Thursday, August 30, 2007

Outside the Lines: some modern gay poets

Not exactly eclectic this book. It is a selection of conversations with 12 gay poets. Another piece of cul-de-sac criticism: the gay poet.

But nothing could be more wrong minded than this approach. There are many admirable aspects to this book and the first is: it shows how eclectic gay poetry is! Varied to the point that this book achieves too important things: firstly, it takes gay as a starting point for selection, then widens that concept as the twelve poets talk, until the focus becomes poetry; secondly, it constantly questions the extent to which poetry originates (for these poets) in their gay identity without ever being crass. Probably, the finest gay poet in the United Kingdom is Gregory Woods, a poet of considerable technical ability and intellectual depth. Before, reading Outside the Lines, I found myself reading his attack on Mark Doty as an “aesthetic” poet (think Wilde) who shrinks away from eroticism and the body; for Woods, therefore, a poet who substitutes a gay sensibility for being gay. In contrast to this narrowness, Christopher Hennessy accepts a spectrum of possibilities, is neither judgemental nor prescriptive, and leaves the reader with a sense of openness.

The book is a fine piece of generous criticism which seeks to identify with its subjects. This is its second admirable quality. In 1981, Denis Donoghue wrote a provocative (and sadly neglected) book on criticism, Ferocious Alphabets. Essentially a series of radio broadcasts, it attacked the loss of voice in criticism, the retreat into ideologies—“lunatics of the one idea”—to the point that criticism became “A Dialogue of One”. By its very nature, a series of conversations, Outside the Lines includes the reader within the lines of conversation. What could have been an exclusive project—don’t bother with this unless you’re gay—becomes inclusive—listen, this actually is interesting. After reading all the interviews, I was left with four significant conversations (for me): Thom Gunn, Mark Doty, Reginald Shepherd, Timothy Lieu. And I was left wondering, “Why?” “Was it because I knew them best and was I just identifying with them because they said what I agreed with?” At first, I thought: probably. But then, no. Shepherd is entirely new, as is Lieu. So, what was it that marked these chapters out? Eventually, I realised another common factor. These were all phone conversations, a medium requiring total attention to the voice, such that I was being drawn to not just the poets but also the voice of the critic.

This point leads to the third notable strength of this book: the author is an enquiring interviewer. He knows what questions to ask. He equally knows what questions the poets would expect him to ask and that leads to divergent questioning, a bit of the expected, a bit of a surprise. So, when questioning Gunn, the usual question about poetic form was posed, to which Gunn gave his familiar answer: the poem selects the style, it knows what it needs to be. The Poundian response out of the Renaissance: "the stone knows the form". But what revelations come with the discussions about movements (and really, for Gunn, The Movement). Simply, this is a refreshing book about poetry, something that you do not get in England. And though Christopher Hennessy never says it, one that does not pretend that all gay poets are white or of a certain class or believe this credo because they are black or recite this mantra because they are gay. Gunn was a master at blending the sacred and profane. Outside the Lines manages to fuse the saintly word of academia with the common-sense talk of real human beings. It is intelligently structured with an overview of the poets followed by a synopsis of each poet before the relevant conversation. The book has almost a Platonic symposium feel to it, intelligent and eloquent conversation, with dialogues to which the reader is a priviliged listener, but it is also absolutely contemporary and on the cutting-edge of what modern poetry is and might be.


Christopher Hennessy said...

I am honored and grateful for such a close and generous reading of the book. And I find especially interesting your take on the role the telephone played in the interviewing process. It's quite odd how intimate the phone can become in certain contexts. Again, many many thanks for this critical response. It's gratifying beyond words to find a reader who sees the project of the book in similar ways as I do.

eshuneutics said...

CH, I am pleased that I got the matter right.

ReggieH said...

Thanks for posting about this book, which I also enjoyed tremendously. More please Mr Hennessy!

eshuneutics said...

Hi, ReggieH, I'm pleased to hear that you share my view too. I do read your blog and its wise views. If only the education establishments would see that gay poets are not some weird enclave, a subject for specialist departments in Gender Studies. We don't put pastoral poets into Agriculture Courses.