Monday, May 4, 2009

The Male Workout Poem Part One (a review of work by Aaron Smith, Mark Doty, Randall Mann, and Ross Gay)

Vanity is underrated. Being vain can be an act of survival, especially in a world that wants to murder peole from marginalized communities. A world that refuses us autonomy of our own bodies.

Living in Brockport with my partner, I could not be more happy than I am now. Total geeks, with exorbitant student loan debt, we mostly stay at home on the weekends.

All day long I wear my Star Wars pajama bottoms, go the movies, have a few glasses of red wine, and make something on our George Foreman Grill--undeniably, the most important invention in the 20th century. If we're feeling ambitious, we'll exploit friends to make us dinner.

This doesn't mean that I haven't had bottles thrown at me by passing cars. Or crankcalled on my office phone. Or deal with someone yelling, "Get off the streets, faggot." Or been threatened with physical violence.

This is no reflection on the community. Everyone here, associated with the University or not, has been so kind, welcoming, and thoughtful toward us. We plan on staying here as long as we can. We're indebted to the Village of Brockport.

It's just that wherever you go, even San Francisco, you, as a gay man, face threat of extinction. That's part of the life of a marginalized male.

What else is there to do when someone wants your body to be invisible?

To obsess over it, of course.

Is there anything more healthy than directing the fear into a healthy obsession: adding tone, definition, and muscle to your body. In the hope of being worshipped by people who like you.

Work out those pectoral muscles, dammit. (I'm convinced my unnatural obsession with seeing well-defined ones comes down to the fact that I wasn't breast-fed.)

I am grateful to men who obsessively work out. It means I don't have to do it. If everyone worked out, there'd be no one to lust after your achievements, your body.

Muscleheads, unite!

You're on the right path. And no doubt Aaron Smith, Mark Doty, Randall Mann, and Ross Gay are as well. From their author photos, they look like they work out. And I'm sure receive well-deserved accolades in a number of unsurprising ways.

Their vanity surfaces as well in their desire to write poetry. Is there anything more vain than expecting us to spend our morality reading their words?

It would be a sign of disrespect if we didn't look as closely at their poems as I'm sure a lot do at their bodies.


In his poem "Working out with the Boys" from his book Blue on Blue Ground, Aaron Smith takes the most expected, conventional approach. It feels a bit unkind to single out this poem, because Smith has progressed from relying on such simple observation, merely identifying the eroticism between straight men at the gym.

(I always found it odd that Smith put the poem so early in his book--second--when so much better writing is buried in the middle. Same thing with Doty. Why does he put his workout poem on his website when the man has written some of the most timely and politically urgent poems in the 90s? Perhaps that's true vanity--feeling that even your throw-aways deserve as much attention as what is obviously better work.)

No doubt Smith has written much, much better work since this poem. I've followed his poetic career. Some of the work I've seen over the years on the web and heard at a reading taps into attitudes/issues most gay men avoid discussing. One poem in particular stands out; it was deservedly a huge crowd pleaser. I'll mention at the end of this series.

Smith has moved beyond such an uninspired take on one of the oldest gay male tropes. But a lot of his contemporaries have not. This is why I want to spend a little time with this poem.

(Quick question: Why are gay men exactly so invested in the Workout Poem? Do they think that someone beautiful will read the poem, be so touched, and want to screw them for their words and bodies? I suppose so. That is why I used to write witty retorts and send fake photos to potential tricks on, I suppose.)

Here are the first few stanzas of "Working out With the Boys":

They could be making love,
these straight boys, judging
from the sounds, their breathing

quick, forced like before orgasm:
the soft strain of men pushing
their bodies...

The humor becomes downright hackneyed:

...Someone saying, Come on,
come on, push it, push: a final

throaty groan, an almost come-
cry, as a barbell is raised
one more time, one

more time, then dropped
or slammed down
on the mat...

When I read this poem, I think of bad undergraduate Women's Studies classes. On the first day the teacher brings in a slew of advertisement, basically all of them picturing the same thing: a scantily clad woman, a man sitting on top of his car, his sunglasses on, gawking. The teacher puts you in small groups, asking you to identify patterns. Which you do. You come back as a class, and- lo and behold!- you realize women are undressed, the objects of men's gaze, etc. etc. Someone realizes, Sex sells! At, of course, the price of women's bodies. And you all leave triumphant.

No difference here. It's a similar point-and-see. Look!: straight men are obsessed with their bodies. They occupy the same place, sharing their obsessiveness, comparing their bodies. O my! Homoeroticism!

Again, this poem is an easy target. But still.


In his poem "At the Gym," Mark Doty tries to up the ante. Predictably, he attempts to do this by spiritualizing the act of working out. (You've got to hand it to Doty. He could find Heaven and a whole team of angels in a plate of overcooked tofu.)

I do partly admire his ambition, his valiant attempt to put a new spin on the poem. But can't he accept, as all gay men should, his superficiality. Why can't he see working out as fun and useful?

He's a bit of a downer. His sincerity quickly transforms into dreadful earnestness:

Though there's something more

tender, beneath our vanity,
our will to become objects
of desire: we sweat the mark
of our presence onto the cloth.

I would make the argument that vanity is in and of itself tender. You don't need to believe "there's something more." Which Doty highlights with the most overly deliberate of line breaks.

The next part of this series will start with the question implictly posed by Doty in this same except from "At the Gym": Why do we need to look "beneath our vanity"?


  1. While some gay men have an investment in the workout poem, I'm not sure we all do. I work out obsessively but find I have nothing good to say about it in poems because it's one of the most banal things in my life.

  2. You have your next writing exercise, Charles.

  3. I think I become a whiner when I write about anything that is related to topic of my weight.

  4. Toughen up, Dustin. It's a dog-eat-dog world.

  5. Just FYI, I nursed my son until he was 3 and it has done nothing to diminish his fascination with the pectoral region of the human body. I'm just saying.

  6. Love it. This made me think of the Xiu Xiu song, "Fabulous Muscles"--it would be the perfect addition to this post!

  7. Hi Dustin,

    I assume and hope you know that my catty comment was meant in good fun. I had something weird happen this week about an email I sent. Wrong tone, I guess. So now I'm paranoid.

    Dr. Write,

    I need to believe I suffer from various afflictions. It makes me feel special. For birthday every year, I get a catscan.

    The Storalist,

    I must listen to that song. Thanks for the rec.

  8. Steve-- I didn't take any offense to your comment. It isn't about toughing up... I think for some reason I lose control of my speaker for a bit when dealing with the topic of weight. It is hard to explain.