“The Pleasure Principle” by Raymond Oliver

Who are you? Why do you not let me live
As I please? And how could your caress, so rough,
Be kinder than my smooth alternative?

Your steel-brush strokes are forcing me to slough,
Daily, my fleshy growths of appetite,
But still they come; I cannot have enough.

I would forever scratch my itches, light
At first, then harder at the thickened sore;
But you would give me radical delight,
Gouging my itches till I have no more.

“The Pleasure Principle” is published here with the permission of Southern Humanities Review, where the poem first appeared in Spring 1974.

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In this poem, sinful desires are characterized as skin sores whose itchiness is temporarily relieved when scratched—but the scratching also makes the sores become irritated and enlarged and even more vile-looking, and the itch comes back not too long after.

The speaker addresses God, first in a posture of defensiveness. God has presumably broken into his conscience, convicting him of sin, and he responds with a string of accusatory questions to the effect of, “Who do you think you are, coming into my life, telling me what I can and can’t do? How could abiding a constant itch be more satisfying than giving in and scratching?”   Continue reading ““The Pleasure Principle” by Raymond Oliver”