A review of Angels of the Lyre: A Gay Poetry Anthology
edited by winston Leyland
(Gay Sunshine Press, 1975)
[Note that this review was written in 1975/1976.]
Under Winston Leyland's expert guidance Gay Sunshine has become the most important cultural journal of the gay movement, publishing the major manifestoes, poetry, visual art, interviews, history, criticism, and personal testimonials. Itr's been a kind of watershed for the seminal ideas in most of these fields, one of the restults now being thius collection of the finest male gay poetry written during the past twenty-five years. I cannot honestly say it contains as many 'great' poems as I would desire to have in an anthology, but come-out gay poets are still relatively rare, and this volume certainly contains the cream of the crop.
Most new gay poetry in this collection and elsewhere just doesn't quite make it as poetry. The genuine poets in this volume are few, but very fine: Paul Mariah, Robert Duncan, Ian Young, Allen Ginsberg, Paul Goodman, Jack Spicer, John Wieners, several others. At least for my taste they write the most satisfying poetyr, the most balanced and whole, the leat selfconscious, the most technically skilful. They are also the surest poets insofar as they write within a tradition and are influenced by gay masters such as Walt Whitman, Edward Carpenter, Hart Crane, Stephen Spender, Constantin Cavafy, etc. Many of the others are attempting to create a new vision but one without any secure base, which is the fate of so many gay poets and gay artists in general who remain unaware of our gay heritage.
The gay heritage may have been lost to most, but is worth rediscovering, as in Duncan's 'This Place Rumord To Have Been Sodom':
This place rumord to have been a City surely was,
separated from us by the hand of the Lord.
The devout have laid out gardens in the desert,
drawn water from springs where the light was blighted.
How tenderly they must attend these friendships
or allis lost. All is lost.
Only the faithful hold this place green.
But all too often a poem is built upon a protest, for example Bruce Boone says 'All the world lovers a lover / but does it / when their names are Bruce and Francis?' Certainly he makes a point, but all it does is undermine a heterosexual cliche and doom itself to being ephemeral. (Poems of protest are short-loved, however politically relevant at the time of writing though I'm glad to say this collection has been carefully edited to exclude the most blatant protest songs, wuch as one found in the early issues of the gay poetry quarterly Mouth of the Dragon). And far too many poems are centred upon 'the warm cock erect' which may pulse and throb and amuse, but has still barely passed the threshold of the pubescent self-discovery stage of gay liberation. (Incidentally, this work is far less obviously 'American' in reference tone, adn concern than most other gay liberation books GN imports from the states.)
I think it's unfortunate that many of the poems have been selected according to one specific theme, that of the 'angel' figure. On the one hand they demonstrate the historical continuity (and monotony) of gay poetry, from the ganymedic ephebes of early Greek poetry, through the pederastic light verse of the Uranians in the 1890s, to Jean Cocteau's Angel Heurtebrise and Jean Genet's demonic angels in our century. but on the other hand they also illustrate, all too clearly, that many gay poets suffer from a massive case of sublimation, the vicarious gratification of desire in fantasy rather than fact, like Lytton Strachey's seraphic descriptions of boy-ideals whom he had not the courage to fuck in real life.
Admittedly the archetypoe of the Beautiful Boy Virgin's formosus puer can have profound symbolic implications of rebirth, yet all too often such figures merely inhabit the more mystical sideof sentimentality.
Jim Eggeling's invocations to various 'littleboys' such as the 'Son of Kukulcan . . . Boy of delicate Mayas' are humorously innocent, without too many claims to profundity, whiue Gerald L. Fabian's 'elegy' for 'a buckeye Hyacinthus' is a bit more pretentious, in its archaic allusions, and a bit too self-consciously modern with its reference to 'androgynous ambiguity'. (The hermaphrodite figure which appeals to so many gays is more asexual than double-sexed, more of a denial rather than an affirmation of sexuality.) Yet the genuine Eros who appears in Duncan's poetry makes up for such pretenders.
From an erotic and entertainment point of view this collection is a veritable garden of earthly and earthy delights; and perhaps the great god Eros is the only indication of a 'gay sensibility'. Some of the poems don't go much beyond John Ciorno's aptly tltled 'Pornographic Poem', while others are artistic masterpieces such as the same author's untitled poem beginning:
I sat on his face
on his face I sat on his face
I sat on his face I saw on his face,
I sat on his face, and he tongued
and he tongued
and so forth, building up to an incredible climax. Both Giorno's poem and his style have become classic and are much imitated.
Another classic in gay erotics is of course Allen Ginsberg's paean to suibmission, 'Please Master':
Please master dan I touch your cheek
and so on, with an insistent rhythm.
please master can i kneel at your feet
please master can I loosen your blue pants
please master can I gaze at your golden haired belly
please master can I gently take down your shorts
In a similar hypnotic/chant style, though in poetic prose, is Kirby Congdon's classic of ritual violence, 'Jagannath', where in a man kills himself by inserting a shotgun into his bowels and pulling the trigger. I'm tempted to observe that gauy poems have mastered the art of masochism, and left sadism to the hets. This masochistic strain is also evidenc ein most leather-verse such as that by Thom Gunn, who unfortunately is not represented in this collection.
Perhaps a dozen of the erotic poems are genuinely successful (that is,m would probably give a male reader an erection), while most of the attempts at erotic stiimulus are private adolescent wet-dreams, rather embarrassingly unimaginative. Emilio Cubeiro's claim to being 'a martyr granted sainthood by all/ true visionaries of the masturbatory arts' just isn't on.
The volume contains a grat many playful attempts at self-stimulation, however, which are quite fun, such as Taylor Mead's wittiy 'Autobiography' 'I have made goo goo eyes at Marlon Brando with no luck / but not too much discouragement iether' or Joe Brainard's 'pornographic movie plot capsules' 'The gardener . . . approaches his cute ex-son-in-law assistant, Stud. . . . Stud, hung like a horse, staggers. Somewhat shaken, but hung like a horse, Stud quickly regains his composure, unzips his pants, and out plops the biggest dong this side, or any side, of Texas. They live happily (use your imagination here) ever after.#
This volume in paperback only is a mixed bag, certainly, but better mixed than any previous collection, and with some of the brightest gems that have been written in the past two decades.
(This review was originally published in Gay News in 1975/1976. Copyright Rictor Norton.)