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literature

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Poetry: Gay Male  
 
page: 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  

Perhaps this is not the work of a "gay poet" in the contemporary sense; yet it offers the gay reader a broad range of interest, both in terms of identifiably shared emotions and as a documentary glimpse of "our" sexual history.

The two great virtues of Catullus' view of sexuality are his sense of humor--which leads him to laugh at himself as often as at others--and his seriousness, the depth of his commitment to his own desires. The tension between the two moods brings him close, at times, to a tone that we might recognize in certain types of modern gay irony.

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Constructing the Canon of Gay Male Poetry

However, gay literature is not simply a matter of the emotional records of individual writers. Gay poets do not, on their own, "make" gay poetry. There are processes of selection, production, and evaluation to be taken into account. Our canons of literature of quality are no more eternal than any other.

Indeed, gay literary critics have been fairly explicit about the intentional social purposes behind their re-evaluations of past texts and canons. The contingencies behind the heralding of gay classics need to be acknowledged and made manifest.

The canon of gay literature has been constructed by bookish homosexuals, most explicitly since the debates on sexuality and identity that flourished in the last third of the nineteenth century. The clearest canonizations have been effected not only by critical appraisal but also by the assembling of anthologies.

The Role of the Anthologists

Anthologists have clearly hoped to create a sense of cultural continuity and an international community of shared sexual interest. Yet it is worth bearing in mind that, terminology apart, the notion of a subsector of literature devoted to is not particularly new.

History is littered with patrons who had specific erotic interests and tailored their commissions accordingly. At other times, artists took it on themselves to make entrepreneurial choices that affected the subsequent availability of specific types of art work.

Strato of Sardis, who lived in the second century C.E. and wrote lively epigrams expressing an interest in both women and boys, nevertheless edited a narrowly specific collection called Mousa Paidiké (Pederastic Poems).

Almost one hundred of Strata's poems have come down to us because this anthology was absorbed into the so-called Palatine Anthology, which, combined with the collection by Maximum Planudes, became that magnificent resource of 4,000 epigrams, The Greek Anthology. Whether one calls the Mousa Paidiké a gay anthology depends on the purity of the individual reader's sense of history.

Regardless of their definitional elisions and inaccuracies, anthologies have played a central role in establishing canons of homosexual literature. Furthermore, since the late nineteenth century, they have actually provided homosexual readers with a broad kind of gay cultural education that would not have been on offer even in the English "public" schools and Oxbridge colleges whose curricula were so heavily based on the Graeco-Roman classics. The "anthology of friendship" furnished extracts from a complete curriculum for the diligent, homosexual autodidact.

The ground had been prepared in the researches of men like Sir Richard Burton and John Addington Symonds. The latter's essay A Problem in Modern Ethics (1891), for instance, included useful sections on "Literature--Historical Anthropological" (summarizing Burton's 1885 theory of the existence of a pederastic "Sotadic Zone" encircling the Earth); "Literature--Polemical" (summarizing and commenting on the sexological work of K. H. Ulrichs); and, more to the present point, "Literature--Idealistic" (a short essay on Walt Whitman, naming some of the main homoerotic poems and quoting the whole of "For You 0 Democracy").

Edward Carpenter's Ioläus (1902)

Perhaps the most significant and original of the subsequent anthologies was Edward Carpenter's Ioläus (1902), supposedly an "anthology of friendship" but actually an attempt to map out the cultural and historical roots of the people Symonds had called "the third sex" and whom Carpenter called "the intermediate sex." It consisted of five chapters.

The first of these, "Friendship-customs in the Pagan and Early World," gathers together extracts of anthropological prose about the customs of "primitive peoples" (extracts from Herman Melville's Omoo and Typee, for instance); followed by historical accounts of "comradeship," mainly from ancient Greek culture (the Theban band, Harmodius and Aristogeiton, Orestes and Pylades, Damon and Pythias).

In the second chapter, "The Place of Friendship in Greek Life and Thought," Carpenter provides extracts from Plato (Symposium and the Phaedrus) and Plutarch.

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