Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Some Thoughts on Issue Poetry

So this was prompted by reading a poem in which a mother celebrates the engagement of her son. A rather dull poem on the whole - except the son's fiance is a man. Oh, I think, an Issue Poem. She can't have been unaware of the implications of what is an explicit reference to The Gay Issue (see how I use those capital letters.) It must be deliberate - to highlight the issue of Gay Marriage.

Except, reading the poem, it isn't really. It conveys a mother's delight at her son's happiness, that is all. But because the son is gay, it becomes an Issue. Then I think of all those gay and lesbian poets who talk about their boyfriends or girlfriends, their love affairs and encounters, and wonder what my reaction says about me. I think of John Ash's poems Following A Man or Cigarettes, two wonderful poems about his gay experience, or I think about Thom Gunn's poetry about his experience, and how uneasily they actually fit into the boxes that we have a tendency to put Issue Poems in.

I also realise that I'm still at the back of my mind bothered by the idea of poetry being about issues. It could be any issue: peace for instance. As a lifelong pacifist, I've written relatively few poems about peace. I also consider myself to be a "person of faith": how do I write about that without coming across as strident, or preachy? So far, I've found one solution in using collaged voices; but there's probably other solutions. I'm wary of too much message, because I've learnt over the years that this is A Bad Thing. I also don't like being preached at even when I agree with the message.

Really, what makes Thom Gunn a good poet is his humanity, his honesty and the accuracy of his observation; but the fact of his sexuality is not a by-the-by; it's part and parcel of who he is; just as my straightness is part of who I am. In the past, gay people used a lot of coding and hidden symbolism because it was illegal to be gay. Nowadays, you can say what you like; except, if you do, you will immediately be classified as an Issue Poet. Thom Gunn wrote about being Thom Gunn, not about Being Gay (again with the capital letters!*); and his poetry was all the better for it. Apart from possibly Frank O'Hara, Jack Spicer and a few others, I think he was one of the earliest poets who didn't cloak his sexuality in symbols.

One day, maybe, the sexuality of a poet will be something so boring as to be hardly worth noting; or at least be acceptably normal. Until that day, my reaction to the rather dull poem I started with might be repeated: oh dear it's an Issue Poem.

* A note on Capital Letters: of course, all poets who are not white, anglo-saxon middle class males are going to at some point be accused of being an Adjective-Poet. White Anglo Saxon middle class male poetry is, as we all know, "just poetry". If you happen to mention your colour, gender, sexuality or class anywhere in your work, or if you are in anyway experimental, you are an Insert Correct Adjective Poet. That is a Fact of Life.

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