Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Virtuous Vice

An old book review that still seems very relevant:

Eric O. Clarke, Virtuous Vice: Homoeroticism and the Public Sphere (Durham, North Caroline: Duke University Press, 2000)

The truth most universally acknowledged by gay liberationists ever since the Stonewall riots in 1969 is that gay liberation depends on the abolition of secrecy.  The more we say we are gay, the more our rights will have to be taken into account.  The less rare we seem, the less shall we lay ourselves open to exploitation and abuse.  Let us invade and settle any social space but one: that which we have abjured for ever, the closet.  We arrived at a firm consensus that it was an absolute social duty, as far as each individual was able, to come out—to oneself, to one’s family, to one’s friends, in the workplace, and to the world at large.  Visibility at any cost.
Ever since, we have been trying to find a suitable alternative space for ourselves.  If not the closet, where else?  The fact is, if you take provincial towns in Britain as an example, the gay ‘scene’ has hardly changed in its essentials since before the 1967 Sexual Offences Act.  Beyond a handful of pubs and nightclubs, the latter often run by low-level mafiosi, in each town, there is virtually nothing else.  So what kind of cultural space do gay people aspire to as they look forward into the new century?  The commonest answer appears to be: as far as possible, the suburban dream home of the 1950s—the very place which, since that benighted decade, we have consistently regarded as most alien to us because most dangerous for us.
The new homosexual is expected to form lasting relationships secured by legal ties; to want to have children, if not quite yet to be allowed to; to participate normally—that is, discreetly—in local institutions like the church choir and the PTA (but without laying hands or even equivocal words on the choristers or pupils).  Like the token gays in a contemporary TV soap, the new homosexual will socialise heterosexually, but only at a certain distance lest, by design or accident, they tempt hetero spouses from out of the definitive security of their marriages.  Lesbians and gay men will bring to the burbs their own special magic, amusingly helping out with tasks inappropriate to their gender: gay men arranging the flowers on the altar, lesbians doing the carpentry for the school pageant.  They will serve in the national institutions, and their patriotism will never be questioned—unless they start to form exclusive cliques or cells.  Eventually, like long-term immigrants, ‘they’ will become so like ‘us’ that we will be able to overlook the fact that they are them.  With watchful policing, perfect assimilation will have been achieved.
            This dream scenario is also, of course, a nightmare; and a paradoxical one, at that.  The logical consequence of this long process of coming out of the closet and then assimilating into hetero-bourgeois society is the re-entry of the closet all over again.  The aim is to become indistinguishable from anyone else—and on their terms, by following their model—which is precisely the effect of being closeted.
In his timely and lucid monograph Virtuous Vice, Eric Clarke subjects the goals of American lesbian and gay identity politics to sceptical examination. An increasingly respectable minority, still taking for granted the two cornerstone imperatives of 1970s gay liberationism—coming out and positive images—is seeking to assimilate itself into the mainstream, firstly, by making itself more visible and, secondly, by then being seen to consist of good citizens only. To accomplish this remarkable social transformation, as if swapping with each other, gay men have donned suits and ties, lesbians skirts and lipstick. More tellingly, they have systematically distanced themselves from the old stereotypes by distancing themselves also from fellow gay men and lesbians who are promiscuous, exhibitionistic, effeminate/butch, sadomasochistic, paedophile, fetishist, or otherwise conceivably anti-social. Imagine how concerned they would have been to hide that dirty old boy-chaser Walt Whitman, even though they still claim to value his poetry. Good gay citizens will prove the virtuousness of their vice by demanding that the authorities approve their long-term relationships and by joining up with the institutions of state--the military, for instance--without being tempted to spy for the enemy. You could be forgiven for thinking that all gay liberation amounts to is being given permission to marry your sergeant major.
Clarke takes celebrities who have come out as the main examples of the new visibility. He concentrates on Ellen Degeneres—perhaps a little unfairly when you consider how her career has suffered as a consequence.  Such figures, he claims, ‘have publicly argued that queer erotic diversity should be restricted to already valorized, heteronormative forms of erotic attachment and expression’.  Ellen’s coming out was widely welcomed in lesbian and gay circles.  But what happens when such a celebrity, willingly playing the role of role model, explicitly distances herself from ‘dykes on bikes or these men dressed as women’?  (She means motorbikes, not pushbikes, and men who live in drag, not entertainers.)
How can—if it can—the private vice of homo-eroticism, when outed into Habermas’ category of ‘the public sphere’, become valued as a public virtue?  Just how far have those who govern us really moved on from Kant’s notion that only in monogamous marital relations between a property-owning man and a woman can the objectifying and animalistic tendencies of sexual desire be, if not eliminated, at least minimised?  Clarke shows how far, in the USA, ‘moral conformity’ has become ‘the very precondition for enfranchisement’.  The normalisation of homosexuality proceeds apace.  Why, it looks as if it may soon be necessary, when coming out as gay, to add: ‘But I don’t sleep around, I don’t wear women’s clothes, I’m not into s/m and I won’t fuck your child’.  This drive for ‘moral enfranchisement’ also helps to explain the type of rights which are currently being demanded: ‘the right to marry, serve openly in the armed forces, parent, dispense with private property as one pleases’ and so on.  Of these, marriage has become the most important, to the extent that ‘marriage becomes one of the only rights deemed worth having, and conversely only those who desire to marry are deemed worthy of rights’ (Clarke’s emphasis).
            If it is true, as Clarke claims, that we have invested the whole of our social development in the commercialisation of our marginalised sexualities (‘Post-Stonewall urban gay men reek of the commodity.  We give off the smell of capitalism in rut’), what is to be gained thereby?  To what extent must the broader objectives of gay liberation be compromised by the more immediate desire to be catered for when shopping?  Clarke takes the sceptical line, arguing that ‘visibility politics mistakes commercial publicity as a democratically authentic representation of persons and groups’.
Clarke is meticulous and wide-ranging in his historical contextualisation of the problem.  There is an extremely useful sequence on how, during the Westernisation of Greece in the 18th and 19th centuries, supposedly ‘oriental’ customs returned to Europe, via a war zone reconstituted as the ‘cradle’ of ‘civilisation’.  And he gives a cogent account of the changing reputation of Percy Shelley’s personality, which was first characterised as consisting of an androgynous manliness, almost Christ-like in its purity, but eventually, after his death, came to be mistrusted as exhibiting signs of perverse effeminacy and degeneracy.
My reservations are few but perhaps not insignificant.  Clarke’s argument is entirely based on the narrowly American struggle for marriage rights and access to careers in the military.  Although these issues have arisen in Europe, they are regarded here as far less central to the gay liberationist struggle in societies which are less conformist than the Land of the Free.  Certainly, in Britain the armed services do not any longer have the social status that they still have in the USA; and in Britain not only do gay people seem to have recognised that marriage simply does not work for heterosexuals—to be truly normative, any provision for queer marriage would have to include provision for queer divorce—but our politics are still far less in thrall to the rhetoric of Christianity than the Americans’.  Moreover, in many (especially non-western) cultures the pertinent ethical question is much closer to being: should queer citizens, once identified, be allowed freedom of movement or action at all?  Or should they even be allowed to live?  This question, never addressed by Clarke, is still not wholly irrelevant even in the nation to which the gay student Matthew Shepard belonged.  (He was crucified by homophobes in Wyoming, the Equality State, in October 1997, and left to die.)
Clarke directs an appropriate but superficial glance at the lesbian and gay travel/holiday industry.  The matter is more complicated than he seems to notice.  He does not mention that many, if not most, American gay tourism advertisements are not about being out and about in the ‘public sphere’ at all, but about walled vacation ‘resorts’ (which in other parts of the world would be called ‘compounds’) in places like Palm Springs and Key West and specially chartered, heterosexual-excluding cruise liners.  When this aspect of gay privacy intrudes on the public sphere of the outside world, major problems can arise—as in April 1998 when the SS Seabreeze I was met by 300 local protestors as it debouched its complement of lesbians into the streets of Nassau in the Bahamas.  In January of the same year a Norwegian Cruise Lines boat-load of gay men had actually been turned away from the Cayman Islands.  Indeed, contrary to expectation, it may prove, in the long run, less difficult for us to come out in our predominantly urban workplaces than in the non-metropolitan and non-Western places to which we aspire to travel in our vacations.
It is odd that Clarke makes no mention of the Internet, where not only are the traditional parameters of private and public being systematically redefined (cyberspace being, strictly speaking, neither one thing nor the other), but so too, in many ways, are sexual identities.  MOOing and MUDDing in the realms of virtuality beyond the phenomenological confines of physique, it is certainly true that some people believe they are developing new configurations of gendered, or even ungendered, interaction and new ways of existing queerly.  Under the circumstances, it appears that we need to develop a more sophisticated sense not only of the public but of the private sphere—for which the gay-moralised concept of ‘the closet’ may not be the only conceivable metaphor.
A couple of problems which arise in Virtuous Vice are common to a lot of recent work in queer studies.  Clarke sometimes appears to want to have his cake and eat it too when it comes to matters of language.  Queer theorists have replaced the anachronistic use of ‘homosexual’ with the safer—because far more ambiguous—term ‘queer’.  Needless to say, this is no less anachronistic.  So, for instance, Clarke refers to Percy Shelley’s ‘queer peculiarities’ (p.155), where the adjective is redundant unless it carries the burden of a late-twentieth-century sexual meaning.  And when quoting an anonymous reviewer’s comment that at school Shelley refused to participate in the fagging system—‘he would not be a fag’—Clarke does not gloss what is, after all, an extremely narrow usage of ‘fag’ for his American readers.  It is clear that he wants it to carry the twentieth-century resonance of faggotry.
Clarke seems to be embarrassed by his own scholarship.  It is as if he knows—even if he does not admit it—that education is itself the most assimilationist project of all.  There is an uncomfortably revealing moment when he says, ‘As odd and nerdy as it may sound, I often think of Habermas when teaching alternative AIDS videos to my [sic] undergraduates in an Introduction to Popular Culture course.’  This makes me worry about what his teaching is like when he is not being odd and nerdy.  What on earth is the point of reading Habermas at all (or whoever else) if his work is not going to come to mind when we are thinking about relevant topics?  The very next sentence is startling in its curmudgeonly recognition that Clarke’s own career is not a completely lost cause: ‘Despite the inequities of power between teachers and students, the classroom at times can be an ideal arena for the exchange of ideas.’  It can, indeed.
Clarke’s assault on assimilationism raises all kinds of anxieties when one considers that it comes from a university professor: for the fact is that queer academics are themselves (ourselves, rather) a highly specialist academic élite whose goal has been, over the last decade, to settle a niche in some of the most conservative institutions in the West: the universities and their adjunct publishing houses.  Nobody who is, or aims to be, a professor working in queer studies should ever look down on a pair of gay men who want to get married or a lesbian who wants to join the navy. Besides, I am not convinced that the kinds of political and cultural strategy that Clarke labels as assimilationist all are, or always are.
For instance, to say that claiming to be part of a gay tradition is an assimilationist move tells us little. What matters is: assimilation into what, by whom, and to what end? There is surely a difference between claimants. Alexander the Great and Hephaestion dancing naked on the tombs of Achilles and Patroclus at Troy; Oscar Wilde, facing hard labour, identifying with Plato; a pre-operative transsexual reading up on the Native American berdache; an isolated moffie in South Africa looking to the Western gay movements for inspiration, if not a precise blueprint; a man with AIDS reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain; a guilt-ridden Christian sodomite, citing David and Jonathan or Naomi and Ruth rather than the cities of the plain... Thus implicitly to claim solidarity with known figures from the past, actual or invented, is an assertion of knowledge and not—contrary to the more heavy-handed queer theorists—a demonstration of ignorance. One of the major uses to which culture can be put is to give us a sense of, in Van Wyck Brooks’ expression, ‘a usable past’. To identify with pre-‘homosexual’ formulations of same-sex sexuality, or with other cultures’ formulations, may indeed be one of our best ways of not assimilating into the dominant American capitalist-commercial mode.


[This review was first published in Textual Practice 15, 2 (Summer 2001), pp.340-344.]

Friday, 14 June 2013

Lord Baden-Powell

 


Rumours about Baden-Powell’s homosexuality chiefly concern his relationship with Kenneth McLaren, whom he met in 1881 when McLaren was twenty but looked like ‘a lad of apparently about fourteen’.  (Baden-Powell was 24 at the time.)  McLaren certainly became his closest friend, whom he gave the affectionate nickname of ‘Boy’ or ‘the Boy’, but there is no evidence either way, that this was or was not a sexual relationship.  They did love each other, if that counts.  Baden-Powell’s biographer says of him that ‘The available evidence points inexorably to the conclusion that Baden-Powell was a repressed homosexual’ – which presumably means that in an ideal world (for him) he would have had sexual relationships with other males, but that in sadder reality he did not.[1]
There can be no doubt that Baden-Powell was far more interested in men and boys, as comrades, colleagues and companions, than in women and girls.  He took it for granted – and publicly said so – that a male couple could make just as happy a life for themselves in living together as any husband and wife; this view always tempered his otherwise wholly conventional and conservative attitudes to marriage as an institution.  But his commitment to the masculine principle went further than that.  In the face of his typical utterances about men, mere woman pales to insignificance.  In Rovering to Success (1922), for instance, he roundly declares that ‘A clean young man in his prime of health and strength is the finest creature God has made in this world’.[2]  He liked to watch his boy scouts bathing naked, and was horrified in 1934 when the police decided to crack down on boys’ naked bathing in the Serpentine.  A friend of his, A.H. Tod, a master at Charterhouse (of which Baden-Powell was an old boy), amassed a large collection of photographs he had taken of Charterhouse boys in the nude; Baden-Powell was delighted when invited to look through these.  It would not be an exaggeration to say that, in their cumulative splendour, they represented the crucial essence of the task to which he had dedicated his life.  For him, mens sana in corpore sano was more than just a pious phrase.  He applied it, actively and practically, in his concentration on the instilling of regular and assiduous bathing habits in boy scouts, as well as on the design of their uniforms.  (Shorts were connected, in his mind, with both freedom of movement and bodily hygiene; he also found them attractive.)  A boy with clean habits was likely to be pure in mind, too; which made him worth befriending.  A boy who was dirty, and dirty-minded either as cause or in consequence, was all the more worth befriending – so that he could be educated into better habits.  It stood to reason.







[1] Tim Jeal, Baden-Powell (London: Hutchinson, 1989), p ?
[2] Lord Baden-Powell of Gilwell, Rovering to Success: A Book of Life-Sport for Young Men (London: Herbert Jenkins, [1930]), p.119.

Violet Gordon Woodhouse


Late in the summer of 1894, Rupert Gwynne and Gordon Woodhouse, having both just left Cambridge, held a party at the home of the latter’s parents, at which Woodhouse met Gwynne’s twenty-three-year-old sister, Violet.  Within weeks, Gordon and Violet were engaged.  Her intention was that the marriage should be platonic.  (In any case, the family later intimated that Gordon had had a hunting accident that left him sexually incapable.)  They were married on 30 July 1895; Rupert Gwynne was Gordon Woodhouse’s best man.  The bride immediately took charge of the relationship by way of the question of names.  On their honeymoon, she signed her maiden name in the hotel register at Scheveningen.  Yet when they returned to England she persuaded her husband to change his name, by deed poll, to Gordon Gordon-Woodhouse, so that she could call herself Violet Gordon Woodhouse, thereby using not just one but both of his names.
            Violet Gordon Woodhouse was an accomplished musician.  Ferrucio Busoni called her ‘one of the greatest living keyboard artists’.  She played the piano and the harpsichord at chamber concerts with the ‘early music’ pioneer Arnold Dolmetsch, and her own ‘at home’ concerts at 6 Upper Brook Street in London became fashionable.  Four years into the marriage, a relationship developed, with Gordon’s consent, between Violet and Gordon’s friend, the Hon. William Barrington, whom she had first met at that same house party in 1894 at which she had met Gordon himself.  There is some question as to whether even this new relationship with Bill Barrington was ever consummated.  As Violet’s biographer tentatively puts it, ‘it is not impossible ... that even at the height of their erotic passion her relationship with Bill was not fully consummated’.  In 1901, when Gordon and Violet moved into Southover Grange in Lewes, Bill moved in with them.[1]
            In the same year, this cosy domestic relationship was enlarged by one, when Max Labouchère (nephew of Henry Labouchère, he of the ‘Amendment’) joined them; and then by one more, when the Hon. Denis Tollemache, seventeen years old and just down from Winchester, also joined the fray.  Denis had loved Violet since, at the age of eight, he attended one of her musical recitals.  Gordon Woodhouse seemed perfectly happy to welcome the other three men into his marriage; and Bill Barrington, too, welcomed the two newcomers.  Violet’s biographer asks the necessary question with the necessary scepticism: ‘Could they conceivably be—inexpressible thought, only ten years after Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment—a nest of homosexuals?  Surely not’.[2]
            Violet’s brother Rupert got married in 1905.  His old friends Gordon and Bill were ushers at the wedding.  (There were seven Gwynne siblings, the youngest of whom, Roland, was certainly homosexual.)  Southover Grange was sold the following year, and Violet and three of her menfolk moved into Armscote House, near Stratford-upon-Avon, in 1907.  The fourth man, young Denis Tollemache, moved into the house next door.  (He also kept a home in London.)  The popular novelist Marie Corelli (1855-1924) lived nearby with her lifelong companion Bertha Vyver.  Violet Gordon Woodhouse had a number of prominent lesbian friends by now.  They included Christabel Marshall, secretary to Lady Randolph Churchill and her son Winston.  Marshall had fallen in love with the actress Ellen Terry’s daughter, Edith Craig, in 1899, and the two of them sustained a relationship for the next half a century.  The Princesse de Polignac, Winnaretta Singer, had recently been having an affair with the composer Ethel Smyth and was promoting her opera The Wreckers with a series of play-throughs in private houses.  Having heard the piece, Violet decided to help.  Although they had not met before, it was not long before a close friendship developed between Violet and the composer.  Smyth sealed it by giving Violet a copy of the life and poems of Sappho.  At a suffragist meeting held in London in 1910, she met Radclyffe Hall.  In 1915, Hall started visiting Violet and dedicated her collection The Forgotten Island to her.  They were close, but it is not likely that they were ever lovers.
            Denis, meanwhile, was taking part in the Battle of the Somme, and Bill was fighting in what is now Iraq before being posted to India.  In 1917 Denis was captured and imprisoned for the duration.  On 20 April 1918, Max Labouchère died on the line at the Somme.  Violet, who had been befriended by the Sitwells, found herself performing for other men who had been to Hell and back: Osbert Sitwell brought Robert Nichols, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Arthur Waley and others to hear her play.  In the post-war period she was paid further impressive homages.  In the summer of 1919, Serge Diaghilev brought Pablo Picasso to meet her.  T.E. Lawrence visited with Sir Ronald Storrs, and then on various occasions by himself.  Ethel Smyth brought her lover Edith Somerville.  It was Smyth who brought Violet and Virginia Woolf together—the Woolfs went to a private performance of Violet’s at her town house in Brompton Square in March 1931—but no friendship developed.
            When Violet died in January 1948, Bill Barrington was the principal mourner at her funeral, with Gordon Woodhouse following closely in his wake.  Bill and Gordon went on living together (Denis had died in 1942) for another three years.  Gordon died in 1951, Bill in 1960.








[1]Jessica Douglas-Home, Violet: The Life and Loves of Violet Gordon Woodhouse (London: Harvill, 1996), pp.74, 63.
[2]Douglas-Home, p.94.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Frank O'Hara

Frank O’Hara, Selected Poems, Carcanet Press, 1991 (2005 reissue)

By the time of his death on Fire Island in 1966—run over by a beach buggy in the middle of the night—Frank O’Hara was a familiar figure in those circles where the New York art scene and the street-level gay subcultures overlapped.  Not only was he Associate Curator at the Museum of Modern Art, but he had established himself as an energetic presence on the vibrant poetry circuit of the day.  Fully immersed in the business of working out how to live and write in a new era as an openly gay man, he wrote about his own milieu in his own city: New York, the place he calls Sodom-on-Hudson (‘Commercial Variations’), where the very leaves fall from the trees ‘like angels who’ve been discharged for sodomy’ (‘Second Avenue’).
Hardly anywhere else interested him.  In ‘Meditations in an Emergency’ he distances himself from what was expected of a certain type of gay poet: ‘I have never clogged myself with the praises of pastoral life, nor with nostalgia for an innocent past of perverted acts in pastures.  No.  One need never leave the confines of New York to get all the greenery one wishes—I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life’.  His work is so firmly based in the one place that he could be accused of parochialism, were it not for the fact that New York is such a special case as a world-wide exemplar of the modern urban experience.  In any case, his poetry is often very European in its influences: Rimbaud, for a start, as well as the full spectrum of European modernist painters.
O’Hara’s roommate and sometime lover Joe LeSueur later said of him: ‘there were times when I thought he was in love with at least half of his friends, for it was possible for him to get so emotionally involved that it wasn’t unusual for him to end up in bed with one of them and then, with no apparent difficulty, to go right back to being friends again afterward … He didn’t make distinctions, he mixed everything up: life and art, friends and lovers—what was the difference between them?’  What O’Hara particularly valued was a queerness that overlapped with everything else: work and leisure, high art and low life, sadness and hilarity, sex and friendship, masculinity and femininity, straightness and bentness.
Because he loathed the idea that he should ever have to close himself off from any aspect of life, he refused to mix in closed gay circles and snobby elites.  Joe Le Sueur later wrote: ‘if he was going to be adamantly opposed to the gay ghetto principle as exemplified by Cherry Grove on Fire Island, Lenny’s Hideaway downtown, the Bird Circuit uptown, any gay gathering where straights were excluded or not wanted—in other words, a way of life that promoted compulsive cruising, misogyny, and homosexual separatism—he must have felt it necessary, as a point of pride and as a moral obligation, to hammer home to straight people the clear, unmistakable message that he was an uncontrite, arrogant queer who was not about to sing miserere or fall on his knees to anyone.’   Or if he were to fall to his knees, he would do so only for an angelic physique.
O’Hara is that miraculous creature, a poet who is actually enjoying his life.  The tone of his work is so optimistic that even when he says ‘All I want is boundless love’ (‘Meditations in an Emergency’) it is as if he is not asking for much.  His mood is infectious.  When he ends one of his poems of street observations with the challenging question to the reader, ‘why are you reading this poem anyway?’ (‘Petit Poème en Prose’), the implication is that we might be better occupied walking the streets, creating the encounters out of which to make poems of our own.  Poetry must be based not in detached contemplation, but in active involvement and celebration: ‘What is the poet for, if not to scream / himself into a hernia of admiration for / paradoxical integuments’ (‘Ashes on Saturday Afternoon’).  His language is often subculturally specific—‘it’s the night like I love it all cruisy and nelly’ (‘Easter’)—as if he expects everyone, philiac and phobic alike, to take part in the gayness of his gaiety and the nelliness of his tears.  Joy and pain are opposite sides of the same vibrancy—unhappiness is a necessary corollary of happiness.  But his was not the ‘tragic’ happiness to which the Cold War American queer was said to be both prone and doomed.  The gay men he knew had ways of dealing with the standard heartbreak of living with love and hatred: ‘I don’t want any of you to be really unhappy, just camp it up a bit and whine, whineola, baby’.
Included in this volume is O’Hara’s light-hearted but serious manifesto of what he called ‘Personism’, whereby the poem speaks ‘between two persons instead of two pages’.  Only half joking when he says this method will prove ‘the death of literature as we know it’, he advocates a poetry that speaks directly to the reader as an individual rather than loftily down to a crowd.  He acknowledges—as so many poets do not, now as then—that there is more to life than verse, and more to verse than versification.  (His own preferred art forms were painting and cinema.  As he put it, ‘only Whitman and Crane and Williams, of the American poets, are better than the movies’.)  While his poems can—and often strive to—seem casual, they also display a phenomenal mastery of open forms.  Of technique, he has this to say: ‘As for measure and other technical apparatus, that’s just common sense: if you’re going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you.  There’s nothing metaphysical about it.’


[This review first appeared on the Chroma blog.]









Jimmy Donahue and the Windsors

           
Many myths and rumours surround that supposedly perfect and intense romance between Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson.  Perhaps the most extreme of them is the claim that Mrs Simpson was not a woman at all, but a man.  Apparently, in a 1980 conversation with the Duchess’s biographer and apologist Michael Bloch, John Randall, a consultant psychiatrist at the Charing Cross Hospital in London, said: ‘The Duchess was a man.  There’s no doubt of it, for I’ve heard the details from a colleague who examined her.  She was a man’.  Whether one believes the infinitesimally remote evidence of such hearsay depends on the acuteness of one’s credulity.  It might help, of course, if it were known that the Duke were homosexual.  Truman Capote said he was.  Or rather—in another series of Chinese whispers—Capote said that Noël Coward said that the Duke of Windsor hated him, ‘Because I’m queer and he’s queer but, unlike him, I don’t pretend not to be’.[1]
            More credible is what we know of the gilded couple’s relationship with the rich layabout Jimmy Donahue.  His biographer puts the essence of the story as follows: ‘For four years and three months, the Duke of Windsor was cuckolded by, and remained in danger of being rejected for, a homosexual’.  Or, more over-excitedly: ‘In the history of love, it was possibly the greatest betrayal of all time’.[2]  The truth—if that is what it is—is a little more mundane, unless one is totally dazzled by royalty and wealth, and a lot more sordid.  Born in 1915, Donahue was a cousin of Barbara Hutton, and a Woolworth heir himself.  He attended the same school, at the same time, as John F. Kennedy.  In his teens he used to join Hutton in New York to mingle with showbusiness types.  He already had a way with a paradoxical gesture.  When Prohibition was repealed he threw a celebration at which only soft drinks were served.  Although extreme wealth tended to insulate him from any offence caused by his increasingly ostentatious misbehaviour, there were times when his high jinks seemed positively dangerous.  While he was staying at the Grand Hotel in Rome in September 1935 as part of Hutton’s honeymoon entourage, a crowd in the piazza outside was celebrating the news of the invasion of Ethiopia.  Going out on to the balcony, Donahue performed a parody of Il Duce—but roaring ‘Viva Ethiopia! Viva Haile Selassie!’—and then pissed on the crowd.  Not surprisingly, he was deported.  Later in the year, in Germany, he publicly shouted ‘Down with Hitler!’ and was deported again.  Ned Rorem, who would spend time with him in Paris in 1952, having first met him in Le Boeuf sur le toît, wrote in his diary, ‘The dirtiest words I know are J— D—’.  He had soon tired of Donahue’s bad behaviour.
            It was in April 1941, four and a half years after Edward VIII’s abdication, that the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, bored with the Bahamas, to which they had been exiled by the British government (the Duchess used to refer to Nassau as Elba), descended on the Palm Beach palace of Jimmy Donahue’s mother, Jessie, for lunch.  Jimmy met and amused them both.  In the autumn they were Jessie’s guests again, this time in New York; and then, in Nassau, they returned her hospitality.  Jimmy went along for the kudos.  Jessie Donahue’s generosity was such that the Windsors reciprocated with what they knew of friendship.  By the early 1950s she would, in effect, be bankrolling them.  There were also social contacts to be gained via this upstart, of a sort which an ex-King of Britain could not manage.  Through his friendship with Cardinal ‘Fanny’ Spellman, Donahue wangled the Windsors an audience with Pope Pius XII.
            On 24 May 1950, the Queen Mary left New York with the Windsors on board.  Also travelling was Jimmy Donahue.  By the time they reached Cherbourg, the Duchess was in love with him.  She was fifty-four years old, he two decades younger.  The Windsors were the guests of honour when he celebrated his thirty-fifth birthday, on 11 June, at Maxim’s in Paris.  His affair with the Duchess was just getting into its stride.  For both, fellatio was the main attraction.  Donahue once said, on leaving a restaurant with the Duchess, ‘I am now going to have the best blowjob in all America’.[3]  The other attraction for her, of course, was that he was witty.  No one who ever met the Duke thought he was anything but dim: he just passively relied on the adoration of strangers, as if he were still a king.  Some who saw Donahue so often with the Windsors assumed it was the Duke who was involved with him, with the Duchess merely operating as their smokescreen.  And it is true that when he was at Oxford as a young man, the Prince of Wales had been subjected to speculative gossip about his relationship with his tutor, Henry Hansell.  (Hansell and Gretel, the wits had called them.)  He was similarly connected with his cousin, Louis Mountbatten.  But he was too passive and masochistic, possibly also too under-endowed, for the Duchess's tastes.  Although she once said, during a row with Donahue, ‘And to think I gave up a king for a queen’, she knew she could rely on him (and, indeed, his mother) for the things she enjoyed.  However, both Duke and Duchess both eventually tired of his boorishness, and when that happened they cut both him and his mother.  The end came in Baden-Baden in the autumn of 1954.  The Duke said ‘We’ve had enough of you, Jimmy.  Get out!’  And that was that.[4]








[1]Christopher Wilson, Dancing with the Devil: The Windsors and Jimmy Donahue (London: HarperCollins, 2000), pp.xiii, 200.
[2]Wilson, pp.x, 3.
[3]Wilson, p.197.
[4]Wilson, p.218.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Howard Hughes

Howard Hughes was born in Texas on 24 September 1905.  It may be that when he was fifteen he was seduced by his elder brother Rupert.  Bisexually prolific throughout his adult life, with men he preferred oral sex, with women inter-mammary.  While filming Hell’s Angels in the late 1920s he is thought to have had an affair with the actor John Darrow.  He brought James Whale over to Hollywood from London to help re-shoot the part-completed Hell’s Angels using the new sound technology.  He courted the newly-arrived Randolph Scott and helped him kick-start his career.  Scott’s next male lover was Cary Grant.  Hughes is thought to have had an affair with Grant, too, while they went on extended sailing expeditions together.  He also had a sexual relationship with Tyrone Power and another with the actor Richard Cromwell, but both Robert Taylor and Errol Flynn turned him down.  In the early 1950s he was arrested on Santa Monica Boulevard for forcing a hustler to fellate him in his car.  At the police station he is said to have written out a cheque for a million dollars, whereupon he was released.  William Haines claimed to have witnessed many instances of Hughes enjoying (as top) sadomasochistic scenes.  In 1970 Hughes developed a mysterious cluster of illness, including pneumonia, with such consequences as emaciation.  By the time he died, on 5 April 1975, he had lost his sight.  There has been some speculation that he had what would later come to be called AIDS.


[Source: Charles Higham, Howard Hughes: The Secret Life (London: Virgin, 2004)]







Marlon Brando

Marlon Brando said in 1976, ‘Like a large number of men … I too have had homosexual experiences and am not ashamed.  I’ve never paid attention to what people had said about me’.  As his biographer adds, ‘For years, rumours linked him with novelist James Baldwin; actors Wally Cox, Christian Marquand, and others; and even Leonard Bernstein and Gore Vidal’.  There were also, famously, rumours of a photograph doing the rounds: ‘a close-up of Brando, his young profile recognizable, with his lips wrapped around an erect penis’.  While still at school, not only did he have a younger male lover, but he also had more casual sexual encounters with his fellow cadets.  While Tennessee Williams was working on The Glass Menagerie in Provincetown in 1945, Brando drifted into town and took lodgings in the cottage of a homosexual bartender, Clayton Snow.  Although gossip about their relationship has never been substantiated, Snow did once claim to have been fellated by Brando when they were both drunk after a beach party.  Later, when Brando was playing Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, the role of the young collector was taken over by the openly homosexual actor Sandy Campbell, lover of the writer Donald Windham and a good friend of such homosexual luminaries as Montgomery Clift, Tallulah Bankhead, Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal.  Brando propositioned him, and although the detail of what ensued is not known, they were subsequently often seen holding hands in the wings.
At about this time, Brando also got to know Carl Van Vechten and Truman Capote.  Capote observed that Brando used to sleep with many men who were attracted to him, on the grounds that, in his own words, ‘I just thought that I was doing them a favor’.  He gives the impression of having passed through many hands in a spirit of Candidean wonder.  Jean Cocteau helped to make his reputation in France.  He wanted Brando to go there to reprise his role as Kowalski in French; a proposal by which the actor was strongly tempted, but which he eventually declined.  Much of his career – to an extent, like those of many film stars – was determined by such instances of sexual attraction.  According to Maria Schneider, his co-star on Last Tango in Paris, she and Brando and the film’s director Bernardo Bertolucci got on together extremely well, precisely because all three of them were bisexual.  When Ingmar Bergman saw the completed film, he read it as the narrative of an affair between an older and a younger man.  In his opinion, Bertolucci had not had the courage to cast a boy in the role that then went to Schneider.  There is no reason to suppose that Brando would not have been happy to appear in such a version of the film; it could hardly have been much more controversial than the version they did make.


[Source: Peter Manso, Brando: The Biography (NY: Hyperion, 1994)]



Aspects of Love

In David Garnett’s novelette Aspects of Love (1955), later musicalised by Andrew Lloyd Webber, a young man called Alexis, who has just been expelled from his public school for what he calls ‘the usual reason’, has an affair with a woman called Rose, who subsequently drops him in favour of his debonair uncle, Sir George Dillingham.  Generational slippage recurs much later, when Alexis falls for George and Rose’s fourteen-year-old daughter, Jenny.  To avoid the pitfall of actually making love with a girl so young, Alexis contrives to head south with a previous mistress of his uncle’s, Giulietta.  However, both Giulietta and Jenny herself know that in four or five years’ time the girl, by then maturing into womanhood, is quite likely to want to track him down, and he is unlikely to be able any longer to resist her.  Alexis, as a type, seems intended to demonstrate a certain characteristic of the ex-public school ex-homosexual.  He is a boy-man with a romantic approach to love that is driven by sexual attraction; he has to be manipulated, or controlled, by others if he is not to ruin the lives of those who surround him.




Sunday, 2 June 2013

Henry Cowell

The composer Henry Cowell felt both blessed and a little harassed by a group of working-class teenagers who got into the habit of swimming in the pond behind his house in Menlo Park, California.  The boys exploited his homosexuality by taking various liberties over a period of three years, but they also granted him sexual favours which both enchanted and scared him.  Then one of them tried to blackmail him and he refused to pay up.  The boy went to his family, the family to the County Juvenile Officer, and he to the District Attorney’s office, whereupon a warrant was issued for Cowell’s arrest.  The charge was that, on 30 April 1936, he had engaged in ‘oral copulation’ with a seventeen-year-old, thereby violating Section 288a of the California Penal Code.  The fact that the boy had consented was irrelevant to the law’s blanket ban on oral sex.  Officials delivering the warrant to Cowell’s house at 11.00 p.m. on 21 May 1936 found three of the boys there, but not Cowell himself.  He came home a couple of hours later with six of the others, whom he had taken skating in San Francisco.  At first he denied the specific charge, but he soon volunteered information about the actual nature of his friendships with the boys, and he handed officials photographs he had taken of them.  As a friend of Cowell’s later said, ‘I believe Henry was glad to have it end, at almost any price’.
            Cowell co-operated fully with the authorities, with the intention of saving the boys from having to give evidence.  He admitted to having had sex with fourteen young men in his lifetime, seven of them in the recent period leading up to his arrest; the youngest partner had been sixteen, and all had consented.  However, the County Juvenile Officer consistently referred to Cowell’s boys as ‘young children’ and the San Francisco Examiner portrayed Cowell himself as a promiscuous child-molester.  Probation was denied, and the judge sentenced Cowell to the standard term of one to fifteen years, to be served in what had recently been rated the second worst prison in the USA, San Quentin.  Cowell arrived there on 8 July 1936.  The parole board subsequently, on 13 August 1937, fixed his sentence at the maximum term, fifteen years—a level of punishment more usually associated with serial rapists.[1]
            At no point in the process had Henry Cowell appealed to his homosexual friends for support.  He does appear to have thought of his homosexuality as a psychological flaw, and to have hoped he could somehow leave it behind him.  Presumably, also, he must have known how reluctant some friends would now have become to be associated with him.  Some figures were conspicuous in their failure to provide support or even otherwise to convey sympathy.  Charles Ives was one such.  When she heard of Cowell's imprisonment, Ives' wife Harmony wrote to a friend: ‘Have you heard this hideous thing about Henry Cowell—that he has been guilty of Oscar Wilde practices[?]’  (3 July 1936).  In a subsequent letter to the same friend she reported that, when she told her husband, he decided never to see Cowell again, adding: ‘I thought he was a man & he's really A g— d— sap’ (12 July 1936).[2]  The fact is that, as all his biographers agree, Ives reacted defensively to all references to sex or sensuality, rigorously policing his own behaviour and nervously watching out for any imputation, actual or imagined, that he himself was anything but sturdily normal in these respects.  His fears affected his approach not only to his own art but to that of others.  As one biographer puts it, ‘Ives felt threatened whenever the subject of sex was broached; he rationalized his attitude, however, by choosing to believe that any appearance of sex in art, literature, or public discussion was a form of commercial exploitation.  Sensuality was his bête noir’.[3]
            In his youth, Ives had not been averse to a bit of male bonding, but he was already clear about what he would permit himself by way of student friendships.  Another biographer says of this early period: ‘the specter of homosexuality carried with it the threat of the loss of potency, and ultimately fantasies of castration.  Certain forms of sentimentality, however, were permitted and even favored’.  Friendships were permitted only to the extent that they could be demonstrated to be unequivocally masculine.  The same went for his musical compositions, since he allowed himself to be terrorised by that philistine strain of American culture which regards artistic sensitivity as unmasculine.  As an adult, ‘Ives ended up virtually phobic of anything feminine, including the powerful emotions he himself experienced’.[4]  Yet another biographer concurs with this analysis of his fear of being thought a sissy: ‘Violence and panic exactly describe Ives’s response to the specter of homosexuality, which was part of a fear of feminization even more threatening to him than to most artists of his time’.[5]
The friend who was most supportive of Cowell was Percy Grainger, who regarded his case as an instance of the state oppressing the artist.  In October 1938, he offered Cowell work as his secretary, so as to persuade the parole board that, even if he would no longer be allowed to make a living by teaching, Cowell was not unemployable.  Cowell conspicuously qualified for the concessions due to ‘good behaviour’, having set up a successful music school in San Quentin and taught in it for twenty-two hours a week, as well as having founded a prison orchestra; and so, in due course, his sentence was reduced and he won parole.  On his release in June 1940, he went to live with, and work for, Percy Grainger at White Plains, New York.
            One of the more interesting consequences of Henry Cowell’s long campaign for parole had been a striving for respectability, not only in the demonstrable aspect of his own character, but even in his art.  The music he composed in jail, and then after his release, tended to be less experimental, less radical, than he had been attempting before; and the move to New York cut him off from the more daring musical subcultures of the west coast.  It may be, in other words, that his arrest and conviction led ultimately to a diminished achievement in his musical career.  But at least, on his release, he was still able to work in his chosen field.  Indeed, thanks to a federal ‘cultural defense’ programme which had been instituted as part of the American war effort, when his civil rights were restored on 3 July 1941 Cowell was able to become a government employee, editing Latin American music for publication to counter Nazi claims that Latino culture was not valued by the USA.  Fully pardoned by 1943, Cowell was appointed senior music editor in the overseas branch of the Office of War Information.[6]
            In the long run, Henry Cowell got some kind of revenge on Charles Ives.  In 1955, a year after Ives’ death, he published an aggressively sycophantic book, Charles Ives and His Music, in which, referring to himself in the third person, he reminded the world that he had been instrumental in first making Ives’ reputation in the late 1920s: ‘Cowell immediately began to include Ives’s name among the really important creative figures of the early twentieth century, and to write and lecture about him persistently both abroad and at home’.[7]







[1] The papers of a major symposium on Cowell are not forthcoming about this episode in his life, any more than they are about his sexuality.  San Quentin is mentioned several times, but the reason for imprisonment only once (pp.155-156), by William Lichtenwanger.  Although Cowell is never treated as homosexual or bisexual, the papers contain many references to his wife, Sidney Robertson Cowell—David Nicholls (ed.), The Whole World of Music: A Henry Cowell Symposium (Amsterdam: Harwood, 1997).
[2]Stuart Feder, Charles Ives, “My Father’s Song”: A Psychoanalytic Biography (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1992), p.343.
[3]Frank R. Rossiter, Charles Ives and His America (London: Victor Gollancz, 1976), p.169.
[4]Feder, p.336.
[5]Jan Swafford, Charles Ives: A Life with Music (New York: Norton, 1996), p.375.
[6] Michael Hicks, ‘The Imprisonment of Henry Cowell’, Journal of the American Musicological Society 44 (1991), pp.92-119.
[7]Henry Cowell & Sidney Cowell, Charles Ives and His Music (New York: OUP, 1955), p.105.

T.S. Eliot


The question of Eliot’s own sexuality is moot.  The biographer of his first wife, Vivienne, uses circumstantial evidence to suggest he was homosexual, but does so to use it against him as but one more facet to the misogyny which had the effect of victimising Vivienne.  We might use the same evidence to make the same inference about his sexuality, yet then draw quite different conclusions from it.  In this alternative scenario, the suppression of his homosexual feelings—feelings which most famously found some kind of expression, not necessarily physical, in his love for the young Frenchman Jean Verdenal—would have to be read as symptomatic of the victimisation of Eliot himself by a homophobic culture, which then had its knock-on effect on the state of his marriage.  Indeed, the suppression not only of any sign of affection for members of his own sex, but of emotion itself, so central to the tone of all his major poetry, but especially to that of The Waste Land, could arguably have its origins in the same source: the fear of what was homosexual in himself.  Eliot’s emotional dryness makes one regret not having been present to hear the exchanges that took place in Paris from the autumn of 1910, when he went for French conversation lessons with Alain-Fournier, author of that splendidly love-ridden and sentimental novel Le Grand Meaulnes (1913).



[Source: Carole Seymour-Jones, Painted Shadow: A Life of Vivienne Eliot (London: Constable, 2001).  In a review of this biography, Francis King writes: ‘The gay novelist C.H.B. Kitchin once described to me how T.S. Eliot, having recently severed all contact with his wife Vivienne, took up residence, in 1933, in the flat that Kitchin shared with two other gay men.  Each evening, Eliot would go out wearing “a bit of slap”, usually to return home after the rest of the occupants were in bed.  He clammed up when Kitchin tentatively probed him on the subject of his sexuality; but Kitchin was in little doubt of its nature’—Francis King, ‘Broken Butterfly’, Gay Times 281 (February 2002), p.78.]


Francois Sentein

Jean Genet, Lettres au petit Franz
François Sentein, Minutes d’un libertin (1938-1941)
François Sentein, Nouvelles minutes d’un libertin (1942-1943)


The first volume of François Sentein’s journals or ‘minutes’ was published in 1977.  It gave the impression of a somewhat marginal figure, running errands with the expedient sycophancy of ambition and youth, typing other men’s words and even rolling their cigarettes.  His antennae were sensitive to the slightest compliment from an older writer.  In this respect he was at his most normal: slightly bumptious and self-regarding, trying in the usual ways to kick-start a literary career.
            The second volume, now published for the first time, is far livelier.  Sentein strikes fewer attitudes and meets more interesting people.  He moves in literary circles marked by their flirtations with right-wing politics and single-minded dedication to the pursuit of youth (meaning youths).  He feasts with such panthers as Henri de Montherlant (‘I wrote Les jeunes filles, yet I know nothing about young girls’), Jean Paulhan, Maurice Sachs, Marcel Jouhandeau, Max Jacob and Roger Peyrefitte.
These are the diaries not of a libertine but of a bookish young pederast.  Sentein conveys no real sense of excess.  Even his extremist politics—a disciplinarian monarchism which, as a follower of Charles Maurras, he calls ‘maurrassien’—he is keen to distinguish from the excesses of fascism.  Sentein’s main claim to fame is that he helped Jean Genet during the early years of the latter’s reinvention of himself as a writer.  It was he who crucially persuaded Genet to show Notre-Dame des Fleurs to Cocteau, and it was he in turn whom Cocteau asked to correct the book’s messy typescript.  When he first met Genet, Sentein was reminded of Paul Verlaine, if in a somewhat rougher-edged version: he was shocked when Genet urinated in a washbasin. 
Genet’s letters to Sentein from jail are models of their sort.  As you would expect, there are frequent requests for tobacco, chocolate, money and other comforts.  Sentein thinks of these as a pregnant woman’s cravings, as the prisoner labours to give birth to his first book.  But Genet is different from other convicts in that his most insistent need is writing paper.  At times he is reduced to writing his poems on the covers of books, as well as on his committal papers and those of his cellmates.
Genet was really only a small-time crook and mugger and he knew he could only worship the ideal figure of the murderer from a lower level of criminality but much higher level of literacy.  In one letter he notes that there are ‘certain natures’—poets—who have difficulty sleeping.  He means himself.  He is fascinated by his cellmates’ capacity for sleep, even during daylight hours and even amid the mundane turmoil of prison life.  On another occasion, he points out how astonished the other convicts are that he writes at all.  He takes the time to quote what one of them asked him about his work: ‘C’est des chansons?’  It is a perfectly reasonable question.  The fact that Genet finds it strange is itself strange.  His use of slang to state this man’s age ‘(50 berges)’ only underlines the self-consciousness of the writer’s attempt to identify with the constituency to which he only belongs in part.
One of Sentein’s most interesting observations is of how quickly Genet came to seem self-consciously literary, rather than a merely ‘natural’, untaught talent.  As early as July 1943, reading an early draft of the Journal d’un voleur, he identifies not only ‘a Genet who has read Genet’ but one who has read ‘a Cocteau who has read Genet’.  In a footnote Sentein adds that there would later be an even more sophisticated Genet who had read the Sartre who had read Genet.  At its worst, this awareness would collapse into self-parody.
On the very day that Genet was released from one of his spells in prison, Sentein took him for a drink with Marcel Jouhandeau, the homosexual novelist who was closeted within a conventional domestic arrangement; as he said on this occasion, ‘My house is my prison and my wife is my turnkey’.  I take this tactless outburst of self-pity as an emblematic moment.  Genet fascinated other homosexual writers, but they tended not to invite him to their homes: he would shock the wife or steal the spoons.  It is easy to see how his books drove a rude swathe through the lofty, classical certainties of educated French pederasty.
For all the help he gave Genet, Sentein ultimately got little in return.  When denounced as a traitor after the war, he would receive no support at all from the patron saint of personal betrayal.



[This review was first published in the Times Literary Supplement 5151 (21 December 2001), p.11.]



Marilyn Hacker

Marilyn Hacker, First Cities: Collected Early Poems 1960-1979
Marilyn Hacker, Desesperanto: Poems 1999-2002

On a number of occasions in her earlier work, Marilyn Hacker watched men’s hermetic rituals from a distance, less as an anthropologist with some prospect of arriving at logical deductions about what she was seeing than as an observant tourist in a culture so different from her own as to be almost beyond comprehension.  What was left was the physical detail: ‘a naked man / with a wristwatch and a walking-stick / approaches, but will not reach, / two horses’.  At clearer moments, she knew what men were up to but, interested though she was in them, she accepted her own exclusion from their milieu.  In a sequence of sonnets about Regent’s Park she described sitting among ‘the clucking mums on benches near the swings’, her mind wandering into the nocturnal cruising areas, ‘behind the bushes after hours’, where ‘all sorts of lewd and fascinating things / still happen.  But they won’t happen to me’.  She knows they happen because she has gay friends; and she seems aware that they would not happen were she there, anthropologically, to observe them.  Yet, for all that the present observer must be detached from the watched reality, the absent imaginer need not be.  It is sometimes in the latter capacity that Hacker is able to make sense of realities neither experienced nor observed.
Her two main milieux are bohemian New York City and a Paris in which the cosmopolitan has given way to the multicultural: ‘the old men arguing / on benches, in French, in Mandarin, / in Arabic, Yiddish and Portuguese’.  Her own trans-Atlantic flaneurship carries echoes of Modernism in the mundane life of the postmodern: ‘I sit in a café / nursing a decaf.’—but with a suppressed yearning for the heyday of absinthe.
She is a marvellous technician—like Adrienne Rich, an admirer of Auden without his clinical detachment.  Her collections include, if not crowns, slighter tiaras of sonnets, and sestinas in a modern idiom, sestinas that work.  In ‘Morning News’, the shuffling of the end-words ‘bread’, ‘branches’, ‘war’, ‘houses’, kitchen’, ‘was’ and ‘photograph’ results in as particular and detailed a generic poem on civil warfare as you are ever likely to read.  At other times, however, facility threatens to teeter over into the facile.  For instance, there is a sonnet called ‘July 19, 1979’ which begins as follows:

            I’ll write a sonnet just to get in form,
            allowing fifteen minutes by the clock
            to build gratuitously block by block
            of quatrains.

Leaving aside the question of how many quatrains it takes to make a sonnet, this is either agreeably relaxed or disagreeably cocky.  Even if ars est celare artem, one does not want it to look too easy.  Or rather, the thing must look as if it happened, as it were, naturally, but not as if the poet was thinking of something else at the time, as if merely trotting on a treadmill to keep fit.  To rhyme with line twelve’s ending, ‘blue eyes’, line fourteen ends ‘I’ve done my exercise’.  A sonnet in fifteen minutes?  Well, bully for you.  If the poem truly is gratuitous, bothering to read it may be a waste of my time.
But Hacker’s technical panache is not, in fact, gratuitous.  Her showing off and muscle-flexing, at least back in the 1960s and 70s, had a straightforward political purpose.  As she put the case in the poem ‘Introductory Lines’, written in 1978 for the ‘formal poetry’ issue of The Little Magazine:

            Poets, and poems, are not apolitical.
            Women and other radicals who choose
            venerable vessels for subversive use
affirm what Sophomore Survey often fails
            to note: God and Anonymous are not white males.

Her own use of ‘venerable vessels’ was, in those days, an intentionally ostentatious demonstration of female skill.  Which is not to say that she was trying to shape a specifically gendered poetry; at least as much, she was showing that she could do what was reckoned men’s work a lot better than many of the men who were reckoned good at it.
            Of course, that general point has long been accepted by anyone with the slightest purchase on reason; so her skills can now be put to more useful uses.  But Hacker is no less politically engaged than she ever was, thank goodness.  Any Anglophone poet who wishes to be engaged with public issues still has to cope with the dreadful oppressiveness of that line of Auden’s, ‘poetry makes nothing happen’—a line that fits beautifully into its original context but has been used by quietists ever since as a handy undermining tool, no less effective for the fact that in its handiness it contradicts itself.  In Desesperanto, Hacker manages a politicised idiom that seems as if it might achieve something.  The collection opens with a piece in memory of June Jordan, the African-American lesbian poet, an ‘Elegy for a Soldier’ that builds to a climax of the naming of other such soldiers whose chief weapon was poetry: Yehuda Amichai, Léopold Senghor, Pablo Neruda, Audre Lorde…  The clinching sentiment here, adapting an insight of Primo Levi’s, is: ‘To each nation its Jews, its blacks, its Arabs, / Palestinians, its immigrants, its women. / From each nation, its poets’.
‘An Embittered Elegy’ in memory of Matthew Shepard, the young gay man crucified by homophobes, and Barnett Slepian, the abortionist assassinated by right-to-lifers, turns into a cry of exasperation at the inherited homophobia and anti-feminism of Hacker’s own American students.  An adjacent poem, ‘English 182’, evinces similar frustration at student ignorance and the unwillingness of a young, black woman to do the required work on a selection of poems by Audre Lorde.  Hacker makes no easy, liberal attempt to justify the closed-mindedness of disadvantaged youth; nor does she do much to ironise her own anger at their reluctance to play ball with academic radicalism.  The outcome is an unresolved atmosphere of threat and pessimism.  The fact is that, despite her idealism, Hacker seems to keep finding—as when a functioning multicultural neighbourhood in Paris turns nimbyist when a hostel for drug users is proposed: ‘send them to another street—not ours’—that people do not live up to ideal standards.
            In her more depressive moods, Hacker is baffled by both grief and pessimism, knowing that although life sometimes gets better it does so only temporarily; and that human societies always revert to barbarism unless we struggle to uphold their better values.  In the elegy on June Jordan, Hacker notes that while a blank space has replaced the twin towers of the World Trade Center, ‘Threats keep citizens in line’ and ‘dissent festers unexpressed’.  Like so many writers, she is left with the reassurance of the personal.  There are always human relationships to fall back on.  She expresses this best in the last instruction in her rhapsodic recipe for ‘Jamesian omelettes’, as made for hung-over brunches by gay friends in her youth: ‘Eat it with somebody you’ll remember’.


[This review was first published in PN Review 159 (Sept-Oct 2004), pp.84-85.]