Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Gregory Woods's "Articulate Flesh" Post 2

This book of gay poetry criticism is divided into two sections: Themes and Variations. Under the rubric of Themes, Woods examines The Male Body, Men of War, and Childless Fathers. In the first, he describes from the literature of men who desire men the specific attractions associated with each year of adolescence. After that fascinating chronology, he explores the three ideal male physiques in Western art, and their correspondence to mythical and historical figures that recur in gay male poetry. The discussion of Orpheus is of great interest. Woods writes:

Intact, torn and scattered: such are the three conditions of the body of Orpheus. The first, being the condition, also, of Apollo already dismissed, is negligible. But the second and third bear some relation to the nature of sexual appraisal and activity, insofar as looking at and making love to a person may be deeds of dismemberment. 'The true body is a body broken.' So says Norman O. Brown, before quoting Yeats: 'Nothing can be sole or whole/ That has not been rent'.

In the chapter on Men of War, Woods discusses not just soldiers, but sailors, cops, bikers, firemen and toughs: symbols of hyper-masculinity. The most subtle analysis of the theme comes in the section on the enemy-as-lover. I find particularly interesting his finding that this erotic theme is relatively scarce in the literature of the Pacific half of the Second World War, of the Korean War and of the Vietnam War. Woods suspects that this scarcity may be due to "an unstated sexual racism, which magnanimously grants the Asian enemy the respect due to a human being, and the right to life, but not the visual beauty required of a warrior-lover."

That gay poets play father to their poems is a common enough topos. Most interesting in the chapter on Childless Fathers is the section on adoption. Because the attraction to one's "son" smacks of incest, this motif appears infrequently in gay male poetry. Woods insists, however, that "the adoptive relationship is no less strongly felt for being merely semantic--a matter of definition--the power of words being emotively greater than that of biological 'law'." I think this must be correct.

Section two discusses Variations on the themes in the work of five poets: D.H. Lawrence, Hart Crane, W.H. Auden, Allen Ginsberg and Thom Gunn. The poets are selected on the basis of the homosexual tendencies in their work, even if, as in the examples of Lawrence and Crane, they did not identify as such. Woods shows how their poetry is productively, and not reductively, read as homosexual. To deny such homosexual readings is to disfigure the work.

Woods's reading of Crane is so exciting that it sent me back to Crane's White Buildings, especially his sequence "Voyages," here read specifically as about homosexual love. My experience of re-reading Crane repeated my experience of reading him: first, excitement with his metaphorical density and suggestiveness, and then boredom with the luxuriance of the language. The chapter on Thom Gunn is persuasive in seeing Gunn's tough men as poseurs. Gunn knows that only madmen would conflate the person and the pose. The change in his later work towards tenderness is associated by Woods to Gunn's coming-out and to the gay liberation movement.

In his final paragraph, of the chapter and of the book, Woods defends the continued vitality of gay male poetry after liberation. It is a fighting, uncompromising statement.

I therefore take Gunn as a model of the contemporary gay poet in transition. As one who has progressed from pre-Wolfenden Cambridge to post-'Liberation' San Francisco, he has built a career in parallel with modern gay history. His leisurely growth into openness is a an affront to the sensibilities of those who believe that homosexuality, if it must exist, should be neither seen nor heard. Objecting to the openness is a question not, as some would claim, of aesthetic judgement, but of aversion to homosexuality itself. The explicit literature of homosexuality is problematical only to the extent that homosexuality itself is a problem. If we require homosexual men to behave like lunatics, sinners, and criminals, we must exclude their behavior from the limits we set to sanity, virtue, and legality. Similarly, if we require our homosexual writers to employ the elaborate fabrications of neurosis and guilt, we must censor them or, better still, demand that they censor themselves. Otherwise, we should welcome their emergence into lucidity.

1 comment:

Shropshirelad said...

Hi Jee,

Isn't it curious how we tend to look at soldiers, fire-fighters, cops, etc., as examples of hyper-masculinity? I wonder if the degree of masculinity we assign to this category of creatures suggests more about the internal workings of the observer than the intrinsic nature of the person being observed.

Perhaps there is something at work in senses related to how primates establish social hierarchies. How do homosexuals fit into these ancient structures? I wonder if what we are looking at here might be an anthropological question with erotic, aesthetic, and political ramifications.

A very thought-provoking post.