Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Remarks on gay sensibility in poetry

DC Andersson wrote: Hello there, I'd been exploring the work of John Wilkinson, and hence came to your 'review' on pinko, which I enjoyed greatly. I have often thought that underlying many of the distinctions between rival schools of poetry has been the extent to which form (which demands to be recognized as such, rather than something that any coherent content has) and ego are to be aligned. Obviously there are different ways of politicizing this question - for some, left-wing ideas of the decentred self under the lights of the 1960s avant garde seem appropriate to some (whether or not these were in fact drawn from text or seemingly 'collective' practice of other art forms), or an alternate *radical* pattern would be drawn from the various mutations of feminism from the nineteen seventies onward. An alternative right-wing intellectual model for dealing with the pains and pleasures of the ego, with all of its necessary growing up and disciplining, is a sort of sympathetic engagement with institutions (a friend came up recently with the formulation that a Tory is someone who believes institutions are wiser than individuals). Other modes of social and ethical engagement being viewed as primary will naturally result in other forms or relation to the self, and one thinks of how so many great poets of friendship (from Horace to Auden to John Fuller) have also been poets of ego. I note, in a rather embarrassed way, that whenever I write of human relations in my own poetry, I tend simply to want to record accurately the stable socialized commitments that ebb and flow in and out of the networks of friendship and love and sex - a fairly obviously gay male aesthetic that privileges a combination of ego, archness and group identity and ability to ventriloquize others, yet respectfully and with honesty. As my friend Simon said of our rather more *angry* friend Mike, *You don't have to fight it, you know?*. For some this will place the muse of poetry too readily at the service of rhetorical functions (to console, to teach, to persuade into bed) that they will find are the route to the *Astleyization* (those Staying Alive anthologies) of poetry or its simplistic totalitarian aims. The range of humane warmth and the Horatian social aesthetic of course depends upon a set of material undergirdings that many will consider lead to a consumerist aesthetic - in the end, like Auden, I prefer *poems* to *poetry*. Pound wrote dismissively (was it in his ABC of Reading) of Cowper that he was simply doing in poetry what was being better done by the novel at the time, that his pastoral work would be unthinkable without the novel. By contrast, I think of that as a virtue, since I want to make poetry more expansive rather than more pure. In the same way, I rather like the novelettish autobiographical narrative poem. I am writing currently a study on Ian Caws, whose experiential underpinning of a suddenly desubstantiated self in the face of the sudden intrusions of a Christian past and Christian landscape (alas, comfortably home counties for some) seem to provide as accurate and as horrifying an account of the difficulties of identity and the dangers and consolations of form as anything in Tom Raworth, for whose integrity of purpose I have of course great respect. I never thought of myself as a conservative, always the opposite, but I think I've become one. I am about to launch my own new poetry magazine, called Tempo. Perhaps I could send you the link?'

All the very best Daniel -- wrote
i have been wondering about something for a number of years, which perhaps you can help me on. is there a separate market/network for gay poetry? If someone asked me about this, I would like to be able to reply (one way or another). People keep attacking me for leaving things out. Ignorance is not usually an excuse. Maybe there is something I have failed to notice (in 30 years of mooching around the poetry scene).

Alignment of ego and forms. Hmmm. The thing is with a Strong Personality that it's like having attractive performers appear in films all the time. Why watch someone more attractive than you are? In poetry, people are quite happy to identify and ride along with someone with a Strong Ego, just for as long as the trip lasts. There is something faintly comic about this. It's not quite being dominated, not quite dominating. who is Ian caws? should I read him? caws is welsh for 'cheese'. Still, weldon kees is also 'Mr Cheese'.

On 20/05/07, Daniel Andersson wrote

Is there a gay market for poetry? I think there are probably two conflicting strands in gay literary identity, looking about at my friends and their enthusiasms. One derives from the particularly American tradition of oppositionalism. It has roots in the Beats, Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, and slides into rock and indie and to the various democratic undergirdings of performance poetry and then further slides into an embrace of popular culture and from there into some sort of (usually negative) engagement with consumerism/camp/daily life. It is also a tradition nourished by the esoteric underground (especially in the musical field - one thinks of Throbbing Gristle, Coil, The The), and is not particularly engaged with christianity or, indeed, *mainstream* gay culture. Leaden, dishonest and superficial would be its chief terms of abuse. It tends not to be too suspicious of statement.

The alternative, more well-bedded down tradition (more English) derives from an obsession with density, wit and form, but nourished emotionally by love, friendship, loss and group identity, understatement, urbanity and ventriloquism and via that ventriloquism to camp. It is a tradition more concerned with syncretism, understanding of society, observation, dialogue and engagement with institutions such as families, the church, the universities. It is a tradition that is as much as home in the literary novel as the musical scene. Poise, warmth, sensitivity, form, friendship and wit are its watchwords - and it probably has closer connections with mainstream gay culture. At its most *literary* and within the poetry tradition, it shades off into coterie arch group identity poetry, which one might consider some of the Cambridge school to be. Sloppy and self-indulgent would be its chief terms of abuse. It is often rather diffident about *statement*.

My friend James Mckay, who is a performance poet, is a very knowledgable exponent of the first tradition. I will ask him what he thinks of my distinction and get back to you.

Ian Caws is one of my favourite poets of the 1980s. He is a subtle, quiet formalist, recording the problems of christian faith in the Home Counties, full of understatement, and a great commentator on the seventeenth-century tradition of Herbert and Vaughan.

All best,

Daniel wrote: The distinction is almost between Whitman and Henry James. Henry James reviewed Leaves of Grass with about as much queeny dyspepsia as he could manage. Above all, James hated the endless statements in Whitman and the absence of the comforts of form that demanded to be recognized as such, the pleasures of a game which everyone knows the rules of and which everyone is subtly changing. I remember, in particular, one very funny piece of his review: he describes the way in which Whitman writes poetry in which the line seems to "exist in joyous independence of what comes either before or after it".

The rules of the game. Ruth Padel referred to Ian Duhig's (deeply heterosexual) poetry as 'sly'. A difference between straight sly and gay sly occurred to me. In straight sly, you tell a story, and you surprise people with where you end up (and the performer takes a great pleasure in having got there). In gay sly, everyone knows where you are going to end up, the slyness is in engaging people in an unusual journey, not an unusual destination.

Just some thoughts.

DCA wrote

Daniel, this opens up layer after layer of basically resistant encoding. I'm just worried about being accused of ignorance and prejudice. It doesn't look like I can let myself out of the accused cell without dieting for a long time. Let's be philosophical. If I write about modern poetry, I will be accused of monstrous acts no matter what I do. People in the poetry world love to have themselves photographed striking that stance.

Even more, it doesn't sound as if this layered meaning is going to benefit from me unclipping it and rolling it out straight. It sounds more like something more Maloryan - a vision that vouchsafes itself to the pure of heart.

Dr. D. C. Andersson ( wrote:

I see what you're getting it, but the best way of avoiding prejudice and accusations of ignorance is to delimit the scope of one's enquiry. Being simple-minded has much in its favour on these sorts of occasion - dico expertus! I think that the layering you refer to is a not inaccurate broadbrush distinction in gay sensibility. Simply recording it clearly, and then querying to what extent poetry markets flow from (or do not flow from) given gay sensibilities will surely benefit you and your immediate audience, especially if it's a *general* literary audience.

I think that there IS something (in your terms) Maloryish about the competitive mercuriality of some versions of gay sensibility, which, in its more leaden versions, shades into snobbery, Senior Common Room wit and accommodation with existing power structures (camp flourish where something like class flourishes, unlike kitsch).

Mere thoughts. As I said, I have emailed James and I will report back.

My very warmest best wishes,


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