Gay Poetics in Post-WWII U. S.


A review of Homosexuality Is A Poem: How Gay Poets Remodeled The Lyric, Community And The Ideology Of Sex To Theorize A Gay Poetic, by Christopher Hennessy.

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.

The need to reinvent the lyric to accommodate gay desire did not arise from the lack of available gay literature or cultural visibility alone. Rather, because these poets wrote in a time in which homosexuality was persecuted and pathologized, they had to write to assert their right to an existence. Hennessy explains how this subject position informed their work: “these poets fashion their individual forms of resistance by building within their poems structures of un-reproductive desire, fomenting pleasure and promiscuity, rejecting expressivity and replacing it with performativity.” (p.19) Thus, as these poets challenged and remodeled the lyrical form to fit gay identity, they were also challenging and contesting the form of a society that sought to silence and persecute them.

Hennessy’s first detailed critical analysis of a poet’s career comes in Chapter Two, in which he examines the work of the most famous and well-researched of his chosen poets, Frank O’Hara. O’Hara’s work has been widely published and anthologized, and his life and career have received substantial critical attention. Thus, Hennessy’s study of O’Hara stresses the critical intervention his dissertation makes into the scholarship on O’Hara. Hennessy writes that his goal is to “embrace the sexual nature of O’Hara’s work rather than ignore it,” adding further that his “critique seeks to bring into focus both the real meaning-­‐intensive effects of sexuality in the poems with the ways in which sexuality is reflected…in formal and linguistic practices and structures.” (p.74) By focusing on sexuality not as a theme but as the driving force that shapes O’Hara’s lyricism, Hennessy accounts for how his work radically defied the conventions of both poetics and politics of his era. He argues that O’Hara:

“produced a gay lyric that perverts New Critical values in order to produce a poetry more reflective of the experience of the homosexual poet and one more able to produce a critique of Cold War containment, consensus and concord. This gay lyric of O’Hara’s is not one of explicit liberation per se, but one that draws on the social reality of the marginalized gay man. It is one of illegibility, the undecidable a resistance to closure, and a refusal to see universality as a meaningful barometer of greatness, so that all of these formal perversions work together to create a gay expression that revels in its own marginality.” (p.77)

After historicizing and theorizing O’Hara’s lyrical dissidence, Hennessy “ perform[s] close readings of poems that clearly represent O’Hara’s deep investment in theorizing gay expression and doing so in a formal vocabulary of difference and opposition to the normative.” (p.89) For example, Hennessy crafts a meticulously close reading of O’Hara’s poem “personism” in order to “show [how] O’Hara theorizes the gay poet’s relationship to both reader and poem as a perverse site of abstracted pleasure rather than a site where two individuals construct a fixed meaning.” (p.90)

In his third chapter, Hennessy moves his attention to San Francisco Renaissance poet Jack Spicer, whose life also spanned the years from the 20s to the 60s like Frank O’Hara’s. Much like in his argument about O’Hara, Hennessy also emphasizes the need to read Spicer’s sexuality as central to his work, introducing him as “a poet who, from the beginning, was a theorist of gay identity and desire, deeply invested in understanding what homosexuality means to a poet and citizen of the Cold War United States.” (p.137) Hennessy’s approach toward Spicer’s poetry differs from O’Hara’s as he focuses on Spicer’s deep distrust of master narratives of gay identity, both those that persecute from outside the community and those that essentialize and limit from within.

The critical question that guides Hennessy’s analysis of Spicer’s poetry is “How does he position himself, and how was he positioned, to be a forceful critic of social control, by both the homogenizing powers of subcultural affiliation and by the punishing effects of the dominant culture?” (p. 138) As a response, Hennessy performs several close readings of Spicer’s poems that “theorize a particular kind of sexual identity that was more complex and perhaps more forward-thinking than the prevailing ideas that swirled among homosexual activists of the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s; more specifically his ideas diverged in profound ways from the outré, celebratory sexuality of Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg.” (p.140) In a close reading of Spicer’s poem “The Unvert Manifesto” (a play on the old medico-scientific term “invert” that was used to describe homosexuals), he argues:

“Spicer imagined an alternative to the hierarchies of inside/outside that identity requires. While his alternative is satirically positioned as a kind of fantasy in this work, Spicer uses it to highlight the need for the poet to be the great destabilizer by aestheticizing queer sex as an art form, one radical in its ability to subvert the naturalizing effects of identity categories as practiced by the dominant culture.” (p. 138)

Hennessy contends that Spicer was leery of the homosexual poet’s proclivity toward uncritically celebrating and romanticizing same-sex desire, most notably in Walt Whitman’s “Calamus.”

This resistance to both lyrical constraints and uncritical celebrations of sentimentalized homosexual desire inspired Spicer’s vision of using the homosexual’s marginalized position to criticize society and imagine alternatives. Hennessy notes that in his work entitled “Three Marxist Essays,” Spicer “recuperat[es] homosexuality’s social marginalization as potentially transformative, re-­‐making isolation as something shared by a group (a ‘we alone’ formulation that lies at the heart of Spicer’s poetics and erotics), and further making this a form of political resistance.” (p. 138) By reimagining homosexual society in his poetry, he was “able to construct a lyric that was not simply a social text but a social space, and what’s more a homosexually-­‐defined space comprised of structures of unreproductive desire—not subjugating identificatory structures.” (p.139)

In his final chapter devoted to a single author, Hennessy introduces the lesser-known poet John Wieners. Unlike O’Hara and Spicer, who died in the 60s, Wieners lived to become part of the Gay Liberation Movement, and thus his work could be read as an indicator of great changes in gay culture and expression. Like Spicer, Wieners also criticized the master narrative of the closet and the public ridicule of homosexuality. But, because he also wrote in an era when confessional poetry became popular and liberation movements emphasized being one “true self”, Wieners was equally suspicious of “coming out” under a unified lyrical “I”. As Hennessy explains:

“Wieners, though many of his poems appear traditional, in a sense rejects the traditional paradigm of the lyric model by showing the genre as complicit in sustaining hegemony; he remodels not a particular mode but the lyric address itself. Many of his poems written from a gay subjectivity refuse to broker in shared suggestiveness. All of these strategies seem invested in the idea that the poet must evade the publicizing powers of the accessible, universally signifying poem while walking a kind of edge of the personal (read: private, and private because homosexual).” (p. 205)

Wieners’s poetry speaks to both the frustration of marginalization and the anxieties of inhabiting the rapidly changing position of the gay man during the Gay Liberation Movement.

In his analysis of Wieners’s subversion of fixed identity and social standards regarding the public/private divide, Hennessy calls upon a corpus of contemporary queer theorists. Hennessy uses the work on queer counterpublics pioneered by Michael Warner and Lauren Berlant’s essay “Sex in Public” to “suggest that erotizing the lyric relationship may queer it in the sense that it disrupts the genre’s autonomy, its trade in privacy, and the sufficiency of authoritative speech.” (p. 215) Hennessy explains how Wieners’s poetry formulates an alternative mode of intimate public address:

“I want to suggest that reading/being read can be a form of intimacy and, per Wieners, so can writing; Wieners’ brand of the lyric, then, becomes a very specific counterpublic in itself, one that doesn’t require shared suggestiveness, an open closet, ‘informational privacy’, or the like because it rejects investing in dominant codes and re-scripts reading/writing/being read as sexual, not textual. In queering the lyric address in this way we can access the promiscuous, mobile, non-monogamous, non-totalizing possibilities of the lyric.” (p. 215)

Hennessy further analyzes Wieners’s poetry through the work on queer failure theorized by “Judith Jack Halberstam and (The Queer Art of Failure), José Esteban Muñoz (Cruising Utopia The Then and There of Queer Futurity), and Heather Love (Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History),” who “have increasingly begun to argue for queerness as a way to subvert ideas of progress, work, knowledge, mastery, and political and personal ‘success’.” (pp.208-209) Wieners plays with the perceived “failure” of the homosexual to live by a heterosexual metric of success in order to criticize heteronormativity and theorize alternatives. Hennessy concludes that “Wieners exhibits a complex poetics that, in its suggestion of failure and erotics, both represents oppression as it simultaneously formally reflects that oppression. What occurs is a transformation of the lyric into a vehicle able to critique the closet, the false protection of privacy ethics, and perhaps even the idea of the self.” (p. 216)

In his final chapter, Hennessy turns away from the study of individual poets and instead focuses on anthologies of gay poetry written during the infancy of the Gay Liberation Movement from 1969-1973. Hennessy explains this change in scope by arguing that the “lack of existing critical work makes such a wide net necessary, rather than a more focused study on just one or two poets.” (p. 243) Indeed, it is true that most of the poetry produced in these gay anthologies and literary magazines of the early 70s have garnered little scholarship and have not been reprinted. Hennessy contends that the reason for the lack of attention is “the easy narratives that tie a celebration of gay visibility and graphic sexual content to poor literary merit.” (p. 244) Hennessy argues for a renewed interest in the value of these gay poems and that we should read them “as a reflection of the difficult social reality…of a marginalized community struggling to move from the closet to the streets and sometimes reproducing the scenes of repression they wanted to leave behind.” (p.244) Here, Hennessy “contextualize[s] the poems within the liberation era politics they were a part of (if not grew alongside with) that theorized sex in unique and revolutionary ways.” (p.247) Although much of this poetry was not formally masterful, Hennessy sees its value in that the poets “embraced what they understood as the natural and essential expressivity of the lyric as a tool to make gay desire more public and as a way to politicize the conversations about gay identity they were having in their liberation movement groups and publications, and indeed in their daily lives.” (p.247) Ultimately, he sees his scholarship on the poetry of the Gay Liberation Movement of the early 70s as “an entry point for further study, perhaps making it possible for scholars to target those poets who may be central to more exhaustive scholarship. In fact, my explicit intention is to lay the groundwork for later, more theoretical interventions and especially to encourage archival work and oral histories.” (p. 253)

Homosexuality is a Poem contributes much-needed original scholarship on both the history of pre and post-Stonewall gay literature and the theoretical framework through which we analyze LGBT writing. Hennessy’s ingenuous readings of well-researched poets like Frank O’Hara and Jack Spicer provide a fresh perspective on the relationship between identity and poetics that can be used to study many other queer writers. His scholarship provides innovative critical language and theoretical frameworks that illuminate that queer writers do not just express sexuality in lyrical forms, but that they instead invent, theorize, and practice queerness through it. The lyric constructs the gay writer as they use their queerness to reinvent the lyric. Furthermore, Hennessy’s research rescues neglected poets such as John Wieners and others from the Gay Liberation Movement whose works have received scant attention. This scholarship has the potential to rewrite the canon of gay literature and allow gay historians to reevaluate our understanding of the role that poetry played in imagining and theorizing gay identity in the era of the Gay Liberation Movement.

Chase Dimock
Department of English
Southeast Missouri State University

Primary Sources

O’Hara, Frank. The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara. New York: Knopf, 1971 .Print.
Spicer, Jack. My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer. Ed. Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 2008. Print.
Wieners, John. Selected Poems,1958-1984. Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1986. Print.

Dissertation Information

The University of Massachusetts Amherst. 2015. 327pp. Primary Adviser: Ruth Jennison.

Image:  Larry Rivers’ painting “O’Hara Nude with Boots”, from the cover of Frank O’Hara’s selected poems.

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