Guys Like Us: Citing Masculinity in cold War Poetics

Overview


Guys Like Us considers how writers of the 1950s and '60s struggled to craft literature that countered the politics of consensus and anticommunist hysteria in America, and how notions of masculinity figured in their effort. Michael Davidson examines a wide range of postwar literature, from the fiction of Jack Kerouac to the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, Frank O'Hara, Elizabeth Bishop, and Sylvia Plath. He also explores the connection between masculinity and sexuality in films such as Chinatown and The Lady from ...
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Overview


Guys Like Us considers how writers of the 1950s and '60s struggled to craft literature that countered the politics of consensus and anticommunist hysteria in America, and how notions of masculinity figured in their effort. Michael Davidson examines a wide range of postwar literature, from the fiction of Jack Kerouac to the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, Frank O'Hara, Elizabeth Bishop, and Sylvia Plath. He also explores the connection between masculinity and sexuality in films such as Chinatown and The Lady from Shanghai, as well as television shows, plays, and magazines from the period. What results is a virtuoso work that looks at American poetic and artistic innovation through the revealing lenses of gender and history.
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Editorial Reviews

Choice

Named "Outstanding Academic Title" by Choice
American Quarterly
Evoking Baudelaire's flaneur in his analysis of Whitman and O'Hara, Davidson becomes something of a flaneur himself, strolling through the bustling, vibrant excesses of twentieth-century cultural production, and sampling with astonishing grace, facility, and acumen the wealth of significations around that central sign, masculinity, in a way that . . . is always richly challenging and frequently illuminating. His degree of cultural literacy is astonishing. . . . A thought-provoking work that sreaks to a variety of disciplines: American history, literary criticism, and gender studies.

— Fiona Paton

American Literature
[Guys Like Us] advance[s] the historical study of poetics and poetry significantly.

— Eric Schocket

Cercles
Guys Like Us seeks to re-assess the historiography of the policing of gender roles and its relation to foreign state affairs during the Cold War era in the United States. . . . Davidson’s text is innovative in that it analyses the role of postwar countercultural poetry and its adjacent literary criticism in the construction of alternative models of masculinity. . . . [Davidson] privileges the poetic genre because he considers it the ideal site to contest ideologies through literature. Consequently, the author explains that the careful reading of poems produced during the Cold War era provides an accurately complex picture of postwar America—a picture which has become blurred by the convenient forgetfulness resulting from a manichean defense of so-called “moral” and, by extension, “democratic” values from the late 1940s to the late 1960s.”

— Mercedes Cuenca

American Quarterly - Fiona Paton

"Evoking Baudelaire's flaneur in his analysis of Whitman and O'Hara, Davidson becomes something of a flaneur himself, strolling through the bustling, vibrant excesses of twentieth-century cultural production, and sampling with astonishing grace, facility, and acumen the wealth of significations around that central sign, masculinity, in a way that . . . is always richly challenging and frequently illuminating. His degree of cultural literacy is astonishing. . . . A thought-provoking work that sreaks to a variety of disciplines: American history, literary criticism, and gender studies."
American Literature - Eric Schocket

"[Guys Like Us] advance[s] the historical study of poetics and poetry significantly."
Cercles - Mercedes Cuenca

Guys Like Us seeks to re-assess the historiography of the policing of gender roles and its relation to foreign state affairs during the Cold War era in the United States. . . . Davidson’s text is innovative in that it analyses the role of postwar countercultural poetry and its adjacent literary criticism in the construction of alternative models of masculinity. . . . [Davidson] privileges the poetic genre because he considers it the ideal site to contest ideologies through literature. Consequently, the author explains that the careful reading of poems produced during the Cold War era provides an accurately complex picture of postwar America—a picture which has become blurred by the convenient forgetfulness resulting from a manichean defense of so-called “moral” and, by extension, “democratic” values from the late 1940s to the late 1960s.”
Marjorie Perloff

Guys Like Us will force us to rethink the poetics of the 1950s in strenuous new ways. Davidson takes a diverse body of poems and literary works and shows how they all bear the stamp of the postwar era, from the idea of a perfect masculinity to America’s manifest destiny. This is a highly original, fascinating book.”
Henry Abelove

“Davidson shows us persuasively just how homosocial bonding served to shape much of the American poetry of the cold war era. His book is as fine and subtle and learned an account of the relations among gender, genre, and politics as any I know.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226137407
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 11/28/2003
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 296
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author


Michael Davidson is a professor of American literature at the University of California, San Diego. He is the author, most recently, of Ghostlier Demarcations: Modern Poetry and the Material Word and editor of The New Collected Poems of George Oppen. Davidson is also the author of eight books of poetry, including The Arcades and Post Hoc.
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Read an Excerpt

Guys Like Us

Citing Masculinity in Cold War Poetics
By Michael Davidson

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2003 Michael Davidson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780226137407

1 - Compulsory Homosociality: Charles Olson, Jack Spicer, and the Gender of Poetics
to be tumescent I

The affairs of men remain a chief concern

--Charles Olson, "The K"
The Poetics Of Gender

My title for this chapter conflates two influential revisions of feminist theory. The first is Adrienne Rich's diagnosis of the compulsory character of heterosexuality in marking gender divisions; the second is Eve Sedgwick's use of the term homosocial to refer to forms of same-sex bonding in which male interests are reinforced. Both works represent a second or third stage of feminist theory based on the recognition that patriarchy roots its authority not only by excluding women from its orders but by basing its exclusions upon a heterosexual norm. When heterosexuality is regarded as the (untheorized) standard for evaluating gender di$erences, then the possibility of describing all forms of gender relations becomes moot. Such structural marginalization of others has political implications for a society in which certain types of homosocial bonding (board room politics, corporate networking, locker room badinage) are essential to the perpetuation ofcapitalist hegemony.

I have linked Rich's and Sedgwick's terms in order to suggest that in certain communities—literary circles or artistic movements, for instance— obligatory heterosexuality is reinforced even when those communities contain a large number of homosexual males. It is often assumed that because underground literary movements are marginal to the dominant culture, they are therefore more tolerant and progressive. Such assumptions need to be historicized by asking for whom progress is being claimed and by what aesthetic and social standards. As I will argue throughout this book, there was a lively debate in 1950s intellectual culture over which avant-garde was authentically advanced—whether the high modern formalist or the media absorbing beatnik, whether the artist who makes culture by repudiating social forms or the artist who gains identity through group identification and absorption into the popular media. Being progressive in cold war culture often meant different things to di$erent constituencies. What remains constant within the largely male forums within which the avant-garde was debated was that the structure of homosocial relations, genitalized or not, often undergirds the production of new art forms and practices, even though that structure is often at odds with the liberatory sexual ethos that articulates those practices. One might, therefore, reverse Nancy K. Miller's question, "does gender have a poetics?" (xi), and ask, Does poetics have gender, and, if so, how do homosocial relationships participate in constructing both terms?

Such questions become extremely pertinent when studying the formations of literary postmodernism where the attempt to go beyond the artisanal poetics of high modernism often replicates phallic ideals of power, energy, and virtuosity that it would seem to contest. Most commentators regard the shift in literary periods as one in which a model of literary performance regarded as realized totality—what John Crowe Ransom called "miraculist fusion"—is displaced by speech act (880). Poets of the late 1950s thought of their work as capable of e$ecting change—of doing rather than representing—by the sheer authority vested in the speaker, anticipating by several years J. L. Austin's theory of performative speech acts. This authority is purchased not by establishing ironic distance or by invoking institutional or cultural precedents. Rather, authority derives from an ability to instantiate physiological and psychological states through highly gestural lineation and by the treatment of the page as a field for action. In the rhetoric of Black Mountain poetics, the poet scores the voice—and by extension the body— through lines that monitor moment-to-moment attentions. The poem's authenticity resides not so much in what the poem says as paraphrasable content but in the ways the poem displays its own processes of discovery. Many of the terms for such performance (gesture, field, action) derive from abstract expressionist painting for which the heroic ideal of physicality serves as aesthetic as well as communal precedent.

I would like to study two literary circles of the 1950s in which homosocial relations were compulsory, even though each group consisted of numerous homosexual males. The groups in question are the North Beach bar scene surrounding Jack Spicer, who was openly gay, and the Black Mountain milieu surrounding Charles Olson, who was not. Both poets wrote foundational documents in poetics that have become the basis for much discussion of postwar, nontraditional verse. Both poets developed their poetics within a group ethos of male solidarity and sodality that often betrayed homophobic qualities. Although women were sometimes associated with each group (Helen Adam and Joanne Kyger with Spicer, Denise Levertov with Olson), they were seldom acknowledged as literary innovators. While women were often absent from the centers of artistic and intellectual life in general during the 1950s, their absence in these groups was a structural necessity for the liberation of a new, male subject.

Before focusing on particular cases, it is necessary to emphasize that compulsory homosociality was hardly limited to the Black Mountain or Spicer circles. One could say the same for Beat writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg who developed their ethos of cultural disaffiliation by rejecting momism and other vestiges of female authority (marriage, commitment, sexual fidelity). In his novels Kerouac fetishized the (hetero) sexual prowess of Neal Cassady and celebrated the rough camaraderie of men on the road. Ginsberg, in his most famous poem, elegizes those "who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists" while, at the same time, despairing over those who "lost their loveboys to the three old shrews of fate the one eyed shrew of the heterosexual dollar the one eyed shrew that winks out of the womb and the one eyed shrew that does nothing but sit on her ass and snip the intellectual golden threads of the craftsman's loom" (128). And in his most infamous confession of misogyny, "This Form of Life Needs Sex" Ginsberg despairs of woman, the "living meat-phantom, / ...scary as my fanged god" who stands between him and "Futurity" (284).

The same could be said for poets of the Deep Image movement like Robert Bly and James Wright who developed their theories of the ecstatic, "leaping" image out of Jungian archetypalism and Bultmanian theories of matriarchal cultures. For Bly, the presence of the Great Mother sensitizes the male poet to his natural or childlike potential, but when She appears in her more medusan form as the Teeth Mother, her icon is the vagina dentata and her function is to destroy the male's psychic life (41). In both Beat and Deep Image movements, greater sensitivity or vision is purchased at the expense of women, even when her gender (as in more recent men's movement rhetoric) is invoked as a positive value. And where homosexuality is openly celebrated, as it is in Ginsberg, it is often in opposition not only to heterosexuality but to women in general:

Woman

herself, why have I feared

to be joined true

embraced beneath the Panties of Forever

in with the one hole that repelled me 1937 on?

(284–85)

The date recorded in Ginsberg's last line is important here beyond what it means for Ginsberg's sexuality. It marks a specific moment in the development of homosociality that coincides with a shift into what we now recognize as postmodernism. If Ginsberg was "repelled" by female genitalia, he could say so within a range of same-sex associations brought about by World War II. As John D'Emilio has pointed out, the war expanded possibilities for homosocial—and specifically gay and lesbian—interaction. The sudden removal of men and women from small towns into "sex-segregated, nonfamilial environments" such as the armed services or defense industries provided new possibilities for same-sex contacts ("Gay Politics" 458). Networks of gays and lesbians continued after the war as service personnel were demobilized in San Francisco, Los Angeles, or New York where the presence of bars and social services provided a hospitable environment. The inquisitorial climate of the cold war—from the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings of the late 1940s through the McCarthy committee—often linked political and sexual deviance, thus creating a greater sense of alliance among various "subversive" cultures. Many federal and state employees were fired for sexual misconduct and many more were subjected to surveillance. Gay community was challenged by increased police crackdowns on gay bars that, far from diminishing homosexual or lesbian activity, heightened awareness. Literary communities in Greenwich Village and North Beach were particularly a$ected by these developments because many of them evolved in the same bars that were the targets of police raids. And while regulars of those bars may have made distinctions between homosexual and straight patrons, the outside world and the mass media tended to link literary bohemia with sexual deviancy and dismiss both accordingly.

The expansion of gay and lesbian community during the 1950s was accompanied by the evolution of new, nontraditional masculine identities within the popular imagination: the Playboy swinging bachelor, the motorcycle renegade, the Hollywood cowboy, the pelvis gyrating rock star, and, of course, the beatnik. Many of these roles were explicitly misogynist in nature, women treated as little more than sex toys or castrating viragos. At the same time, these new masculine roles offered alternatives to the usual domestic scenario with its breadwinning male and housekeeping wife. Advertising saw the possibilities of the new male consumer and adjusted its agenda to accommodate the single, discerning—even bohemian—purchaser of Marlboros, Hathaway shirts, and hi-fi components. Within the triumphant middle class lay pockets of male resistance, whether in the white collar executive who becomes a connoisseur of jazz or the truck driver who dons a leather jacket on weekends. These alternative masculinities were commodities to be purchased, even by those cultural producers who excoriated Madison Avenue techniques. Jack Kerouac writing about Beat hipsters "taking drugs, digging bop, having flashes of insight" in the glossy pages of Esquire or Playboy seemed somehow appropriate to the times. The change of Allen Ginsberg, market researcher, to Allen Ginsberg, poet, may not have been such a transition after all.

I make this point about the 1950s because theories of homosocial literary culture have often focused on its development in earlier periods. The most significant treatment of the phenomenon, Eve Sedgwick's Between Men, is devoted to "a new range of male homosocial bonds ...connected to new configurations of male homosexuality" that emerged in the nineteenth century and helped to articulate stratifications within the new middle class (207). The amorphous character of new class relations during this period necessitated the reassertion of gender roles to give "an apparent ideological distinctness" to an unstable social and economic context (207). That distinctness was—and remains—reinforced by an asymmetry between same-sex groupings among women and men. For the former, same-sex bonding carries little of the social opprobrium that it does for the latter. This asymmetry not only differentiates two kinds of homosocial groupings but ensures male domination of women; whereas male-bonding often leads to material enrichment, the same experience among women has no such material base.

Obviously, by the mid-twentieth century the unstable class relations Sedgwick describes had become stabilized, and the asymmetries of gender relations cemented into institutional and bureaucratic structures of great complexity. Furthermore, the British class relations Sedgwick studies are a good deal more stratified than those in the United States (for example, there is no American equivalent to the aristocratic Oxbridge homosexual culture of the sort depicted in novels like Brideshead Revisited), and thus any use of homosociality as a general concept of same-sex bonding must be defined within its specific cultural formations. The question of what it meant to be masculine in the 1950s must be set against those very bureaucratic structures— giant, anonymous corporations, a new class of technical and intellectual expertise, a consensus ideology in institutional life—by which midcentury America is known. The development of aesthetic models based on the body and gesture, on voice and orality, represent a response to the increasing alienation of individuals within these social forms. What inheres between mid-nineteenth- and mid-twentieth-century same-sex relations is the asymmetry between male and female homosocialities and between their access to the same material conditions. What is unique to the movements that I will study here is the degree to which literary communities reinforced this asymmetry through gender-marked models of performance and action.

A City On A Hill

The best place to begin studying the formation of male community in alternative poetics is Charles Olson's "Projective Verse" (1950). This manifesto advocates a theory of "open field" composition where the poet composes by attending to the physiology, breath, and breathing "of the man who writes as well as of his listenings" (Collected Prose 239). Even allowing for the gender inflections of the day, Olson's use of the masculine pronoun throughout the essay seems extreme. Speaking of the advantages of Pound's musical phrase, Olson advises "go by it, boys, rather than by, the metronome" (240); of the unity of form and content, "there it is, brothers, sitting there for use" (240); of the advantages of using the syllable, "if a man is in there, will be, spontaneously, the obedience of his ear to the syllables" (242). The syllable is "king," and, when used properly, it is close to the mind, "the brother to this sister [the ear]" (242). Finally, out of this "incest" of male mind and female ear comes the line "from the breath, from the breathing of the man who writes, at the moment that he writes, and thus is, it is here that, the daily work, the work, gets in, for only he, the man who writes, can declare at every moment, the line its metric and its ending—where its breathing shall come to, termination" (242).

The highly subordinated and punctuated syntax of Olson's prose is as much a demonstration of projectivist poetics as it is a description. The prose is literally breathless with intensity as Olson maps the "breathing of the man who writes." The work ethic implied by this impatience is reinforced by a productionist vision of poetry's e$ect on the social world, its "stance toward reality outside a poem" (246). It is here, in Olson's more utopian claims for projective verse, that his genitalization of performance most limits its practitioners: "It comes to this: the use of a man, by himself and thus by others, lies in how he conceives his relation to nature, that force to which he owes his somewhat small existence....For a man's problem, the moment he takes speech up in all its fullness, is to give his work his seriousness....But breath is man's special qualification as animal. Sound is a dimension he has extended. Language is one of his proudest acts. And when a poet rests in these as they are in himself ...then he, if he chooses to speak from these roots, works in that area where nature has given him size, projective size" (247– 48). It is clear that the body from which poetry is projective belongs to a male heterosexual whose alternating pattern of tumescence and detumescence, penetration and projection, dissemination and impregnation structures more than the poem's lineation. Despite his repudiation elsewhere in the essay of traditional figuration (the "suck of symbol") Olson uses a familiar metaphor of the male as generative principle operating on a passive female nature, "that force to which he owes his somewhat small existence" (25). Such sustained masculinization of poetry gives the first syllable of "Manifesto" new meaning.

Were "Projective Verse" the work of a single individual it could be seen as the product of an isolated sensibility in revolt against the New Critical strictures of his day. But the essay is, in fact, a collaborative work, constructed out of letters between Olson and Robert Creeley in the late 1940s. Portions of Creeley's letters are embedded in Olson's prose as are quotations and paraphrases of other authors (Pound, Williams, Fenollosa) that, as Marjorie Perlo$ has pointed out, make this less an original work than a collage enterprise. The document has become the centerpiece for Black Mountain poetics, a movement composed largely of men, and although it involves several bisexual or gay males (Robert Duncan, John Wieners, Michael Rumaker, Jonathan Williams, Fielding Dawson) its cultivation of heroic expressivism betrays a strongly heterosexual bias. Finally, "Projective Verse" is a pedagogical instrument, written at the beginning of Olson's teaching career and designed to educate a certain kind of student. Since, as we shall see, that student is gendered male we may assume that this collaborative project is not extended to female readers.

The recently published letters between Olson and Frances Boldereff suggest that there was a third interlocutor in the production of "Projective Verse" who may have exerted as much influence on the manifesto as Creeley. Boldere$ was an independent scholar (she wrote books on Joyce and Blake), librarian, and typographic designer with whom Olson shared a long and intimate relationship. The letters between the two figures, written from the late 1940s through the late 1960s, testify to an intense intellectual and sexual involvement, especially during the period of Olson's apprenticeship as a poet. Olson sent Boldereff copies of poems and essays, and she responded with enthusiasm, goading him on to new discoveries and levels of inquiry. She seems to have introduced him to many key literary, archaeological, and anthropological books that he subsequently used in the Maximus series, and she was an avid reader of his earlier work on Melville. "Projective Verse" appears in an early draft among the letters, and it seems clear that Boldereff contributed certain ideas about language as action to the essay. The absence of any reference to this powerful woman intellectual can, of course, be explained (as Sharon Thesen does in her editorial introduction to the letters) by Olson's common-law marriage to Constance Olson during the early 1950s (xiv). But this occlusion of Boldere$ 's influence is also informed by Olson's phallic theory of literary inheritance that can admit the authority of Williams, Pound, Creeley, Dahlberg, and others, but not of strong women. Compulsory homosociality does not concern the biographical life of the male artist so much as the textual life he produces through homosocial associations. That textual life—what we call poetics—may very well be composed by biological male or female others, but its function is to replicate a continuum of male associations, colleagues, and fellow travelers. The implications of this continuum for Olson's larger view of polis and community are far-reaching.





Continues...

Excerpted from Guys Like Us by Michael Davidson Copyright © 2003 by Michael Davidson. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Acknowledgments
Introduction
1 Compulsory Homosociality: Charles Olson, Jack Spicer, and the Gender of Poetics
2 From Margin to Mainstream: Postwar Poetry and the Politics of Containment
3 The Lady from Shanghai: California Orientalism and "Guys Like Us"
4 "When the world strips down and rouges up": Redressing Whitman
5 The Changing Name: Writing Gender in the Black Arts Nation Script
6 Definitive Haircuts: Female Masculinity in Elizabeth Bishop and Sylvia Plath
7 Hunting among Stones: Poetry, Pedagogy, and the Pacific Rim
Afterword: Moving Borders
Notes
List of Works Cited
Index
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