Editor’s note: This post was originally published in February 2015. We’ve selected it as one of the posts we’re republishing for our 10th anniversary celebrations in May 2017.
It would be unwise, unfair, and impossible to list the sexiest poems in the Western tradition. Sex, you don’t need me to tell you, is variable, personal, and subjective. “Greatness is, too,” you might add. Maybe it is. But there is something about the poetry on this list that transcends the merely “good.” These poems, which span from antiquity to today, are great poems. There is something egalitarian, too, about this selection, which more or less chose itself. Sex as a poetic subject has a way of equalizing discourse by way of its universality.
I will only add that many of these poems are from antiquity, though, because the more you look at it, there is a kind of Hollywood pre-code logic at work: the Greek and Latin poets featured here were unencumbered by Judeo-Christian norms. As always, too, it’s not possible to include everything. Add your sex poem candidates in the comments. Also: I’ve gone light on the commentary — choosing instead to feature snippets of each poem — because nothing kills the joy of a sex poem like gratuitous notation.
“Fresh Cheese and Cream,” Robert Herrick
Note: This is the entire poem.
WOULD ye have fresh cheese and cream? Julia’s breast can give you them. And, if more, each nipple cries To your cream here’s strawberries.
“I Too Beneath Your Moon,” Edna St. Vincent Millay
I too beneath your moon, almighty Sex, Go forth at nightfall crying like a cat, Leaving the lofty tower I laboured at For birds to foul and boys and girls to vex
“Desire,” Langston Hughes
Desire to us Was like a double death, Swift dying Of our mingled breath, Evaporation Of an unknown strange perfume Between us quickly In a naked Room.
“Importune Me No More” (or “When I Was Fair and Young”), Queen Elizabeth I
You dainty dame, for that you be so coy, I will so pluck your plumes as you shall say no more: Go, go, go, seek some other where, importune me no more.
“To His Coy Mistress,” Andrew Marvell
Thy beauty shall no more be found; Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound My echoing song; then worms shall try That long-preserved virginity, And your quaint honour turn to dust, And into ashes all my lust;
“Reverence,” Sarah Manguso
But I do not know who knows that bad secret. I do not see who sits astride my back, who cuts my flank so lovingly on our way to the dark mountain.
“Love and Sleep,” Algernon Charles Swinburne
Note: The beat drops between stanzas and this poem gets out of control. Before that, though, the speaker notes the lover’s “bare throat made to bite”…
And all her face was honey to my mouth, And all her body pasture to mine eyes; The long lithe arms and hotter hands than fire, The quivering flanks, hair smelling of the south, The bright light feet, the splendid supple thighs And glittering eyelids of my soul’s desire.
Song of Songs (King James Version)
As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.
“Terminus,” Edith Wharton
Wonderful were the long secret nights you gave me, my Lover, Palm to palm breast to breast in the gloom. The faint red lamp, Flushing with magical shadows the common-place room of the inn With its dull impersonal furniture, kindled a mystic flame
“Delight in Disorder,” Robert Herrick
Note: Herrick again! The theme here: disheveled is sexy.
In the tempestuous petticoat; A careless shoe-string, in whose tie I see a wild civility: Do more bewitch me, than when art Is too precise in every part.
“The Floating Poem, Unnumbered,” Adrienne Rich
“The Floating Poem, Unnumbered” Alison Nastasi writes, “brought lesbian sexuality to the forefront of poetic discourse”:
Whatever happens with us, your body will haunt mine — tender, delicate your lovemaking… the live, insatiate dance of your nipples in my mouth — your touch on me, firm, protective, searching me out, your strong tongue and slender fingers reaching where I had been waiting years for you in my rose-wet cave — whatever happens, this is.
“The Encounter,” Louise Glück
Because I wanted to be burned, stamped, to have something in the end — I drew the gown over my head; a red flush covered my face and shoulders. It will run its course, the course of fire, setting a cold coin on the forehead, between the eyes.
From On the Nature of Things, Lucretius
Note: After a bad breakup, Lucretius says, why sit around and cry? Instead the great poet of the deterministic universe recommends that you “stroll after a street-strolling trollop” and “shoot your juice.”
The lusty leap the expecting female stands, By mutual heat compelled to mutual bands. 200 Thus dogs with lolling tongues by love are tied; Nor shouting boys nor blows their union can divide: At either end they strive the link to loose; In vain, for stronger Venus holds the noose.
Fragment 31V, Sappho
Silence breaks my tongue and subtle fire streams beneath my skin, I can’t see with my eyes, or hear through buzzing ears.
Sweat runs down, a shiver shakes Me deep — I feel as pale as grass: As close to death as that, and green, Is how I seem.
“may i feel said he,” E. E. Cummings
may i feel said he (i’ll squeal said she just once said he) it’s fun said she
“The Milkman,” Isabella Gardner
Note: This is an unprecedented sex poem wherein the speaker is uncontrollably attracted to a milkman. Milk metaphors abound.
At last he mounted / My backstairs, climbed to the top, and there he stood still.
“The Platonic Blow,” W. H. Auden
And here he was sitting beside me, legs apart. I could bear it no longer. I touched the inside of his thigh. His reply was to move closer. I trembled. My heart Thumped and jumped as my fingers went to his fly.
From “Lifting Belly,” Gertrude Stein
Lifting belly. Are you. Lifting. Oh dear I said I was tender, fierce and tender. Do it. What a splendid example of carelessness. It gives me a great deal of pleasure to say yes.
“I Sing the Body Electric,” Walt Whitman
The female soothing a child, the farmer’s daughter in the garden or cow-yard, The young fellow hoeing corn, the sleigh-driver driving his six horses through the crowd, The wrestle of wrestlers, two apprentice-boys, quite grown, lusty, good-natured, native-born, out on the vacant lot at sun-down after work, The coats and caps thrown down, the embrace of love and resistance, The upper-hold and under-hold, the hair rumpled over and blinding the eyes
“Come Slowly – Eden!” Emily Dickinson
Reaching late his flower, Round her chamber hums – Counts his nectars – Enters – and is lost in Balms.
“Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae,” Ernest Dowson
All night upon mine heart I felt her warm heart beat, Night-long within mine arms in love and sleep she lay; Surely the kisses of her bought red mouth were sweet; But I was desolate and sick of an old passion, When I awoke and found the dawn was grey: I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.
“Voyages,” Hart Crane
Light wrestling there incessantly with light, Star kissing star through wave on wave unto Your body rocking! and where death, if shed, Presumes no carnage, but this single change,
“Assurance,” Emma Lazarus
Last night I slept, and when I woke her kiss Still floated on my lips. For we had strayed Together in my dream, through some dim glade, Where the shy moonbeams scarce dared light our bliss.
“Sonnet of the Asshole,” Verlaine and Rimbaud
My Dream often kissed its suction cup; my Soul, jealous of this corporal fuck, made it its musky trough, its tear-filled nest.
“My Sweetest Lesbia,” Catullus
Note: “Shake the abacus” is one of my favorite sex euphemisms.
Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred. Then, another thousand, and a second hundred. Then, yet another thousand, and a hundred. Then, when we have counted up many thousands, Let us shake the abacus, so that no one may know the number, And become jealous when they see How many kisses we have shared.
“Time to Choose a Lover,” Horace
Like the Lion, prowling o’er Far Letulia’s savage shore: Stop—Thy budding charms discover Tis thy time to choose a lover.
“The Reeve’s Tale,” Chaucer
Note: When it comes to sex, I prefer Chaucer to Shakespeare, so I’ve included two here. In “The Reeve’s Tale,” sex is linked to violence and grinding corn.
This wenche thikke and wel ygrowen was, With kamus nose and eyen greye as glas, With buttoked brode, and brestes rounde and hye; But right fair was hire heer, I wol nat lye.
“The Merchant’s Tale,” Chaucer
‘And sodeynly anon this Damyan / Gan pullen up the smok, and in he throng.’
“To a Dark Moses,” Lucille Clifton
You are the one I am lit for.
Come with your rod that twists and is a serpent.
“Sea Poppies,” H.D.
Beautiful, wide-spread, fire upon leaf, what meadow yields so fragrant a leaf as your bright leaf?
“The Balcony,” Charles Baudelaire
The film of night flowed round and over us, And my eyes in the dark did your eyes meet; I drank your breath, ah! sweet and poisonous, And in my hands fraternal slept your feet– Night, like a film, flowed round and over us.
“Boonies,” D.A. Powell
And I could kiss his tits and he could destroy me on the inflorescent slopes; in his darkest dingles; upon the grassland’s raffish plaits. And he could roll me in coyote brush: I who was banished to the barren could come back into his fold, and I would let him lay me down on the cold, cold ground.
“Servitude,” Anne Reeve Aldrich
Note: Aldrich is sometimes called the “American Sappho,” hence the image.
The church was dim at vespers. My eyes were on the Rood. But yet I felt thee near me, In every drop of blood.
In helpless, trembling bondage My soul’s weight lies on thee, O call me not at dead of night, Lest I should come to thee!
“To His Mistress, Going to Bed,” John Donne
Note: The metaphysical poet gets physical. And naked: “Full nakedness! All joys are due to thee,” he yells (as he converts Petrarchan despair into libertine sexuality).
To enter in these bonds, is to be free; Then where my hand is set, my seal shall be. Full nakedness! All joys are due to thee, As souls unbodied, bodies uncloth’d must be
“Anticipation,” Amy Lowell
I have been temperate always, But I am like to be very drunk With your coming. There have been times I feared to walk down the street Lest I should reel with the wine of you, And jerk against my neighbours As they go by.
“What I See,” Muriel Rukeyser
You, lying there, on yours, locked, pouring love, While I tormented here see in my reins you, perfectly at climax. And the lion strikes. I want you with whatever obsessions come— I wanted your obsession to be mine
“Their Sex Life,” A.R. Ammons
Note: This is the entire poem.
One failure on Top of another.
Up Above Creative/Shutterstock
“To the Harbormaster,” Frank O’Hara
I am unable to understand the forms of my vanity or I am hard alee with my Polish rudder in my hand and the sun sinking. To you I offer my hull and the tattered cordage of my will.
“December 11th” from Eighteen Days Without You, Anne Sexton
Then I think of you in bed, your tongue half chocolate, half ocean, of the houses that you swing into, of the steel wool hair on your head, of your persistent hands and then how we gnaw at the barrier because we are two.
“The Beekeeper’s Daughter,” Sylvia Plath
A fruit that’s death to taste: dark flesh, dark parings. In burrows narrow as a finger, solitary bees Keep house among the grasses. Kneeling down I set my eyes to a hole-mouth and meet an eye Round, green, disconsolate as a tear.
“Lust,” Yusef Komunyakaa
He longs to be An orange, to feel fingernails Run a seam through him.
“Gate C22,” Ellen Bass
Neither of them was young. His beard was gray. She carried a few extra pounds you could imagine her saying she had to lose. But they kissed lavish kisses like the ocean in the early morning, the way it gathers and swells, sucking each rock under, swallowing it again and again.
“After School, Street Football, Eighth Grade,” Dennis Cooper
and we dreamed of his long teeth in our necks. We wanted them to wander over, place deep wet underarms to our lips, and then their white asses, then those loud mouths.
Ars Amatoria, Ovid
Now let us take the buttons off the foils, and to it with naked weapons; though, likely enough, I am instructing you for my own undoing. When you have netted your youthful novice, let him, at first, imagine he’s the only one to enjoy your favours.
Epigrams, Marcus Valerius Martialis
Before I finished speaking, she said Yes. Emboldened, I then blushed a bit, and laughed, And asked for something even dirtier. The lusty wench agreed without a blink.
“Peter Quince at the Clavier,” Wallace Stevens
Of a green evening, clear and warm, She bathed in her still garden, while The red-eyed elders, watching, felt
The basses of their beings throb In witching chords, and their thin blood Pulse pizzicati of Hosanna.
“Venus and Adonis,” William Shakespeare
Note: I almost excluded this poem, on the basis that it is technically an anti-sex, anti-climactic work. But it has one of Shakespeare’s frankest depictions of lust.
Even as an empty eagle, sharp by fast, Tires with her beak on feathers, flesh and bone, Shaking her wings, devouring all in haste, Till either gorge be stuff’d or prey be gone; Even so she kissed his brow, his cheek, his chin, And where she ends she doth anew begin.
Forced to content, but never to obey, Panting he lies and breatheth in her face; She feedeth on the steam as on a prey, And calls it heavenly moisture, air of grace; Wishing her cheeks were gardens full of flowers, So they were dew’d with such distilling showers.
“Naughty Nan,” Angelina Weld Grimké
Note: Grimké is an under-read genius of the Harlem Renaissance. This is from the extended poem “Naughty Nan.”
Flitting, luring, little, sprite In a garb of moods bedight, Dancing here, and dancing there, Changeling strange, but ever fair You have caught me in your snare,- Naughty Nan.
“Love Poem on Theme by Whitman,” Allen Ginsberg
bury my face in their shoulders and breasts, breathing their skin, and stroke and kiss neck and mouth and make back be open and known, legs raised up crook’d to receive, cock in the darkness driven tormented and attacking roused up from hole to itching head, bodies locked shuddering naked, hot lips and buttocks screwed into each other
“Climbing Everest,” Frederick Seidel
I’m getting young. I’m totally into strapping on the belt of dynamite which will turn me into light God is great! I suck her tongue.