Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Chick Lit?

I recently watched Anthony Russo's 2006 movie "You, Me and Dupree" which stars Owen Wilson, Kate Hudson, and Matt Dillon. In the film, Wilson's character - Dillon's loveable but messy, reckless, fly- by-the-seat-of-his-pants best friend and best man - loses his job and moves in with newlyweds Hudson and Dillon only to introduce all manner of potty-humor and relationship chaos into the young lovers' household. Not exactly an art film. The narrative then follows Wilson's gradual reformation into a person of some refinement and charater and Dillon's corresponding descent into disorder, jealousy, and paranoia. Defending Wilson's improvements one night to her husband, Hudson reveals that Wilson has, in fact, been writing poetry - a revelation that Dillon reacts to by calling Wilson "a fag."

Dillon's reaction is part of a long and familiar Anglo-American history of associating poetry - which is presumably in touch with all the gooey emotional and sentimental sides of human existence - with effeminacy and homosexuality. Dino Franco Felluga's 2005 SUNY study "The Perversity of Poetry: Romantic Ideology and the Popular Male Poet of Genius" traces how discourses of poetry, melancholia, genius, and sexual pathology (including masturbation) converged in the nineteenth century. (In "You, Me and Dupree, in fact, poet-to-be Wilson is caught "in the act" one night by Hudson as she goes downstairs for a drink, suggesting the link between poetry and onanism is not entirely a thing of the past.) In "A Retrospect" from 1918, Ezra Pound states his desire to produce a new, masculine poetry that is "harder and saner," "nearer the bone," and "free from [the] emotional slither" that, in his estimation, characterized the effeminate verse of the genteel nineteenth century.

In post-Cold War America, perhaps no figure has dramatized the stereotypical synchronicity between gayness and poetry more humorously than Percy Dovetonsils, one of the most remembered characters created by t.v. comedian Ernie Kovacs. Kovacs's Dovetonsils appeared as a "poet laureate" who spoke with a lisp, wore a zebra-patterned smoking jacket and coke-bottle glasses, and sipped a drink which had a daisy for a swizzle stick. Not able to abide the homosexual resonances of this long history on Wilson's poetry writing, "You, Me and Dupree" eventually clarifies Wilson's heterosexuality by informing us that he was, in fact, writing love poetry in order to win back the affections of a girl he lost earlier in the film.

Despite this history of effeminacy, "real men" actually did read poetry for much of the twentieth century, and that poetry - which decorated the pin-up posters stuck on the walls of their basements and garages - was intended (or thought to be) a clear demonstration of their masculinity. Poetry was a regular part of girly pictures, appearing on postcards, arcade cards, playing cards, ink-blotters, matchbooks and, most famously, the Vargas-girl Esquire centerfold pull-outs and pin-ups. A fair amount of attention has been paid to the visual aspects of these idealized female images, but most commentators focus purely on the airbrushed visuals and the problematic images of the girl next door without investigating the constant presence of the poetry that accompanied those visuals and that, by association, must have had an impact on shaping American masculinity. Some of these poems, such as this one from an ink blotter picturing a busty showgirl in feathers and short skirt -

Showgirls have a philosophy
Expressed in the lines of this verse:
"To let a fool kiss you is stupid,
To let a kiss fool you is worse."

- are clever, epigrammatic rhymes wherein the mastery over the language seems to figure the masculine desire for mastery over the female. Other poems, such as this one from a platinum-blonde, head-and-shoulders, Vargas pull-out pin-up from the May 1942 issue of Esquire, are longer and more elaborate:

Song for a Lost Spring

That was another Spring when we were gay ...
And I remember everything so well ...
The purpled dusk ... the streets that lost their way ...
The lazy hours that held us in their spell;
The songs we sang were lovelier than before,
The violins were sweet against the night ...
And yet the shadows on the tavern floor
Foretold a time of panic and of flight;

And so when lightning raced along the sky
I knew that vows and pleadings would be vain,
You were not meant to watch enchantment die
Nor hear the soft and treacherous hiss of rain;
That was another Spring that we two shared ...
And One was wise ... and there was One who cared!

This sonnet (!) was written by poet laureate of pin-ups, Phil Stack, and no doubt the elaborate verse form and nostalgic tone added a sense of dignity that worked to save the picture from being "just" a girly picture - especially within the context of Esquire's literary and cultural aspirations. Esquire regularly ran such poems alongside their pin-ups and published pin-up calendars with poems on them. To assess the impact of Esquire and the pin-up without accounting in some way for the poetry is an incomplete accounting at best.

It is a curious thing that in the middle of the 1950s "pink scare," Stack should end his first line on the word "gay." For while pin-up poetry, and the act of posting the pin-up on one's wall, worked as a performance of one's masculinity, it was largely a performance of eroticism put on for (and participated in by) other men, and one can't help but think about the homoerotics of two men, or three men, or four men, ogling a pin-up girl. Indeed, when one begins reading this poetry widely, there is a variety among the poems that troubles the heteronormative boy-girl relationship we typically assume that the pictures play to. Sometimes, the verse is spoken by an outside commentator, such as that in the quatrain quoted above. Other times, it's clear that that the woman is speaking the lines. Still other times - as in Stack's sonnet - we're not sure who is speaking the poem or who SHOULD be speaking the poem (the man? the woman? both?) - an ambiguity only enhanced by the verse's use of the first person and played up twice in the last line by the intentionally gender-neutral pronoun "One." Am I the only one to sense that this ambiguity significantly queers the reader's sexual subject position?

Take into consideration the following quatrain from a postcard showing a cartoon redhead whose skirt - a la the famous pic of Marilyn Monroe - is blown up above a steam grate to reveal her stockings and garters:

At last I got around to that line
I said I'd drop
So keep yer shirt on buddy,
ya' needn't blow yer top!

Who is the "I" in this poem supposed to be? Is it a postcard that a woman would send to a man, or a postcard that a man would send to a man, and what are the various subject positions offered to the card's holder - sender or recipient, male or female - by that poem? That is to ask, how does the poem change the erotic relationship depending on whose mouth it is in and who is "speaking" as the sender finally dropping a line? There's certainly a sort of titillating masquerade or poetic drag/burlesque show going on here that is totally worth examining more closely - one not entirely unlike the Renaissance stage where boy actors dressed up like girls and then kissed other men on stage. This vertigo only increases, I think, by knowing that the author of many of these poems is a male - Phil Stack - essentially speaking, like Cyrano, words of love to other men through the mouth of a surrogate, here (in "Song for a Lost Spring") a woman.

I don't have any answers at the moment except to say that pin-up poetry is much more diverse and complex a social and cultural phenomenon than one would be inclined think. Part of American culture for years and especially during the sexually confusing 1950s, it undoubtedly played a role in shaping men's sense of their sexuality, both in relation to the women pictured, and to the men who would read it as it was posted on walls for everyone to see. What sort of sexual identities are being negotiated in this poetry? Does this dynamic change over the course of the twentieth century? How do the various media - from postcard to fold-out pin-up - shape the poetic and (homo)erotic encounter of these images?

For several essays on the Vargas girl pin-ups, written for a 2001 exhibition of Esquire illustrations at the University of Kansas - check out