Saturday, November 03, 2007

Why Waldo Frank Matters


I admit that my initial fascination with Waldo Frank, the person who wrote the, at times, overwrought introduction to Hart Crane’s The Bridge, is partially prurient. In that soap opera way, I like knowing about what was going on with significant homosexuals of years past. Frank’s introduction to Crane’s book is written with some much reverence and affection that I found my self wondering, was he in love with him? This question is, of course, somewhat outside of the bounds of significant scholarly inquiry, or at least the professor asked, How does Waldo Frank relate to the poetry of Hart Crane? Well, it seems obvious to me, but a twenty word answer didn’t fall off my lips (they never seem to), so I’ve been thinking about it all week, and here it is.

A part of the consideration of both Hart Crane and Walt Whitman is the question, is there a queer poetics? I think the answer is most certainly, yes. Then the question is, what is that queer poetics? There again, I do not yet have the twenty word or even three paragraph answer, but let me begin. I think a queer poetics emanates from the lived experience of gay and lesbian people*. I think the gay and lesbian poetics comes from the identity of being a gay or lesbian person, or a homosexual, or homophile, depending on the language in vogue at the time. I think that the gay and lesbian poetics is defined by the identity and the experiences of people and by their self-identity, at least to themselves and a small group of others and often, if not usually, on the page or other sites of their creation. These experiences and identities create a way of understanding and living in the world that gets expressed on the page. These are the conditions the lead to a gay and lesbian poetics.

In addition to the experiences and identity of the individual poets or writers, the gay and lesbian poetics only exists and emerges through reception by a community of readers, by an audience, that sees it as gay or lesbian or homosexual or queer. I think that creation and reception are intimately tied together and when both are in place, the development of the poetics accelerates and becomes more visual and vibrant. I’ll return to that.

It is in this mix where Waldo Frank is important - and is intimately tied to the poetry of Hart Crane, and The Bridge in particular. I was actually pretty angry when I reached “Cutty Sark” and “Cape Hatteras” in The Bridge. I shouldn’t have been angry - I should have just been erotically charged because that is what those two sections are. They are as I wrote last week incredibly sexy and infused with gay male sexuality. Why was I angry? Well, I’ve spent twenty years hearing about Hart Crane as the master of industrial realism. I’ve read “To Brooklyn Bridge“ and been told that it is emblematic of how Crane writes about the processes of industrialization and modernity in the United States in the 1920s. On its face, that is a true statement, but The Bridge is so much more than that. It is the inner workings of a gay man, looking for a guide in Walt Whitman for his life. No one told me that or bothered to say, ”Hey, keep reading until you get to the middle. Wow!” Arguably, I should have kept reading for myself, but realistically, I knew some lesbian poets and so I threw Crane down to get over to them. I missed something in that process.

Now I’m interested in what was Waldo Frank’s role in making me miss that. Did Waldo Frank have an investment in keeping Crane closeted? In what ways did the mysticism of Gurdjieff in which Waldo Frank was invested (which I learned from Different Daughters just this weekend was immensely popular in the 1950s and in Los Angeles, filled with “sexual variants” and homophiles) used as a cover for Crane’s homosexuality? Yingling writes about the significance of Crane’s lover in enabling him to write The Bridge. What was Waldo Frank’s role in it? Frank seems to be for a few decades one of the preeminent people writing about Crane’s work, was he closeting Crane to put him in the canon? Was he making selections of what should be included of Crane’s work? Of course, maybe it is not Waldo Frank who obscured Hart Crane as a gay poet to me. Perhaps it was only my ignorance. I will certainly own that, but it is in these questions of reception that Waldo Frank seems to figure prominently and that I think relates to the poetry of Hart Crane and to this question of a gay poetics.

What is a gay/lesbian poetics? I think about the lesbian poetics that I know from the lesbian-feminist poetry of Adrienne Rich forward. Poems that I can identify to define this poetics take on four general themes as their content. They address coming out, intimate relationships between women, discrimination, oppression, and exclusion from a heterosexist society, and finally, they celebrate the community and culture of women, or wimmin, if you please.

It is not just content though that defines a lesbian poetics - or by extension a gay poetics. It is not just sexuality and the body (though of course I delight in those elements) that creates a gay and lesbian poetics. It is not just the experience of being raised as an outsider, of people assuming things about your ideas and affections that are not true. It is not just the sexual behavior of sex between men and sex between women that creates the poetics. The gay and lesbian poetics comes from the combination of all of this: the experiences in the world - good and bad, the embrace of self, the quest for community, they come together to create a lesbian poetics that is characterized by the following elements:

1. Looking at the world from the experience of being an outsider - even though one’s insider status is often assumed.
2. Centering the experiences of women - even to the exclusion of men - and working to understand what happens when that is enacted.
3. Attention to that which is spoken and that which is silent.
4. Confronting the existing world to create the potential for a rupture or rebirth
5. Creating a world and a way of seeing the existing world anew - without sexism and without homophobia.

These elements are enacted in poetry by lesbians through their choice of content, through the frame of individual poems, through character and dramatic tension, through language and diction choice, and through imagery. These things create a lesbian poetics for lesbians writing and that poetics is reinforced and expanded further through the reception of the poems by an eager and interested audience.

The years from 1969 through 1989 are two fecund decades for lesbian poetics and the articulation and enactment of a lesbian poetics. I’ll examine examples of that in the future. For now, let me say, all of this is why Waldo Frank is important. Frank has in many ways slipped into some obscurity as a novelist himself. His work may be most visible in connection with his commentary on Crane’s The Bridge. That commentary affects how we understand Crane; fortunately, Martin and Yingling have rescued the gay poetics of Crane. How do we ensure that contemporary gay and lesbian poets are not lost in the future - either to the obscuring of their sexual orientation or to extension of a queer reading that obfuscates bodies and sexuality?


*I am making a strategic shift from queer to gay and lesbian here. In part because I want to define a poetics that is based on identity and behavior of gay and lesbian people over the past one hundred and twenty-five years. Queer is a newer word and is used to include bisexual people and transgender people as well as people who have embraced a queer theoretical stance. While I have no interest in excluding people, I am going to use the narrower language to ground myself in the material conditions of the poets that I’m writing about - poets who primarily understood themselves as homosexuals as an affectional, erotic, and sexual preference for people of the same sex.

1 comment:

Kathleen Pfeiffer said...

I don't think Frank was trying to "closet" Crane, thought I do agree that he was deeply committed to a Whitmanian (Whitmanesque?) aesthetic revival. In fact, Frank has been cited as having written one of the earliest American homoerotic/ homosexual novels--"The Dark Mother" from Boni and Liveright, 1920. It's really quite extraordinary and if you can get your hands on a copy, I recommend it--but I'll warn you it's pretty demanding. Frank saw himself as a Poet (capital P), took himself VERY seriously, and his fiction reflects this. In fact, there's a fictional depiction of Frank in Evelyn Scott's novel "Narcissus" which might interest you. And Frank's relationship with Jean Toomer--their correspondence--clearly evinces some homoerotic dynamic, thought I'm not prepared to argue that they were lovers. Some of their letters certainly read like love letters, though.