Thursday, 9 July 2009
Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse
I'm reading through Stephen Coote's 1983 Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse, now long out of print and terribly dated. (The title seems quaint.) It's rather a fusty volume, on the whole, but its strategy of including both gay male and lesbian verse in the same anthology pays dividends by acting as an illuminating witness to trends in recent cultural history. Few groups have less in common, in fact, than gay men and lesbians, and the ironies heat up at the end of the 20th century as the sexes go their different ways. As Camille Paglia wrote, absolutely accurately:
Gay male poetry is about energy, adventure, quest, danger, beauty and pleasure amidst secrecy, shame, and pain. Lesbian poetry, in contrast, prefers tender, committed relationships and often burdens itself with moralistic political messages.
(Vamps and Tramps, p. 227)
More of this later. It must be acknowledged that the challenges of producing such a volume as Coote's are fearsome. An anthology of this kind has to aspire to a catholic (pardon the irony) view of homosexuality: it must have the ambition to be simultaneously a diachronic and polyglot collection of spiritual wisdom, erotica, love-poetry, humorous verse, and social commentary. Also the hapless anthologist needs must adopt some stance towards the sterile and tiresome contemporary cultural debates about the supposed social construction of the homosexual. Is the gay individual a specific sub-variety of human being that has remained more or less constant transculturally over millennia? Or, conversely, is the concept of the homosexual something which has only sprung up since the coining of the word in the late 19th century, before which there was homosexual behaviour, but not homosexual persons? The line one takes affects the kind of poems one includes and they way in which they are deployed.
Fortunately, Cootes does not limit himself to self-identified queers or indulge in speculation about the sexuality of figures long-dead, making dubious biographical inferences from culturally-distant poetry. Instead, the volume consists of poems about homosexual life, love and desire, with the odd bit of scabrous anti-gay satire. (Surprising not to see the heterosexual Tony Harrison's ventriloquistic 'The White Queen' in there somewhere, though.) The question also arises of how far the anthologist has a responsibility to intervene in the pinched secessionism of contemporary identity politics, supressing aspects of the historical record which might currently be deemed politically incorrect: I was pleased to see that the spicy, frankly pederastic epigrams of the Greek Anthology, for example, rightly make up a substantial part of the collection. (On a further Greek note, however, Coote has mystifingly chosen an antiquated 17th century translation for the two Idylls of Theocritus which he includes, possibly for copyright reasons; we miss all of Theocritus' sophisticated mixture of freshness and urbanity. Similarly the extract from Homer is taken from Alexander Pope's 1720 translation. You have written a pretty poem, Mr Pope...etc.)
The pre-modern contents of the anthology are excellent. Sappho is well-represented by Mary Barnand's translucent versions, but where is the exquisite fr. 31, φαίνεταί μοι?! This is a poem which has a good claim to being the most famous and influential of all surviving Greek lyrics, as well as being an piercingly acute psychological study of the jealousy and unrequited love germane to homosexual experience. It should be in there, at the front.
The medieval section is excellent: I was delighted to see the late 12th century 'Altercatio Ganymedis et Helene' included. A deliciously naughty mythological debate about the respective merits of homosexual and heterosexual love, the poem is a salutory reminder of the unexpected richness of medieval sexual discourses. As expected, we then segue into Michaelangelo, Marlowe, and Shakespeare's master-mistress: and then on through ribald Rochester and stately old Katherine Phillips, the 'Matchless Orinda', with a couple of tame poems of passionate female friendship, through to Coleridge's lesbian vampire B-movie, 'Christabel', although not enough is quoted to really get a sense of its feverish, underwired-nightie quality. On the way there is a thank-you note in verse from Wordsworth to the famed 'Ladies of Llangollen', models for many a later pair of upper-crust old dykes, saluting them as 'Sisters in love'. (Rather sweetly, they had a lapdog called Sappho.) Here they are:
Like more and more of the book as it heads towards the present, Wordsworth's poem is interesting as a social document but of no aesthetic merit.
Once we get into the 19th century, there are some treasures: Hopkins contributes 'mansexfine', and there is enough Whitman and Dickinson, Tennyson (in mopey 'In Memoriam' mode, of course), Rimbaud, Verlaine, and Housman. Whitman's 'We Two Boys Together Clinging' from Leaves of Grass is the only poem in the book I already had by heart:
We two boys together clinging,
One the other never leaving,
Up and down the roads going—North and South excursions making,
Power enjoying—elbows stretching—fingers clutching,
Arm’d and fearless—eating, drinking, sleeping, loving,
No law less than ourselves owning—sailing, soldiering, thieving, threatening,
Misers, menials, priests alarming—air breathing, water drinking, on the turf or the sea-beach dancing,
Cities wrenching, ease scorning, statutes mocking, feebleness chasing,
Fulfilling our foray.
How I wish I'd had someone on the ball to recite this to at, say, 21, when I could still have referred to myself as a 'boy' without anyone invoking the Trade Descriptions Act at me. Anyway. The socialist visionary and all-round good egg Edward Carpenter gets a look in: sadly, whatever of Whitman's might have rubbed off on Carpenter, poetic talent wasn't part of it; Carpenter's prosy, worthy efforts are doomed for evermore to languish, I fear, upon the lower slopes of Parnassus. Pierre Louÿs' dreadful Chansons de Bilitis, on the other hand, deserve a mention: humid bits of faux-Sappho (passed off upon publication in 1894 as translations of newly-discovered works by a contemporary of the 'Tenth Muse' herself) they have names like 'The Breasts of Mnasidika', which sounds like an episode of Star Trek:
Carefully, with one hand, she opened her tunic
and tendered me her breasts, warm and sweet,
just as one offers the goddess a pair
of living turtle-doves. 'Love them well', she said to me,
'I love them so! They are little darlings,
little children. I busy myself with them
when I am alone. I play with them; I pleasure them.
'I sprinkle them with milk. I powder them with flowers.
I dry them with my fine-spun hair, soft
to their little tips. I caress them and I shiver.
I couch them in soft wool. Since I shall never have a child,
be their nursling, o my love, and since
they are so distant from my mouth, kiss them, sweet, for me.'
It's all a bit too reminiscent of a Pirelli Calendar for me.
The 20th century makes up over a quarter of the book, as it should, but on the whole top-rate stuff is depressingly uncommon. There are noble exceptions: Cocteau, Pasolini, and Genet do brief but sterling service, but the likes of Frank O'Hara and Thom Gunn get scant look-in, and the absence of Langston Hughes is also puzzling. (Thank God, however, that we have been spared any extracts from John Ashbery's interminable Flow Chart, a poem the reading of which feels like spending hours and hours in a resthome with a senile relative because you want to get something in their will.) On the other hand, Olga Broumas (born 1949) has some richly sensual lesbian numbers, of which more would have been good:
liturgies shake our room, amaryllis blooms
in your upper thighs, water lily
on mine, fervent delta
the bed afloat, sheer
in the wind: Nile, Amazon, Mississippi.
(from Leda and Her Swan)
Coote's anthology inexplicably misses out Hart Crane, whose work I find difficult but which I love nevertheless, and includes only an absurd humorous lyric from W. H. Auden, who surely deserved better, loathe him though I do. The absence of the homoerotic Russian acmeist and bisexual Mikhail Kuzmin is also puzzling. Instead we have Alan Ginsberg at his most enrapturedly boring, attempting in 'Please Master' to evoke a good seeing-to, in long punctuation-free lines of toe-curling (b)anality. The single poem from Federico García Lorca--inevitably the 'Ode to Walt Whitman'--underlines the basically anglocentric nature of the volume, though Cavafy, whom I find a very patchy poet, fares better with nine poems included. But where, where are some of Lorca's wonderful Sonetos del Amor Oscuro, which are at once passionate love poems recalling the poetics of the Spanish siglo de oro, and also--perhaps--precisely-coded symbolic accounts of particular sexual acts? Try this:
Gongoran Sonnet in which the Poet Sends a Dove to His Beloved
I send this dove from Tuna to you.
With its endearing eyes and whitest feathers
it spreads love's fire, and also proffers
the Grecian laurel that the flames consume.
Its honest virtue and its supple throat
twice soiled by slime and scalding foam---
its tremors, frost and misty pearls combined---
bespeak the absence of your mouth. But wait,
just run your hands across its purity
and you will know its snowy melody,
as snowflakes swirl about and cloud your beauty.
Such is my heart---by night and through the day
deprived of you it cries pure melancholy,
imprisoned in dark love that will not die.
Ahem. That's phone sex with poems, that.
Anyway--there's plenty of Paglia's moralistic political self-burdening from the lesbian contingent. Judy Grahn's poem 'A History of Lesbianism' concludes, with prosaic stolidity:
The subject of lesbianism
is very ordinary; it's the question
of male domination that makes everybody
Not just ordinary: but boring too, and in Grahn's formulation, a bit desolate; she is a poet who descibes 'women-loving-women' with choice lines like--
they made love to each other
as best they knew how
--as though the two chicks going at it were trying to assemble an intransigent piece of furniture or make authentic Chinese food. (It reminds me of Jeanette Winterson's aphorism 'Sex between women is mirror geography', which irresistably brought to mind glacial morraines and the formation of oxbow lakes.) But when the boys are spouting rubbish like James Mitchell's 'Gay Epiphany' ('o Cowper's glands, secreting a slimy substance which functions as a lubricant!'), and Adrienne Rich is growling about 'pornography...science-fiction vampires, / victimized hirelings bending to the lash...', one is greatful for sweaty yet artistically-sophisticated poems like the extract from Edward Lucie-Smith's 'Caravaggio Dying', and for the humour of an anonymous Chaucer parody from 1970:
Ther was also a povre closet queane.
he was ryght olde and somdel balde, I wene,
But whilom had he bene a youth-leadere,
That is to seyn a manner scoutmastere.
His studie was Dan Platoun and Socrate.
For wommens matters yaf he not a fart.
His fantasie was on lyf monastic
With divers choiristerres pederastic.
It werre not, thoucht he, by copulacion
T'encrees and eke to multiplye the nacioun...
So, in all, a worthy volume, and one worth owning: but, twenty five years on and in a less shrill political climate, the time has come for Penguin to be bold and commission a new version. It would be good to see Carol Ann Duffy's work, much of which is of better quality than anything in Coote's final forty pages; and Cathal Ó Searcaigh--the only prominent gay poet writing in Irish--would bring a densely lyrical, controversial and non-anglophone element. (Some attempt to grapple with the immense heritage of Chinese and Japanese poetry on homosexual themes would also be welcome.) Finally, it must be noted that the present volume reads oddly because it was published before the AIDS crisis broke, so that the picture of gay life painted in its last pages, redolent though they are of the orgiastic 70s bathhouse-scene, seems oddly innocent. With sorrow, the modern reader can sense, as it were, Gunn's 1992 'The Man With Night Sweats', waiting to be anthologised, hovering ghostlike just beyond the final pages.