Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Homo-erotic Poems Part 2

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. 

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?
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...

sacred 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:

Lexington, Kentucky,
the boy sharing the double-bed is called_________
from Texas,
full of tendresse... 

22, old enough to ask,
as I did, rhetorically, above:
do you?
do you want to?

the truth is
I never said a word...

I burned
and merely remembered what
Tram Combs used to say:
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
for then

"men are men's joy"
means what it says

in another town,
on another night

Eros, that sore, three time loser,
shall strike again,
old friend:

do you?
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?   



Kirby Olson said...

Apparently the Greeks didn't practice sodomy as it's described here. It's obviously a lethal practice.

They did something called intercrural sex, where the older man laid on top of the boy, who crossed his legs. The fold between the thighs was used as a kind of substitute. Far healthier. The Greeks needed to keep their soldiers alive, and sodomy kills them.

I learned this from Robert Peters, who is a gay poetry critic and poet who lives in California, I think.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Curtis Faville said...

Anal sex is not particularly healthy. It's notoriously a site of transmission and infection. As with AIDS, etc. But then, all sex is problematic, in that regard.

The point of my post wasn't venereal diseases, but love poetry.

My guess is that heterosexual love poetry is in a funk, unable to be inspired, oppressed by the historical deluge of examples.

I read a fairly impressive poem by Galway Kinnell about having sex beside a waterfall (I think), but when was the last time you read an inspired het sex poem?

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kirby Olson said...

I think anal sex must be bad in terms of hygiene (no matter who practises it) because poop is infectious with all kinds of bacteria in it (it's not good to eat, for instance). Smear it on a small wound on your arm, and you'll get a terrible infection.

With anal sex, the likelihood of tearing due to the mismatched sizes (the penis isn't supposed to fit in there, and it doesn't), is almost guaranteed to create infections.

I wouldn't know about the orgasm part on the part of the recipient, but I would say that if you love someone you shouldn't do that to them, since it's likely to make them quite ill, eventually.

Better to watch a nice sit-com together, while popping cheese curls.

Kirby Olson said...

There should be more poems about cheese curls, and cheese curl moments.

Curtis Faville said...

I think the point isn't that sex carries certain risks. All sex does. The vagina is like a petri dish, which is why women are taught scrupulous hygiene.

Before the certain advances in modern medicine, child-bearing was a very dangerous thing. Women routinely died in child-birth; this happened to my stepfather's father's mother, when she bore him. Old grandad was raised by his mother's sister's family, whose name he adopted. Born a Wheaton, he was named Harry Faville. My stepfather should have been named Harry Wheaton, instead of Harry Wheaton Faville. My truer name--at least legally truer than my real father's name (Calef)--should have been Curtis Neill Wheaton.

Many women in pre-science days feared having children, feared for their lives. As well they might have.

I'm afraid the dangers of sex are not, in and of themselves, an argument against homosexuality. If anything, they're an argument against ALL sex.

But who would attempt that? Not me.

But again, the post was about poetry, not about sex.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kirby Olson said...

The post was about poetry, but the poetry was about sex.

Curtis Faville said...

Again, the subject was mono-sexual love poetry.

Let's discuss Sappho sometime.

Kirby Olson said...

But there were specifics:

"semen up your ass" for instance, is fairly specific.

What's love got to do, got to do, with it?

Georgie (are there really people that are now christened with only one name), says my stance is Christian, and therefore to be rejected (ad hominem), but I think rather in terms of what's functional, which is part of the reason I am a Lutheran.

Lutheranism functions well.

Marxism doesn't.

Nothing much else does.

when I think about the penis in the anus, it seems to me that the parts don't fit together. They were not made with one another in mind.

It's a little like putting bullets that belong in one gun into another kind of gun.

You're likely to get a big bang out of this, but it won't be good either for the shooter or the gun.

They will both be damaged.

But yes, please do discuss Sappho, and also, the different translations, as you set out once to do with regard to Zukofsky's Catullus.

Please also discuss the killing of the four (or was it six?) police officers in Oakland. It seems like that's your beat.

I don't know very much about who's writing love poetry in American english right now. I think love poetry in the het community seems too bourgeois for our Marxist cupcakes who mostly rule academia now.

Poetry is supposed to be a political interrogation of words, if you're language-oriented.

No celebrations permitted.

The whole idea is to investigate and destroy all forms of bourgeois life, rather than to celebrate them.

You're supposed to attack, attack, attack.

So the homo-sexual love poem can exist, especially if it is perceived as an attack on het love poems.

But you're supposed to be ashamed if you actually love a person of the opposite sex. If anything keep it in the closet, as you're reinforcing the bourgeois order if you do that.

It still appears in ice skating routines. Marriage and its ups and downs is the real theme of most couples skating. There were some good pieces about this in the last Olympics (the Chinese skater who fell and smashed her knee was particularly touching). The British couple -- a few years back -- 94 in Sarajevo?), whose names I can't recall.

I guess you could call that poetry on ice.

But the poetry world has been infiltrated by the political mentality that het love esp. inside of marriage must be destroyed. You're much more likely to find a book of hate poems, or just sex poems (Bukowski was popular).

Love is too bourgeois for all our socialist poets (even Bukowski was a socialist).

And if you did publish a love poem about your partner, you'd be putting her or him in harm's way, because the socialist hornets would rip it to shreds.

So if you want that kind of thing, go back to watching ice skating, esp. couples. You get the whole deal: classical music, lovely leanings upon one another, and the most terrifying of events: a woman thrown spinning into the air, from hence she is supposed to land on one toe and twirl.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Curtis Faville said...


I like "mono" better than Gay. It seems more scientific and specific somehow. People still say "Gay and Lesbian sex" but I think that's awkward. Like monotheism--one on one, instead of one to another.

Let's not get sidetracked.

Will our new age of promiscuity and tolerance produce a wave of monosexual love poetry? Maybe it has already....

Curtis Faville said...


Let's not argue about Gay sex.

Let's talk about the decline of straight love poetry. Why is that happening? Is romantic love an outworn idea? Were the Greeks "romantic"?

Go back to my "love and friendship" post.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kirby Olson said...

There all kinds of pleasures every where you look. Shoving a gallon of ice cream in your face would be pleasant beyond belief, but I don't think it would be good for you. I guess I want to think about long-term good, and anal sex won't lead to that. However, the blog owner has requested that I stay off that topic, and since I am ever so obedient, I will.

Another thing Georgie raises -- Shelley already violently against bourgeois marriage (mostly he was a rat, as were many of the other Romantics, both in England and in France).

but there is also the case of Coventry Patmore and his Angel of the House. It's almost used as a whipping post today by feminist critics.

But then in ice skating you still see Marriage as a heavenly ideal, which is how it was meant -- as a gift from God -- a rainbow stretching from our time back to the garden of Eden.

Check out this little bit of couples skating:

Think about the ardent technique and ask yourself if ANY contemporary poet has worked that hard to get that kind of technique.

Also, imagine what it's saying about love, and just imagine how it would be attacked in the blog-arena, even within a relatively safe socialist arena like Silliman's blog (compared to the Buffalo list, where it's the Wild West for anyone who approaches with anything like a Western Ideal, -- it's Yosemite Sam -- beauty outlawed, and mocked, like Sharon Tate's body before the claws and hammers of the Manson Family.

If you have a love, today, you'd better hide the fact. The Manson Family will get your address. Today, it's almost the whole academic and artistic worlds who will shred anything beautiful just the way Tex and his gals went after Sharon Tate.

I would posit that it's not that het love itself that has died, it's just a love that dare not speak its name in the inverted realm of academia.

Even Silliman himself has to keep his family more or less hidden from the Mansonites who visit his blog. And children? Imagine bringing them up at the Poetics List, or in any arena where they could be slaughtered by the Mansonites...

They are never ever mentioned by the communist hordes, because they know that the people they are running with are closer to wolves.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kirby Olson said...

I rant just enough.