Sunday, March 22, 2009

Mark Doty and the Politics of Self-Importance (Part Two)

Self-importance needs not to be thought of as inherently a Good or Bad Thing. It must be valued in terms of its usefulness. One way that can be done is asking oneself, 'What is the political and/or ethical value of seeing oneself (or oneselves) in an equal or elevated position to others?" With gay men, it is the possibility of seeing themselves as something more than second-class citizens, as actual human beings who deserve an equal place in the nation, as someone who does not deserve to die.

So: self-importance can be a political tool. The most deservedly much-often anthologized poem "Homo Will Inherit" serves as a perfect example of this.

The set-up is simple.

The poem’s third person point-of-view draws a brief, but effective image of a downtown full of sex shops, clubs, and dirty magazine stores where desire remains “unpoliced or nearly so.” This third person then stumbles across a picture of a "xeroxed headshot/of Jesus: permed, blond, blurred at the edges..” No surprise that next to this picture someone scrawled the words "HOMO WILL NOT INHERIT. Repent & be Saved.”

This is where the poem admirably transforms, through the poet's self-importance, into something other than the conventional victim narrative. Rather than the narrator bemoaning his position, he launches a pedantic attack on the anonymous person who created these words. For eight stanzas, the poem has been in the third person, now thankfully after detailing this homophobia, things change. A defiant first-person pushes his way to the forefront, and offers with laudatory self-righteousness an argument. Without self-consciousness and no apology:

I'll tell you what I'll inherit: the margins
which have always been mine, downtown after hours
when there's nothing left to buy.

The self-importance of the “I” shines through perfectly, standing in for homosexual men in general: the out, loud, and proud ones and ostensibly those who shy and closeted but ultimately share the same viewpoint. This self-importance also presents itself in the narrator’s self-righteous pathology of the perpetrator.

(It should be noted that Doty’s best poems usually are explicit arguments. One needs to think no further than, say, “Tiara” for another example. Its similarly sex-positive didacticism is necessary. These days didacticism is an undervalued rhetorical tool.)

Immediately the anaphora begins after this set-up (“I’ll tell you what..”). The attack against the perpetrator proceeds, and the argument hermetic and angry, reveals itself as anything but slack. Every word counts--a true poetic accomplishment.

(This is unlike a lot of later Doty poems, especially those that deal with the relationship between himself and Paul, where one can find a considerable amount of slackness in the rhetoric. For me, slackness=leisure. Here there is no time to be leisurely: the homosexual is a homosexual first and foremost, not a “comfortable, middle-class” homosexual.)

But back to the successful “Homo Will Inherit.” The narrator is so self-important he possesses a willful desire to pathologize the perpetrator. What is a greater indicator of self-importance than to consider oneself capable and ready to tell another what he or she thinks they think? Here’s a part where he does just that:

..And I’ll tell you,
you who can’t wait to abandon your body,
what you want me to, maybe something

like you’ve imagined, a dirty story..

Later in the poem, through metaphor, the narrator raises himself above the perpetrator to such an extent, a gay male reader can’t help but get nervous that he doesn’t possess the strength to self-aggrandize in a similarly bold way:

...I’m not ashamed

to love Babylon’s scrawl. How could I be?
It’s written on my face as much as on
these walls. The city’s inescapable,

gorgeous, and on fire. I have my kingdom.

What a wonderful transformation! The gay man in this poem sees himself as capable of metamorphosing the “decadent city” into something as powerful as a “kingdom” on his own terms. And then he possesses the audacity of appointing himself as a leader of this land. No victim here. He believes in himself too much to give up his power.

This too much” may be, ironically, something that makes other Doty poems more problematic. But for now, in this poem, it cannot be undervalued; the rhetoric of self-importance a revolutionary move.

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