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Dr. Chase Dimock

Assistant Professor of English at Broward College and Researcher in Comparative Literature and LGBT Studies

Category

Modern American Poetry

My Review of “Homosexuality is a Poem” By Christopher Hennessy

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(Poet, Frank O’Hara)

……..Christopher Hennessy’s Homosexuality is a Poem, is a part-theoretical, part-historical examination of the relationship between post-war poetry and gay identity. Focusing on the work of poets such as Frank O’Hara, Jack Spicer, John Wieners, and the poets of the early Gay Liberation Movement, Hennessy contends that the lyrical form allowed gay writers the ability to theorize and imagine gay identity and desire in innovative ways. As they invented new forms of poetic expression that challenged lyrical conventions, they in turn used poetry to object to society’s marginalization and persecution of homosexuality in the 50s and 60s. This poetry, in turn, helped to imagine queer community and politicize gay desire in ways that inspired and vocalized gay politics in the pre- and post-Stonewall eras.

………In his first chapter, Hennessy lays out the structure of his investigation into how post-war gay poets reinvented the lyrical form to fit the queer experience of same-sex desire, the politics of sexual liberation, and gay identity. He identifies these as the principal aims of his study: “making sexuality central instead of peripheral” to the study of a gay poet’s corpus, understanding “postwar lyric as a form still influenced by the long shadow of The New Criticism” via its impact on minoritized gay poets, showing “how the lyric functions differently for the gay poet,” and beginning “new critical conversations” about gay poets in ways that “include taking seriously these eroto-poetics” and conceiving of their creators “as lyric theorists.” (pp.8-9) Hennessy’s approach toward analyzing the work of these pioneering poets is as much a historical project as it is a work of literary criticism. His readings of Frank O’Hara, Jack Spicer, and John Wieners stress the oppressive environment of the post-war social climate before the modern gay rights movement as a contributing factor to how they used poetry to theorize and narrate gay experience. Hennessy contends that “the experience of gay male desire, before it had emerged fully as a political and social identity, was a textual experience, a discursive identity rather than a set of acts. But perhaps more importantly it was a question, not an answer, the way in which the best of poems function.” (p.17) Poetry did not merely describe gay male desire; it helped men who felt such desire invent and define themselves.

(Full Article Available via Dissertation Reviews)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Robert Duncan’s “My Mother Would Be A Falconress”

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The following is a reading of Robert Duncan’s poem “My Mother Would be a Falconress” that situates the poem within lgbt history and the author’s fraught relationship with gay identity. The full poem itself can be found here on Poets.org.

Read within the contemporary context, the word “gay” in the second line “and I, her gay falcon treading her wrist” sticks out awkwardly and causes the line to stumble to its conclusion. To flat out declare that a character is gay in 2013 would violate the sacred creative writing principle of showing instead of telling. A mainstream audience from 1968 would have made no such pause. After all, the theme song from “The Flintstones” promised its 1960s audience that they would have “a gay old time”. But, queer men and women of the era, or those heterosexuals in the know, would have paused and wondered whether or not Duncan was sneaking in a double meaning, perhaps even making this one three-letter word the key to unlocking the troubled source of the complex relationship between mother and child depicted in the poem.

From Duncan’s notes on the genesis of the poem (marked above in MAPS as Virginia Wallace-Whitaker), we know that the association of the term “gay” with a sexual connotation was deliberate. Yet, Duncan stresses that with using “gay”, he wants to evoke the history of the term as a signifier of sexual liberation and being “free from any structure”, before it was attached specifically to homosexual men. Citing the French poet Baudelaire’s use of “gai” in his poetry as inspiration, Duncan declares, “Gai” could be taken over by the gay liberation because it originally meant you were sexually free, not paying attention to whether your sexual partner was male or female, not checking out the charge for it.” The Stonewall Riots launched the modern American gay liberation movement one year after the publication of this poem, and the term “gay” would be introduced to the public as the preferred term for a homosexual male. Promoting the term “gay” was a rhetorical tactic that sought to disassociate modern gays from the clinical history of the “homosexual” as a psychologically disturbed and genetically inferior being and to reinforce the pursuit of open happiness and pride, previously assumed to be unachievable to the melancholic, outcast homosexual.

(Full article at Modern American Poetry …scale to bottom of page)

A Few Queer Notes on Frank O’Hara’s “A True Account of Talking to the Sun on Fire Island”

O'hara

Without its title “A True Account of Talking to the Sun on Fire Island”, the queer space of O’Hara’s poem taking place on Fire Island could pass easily undetected without the image of hoards of tanned men partying on the beach evoked at the mention of the now famous gay resort. Although the poem itself has little to say explicitly about sexual identity or its attendant politics, I believe that it benefits from being situated in the specific context of Fire Island’s history in the lgbt community. Today, Fire Island is a famous summer vacation spot populated heavily with gay men during its high season. While the 21st century discos, raves, and circuit parties on the island today make it a carnival atmosphere, in the time of Frank O’Hara, Fire Island was more of a traditional east coast village of summer homes—just prominently populated by queer men and women. Fire Island was an especially popular destination for gay writers and artists. In her ethnography of the resort, Cherry Grove, Fire Isla, Esther Newton mentions the legend that W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood once attended a party at the famous Duffy’s Hotel dressed as Dionysus and Ganymede. Whether this is true or not, it establishes the space Fire Island occupied in not just gay culture, but also gay literary history, as a space that nurtured and inspired queer expression. Since even before O’Hara’s stay, Fire Island has had a place in the gay imaginary as a queer oasis—an escape from the bigotry and obligatory discretion of urban life. Along with promising romantic liaisons (however brief their durations) Fire Island was also a rare space of queer domesticity where gay men and women could live almost like their straight counterparts in the suburbs and residential communities outside the city.

(Read more at Modern American Poetry…scroll to the bottom of the linked page)

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