Thursday, 19 September 2013

The Radetzky March

There are occasions when a queer character will barely announce his/her spectral presence in a modern novel—with a handful of standardised clues—before vanishing without trace of person or purpose. Lieutenant Kindermann in Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March (1932) is one such. Carl Joseph, the novel’s central character, finds him ‘more reassuring than the rest’ of his fellow officers, because he is less obviously militaristic than they. Indeed, his presence is undemonstrative almost to the point of invisibility:

He consisted of a blond, rosy, transparent substance; one could almost have reached through him as through an airy haze in evening sunlight. Everything he said was airy and transparent and was breathed from his being without diminishing him.

He is a ‘cheerful nonentity’ with a ‘high voice’ which, in contrast with the baritone of one of his colleagues, ‘sounded like a gentle zephyr grazing a harp’. His equivocal way of speaking extends, also, to the unmilitary softness of his vocabulary and his gestures:

Kindermann, ever intent on making up for his scant interest in women by feigning a special attentiveness to them, announced, ‘And his wife—do you know her?—a charming creature, a delight!’ And at the word delight he raised his hand, his limp fingers capering in the air.

But when contact with women threatens to become too intimate he falters. Caught up in a drunken regimental visit to a brothel, he cannot hide his agitation, which extends to physical illness:

Kindermann felt faint whenever he smelled naked women; the female sex nauseated him. Major Prohaska had stood in the toilet, earnestly striving to thrust his stubby finger down Kindermann’s throat.

As the seductions begin, ‘Lieutenant Kindermann blanched. He was whiter than the powder on the girls’ shoulders’.
And that is just about it. He has hardly any further role to play in the novel. Just once, a couple of chapters later, when Carl Joseph is feeling ill while on the parade ground after witnissing a fatal duel, Kindermann takes out ‘a coquettish pocket mirror’ to hold up to his eyes so that he can see how pale he looks. If one can isolate any single narrative purpose in the brief existence of this character, it is to identify Carl Joseph, by contrast, as not being queer. Unimpressed by the militaristic bluster of his colleagues, a bit of a loner, and one who hardly associates with women at all, even in the brothel scene—although he does later have a rather sketchily outlined affair with an older woman—at least Carl Joseph is not the kind of man who carries a mirror about his person.

[Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March (London: Penguin, 2000), pp.68, 73-74, 75, 110.]

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Miss Lonelyhearts

One among many grotesque incidents in Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) occurs in the chapter called ‘Miss Lonelyhearts and the clean old man’. After getting drunk in a speakeasy, the book’s eponymous central character, who works as a newspaper’s agony aunt, staggers into a park with his friend Ned Gates to get some fresh air. In the park’s ‘comfort station’ they encounter an old man sitting on the closed lid of one of the toilets. Gates sings ‘If you can’t get a woman, get a clean old man’ and they drag him out into the park. His fear and passivity excite them: ‘Miss Lonelyhearts fought off a desire to hit him’. They now take him drinking and insist on his telling the story of his life. When he demurs, Gates says, ‘We’re scientists. He’s Havelock Ellis and I’m Krafft-Ebing. When did you first discover homosexualistic tendencies in yourself?’ The old man becomes indignantly defensive and tries to strike Miss Lonelyhearts with his cane, but Gates disarms him.
            This moment of violence appeals to Miss Lonelyhearts’ sadism: ‘Miss Lonelyhearts felt as he had felt years before, when he had accidentally stepped on a small frog. Its spilled guts had filled him with pity, but when its suffering had become real to its senses, his pity had turned to rage and he had beaten it frantically until it was dead’. He now takes over the interrogation from Gates, going at it with fresh enthusiasm, and when Gates suggests they stop because ‘The old fag is going to cry’, Miss Lonelyhearts replies, ‘No, Krafft-Ebing, sentiment must never be permitted to interfere with the probings of science’. The old man does, indeed, start crying and when he refuses to tell his story, Miss Lonelyhearts begins violently twisting his arm. Only when somebody hits Miss Lonelyhearts with a chair does he desist from tormenting the man.
            To locate what ‘humour’ there is in this scene from a ‘comic novel’, one has to distinguish firstly between ‘jokes’ and then between the audiences which can plausibly be expected to find them ‘funny’. Gates and Miss Lonelyhearts are enjoying themselves at the expense of homosexuals and sexologists; even, perhaps, of science as a whole. It may be that the author is having the same laughs. There is no obvious indication of his distance from his characters here.

[Nathanael West, Miss Lonelihearts and A Cool Million (Harmondswoth: Penguin, 1961), pp.24-26.]

Monday, 9 September 2013


[This is an item I first published in Anon 2 (2004), pp.46-48.]

I sometimes think I should write every poem of mine as if it were an anonymous letter, deceitful and wounding, swift to the point, stark in message but in voice undependable: ventriloquistic, plagiaristic and synthetic.  It should arrive in the hands of the reader as if slipped under her door late at night by a malicious hand.  Anonymous never takes the blame.  The rest of us have to account for our failings.

Anonymous was a woman veiling her gender, a homosexual expressing his sexuality through the gag of social convention, a radical dissembling her dissidence, an aristocrat holding himself aloof from the sway, a libeller ducking responsibility for the forthrightness of his views, or just a shrinking violet, modest to the point of invisibility.  Virginia Woolf wrote in 1929, ‘I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman’.  Marilyn Hacker wrote in 1978, ‘Women and other radicals who choose / venerable vessels for subversive use / affirm what Sophomore Survey often fails / to note: God and Anonymous are not white males’.

As for me, I like to think it was the same Anonymous who wrote ‘Sumer is icumen in’ and ‘There was a young lady from Exeter’.  Prolific and haphazard, Anonymous’s genius is too mercurial to pin down.  Like Ariel, Anon can change his gender and finesse her way through the confining walls of definitions and categories.  How can we ever attack him, when she is invisible?   Yet how can we grant him more than the marginal status of her virtual absence?  It will never be possible to love his work as a whole, since we can never be sure she wrote it, or that his later work is by the same hand as her juvenilia.  Besides, isn’t there always something deceitful about Anonymous?  Does she really imagine we can trust him?

When I.A. Richards handed out poems to his students at Cambridge in the 1920s, but withheld the names of the poets, he was famously horrified by what he regarded as the ignorance of their responses.  They slated poems by John Donne, D.H. Lawrence and Gerard Manley Hopkins, preferring the work of poetasters little known then, let alone now.  Richards wrote up his findings in Practical Criticism (1929), thereby initiating a whole new trend in university teaching and examining.  For decades it became common practice to withhold information about poets and their societies while discussing their poems.  The central plank of the New Criticism of the 1950s was that the poem must and does work in isolation.  Biography and social context were irrelevant, impertinent; as was the writer’s other work.  To read a poem without knowing the poet’s name was to see it in its purest condition.  And to be able to infer the poet’s name from nothing but the poem was the skill literature students were expected to acquire.

Today, the poems submitted to this magazine, Anon, are to be assessed under similar conditions, isolated from context.  In terms of the judging of merit, this means isolated from prejudice—which can only be a good thing.  The poem must speak for itself.

The benefits of this innovation are obvious to those of us who work in universities and routinely mark essays and exams with the names of the students concealed.  It is obvious that this helps us avoid prejudging the work, for whatever reason.  Yet in the refined world of poetry magazines, the principle of anonymous selection is considered revolutionary.  Perhaps it intimidates the famous, or others who imagine themselves famous enough—and therefore good enough as poets—never to be rejected.  If so, let them be intimidated; they need to be. The rest of us will take our chances alongside everyone else.  If the process scares us, perhaps it will force us to write better poems.  If that proves impossible, rejection is what we deserve.  Nothing is to be gained from a system that rewards poets for their names rather than the self-evident quality of their work.

Opportune Immunity

[This is the proposal for an essay I have been meaning to write, 'Opportune Immunity: AIDS and the American Canon'.]

There is no reference to AIDS in Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland (1990).  It does not ‘matter’ that there is none, but what, if anything, does it ‘mean’?  Some readers might be tempted to suggest that a novel set in 1984 with a major character who is a hooker ought to have registered in some way the existence of the epidemic or of safer sex; or, indeed, that a novel purporting to—or reviewed as if it did—look at the changing state of the Union since Vietnam should show some sign of knowledge that AIDS was an important, burgeoning event in the nation’s literal and figurative health.  Moreover, as a connoisseur of the conspiracy theory, Pynchon might have found theories of the origins of AIDS pertinent to the development of his typical interest in paranoid plots.
           Thinking along the same hypothetical lines, one could ask: what ever became of the scathing Gore Vidal essay about the Reagan state’s negligence?  Where was the Norman Mailer exposé of the same?  Where was the William Burroughs novel about AIDS being just another aspect of viral take-over?  As many have been asking for many years now, we might ask of the canonical American novelists, what did you do in the AIDS war, daddy?  Interviewing Vidal in 1992, Larry Kramer had the temerity to say: ‘You’ve not spoken too much about AIDS’.  Vidal replied: ‘I’m not a hand-wringer.  If I don’t have anything useful to say, what am I to say?  It’s a terrible thing.  Of course it is.  AIDS hasn’t come to me closely except in my own family’.  (His nephew, the painter Hugh Steers, had been diagnosed HIV-positive eight years previously.) [Larry Kramer, ‘The Sadness of Gore Vidal’, in Gore Vidal, Sexually Speaking: Collected Sex Writings (San Francisco: Cleis Press, 1999), pp.255-256.]
Ronald Reagan was justifiably much criticised for ignoring the AIDS epidemic, which began—and began to flourish—on his watch.  But what of the straight, white, male dinosaurs of the American fictional canon?  Given their secure reputations for accurate and wide-ranging portrayals of contemporary American society, it may be worth checking on their progress in this respect by considering how they responded, in their novels, to the first two decades of the AIDS epidemic.  In contrast with prominent gay writers (Armistead Maupin, Edmund White, Andrew Holleran, Larry Kramer, etc.), heterosexual male writers had a much more patchy record in even commenting on, let alone grappling with the detail of, a crisis which once threatened to wreak major demographic and cultural changes across the Republic.
Looking at both passing references to AIDS and much fuller developments of the epidemic’s effects on individuals as well as on the broader society, the essay will consider passages in the following nine major State-of the States novels: Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), Joseph Heller, Closing Time (1994), John Updike, In the Beauty of the Lilies (1996), Saul Bellow, The Actual (1997), Don Delillo, Underworld (1997), Philip Roth, American Pastoral (1997), Tom Wolfe, A Man in Full (1998), Saul Bellow, Ravelstein (2000) and E.L. Doctorow, City of God (2000).
AIDS appears most often in these texts as a sign of the times, typically alongside such other social indicators as urban graffiti, soaring crime rates and visible homelessness.  The epidemic tends to be mentioned merely for the purposes of dating and locating a given narrative—dating it at the apocalyptic fin de siècle and locating it in the hellish city of postmodernity.  AIDS hardly exists in human terms in these novels, but functions instead as a symbolic indicator of the consequences of free-market Reaganomics; or else, as in Bellow’s Ravelstein, the personal account of a friend’s illness and death is almost completely divorced from the social context of the most social epidemic of recent times.

Other Avenues

An information pack entitled How to Get Your Poetry Published, circulated by the Poetry Society, contains the following gem of practical advice under the heading ‘Other Avenues’:

Alternative publishing.  If your work is all on one theme (e.g. gay or lesbian poetry, Christian poetry, Environment poetry) then you should look for publication in the relevant scene rather than in the poetry press, for instance Onlywomen Press or the SPCK.

This ignorant dismissal of gay or lesbian poetry as being ‘all on one theme’, and the relegation of such obsessively narrow writing to the margins, where writers cannot even expect to get published, let alone be received with respect, is not by any means an untypical approach.  The fact is that the British poetry scene is reactionary, nostalgic and prejudiced.  The reputations of many of its star turns depend on an exclusivity that maintains an embargo on true diversity.  Experimentalism is beyond the pale, as is pretty much anything that amounts to a conviction.  As for ‘Christian poetry’ and ‘Environment poetry’—so much for John Donne, so much for Wordsworth.  Let them peddle their narrow obsessions from the margins and be ignored. 
When gay poetry does make it on to a mainstream list, it continues to be reviewed as if it should not have been allowed there at all.  My own first collection, We Have the Melon (Carcanet, 1992), was reviewed in the February 1993 issue of Envoi by Eddie Wainwright.  Having described the book as consisting of ‘a certain brand of male homosexual sex poetry’, but without naming the brand or showing any sign that he knew of other brands, he speculated: ‘I suppose somebody will call this kind of writing a celebration of something or other’.  Even when conceding that I display ‘a good deal of skill with words and poetic forms’, he had to add that ‘what is in question is the cause which such skills serve’.
Quoting Thom Gunn—‘I recommend this book to everyone’—Wainwright disagrees: ‘I would have thought it was unlikely to stimulate the sympathies of those who do not share its narrow focus’.  The phrase ‘stimulate the sympathies’, with its suggestion of a diddling finger or masturbating hand, is Wainwright’s way of trivialising not only the writing but also the reading of gay poetry.  The suggestion is that a poet like me writes pornography, and that the only kind of reader who could possibly like my poetry is one who masturbates to it—necessarily, therefore, a gay man.  But not only that: a gay man with no interest in poetry itself.  The only way to appreciate this muck is with an ejaculation.  For my part, I have no objection to that mode of reading; I merely believe there are many other ways into my books.  Yes, there are even portals broad enough for the dull-witted heft of the heterosexual male.  (Or for that rare type represented by Wainwright, the only type of reader he seems to be reviewing for.)
A recent review of Robert Hamberger’s latest book begins: ‘The Smug Bridegroom is a collection of poems about the disintegration of a marriage and family life and the establishment of a new and entirely different relationship.’  At no point in the review that follows can the reviewer bring himself to mention that this new relationship is ‘entirely different’ (as opposed to just different?) because it is gay.  In poems of great subtlety and technical finesse, and without unneeded ostentation or concealment, Hamberger gives as clear an insight into love’s routines and surprises as I have recently seen in any British poetry.  Mind you, the back-cover blurb of the book itself does no better: it speaks only of ‘the break-up of marriage and renewal of hope’.  The publisher, Five Leaves Press, evidently feels no one will buy it if they know it is gay.  And perhaps he is right.  I am reminded of the blurbs on video/DVD boxes.  Even films with major gay themes are presented as if no such themes were there, lest nobody should want to buy or rent them.  Pink pound or not, queerness is still uncommercial.  (By today’s standards, that means immoral.)  Maybe the poetry market really is currently so depressed that one needs to pander to the prejudiced in order to survive.  In my experience, booksellers like Waterstone’s cannot decide which is going to be the greater turn-off for their customers: to put a book in the gay section (if they have one) or in the poetry section.
In a mad review of my last collection The District Commissioner’s Dreams (Carcanet, 2002) in the London Magazine, John Greening wrote, ‘I suppose a Professor of Gay and Lesbian Studies has a professional obligation to write about these things, but I’d have welcomed a few poems about trees or fly-fishing’.  The information about my job does not appear in the book under review, so Greening has imported it from elsewhere in order to use it against my poetry.  Quite what he imagines my professional duties as consisting of is not clear—writing poetry is certainly not a part of them—but my job serves his purposes as a sign of incomprehensible apartness.  The idea that gay experience might have something to teach us all—indeed, the vast majority of my students are heterosexual—does not even remotely occur to him.  It is not his experience, so he is not interested.  (Presumably, he has never understood the point of Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary or Hedda Gabler because he is not a suicidal adulteress.)  Yet his own hobbies—he being heterosexual and male—are so universal as to be a required topic in any decent literature.  (Presumably, he just skims through Tolstoy and Flaubert and Ibsen, sniffing for a whiff of fish.)  Complacently assuming the rank accorded to majority status, he cannot imagine that what interests him does not interest the world—and the topics he values are therefore those that are valuable.  This is the purely statistical version of how to measure literary worth.  The problem is, of course, that even his statistical understanding is suspect.  I am willing to bet you that far more men on this planet have sex with other men than fish for fish with flies.
I try to imagine myself reading John Greening’s very best poem about fly-fishing—if such a poem exists—and complaining that, well-crafted though it might be, it was no good because it lacked any gay sex.  What is the matter with such people?  Can they really not bear to read about things from beyond the narrow limits of their own experience?  Do their editors not care that this should disqualify them from reviewing at all?  It is as if the cosiness expected of English poetry cannot sustain the sheer seriousness—the problem—of queerness.  Imagine the cultural consequences—going back to How to Get Your Poetry Published—of a national poetry scene that routinely excludes lesbian/gay work, Christian work and environmentalist work, purely by identification of their topic.  The implications for our literature are serious, to say the least.
Given this atmosphere within the poetry market, it is hardly surprising that those who police the reputations of individual writers tend to try to prevent their being limited by the lesbian or gay label.  In 1988 Carl Morse and Joan Larkin failed to get permission to include Elizabeth Bishop in their monumental Gay and Lesbian Poetry in Our Time (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988).  In 1995 Faber & Faber refused David Laurents permission to print W.H. Auden’s poem ‘A Day for a Lay’ in The Badboy Book of Erotic Poetry  (New York: Badboy, 1995) and the Auden estate actually threatened to sue if he went ahead, even though the poem is readily available on the internet.  In 1997 Random House refused Neil Powell permission to use any Auden poems in Gay Love Poetry (London: Robinson, 1997).  And in 1998 the literary executor refused Gillian Spraggs permission to publish work by Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland in Love Shook My Senses: Lesbian Love Poems (London: Women’s Press, 1998).
The point is that the owners of such literature do not want their property to be reduced in value.  And for a writer to be labelled ‘a gay writer’ or ‘a lesbian writer’ is almost always taken as a reduction in value.  John Lucas has said of the fact that, in Gay Times, Alan Sinfield once called me ‘the foremost gay poet working in Britain’, such labelling of writers ‘is to guarantee that they’re pushed to the shady side of the street, especially when … the description itself comes from a gay newspaper, so that the street may seem to lead straight to the ghetto’ (The Dark Horse, Winter 2001-2002).  As Susan Sontag once said to Edmund White, ‘Surely you don’t want to be just a gay writer.  Don’t you want to hit the big time?’
What I am addressing here is a question of the ownership of that tattered commodity the ‘universal’.  Is it universally available or not?  The case of Thom Gunn gives us a pretty clear answer.  Gunn’s reputation went into decline in the UK during the middle period of his career.  This was partly because he became too Californian in Moly (1971)—too much free verse, too many free attitudes—but also because he then became openly gay in Jack Straw’s Castle (1976) and The Passages of Joy (1982).  His gayness was treated in British reviews, when it was acknowledged at all, as just another Californian distraction from the serious business, and the serious topics, of poetry.  But his stock then rose dramatically when The Man with Night Sweats (1992) was published.  Now that it involved AIDS, his gayness was no longer trivial.  It became palatable at last: for, as I am constantly finding in literary criticism, gay deaths can be identified with by straight men, but gay love can not.
This tendency may also help to explain why Mark Doty’s openly gay poetry has been subjected to surprisingly little Greening-like resistance in Britain.  Doty’s is a world in which nothing is so earthy that it cannot be compared to a precious ornament.  His sensuousness is aestheticised to the verge of pure theory.  The fact that he writes so impressively about his relationship with his male lover is rendered acceptable by the context of AIDS and mourning.  The English poetic tradition finds elegy attractive, once the loved man is dying or dead and therefore rendered harmless.
How to Get Your Poetry Published refers to ‘other avenues’ available to lesbian and gay poets, but the fact is that no such avenues exist, other than on-line.  There is a lot of gay and lesbian poetry on the internet—more than we have ever seen before—but there are no consistently reliable sites showcasing the best of such work. The development of the net has both hindered and helped.  But, in truth, gay magazines and periodicals in Britain have not been publishing verse for many years.  The cultural journal perversions (1994-1996) could have carried poetry but never did.  The European Gay Review (1986-1992) only published work by anyone famous enough for its editor to have heard of them; this restricted the field.  I did once manage to infiltrate a poem, ‘The Fire Raiser’ into London’s gay newspaper Capital Gay, but only because it was about an arson attack on the premises of Capital Gay itself.  Before that, the editors of the much-lamented Square Peg did not appear to believe poetry could ever be trendy enough to fit in with their admirably experimentalist ethos, but they did occasionally overcome their scruples on this point.
There has not been a consistently enthusiastic outlet for gay and lesbian verse in Britain since Gay News, under the literary editorship of Alison Hennegan.  I remember, in particular, regularly seeing the work of Ivor Treby and James Kirkup.  Ironically, of course, it was poetry that more or less finished off Gay News when, in 1977, Mary Whitehouse took exception to Kirkup’s fatuous poem ‘The Love that Dares to Speak its Name’ and made sure that the newspaper was prosecuted for ‘blasphemous libel’.  Sad to say, the poem was not worth the eventual effect of its publication—the killing off of the country’s main outlet for gay verse (and many other things besides).
            No gay poetry publishing houses have survived.  The Oscars Press came and went, publishing chapbooks by new poets and a sequence of impressive anthologies.  Oscars luminaries included Peter Daniels, Steve Anthony and Christina Dunhill.  (Brilliance Books flared up briefly, too, but although they were daring, they had never had the nerve to publish verse.  Nor did the short-lived Heretic Books and The Trouser Press.)  In the 1980s the Gay Men’s Press used to put out two-poet collections, under the poetry editorship of Martin Humphries, but the series was discontinued for economic reasons.  I remember being especially, enviously impressed by Steve Cranfield’s collection, which Humphries sensibly paired with his own in 1989.  For a while it seemed that there was a thriving gay poetry scene, if only in London.  Of course, some of our most promising writers have been lost to AIDS.  The very best of the Oscars poets was Adam Johnson.  His posthumous Collected Poems were published this year by Carcanet Press.
Yet there are still plenty of gay poets around.  Carcanet alone publishes a number of them, besides myself, including David Kinloch, John Gallas and Roger Finch; Edwin Morgan and John Ashbery; Edward Lucie-Smith and Neil Powell.  Elsewhere, Lee Harwood continues to produce some of the most impressively sidelong takes on both male relationships and on verse itself.  The most well-known of the new generation of Irish-language gay poets is Cathal Ó Searcaigh.  And there is always the venerable Thom Gunn.  His last collection, Boss Cupid (2000), struck me as more impressive, even, than The Man with Night Sweats.  The whole book crackles with disturbing splicings of the erotic and the deadly.  Who could forget Gunn’s grim variation on the carpe diem entreaty, expressed from the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer’s point of view: ‘love must be ensnared while on the run, / For later it will spoil’?
Before Andrew Motion was appointed Poet Laureate in 1999, two lesbian poets, U.A. Fanthorpe and Carol Ann Duffy, were spoken of as strong candidates.  Jackie Kay, too, was occasionally mentioned.  From its dedication (‘For Rosie as always’) onwards, Fanthorpe’s latest collection, Queueing for the Sun (Peterloo, 2000) wanders gently back and forth between the first persons singular and plural, with the effect of extending the refined subjectivity of an alert and sensitive poet’s mind to the shared experiences of loving togetherness.  In this respect, her ‘we’ reminds me of that of Elizabeth Bishop in the Brazil-based poems she dedicated to the woman she loved.
Gay poetry has been relatively under-researched by literary academics.  Although there have been books on individual authors, as far as I know there have been no accounts of Anglophone gay poetry in general since Robert K. Martin’s The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry (University of Texas Press, 1979) and my own Articulate Flesh: Male Homo-eroticism and Modern Poetry (Yale, 1987).  However, the Australian academic Paul Knobel is now writing a history of gay poetry.  Until that is finished, we have his Encyclopedia of Male Homosexual Poetry and Its Reception History (2002), a very wide-ranging CD-Rom (available from Homo Poetry, P.O. Box 672, Edgecliff, New South Wales, Australia 2027).

 [This essay was first published in Magma 27 (Autumn 2003), pp.22-26.]