Friday, 19 July 2013

Auden's Platonic Blow

“The Platonic Blow” (or “A Day for a Lay” or “The Gobble Poem” as it has also been called) is the best-known and most substantial of a small number of erotic poems Auden wrote, not for publication but for the private amusement of close friends. In a letter to Chester Kallman on 13 December 1948, Auden wrote: “Deciding that there ought to be one in the Auden Corpus, I am writing a purely pornographic poem, The Platonic Blow. You should do one on the other Major Act. Covici would print them together privately on rubber paper for dirty old millionaires at immense profit to us both. (Illustrations by [Paul] Cadmus?)” The poem was about Auden’s favourite sexual activity, fellatio; the “other Major Act” he refers to, more to Kallman’s taste, was anal intercourse. One reason for his writing it was to show Norman Holmes Pearson of Yale University, with whom he was about to co-edit a poetry anthology, the kind of person he was. In this sense, it is a clear statement not only of personal interest, but even of basic identity.
After the poem had been published, against his will, by the arts magazine Fuck You, in New York in 1965, Auden complained to Monroe Spears: “in depressed moods I feel it is the only poem by me which the Hippies have read” (18 November 1967). It was also published by a magazine more appropriately called Suck. Among friends, Auden openly acknowledged authorship of it. The British politician Tom Driberg recalled an occasion when, visiting the poet for lunch in New York, he was given a privileged reading. Auden also read part of it from a hot tub at a spa on Ischia to the visiting German student Peter Adam, later a distinguished broadcaster. Auden even, once, admitted to the mainstream press that the poem was his (Daily Telegraph Magazine, 9 August 1968). However, when Avant-Garde published it in March 1970, again without permission, and even had the courteous nerve to send the poet a fee, Auden returned the cheque and repudiated authorship.
Like so much of his verse, “The Platonic Blow” is a technical tour de force. It adopts a syncopated measure Auden found in the Arthurian cycle Taliessin through Logres (1938) by the British Roman Catholic poet Charles Williams. He made more polished use of the form, later, in the second section of “Memorial for the City” (1949), which is dedicated to the memory of Williams. As much of Auden’s obvious pleasure in the erotic poem derives from the wickedness of its sexually explicit parody of a deeply serious, spiritual book as from the sexual narrative itself.
The poem consists of thirty-four stanzas of four lines each, rhymed ABAB. The lines range in length from ten to sixteen syllables, but they all have five insistent stresses. The vocabulary combines unexpected archaisms (“lofty”, “beheld”) and apparently inappropriate formal expressions (“sutures”, “ineffably”, “capacious”, “indwelling”, “voluminous”) with the erotic demotic (“cock”, “arse”, “knob”, “hard-on”, “spunk”). The insistency of his internal rhymes (“fresh flesh”, “the charms of arms”, “the shock of his cock”, “quick to my licking”, “sluices of his juices”, “the notch of his crotch”, “spouted in gouts”) and half-rhymes (“slot of the spout”, “curls and whorls”) seems clumsy at first, but soon gathers momentum in vivid mimesis of the act they represent.
The narrative itself is entirely conventional, in a literal sense slavishly following pornographic precedent. Spoken from the point of view of the adoring cock-sucker, it follows a familiar route from the picking-up of an attractive stranger to consummation and ejaculation. Faced with the body of a young man, the speaker is at a rhapsodic pitch throughout. The object of his attention corresponds with Auden’s ideal image of the American dreamboat: “Present address: next door. / Half Polish, half Irish. The youngest [?] From Illinois. / Profession: mechanic. Name: Bud. Age: twenty-four.” He is blond. To an extent, it does not matter whether this boy is actually homosexual. Auden believed, in any case, that straight American men did not really care for sexual intercourse with women: they just wanted to get blown while reading the newspaper. His fantasy was to be the one who did that favour.
In this written version of the fantasy, however, the blown man reciprocates. Before the speaker can begin sucking him, without being asked, Bud undresses fully. When the speaker, too, has undressed, they kiss. He fucks the speaker intercrurally. The speaker then explores the whole of his body, including his armpits and arse. Bud even has a voice of his own: when the speaker finally gets round to sucking him he “hoarsely” says: “That’s lovely! … Go on!  Go on!” Later, he whimpers expressively, “Oh!”, and, as he is about to ejaculate, “O Jesus!” This man is, then, a co-operative version of Auden’s American stereotype, a young man who seems unashamed to involve himself in a mutual homosexual act, but one who ultimately submits to the imperative of the exploring mouth and becomes completely passive in the face of its unrelenting onslaught.
According to Harold Norse, who had first-hand experience, regardless of his enthusiasm for the act Auden was actually an inept fellator: ‘the more feverishly he labored, the less I responded’. There is no such discomfort in ‘The Platonic Blow’. Only the gay Japanese poet Mutsuo Takahashi’s long poem ‘Ode’ outdoes it in exuberant celebration of the cocksucker’s art.

Auden, W.H., ‘The Platonic Blow’, Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts 1 (March 1965)
Auden, W.H., ‘The Gobble Poem’, Suck: The First European Sex Paper 1 (October 1969)
Auden, W.H., ‘A Day for a Lay’, Avant Garde 11 (March 1970)
Auden, W.H., Collected Poems, London: Faber, 1976
Carpenter, Humphrey, W.H. Auden: A Biography, London: Allen & Unwin, 1981
Norse, Harold, Memoirs of a Bastard Angel, London: Bloomsbury, 1990
Woods, Gregory, ‘W.H. Auden’, Articulate Flesh: Male Homo-eroticism and Modern Poetry, New Haven & London: Yale, 1987

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