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This article is taken from PN Review 277, Volume 50 Number 5, May - June 2024.

Of Queerness Gregory Woods
Early in the 1980s, Nikos Stangos said to Robert K. Martin, author of The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry (1979), ‘Literature is literature… There is no such thing as gay literature’. Stangos, a poet who was gay, was the commissioning editor with responsibility for the Penguin Modern Poetry (Ashbery, Ginsberg, Harwood...) and Penguin Modern European Poetry (Cavafy, Pessoa, Ritsos, Tsvetaeva...) series. Gay/lesbian poets are only great if you don’t categorise them as such. Djuna Barnes said, ‘I am not a lesbian, I just loved Thelma’, either meaning that she only ever loved one woman in that way, or that she declined to be treated as a case study in a category of supposed deviancy. In 1987, Yves Navarre responded to an invitation to a conference of lesbian/gay writers: ‘I am gay, I am a writer, I am not a gay writer.’ Indeed, one can hardly blame those who reject the category ‘lesbian/gay writer’ when they are working within a homophobic value system.

So who is what? Adrienne Rich famously developed the idea of the ‘lesbian continuum’, involving ‘a range – through each woman’s life and throughout history – of woman-identified experience, not simply the fact that a woman has had or consciously desired genital sexual experience with another woman’ (‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence’, 1980). As Olga Broumas pointed out, referring to Rich’s ‘Twenty-One Love Poems’, ‘It is not the physical which defines this love as lesbian, but the absolute and primary attention directed at the other’ – and the other is a woman. We are reminded of Audre Lorde’s espousal of the old Carriacou name for women who work and live together as friends and lovers, Zami.

The continuum allows Emily Dickinson a substantial role in any serious discussion of lesbian poetry. We might even make room for Edith Sitwell (‘I write in the rhythms of Sappho, though I do not have that lady’s unfortunate disposition’) for her own gender-queer performativity and prolific alliances across the spectra. Yet there are still those who demand, as it were, the definitive proof of physical activity, the ‘smoking dildo’ (to use Hilary McCollum’s fragrant expression). When Auden says ‘The proofs of love have had to be destroyed’ (‘Dear to me now...’), I think of the ashes of Byron’s memoirs, cooling in John Murray’s grate. Even where there was telling evidence, it generally had to be erased. In the face of centuries of such imposed silences, gay readers cannot be expected to go rummaging through every writer’s linen like the chambermaid who reported, of Oscar Wilde’s hotel bed, that ‘The sheets were stained in a peculiar way’. Walt Whitman’s claim of having fathered six children tells us nothing to disavow, still less to disprove, the homoeroticism of the ‘Calamus’ or ‘Drum-Taps’ poems. Yet the lack of those proofs is often held against us. In my view, the onus should be on the deniers to come up with evidence – and what disproof could there possibly be?

Rich was thinking of the particular circumstances of women’s lives, but her broader argument makes no less sense when applied to men. As the anonymous author of ‘Don Leon’ (fancied by some to be Lord Byron) wrote: ‘Oh! ’tis hard to trace / The line where love usurps tame friendship’s place’. Umberto Saba thought flexibly in terms of ‘amicizia amorosa’. Roland Barthes argued that we should speak of ‘homosexualities’, plural. The expansion of the designation LGBTQ+, over the past three decades, has happened in a similar spirit. Queer intersects with other otherings, including that of (oh, horror!) sexlessness.

Deducing that Fernando Pessoa probably never had sex with another person, his biographer Richard Zenith seems to conclude that he cannot be described as hetero- or homosexual, nor even as bisexual. ‘There is no secret Pessoa for the biographer to reveal.’ Since this argument rules out the possibility of an inner life – still less of Pessoa’s multiple inner lives – I asked Zenith about this, in person at a bookshop event, and found that this is, indeed, his understanding of the case. This decision leaves him ill-equipped to imagine Pessoa’s fear of exposure; let alone ‘the insatiable, unquantifiable longing to be both the same and other’ (The Book of Disquiet); let alone the strategies of distancing and dissembling that might arise from both the tragedy of a homosexual man cornered into celibacy and the comedy of a man performing alternative identities to confound his enemies and amuse himself. (Saying that Gerard Manley Hopkins had no sexual orientation because he had no sex life would be, apart from any other consideration, to erase the sheer destructive effort, and creative effect, of his celibacy, which would thereby be diluted to an inconvenience.) The lack of firm evidence of physical activity has similarly allowed various critics to deduce from the solitude of Emilio Prados, in part caused by illness, that he was not homosexual. I have never seen this logic applied to a heterosexual individual. Besides, even unloved, one can love: Pedro Homem de Mello addresses a billet-doux to his own loneliness (‘Solidão’).

Since parents tend not to bring us up as ourselves, and academic syllabuses are still generally silent on our lives, lesbians and gay men have had to be autodidacts to get to know our own culture. Audre Lorde: ‘We are learning by heart / what has never been taught’ (‘Call’). Muriel Rukeyser speaks of a ‘bed of forbidden things finally known’ (‘The Transgress’). What was once unspeakable comes to be spoken: for, in some sense, ‘Nothing is until it has been said’ (Maureen Duffy, ‘I Love You’). To explore our own culture, we have to be able to find it in the first place, so we excavate our lost histories and trace our ancestral descent. My own last collection was a haiku-less tribute to Matsuo Bashō. As well as reasserting, and connecting with, our presence in cultural history, this is also a question of writing ourselves into the mainstream.

In the late 1970s I wrote a doctoral thesis on homoerotic poetry. After a survey of common themes, it had individual chapters on Lawrence, Crane, Auden, Ginsberg and Gunn. It was revised and published as Articulate Flesh: Male Homo-eroticism and Modern Poetry, 1914–1980 (Yale, 1987). There, as in my later work, by concentrating on the needs and experiences of the ‘gay reader’, I allowed myself, for better or worse, to sidestep the strict inhibitions of social constructionist queer theory with regard to the existence of ‘homosexuality’ in periods prior to the development of that concept in the late 1800s. I glibly wrote: ‘A gay text is one which lends itself to the hypothesis of a gay reading, regardless of where the author’s genitals were wont to keep house.’ Gay and lesbian readers, in my view, were to be encouraged to recognise themselves – their own patterns of emotion and desire – in their readings of Sappho, Theocritus, Richard Barnfield, Katherine Philips, Bashō – while still distinguishing our times and places from theirs. (I have never seen much reason to stray from this view. Although I taught queer theory for decades, in my own work I always gave it a light touch.) Nor was proof of sexual activity a requirement to merit a writer’s inclusion among those who could be read as gay. This recognition of gay readers’ agency has always irritated some non-gay readers (if that is what they are). Jeffrey Meyers said of my book: ‘Woods’s special pleading and specious arguments – primarily intended, as his style suggests, for a homosexual audience – are unlikely to convince an objective reader.’ I like to imagine that being said about French readers of French literature.

Of course, Meyers’s claim to objectivity is close kin to the colonising of the ‘universal’ for restricted interests. When I (male) write a love poem about ‘him’, is my poem less good than if I said ‘you’? Would this also be the case if I said ‘she’ instead? (Or, for that matter, ‘they’ singular.) In this context, the assessors of quality tend to be asking which mode is the more ‘universal’. This is not a question of statistics: that heterosexuality may be more common than homosexuality does not make it the slightest bit more universal. In 1988, Édouard Roditi wrote to correct me about the use of the ungendered ‘you’ in his love poems. Harold Norse had drawn his attention to my claim, in Articulate Flesh, that he (Roditi) expected his readers to infer a ‘he’ from his uses of ‘you’. I had quoted a claim of his, in a 1978 article in Gay Sunshine, that a gay poet’s omission of a specified gender from his love poems ‘should distinguish it clearly from the love poems of most heterosexual poets, who rarely leave the reader in doubt about the sex of their Celia, Clelia, Delia, Dark Rosaleen or Lalage’. He was referring specifically to poems ‘on homosexual themes’ that he, Auden and Spender wrote in the 1930s. I had mischievously commented: ‘If this is the understanding on which such poems were written – if the reader was meant to infer that “you” meant “he” – the universalising factor ceases to function’. Deliberately not stating crucial social details in order to achieve universality seemed to me, itself, to convey a crucial social detail (enforced discretion) that is no more universal than openness would have been in the first place. Roditi and I crossed purposes a couple of times each before getting on with our lives.

Today, we have additional pronoun debates – on the use of the unsexed, non-binary, singular ‘they’, for instance. One might ask what is lost to the specifics of erotic writing by the use of nondescript pronouns. Yet it can be done: ‘Of hand, of foot, of lip, of eye, of brow’ (Shakespeare, sonnet 106). Besides, English has survived a previous loss of distinctions (thou/you) and may even have gained by the consequent ambiguities of distance. The new usage of ‘they’ could have the effect of calling the bluff of older traditions of ‘androgyny’ and ‘sexual ambiguity’, which were rarely any such thing.

The supposedly double-sexed nature of the gay or lesbian body was always metaphorical; but what if the bothness, or its ghostly twin neitherness, were to become literal – ‘as if we dreamed ourselves into being / and this was forbidden’ (Clare Shaw, ‘On Being Trans’)? The publication of Janice Raymond’s book The Transsexual Empire (1979), pointedly subtitled The Making of the She-Male, set off an impassioned debate between pro-and anti-trans factions within our communities. But because these discussions took place in person, or at least, when in print, under real names, there were tears and anger but, as far as I can recall, no death threats. This was just as well, really, since it was our progressive alliances, even across fundamental disagreements, that would, within a handful of years, protect us against the plague of homophobia accompanying the AIDS epidemic. The debate between radical feminism and the trans movement, which was negotiated politely for decades, has now been taken over by outside interests and weaponised accordingly. The more that trans lives are caught up in the hyperbolic intransigence of social media, the more they deserve the cleaner lines of (let’s call it) poetic engagement. Joelle Taylor: ‘If we were to regain the real-life meeting-grounds, if we were to be in the same room, then perhaps we would remember our commonality. The internet celebrates difference. The [LGBTQ] club celebrates unity. In these distinct spaces we learn to protect one another. We learn that we are one another.’

This sense of protective, shared subcultures has long been contested, though. Visiting New York in 1929, Lorca was thrilled by the Whitmanliness of the men in the streets, but deplored the evidence he saw of a separate subculture of ‘fairies’ (‘madres de fango’, he called them in an enraged, homophobic slur, distancing himself from sodomy: mothers of mud, meaning shit). Other visitors too (Mishima, Pasolini) distinguished between good homoeroticism, opportunities among beautiful men in the streets and parks, and the bad gay ghetto. This is partly a contrast between indoor and outdoor cruising, but also between straight masculinity (available to the eye and more) and gay effeminacy. In his 1944 essay ‘The Homosexual in Society’, Robert Duncan deplores ‘the cultivation of a secret language, the camp, a tone and a vocabulary that is loaded with contempt for the human’, even going so far as to add that ‘this cult’ plays ‘an evil role in society’.

Loosely applying his reservations to poetry, Duncan distinguishes between unnamed separatists and the single case of Hart Crane: ‘Where the Zionists of homosexuality have laid claim to a Palestine of their own, asserting in their miseries their nationality, Crane’s suffering, his rebellion, and his love are sources of poetry for him not because they are what makes him different from, superior to, mankind, but because he saw in them his link with mankind; he saw in them his sharing in universal human experience.’ Contrary even to his own career, Duncan suggests that the universal can only be achieved by becoming indistinguishable.

But Camp is neither secret nor monolithic. Its styles, tones and idioms are many: think of Oscar Wilde, Stefan George, Gertrude Stein, Cocteau, Lorca, Auden, Edith Sitwell, Frank O’Hara, James Merrill, John Ashbery, Assotto Saint, Jeremy Reed, Mark Doty, John McCullough... Robert Duncan himself. In Wilde’s day, Camp developed around paradoxical responses to conventionality. In the last chapter of my book A History of Gay Literature: The Male Tradition (Yale, 1998), I identified the creative incompatibilities of paradox as the trope most aptly representative of homosexuality as distinct from the tautologies of heterosexuality (e.g. male + female = reproduction). In a cross-cultural and trans-historical sequence of generalisations – this was my book’s closing peroration – I cited Shakespeare’s Achilles and Patroclus (hiding in their tent ‘to make paradoxes’) and Balzac’s Vautrin (‘il entend bien le paradoxe’); as well as Byron, Whitman and Pasolini’s assertions of the necessary right to contradict themselves (Pasolini: ‘Lo scandalo del contraddirmi’). One man’s simple statement of lived experience is another’s outrage against natural logic: ‘For my Other is not a woman but a man’ (Robert Duncan, ‘The Torso’).

Although Thom Gunn was one of the writers who first led me to this conclusion, when I showed him an earlier version of the argument, in 1989, Gunn disagreed with me on it, especially for my rather flaky claim that scientific discourse eschews the paradoxical. Gunn had developed a poetry of normative masculinity (soldiers, bikers, Elvis...) to suit the style of his own gayness while implicitly repudiating not only supposed sissies like Stephen Spender but gay culture’s uses of Camp. Yet Gunn was once happy to apply the epithet ‘High Camp’ to Ben Jonson’s ‘Elegie on the Lady Jane Pawlet’, adding: ‘What we must remember is that artifice is not necessarily the antithesis of sincerity’ (The Occasions of Poetry). Camp’s love of artifice takes contra naturam to one of its logical conclusions. And the idea that we ourselves are contradictions in terms has not vanished as laws, customs and attitudes have liberalised to our benefit. You need only consider the intractably perplexing conundrum the Church of England sees in same-sex marriage, or the Twittersphere in the lives of trans people, where the rest of us see, and experience, them as unexceptional facts of our quotidian routines. We are ‘birds of paradox’ (Joelle Taylor, ‘Got a Light, Jack?’).

Homophobia is one of the crucial themes in LGBTQ writing; it hardly needs saying. Cavafy responds to press reports of a murder (‘The News Item’). Antonio Botto identifies with an individual who caves in to homophobic pressure: ‘I’ve left my beloved forever, / I’ve already bowed to the world’s demand’ (‘Já deixei o meu amor, / já fiz a vontade ao mundo’). Mark Doty responds to hostile graffiti (‘Homo Shall Not Inherit’). David Tait laments the Pulse nightclub massacre in Florida (‘After Orlando’). The poetry of the AIDS epidemic was as much about homophobia as it was about love and loss. Indeed, it was reviewed accordingly: Thom Gunn wrote to me, apropos of The Man with Night Sweats, ‘I have found that the reviewers like reading about dead queers. Quite acceptable, that’ (17 June 1992). Our rehabilitation of the old insult ‘queer’ happened at the worst stage of the epidemic. It was meant to sound angrier and, indeed, more perverse than either the official, medico-legal term ‘homosexual’ or even than ‘lesbian/gay’. It was used to describe radical political strategies and the vulnerability of psyches and physiques in extremis. It was, perforce, explicit about bodily parts, functions and activities, pleasures and pains; explicit, also, about emotions that gay liberation had tried to downplay: terror, loneliness, regret, shame.

In expressions and representations of shame – the body assailed by AIDS and stigmatised by hostility to AIDS, the abjection of the transitional body, the great set pieces of performative humiliation in Genet – we always find the tell-tale boot print of homophobia. Shame remains active, therefore, in the narratives of our lives. We find it in the three dimensions of time: our past (Danez Smith: ‘many stories about queerness are about shame’), present (Richard Scott: ‘free from shame but made from shame’) and future (Gregory Woods: ‘let me keep my shame’). The word comes at us in flurries when Andrew McMillan addresses adolescence. In a liberated context, the individual might feel shame for past compliance: ‘Trust me I know what it is to be alive, but I smothered it in normal’ (Kae Tempest).

Stephen Spender once wrote to me, apropos of the Italian youths in my first collection, We Have the Melon: ‘You are warm about them [,] you embrace them but you do not want to redeem them. You don’t have a christian attitude about them’, adding: ‘In similar circumstances I would probably have a christian attitude’ (11 August 1989). Indeed, nothing could be further from my own attitude. If anyone needed redeeming it was me; and if anyone could do it, they could. They released me from my own shame, the product of external and internalised homophobia. In the end, shame can be rendered triumphant, as in Rimbaud’s gang-rape poem ‘Le cœur supplicié’. Shamed but not ashamed. ‘Ultimate shame, consummate bliss!’ (Mikhail Kuzmin). ‘Shame, too, makes identity’ (Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick).

Manuel Forcano: ‘What will we not do for love’ (‘Què no fem per amor’). With histories like ours, we are sure of two things: love is difficult, but it is always worth fighting for. Given the continuing global context of homophobic and transphobic violence, abuse and censorship, queer writing has a strong record of hopes for progressive, future social change. Walt Whitman: ‘I will make divine magnetic lands, / With the love of comrades, / With the life-long love of comrades’ (‘For You, O Democracy’). When Vicente Aleixandre declares that the time for kissing is not ripe (‘el tiempo de los besos no ha llegado’) and then Lorca quotes him for one of the epigraphs in Poeta en Nueva York, both imply a future ripe with kisses. Even Cavafy manages an optimistic impulse: ‘Later, in a more perfect society, / surely some other person created like me / will appear and act freely’ (‘Hidden Things’, trans. Rae Dalven). There is always much to be defended, more to be achieved. ‘The queer poem, then, is hopeful. As I write, the queer poem is a wish which stems from a desire’ (Mary Jean Chan, ‘Ars Poetica’). Or, indeed, from desire in general. It still celebrates ‘All things counter, original, spare, strange’ (Hopkins, ‘Pied Beauty’), including ‘New thresholds, new anatomies!’ (Hart Crane, ‘The Wine Menagerie’).

In 1928, under the eyes of the secret police, Mikhail Kuzmin gave what turned out to be his last poetry recital to a packed hall in Leningrad, reading from his collection The Trout Breaks the Ice, with its themes of same-sex love. Something went wrong with the allocation of tickets and what the student organisers had tried to prevent did happen: the hall, already packed, was invaded by a crowd of homosexual men (‘undesirables’) bearing flowers, with which they pelted the poet when he finished reading. One of the organisers called it ‘the last demonstration of Leningrad’s homosexuals’. I like to think of this mixed audience of ticket-holders and gate-crashers, scholars and aesthetes, intellectuals and activists, all contributing to the same ovation, all on the same side against repressive forces, as representing the routinely compatible differences of progressive readership.

This article is taken from PN Review 277, Volume 50 Number 5, May - June 2024.

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