This is the second of two posts on male Gay love poetry, considering separate poems by two well-known poets of the post-War period--this, devoted to a poem, "Lexington Nocturne", by the North Carolina poet and publisher/entrepreneur Jonathan Williams [1929-2008]. This poem appeared in Williams's collection Elite/Elate: Selected Poems 1971-75, accompanied by a Portfolio of Photographs by Guy Mendes (Jargon Press: Highlands, North Carolina, 1979). It might be well to point out that this book was, as were several by the Author, self-published; he cared enough about how his work was presented to see to the matter himself. He felt a legitimate enough regard for his own efforts not to need the implied approbation and approval of having it produced by a third party.
Sunday, March 22, 2009
The Homo-erotic Poems Part 2
Williams was an American original. He eschewed the well-worn career tracks of academia (he left Princeton without a degree) and the publishing industry (he was well-qualified to be either an editor, an advertising executive, or a publisher's representative), and spent the better part of his life writing poetry, publishing other people's books (through his Jargon Press ventures), and generally promoting unsung and obscure art and literature. He was usually associated with the Black Mountain School, having attended that institution briefly during the early 1950's; though his interests and tastes ranged widely. His own verse tended towards the humorous, though occasionally, as here, he could be serious.
There is a strong amused scatological strain in his nature. He clearly enjoyed offending "good taste" by speaking openly of his homosexuality in his work. For those who find such over-indulgence offensive, I will declare at the outset that this is a SPOILER ALERT. If you are dismayed by this poem, Williams is doubtless chuckling in Heaven as he lounges in his armchair puffing away on his cigar.
Lexington Nocturne [April 19]
don't you want to?
a gentleman doesn't ask young men
questions like that;
he probably begins with reveries on the French word
and how much better it is than our own
what you find in the Adagio
of Rachmaninov's E minor Symphony,
after the Largo, which was so
and full of longing...
to be long, to belong to the company of those
who trust the holiness of the heart's affections...
and to be long gone
up the dirt road to Eros,
as prone to the emotions as Sebastian,
full of his arrows...
back to the gentleman
and the young man:
the boy sharing the double-bed is called_________
full of tendresse...
22, old enough to ask,
as I did, rhetorically, above:
do you want to?
the truth is
I never said a word...
and merely remembered what
Tram Combs used to say:
NEVER FUCK YOUR FRIENDS! never
let a tablespoon of come
come between friends...
one of those nights
with eyes open all night
(even they sweat),
but by 3 o'clock my foot and calf
the mind lies back
in the light of the white room,
where it waits for you
to shift your body
in deep sleep...
by 6 o'clock the light brightens,
and if I move carefully
I can move the spread just a little, see
your back where the t-shirt's pulled up
and the top of your thigh shows
and look at you
and wonder what any of this would mean to you--
this meaning the lust to hold you
and bring you
into the Brotherhood of Lovers...
the very first thing to say, the fact is
it is most seemly, most apposite, most circumspect for men
to fuck boys--
"men are men's joy"
if I were a Dorian nobleman
I would explain to_________, as I slipped it in,
this is not just semen up your ass,
this is class, this is arete, this is how
you learn to be a man
but this is 2500 years post Plato,
who fucked everybody up
thus I see you as your eyes open in the Lexington dawn
and put my hand in your hair and
let it hang
just an instant
and let that be all
"men are men's joy"
means what it says
in another town,
on another night
Eros, that sore, three time loser,
shall strike again,
do you want to?
Note: Poem used by permission.
This poem is, in a specific and useful sense, an embarrassment: It is a deliberate attempt to declare a most private affection in public terms, without attempting in any way to mask or camouflage the intensity of one's feelings. It would be as effectively moving and tender if it were about a straight relationship, or indeed as it would be about a love triad--because of its mastery of tonal and lyrical strategies, which are, of course, parallel to the actual overture of seduction.
I have often thought of poetry, indeed of all writing, as employing a seductive strategy. And I would go further, in characterizing this seductive function as having what we might consider to be a feminine basis. Great writers tend to have a balance between their sexual natures. This is sometimes referred to as "left brain/right brain" or what you will: An apprehension of the qualities of active and reactive sensibilities. In order to be whole, human nature must approach the condition of the dual qualities of our binary natures; only then, are we able to appreciate sympathetically what we perceive, and to act usefully and effectively with that sensitivity.
Are Gay poets more likely to possess a more highly developed receptive nature than straight poets? I have no idea. What might distinguish a homo-erotic turn of mind from a heterosexual one, as expressed in poetry?
On one level, questions of variant sexuality in art are potentially embarrassing in a social or personal sense. If one is straightforward about one's persuasions, the obviousness of trying to address that difference may seem gratuitously irrelevant: After all, great artists or writers will succeed despite whatever their private natures may be. The history of the suppression of homosexuality has meant that the strategies associated with the concealment of one's nature are expressed, in one way or another, in the literary practice.
Williams's poem confronts that embarrassment directly, and with courage. It is unashamed, and frank. It is romantically lyrical--in a free verse setting--so that its method is in the manner of the emotional rightness of its rhythms, instead of upon any artificial music; though its turns and justifications are elegant, and dignified.
This is the same admixture of high and low address which we saw in Schuyler's "A Head": The conjunction of quotidian, graphic, data with a summons to classical rationalization or metaphor. There are other Gay poets who do this very thing: John Wieners, Frank O'Hara, Richard Howard, and so forth. This is no different than what poets have done since time immemorial. Do Gay poets have a corner on the love market these days? Are they perhaps seeing it fresh, in a way straight poets haven't for, say 150 years? Are straight poets tired of writing about love? Have they run out of ways to express it? Has it become an empty rehearsal for them?