Friday, February 22, 2008

Gay Male Poetry Post Identity Politics, Part Five

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:

"july 2

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.

Works Cited

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.


Steve Fellner said...

Hi Brian,

I enjoyed your post. I was in graduate school in Alabama when you were still an undergraduate and you were already then writing poems better than all of us.

Do publicize when you publish your article about Thom Gunn. A couple of years ago I published an essay on Thom Gunn in a lit mag which focused on my tortured ambivalence of his work (I find The Man with Night Sweats to be surprisingly politically conservative and sexphobic in some ways). I'd be curious to read what you have to say.

With much respect,
Steve Fellner

A.H. said...

“To be a poet is more important than to be a gay poet.”

This whole essay is intigruing. I feel that something is happening here that is transformative. Gunn's statement is an odd one. He knew well that if he had stayed in the UK, he would not have been a truthful poet. If being a poet was all that mattered, then he could have stayed this side of the pond, alluding to his gay train/strain of thought. His move to the USA was precisely so that he could be a gay poet and he defended Duncan fiercely for just this. Probably, Gunn never re-iterated this view because he knew his life did not bear it out.

A.H. said...

As a further thought, it is perhaps relevant that Gunn viewed himself as outside gay poetry. So much of gay poetry was AIDs memoir at the time that his return to the poetical fold--"The Man with Night Sweats"--was a kind of anti-AIDs memoir. He was, in that volume, writing a different kind of gay poetry: one that responded in a very balanced, detached, Augustan manner. He wasn't placing gay above poet or poet above gay, but allowing the two to co-exist, to see what happened.

Steve Fellner said...

Hi eshuneutics,

I've read your reactions to things on a variety of blogs, and I find them engaging, even if I disagree with them as I do here.

What do you mean that Gunn wrote anti-AIDS memoir poetry, and that his writing was very balanced, detached???

Detached? A good number of them odes, and a lot of those odes were written to specific people. He;s aware of his audience in those poems and is anything but detached. Yes, the rhyme, formalness of the poems may PRETEND to be so, but I would argue those formal choices are partly (And I do mean partly, so don't panic) the result of a gay poet trying to appeal to certain teachers (Yvor Winters), institutions (look at who published his books at the time and what other verse they were publishing).

I have a tortured ambivalence toward Thom Gunn. I think sometimes he is unkind to the dead. In one of his poems, an ode to someone who has died, he recounts the graphic nature of his death. Why do that? The dead know how they died; they don't need it retold to them. It seemed gratutious and disingeuous: who did he really want to share those details with since the dead already knows those details, after all they lived them?

I would claim he was trying to elicit pathos from the literary establishment that is questionaly unethical to say the least.

This isn't to say that I don't liek Thom Gunn or his poetry but I think gay poets need to stop unequivally praising everything he does. He needs to be reasssesed formally and politically. Just like other icons who you can't seem to interrogate without people panicking. Like Mark Doty or Richard Howard. I respect these poets, but they have their fair share of limitations.

Steve Fellner

A.H. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
A.H. said...

Interesting, Steve Fellner. As I don’t know what comments you’ve read on what blogs, I’m not sure that I can respond to this opening.

I remember an interview that Gunn gave in the UK. In this, he spoke about a sense of isolation, an awareness that so much of poetry (written by poets who were gay) came from a direct encounter with AIDs. He expressed a kind of “guilt” that somehow (especially given his worship of the sexual renaissance in the USA) he had escaped. So, he said, he wrote detached from that Plague, in that sense. His poetry in The Man with Night Sweats is not an AIDs memoir, the diary of a relationship… or a record of his own dying…it is more a remembrance of a culture sensed through individual encounters. Compare his collection with other volumes of the time and there is a noticeable departure.

Out of 48 poems in The Man with Nights Sweats, 7 are intimately connected to individuals (according to Gunn, himself). Not a lot is it? And it should also be noted that Gunn attributes no poem directly to them; only indirectly in “Acknowledgements and Notes”. In others words, Gunn allows his poems to stand in the abstract, not personally. I believe I said that Gunn wrote with an Augustan sense, meaning: with an eye for an ethos in which individuals played symbolic roles. Interestingly, he did not return to his Renaissance routes and make his 1992 volume a sort of Journal of the Plague Year full of Shakespearean horror.

I am slightly puzzled about your formal choices argument. I don’t sense any real departure in The Man with Nights Sweat from the evolvement of Gunn. All poets fall under the spell of others. So, yes Gunn was influenced by Yvor Winters. But I don’t think that there was any appeal to Yvor Winters as regards Man with Night Sweats (which is the only work I referred to). He had after all been dead since 1968. I must say that I think you are fundamentally wrong to imply that Gunn’s structural choices were limited by his publishers: Faber. Gunn’s choices of form were very much Gunn’s, like them or not; I happen to like them and believe he was a great technician. I respect that fact that you do not.

In what way was Gunn trying to “elicit pathos from the literary establishment”? What establishment? UK? USA? It is interesting that you call Gunn an “icon”. He is not so in the UK, Indeed, his work has been formally assessed, without panic, as a poet (not gay poet) for a long time. I think of the work of Michael Schmidt. Guess you describe an American phenomenon. I take it, given your reference to Doty and Howard, you have been reading the essay on The Gay Sublime—a rather daft piece in my opinion, that is out-of-date and hardly touches the later work of Doty, who, yes, has “limitations”, but has written some significant poems, technically and emotionally. Does Steve Fellner have “limitations”? Suppose, I ought to look!

Steve Fellner said...


When I was younger and thinner (I was never attractive as I am not now), I would g ony and send phony pictures of myself (I'd send photos of good looking guys) in an attempt to lure them to my house and fool around.

Whenever they came over, most of them left, but some very good looking guys had fun with me because they made the drive and what the heck.

Once inawhile someone got so angry, and I didn't understnad why, all I wanted to do is have fun.

Your post reminds me of one of those angry guys.

I won't respond to it other than you have a lot of misdirected anger, so much so, you don't paraphrase me correctly.

And remember, hon, The Man With Night Sweats is not all AIDS elegies, those are tucked in at the end, so at least get your stats right.

The rest I'll let go since you don't really want to talk. I'm doing this because I have plenty of time to waste in my life and this seemed as good as any.


A.H. said...

Dear Steve, what an odd comparison to start with, it sounds like something from your Cavafy book. I don't want to talk? You threw a whole mass of questions in my direction. I answered them. There is no "misdirected anger" in my reply. My replies are direct and I have no interest in getting angry with anyone in the margins of someone's else's respected blog. I am too old to brawl drunkenly in the gutter whilst inebriated with poetry criticism. You are right that I don't paraphrase you correctly: I prefer to answer exactly what you say. I am aware that not all of The Man with Night Sweats deals with AIDs...the AIDS poems constitute a third of the volume. My point was, and still is, that the poems are not some sort of emotional memoir, that the 17 AIDS poems are little different from the tone of the whole volume (not personal outpourings, Romantic, confessional odes), and of the 17 final poems (which pick up the theme of "The Great Dejection" in a different, less English key)all preserve a certain distance. As for the rest, well I suggest you "let it go" since you don't really have an answer and prefer to locate diffidence in me. Great theories and accusations are two-a-penny in the world of academia.

Steve Fellner said...


How can I resist a challenge from one of my elders? Although I myself am ancient, I have some energy so I'll do my best to address a few particular issues just so you know I'm not abandoning me and to reward your energetic replies. :)

First, I did address other issues other than the stats. For example, your ostensible praise of his objectivity which I see as false. I see how his rigid formal choices and flat diction (which I mean descriptive, not necessaily critically) could cause one ot think that. But I think it's an incorrect analysis. There are a number of odes in that final section of the book, and I do argue that when writes to the dead, one has a responsibility to truly address them and not hurt them (as one would expect one to treat the living.) To make them relive their physical demise is redundant and mean , and some of those poems (at least 2 do just that.) I personally think gay people have a SPIRITTUAL AND POLITICAL repsonsibility to talk to the dead with care and directness.

His choice to make the dead relive their experience seems to me disingenuous and inauthentic and harmful (to the living and the dead.) It seems to me to be creating pathos ina n undeserved way.

I would also prefer not to talk about my own insignficant, irrelevant work in this blog. Thom Gunn and his poems and my reactions to the poems are the issue not my stuff. Stop trying to bait me cheaply.

Steve Fellner

P.S. You keep bringing up these interview with hims. I've read interviews and in fact one of them Gunn makes fun of poetry slams quite unkindly and ignorantly. That it affirms autobiographical poetry. At the same time, Boss Cupid (which I think is a very weak book) has a poem (can't remember the name) which unself reflectively creates an incesst narrative which is dull in terms of cotnent and form. He needs some self-reflection.

P.P.S. I happen to like Thom Gunn. I just think he has some limitations and instead of valoring the same old gay poets (ie Mark Doty for instance) we need to look at some other ones that are much more interesting and relevant, like D.A. Powell, Dennis Cooper, Rigoberto Gonzalez etc. etc. etc.

Reginald Shepherd said...

Dear Eshuneutics and Steve,

I'm glad that this post is stirring such lively debate. But I ask you please to remain civil and to keep the argument on the level of ideas. There is no place on this blog for personal attacks, including mean-spirited insinuations.

There are enough forces out there in the world trying to tear us down without our tearing down each other.

Thanks again for reading and commenting.

peace and poetry,


A.H. said...

Dear Steve,
I am not trying to bait you about your work. If you had read the internet debates on gay poetry recently, you would have noticed that I actually defended your work against a personal attack, from someone who described your critical attitude as a gay poet (whatever that is...) as "full of self-hatred". As Pound might have said, "Hang it all, Steve Fellner, your Thom Gunn and my Thom Gunn." My reference to your poems was simple: all poets have limitations. Is there any sense in going in this direction? I think about Colm Toibin's attack on Doty for a lack of imagination. In truth, the attack only showed Toibin's lack of imagination as a reader of poetry. Clearly, you do have a "tormented" relationship towards Gunn. I do not. That is all there is to it. Yes, Gunn did say some unkind things in his lifetime. Don't we all? But generally, Gunn was one of the most generous of critics, even towards those who despised him for his homosexuality (such as Donald Davie). I understand what you object to as regards elegy and pathos, but I do not sense this necromantic strain in Gunn. Perhaps, I am wrong. Personally, I do not think so. We have to agree to disagree. My final response would be that I never set out to uphold Gunn as a hero of gay poetry...that is something you have introduced to shoot down. And done so very well. I suspect also that we read Gunn from different sides of the pond. As an Anglo-American poet, Gunn was aware of the Scylla and Charybdis nature of his existence. From an English point-of-view, I have no problem with Gunn's diction. And to return to my original comments which were to a debate, not to Steve Fellner, I do not think that Gunn renounced "gay" in favour of "poetry" or placed one above the other. I feel that he simply saw both as part of a continuum, like landscape, through which his mind might feel.

Steve Fellner said...


I think you're smart and if you look back at my initial post to you, I did say to you that I liked your posts (for my own self-serving reasons and for not). But then you intepreted that at insincere. I have many tragic flaws: insincerity is not one of them.

And let me say this about tortured ambivalence, I find myself most tortured about poets that I do respect, if I don't respect them, I don't read them and don't care. (As for gay poets, I think Bidart and Powell are deities and I have no ambivalence toward them.)

All I'm asking is for this, and I'm using Brian Teare's wondeful post as a vehicle for this: I think that gay poets are marginalized, and that marginalization causes us to be afraid of being critical of one another, that if you interrogate or put pressure on someone who is considered untouchable, beyond criticism: like Doty or Gunn, you are seen as being disloyal, stupid, or worse of all, I suppose having bad taste. And I think one can charge Gunn with not creating an honorable ethics of talking to the dead. And while Doty was a touchstone for me (I love his music and ear), I think that lately, his work is becoming self-parodic and he's repeating himself in ways that reek of class privildge (who cares about his middle-class perks) in a way that he is failing to put pressure on in terms of content and/or form. He can write about his house and dog and allt hat stuff but make it interesting. He needs to do something new. I'm much more interested in young poets that he supports (like James Allen Hall who's new book has so many good poems including one that deals with race that I originally read in Triquartely.)

One of the wonderful things that blogs like Reginald's does is give insignificant, fatass writers like myself a chance to give his opinion in a forum where it is read by other gay male poets.

I don't have many gay male friends. Most of my friends are heterosexual and married and with kids. Reginald's blog gives me a chance to talk to people who I never met and will never meet, and hopefully I can learn from, as I did in Brian Teare's and Aaron Smith's posts in particular.

Fortunately, for me I am an insignificant poet so I can say stuff publicly knowing no one can do damage to me because fame and awards and money is a non-issue. Other gay American poets have a lot more to risk because they are talented and have significant careers.


A.H. said...


Good God! I am starting to agree with you. I need to go and lie down... I shall go and read some Robert Duncan for massage :)(Actually, I never thought you dishonest. You said you "disagreed with me." I said I did not know what you disagreed with and could not comment consequently). I do understand "tortured ambivalence" elsewhere: mine is Pound. Best wishes, E.

Alfred Corn said...

Thanks, Reginald for posting this and also to Brian Teare, whom I've never met. The brain power here is balanced by a passion for poetry and a regard for Gunn.

OK if I send up a trial balloon of an idea about the poetry of disclosure in general (sometimes called "Confessional") and gay-themed poetry in particular?

When disclosures center on topics usually held to be embarrassing or taboo or outlawed, readers who participate in or suffer from the behaviors find consolation in seeing them aired in public. By the same token, the ante goes up with each new level of disclosure. The first intimations of gay sex in poetry were welcomed ecstatically by gay readers. But more and more disclosure becomes necessary to sustain the high. So gay sex in poetry became more and more graphic. And the range of sexual practice described was extended. I guess the lingering pockets of self-hatred are helped by the public airing of actions never before written about. That can be healing. BUT: Is it a quality of art? This is only a subhead of the question of how much the value of art consists in subject matter. Poems are the most intense test case of the question; because after all the tabooes could be dealt with just as well in prose. Or could they?

Steve Fellner said...

Hi Alfred,

I think what you're getting at ultimtely is the limitations of narrative poetry: what does a writer do when the stories have been used up? You're prooviding one way for writers who privildge narrative content over form: more graphicness, senstationalism which rightly you find disconcerting.

While I agree it may not be art this stort of solution, I do think it is important writing in its own way: with all the hatred and desire to make queers invisible, so what is people who aren't artists are creating mediocre or even less than that story poetry. Visiblity is better than no visibility, and how much stuff in the journals or Established presses are that good anyway. That's the fun of art and criticism: finding something that actually matters both politically andaesthetically in all the dross. Not that dross is bad or not useful.

That's one of my problems with Mark Doty or at least the later stuff that I've read: he has no new stories to tell (self parody was in one of his books he directly addressed Whitman, wondering what he would think of the Calvin Klein models billboards, it was unintentially funny in its benign banality) and has no desire to push his stuff formally either (he's stated himself he's uninterested in the line; the sentence is much more important so is it any surprise that he writes of all things memoir.)

Not that sentences can't be made formally useful in poetry. To mention AIDS poets I'd mention Tory Deny. Her long lines (a formal choice) works towards its content (meidtions about AIDS and the odd etours her mind goes in). Here is a poet whose sentences (the syntatical unfolding of them) reflected the form and took essential a banal story (a woman dying of AIDS) and pushed it formally. She did it. She created art. Good important art.

Problem is a lot fo gay poets are only interested in their content, not form, and that's understandable, we're told our stories don't matter (still), but at the same time it's up to people who want to play Art Criticim game (which I am) to name the limitations of what they're creating.

With much respect,
Steve Fellner

s said...

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