Saturday, July 26, 2003

The Bisexual Poet

So I was talking on the phone with my old friend Chris, who happens to be an ex-girlfriend, about her difficulties building an identity around her bisexual feelings. A long time after we broke up she was in an exclusive relationship with another woman; this recently ended and she's been coming to terms with the fact that she still desires men, although her relatively newfound desire for women has not faded. A little later in the conversation we were talking about my problems with presenting myself in public, at a reading, say, as a "poet" because of the different meanings that can be assigned to this word. It's my belief that when you say "I'm a poet" to most people, their minds are filled with the expectation that you are claiming to be some kind of visionary, extraordinarily sensitive, filled with "deep" feelings, and unable to keep them to yourself. At worst you are taken for pretentious; at best some kind of vatic wisdom is expected—in any case, a poet who identifies as a poet in this sense is making a Romantic claim of self-definition. To another, much smaller group that same statement denotes someone who is primarily concerned with language and with investigating the ways in which language manifoldly means—melo-, phano-, and logopoeia—with the possibilities for thinking that language offers when one understands how it is always going to "mean" more than anyone could consciously "say." (A subset of this group understands the poet as a kind of cultural worker, who neither asks for nor expects personal privileges but who rather demands the freedom of making—the means of cultural production—in the name of his or her group or class. Identifying with a larger group would seem to be one way of synthesizing the two positions, or at least of having equal access to them: as Alcalay writes, "It is revolutionary... [to open] up personal history in a tradition of writing that has largely concerned itself with the fate of a people." But even a poet less sure of his or her "people" is presumably less concerned with being a rugged invididualist when they are pursuing an investigative poetics.) Anyway, as I was talking about my dual attraction to Romantic, visionary poetry and a "harder" more investigative roles for the poet, Chris laughed and told me, "You're bisexual too!"

Now I am not particularly bisexual in my desires; despite sincere efforts at experimentation I could never muster much authentic desire for male bodies. But I think the bisexual metaphor works in many ways when applied to my feelings about poetry and being a poet, so much so that it almost ceases to be a metaphor. Writing poetry, after all, even now in the 21st century, still carries with it a whiff of effeminacy. It is not at all difficult to read Pound and Lewis' obsession with "clear" "hard" writing as opposed to the kind of poetry Pound sneeringly associated with "the PYE-AN-o" (an instrument for feminine "accomplishments") as a kind of overcompensation for their feeling that to be a poet was to be seen as being less of a man. Even Perloff's Pound/Stevens dichotomy participates to some degree in this gendered divide: look at bearded, angry, bohemian Ezra and his international adventures next to the soft, pleasure-loving, stay-at-home figure of Stevens: he worked in insurance, for god's sake—is there a more limp-wristed product out there? It's not even a product; it's almost as bad as usury! (You can feel the pressure of this behind Perloff's statement at the end of her essay, "Pound/Stevens: Whose Era?", paraphrasing Kandinsky: "the 'two poles'—the expressionist and the constructionist.") Men build things; women sit around and flutter their fans and exclaim about all the pressure this masculine reality has put their feminine imaginations under. Anyway, nowadays the expressionists have their own ways of overcoming homosexual panic through their proud adherence to traditional form, or to a stable and centering I—the most evolved, of course, have either ceased to worry about accusations of effeminacy or else have actively embraced them. The constructivists forge ahead, with the most die-hard of them openly in contempt of the notion that poetry has anything to do with self-expression.

And then there's someone like me, homeless and horny, covertly longing for the soft, warm embrace of expressionism while trying just a little too hard to be fit in with the muscular, cool constructivists in their sunglasses and hardhats. Trying to come to terms with the fact that, like any bisexual, there is no ready-made culture for me to slip into as someone who desires to do both kinds of writing, sometimes simultaneously (what a pervert!). And like any bisexual I'm faced with the alternatives of trying to build such a culture from scratch, or else rejecting the internal and external pressures I feel to build an identity on what I desire. (What a prison Nick Hornby's formula from High Fidelity is: it's not who you are, it's what you like.) Another way to feel bisected and bifurcated; another Fence-sitter.

One solution, as I've already noted, is to dedicate myself for speaking for/through/to a particular group or class: to politicize not my poetry, but my position as poet. Or at least to attempt something along the lines of a poetics of relation (still waiting for the Glissant book to arrive, so I should be understood to speaking very tentatively here), which would, I imagine, be a poetry that demonstrated the constructedness and context of the fragmented I's that would nonetheless attempt to express something personal. Right now the best I can do is point to individual poems and say, this tends toward expressionism, this is constructivist, this moves in both directions. And I can reserve the right of a person in an enlightened society (who must always ignore the many ways in which enlightenment shows itself to be late-arriving) to spend one night with Stevens and the next night with Rachel Blau du Plessis. I just hope I won't be taken for one of those trendy constructivists who makes out with other constructivists just to give the expressionists a hard-on.

No comments:

Popular Posts