Spring 2001


Word of Mouth: An Anthology of Gay American Poetry.

Edited by Timothy Liu.
Talisman House, 450 pages, $ 24.95.
by Joel Bettridge

Timothy Liu ends his introduction to Word of Mouth by writing, "I hope that Word of Mouth will find a welcome audience in literary and cultural studies classes alike as well as the general poetry-reading public, even as it complicates the issue of just how useful the term 'gay American poetry' is for our own time and for generations to come."

Accordingly, Liu's table of contents immediately strikes the reader in its range of poets, poets that rarely appear together in the same text: Edwin Denby, James Broughton, William Bronk, Robert Duncan, James Schuyler, Jack Spicer, Allen Ginsberg, James Merrill, Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, William Dickey, Thom Gunn, John Wieners, Ronald Johnson, Frank Bidart, Kevin Killian, Mark Doty, Reginald Shepherd and Justin Chin to name only a few.

Interestingly, such a table of contents demonstrates the very problem that Liu acknowledges in his introduction; that is, "is such an anthology, based on questions or assumptions of 'gay' identity even possible?, particularly when taking into account the divergent poetic practices of 'gay' poets and the multiple formulations of gay identity represented by gay poets." It appear that in order to compile such an anthology, Liu recognizes that the only legitimate organizational feature is the very refusal of the central task of the anthology: to present a coherent, representative account of a particular time, place, or poetic project.

And yet, the move between W.H. Auden's "To-night, for instance, now that /Bert has been here, I / listen to the piercing screams / of palliardisingcats / without self-pity" (6) and Ronald Johnson's palm print (202) and Justin Chin's "lick the dry shit out of my sweaty buttcheeks / I've had my hepatitis shots so it's ok" (441) at once jars the reader into not so much recognizing, as acknowledging, the range of poetic practice carried out
over the past 50 years in the United States while allowing him or her the pleasure of reading, and enjoying, poems he or she might not otherwise consider, depending on his or her own reading prejudices.

The fact that these divergent practices are umbrellaed under the term "gay" only reinforces the impossibility, although crucial activity, of managing, to say nothing of answering, the arguments that obsess contemporary queer
theory and identity politics.

In particular, Word of Mouth continually puts pressure on the representation of gay sexuality. At times the poems in the anthology are explicitly homosexual:

grain of love
we had,
2 men on a cot, a silk
cover and a green cloth
over the lamp.
The music was just right.
I blew him like a symphony,
it floated and
he took me
down the street and
left me here. (176)

Other times they are not:

Now so late that my body
darkens and the gossip of years
goes on loosening the tides of
my body, now so late that
the time of waiting itself loosens
new pains in me, I hear
the sound of the bow-string. (29)

In that many of the poems in Word of Mouth are in fact love poems, it foregrounds the conditions of gay love, sex and desire, but in the end, does not try to presented a unified or single minded account of those conditions. Rather Word of Mouth seems to suggest that it depends on whom and how you read, and consequently, Word of Mouth leaves the question of what counts as "gay" poetry up to the poems - in their multiple and often contradictory ways - and more importantly, to their readers.

Joel Bettridge is a Ph. D. candidate in Poetics at the State University of New York at Buffalo. His poetry and criticism have appeared in a number of literary magazines.



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