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.