IS GAY SMARTER THAN STRAIGHT?

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Poet Edward Field, 89 years old, and the most entertaining guest in Our Deep Gossip.

Really stupid people, we say, cannot grasp any sort of complexity.

But then there’s another kind of smart, good, or educated person who errs by making things too complex.

Then we have the truly smart person who knows complexity, but also knows when not to be complex.

The three (crude) types mentioned above might be categorized as the one cared for by the system, the one of the system, and the rebel who breaks the system’s rules.

The system, in this case, is American poetry and the general puritan American culture surrounding it. We have just finished reading, on a beautiful afternoon, Our Deep Gossip, Conversations with Gay Writers on Poetry and Desire by Christopher Hennessy, foreward by Christopher Bram, and instead of finding the “deep,” we found the simplicity of the intelligent rebel.

The rebel is not beholden to a lot of systemic obligations. The rebel speaks what might be called a queer truth, true not because it is queer, but true because its desire is of that immediate kind not trapped by any system. The rebellion can be expressed in a number of very simple ways: I don’t want to get married, I don’t want to rhyme, I don’t want to be polite, I don’t want to conform, I don’t want to have children, I don’t want to do what others expect me to do, I don’t want to make sense, I don’t want to be complex if I can be simple, I don’t want to put off pleasure. And all of these things might be called queer. But what they really are is actually anything but queer; they are manifestations of simple common sense. And this expediency makes the queer what every queer secretly knows itself to be: smart.

Our Deep Gossip is uncannily smart—right from the beginning of Bram’s foreward:

I’ve never understood why more people don’t love poetry. The best poetry is short, succinct, highly quotable, and very portable. It can take five minutes to read a poem that you will ponder for the rest of your life. Poetry should be as popular as song lyrics or stand-up comedy. Nevertheless, I often hear otherwise well-read people say, without embarrassment, “I don’t read poetry. It’s too difficult—” or strange or obscure or elusive. They will slog through hundreds of pages of so-so prose about a computer geek in Sweden or a made-up medieval land populated with princes and dwarves but freeze like frightened deer when confronted by a simple sonnet.

I cannot think of a better defense of poetry. This needs to be said over and over again. This is the sort of simple truth that is so simple that it rarely gets said. And why? Because inevitably poets feel the need to defend difficulty. Or the Creative Writing Director needs to not offend his fiction students. The system will not allow the simple truth to be spoken in quite the way Bram has expressed it. But when has a system ever cared for simple truth?

Edward Field is the first poet interviewed by Hennessy, and “deep,” again, is not what we get— we get something more to the point, more truthful:

…the cant idea is that [poetry] is about language. That’s one of two pernicious ideas about poetry. The second is the stricture against sentimentality. That is so evil! Every feeling you have is, of course, sentimental.

Field, and the other seven interviewees, don’t give us any “deep gossip” about lovers and friends; they make simple observations that make you realize that being gay is not some great mystery with all kinds of deep secrets any more than being straight is. Since heterosexuality is more invested (just generally) with the system of breeding, one might assume the gay sensibility is closer to pursuing pleasure without this massive system’s strictures and obligations; but no, not really; this assumption (by straights) is just one more reason the gay sensibility tends to have more common sense: it knows it is not as secretive and complex as it is thought to be, and this contributes to clearer thinking. Look at Field’s brilliant but simple take on Ashbery:

I think John Ashbery is beyond criticism. His work is nothing I’m interested in, but he says things in the exact words, and it’s beyond criticism. It’s like a cat meowing. A cat meows, that’s what it does. John Ashbery writes that way; there’s no way to criticize it.

Ashbery is famous for writing poetry that makes no sense, and all sorts of complex reasons (including the fact he’s gay) have been offered up, but as Ashbery himself airily observes in the second interview of the book, he had crushes on women when he first wrote poetry in his signature style; he did not think of himself as gay when first writing as Ashbery. And if there was any doubt whether his obscurity is intentional or not, Ashbery himself makes no effort to be mysterious about it: “I don’t think I ever know where my poetry is going when I’m writing.”  And one finds Ashbery simple to the point of naivety responding to Frost’s famous epigram.  Ashbery: “it [is] harder to play tennis without the net.”

The prolific Ashbery merely practices the extreme simplicity of the rebel Beats. As Field (is this “deep?”) puts it:

When I started writing, the more revisions you made on a poem, the better it was. Poets bragged that they’d made 125 versions of a poem. John Crowe Ransom wrote about one poem a year. Philip Larkin too. But Allen Ginsberg said, “First thought, best thought.” And it’s really a very good idea. And Frank O’Hara had the same idea.

Surely Richard Howard will give us some “deep gossip.” But no, the third to be interviewed only says things like: “My students: They don’t read.” Writing poetry, teaching, and translating for him is “one activity.” He has “many selves.” And, “I’ve never really had a father.”

Edward Field—we keep coming back to him because this elder poet sets the tone—discusses one of his poems in which his penis is a girl. Ah, so that’s the secret of how gays are gay! How sweetly simple!

Field revels in being a simple outsider bohemian— he strips the fancy from everything. The gay Andy Warhol, for instance, is not an elaborate example of camp or Conceptualism; in Field’s eyes Warhol’s just a “prole:”

if you see poetry as ‘high class,’ you’re not going to write about Campbell’s soup. …prole Andy Warhol never put on any airs…

Aaron Shurin is next, and he calls himself “unromantic” because coming out as gay he was “another person.” Which makes perfect sense. One can’t be a Romantic if one is two people. Byron thought of himself as Byron—not a as a million different people; sure, Byron had different roles and moods, but that’s not quite the same as being “another person.” Nor does Shurin, we are sure, think of himself as really being “another person,” and yet Byron he is not, and so we understand why he calls himself “unromantic.” But heterosexuals distance themselves from Byron as well: John Crowe Ransom did.

Wayne Koestenbaum is the seventh poet to be interviewed in Our Deep Gossip and he, too, keeps it simple. To wit:

Jane Bowles, Jean Rhys, and Gertrude Stein—three of my idols and stylistic models—were profoundly matter-of-fact in their relation to weirdness…

Making God the subject of a sentence whose predicate is simply a ski bunny fills me with a sense of a deed well done, a day well spent. I get a Benjamin Franklin pleasure (the counting house of the affections) from writing a sentence like “God is a ski bunny.”

…poets who come up through the MFA route have a falsely idealized intellectuality, because they think intellectuality is the magic serum that they’re going to inject into poetry to lift it…

I’ll admit it: I have a baby fetish. I turn to jello when I see a baby. When I “finish” a poem…I get a “baby” sensation surrounding it.

The last “baby” quote from Koestenbaum is not queer at all. Or is it? Or does it matter?

Field’s ‘penis as a girl’ poem, “Post Masturbatum,” states simply, “Afterwards, the penis/is like a girl who has been ‘had’/and is ashamed…foolish one who gave in…” And this is echoed by Koestenbaum’s moral “With engorgement comes delusion. When you’re in that state, you’re not making good decisions.”

We flash back to Bram’s foreward, where he wrote, “people say, without embarrassment, ‘I don’t read poetry…”

Is “embarrassment” the key word here? If only people were ashamed to say they don’t read poetry! But they’re not. The non-poetry readers are not embarrassed. But Christopher Hennesy and the eight poets he interviews are not embarrassed, either, as Bram makes clear:

Neither Christopher Hennessy nor any of his eight genial, highly articulate guests express the slightest embarrassment over their love of poetry.

Perhaps there needs to be more tension between the two camps— some embarrassment, perhaps, on both sides.

When Hennessy approvingly quotes a Koestenbaum poem

My butt, at its best, resembles Faust’s dog.
It has an affectionate relationship to condiments.

he chortles, “Such loony lines!”

And this reminds us of Ashbery’s joke earlier: the simple use of a line Ashbery heard from the Antiques Road Show in one of his poems: “There’s a tremendous interest in dog-related items.” Both Ashbery and Hennessy laugh.

Is this what Bram means when he says “neither Christopher Hennessy nor any of his eight genial, highly articulate guests express the slightest embarrassment over their love of poetry?”

But doesn’t laughter depend on embarrassment? Field says funny poetry is a good thing, and that Auden changed everything for the better by elevating Light Verse to a higher place in the canon. Surely the humorous is a big part of modern and post-modern poetry.

But this is just one more piece of the whole common sense approach to Our Deep Gossip. Gay is embarrassing. And we laugh. But just as we would laugh at any number of things, sexual or otherwise, that are not gay.

Exactly the same.

HOWARD NEMEROV BOMBS EDWARD FIELD

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Howard Nemerov is the only ‘N’ in the APR anthology, The Body Electric: America’s Best Poetry From The American Poetry Review. In the volume Nemerov sits between Eileen Myles and Frank O’Hara.  Myles defeated O’Hara in Round One of the Scarriet 2011 APR March Madness.

Edward Field, who personally paid a visit to Scarriet recently after his Round One Victory over Donald Justice—a poet I met while at Iowa—had a brief affair with O’Hara in New York City as a young man.

Small world.

Like sports teams which perform poorly, or well, from one game to the next, every time a poem is read, it might knock you flat or leave you bored—you never can tell, even though it’s the same team, it’s the same poem—and it’s always you reading that poem.  Black-robed judgment: that team is this good, that poem is this good must wait on these vicissitudes.

So who knows who will win this particular contest between Edward Field and his Freud poem or Howard Nemerov and his WW II poem?  Who knows how many stars there are in the sky?  Why does anything matter?

MARLA MUSE: Tom, are you intoxicated?

I wish.  I’m sober as a judge. I’m a little hungry. I hear a dog barking somewhere. The cat is crunching its dry food. A distant motorcycle. I’m miserable.  I’m also a little thirsty.  But I’m doing what I love…

MARLA MUSE: O-kaaay…uh…let the game begin!

A very enthusiastic crowd on hand today, Marla!

Rep-re-SENT-ing! the New YORK SCHOO-ULLLL…SAY HELLO TO EDWARD FEEE-ULD!!!!!

(applause, cheering)

Whatever Became of Freud?

Has the age of psychology really passed?
Aren’t people interested anymore
in how their toilet training shaped them?

AND NOW… THE OLDER BROTHER OF PHOTOGRAPHER, DIANE ARBUS, SON OF RUSSEK’S FIFTH AVENUE DEPARTMENT STORE, WW II PILOT VETERAN, TWICE AMERICA’S POET LAUREATE AND PULITIZER AND BOLINGEN PRIZE WIN-UUUH…HOWWWW-ARD NEM-ER-OFFFFFF!!!

(applause, cheering)

IFF

Hate Hitler? No, I spared him hardly a thought,
But Corporal Irmin, first, and later on
The O.C. (Flying), Wing Commander Briggs

MARLA MUSE: Too much information. Both these poets give us too much information!

But I enjoy reading what they have to say…the popularity of Freud, WW II pilot stories…great stuff…

MARLA MUSE: Too much information.  Poetry can suffer from too much information. Gak!  Get them an editor…

Did I just hear the Muse say, “Gak?”

MARLA MUSE: Sorry.

This is nice from Nemerov: “Hitler a moustache and a little curl/In the middle of his forehead,/whereas these/Bastards were bastards in your daily life”

MARLA MUSE: And this is nice from Nemerov: “To wait our turn in their lofty waiting-room,/And on every circuit, when we crossed the Thames,/Our gunners in the estuary below”

The Edward Field poem is a rambling mess.  How did Field beat Donald Justice?

MARLA MUSE: I don’t know, Tom.  But Field is getting spanked by Nemerov today.

Howard Nemerov Advances to the Sweet Sixteen with a 74-58 victory.

CONGRATULATIONS TO THE FIRST ROUND MARCH MADNESS WINNERS!

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Let’s get this winners and losers business out of the way…

Here are the winners:

EAST BRACKET

LISA LEWIS (d. John Ashbery) Responsibility
WILLIAM MATTHEWS (d. James Wright) Good Company
GILLIAN CONOLEY (d. Robert Creeley) Beckon
CAROLYN CREEDON (d. James Tate)  litany
GREGORY CORSO (d. Stanley Kunitz)  30th Year Dream
DORIANNE LAUX (d. A.R. Ammons)  The Lovers
LESLIE SCALAPINO (d. Jack Spicer)  that they were at the beach
BARBARA GUEST (d. Larry Levis) Motion Pictures: 4

NORTH BRACKET

KAREN KIPP (d. Robert Lowell)  The Rat
JACK HIRSCHMANN (d. Robert Penn Warren*) The Painting
EILEEN MYLES (d. Frank O’Hara)  Eileen’s Vision
WILLIAM KULIK (d. Czeslaw Milosz)  Fictions
SHARON OLDS (d. Robin Becker)  The Request
TESS GALLAGHER (d. Richard Hugo)  The Hug
STEPHEN DOBYNS (d. Jim Harrison)  Allegorical Matters
AMY GERSTLER (d. Norman Dubie)  Sinking Feeling

NORTH BRACKET

JACK MYERS (d. Seamus Heaney)  The Experts
PHILIP LARKIN (d. Joseph Duemer)  Aubade
BILL KNOTT (d. Robert Bly)  Monodrome
EDWARD FIELD (d. Donald Justice)  Whatever Became of Freud
MAURA STANTON (d. Anne Carson)  The Veiled Lady
ALAN DUGAN (d. Hayden Carruth)  Drunken Memories of Anne Sexton
HOWARD NEMEROV (d. David Ignatow)  IFF
MICHAEL PALMER (d. Yusef Komunyakaa)  I Do Not

WEST BRACKET

ALLEN GINSBERG (d. Howard Moss) The Charnel Ground
DONALD HALL (d. Douglas Crase)  To A Waterfowl
RICHARD CECIL (d. Robert Hass)  Apology
JOY HARJO (d. Sylvia Plath)  A Post-Colonial Tale
JAMES SCHUYLER (d. Stephanie Brown)  Red Brick and Brown Stone
REED WHITTEMORE (d. Heather McHugh)  Smiling Through
STEPHEN DUNN (d. Sam Hamill)  What They Wanted
CAROL MUSKE (d. Charles Bukowski)  A Former Lover, A Lover of Form

* Robert Penn Warren resigned from the tourney

MARLA MUSE: Some of the losers I really don’t want to say goodbye to; the Milosz, the Justice, the Dubie, the McHugh…

The Bukowski…there’s something holy about his work, a wry honesty that few poets evince…I was thinking about the qualities that go into writing good poetry, both the New Critical qualities of the poem itself and those qualities the poet as a human being must have…

MARLA MUSE: The poet must say the right thing at the right time.

Or seem to.  Because in real situations in life, that’s a good quality to have: to be able to say the right thing at the right time, but for the poet, “time” can be years as they work on the poem, which distorts the meaning of that ability, the ability to say the right thing at the right time: if someone really has that ability in life, to really say the right thing at the right time, they wouldn’t need to fake it in a poem…

MARLA MUSE: Oh, you’re getting all Plato on me…life is real, poetry is fake

But isn’t it true, Marla, that ‘saying the right thing at the right time’ is not the same thing in life, as it is in poetry…poets can wait for the right time to pass, but in life, you can’t…the room is silent, and life calls for something to be said then, but to be a poet you can slink away and say something later…it doesn’t have to be at the right time

MARLA MUSE: The right time in the poem?

Yes, when you failed to say the right thing at the right time in life…

MARLA MUSE: But if we’re talking about qualities, the person who can say the right thing in a poem is probably the person who can say the right thing in life…

No, because if you can say the right thing at the right time in life, there’s no motivation to do so in a poem, for the poem is a shadow…life doesn’t let us wait years…

MARLA MUSE: But it does.  You are trying to connect life and poetry, you are trying to connect two things, and you can’t, and therefore you are saying nothing…

Am I?  So I shouldn’t have asked my original question: what qualities in life match those qualities in the poet…

MARLA MUSE: What about not fearing to go into an underground mine?  Does that help a poet?  To risk your life for somone else, does that have anything to do with being a poet?  I think we can only look at the poem.  I think the New Critics were right…

But Marla, you are beautiful!  How can you say something like that?

MARLA MUSE: Are we talking about poetry?

Thomas Brady is never talking about poetry, is he?

MARLA MUSE: Well, Tom, sometimes you do…

I’m thinking about that Bukowski poem, the car headlights, the remark by the mother, and the son’s joking, half-shameful, half-boastful response, and all the various parts in that Bukowski poem—isn’t the good poem when all those parts cohere?

MARLA MUSE: Bukowski lost! Why are you talking about him? Ah, you are recalling that debate you had…when you used the word “incoherent”…clever boy…you’re a New Critic, after all…

Yea, but the New Critics themselves were such narrow-minded, creepy—

MARLA MUSE: They hated the Romantics, that’s all, but that’s why you’re here, Tommy boy…

But right now this is not about me…congratulations, poets!

DONALD JUSTICE V. EDWARD FIELD

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Field: an affair with O’Hara,  but does he have a chance against Donald Justice?

MARLA MUSE: I love Don Justice!

Donald Justice (b. 1925) is Elizabeth Bishop’s (b. 1911) melancholy son, the same modest devotion to the rueful, observant, semi-musical lyric,  proud, mild; desperation politely, cunningly submerged. He’s not really an APR poet. He’s not really a magazine poet; Justice is one of those poets whose many anthology pieces deliver, and whose books contain a great deal of poems which are a pleasure to read. He wasn’t one of the crazies. His poems are instantly likable.

MARLA MUSE: I inspired him many times.

Edward Field is an APR poet. Justice is a scene in a lake, a lyric postcard. Field is a chatty essay, a late night talkshow gabbing up somewhere near the moon reflected in the TV. Justice is a flower hung with snow. Field is a sooty neon sign. Justice is the gin after the coffee. Field is the coffee after the gin.

MARLA MUSE: So who’s going to win?

Let’s find out. Justice is the no. 4 seed:

In Memory of My Friend the Bassoonist John Lenox

One winter he was the best
Contrabassoonist south
Of Washington D.C.—
The only one. Lonely

In eminence he sat,
Like some lost island king,
High on a second-story porch
Overlooking the bay—

His blue front lawn his kingdom—
And presided over the Shakesperean
Feuds and passions of the eave-pigeons.
Who, during the missle crisis,

Had stocked his boat with booze,
Charts, and the silver flute
He taught himself to play,
Casually, one evening;

And taught himself to see,
Sailing thick glasses out blindly
Over a lilly-choked canal—
O autodidact supreme!

John, where you are now can you see?
Do the pigeons there bicker like ours?
Does the deep bassoon not moan
Or the flute sigh ever?

No one could think it was you
Slumped there on the sofa, despairing,
The hideous green sofa.
No, you are off somewhere,

Off with Gaugin and Christian
Amid hibiscus’d isles,
Red-mustached, pink-bearded
Again, as in early manhood.

It is well. Shark waters
Never did faze you half so much
As the terrible radios
And booboiseries of the neighbors.

Here, if you care, the bay
Is printed, with many boats now,
Thick as trash; that high porch is gone,
Gone up in the smoke of money, money;

The barbarians…But enough.
You are missed. Across the way,
Someone is practicing sonatas.
And the sea air smells again of good gin.

And Edward Field, the no. 13 seed:

Whatever Became Of: Freud?

Has the age of psychology really passed?
Aren’t people interested anymore
in how their toilet training shaped them?
Nowadays, nobody talks of their “analysis,” or even
the less respectable therapies that came into fashion
about the time we gave up on the couch—
encounter groups, group gropes, group games, and finally
just lying on the floor, screaming out the pain.
Or even, on the lowest level
(which we all descended to in desperation),
self-help books: How to overcome depression,
get more confidence, be popular

But usually, we were safely in the hands of Freud,
whose theories, a whole generation beyond Marx swore,
would rescue mankind from its lot,
and even, in the views of Reich, end war
when we liberated our sexuality
by working through the body’s armouring
to release our soft and loving primal selves—
war and love supposedly being incompatible—
also by sitting for hours in the orgone box to absorb
the sexual energy of the universe.

Those were the years when we were all convinced
we were “neurotic,” discussed our neuroses passionately,
analyzed our dreams with friends over coffee
and endless cigarettes—we were fiendish smokers—
talked of breakthroughs, insights, and sometimes with awe
of “graduation,”when the “neurosis”
would finally be “cured,” which meant
you had worked through your blocks, your inhibitions,
and you were no longer Acting Out Negative,
but had found your niche in society—
meaning, marriage, a career, and forgiving your parents.
We argued whether this meant the end of “creativity.”

The air is clearer since “phallic symbol”
has gone the way of “penis envy” and “Freudian slip.”
Nobody nowadays blames their failures on their neuroses,
and if you say “transferences,” everyone assumes
you’re not talking about your bank accounts.
It’s no longer news the discovery
(and Freud deserved the Nobel Prize for it)
that people’s minds are always on sex.

But with the same obsession we had with Freud,
and the same narcissism (how we beat each other
with that faded cry), people nowadays are able to simply
turn away from “problems” and wallow in their pleasures,
making a cult of health, and devote themselves
just to working on their bodies. Did I say “just”?
Even Freud was always looking for the roots
of neurosis in the body. And as Claudette Colbert said
on observing Marilyn Monroe’s buns,
“I would have had to start at thirteen.”

Sadly, true. For us old devotees of the therapies,
the cornerstone of our faith, Talk
and you can change your history,
proved to be bad Freud, and even worse, a fraud—
far more expensive than the gym and stylish joggers.
Years of talking, and nothing got solved.
Except the language of it
seemed to define the losses of a generation,
and for all its radiant promises, that was all.

MARLA MUSE: Is that even a poem?

Since when was prose not poetry?

MARLA MUSE: Huh?

Just enjoy the game, Marla…

MARLA MUSE: OK

Field…talking…talking some more!

…Justice…trimeter…!

Field…defining an era…! talking…defining an historical era…discussing an era’s social values…talking…defining…!

Field! talking some more!

Justice…goes for the personal!…a strict four line stanza!

Field…past tense…the ‘we’ address…!

Justice…picturesque!…Justice…the winsome detail!…Justice…getting playful! …lyrical…!

Field…touching on cultural artifacts in a clear manner…!

Field…assembling the paragraph…!

Now Justice shifts from third person to second…!

Field brings his self-reflexive thesis to a conclusion…!  Talk as failure…!

Talk! Talk! Talk!  Justice trying to establish the image…!  Talk! Talk! Talk!  The memory of his friend…!  taste…! smell…! listening to music…!  the ocean…!

Justice appealing to all the senses!  Feigns an iambic line!

Field…has something to say…!

Talk! Talk! Talk!  Field!  Field! Justice! Justice! Field! Justice! Field!

Field Wins 61-60!  Another Upset!

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