Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Problematic Nature of the Excerpt from Tom Sleigh's Elegiac Essay "On Sex, Drugs, and Thom Gunn" on the Poetry Foundation of America Website

After reading the extended excerpt from Tom Sleigh’s elegiac essay “Sex, Drugs and Thom Gunn,” I was sort of creeped out. As stated at the end of the essay, this non-fiction will be included in At the Barriers: On the Poetry of Thom Gunn, an anthology coming this summer from University of Chicago Press. I hope that the remainder of Sleigh’s essay complicates what I’ve read here.

This excerpt appeared on the Poetry Foundation of America website:

More or less, the entire excerpt focuses on how Gunn himself and his poetry helped Sleigh complicate his vision of heterosexual domestic and sexual roles:

“But it’s one of the inadvertent pleasures in reading Gunn to discover in his imagination a passion to propose new forms of human relation, at least as far as the straight world is concerned, through the practice of his art.”

Admitted, I don’t know if more profound observations complicate this inoffensive, but no less annoying thesis. What insights are gay readers, and most importantly, Gunn himself supposed to receive from this non-fiction? (Elegies are ultimately written for and by the dead.) Why does he feel an overdetermined need to universalize a gay male’s experience? Why does he have to make them his own? And why can't he imaginatively speculate to a much greater degree the reason for difference between straight and gay communities?

It goes without saying that not every essay about Gunn should be written for a gay audience.

You also could rightly argue that the essay illustrates the too-often ignored bond between a straight and gay man. This is important, and Sleigh should be sincerely thanked. Although I wish the essay could have been more ambitious than revealing Sleigh confessing his platonic love for Gunn.

But still the pleasant superficiality of the excerpt makes me nervous.

Here’s to hoping that the straight male writers (and gay, for that matter) reveal in their autobiographical writings more nuance, more of the small, idiosyncratic tensions. I’d love straight men to explore trickier ground: the egotistical assumption that (perhaps) their gay friend wants them; their awareness (and covert satisfaction) that in some ways there is a glass ceiling in the poetry word for gay poets; their slow awareness of heterosexual privilege; their annoyance with certain aspects of the queer community.

I am bored with the notion of gay men “opening up” the possibilities for heterosexual relationships. We don’t want to be a breath of fresh air; we don’t want to be a queer eye for the straight guy. This isn’t to say that the essay doesn't contain virtues. But it fails to dig as deep as it should be. Or at least not in this substantial excerpt.

At the same time, I understand Sleigh’s possible reasons for romanticizing his relationship with Gunn. Straight men do have a lot working against them. If they disclose any criticism of a gay man’s poems, or a tentativeness toward certain aspects of the homosexual community, they’re immediately branded homophobic. Gay men are often guilty of shutting down the conversation in a knee-jerk way. Even if our reaction is understandable: we’ve received more than our fair share of bashings from our straight counterparts. But if we expect them to take intellectual risks than we need to encourage them. This is how authentic dialogue begins.

Sleigh includes few poems, and those that he does are the weaker ones. Sleigh is a very strong poet; he should have been a bit more discriminating.

Or maybe I’m just curmudgeonly. But “The Hug” irritates me. I don’t even want to quote it here in its entirety, but in fairness to my argument and Sleigh, I will.

It was not sex, but I could feel
The whole strength of your body set,
Or braced, to mine,
And locking me to you
As if we were still twenty-two
When our grand passion had not yet
Become familial.
My quick sleep had deleted all
Of intervening time and place.
I only knew
The stay of your secure firm dry embrace.

It’s not surprising that Sleigh offers a pat explanation of the piece. As he writes,

“The dryness of the embrace marks the transition from sexual to domestic love, from the physical joy of sex to the physical joy of being held by someone with whom a life has been shared. Now, what heterosexual male poet would celebrate such a transition? Presumably, that poet would say how sexual attraction was attendant on the hug; or else the poet would lament the passing of such passion. But Gunn does neither—or if there is a touch of melancholy, it is balanced by an equal sense of triumph.”

Maybe Sleigh needs to reflect on how age treats gay men and straight men differently. More often than not, the straight woman is left behind in a heterosexual relationship for someone young. The same thing happens in gay male relationships. Youth is prized. Heterosexual men, the ultimate daddies, get away with a lot more; they always have choices. And because of that luck, no matter how generous straight guys are, as I’m sure Sleigh is, they can always be pushed a little bit more, intensifying a dialogue that will truly benefit us all.


  1. I wish there was more energy put into reforming the cultural notion of people as commodity. i feel ambivelant about the issue. It almost seems like being wanted and being loved are opposing notions.I don't know what to do, or how to feel about it. I've only recently realized that women are not alone in dealing with this issue. Perhaps there are incites to be found.

  2. Brilliant Response. It articulates some of the very feelings I was experiencing while reading Sleigh's excerpt, which is not to say I gathered nothing from it.

    Still, I knew at the very beginning, as Sleigh made to describe this infamous gay/straight bar, where "gays ascend" (for a charge), but straights can't "descend," yet offer no critical analysis of this (in terms of queer theory, in terms of even poetry), I was in for a bumpy ride.

  3. One of the better analyses of the issues (unconscious) surrounding heterosexual privilege, the simultaneous fetishization and condemnation of youthful beauty (in which ageism cuts both ways), and the ways in which ALL men, gay OR straight, have to deal with the dominance/power of the (hyper-)masculine and/or macho archetype(s):

    "Sissyphobia," by Tim Bergling

    "Homophobia as a Weapon of Sexism," by Suzanne Pharr

    The argument is made that what really is oppressed is the feminine, regardless of where it manifests—whether it manifests in effeminate men or in hetero/lesbian women. It's a convincing argument, and I think relevant to your comments regarding this essay on Gunn, many of which I can agree with.

  4. Hi,

    Thanks for your comments. I need to read more theory; thanks for the recommendations.

    The more I think about this post the more I don't like it. I was going to remove it from my blog, because it takes too many cheap shots. I should have foregrounded the positiveness of his choice to write the essay. It opens discussion up.

    And now I think I shut it down for heterosexual males. I'm too insistent on these posts; I need to calm down.

  5. Dear Steve Fellner,

    I think you ask some fair questions, which may be answered more fully in the full version of the essay--it contains a fuller critical response to specific poems than the excerpt suggests. As the editor of the book that Tom Sleigh's essay appears in, I very much wanted a "hetero" thinking about homosexual experience, and though I didn't ask Sleigh for such an essay, I was happy to have this one--in the book it works in conversation with essays by Alfred Corn, Brian Teare, and Neil Powell that take up the issue of homosexuality from different homosexual points of view. (Brian Teare's essay is very long and exhaustive, and I think great). As a heterosexual and a big fan of Thom Gunn's work, I've thought about some of the stuff you raise here, and I'm curious myself about how Thom Gunn's poetry seems to bring out the "bi" in some hetero men who like his poems
    --that is, the early poems with their heroic masculinity, and the later more tender ones perhaps express feelings that hetero men have but have never been able to say with such precision and force. Gunn's classicism and his tough intellectuality, a kind of emotional coolness, maybe allows a hetero male reader to approach these homosexual experiences with some sense of belonging; TG's intelligence, in other words, opens up these experiences in an inclusive way. I don't really know. When I first fell in love with these poems, I never thought of the homosexuality of them as exclusive. They just seemed like the best poems of my own time that I had ever read. Best wishes, Josh Weiner

  6. What a great dialogue you've initiated here, Steve. Congratulations.