Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Review: Best Gay Poetry 2008

Best Gay Poetry 2008
Edited by Lawrence Schimel

Published by A Midsummer Night’s Press

Reviewed by Jonathan Statham

Poetry is something of a hit and miss affair. It is near impossible to know with any immediacy what significances a poem will have, even for ourselves never mind our culture. A poem is a strike in the dark, a reaching out for something more solid than the slick, greasy sides of daily life. But it is that very life which seeks to make poetry a part of itself, that we might come to make sense of our experiences. In this, as readers, we are always seeking out the poems that prove themselves adequate to our experience, that can give it a shape and a form which far from limiting our lives, rather expands them by evolving new dimensions of feeling. For any who find themselves in a minority, in a life neither served nor represented by the hegemony, for all, that is, who find themselves queer (in its broadest sense), this search takes on a special importance – and, indeed, Schimel tells us in his introduction that it his need ‘first and foremost as a reader’ that led to the creation of this anthology.

The particular significance of this anthology is in its illumination of the diverse ways in which contemporary writers are seeking to conjugate a desire for ‘gay poetry’. Indeed, there is a full spectrum of poetries here, from a twenty page poetic dialogue in iambic pentameters (by Billy Merrill) to a compact composition in pentasyllabic lines (by David Bergman). Whether these are the ‘best’ poetries strikes me as beside the point: they indicate something of the trajectories of gay poetry, they allow us to see what gay poetry is doing and where it is or might be going, a journey which must include both successes and failures. If this anthology is to prove the first of a series, as Schimel intends, it seems to me that its significance ought to lie in precisely this capacity to illuminate, from ground level, the historical development of gay poetry. (It is in this light, at least, that I am reviewing it.)

Much of the poetry here suffers from the modern malaise of being, as Lawrence Ferlinghetti identifies, prose dressed up in verse. In particular, there is a tendency toward a use of colloquial verse in order to describe of gay lives: to ‘keep this morning like a photograph’ (as Chip Livingston puts it in his contribution, a superbly evocative example of an otherwise limited poetic mode). Descriptive poetry serves the function of making gay life recognisable, of making it familiar. Much of our cinema also follows this pattern: it shows us the lives we live, in their diversity and in their specificity. This is a comforting art certainly but it is also a palliative for the withering of experience itself under the dire aegis of capitalist regimentation. In practice, this representative modality drains gay experience of its queer dimension, its dissidence. By normalising gay life, it can be assimilated to the vernacular of the heterocentric mainstream, aspiring to nothing more than what already is.

There is, however, another kind of poem in this anthology: expressive, metaphorical, allusive, aspirational, resistant to rather than representative of the way things are. Description tells us what is there but passionate ‘poetic’ expressiveness is the means humanity has invented precisely to give form to what is not all there, what is half in shadow. The grandeur of poetry lies in not destroying the shadow, in maintaining the difference of experience while giving it form, in evolving our sense that we are always capable of something else, of something more. At the heart of such poetry lies the metaphorical image: the image which does not depict what we see but rather challenges us to transform ourselves ever more intensively, to recreate the world in ever new formations – in the words of Ezra Pound, to ‘make it new’.

These two trends in gay poetry, as revealed in this anthology, illustrate a moment of cultural divergence. On the one hand, there is our assimilation to the descriptive phase, to the monodimensional plane of capitalist heterocentric life, to what is plain to see. On the other, there is escape into uncertainity, ambiguity, elusiveness and risk but also, therefore, vision and ecstasy and the vertigo of the free. Harry Hay saw this and declared the need for new ‘working models, a whole new mathematics, perhaps a new poetry – allegories – metaphors – a music – a new way of dancing’. Thus in our current historical moment, witness to the foreclosure of gay liberation in favour of assimilation, the poetry of passionate expression becomes not only more improbable but more necessary than ever before. What gay liberation, in its revolutionary conception, realised, was that gay experience, for historical reasons, has the power to liberate all sexualities. In the process of sexual liberation, gay experience is the path to a transversal queerness which transforms all sexualities into their free states, into the communism of desires. This work is cultural as much as it is political – but it cannot be accomplished by a descriptive poetry.

Where then is this poetry capable of escaping heterocentric formations to carve instead new territories of poetic form adequate to the territories of gay experience opened up by gay liberation? There are numerous echoes of it in this volume: I would give you a list of names but it seems more important to me that each reader find their own way, freely making their own affinities. For as readers, it is we who play the last part in the creation of a vital gay culture that has its beginning in poetic vision – and Schimel’s series will be an invaluable tool in such a task. As an annual publication, each volume will in itself be a transient cultural object (poetry does not have vintage years) but perhaps the series might come to form a ground for the construction of larger, more historically ambitious anthologies as gay poetry continues to develop, perhaps flowering into a rejuvenated gay cultural and political movement. It would be the task of an expressive, non-descriptive poetry to invent and envision this culture-to-come. The very desire to anthologise poetry under the name ‘gay’ already, intentionally or otherwise, gives to poetry a task: that there be a ‘gay’ movement in poetry. This movement does not yet exist. This series will show if it rises or founders. If it is to be hoped that the poets come who can take up the opportunity for poetic community that this anthology implies, it is to be hoped too that the readers come who can find affinity with that community. That is your cue.

Jonathan Statham lives and writes in Manchester.



At 1:48 PM, Anonymous Sophie Mayer said...

Harry Hay saw this and declared the need for new ‘working models, a whole new mathematics, perhaps a new poetry – allegories – metaphors – a music – a new way of dancing’.

Thank you for that resonant and resistant "cue", Jonathan, and for this compelling and thoughtful review. Where is the poetry capable of escaping heterocentric formations given that English grammar and prosody are shaped by the exigences of binary sex(ism)? And how can new metaphors engage and shape a new queer movement? We need music for this revolution!

At 2:11 PM, Blogger A.H. said...

"We need Music"? We need a new criticism.


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