I am now posting the last of the presentations from my AWP panel on gay male poetry post politics. Like Aaron Smith, Brian Teare questions the idea and the desirability of being "post" identity politics, though he frames his critique in terms of the possibilities gay liberation held out of a new kind of community. He also writes of the problematic, if not vexed, relationship of the words "gay" and "poetry," largely through an exploration of the friendship between Robert Duncan and Thom Gunn, two poets often seen as opposites on the poetic spectrum, and of Thom Gunn's struggle to reconcile being a poet and being a gay poet, or at least being a poet who is gay. For Gunn, being gay and being a poet had the same source, and yet vexed each other in proximity, but finally he found a way to reconcile them. I think readers will find Brian's thoughts very stimulating and even moving.
And now, here's Brian Teare.
“I can disown no link of this chain from my conscience”: Thom Gunn, Robert Duncan & the Inheritance of Gay Poetry
Can the epithet “gay male poet” signify in a “post-identity” discourse? If we were to accept the suggestion that ours is an art born during an era post-identity politics, should we also no longer be “gay poets,” but rather poets, unqualified by any marker of our participation in a specific sociopolitical realm? If we were to accept it, would we count that as achievement? Or would it be a loss? Would it signal the assimilation our Gay Liberation forbears deeply did not want? I mean: would accepting “post-identity” status imply an end to gay politics as it has lived in and informed contemporary poetry and poetics?
All in all, the title of our panel suggests a chain of contradictions; given the useful conversation they generate, I’d like to suggest we embrace these contradictions fully. After all, the Gay Lib and activist models from which identity politics emerged could almost be said to be contradicted by the institutional structure of the academy: roughly speaking, the former aims to unite a community by active participation in a common discourse aimed at widespread change, while the latter aims to individuate a community by initiation into a common discourse aimed at changing each student. As a product of both activist and academic pedagogies, I’m as loath to abandon one for the other as I am to privilege one over the other.
Indeed, to embrace this contradiction means: I don’t think identity politics is or should be a theoretical project we have finished with. At the same time, of course it should be critiqued. Of course we could and should do better. Of course our vision of justice is inadequate to the growing economic and legal inequities of our increasingly globalized times. Of course we need to rethink the shape and contours of our relationships with each other, both in and outside our communities, in and outside of our nations. And thus it goes without saying that I think the gay community at large has given up far too early on the wide-reaching implications of a community-minded politics.
I’m particularly fired up about this topic because I’ve spent the past eight months researching and writing an essay about Thom Gunn and his development as a gay poet, and a large part of the essay is taken up by his relationship to Robert Duncan, who was a crucial mentor in his development as a gay man and as a poet. About this relationship— which might seem unlikely to some whose notions of literary lineage and aesthetic camps is conservative—I have a little story.
In later life Gunn relished recounting what happened when Elizabeth Bishop lived in San Francisco for a year—1969—and during that time met Robert Duncan: “They got on terrifically well,” he tells Christopher Hennessy, “They would talk and gossip together and laugh” (Outside the Lines 18). Obviously delighted each time he relates the story of what is supposed to seem like an unlikely friendship—“the poetics behind their two projects were fundamentally opposed in a way that their personalities were not”—Gunn spins it wittily, subsequent accounts differing only in the ratio of summary to scene and specificity of detail (Shelf Life 129). In one version Bishop baked Duncan a wicked batch of pot cookies “because he didn’t know how to inhale” and “both afterwards described with glee” how, as a consequence of her recipe, he’d been “reduced…to a mass of giggles on the carpet” (ibid.). In others, Gunn “asked each of them separately what they thought of the other’s poetry, and each of them said the same thing: ‘Oh I can’t read it. It means nothing to me at all’” (Hennessy 18). However, each version is in fact pretense, a disguise for a pointedly didactic parable concerning “literary reputation” and tradition, and the moral Gunn draws from it never varies: “You do not have to choose between Bishop and Duncan any more than you have to choose between William Blake and Samuel Johnson” (Shelf Life 130).
It follows from Gunn’s example that we do not have to choose between gay identity and poetry any more than we have to choose between Mark Doty and John Ashbery, Essex Hemphill and Carl Phillips. However, doing this research taught me a surprising fact about myself: though I had, for all intensive purposes, figured out gay identity in relationship to my own life and writing, when it came time to write about gay poetry, a strange thing happened: I wrote one third of the essay, and then found myself blocked. The words “gay” and “poetry,” when put next to one another, simply canceled each other out. This is the paragraph that blocked me:
“How and why does conflict arise when ‘gay’ and ‘poetry’ are made to stand together in twentieth and twenty-first century literary critical discourse? Even now, the presence of ‘gay’ and ‘poetry’ together suggests a paradox: for at its most descriptive, ‘gay’ is neither apolitical, ahistorical nor morally neutral, even as, at its most politicized, ‘poetry’ can never not refer to specific traditions whose tropes and values are paradoxically alleged to transcend historical time. Even if they are bound as much to upholding cultural norms and values as they are to underwriting large historical shifts and flux, even if these terms often come to represent ideological stress points within literary critical discourse, their presence together still has the power to unsettle what assumptions we hold both about what it means to write and read poetry and what constitutes gay identity. In fact, what’s most interesting about the proximity of ‘gay’ to ‘poetry’ is how each must shift definition to accommodate the other.”
To unblock myself, I went to the Bancroft Library at UC-Berkeley in order to read Gunn’s notebooks. I was hoping for a little posthumous mentoring, and strangely, I received exactly what I’d hoped for: I found that Gunn had once asked himself the very same questions I was asking, and though his conclusions naturally differed from my own, I learned from his example. Here’s the draft of an essay he wrote on May 4th in 1980:
"Very few poets have ever set out to be Gay Poets. The dedication of poets is a large one, perhaps one of the most enormous—as our subject matter we aim at nothing less than everything and the idea of our initial dedication settling for anything less…
"Why settle for part of the world when you can lay claim to the whole of it? When I started writing poetry I wanted to be Shakespeare, and from my reading of the lives of poets I don’t think the ambition is an uncommon one./Of course, I rationally knew it was unlikely I could be Shakespeare, but I wanted the best, and to have accepted a smaller ambition would have been to want less than the best. By now I know that I will never be Shakespeare, but I also know that I can be more than one kind of poet. A career, if it is to be a happy one, can be a series of breakthroughs into fresh territories, and to limit oneself permanently to one style or subject matter for more than one duration of an individual project would be stupid. I am fully aware of the usefulness of literary classification.
"To miss the gay elements in say Marlowe’s or Whitman’s work has resulted in not only unbalanced views of them but in [illegible word] misreadings. but to treat them exclusively as Gay Poets is also unbalanced…"
Remember that this is just a draft—and though he took the essay through several drafts, he never finished it. And though I can’t in all honesty disagree with his basic premise, I do disagree with him when, in another draft he claims, “To be a poet is more important than to be a gay poet.” Given the fact that I don’t want to choose between these identities, I can’t help but bristle at his willingness to judge. However, he does continue to think about this subject, and in another, undated journal entry from his Sept 28, 1981-Oct, 1983 notebook, points to an essential contradiction within his own experience, one that in fact mirrored the one that had brought my own essay to a halt:
"Why is my impulse to write poetry so closely connected—
so much a part of—my sexual impulse? When I feel one, I
feel something very similar to the other. I don’t like this too
much—I mean I like it somewhat, but I feel it necessary
sometimes to steer my energy into nonsexual subjects almost
by an act of will, since I don’t believe all the important parts
of life are sexual. And when I succeed in doing so, I’m quite
often successful. Yet it does, even then, derive from an energy
that is sexual energy—it’s quite the same kind of concentrated
excitement that lights up everything in a limited area (as a flash-
light lights up everything in the circle it makes).
I wonder where this comes from…I wonder how many
other poets this happens to…It’s my limitation."
I am moved by the juxtaposition of these two journal entries, carrying within them as they do one of the same contradictions we’re addressing in this panel. Gunn, at this point in his life, was still very much wrestling with yoking gay and poetry together, though he’d already published Jack Straw’s Castle and given an interview to The Advocate and marched in Gay Pride Parades and taken a whole lot of acid. And again, I’d say that his academic training at Stanford with Yvor Winters and at Cambridge with F.R. Leavis left him completely unprepared to integrate into his poetry what he learned from Gay Liberation.
Enter Robert Duncan, who became most important for Gunn in the late ‘60s. He credited Duncan with helping him expand his sense of what could be accomplished in poetry; he credited Duncan with practically inventing a way of writing about modern homosexuality, publishing as he did the ground-breaking essay “The Homosexual in Society” in 1944 in the journal Politics and risking a great deal in the process. His mentoring, both as a poet and a gay man, helped Gunn to open up his neoclassical forms so that they could include direct street experience, sexual aspects of the movement itself—Gunn himself later said so. Though it should be noted that this passage from “Homosexuality in Robert Duncan’s Poetry”—an essay written in the late ‘70s—does still include a kind of assimilationist thinking that Gunn would after the AIDS epidemic drop from his rhetoric, it gives us a good idea of how useful Duncan’s example was for Gunn:
"Duncan started with little modern American precedent for
speaking openly about homosexuality. There is now a way
of speaking about it, and we may thank Duncan’s continued
example more than any other that it is not a specialized speech,
it is not separated from the heterosexual’s tradition. It is due
more to Duncan than to any other single poet that modern
American poetry, in all its inclusiveness, can deal with overtly
homosexual material so much as a matter of course—not as
something perverse or eccentric or morbid, but as evidence
of the many available ways in which people love or fail to love."
(The Occasions of Poetry 134)
For Gunn and Duncan—born in 1929 and 1919 respectively—did find Gay Lib a shock. As Duncan reports in an interview:
At the beginning of the gay liberation readings, Thom Gunn
and I were sitting there, and the new writers were reading
poems that were hair-raising; and Thom said, “I feel so old-
fashioned and embarrassed, I don’t mention anything but
love.” (Bernstein 108-9)
Indeed, throughout the ‘70s they both clung to a more universal notion of poetry; and though Gunn would later revise his thinking, this definition of poetry came for Duncan at the expense of a more expansive sense of community. Nonetheless, this fact is useful; it illuminates the very contradiction of our panel, and helps us answer the questions with which I opened this talk. As Bruce Boone writes in an essay called “Robert Duncan & Gay Community: A Reflection”:
"Is it possible, one wonders, without rolling back advances for gays in the form of rights, social cohesiveness and a greater, earned sense of self-esteem—to push out the boundaries of our identification so they can apply less narrowly, more generally? ...the corollary for gays: how to go beyond separatism without negating its advances?" (81)
I’d suggest that this is the inheritance left the twenty-first century gay poet by the gay poets of the twentieth. It suggests not the impasse I came to in my thinking, but rather a wider range of possible relationships to history. It implies that though poets like Gunn and Duncan were bound up in the historical categories that defined the times and communities in which they lived, they were not necessarily bound by them. Interested in literary and sexual communities and ways to construct and sustain them, yet often tangential to prevailing political and/or literary ideologies, they chose to move differently through history.
But I’d like to end this talk at another point in Gunn’s journey. It is 1989. He has just finished writing The Man with Night Sweats. He has survived the opening decade of AIDS, though most of his friends did not. Duncan has died of kidney failure. In short: his community has disappeared around him. And yet what rises out of this experience for Gunn is an altered sense of the value of community and a no-longer ambivalent commitment to gay poetics. Here’s a notebook entry from the summer of that year:
The next book to be about my idea of aliveness—not of getting on with life, mostly, but of the intensity of lives in past and in present. The gay revolution—its essential subversiveness & emphasis on the individual—to be clarified, if I can, by instance and anecdote, all the more in that so many of those who have been a part of it are dead and will die soon. If we are a dwindling minority, all the more reason to state its values, to emphasize the libertarian aspects, the euphoria, and the way we have tried to “make it up as we go along”…
"The tragedy of loss—which has been inevitable anyway, though who would have dreamed so dramatically—is so great because of the essential optimism of the enterprise…The possibility—what is sketched out at the end of the sixties and embodied in the seventies is still alive, and it is up to me to record it, as well as I can. I would like to be able to address such subjects as: the Parades, the same-sex union as a (unsolemnized) marriage, bathhouses, the Castro, gay political power, etc. I am not good at dealing with such straightforward didacticism, and will probably have to do what I can indirectly as heretofore, but I’d like to…"
What hits me hardest about this entry is that, while it clearly articulates the aesthetic values that Duncan stood for—subversion, improvisation—there is room both for what Gunn’s relationship to Duncan evoked—subversion as a furthering of tradition—and his own extension of the form of that relationship toward others, the sense of gay community and sexuality being “Our Dionysian experiment,” as he calls it elsewhere. This is the mature thinking that prepares Gunn to write the deep gossip of Boss Cupid, and it serves as a grand summation of his evolution. It’s also the thinking that so beautifully and simply resolves many of the conflicts in suspension for Gunn since 1980, when he attempted to write his essay addressing the contradiction of being a gay poet: “To be a poet is more important than to be a gay poet.” It’s not that in 1989 he might not still in some small sense agree with that statement, but that the paradox, the tension between “gay” and “poet” simply disappears by virtue of his lived experience. After his fruitful, reciprocal decades-long relationship with Duncan and the communal devastation of AIDS, his experience renders the question academic, suggesting that perhaps some conflicts in value might only get resolved off the page, and that Gunn in the end accepted that, when struck full force by the passage of time, when mired in its radically relational context, the thing to do is give—and give way to others.
Bernstein, Michael André and Burton Hatlen. “Interview with Robert Duncan.” Sagetrieb. 4.2 & 3 (Fall/Winter 1985): 87-135.
Boone, Bruce. “Robert Duncan and Gay Community: A Reflection.” Ironwood. 11.2 (Fall 1983): 66-82.
Gunn, Thom. The Occasions of Poetry: Essays in Criticism and Autobiography. London: Faber and Faber, 1982.
__________. Poetry notebooks. BANC MSS 87/1. The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.
__________. Shelf Life: Essays, Memoirs and an Interview. London: Faber and Faber, 1993.
Hennessy, Christopher. Outside the Lines: Talking with Contemporary Gay Poets. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005.