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: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/journal/article.html?id=236878
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
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.