poetry’s views, take, influence and recognition of the role sex and sexuality play on relationships both intimate and all-encompassing.
Is It Pornography Or Erotic Art?
So why do two philosophers put up a web page on erotic art?
Partly because it is interesting, but most importantly is the belief that the woman’s body has evolved to be very beautiful to both other men and women.
Further, because of the huge industry in pornography (which we define as the exploitation of the woman’s body to make money using the primitive lust of men as the motivating force), women (many feminists) have tended to rebel against the idea that a women should be defined by how they look. We are more inclined to believe that both the body and the mind are beautiful, thus there is nothing wrong with cultivating both to increase the pleasure and joy of life.
If sex and sensuality is a beautiful part of life that is enjoyed by both men and women, art that depicts the beauty of sexuality is not necessarily demeaning to women. The use of quality erotic pictures, stories and text can positively stimulate both sexes (who respond differently to sexual images).
So what is the difference between pornography and eroticism? Pornography is always sexually explicit. It is not necessarily arousing (particularly if the people involved do not appear to be truly enjoying themselves), nor is pornography genuinely interested in artistic merit.
Good quality eroticism, unlike pornography, is generally less sexually explicit and always sexually arousing. Eroticism is more artistic than pornography in capturing the beauty, shape and form of the human body and its deeper portrayal of our emotions, lust and desire. Good erotic art portrays good healthy sexuality and sex; which is joyful, exciting, intimate, interesting and pleasurable.
Poetry, Sex and Sexuality
Themes of sex and sexuality have dominated Leaves of Grass from the very beginning and have shaped the course of the book’s reception. The first edition in 1855 contained what were to be called Song of Myself, The Sleepers, and I Sing the Body Electric, which are “about” sexuality (though of course not exclusively) throughout.
From the very beginning, Whitman wove together themes of “manly love” and “sexual love,” with great emphasis on intensely passionate attraction and interaction, as well as bodily contact (touch, embrace) in both. Simultaneously in sounding these themes, he equated the body with the soul, and defined sexual experience as essentially spiritual experience.
Whitman very early adopted two phrenological terms to discriminate between the two relationships: “amativeness” for man-woman love and “adhesiveness” for “manly love.” Although Whitman did not in the 1855 Preface call direct attention to this element in his work, in one of his anonymous reviews of his book he wrote of himself: “The body, he teaches, is beautiful. Sex is also beautiful … sex will not be put aside; it is a great ordination of the universe. He works the muscle of the male and the teeming fibre of the female girlfriend for hire throughout his writings, as wholesome realities, impure only by deliberate intention and effort.”
Whitman added other sex poems to his book in 1856, including Poem of Procreation and Bunch Poem. At the end of the volume he included, without permission, Emerson’s letter praising the 1855 Leaves (its “great power,” and “free and brave thought”), and alongside it he published his own letter in reply. He may have been misled by the nature of Emerson’s praise to emphasize the centrality of his themes of adhesiveness and amativeness: “As to manly friendship, everywhere observed in The States, there is not the first breath of it to be observed in print. I say the body of a man or woman, the main matter, is so far quite unexpressed in poems; but the body is to be expressed, and sex is.”
It was not until the 1860 edition of Leaves that Whitman gathered the poems celebrating sexuality into the cluster Children of Adam and the poems celebrating “manly love” into Calamus. When Whitman came to Boston to see his book through the press there, Emerson tried to persuade him to withdraw the sex poems, but Whitman refused. He probably understood that if he really desexed Leaves it would be like self-castration. Although Emerson never publicly withdrew his endorsement of Whitman, he passed up opportunities to repeat it. Emerson’s silence together with Whitman’s loss of his job at the Interior Department in 1865, charged with writing “indecent poems,” were early warning signs that he and his Leaves were embarked on a difficult road ahead.
In subsequent editions of Leaves, Whitman revised and shifted his poems of amativeness and adhesiveness, but by and large his dominant themes became not the body but the soul, not youth but old age—and death. His experience in the Civil War hospitals seems to have provided a turning point for Whitman’s focus. He even claimed, in A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads, that the war revealed to him, “as by flashes of lightning,” the “final reasons-for-being” of his “passionate song.”
In his Civil War poems, Drum-Taps, the Calamus theme runs throughout—”cropping out” as Whitman himself said of it in his Preface to Two Rivulets. Whitman critics have not failed to notice in Drum-Taps the poet’s theme of adhesiveness — the joy in the physical transmuted by the war into pain and anguish —in such poems as The Wound-Dresser and A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and the Road Unknown.
Although in the fifth edition of Leaves, Whitman seemed temporarily to lose his way in shaping Leaves to contain his new work (Passage to India and related poems), some ten years later, in the sixth edition, he adopted his earlier practice of integrating the poems of a lifetime into a single structure. Before the book could be distributed by its publisher in Boston, however, it was found to be immoral by the Society for the Suppression of Vice; because Whitman refused to remove the offensive parts, the book was withdrawn and published in Philadelphia. The Boston censors found offensive not only the whole of A Woman Waits for Me, but also passages vital to the life of a number of Whitman’s greatest works, including Song of Myself.
As to the life: Gay Wilson Allen’s biography, The Solitary Singer remains indispensable. In his preface to the latest edition, Allen pointed out that attitudes toward Whitman’s sexuality and dating had changed since he first wrote his book. He had decided, he explained, to use the word “homoerotic” to indicate that his “sexual emotions were stronger for men than for women”; he had avoided the use of “homosexual,” he said, because “at the time that term implied a practitioner of pederasty,” for which there was no evidence.
As to the poetry: Robert K. Martin’s The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry has brought the controversy about how to interpret the sexuality of Whitman’s Leaves into clear focus. His opening chapter on Whitman begins: “Although Whitman intended his work to communicate his homosexuality to his readers, and although homosexual readers have from the very beginning understood his homosexual meanings, most critics have not been willing to take Whitman at his word.”
But have they, in clearing away some distortions, contributed others of their own? There are many critics who agree on the pervasive homoeroticism in Whitman’s life, letters, and poetry, and even on his latent if not overt homosexuality; they are not, however, ready to adopt such a singular and reductive assumption about what Whitman “intended” in his Leaves — “to communicate his homosexuality to his readers.” Throughout his prefaces and “A Backward Glance” Whitman wrote at length about his purposes, including his themes of amative and adhesive love, but also (among others) his themes of selfhood and freedom, being and becoming, democracy and equality, war and tragedy, spirituality and death.