Jerome Murphy, a Wilde Boy & MFA student at NYU, answers the question – what makes a poem gay?
When I hear the phrase “gay poetry” I can’t help imagining the sculptural contours of a masculine figure bathed in the lavender ambience of unrequited desire, by a speaker ruefully self-aware and vaguely tragic. It’s like that.
Hell, I’ll just say it–Cavafy. Cavafy’s most blatantly homoerotic work, evocative as it is, represents for me one of the narrowest conceptions of what might fall within the purview of a gay poetics.
To me, for a poet to be “gay” with conceptual quote marks is a matter of imaginative dexterity—of fully exploiting the double vision bestowed by existence as a variant on the sexual norm. To be, in other words, amphibious. To be deviously sensitive to whatever borders your culture has drawn around gender and to actually enjoy those restrictions for the acts of creative subversion they allow.
I want the poet to be a trickster with a mask, to embody uncanny gods, to be a tickly Anansi or shapeshifting Loki. When I picture the Mona Lisa–an ageless mask through which Leonardo himself smiles at us–I find the expression Emily Dickinson might have worn as she imagined violating plush “gentlewomen.”
Great artists are androgynous beings—hermaphroditic shamans of a third realm. Whitman, of course, took Keats’s concept of negative capability, of feminine receptiveness, and fed it steroids. Rilke lovingly described the galloping knight whose face is like “moonlight on a favorite book.” And how sensually he caressesed that torso of Apollo—almost as though he used Whitman’s “invisible hand.” Plath’s ferocious appropriations of Shakespeare and Eliot, indeed of much of the masculine canon, exemplify this approach. She ate Eliot like air! But these are only blatant examples—many are a more subtle matter of drawing on one’s transgressive energies.
I’m trying to complicate this idea of “gay” and to propose we can find this sensibility everywhere in literature, even in the much-maligned Canon of Harold Bloom.
Of course, this leads us to some difficult and possibly painful questions, such as, should the master’s house in fact be dismantled? Should the moldering antebellum estate of the Canon in fact be razed, or is there some sort of less dramatic and perhaps more arduous task of renovation before us?
The sexuality of a poet is irrelevant, if the poet can plumb the volcanic psychic depths where our ideas about gender and sexuality begin.
“Queer” is another story for another day. I’d like to leave you with this: Our gendered behaviors are anxiously guarded, both by instinct and by cultural tradition. There’s great risk and energy available for those brave enough to explore without predetermined conclusions. So don your camouflage and traverse the borders at night under the searchlights of the snipers. Whatever you find, you deserve to claim.