Sunday, December 13, 2009

Gregory Woods's "A History of Gay Literature: The Male Tradition"

Gregory Woods is the Professor of Gay and Lesbian Studies at Nottingham Trent University. In A History of Gay Literature, he does not so much as constitute an alternative literary tradition as show the centrality of gay writing (broadly defined) to "mainstream" literature. It is astonishing that so much of what we take as the canon is written by men who loved men. This book then, almost encyclopedic in its scope, is not just for the gay reader who seeks to understand his literary heritage; it is also for the straight reader who wants to discover the sources of his pleasure in this writing.

Like other gay critics and anthologists before him, Woods names names. Many of the names are by now familiar, but others--like T. S. Eliot--are not usually discussed in this context. That is one pleasure of this book: the re-orientation of a familiar waste land. Yet other names still attract debate. The chapter on Shakespeare homes in on the interpretation of Sonnet 20, often used by straight critics to argue that the speaker's interest in the young man is not sexual. Woods points out that, besides the boy's penis, "[m]uch remains to be made love to." He also quotes the convincing argument raised by Rictor Norton against critics who claim the whole sequence is merely conventional:

The sonnet reveals a man who is nearly obsessed by the fact that his lover has a penis. By expressing this awareness on paper, he had violated all the decorum proper to the missives between a faithful friend and his alter ipse. I can find no other example in Renaissance literature, either in England or on the Continent, in which a gentleman even hints at, much less so blatantly, his friend's genital endowment and its relation to his own pleasure. The tacky dismissal of its usefulness to him raises an issue that should otherwise have gone unnoticed. 

I confess it gives me a thrill to hear Woods call Shakespeare's lover his boyfriend.

Besides Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe and Marcel Proust get their own chapter. Other writers are discussed in chapters on their literary periods or movements, such as The Christian Middle Ages and The Harlem Renaissance. Thematic chapters lend variety to the chronological arrangement. I find the chapter on masturbation "From Solitary Vice to Circle Jerk" particularly exciting. There are chapters too on non-Western writers. I am in no position to judge the treatment of "Black African Poetry" but I think the chapter on Chinese and Japanese writers is too dependent on other specialists.

A poet himself, Woods also argues for the centrality of poetry to the gay literary tradition. His last chapter "Poetry and Paradox" tries to clear a space of difference for gay literature. He locates that difference in the use of paradox (Greek para and doxa, meaning contrary to public opinion). For authority, he refers to Cleanth Brooks who writes in The Well Wrought Urn (1949) that paradox is "the language appropriate and inevitable to poetry." If poetry is paradox, and gay literature is paradoxical, the argument goes, poetry must be an essential part of gay literature.

I am of course oversimplifying a nuanced argument, but reduced to a simpler form the argument appears to me to be at least problematic. The Brooks quotation suggests that all poetry, and not just gay poetry, uses paradox, and so the gay poet has no special claim to it. It also seems strange to me to rely on a New Critical conception of poetry, a conception that seems to me severely limited. Wilde, who appears as the first example, and the exemplar, is known more for his plays than his poetry. "Each man kills the thing he loves" may have a special gay meaning, but is hardly a gay idea.

It's a tricky issue, the gay difference. I am not even sure if there is such a difference, beyond the obvious difference of subject matter and theme. My feeling is that the deeper difference lies not so much between gay and straight writers, but between writers and the rest of society. There is something very queer about someone who retreats from fellow human beings to fiddle around with words.


Shropshirelad said...

Look at those rhymes in Sonnet 20.

Unless I be very much mistaken, an extra syllable dangleth at the end of each line. Methinks wicked Willie is making a special kind of structural joke.

Talk about form following function. Masterful.

WL said...

They're feminine rhymes.