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book review

The Poetry of Sex, edited by Sophie Hannah

The book is anticipated, delayed. The reviewer waits. Slips into something more comfortable. E-mails are exchanged, passions roused – the book is on its way! – and gratification again postponed. She waits alone in a snowstorm for the postman to ring the bell… And lo, the anthology arrives and – yes – falls open to nipples and thighs.

Edited by British poet and crime novelist Sophie Hannah, The Poetry of Sex offers up wants, shoulds, should-nots and will-anyways. Penguin's carnal compilation runs the gamut from love-making to hay-rolling to cuckolding: the book includes a shaving poem and a snake poem; interesting moral-quandary sex, awkward teenage sex and fleeting park-bathroom sex; it touches on food sex and sexy food; here is an Oedipal moment, there goes Bambi, here is Daniel Craig (twice); and what would sex be without breakups and dissatisfaction… There is a lot of end-rhyme and metre, even from contemporary poets, perhaps as a way of gussying up what remains a messy exercise and a social taboo. There is also a fair bit of funny. The messier the poke, the more comical, it seems: Caroline Bird The Plague is a Monty Pythonesque gruntfest, with "villagers … pillaging each other" and tortoises looking good for a jump, while Amorak Huey's Mick Jagger's Penis Turns 69 is superficially slapstick but more deeply ponders dreams, fame and aging.

Much of the content will be familiar – Andrew Marvell's To His Coy Mistress is here, and Donne's The Flea. D.H. Lawrence, Whitman, Edna St. Vincent Millay and E.E. Cummings make multiple appearances. Yeats's Leda and the Swan reminds us that Thanatos is never far from his libidinous colleague Eros. And Auden's The Platonic Blow is as shivery now as it must have been 50 years ago, though considerably less shocking.

As happens in anthologies, the context makes us read differently, so that poets we knew, or thought we knew, are no longer merely themselves, but one of many complicated humans frolicking complicatedly in excellent company. There are several poems that may otherwise have passed us by – Robert Frost's Putting In the Seed, for instance, or William Carlos Williams's Arrival rarely make those poets' top tens.

A thematic collection can put readers in the mood (so to speak), so that a line or image that would have been folded into a lone authorial voice will ring out: Don Paterson writes simply that "no trade was ever so fair or so tender," and elsewhere the British poet Gregory Woods nearly takes our clothes off with lips that "could flay a clarinet." In the best among these, the nooky is the hook for closer, more intimate and more revealing reading; as Rosemary Tonks puts it, "The concurring deep love of the heart / Follows the naked work, profoundly moved by it."

There is a wealth of good poetry here: Simon Armitage's work is always well crafted; Carol Ann Duffy has the eloquent last word on adultery; James Ball Naylor's King Solomon and King David is oblique and sly; and C.P. Cavafy's He Asked About the Quality will change the way you think about handkerchiefs. With enough old friends to yield tried and true benefits, and enough new discoveries to seduce, the turn-offs we can flick past like the fuzzy skin channel.

Unfortunately, there is such a thing as bad pizza. Even accounting for taste, The Poetry of Sex has an unfortunate amount of blankly descriptive anatomical catalogue, sentimental contrivance and purple longing. There are also editorial inconsistencies: why have two poems in English with the Spanish originals, but Cavafy, Ovid, Petronius and Catullus only in translation? Worse, Hannah has tackily included her own work.

The peril awaiting any anthologist is the attack on the impossibility of an exhaustive selection of anything. Fair enough, and Hannah makes light of this futile task in her introduction, quipping that she tried to address the "Daniel Craig stranglehold" (which could have been the title to a third Craig poem, come to think of it). However, the amount of work anthologies require, and the Penguin muscle behind this one, warrant rigorous research and thoughtful curatorial acumen. Why not do it well? (I won't kvetch about omissions, but I do shudder to think that Irving Layton is Canada's sexiest, or – au secours! – our only sexy poet.) The Poetry of Sex gives us some good romps, but it could have been a far more thought-provoking and provocative treasury, from the best classic, established and emerging poets, about this most fundamental and complex of human urges.

In our accelerated age, poetry's slower machinery of the soul is generally solicited for weddings and death, versions of forever. The Poetry of Sex reminds us that verse can grapple with the quick – and the slow, the sultry, the bawdy, the ballsy – as well as the dead.

Katia Grubisic is a writer, editor and translator.