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Masquerade: Queer Poetry in America to the End of World War II

Edited by Jim Elledge

Indiana University Press 464 pages, $65.

EVEN the erudite student of gay writing will find previously unknown poets anthologized in Masquerade. I love the obscure, so I had heard of Charles Hanson Towne, George Sylvester Viereck, and Adah Isaacs Menken, although admittedly I had never actually read any of their poetry. But the names of Wilbur D. Nesbit, Persis M. Owen, and David and Rose O'Neill (no relation, although born in the same year, 1874) are absolutely new to me. Somewhere along the line I might have heard of Rose O'Neill, but as the "inventor of the Kewpie doll" (did such a thing need to be invented?) and not as a poet. Of course, from a literary standpoint, there's no reason to have heard of Rose O'Neill, whose verse, at least the sampling Jim Elledge brings to our attention, is decidedly unexceptional. A contemporary of Gertrude Stein (who was also born in 1874), one of her poems to a woman writer ends:
 She wrote it! She, my lyric you!
 You beat of drum, you lull of lute!
 You voice of cataract and dew,
 You verse, you violin, you flute!
 You roar! You sound of loves that sue!
 Tongue of the world, who pierce and coo!

This is not terrible poetry--who knows what we're to make out of that tongue that pierces and coos--but not the sort of thing which would establish a major reputation. Rose O'Neill's poetry, I suspect, will remain obscure even to those interested in lesbian and gay poetry in America before 1945.

Some of the poets included in Masquerade are obscure, not just because their poetry is forgotten, but also because they don't seem particularly "queer." The short biography of Alice Kay Smith reports that "No details about [her] life have survived her." Yet there's nothing in the three poems to suggest that she's a lesbian. It would be interesting to know on what basis she was included. Rumor? Files kept by J. Edgar Hoover? The same is true of James Fenimore Cooper, Jr., the grandson of the novelist. "To a Friend" may indeed be written to a male, but I think by 1918, the year in which Cooper died at age 26, a man might also have addressed a woman as "friend." If there's more of a reason to call Cooper "queer," I wish Elledge would tell us.

Indeed, the biographical notes are a major disappointment. I don't need a long biography on Gertrude Stein, but it would be nice to know more about Antoinette Scudder (1888-1958). And although it's understandable that there's not much to report on Walter de Casseres, who committed suicide in 1900 at the age of nineteen, Gale Wilhelm is an important novelist, so a more substantial biography could have been produced simply by consulting standard reference books. I found in my home library that she had an independent income and lived in Berkeley for 43 years with one woman, who wishes to remain anonymous. The worst case is Willard Maas, one more person about whom, Elledge informs us, "no details ... have survived." Yet even a cursory check of the Internet turns up lots of details (such as the fact that he was a filmmaker and worked with Andy Warhol). An important reason for an anthology like Masquerade is to correct a historical record that has ignored queer writing, but such omissions promote the idea that queer writers have left no trace.

The reason I look forward to anthologies like Masquerade is that I hope to encounter wonderful poets with whom I'm little acquainted. A collection that ends with Dunstan Thompson's war poem "Return of the Hero" is doing something very important. (I have to admit, I first learned of Thompson's poetry through the poet Edward Field, but Thompson's work has been almost entirely forgotten, and "Return of the Hero" is work that should delight anyone interested in lyric treasures.) John Wheelwright and Hubert Creekmore are another pair of poets whose names I've heard before but haven't had an opportunity to read, and the small taste Elledge provides has whetted my appetite. And who would have guessed that the fabulously wealthy Helen Hay Whitney would have written such a passionate poem to women, or that Jessie B. Rittenhouse, founder of the rather sedate Poetry Society of America, could have penned poems with the quirky hardness of Emily Dickinson. These may not be great poets, but they begin to fill in some of the canvas of American literary life, and they are well worth reading.

Perhaps some of these poems would have more impact if the book included more notes. I know what C33 is, but I suspect many readers coming across Hart Crane's poem of that title would not understand that it was Oscar Wilde's cell number when in jail, or that "C33" was Crane's first published poem. Many people reading H.D.'s dedication to "Bryher and Perdita" would not know they were her lover and daughter.

Elledge is sensitive to cultural diversity, and the collection begins with a section devoted to "Anonymous Songs and Chants." These are drawn from Hawaiian, Native American, cowboy, and voodoo cultures. There are entries from such Native American figures as We'wha and Hasteen Klah, as well as for such wellknown African-American writers as Alice Dunbar Nelson, Angelina Weld Grimke, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, and Countee Cullen. But for some unaccountable reason (perhaps permission fees), the book includes none of the famous blues lyrics. How I would have liked to have seen the texts for Ma Rainey's "Prove It On Me Blues," Bessie Jackson's "Bull Dagger Blues," or Bessie Smith's "The Boy in the Boat."

An additional problem with the collection is that almost all the poets are given three poems each. The major poets are not given more room than the ones of more incidental interest. Such egalitarianism may be a moral virtue, but it is an aesthetic defect, and it distorts history. For the fact is that some of these poets--Whitman, Amy Lowell, W. H. Auden--cast a much longer shadow than others, and it would be helpful to get a more expansive picture of their work.

One of the games that always arise with an anthology of this sort is that of "who's left out." I would have liked to have seen Tennessee Williams included. He was included in a New Direction collection of five American poets in 1944, which places him right at the book's chronological end. I can't imagine why Robert Duncan doesn't appear either. A more serious omission is a group of poets that Douglass Shand-Tucci has recently brought to light--Ralph Adams Cram, Bliss Carman, Richard Hovey and the other members of the Pinckney Street circle--which would have illuminated how gay writers did not work alone. Around such journals as The Chapbook, these poets created a cultural space to give expression, albeit in disguise, to their sexual proclivities. Whether research will uncover other such clusters of gay poets is one of the questions left open by this collection.

Masquerade is a good book, but I worry that it will foreclose the possibility for a more complete book. My hope is that it does very well, and that Jim Elledge (or some other scholar) will be asked to do a fuller, more extensive survey of non-heterosexual poetry written before the end of World War II.

David Bergman's most recent book is The Violet Hour: The Violet Quill and the Making of Gay Culture (reviewed in this issue).
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Title Annotation:Books
Author:Bergman, David
Publication:The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 2004
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