Friday, October 30, 2009

The Sonnets of Richard Barnfield.

NB recent post, 26/11/2015.

The term “gay”draws a number of elements around it: the homosexual, the homoerotic and the homosocial. It is not a term used easily. The matter isn’t helped much by using the term poet of a “gay sensibility”. That too often implies a poet who is gay, but writes about other things such that gay aspects appear here and there. The Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse (1987) was a curious mish-mash, not only in terms of “gay” but also in terms of poetry: it included a lot of verse-and-worse. Heavily featured poets included the Classical, Catullus, Strato, Martial and Meleager, the pseudo-classical, Cavafy, and Shakespeare and Barnfield.

To include 12 sonnets by Barnfield lifted an almost unknown poet into a major Classical league. It has always puzzled me if this was justified. Is the poetry of Barnfield so important in the history of “gay” poetries?

Richard Barnfield was born in 1574. He was in every way a contemporary of Shakespeare. Barnfield’s The Affectionate Shepherd (1594) mixed Virgil and Spenser to tell of a relationship between Ganymede and Daphnis. It was typical Renaissance pastoral with a male-male relationship at the core, following the precedent set by Virgil, Bion and Theocritus. A few months later than this work, Barnfield published Cynthia (1595), a volume that extended the theme of The Affectionate Shepherd via twenty sonnets. This is the sonnet sequence filtered out by The Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse.

Sonnet 1 of Barnfield’s sequence is dedicated to Beauty, which enters the poet’s heart; like a thief, to steal his calm. Sonnet 2 is an extended conceit in which Beauty and Majesty yield to Virtue in Love’s battlefield. The battlefield in Sonnet 3 is extended to Philosophy; and the conclusion is that the greatest good is the Beloved’s “faire eye”. The sequence seems to be building towards the relationship of Love and Light…Spenserian Neo-Platonism…but Sonnet 4 only produces a well-worn sonnet idea: Ganymede’s eyes are like stars, he is the Sun, and his absence brings darkness to the poet. Sonnet 5 does not fair much better in terms of originality. A comparison between Achilles-War and Ganymede-Love is tediously worked through to an obvious conclusion. Very little of this appears in The Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse (though 1 and 4 appear). Sonnets 6-8 are represented however as worthy of attention. And these are stronger. Suddenly, there is a progression from distant worshipping to homoerotic desire. Daphnis/Barnfield now longs to be kissed by “sweet coral lips”, to be a pillow to receive his lover’s kisses, and he delights, with an echo of Spenser, in his lover swimming like a “silver swan” in the Thames. It is nice poeticising. Sonnet 9 is a cooling down of the erotic tone, the equivalent of a cold shower for the hopefully (but unlikely) aroused reader. The history of Ganymede is revealed— he is born from Diana’s blood, that is to say, he is Chaste.Sonnets 10-12, also anthologised, work from chastity to revelation to admiration. Ganymede discovers that Daphnis loves him. The final poems run variations on what has gone before, slowly burying emotion with classical wit and allusions. Sonnet 17 advances the intimate connection between body and poetry:

Cherry lipped Adonis in his snow shape
Might not compare with his pure ivory white,
On whose fair front a poet might write
(XVII, 1-3).

In the ultimate poem, like a true Christian Neo-Platonist, Barnfield begins to place more hope in “favour from that heavenly grace”, but there is none of the genuine emotional torture heard in the sonnets of Michelangelo as he is torn between homoerotic earthly desire and the chaste love of God.

The sonnets of Richard Barnfield have a curiosity value, a place in the history of "gay" poetry, but little more. They never touch the homosexual, are fingered by the erotic, and fail to embrace the homosocial, to portray a relationship between two men with anything approaching depth and vision

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Jericho Brown and James Allen Hall.

Gay men are gay because they have been feminized by over-contact with the mother. This prevailing piece of Oedipal wisdom has always seemed ignorant to me. More to the point, it seemed to be exactly the explanation that patriarchy would produce: Why not make a hatred of women into the cause and justification for hating gay men, women-men? At the same time, however, I was aware of the power exerted by mothers in gay poets’ lives…but in a positive way…their openness to the Jungian Anima, the Feminine Principle. The binding power of the Mother is something fully expressed by Robert Duncan when he wrote “My mother would be a falconress,/And I her gay falcon treading her wrist…" (Bending the Bow, p.52).

Interestingly, Issue 22 of Boxcar Poetry Review, includes a fascinating discussion between Jericho Brown and James Hall about the personal origins of their poetry. It is a discussion in which the Mother, in one form or another, looms.

James Allen opens their dialogue with a reference to Mark Doty on the dangers of revising the past from the present. (A good point for writers, since there is nothing more futile than trying to revise what is enmeshed in the past with a view from the present. It is the mistake of Orpheus: do not try to turn back. Let the past follow the present until it becomes part of the present). And Jericho Brown responds with a similar point of reference. (Not surprising, since both poets were mentored by Mark Doty as writing students). For them both, Mark Doty appears as a matrix, a mother to their work, what the alchemist’s term the prima materia.

As the dialogue progresses, Jericho Brown suggests that poetry/writing is a conversation. That does not, on the surface, seem much like a definition for poetry. But as Nor Hall, the author of the perceptive The Moon and the Virgin, a study of the Mother and poetics, would say, those poets who are bound to the mother are also bound to the roots and origins of words, the mother-language of creativity. A conversation is vers, a turning, literally, a turning around: it is vers libre in which the placement of words and line-breaks/turns give structure to speech. There is something quite intimate and fitting about how James Hall recounts the following:

“I remember late nights with you on the phone as we played with line breaks of our poems…”

The phone conversation has conversation as its subject. In the mothering night, both poets play the Mother’s games.

Following the paradigm of Toni Wolff in Structural Forms of the Feminine Psyche (1956), Nor Hall develops a four-fold view of the Anima. She is Amazon, Medial, Mother and Hetaira: virgin, sibyl, creator and wife. For James Hall, in Now You're the Enemy, the Mother is the Dark Mother, the witch-mother:

“My mother has struggled with depression, adultery, and suicide for most of her adult life.”

She is a haunted space into which his book of poems allows an undesired entry. He expresses a wish to close that door, to write free of the mother. He doesn’t explain what that would be like. H.D., knowing the opposite pole to the Dark Mother, the hetaira, would describe it as a way of self-containment, of divorce from any relationship, of a wish to “melt down/integrate” in the crucible of the imagination (Trilogy).

The Mother does not appear explicitly, during the interview, in Jericho Brown’s world. It is the Father that raises his head…and hand. But she is subtly present in two major parts of the dialogue. Firstly, she appears when Jericho Brown discusses his poem “Rick” (a poem in reply to Rick Barot). A close friend suggested that “Rick” should not be included in Please because it was too “gossipy” (for a poem about inter-racial relationships?) Jericho Brown defends his decision, during the dialogue, by suggesting its seriousness, the fact that Rick Barot loved its “metaphors”. In fact, “Rick” is one of the best poems in Please, not at all superficial, for gossiping is a vital aspect of the Mother. Gossip is derived from the roots, god and sybbe, and implies truthful speaking, a medial voice. The mediatorial aspect of the Mother comes in many guises. In ancient Greece, she would have been the gossiping sibyl of Apollo. In Tudor times, she was the truth-telling prophetess, such as Paulina in The Winter’s Tale. In the seventeenth century, she became the unbridled woman, the Puritan woman testifying to God. Today, she is the Diva, the voice that transmits emotional truths and stands between the world of patriarchy and matriachy. This quality is beautifully realised by Jericho Brown whilst discussing the divas within Please:

“Divas are also quite unapologetically talented...They mean for their very presence to make people cry, just as the poet must mean for his or her poems to make readers fully feel an emotion."

That is a wonderful example of the Mother speaking from within the man— a revelation of the alignment between the Diva and the gay poet who is open to the liberating voice of his Anima. Jericho Brown closes the interview by recognising the medial nature of his next manuscript and describes his present life as

“…the Wood Between the Worlds”…

In other words a world that saps the power of the witch-mother (The White Witch in Narnia) yet advances passivity and waiting. This implies, as with James Hall, a future shifting within the Mother paradigm. Hopefully, this will be towards the pole of the Amazon, ARTemis, a state that allows the self to support, yet stand-back from creation, to explore points of involvement in life and art.

Do read…it is a fascinating dialogue!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Virtual Friends.

Facebook: Dante.

Does new technology have a positive or negative influence on connections in life? That is an interesting question. I have more than a few reservations when I see people umbilically connected to their iPods or absorbed in texting to the point that they are unaware of the world around them. The pull of the virtual world is considerable… In August, the Catholic Church initiated a powerful attack on virtual social networking. Archbishop Vincent Nichols attacked what he termed “transient relationships” created by social network sites. His term “transient” is an interesting metaphor: it suggests impermanence, like migrant, a coming and going, here today and gone tomorrow. To some extent, I can align myself with his view. I completely fail to understand how a Facebook devotee might have 1000 friends plus. What purpose do so many “friends” serve? Such debases the term “friend”. It seems to reflect modern promiscuity—the more that merrier—and quantity rather that quality. And that is probably the hidden fear behind the Church’s attack. Promiscuous friendships like sexual relationships undermine the family core so valued by religious groups. That does, however, beg a question: does the family core constitute a protective ands supportive model anymore? Is social networking breaking down the family or is it the failure of the family that makes social networking both inviting and necessary?

Archbishop Nichols singled out Facebook and MySpace as the new anti-social demons. Both are disturbing metaphors. Facebook by its very name suggests its superficiality: let’s be faces to each another. And MySpace is filled with egotistic echoes…my territory…it sounds so very important, yet it about at significant as a Star Spangled Banner on the Moon. Do the countless number of stars in deepest space care at all? Superficiality and egotism certainly play their parts on Facebook and MySpace. But surely, there is another side to virtual connections.

“Transience” does not bother me that much. Human encounters are “transient”. The Thou comes and goes. The It takes over. Here, the Church, appears to have the wrong word as its enemy. What fascinates in the world of blogging—to move beyond Facebook and MySpace and Twittering—is the unexpected encounters, the meetings with people that could not happen in real life. And these are often significant encounters! Certainly, in the time I have blogged I have encountered people who have made my life more purposeful. What Archbishop Nicholls has not addressed is the fact that the virtual world can bring new qualities into people’s lives. If life is restricted to the house or street or village in which a person lives, which was once the case in the past, the result is a limited existence. Far from undermining human conversation, the virtual world offers new possibilities: it allows individuals to seek out minds like theirs.

In his essay on Friendship, Cicero offered some incisive views. Friendship was a physical entity, words shared by two people as they met face to face. But he also widened that concept—by metaphor—to suggest something more. A friend is a second-self. A friend brings light and is a reflection in a mirror. The images of Cicero would later become the world of Humanism rich in its open fields of knowledge and communication. Facebook and MySpace are shadows in a Platonic world of light, not the radiant world of human communication.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Kehinde Wiley and Friendship.

Kehinde Wiley came to the public eye in 2004. His first public exhibition was at the Brooklyn Museum. Here he exhibited a series of 18 large-scale paintings and introduced what has since become a familiar way working process. For Passing/Posing, young black males were asked to view copies of European portraits, select their favourite, then model the pose. From photographs, Kehinde Wiley then created canvasses which projected urban images into historical masterpieces. In essence, Kehinde Wiley’s art is an art of transgression, one that re-colonises space for the Black male image.

This method has had its critics. The methodology has been seen as a trick, nothing more. And the paintings have been describes as stiff and lacking expressive brushwork. In recent exhibitions, however, the play between artist and model, has brought new depths to the paintings. And the imagery has become less about urban hip-hop as complex questions of identity. The trick has revealed an artist who is a subtle trickster, a master of double imagery. In the Down exhibition of 2008, new resonances appeared as images from modern European sculpture were converted into contemporary images. Not only did male to male transmutations take place, but works figuring females were transformed into male forms. This crossing of gender, placing images at the crossroads, was done with skill and wit. Also new was the way in which the large-scale paintings spoke to one another, creating a hidden text about the visual image and musical image, about the relationship between sound, sight and death.

Curiously, The World Stage Africa, Lagos-Dakar, has been viewed as something different in the art of Kehinde Wiley. Critics have spoken of this as authentic, arguing that a Renaissance occurs because the artist has returned to origins and the Black African male offers a palette that is rich in tones: such deepens the portraiture element of Kehinde Wiley’s work. Such is nonsense. All that has happened in The World Stage Africa is that critics have become able to see the transmutations. The changes across gender and culture are clear. The artist references them, as in Dogon Couple where the Male-Female cosmic duality is replaced by a Male-Male image. And what is interesting is that Kehinde Wiley stays away from any sentimentalisation of Africa: his male figures wear street gear, not the ethnic tribal costumes so idolised by Western society (though, of course, street wear has its own tribal connections). The Africa paintings are in no way a departure from what has gone previously. They are a perfecting of the method.

In the latest work, Black Light, a series of photographs, Kehinde Wiley takes on another element of White male Western art: the photo portrait. Wonderful inversions occur as oil portrait (Van Dyck) becomes photographic portrait (Mapplethorpe/Platt-Lynes/Van Vechten) and floralisation is used to complicate the male image. Also, in Black Light two other elements collide: a wide knowledge of art history and contemporary story-telling. So, in one photograph, Pontormo’s Two Men with a Letter by Cicero (1524), a symbol of Italian society at its height, Kehinde Wiley re-creates this double masterpiece. In the Pontormo, the two men are reflections of one another. They visually re-create the Humanistic ideal of two in one, of perfect friendship. This Neo-Platonic ideal (with its “gay” over-tones) is developed by Kehinde Wiley. The faces of his two models echo the Pontormo. But whereas Pontormo uses the letter (and Cicero’s text) as a gloss, Kehinde Wiley forces it upon the viewing eye. The letter becomes a symbol of brotherhood and solidarity. The subtle tones of Pontormo are transformed into a dazzling ground of blood-red flowers. Kehinde Wiley has been an outspoken critic of how the urban musical image has lost its connection to messages…the first breakthrough hip-hop track was The Message…and the finger of Kehinde Wiley’s first figure, as in the Pontormo, points to the rubric, the message:

“When a person thinks of a true friend, he sees a reflection in the mirror. Even an absent friend is always present in the mind of a friend.”
Cicero, Laelius.

In the later works of Kehinde Wiley, he literally translates “diaspora”. His work is a spilling of seed, of multiple meanings that enrich the mind with intellectual and erotic associations.