Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Sophie Hannah, The Poetry of Sex.

Critical standards and honesty?Faber's The Poetry of Sex, edited by Sophie Hannah, says a lot about the decline of poetry reviewing and what is unsaid adds just as much.

Sophie Hannah's website contains a link to one review of her anthology. This appears in The Guardian. It is a nice piece of uncritical proselytising, converting readers to Hannah's jocular view of poetry. This was in January, 2014. The Arts and Media correspondent, Vanessa Thorpe, romps through the book with enthusiastic asides from Hannah. A few months later, Aprll 2014, with Kate Kellaway in charge, another laudatory piece ensues, announcing that this anthology "with Hannah at the helm, [is] a triumph." It comes as no shock that Hannah had no problem tracking down poems and doing research. She had favourites and put up a poster asking for requests in The Poetry Library, The Southbank Centre, London. It has to be assumed that the visitors to that library either knew nothing about sex or little about poetry. Kellaway's piece is rather desperate to please, to re-establish a reputation. The fact that its sweeping adulation for Hannah comes without much reference to any poems in the book conceals what has happened in between. In January, following The Guardian's scoop, The Independent accurately described the book as having "some gems" but found it guilty of "lazy" editing. And in February, in The New Statesman, Germaine Greer, in blistering deadpan style, made the volume sound as erotic as a bedpan. Interesting that Kellaway's helm metaphor consciously or unconsciously picks up Greer's final verdict: "It is not surprising that when Hannah began to look for the poetry of sex she lost her way, for she was afloat on a vast seas of human endeavour with no guide" except messages in bottles from The Poetry Library.

There are many objections that could be made to this anthology. Hannah hoped that the volume would be the "raunchiest poetry anthology of the year." It wasn't! Greer has answered that line very well. Without any dating of poems, there is no sense of time and place and context, something important in a work for the general reader. That point is made elsewhere. The selection of work is rather partisan, even though Hannah proclaims neutrality and rationality. The objection not made, however, even by Greer, surprisingly, is how you can assemble a book on sex without much (if any awareness) of the body, its politics, and the place that sexual identity has in contemporary poetics. When asked if he would keep any of his liberationist themes if he had his life to live over again, Gunn answered, yes, the sexual. Is there any poem by Gunn in The Poetry of Sex? Of course not! A volume made on "literary merit" ought to include Gunn. Probably, Greer, did not pursue the sexual politics line because she had no wish to be accused of "break[ing] a butterfly upon a wheel" and was well aware that The Poetry of Sex is a bubbly piece of fluffiness that Faber should be ashamed--as serious publishers--of printing. And as the publisher of Gunn, should it not have asked,"Why no Gunn?" Maybe not.

It is an often quoted fact that 1 in 10 people are gay. Such is a myth, of course, but one that The Poetry of Sex seems to believe for exactly 10% of the 130 poems in the volume are by gay poets. "Ok, at least gay sex gets a look in"...that would most likely be the heterosexual response to this fact. "Ok, isn't Hannah brave for including any poems on gay sex"...that is a probable response from heterosexual readers who don't want to be disturbed too much as they read her anthology with a cup of bedtime cocoa. The matter, however, is more serious than this. If Hannah was really interested in poetic merit she would be recognising that 13 or so poems and fulfilling a quota isn't an appropriate line for a serious anthologist and poet to take. If this anthology was truly about the poetry of sex it would be recognising that gay poets have contributed significantly to sexual poetry and occupying 50% of the anthology would be a justifiable expectation. Even worse, though, is how Hannah decides to represent gay sexual identity within the anthology. It's Catullus, Shakespeare, Whitman, Cavafy, the tired gay canon, and then a series of inconsequential poems by connected writers. Gregory Woods is a significant modern gay poet, but Hannah represents his work with a light-hearted piece of verse, "Service", another piece of whimsy from Rich Goodson (who studied under Woods) entitled "Daniel Craig: The Screensaver", and a piece of artifice from Michael Schmidt (who publishes the work of Woods). There is an odd piece of toilet-sex (without sex) by Richard Scott. The longest, central piece of gay poetry is a piece of dire rhyming drivel written by W.H Auden in 1948 and originally ascribed to Miss Oral. Hannah calls this "brilliant" in a BBC interview and appears to think it is amusing to pay lip service to gay poetry with Auden's "The Platonic Blow":

I tested its length and strength with a manual squeeze,
I bunched my fingers and twirled them about the knob,
I stroked it from top-to-bottom. I got on my knees.
I lowered my head. I opened my mouth for the job.

etc for 136 lines.

Had she anthologised Robert Duncan's "The Torso" ( a poem on the same theme) alongside this, for example, and adopted an approach throughout comparing different ranges of sexual tension and changes in language with time then a very different anthology would have emerged. Mind you, that would have required research and intelligent effort.

The Poetry of Sex is a job badly done. Just as worrying as its ignorance of gay poetry and feeling is its unawareness of gay sexuality beyond the white male and in recent times the English male. Are there no Black gay poets? Are there no gay poets in Asia? Ever? Currently writing? 

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