The folly of cliques, beauty & comparisons

Once I was beautiful. Now I am myself...
Anne Sexton
Anne Sexton is my favorite poet. I discovered her in my teen angst years, but as I grew older, I found that her words still resonated strongly with me as I began creating my own poetry. Her fearlessness in writing about her mental illness, her foibles and volatile relationships remains a defining moment in modern poetry. Sexton was indeed a beautiful woman, but she was also a monster who terrorized her family, friends and colleagues with ever-shifting moods. Like Marilyn Monroe, she used her beauty to create a persona of the “poet superstar.” But Sexton was well aware that beauty would only take her so far, would fade, would not be the thing she was remembered for; her body of work was what truly mattered. It’s why she sat up nights, drinking cocoa and endlessly redrafting the poems for her “immortality box.”

In Transformations, Sexton wrote, “Beauty is a simple passion, but oh, my friends, in the end you will dance the fire dance in iron shoes,” not only giving voice to the end of the wicked queen in Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs, but to her own eventual demise. At the end of her life, Sexton was not beautiful. Her face was angular and haggard, the drinking, smoking and mental illness taking its toll. Like Marianne Faithful, her voice became a ragged shadow of its former self. None of this distracted from the power of the poetry, the headlong rush into the brilliant, damaged mind underneath the artifice of the carefully staged, alluring book jacket photos.

At this writing, Sexton has no equal or heir apparent, although some might like to think so. Jameson Fitzpatrick tried to equate Sexton’s appeal to that of Alex Dimitrov, who has been recently coronated as the new “It Boy” in poetry, in a misguided essay at Lambda Literary. Dimitrov cheerfully proclaimed that the Wilde Boys salon was created, in part, as a place to find pretty, young gay boys. The New York Times article about Wilde Boys appeared in the Style section, which gave Dimitrov and his coterie plenty of room to walk back the vapid tone of the piece as being just a fun, frivolous little write up about a group of boys getting together to flirt and read poetry to each other.

Since the Times article appeared, Wilde Boys has received considerable attention from all corners of the poetry world, including that literary paragon OUT magazine, which named Dimitrov the “great new gay hope” for poetry. How they arrived at this conclusion is unclear, since Dimitrov has yet to publish a collection (one is coming next year). One must surmise that Dimitrov’s quick ascension is based largely on his looks without the poetry to back it up. Sexton would have been horrified by this notion.

That brings me to Eduardo Corral’s comment in the interview with Michael Klein at Ploughshares. Without naming names, Corral said he had felt alienated by the gay poetry scene in New York because of his physical appearance. Jameson Fitzpatrick “bristled” at this comment, assumed Corral was talking about Dimitrov and the Wilde Boys salon, and quickly penned the essay for Lambda, apparently, to counteract and diminish Corral’s opinion while “raising the discourse on gay poetry.” It was a colossal backfire. Fitzpatrick only added legitimacy to the opinion that Wilde Boys is a grown-up version of the high school clique where only the beautiful and popular are allowed entry. It also further reveals the ugly, shallow, narcissistic vein that runs through the gay community in general: You’re only worthy if you’re “hot.” Also unmissable is the class and race privilege dripping from the essay.

Writing has long been the escape for many young gay men struggling with their identities and appearance in a nation rife with homophobia, racism and body fascism. It certainly was for me. I was lucky enough to be welcomed into a writing community that didn’t care if I was chubby, only wore T-shirts and baggy jeans and geeked out over Doctor Who. Fitzpatrick has managed to dispel the notion that similar young men are welcome in the gay literary scene, at least in New York, unless they are skinny-jean wearing, hipster, starfuckers.

Without irony, Fitzpatrick acknowledge that he’s wanted to be famous longer than he’s wanted to be a poet. He concedes that this ambition isn’t noble and might be perceived as frivolous, but damn it, his fame-whoring is legitimate and deserving of our attention and respect. Are we at that juncture where aspiring to be the literary equivalent of Kim Kardashian is the new ambition of young, gay poets? Sorry, Jameson – Anne Sexton would douse you with vodka and flick you with her cigarette for even suggesting it.

An update: Steve Fellner responds at his Pansy Poetics blog and C. Dale Young at Avoiding the Muse, while Saeed Jones offers his rebuttal at Lambda Literary.


Whew! Bravo, Coll-Coll, for giving the thrashing that is well-deserved to the non-thinkers in the po-biz. There are thinkers, and there are poseurs. We know which camp you're in, and we're very fortunate to have you, Collin, here.
Nancy Devine said…
sexton's "The Awful Rowing Toward God" astounds and scares the crap out of me.
the in-group, the focus on appearance....gross. additionally i get so tired of the emphasis on new york as if the rest of the country is an artless hell-hole.
i can't imagine how much this would anger me if i were gay.
well-written and insightful work, collin.
Ricky Herbert said…
*meow* you tell 'em pussycat!

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