Review: Ganymede Poets: One
Published by: Ganymede Books
Reviewed by Gregory Woods
I have been reading gay poetry anthologies in any language with which I’m familiar ever since I began to write a doctoral thesis on homo-erotic poetry in the mid-1970s. Not just anthologies from our own time, but also those from the distant past, put together for private collectors who wanted to read celebrations of their own erotic interests. This makes me, at once, both the best and worst person to review a new anthology. Best because I know the competition; worst because I’ve seen it all before.
Ganymede Poets is an anthology of the thirty-eight gay male poets who appeared in the first six issues of the New York gay literary magazine Ganymede. Like the magazine itself, the book is beautifully produced, lavishly illustrated with black and white photographs, all loosely related to the themes of the poetry.
Judging by their biographical notes, many of the poets collected here have postgraduate degrees in creative writing. The standard reaction to this, here in the UK, would be a kind of affected ridicule, spluttering along the lines that no decent writer needs to be taught how to write. Well, just tell yourself that when you next read a British anthology of gay poetry! If nothing else, at least these guys have read other poets. Most of them write what is called ‘free verse’, but it is informed free verse. Apart from a couple of non-American contributors, I think it’s safe to say that virtually all of them are familiar with the poems of William Carlos Williams; many with Ezra Pound and others. They know where to put the words on the page. They know the limits of their ‘freedom’. By contrast, generally speaking, most of the contributors of free verse to anthologies published in Britain seem never to have heard of Williams, let alone read him with any care. And that is not to mention Charles Olson or George Oppen or Louise Glück…
So what impresses me here, before we even begin on the content, is the quality of the verse. Christopher Gaskins, for instance, impresses me not so much for what he says as by the way he says it in lean, sinewy, unsentimental free verse. The same might be said of Matthew Hittinger’s syllabics and Jee Leong Koh’s disciplined, rhyming quatrains. And there are always individual lines to take one’s fancy: I did enjoy this sentence from R.J. Gibson’s ‘On Main Street’: ‘Like some classist / prat in a Forster novel with a boner for the help, you want a little trade’.
All the poets are somewhat overshadowed, as you might expect, by a selection of Daniel Mendelsohn’s translations from the Greek of Constantine Cavafy. But to read Matt Cogswell’s ‘How I Spent the Afternoon’ straight after Cavafy’s ‘Their Beginning’ (one of my favourite ‘gay poems’) is not conspicuously to move from a great poet to a mediocre one so much as to make a cultural shift from an absolute, classical belief in the power of art to memorialise its fleshly inspirations, to something much more tentative and speculative, an attempt to grasp the slippery pleasures of virtuality in the medium of solid print. In the end, the fundamental motivation is pretty much the same as Cavafy’s.
After so much talk of technique, I suppose it might make sense to give a clearer view of the experience of reading the book from cover to cover. (I never just dip into poetry books, whether multi-authored anthologies or single-authored collections.) There is more queer life between these covers than in virtually any gay novel you might care to name. The difference is that, here, you can’t rely on the infantile joys of passively listening to a linear narrative and waiting for what’s going to happen to happen. Here, a whole world of queerness will pass before your eyes (and through your ears) in a fragmented and contingent order (the authors are presented alphabetically), raucous with expressions of desire and longing, articulated by a range of voices, mostly young but otherwise pretty varied in attitude and background; and you will feel at times a part of it all, and at others apart from it all. Read it as a strangely irrational postmodern novel—with sexy pictures.
Gregory Woods is Professor of Gay and Lesbian Studies at Nottingham Trent University. His critical books include Articulate Flesh: Male Homo-eroticism and Modern Poetry (1987) and A History of Gay Literature: The Male Tradition (1998), both from Yale University Press. His poetry books are published by Carcanet Press. His website is www.gregorywoods.co.uk
Labels: Poetry Review