Edward Field, Poet: A Literary Appreciation and the Rhetoric of Camp: Gay Poetry as Fairy Tale
Updated: Apr 5
"Edward Field’s Poetry: A Literary Appreciation and the Rhetoric of Camp"
by Walter Holland (copyright April 4, 2020)
The poet Edward Field’s life and career has spanned the years from mid -century America to the present day. Born in 1924 in Brooklyn, New York, his formative years as a gay man began in the late forties and 1950s but he had started writing poetry during his service in World War II.
It is my hope to promote a greater literary appreciation of Field’s poetry from a variety of contexts. First to explore his writing from the vantage of Field’s homosexuality and his uses of gay camp to assert his voice and subvert the heteronormative forces of American mainstream culture as well as the sexual theories of the forties and fifties. In this regard, I’d also like to address the issue of authenticity versus inauthenticity in a homophobic society. Second, to give an historical perspective to his work, which reflects the many psychosocial, cultural, political and moral viewpoints over his long career. Third, to discuss how his identity as a Jew contributed to his poetic practice in the areas of Jewish humor and Jewish biblical narrative modes. Then, to look at his strong self-identification with Bohemianism as opposed to American materialism and capitalism. And finally, to study Field’s poetry of protest, which was instigated by the 9/11 attacks on America and what Field saw as the sudden rise of authoritarianism and anti-democratic American nationalism along with the degradation of the American character and progressive idealism—a rise which has recalled to Field his connection to Nazi Germany and World War II as American military bomber pilot, and much later as artist-tourist and admirer of Germany’s return to liberalism and humanistic values.
For Field, years of psychotherapy in the 1950s had led to his eventual coming-out even though he had long struggled as a closeted homosexual and had acted, clandestinely, on his sexual desires. He studied acting in the late fifties and continued to work at poetry taking as influences Robert Friend, Rupert Brooke, Hart Crane, Cavafy, Auden, and Dunstan Thompson. It wasn’t until 1963 that his first book Stand Up, Friend, With Me was awarded the prestigious Lamont Poetry Prize and was published.
Thus Field’s writing years in the fifties, sixties, and seventies, took place in a period of heavy censorship and the criminalization of homosexuality. Even the American Psychiatric Association didn’t remove homosexuality from its diagnostic designation as a pathology until the early seventies. Stonewall wouldn’t happen until 1969. McCarthyism and the actions of Under Secretary John Peurifoy ignited the “Lavender Scare.” In 1953, the year I was born, Eisenhower signed into law Executive Order 10450 which established “sexual perversion” as grounds for dismissal of federal employees.
Field, who attended psychoanalysis regularly during this era, battled with his homosexual impulses, and hoped for a cure. The resulting self-censorship, internalized homophobia, and compulsory self-hatred, guilt and self-loathing that went with it, drove many to suicide, isolation, addiction, and psychiatric institutionalization. A double-life encouraged dissemblance, deflection, and the necessity for projecting performative identities. Communication had to become secretive and coded. This pressure to “mask” one’s true identity and to reject mainstream heteronormative society as it had rejected the homosexual, fostered the development of a highly creative methodology for negotiating a hostile and nullifying world. Identity became Illusion and impersonation and evolved into an art form.
Such self-conscious living and inner suffering created an enhanced sensitivity, vigilance, empathy, and skill at “reading” human behavior. Gesture, timbre of voice, mannerisms, were studied and employed to theatrical ends. The tragic displays of the subjugation and oppression of women in society as seen in popular and high culture, their ill-treatment by men, were appropriated by homosexuals as representative of their own suppression in society. Women heroines, movie stars, icons, became avatars, simulacra for gay men especially. And writers such as Henry James, Tennessee Williams, and Truman Capote have long used female characters to speak their desires, thoughts and anger trapped in their own hearts and psyches.
Further, to subvert the status quo; to mirror, caricature and exaggerate enforced heterosexuality and fixed gender rules of conduct; to embrace the perverse, the outlawed, and the debased, reclaiming it from its culturally rejected status by an ever tasteful and morally superior society; was to expose the hypocrisy and absurdity of the overall system, both in what it values or devalues, e.g. “family,” “marriage,” “heterosexual intercourse,” “opposite sex romance,” vs. “gender non-conformity,” “non-procreative sex,” “promiscuous sex,” “non-monogamous behavior,” etc.
All of these strategies became methods for survival and ways to obtain a modicum of pleasure, happiness, and emotional fulfillment. And, for the homosexual artist and performer, a means to psychologically use the imagination to mediate an impossible existential dilemma. Much of the above has been far better explicated by contemporary queer theorists and scholars but I have self-interpreted it here as my way of explaining the epistemological milieu of Field’s literary practice.
For, perhaps, the most significant and enduring achievement of homosexual culture has been the employ of the camp aesthetic. In my opinion “camp” was both a learned behavior, consciously developed and practiced by many homosexual artists from as early as the 19th century such as in the case of Oscar Wilde; and, an organic creative disposition, a sensibility, born often sub-consciously, by the artist who is excluded from personal self-expression and has no other means of speaking in an “authentic” way or writing in an “authentic” narrative. Thus, they are drawn to “artifice” and the construct of “inauthenticity” along with the necessity to study the coded world around them. By “reading” the dominant culture and its code, they are able to subvert, make fun, and undermine those codes. That manipulative and satiric process allows them to telegraph their own feelings of desire, anger, protest and defiance.
I realize mine is a highly theoretical and heady commentary, but homosexuals over the centuries have been forced to exercise their minds over the interests of their bodies; to pour their wants and passions into a life of ideas, art, and learning—namely the realms of the mandarin, the aesthetic, and the effete ; and to sublimate their true erotic natures, their loves and attractions into purely intellectual pursuits, in order to find there and in society fulfillment, power, acceptance, and creative self-expression.
Field was saved by the Bohemian community of New York’s Greenwich Village. There artistic and creative peoples were allowed more social and sexual freedom, although within the limits of certain controls and guidelines of behavior, concessions and compromises. One could act upon their desires in private, or in secretive safe-spaces, but were forced to shun visibility in the greater society and to adhere when in public to that all-important concept of “discretion.”
There were exceptions however. Gay men could reveal themselves if it was in the service of entertainment and harmless amusement. But only if their comedy was derived from self-mockery, that wittily amused straight society with highly sophisticated forms of satire. This tradition could use farce and tropes of identity confusion and reverse gender roles as in Oscar Wilde; lacerating and urbane musical lyrics as in a Cole Porter that made fun of mores and views about vice; and in the late fifties and through the early sixties, the “closeted” word-play and witty dissemblance of Frank O’Hara.
In theater and film, the Nance had long become a common stock character—an overly effeminate man who drew laughs by his foppish antics and his ambiguous sexuality. These theatrical characters were for all purposes “eunuchs”; sissies and pansies, who had to appear harmless and non-threatening to the masculine lead. They could not in any way overtly show their invertedness, but rather had to act as one-dimensional foils—butlers, servants, groomsmen; minor characters that signaled to the audience in their prancing and preening gestures, that they were failed subjects in the end, meriting their ridicule and belly laughs, affirming the righteous status quo. The film world was filled with pathetic, ineffectual, confirmed “bachelors;” or lesbian “old maids,” “femme fatales,” and “evil, predatory women.”
Field accepted a credo of total honesty, perhaps by his long experience in self-analysis, and its focus on self-examination and cognitive modification to “think outside the box,” to gain a neutral, non-judgmental awareness, that permitted the release of patterned neuroses, adolescent assumptions and imprinting or, most of all, arrested development. Despite his long tenure “on the couch,” in the end, Field rejected Freud and his belief that homosexual behavior was a matter of arrested development. For Field, homosexuality was a natural biological condition, no more deviant and abnormal than heterosexuality. What was abnormal was society itself and its bizarre beliefs, archetypes of normalcy, and conformity.
But Field became increasingly inclined to accept the humor of his situation. To speak truth to power, common sense to wild falsehoods and assumptions, and maintain his “authenticity” at all times as the first-person speaker of his poems; stating simply the obvious and through his highly effective comedic style, he excoriates and lacerates human behavior by exposing its hypocrisy and shared human folly.
It is my contention, that Field became a masterful practitioner of camp. A writer naturally inclined to being “teasingly disingenuous” and winking “knowingly” at the silliness in pretending. Every one of his poems contains an element of the unreliable narrator, or the “Wizard-of-Oz moment” I will call it, when the curtain is drawn back and we see the artifice, the deceit, behind this illusory power that is culture and propriety. By his simplistic narrative, he is both send-up and punchline to the joke; an everyman who sheds all inhibitions and received ideas, all dogma and guilt, and leads us like the narrator in a fairy tale through the fantasy and make-believe of both a threatening and yet ultimately silly world. He is David to a heterosexual Goliath. Man and man-child. And most of all Dr. Frankenstein, townspeople, freakish monster, all rolled into one.
Camp has been defined in many ways. Its earliest appearance in 1909’s Oxford English Dictionary termed it as: “ostentatious, exaggerated, affected, theatrical; effeminate or homosexual; pertaining to, characteristic of, homosexuals. So as a noun, 'camp' behavior, mannerisms, et cetera. (cf. quot. 1909); a man exhibiting such behavior.”
In her essay “Notes on Camp” (1964) Susan Sonntag emphasized its key elements as: artifice, frivolity, naïve middle-class pretentiousness, and 'shocking' excess. Whatever its official definition, its presence in homosexual and queer culture is self-evident. And “authenticity,” be it in gender behavior, sexual performance, looks, dress, mannerism, moral authority or social power, seemed its target.
One definition of “authenticity” presented by Diane Motti in her “Ways of Living an Authentic Life” is:
Being authentic means coming from a real place within. It is when our actions and words are congruent with our beliefs and values. It is being ourselves, not an imitation of what we think we should be or have been told we should be.” Marginalized cultures within a dominant culture often feel a sense of inauthenticity as they see their lives neglected and underrepresented in the mainstream. Their “difference” or “otherness” often leads to exaggerated and incongruous stereotyping and misperception. Such disparity and sharp differences in belief systems can lead to derision, fearful bullying, and a tendency toward dehumanizing thinking. It also can lead to caustic humor both ethnic humor and broad mainstream parody and satire.
So it is no surprise that Field would be drawn to camp, satire, and parody as ways of defending his authenticity as ethnic Jew and homosexual against the marginalizing forces of mainstream American culture in the 1950s. Field would have been certainly exposed and familiar with the Jewish comedians of the Yiddish Theater, the Borscht Belt, and the vaudeville circuit. Stand-up comedians were standard fare at the large number of Jewish resorts that were springing up all over New York State’s Sullivan, Orange, and Ulster counties during the fifties and early sixties. Jewish humor poked fun at the immigrant experience and the frustrations of Jewish-American life. The website “My Jewish Learning: American Jewish Humor 101” points out that:
. . . Jewish humor, for instance, laughs at authority and blurs
boundaries, such as those between sacred and secular or Jew and non-Jew. It also displays
a fascination with language and (often twisted) reasoning. And not surprisingly, Jewish
humor often played the role of coping mechanism. With the anti-Semitism, poverty, and uncertainties Jews face throughout so much of their history, there often seemed little to do
Wikipedia likewise reports:
Jewish humor, while diverse, favors wordplay, irony, and satire, and its themes are highly anti-authoritarian, mocking religious and secular life alike. Sigmund Freud considered Jewish humor unique in that its humor is primarily derived from mocking of the in-group (Jews) rather than the "other".
Jewish comics typically presented jokes with common themes including their: “experience of living between two-worlds (ethnic and mainstream)” and “anxiety of living as a minority in American and the foibles of American culture.” Further we read on the site that Jewish comedy “often featured ridicule and insult jokes, including insulting other minority groups.”
Of the many early Jewish comedians such as Fanny Brice, Molly Picon, Sophie Tucker, Judy Holliday, Henny Youngman, Danny Kay, Milton Berle, Lenny Bruce, George Burns, Sid Caesar, Totie Fields, Buddy Hackett, Phil Silvers, we discover they all had similar characteristics: “wit, verbal skills, self-mockery, and a ‘critical edge.’”
Field appropriates freely from Jewish minority humor and gay camp humor. In both cases it is his wit that winningly disarms gays, Jews and straights to see the great humor, artifice, and superficiality in American society. He also states several universal adages about comedy that he has observed:
The world is a funny place and your existence within it even funnier. Often all you have to do to be funny is document it and tell someone, no matter the stage you are on.
Style is personality and personality should not be copied. Jerry Seinfeld says, “The whole objective of comedy is to be yourself. The closer you get to that, the funnier you’ll be”. This cannot happen by studying someone else’s personality and trying to merge it your own.
Stand-up comedians often advise to favor “observational humor” which can be “more paradoxical, possibly tipping into irony,” which is more powerful than simple observation. Often these comics of wit rely on “double-entendre,” “incongruity,” and “reversal.” At any rate a strong element of honesty is vital to the comedian, finding in the simply obvious and the closely observed the absurd, the ironic, the poignantly funny.
In line with this discussion on humor and honesty, I share a comment of Christopher Bram about Field’s poetry from his Foreword in Christopher Hennessey’s 2013 book Our Deep Gossip: Conversations with Gay Writers on Poetry and Desire. Bram observes that “[Field’s] poetry is about ‘telling the truth,’ an emotional truth that he conveys in a beguiling plainspokenness, . . .” And later, in conversation with Hennessey, Field says:
I don’t want to dismiss the poetry of artifice, which I admire—Dunstan Thompson will always be one of my favorite poets who combined artifice and disclosure—but when our world is ruled by liars, we have to stand up for truth and speak the truth. Even if no one is listening. You still do it for yourself. It’s like a cleansing. That’s what poetry is about. And of course you hope it will catch on.
This speaking the truth, an “emotional truth,” to humorous effect is quite evident from the start, even in Field’s first book,1963’s Stand Up, Friend With Me. But like Dunstan Thompson, Field coyly combines artifice and disclosure, and displays an affinity to the camp tradition. Early on, he uses his inventive, comic imagination; one that employs the quick wit and repartee of the gay and Jewish vernacular, filling it with irony, double-entendre and that “knowing” smirk that pokes fun at a world of mixed messages, absurd deception and hypocrisy.
“The Charmed Pool” is just such an example of this artifice which both conceals and self-discloses the truth, playing with irony and mixed message. A fairy tale, Field invites the reader to view the archetypical myths of heterosexual love from a queer perspective. It begins:
At the charmed pool swarming with lower forms of life,
The flying, the crawling, the swimming, and the stationary,
Prince Charming looked around and wondered
Which of these creatures was the Princess
Who, the story said, was victim of a witch’s curse
And waited for his kiss to reappear.
He was willing to try this kissing game
Even if a snake or a stone wasn’t his idea of a good time.
To begin he chose a green frog with a gummy eye
And waded after it into the water feeling ridiculous
But with a sense of fulfilling prophecy.
Oh prince, prince, will you never grow up?
He caught the amphibian in his hand
And planted a kiss where he guessed its mouth was
And Prince Foolish, still pimpled from self-abuse,
Swooning with the same old admiration,
Was in his arms. He dropped him flat.
This magic can be an odd occupation.
Scorned or derided, seen as a pathetic absurdity that easily can provoke humor if not disgust, homosexuality in other societies was considered experimentation in the young, a stage of sexual development which one most assuredly and necessarily must outgrow. To remain homosexual was to remain immature, childish, arrested in development. In a famous 1935 letter from Sigmund Freud on the subject he says: “we consider it [homosexuality] to be a variation of the sexual function, produced by a certain arrest of sexual development.” From the abstract of an article by de Kuyper, “The Freudian Construction of Sexuality: The Gay Foundations of Heterosexuality and Straight Homophobia,” in the Journal of Homosexuality, we read:
His [Freud’s] theory of the oedipal complex, however, held that the heterosexual outcome was the "normal" resolution, while the homosexual outcome represented arrested sexual development. In the normal resolution the boy identifies as a male with the father, gives up the mother as a love object, and later substitutes another woman of his choice for the mother.
Field as we know, was well aware that Freud thought homosexuality was the result of arrested development and a failure to achieve mature love. “Oh prince, prince, will you never grow up?” speaks volumes in the context of this poem. The Prince feels ridiculous but compelled to try “this kissing game” in which might be suggested the long-held belief that finding the right woman to love can convert a man from gay to straight. Many gay men were encouraged to visit female prostitutes or forced to date women in the hope that the experience of heterosexual pleasure would summon forth their normalcy and “cure” them of the deviancy of same-sex attraction. As long as men had all the physical attributes of normal male anatomy, then homosexuality was seen as possibly caused by inexperience. Gay men had a choice in their lifestyle rather than an inherent biological predisposition. So perhaps Field is reflecting on the absurdity of his quest to find the “Princess,” the chimera of true heterosexual passion somehow hidden deep inside—to his mind—these less desirable “creatures,” the “snakes” and “stones,” i.e. women, that do not constitute “his idea of a good time.” The dilemma here being that Prince Charming must force himself to kiss someone who is unappealing to them in the first place, in order to fulfill some promised “prophecy” of conversion or transformation to healthy heterosexuality.
The poem however may offer a different interpretation, one that can be read from a purely gay, camp perspective. “Prince Charming” may be that handsome gay youth foraying into the strange underworld of gay life for the first time. What he encounters is a world “swarming with lower forms of life.” The queer array of creatures Field describes may be nothing short of the “queer” assortment of men he finds lurking about. At first glance, he feels out of place, ridiculous, but driven by his libidinous “prophecy” to act on his homosexual impulses, he will accept any queer man to initiate him sexually, knowing that that first kiss will be transformative regardless of that “creatures” desirability. Inside him, there is the hope of finding a true love, his “Princess,” but he knows more than likely he will not be so lucky. Society has already warned him that his quest is fraught with peril, loneliness, and a solitary life. He also knows that the likelihood of monogamous relations and the norms of straight love are nil in the hostile, clandestine, homosexual world. He randomly chooses “a green frog with a gummy eye” to kiss.
“Prince Charming” has been told by society that these homosexuals that he encounters are victims of a “witch’s curse”—Field may here be thinking again of Freud, or of accepted 1950s and1960s psychology, that posited that gay men are products of overbearing mothers and absent fathers; captives under a cursed spell of deviancy, smothered by the obsessively protective love of mothers who have turned them into “momma’s boys.” The role reversal in seeing a man as pretty and desirable prey instead of seeing the female as target for aggressive mating, goes against the traditional binaries of the male as brute “beast”, and the female as exotic, fragile, passive “beauty,” to be captured. The goal of the gay man to find true love, to obtain a “real man”, a “straight man,” who could satisfy their sexual fantasies was an illusion and an act of onanism, antithetical to procreative nature.
No doubt concealment and transformation are here relevant themes for Field. “Prince Charming” hopes his kiss will help him find a true love, one who can provide him with happiness and sexual fulfilment; that this true love will magically appear in the midst of these “lower forms of life, these foul, base creatures—miscreant, corrupt, debased, debauched, degenerate, depraved, dissolute, perverted, and so on and so on.
But funny enough, the frog the Prince has chosen to pursue and “planted a kiss where he guessed its mouth was,” becomes simply a “Prince Foolish.” In the end, he is just another “still pimpled from self-abuse,” “swooning” overly-admirative and desperate character. Prince Charming drops “him flat” in revulsion and comments: “This magic can be an odd occupation.”
It is amusing here to note that gay slang for an ugly man, one who’s no longer sexually desirable by virtue of perhaps his age or his body type, is called a “toad.” And quite provocatively, we are told the Prince Charming plants his kisses “where he guessed its mouth was.” This confusion might be seen as a comic allusion to the inverted erogenous zones of the gay male, where there is a supposed “mix-up” between the anal and the oral, where intercourse occurs in both and oral stimulation is both at the mouth and the anus. Here, a novice Prince Charming, must guess where his point of entry and stimulation will be for the homosexual. Of course this guess is a humorous, satirical, wink toward the reader.
The frog, now Prince Foolish, turns out to be a stereotype of heterosexual society’s judgmental and negative suspicions about male homosexual. The use of “pimpled from self-abuse” describes this toad, in line with straight and Christian views, as a “sex-fiend,” who as the old wive’s tale says, develops pimples from too much “masturbation” a common belief of 19th and 20th century Christians and medical doctors. Homosexuality and masturbation were both sinful and immoral.
“Swooning” is quite an effeminate term for Field to use. And “dropped him flat” is merely a suggestion of Prince Charming’s repulsion. Field continues the poem:
He set about kissing all the creatures
Like the game of knock-knock-who’s-there:
A dragonfly turned into Jack the Jew-Killer,
A mushroom into Miss Venom of the grammar school,
And soon there were lots of unpleasant people sitting around.
That witch had excellent taste in whom to banish.
Finally from a stone he got a princess,
Not his Princess to be sure, but the orphan princess,
With a calculated tear running down her nose
And crossed eyes that said, “Pity me.”
He had, until he found her in the scullery with his uncle,
Praying at the head and sinning at the tail.
This had gone far enough; the Princess obviously wasn’t there.
He took off his Prince costume
Revealing a quite attractive but ordinary young man
Who no longer knew what to do or where to go.
According to the story he found his princess at last
But, reader, do you really think he did?
. When the Prince has had enough of this hopeless pursuit, which more often than not has turned up many deceptive and disingenuous lovers, duds and manipulative schemers, one-night stands, etc., he removes his costume, his disguise. And of course the use of a disguise all along plays into the trope of the homosexual as one who wears a mask, hides his orientation, remains “in the closet.”
The Prince discovers himself to be “a quite attractive but ordinary young man.” And, it is as though Field himself by becoming more honest, by “coming-out,” and finally accepting himself as gay, sees the folly in his futile quest. “This had gone far enough; the Princess obviously wasn’t there,” he pronounces. There is no woman that could change his essential homosexuality. It was ridiculous to have pursued this in the first place. And, the search for a correlative to the heterosexual paradigm of love and matrimony with a Prince Charming coming along and transforming another gay man into a wholesome, acceptable, object of love, acceptable by mainstream society, was just not possible in the 1950s and 1960s.
This fairy tale also falls in line with the coming out myth that many men of that early generation and my generation as well experienced. It was a fearful and anxious process to remove one’s straight persona and enter a gay bar for the first time. One assumed they would instantly be propositioned and asked for sex the minute they crossed the threshold. One thought by virtue of their youth, that their desirability was assured and were certain to be picked up once they accepted themselves as queer. For so many, however, this does not magically happen instantaneously. You’re not picked right away. That tremendous anxiety surrounding becoming visible for the first time and its many psychological connotations, often compels one to assume that their newly proclaimed sexuality is written boldly across them for all to see; and, that it magically transforms them in one fell swoop, and entitles them to a long suppressed and denied love. One does not know where to go or what to do; whether to move to the City where gay life often flourishes along with anonymity; to follow a life of furtive cruising in small-town parks and hidden spaces; to carry on double-lives; marry a woman yet dilly-dally on the side; or fully identify as gay and embrace its culture. Codes must be learned. Customs copied. The location of the gay bars and neighborhoods in various cities noted.
The ambiguity of the poem’s lines: “According to the story he found his princess at last/
But, reader, do you really think he did?” is a knowing inquiry and invitation to the queer reader as well as an ironic take-down of straight-society. Is Field here merely reinforcing the truthful conclusion, that, of course, the homosexual cannot be converted into a heterosexual. That straight society would choose to think that the gay man found true happiness in the arms of a woman.
It is then that Field gives us this remarkable stanza:
This charming Prince who thought life had a happy ending,
I don’t like to leave him like that naked by the pool,
The legend on the ground like a heap of worn-out clothing.
But if I said anything definite it would just be made up.
When a man tries the charmed pool and fails
What can he do if he doesn’t die of it?
A man who comes out may be unable to immediately attract his fantasy man, the physical type one yearns for or finds so powerfully attractive. Instead, he may discover that his own physical desirability is necessary, if he is to attract others. And sometimes one settles for “less,” as a result, on the first try. Interestingly Field writes “When a man tries the charmed pool and fails/What can he do if he doesn’t die of it?” “Die of it” might possibly allude to the petite morte, an old French term for sexual orgasm; literally “the little death” in English, which refers to a once-held belief that after climax, a little bit of one’s life has been drained away, used up, relinquished. The charmed pool suggests as well metaphorically a gay bathhouse, a steam room, where gay cruising and assignations frequently occurred in the 1950s and 60’s.
However, if one is unsuccessful at having sex with another man, at consummating a desire that one has suppressed for years, doesn’t this disappointment lead often to despair and dejection. Homosexual loneliness was often seen as leading to suicide in the past (and even today.) In popular culture of the 1940s and 1950s, homosexuals often died in the end, a common plot line and ending, which conformed to prevailing morality, that such depravity must be met by retribution and harsh punishment if it is to be contained and rid of.
Is he wandering about the forest waiting to be found?
By whom? For what? He’ll be a heap of bones by then.
Did he find the road back to where he came from?
And learn like us to live from day to day
Eating what’s to eat and making love with what’s available?
And did he ever fall in love again?
In this last stanza, these dramatic questions seem to echo the imagined inner thoughts of the lonely and clichéd homosexual characters displayed in films and pulp fiction, and also mimics some of the larger than life pronouncements of screen heroines and tragic women, with whom gay men have long identified. And the last two lines share some of the double-entendre and campy gay-speak with its sexual innuendo of “Eating what’s to eat” and its teasingly funny final line that, a question that has all the drama of a cliff-hanger narrative ending, the final lines of an old-time radio show, or the cloying purple prose of a straight woman’s bodice-ripper romance.
Variety Photoplays from 1967 uses that American mainstay of popular culture, the movies. Movies for years captured the imagination of American society and projected the narratives of affluence, gender, race, and morality that both reflected and defined its conventionality. One of Field’s most remarkable and central achievements in this collection is the poem “Frankenstein.” Here he finds a powerful allegory for the homosexual experience and his or hers persecution by society for being different and abnormal. This brilliant figurative act of queer subversion and appropriation show’s Field’s genius. Whether intentionally or not, Field pioneered what later became the praxis of queer theorists. This ability for highly symbolic thinking becomes an integral part of Field’s poetry throughout his long career.
True, we have previously discussed Field’s “The Charmed Pool” and its reimagining of a fairy tale to subvert and “campify” a prevailing archetype in children’s literature. But “Frankenstein,” the film, is a classic of American popular culture and entertainment. It is a “text” that is well-known to young and old.
If camp works by exposing societal “codes” of normalcy and further revealing the mechanisms of concealment between “the authentic” versus “the inauthentic”—remember my “Wizard of Oz moment”—then Field unquestionably has employed camp to subvert a deeply popular story of “Otherness” and “the preternatural.” This story seemed ready-made for appropriation, but it took Field to make the connection, provoking debate, moral disquiet and perhaps empathy in his reader.
In this way Field signals to heterosexual society the true complexity of gay identity: its misinterpreted motives, its false demonization, its relentless harassment over an assumed choice in forming identity, and finally, the state-sanctioned oppression with violence and disgust that surrounds it.
It thus comes as no surprise that in Our Deep Gossip, Hennessey raises the subject of popular culture and deferentially says:
Of course, the best example of your use of popular culture is your beloved book Variety Photoplays [1967, based in part on movie plots and pop culture]. When you wrote that, was that seen as something new, that you were bringing to poetry?
And Field replies: “Yes. It was outrageous” and later “There had been appreciations of the movies, but I guess my just enumerating the plots was quite new.” Hennessey asks Field to explicate his poem and Field says:
Frankenstein is the underdog. Not the monster. The villagers pursuing him are the monster. In that way, it’s a metaphor for being gay. And I do put a “gay” scene in the poem, with Frankenstein and the blind man. Frankenstein is actually an equivalent of how a gay person feels growing up.
To Field, Frank O’Hara, and later David Trinidad, the Hollywood movies and movie-going were America’s favorite pastime. Though Field and O’Hara were born in 1924 and 1926 respectively, and Trinidad in 1953, all three were much under the influence of the popular art form. Gay men in particular were drawn to the larger-than-life narratives of the female screen-stars of Hollywood in the Golden Age, women whom they both followed and emulated. These star-powered divas could recklessly reveal their passions in “close-up;” act-out their madness; whisper in prayer their hopes; or passionately and wildly declare their love—to get, to hold, and sacrifice for “their man.”
Creatures of artifice and illusion, oppressed, scorned, rejected; yet, loved, bejeweled, and adored for their melodramatic personas, gay men could identify with their suffering both on and off the screen. They sympathized with the actresses’ necessity for secretive lives, lives of outward illusion and inner turmoil. Their tawdry shame and tragic failures, their serial marriages and sensationalized divorces, their manipulation and exploitation in the hands of the public and the press, all reinforced their illusory identities. Forced to appear as sweet, benign housewives, “authentic” everyday women, flipping pancakes, doting on husbands; or, oppositely, exposed as ruined has-beens, alcoholics descending into hells of Hollywood depravity and anonymity; they were castigated for being deceivers, fakes, liars, in the end. Targets of scorn, their punishment was either real or symbolic suicide. Their unhappiness became fodder for the gossip columnists, whom portrayed them as “monsters” who led double lives. Glamorous icons of make-believe, brash and vitriolic power-women, smart, witty and capable to pull the trigger; they had to hide their real insecurities, depression, and failures at intimacy.
Frank O’Hara, in a few poems, cites these female icons in both teasing and worshipful ways. In his “Poem [‘Lana Turner Has Collapsed!’]”, he reports having suddenly read of the star’s physical and mental collapse and announces his concern for Turner’s personal break-down. The actress, mind you, enjoys all the privileges and luxuries of a pampered Hollywood life, including its perpetually sunny weather; but, in her personal-life, Turner has scandalously been felled by the pressures of daily living, an authentically weaker and messier reality incompatible with her inauthentic cinematic one that has been publicly shown.
Here, O’Hara, the gay man, blithely struggles against the mundane and unglamorous adversities of his sunless, rainy day-to-day, and fights to create for himself an “authentic” gay life despite the straight “inauthentic” one he is forced to assume in public. O’Hara’s partial-concealment of his homosexuality, affords him no such extravagance for a full emotional collapse or “breakdown,” which will be seen by thousands of adoring fans. He must deal with his own rejection, crises of identity, and thwarted love, every day, alone and covertly, without a sympathetic society; only a small coterie of friends. Nonetheless, O’Hara offers his sympathy to the star and admits toward the end of the poem: “I have been to lots of parties/ and acted perfectly disgraceful/ but I never actually collapsed/ oh Lana Turner we love you get up.”
In this tone of clever repartee, his quick and overly cajoling last line, reveals that he, too, has “acted perfectly disgraceful” in public with friends and out in society, as well. He has also "let down his hair” and pushed the limits of acceptable behavior, displaying perhaps too visibly and honestly his true messy homosexual self. But still he bonds with Turner, understanding their shared prohibition agains showing too much of the “real” for society’s true comfort-level. Yet, unlike Turner, O’Hara can never give in to his existential despair, his despondency, his rejection in being homosexual. Again, unlike Turner, it is costly for a gay man in society to indulge in such dramatics. Instead he is forced to bury his feelings and desires behind a superficial, comic guise of effetism, armed with wit.
O’Hara offers to Lana a sly and breezy rebuke and glib command: “we love you get up.” This advice echoes that of sad, gay queens from time immemorial. It is a pat reply but a necessary one; its message clear: “self-pity” and “feeling unloved” are givens in the homosexual life. Emotional tumult, rejection and defeat, are common, daily realities. Gays must hide their feelings even as they suffer. So yes “we love you” is the curt reply spoken from one gay man to another for it anticipates that implied and unspoken question: namely, “am I truly loved?” And if erotic and authentic love are not attainable in an unjust society, at least one can expect friendly sympathy from others of the same ilk.
Sometimes that is all one has to go on for their entire lives. Platonic and unrequited friendships must suffice. “We can still be friends” is the straight man’s common answer to the gay one.
“Get up” which closes the poem is a funny yet abrupt retort of tough-love, mimicking the very toughness of Hollywood as well as the brash behavior of these screen-sirens. Short, clipped, loud, and empowering, it is the voice of a Bette Davis or a Joan Crawford. “Take it like a man” or “get on with your life” because this is how it is and shall always be, so make the most of it. It is the bitter, defiant, yet campy mimicry of the gay queen who cannot show self-pity and self-negation, but must fetishize these at the same time.
In Field’s poem “For Joan Crawford” Field continues his camp initiative and queer poetic praxis. Crawford’s road to stardom and mythic creation-story of coming from “nothing” and ending with “everything”—both fame and triumphant vindication—is the camp basis for this poem. Field re-tells Crawford’s real-life story in the fictional disguise of a boiler-plate Hollywood screen-play. Though the details and facts of Crawford, the actress and star, have been changed, Field’s narrative transposes Joan’s acting career success to the rise of a country bumpkin by exploiting her beauty and sexual attraction to become a wealthy socialite at the pinnacle of status.
Again this poem presents an allegory, an illusory tale of identity-creation, one with all the silliness and clichéd devices of Hollywood cinema, but in it is a strong element of truth. This hokey inauthentic melodrama conceals through its artifice the authentic reality of Joan Crawford’s life. The star did sleep her way to the top and needed to charm and manipulate men to gain power. Crawford did learn and study the art of sophistication and the mannerisms of the elite. She did start out in impoverished and hardscrabble circumstances, clawing her way to success.
Field ingeniously shows the necessary artifice that gay men and queers are compelled to create and employ. The complicated and evasive lives they must lead to hide their sexual indiscretions and amoral behavior—pregnancy out of wedlock; the trading of sexual favors to gain wealth and status; assertiveness, promiscuity, and the unwholesome drive of her less-feminine impulses—find truth in this satire.
It also points at the elaborate fictions Hollywood, and indeed all of American society, must fabricate and tell themselves to get ahead in this land of opportunity, self-invention, social mobility.
The absurdity of the Hollywood creation-story is spoofed from the very opening of the poem, with its homespun corniness and shaky and contradictory plot points:
She was a working girl from a small town
but the town wasn’t so small
that it didn’t have a railroad track
dividing the right side from the wrong side.
On the right side was the Hill,
where the swells lived in big houses,
and on the wrong side, the Hollow, where
spent their greasy and unrewarding lives.
(For in those days the American town
was a living demonstration of Marxist
Joan of course lived in the Hollow
in one of those shacks with sagging porches
the mill put up rows of for the workers.
The employ of political theory and Marxist terminology here is a funny violation of the poem’s American nativist narrative. It is a clever allusion to McCarthyism, which saw behind every nook and cranny of Hollywood the Jewish liberal communist menace. Field, once again, becomes the omniscient and unreliable narrator in a poem, a role he plays in nearly all of his poetry.
This narrative device perhaps harkens to his adolescence in the thirties and forties when radio was king, and radio programming, by necessity, employed a narrator or spokesperson to describe and clarify what visibly was invisible. The convention of a strongly spoken narrative framing, perhaps borrowed from radio, possibly found its way into Field’s imagination. At any rate, his unreliability and heavily ironic and disingenuous cleverness as narrator helps augment the camp aspects of his stories. Later, after numerous twists and turns: an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, the baby dying; the lechery of a wealthy city boss turned benefactor; the clerical jobs and crash-course in social acceptability—how to dress, how to drink martinis, how to make small-talk—Joan of the Hollow finds a way to win the Hill’s wealthy son and family heir. Field writes in the end:
Joan had a lot to think about in the days that followed.
One day she got a call to come up right away to the big house
and, arriving, found John’s wife dying,
having given birth to a child, and asking for her.
The pale bride lay holding her child, the Wainrich heir,
but seeing Joan, she sat up with her last strength and said,
“I give him to you” and fell back dead.
Joan fainted away, and when she came to,
it seemed a long time later, after the funeral and the mourning,
John Wainrich held her in his arms and was saying over and over,
“I am yours now, she gave me to you.”
“But she meant the child,” Joan cried.
“Both of us are yours, my darling.”
So Joan found her place in life at last.
They always said she’d make it up there, surrounded by the help,
a lady, moving gracefully among the guests.
And what a difference now:
the miners in tuxes standing around the punch bowl with the swells,
the colored butler joining in the fun with loud yaks,
a new era, the classless society,
brought about by the smartest little woman in the U.S.A.,
Ladies and Gentlemen: Miss Joan Crawford.
The poem’s closing stanza is typical Hollywood with all of Hollywood’s silliness, contrived resolutions of plot points and swift denouement. The ending is a happy one. Laughing and bonhomie abound between “miners” and “swells” and everyone enjoys “a new era, the classless society, . . .” Would this only be true for a capitalist America and its heavily economic class divisions; a country that ignores the “little man” and worships the big bosses, the big Wall Street tycoons, the captains of industry. The poem humorously enough lays credit for this closing tableau of fidelity and mutual cheer to Crawford herself. We shift abruptly from final scene to opening night of the film, with the formal introductory fanfare of an emcee who praises Joan as “the smartest little woman in the U.S.A.” Here “smartest” is an amusing choice of superlatives as Crawford was known more as “the sexiest woman” or the rebellious “bad girl.” And, Crawford was not “little.” Hardly “meek” or “diminutive,” seemed both on screen and off “larger than life,” “a giant of ego and personality.”
This diva worship of strong female stars is manifest in other Field works. In his 1978 collection, Stars in My Eyes, his poem “Mae West” pays homage to the bombshell blonde actress. Field is in awe of West’s “authenticity” and her way of claiming sexual pleasure unabashedly, audaciously, and fearless her reception. Her bold confidence, her lack of social discretion and decorum, and her humorous double-entendres, Field finds are to be admired.
She [Mae West] enjoys her admirers, fat daddy or
and doesn’t confuse vanity and sex
though she never turns down pleasure,
lapping it up.
Above all she enjoys her self,
swinging her body that says, Me, me, me,
And Field concludes in the last two stanzas:
Most convincing, we know all this
not by her preaching
but by her presence—it’s no act.
Every word and look and movement
she likes being herself.
And we who don’t
can only look on, astonished.
The plural pronoun, “we” used here seems to include all of Field’s gay readers, and supports this collective rebuke to gay internalized homophobia. While West “likes being herself” sexually, gay men so often hide their desires and thereby forfeit true independence and pleasure. Field sees that West is a fellow traveler, both fellow sexual outlaw and “deviant,” who has chosen to violate male-female love conventions. Her exaggerative style: her highly feminine dress; her dramatic seductive tone of voice; witty repartee that mocks at and makes fun of the pretense and artifice in traditional courtship and love-making; all employ camp, and lends itself to a queer and feminist interpretation. Her subversion of power roles by assuming sexual parity with men, is indeed quite revolutionary.
Field gives a similar “reading” in Counting Myself Lucky: Poems 1963 – 1992 to the famous, illusive film star Greta Garbo. In “Garbo” he comments:
If blinking is a kind of flinching,
she never flinches.
She doesn’t adopt any facial expression—
it’s her feelings she shows
or none at all. Nor does she put on
mannerisms like we do, meaning
we’re desperate for attention.
If she says she wants to be alone
she’s the only one we believe it of.
And then in an ironic tone of voice, Field ends his poem with:
Can’t we make the same commitment,
risk shedding evasions, devices, defenses
—in short, our faces—
and look unblinking at each other,
to what in our hearts we long for,
whatever the cost, wherever it leads?
Or does she affirm that for mere mortals
the price is too great,
though for herself
she could not, would not, choose another
This sociological and psychological call to arms, which so often finds voice in Field’s poetry, certainly was reflective of his psychoanalytic experiences and his commitment to analysis and self-inquiry. Field often employs both apostrophe and rhetorical questioning in his writing. An apostrophe, as M. H. Abrams defines it is: “a direct and explicit address either to an absent person or to an abstract or nonhuman entity,” whereas a rhetorical question: “is a sentence in the grammatical form of a question which is not asked in order to request information or to invite a reply, but to achieve an expressive force different from, and usually more effective than, a direct assertion.”
In this way, Field establishes an intimacy, honesty and candor with his readers. This candor was in line with the changing cross-currents in American poetry of the 1950s. The pervasive influences of Eliot, Auden, and Frost continued at the beginning of the decade. Pound and Williams were also important. But it was Allen Ginsberg, the gay, Jewish, poet from New Jersey, who had the greatest impact. His revival of romanticism and Whitmanesque expansiveness presented a voice that was alternately funny and frank. Ginsberg’s long poem “Howl” of 1956 was as Michael Davidson describes: “Ginsberg’s protest against institutional mind-control and McCarthy-era paranoia.” Davidson says of Ginsberg new “demotic, populist poetics” that it helped jettison the “carefully nuanced ironies of the period.” Ginsberg’s uncensored, graphic verse which extolled the pleasures and joys of homosexual sex among other taboo subjects had a liberating effect on marginalized poets. His claim as well to his Jewish identity and his frank description of the mental illness of his mother and their volatile and incestuous relationship ran counter to mainstream poetry. The Beat movement and its counter-cultural exploration also ran in tandem with “Confessionalism.”
“Confessionalism” which spanned the 1950s and early 1960s included such poets as Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, W.D. Snodgrass and John Berryman. M.L. Rosenthal who coined the term saw Confessionalism “as a general permission felt by most poets of the period to treat personal experience, even in the most intimate and painful aspects.” The Academy of American Poets writes:
The confessional poetry of the mid-twentieth century dealt with subject matter that previously had not been openly discussed in American poetry. Private experiences with and feelings about death, trauma, depression and relationships were addressed in this type of poetry, often in an autobiographical manner. Sexton in particular was interested in the psychological aspect of poetry, having started writing at the suggestion of her therapist.
And Wikipedia has commented:
Confessional poetry or "Confessionalism" is a style of poetry that emerged in the United States during the 1950s. It has been described as poetry of the personal or "I", focusing on extreme moments of individual experience, the psyche, and personal trauma, including previously and occasionally still taboo matters such as mental illness, sexuality, and suicide, often set in relation to broader social themes. It is sometimes also classified as Postmodernism.
All these sources cite Robert Lowell’s Life Studies of 1959 as the originary text for this style and Lowell as it first practitioner. Again in Wikipedia we read:
In 1959 M. L. Rosenthal first used the term "confessional" in a review of Robert Lowell's Life Studies entitled "Poetry as Confession.” Rosenthal differentiated the confessional approach from other modes of lyric poetry by way of its use of confidences that (Rosenthal said) went "beyond customary bounds of reticence or personal embarrassment". Rosenthal notes that in earlier tendencies towards the confessional there was typically a "mask" that hid the poet's "actual face", and states that "Lowell removes the mask. His speaker is unequivocally himself, and it is hard not to think of Life Studies [sic.] as a series of personal confidences, rather shameful, that one is honor-bound not to reveal".
If Lowell as well as Plath, Sexton, Snodgrass and Berryman were all heterosexual White and non-Jewish, Field perhaps found himself excluded and less-involved in their world of wasp anxiety, neuroses, and conventional White, Christian-bound culture. But on the other hand, Field would have identified with their interest in autobiographical poetry and their deep exposure to psychiatric treatment.
But, as he admits, it is to Ginsberg, the Jewish, Beat, gay bard, that he owes his thanks for breaking open American mainstream poetry which Field saw as heavily “Anglo-Saxon.” As Field says in Hennessey:
When I started writing poetry in the postwar decades, you couldn’t be a Jew or queer. . .It was a very reactionary time, culminating in the persecution of gays and communists. But I never could accept any of that, and even though my poems of that time now seem modest, they were quite daring then—it was only after the Beats loosened things up that I could get my first book published. But then, after Stonewall, it was an explosion of gay voices and, of course, I too was liberated to go all the way.”
And later replying to a question about how had American poetry changed:
How has poetry changed? It’s not just that gay writers [can now be part of the mainstream]. Gay was underground, but so was Jewish. You really couldn’t be Jewish in poetry. It was an Anglo-Saxon profession, if you can call it that. Really a hobby. It wasn’t a career. Some poets had teaching jobs, but it wasn’t like today when most of them do.
And Field continues:
Allen Ginsberg, of course, did a wonderful thing by exploding the poetry world. . .. And [Ginsberg is] saying wonderful, shocking things. Politically he was marvelous. He was really the leading political poet in modern times. …when I started writing, the more revisions you made on a poem, the better it was. . .. But Allen Ginsberg said ‘First thought, best thought.’
Field explores this “underground” Jewishness in “Being Jewish” from 1973’s A Full Heart. Raised in ethnic Brooklyn, Field, sought to write honestly about his immigrant family roots. In this respect he’s like Ginsberg. Interestingly, both Jewish gay poets wrote predominantly about their mothers and the extraordinary plight of Jewish immigrant working-class women trying to integrate their traditional pasts with their newer lives in America; lives where strict social and cultural codes of one ethnic community were no longer isolated and subject to assimilation.
We have seen how gay men of the American fifties found in women the shared experience of societal sexual repression. The strictures of social and moral conformity in the fifties with its enforced emphasis on procreative sex, obligated women to accept childbirth and childrearing as their primary function. Work roles for women were also proscribed. Women were expected to be homemakers, secretaries, maids, nurses, garment workers, etc.; or stuck in other low-level jobs in which gender-pay discrimination dominated. So too, homosexual men, especially if effeminate in manner, were relegated to more feminine and artistic jobs. Jobs such as interior decorator, hair stylist, fashion designer, or theatrical performer, were common stereotypical gay professions. Both gay men and women were asked to monitor and self-censor their behaviors, and to support and subscribe to a rigid paradigm of masculinity and compulsory heterosexuality.” Ginsberg’s elegy Kaddish was a graphic and realistic depiction of his mother Naomi and her difficult life. Ginsberg touches upon her mental illness, along with the conservative cultural and political milieu, and social conformity, she was subjected to. He shows how the lives of women, especially in the fifties, were hard to negotiate and he also points to the Jewish cultural heritage that she was born to. This serious poem which displays Ginsberg at his most empathetic and expansive is darkened by guilt, memory, and self-recrimination. It is colored by many details from Naomi’s Jewish family as well as her early immigration from Russia. The physical descriptions of his mother’s body, from her early youthful years to her final aged, ravaged ones are painfully detailed and shocking. Ginsberg’s exposes her weary dishevelment as the poem becomes a long list of Naomi’s indignities, life demands, battles, struggles, and disappointments.
From Kaddish Ginsberg writes in Part I:
—as I walk toward the Lower East Side—where
you walked 50 years ago, little girl—from Russia, eating the first poisonous
tomatoes of America—frightened on the dock—
then struggling in the crowds of Orchard Street toward what? —toward Newark—
toward candy store, first home-made sodas of the century, hand-churned ice cream in backroom on musty brownfloor boards—
Toward education marriage nervous breakdown, operation, teaching school, and
learning to be mad, in a dream—what is this life? . . .
And later continues:
All the accumulations of life, that wear us out—clocks, bodies, consciousness, shoes, breasts—begotten sons—your Communism— ‘Paranoia’ into hospitals. . .
Then from Part II:
Naomi, Naomi—sweating, bulge-eyed, fat, the dress unbuttoned at one side—hair over brow, her stocking hanging evilly on her legs—screaming for a blood transfusion—one righteous hand upraised—a shoe in it—barefoot in the Pharmacy. . .
Finally in Part II:
Was she ever satisfied? And—by herself sat on the new couch by the front windows, uneasy—cheek leaning on her hand—narrowing eye—at what fate that day—
Picking her tooth with her nail, lips formed an O, suspicion—thought’s old worn vagina—absent sideglance of eye—some evil debt written in the wall, unpaid—& the aged breasts of Newark come near—
Ginsberg attests to her struggles to be both Jewish mother and radical Communist, her keen intelligence advancing into paranoia and mania as her mental illness intensified. Field, however, chooses a more humored, ironical tone of caricature as he depicts the Jewish women in his life. He writes in a folk manner borrowing from Jewish culture and Jewish idioms. As he did with his poems about Hollywood actresses and icons, Field employs an exaggerated narrative style and trenchant wit. He elicits irony by underscoring these actresses’ authentic realities in contrast with their inauthentic performative ones. This achieves a satiric tone not to ridicule or scorn his subjects, but to illustrate the hardship of their lives, emphasizing how they are forced to live out highly simplified inauthentic identities despite perhaps their own individual desires and aberrant tendencies.
This compulsory, and regulated routine behavior reduces them to cultural stereotypes in Field’s “Being Jewish.” Field’s mother and her female relatives dream of authentic identities and autonomy, but suffer under the conformity of traditional Jewish gender roles, marriage bonds, and religious doctrine. Field, even in his poem’s title, chooses to bring attention to this distinct way of life, social behavior, and racial and cultural identity, which is sharply different from the Christian majority. The “alterity” of “being Jewish” with all of its 1940s and 1950s pejorative associations and history of persecution and prejudice (similarly tied for Field to the “alterity” experienced by the “homosexual”), is not one of choice, but rather an essential identity that must be concealed
Field uses, again, dark humor and stark realism. The title “Being Jewish” of course suggests its inverse “Being WASP” or “Being Christian.” The claim of ethnic Jewishness stands distinct from, say, the Boston Brahman “ethnicity” of Robert Lowell and family. With their Puritan streak of piety, highly-mannered social reserve, and physical and emotional inhibitions, such a family contrasts sharply with the peasant-stock clan of Field’s. Here Fields describes the female kinfolk in his family such as his grandmother and mother’s coarse immigrant existence, their exhaustive procreation, and unsophisticated, immodest behavior. But on the other hand, one might say, Field is also aware of the shared sexual and physical burdens of women throughout society, regardless of ethnicity, who must endure patriarchy. The poem adopts a somewhat grotesque, almost sardonic tone to relay the plight of women as much as he has done before with homosexuals.
“Humor” has been defined as “a comic, absurd, or incongruous quality causing amusement.” Indeed Field’s poem causes amusement if not a starkly sad, empathetic response in the reader. He uses once again elements of “camp” in the narrative to foreground the absurdity of such inauthentic, exaggerative portrayals of “the Other.” In doing so, Field adopts that self-critical and self-deprecating tone of ethnic humorists, who so often call attention to the differences or misunderstood signals found between the dominant and, minority cultures. Jewish comedians of the fifties and sixties as well as Black, were called upon to spoof the peculiar habits of their own tribe and caustically castigate and berate themselves in an uneasy and sometimes painful if not humiliating way. The same might be said of homosexuals who were only allowed to amuse straight society but only at their own expense; and in such a way as to continually reinforce and concede that straight culture is more authentic, more desirable and powerful. In short that it is more normal and more moral.
Field writes about his Mom and her number of offspring:
My mother only had six
but that’s not counting. . .I’ll say no more
than she was always pregnant,
with a fatalistic “What can you do?”
(“Plenty,” her friend Blanche replied—she
“You don’t have to breed like a rabbit.”)
Like her mother who had a baby a year in
until Grandpa left for America,
giving her a rest.
There were women who kept bearing
even then, mysteriously, as from habit.
It’s typical Field to inject a tone of sarcasm, so wonderfully shown in these final two lines, which include the phrase “. . .mysteriously, as from habit.” We know that Field is really calling out the fact that many of these women fooled around outside of wedlock or perhaps fell prey to rape or were strongly coerced by the male-dominant society. Women had little say in the use or abuse of their own bodies in Jewish culture. In fact in the next stanza, Field writes:
Women were always tired in those days and
with the broken-down bodies they had
and their guts collapsed,
for with every child they got a dragging
My mother finally had hers
tied back-up in the hospital, and at the same
they tied those over-fertile tubes,
which freed her from “God’s terrible curse
These bodies exhausted and pushed to the limit were forced to continue bearing children without protest. Orthodox Jewish women were especially expected to submit to their husbands and give birth to as many children as possible, to meet God’s command to go forth, multiply, and be fruitful. Children were a “blessing” although their care and feeding seemed hardly a blessing for the women. As I have said, self-sacrifice was a given quality in women. Divorce was not a possibility as the husband had the final say in whether they gave their consent.
At the end of Field’s poem, he resorts to rhetorical self-questioning and deliberation. This poetic device often involves a critical challenge to some enforced code of behavior or demand for cultural conformity. Field repeats this narrative device in many of his works. With his commitment to individual human truth and honesty, this technique is often a way of directly raising moral questions about society and of locating its existential dilemmas, paradoxes, and hypocritical ethical standards.
They [the Jewish women in Field’s family] just went around wrecks, always
unable to cope, or hiding in bed
while the children screamed.
“Escape, escape, there must be escape”
was my mother’s theme song, until at last
her children escaped from her and her
having wrecked her life, that endless
Likewise Field admits:
I see the proletarian women like them on the
cows with udders to the waist
lugging black oilcloth shopping bags,
the mamales, the mamacitas, the mammies,
the breeders of the word with loving eyes.
They sit around the kitchen table with full
telling each other their troubles—
From the very first line of the stanza above, Field extends his social narrative beyond just his mother and her Jewish female kin to all domestic, disenfranchised women in the forties and fifties. Women who suffered within sexist American Jewish, or, Christian culture. By using the term “proletarian women,” Field introduces a Marxian political context to these women: mothers in the role of “laborers;” “oppressed workers,” who “work” in a society that prizes capitalist gain, private ownership, and suppresses human value and dignity. In this sense, women were certainly subordinate in American culture of the post-war decade. Indeed the Judeo-Christian capitalist system labeled women as “chattel” or “property” under patriarchal control. Field’s use of the term “proletarian,” to my mind, recalls theoretical commentary on the ideological basis of Marxist feminism (Wickipedia). In regard to Friederich Engel’s 1884 The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State the following statement appears:
As such, gender oppression is closely related to class oppression and the relationship between men and women in society is similar to the relations between proletariat and bourgeoisie. On this account women's subordination is a function of class oppression, maintained (like racism) because it serves the interests of capital and the ruling class; it divides men against women, privileges working class men relatively within the capitalist system in order to secure their support; and legitimates the capitalist class's refusal to pay for the domestic labor assigned, unpaid, to women.
Engels we are told, argued in 1884 “that a woman's subordination is not a natural result of her biological disposition but of social relations established around the female sex's reproductive capacity.” It’s almost as though Field had this communist dialectic in mind as he wrote his poem, a dialectic, which was being widely discussed among American Jewish intellectuals in the fourties and fifties.
Field displays a unique economy of skill at illustrating figuratively complex political, moral, and social thinking and critique in simple parable fashion. He frequently uses declarative or interrogative rhetoric in his poetry, and finds explicit or implied symbolic comparisons. As we have seen, he often employs narrative aspects of the fable, allegory, parable, fairy tale, and Jewish or ethnic folk tale, to subvert moral conventions, ethical codes, and challenge deep-seated psychosexual and Biblical archetypes. This process is strenuous, as Field takes on an entire tradition of Judeo-Christian and Biblical instruction and punitive moral beliefs. What is interesting is that Field appropriates the very same traditional Biblical and Jewish narrative forms; i.e. the fable, allegory, parable, fairy tale, and/or ethnic folk tale, in order to circumvent, reinterpret, or challenge many of these beliefs. He undermines their powerful and innocently simplistic moral lessons and ideological messaging.
Perhaps, it is Field’s way of claiming his Jewishness; while at the same time challenging Judeo-Christian moral and cultural sexism and homophobia. It is interesting to note here how a “parable” is defined in the Judeo-Christian tradition:
PARABLE, from the Greek παραβολὴ (lit. "juxtaposition"), the usual Septuagintrendering of Hebrew mashal ("comparison," "saying," and "derived meanings"). No distinction is made in biblical usage between parable, allegory, and fable; all are forms of the mashal and have the same functions of illustration and instruction. The comparison may be explicit or implied. It may take the form of declarative or interrogative sentences (e.g., Prov. 26:1; 27:4). When developed into a short story, an interpretation or application is usually appended.
The story-parable, often introduced by "like" or "as," is told in terms drawn from ordinary experiences and usually makes one principal point. Some examples are Nathan's parable (II Sam. 12:1–5), and the parables of the Surviving Son (II Sam. 14:5b–7), the Escaped Prisoner (I Kings 20:39–40), the Disappointing Vineyard (Isa. 5:1b–6) and the Farmer's Skill (Isa. 28:24–29). All but the last-named are followed by explicit interpretations. The rhetorical question with which the Book of Jonah ends may suggest that the book was intended as a parable. Ruth, too, may be a parable, with its more subtle point underlined by the appended genealogy.
In Field’s poem “From Poland” he recounts some of his mother and father’s family history, in particular his mother’s arrival in America. He uses excerpts from his sister’s letter who is visiting present-day Poland and retracing her parents’ early years. Field, remembering stories and facts supplied by his mother over the years, conveys a certain shared nostalgia and admiration for the simplicity and warmth of his mother’s and father’s humble origins. The decision later to immigrate to America after she and Field’s father had eloped and had settled in the small Polish village of Lamaz, where they enjoyed a freely independent, though impoverished life, appears to have been a regret for Field’s mom in hindsight. This is born out as well by his mom’s fond retelling of the story of how she first arrived in the United States and encountered her now fully-assimilated and apparently prosperous Jewish father. Her father berated her for being a “dumbbell” when she picks up and marvels at “a pretty candy box in/ the gutter,” wondering “at such a treasure being thrown/ away. . .” This act provokes her father to smack her across the face and that night she tears up his picture and states: “I was only happy in Lamaz.” It is then Field relates:
“Did I ever tell you [Edward Field],” she tells me again, “how
turned sour in the pail and we drank it that
“There were no demands on me there,” she
an old woman in Florida now, her children
grown and gone.
“I didn’t have to do anything. I could sit
eating my bowl of kasha all day long.”
Field’s mother’s nostalgia for a simpler, more rustic time, perhaps in a country less wealthy but more content, is echoed by Field. At the start of “From Poland” he quotes again from his sister’s letter:
the bureaucracy frightening, but everyone
used to it,
patiently standing on line. . .
sweet and helpful and unspoiled.”
Reading that, I [Field] think I could live there
on bread and potatoes.
Field would prefer a more simplistic existence, one based on human passion and non-conventionality, the kind of life that his mother and father first found when they eloped from her overbearing mother, wealthy family farm, and preordained, traditional, life. That rash action on his mother and father’s part exemplifies the Bohemian spirit for Field. As “Bohemianism” is the practice of an unconventional lifestyle and the rejection of establishment values, an unconventionality often marked by the expression of “free love,” “frugality,” “simple living,” and “voluntary poverty,” Field sees his parents’ choice of freedom and poverty over bourgeoise comfort as admirable. His mother’s choice parallels his own in becoming an artist, a poet, and accepting the marginalized, honest life of an “out” homosexual.
The “sweet,” “helpful,” and “unspoiled” qualities his sister observes in the Polish people waiting in line, are ones Field strongly prizes. In some ways this romantic vision of the underclasses, who maintain humanity, patience, and dignity even in the face of bureaucratic power and privilege, falls in line with Marx and Engel’s praise and worship of the working poor. Field’s willingness to subsist on “bread and potatoes” and accept a meager yet more authentic existence seems to suggest a wariness and aversion to American affluence, excess, and artifice.
Ever the honest realist, however, Field closes his poem by countering any romanticization of Poland itself and authoritarianism. He may admire the simple working life of the Polish villagers, but he’s not so blind as to exclude what his sister so soberingly describes:
. . . “We asked the oldest
people in town
about the Jews. . .None left, they told me,
the Nazi time was the end of them, and
where the Jewish cemetery had been,
a grassy area with trees, fenced in.”
The historical void caused by the Holocaust as well as its ongoing denial is keenly represented by these images of a “fenced in” “grassy area” which once was Jewish cemetery. Devoid of all trace of the former grave stones, and thereby, any testament or trace of Jewish life, culture, or death, the area lies seemingly untouched and unremarkable. But, of course, it symbolizes strongly the blatant absence of self-acknowledgement and self-responsibility on the part of the town’s Polish non-Jewish residents and their attempt to cover-up their historical culpability through wiping clean the evidence. The tacit duplicity of the Polish Christians in the Nazi “Final Solution” is conveyed powerfully in that one expression “vaguely,” curiously dropped in the phrase “None left, they told me, / vaguely,”. This moral amnesia and evasiveness again by the Polish villagers is captured with maximum economy.
Ending the poem with the term “fenced in,” Field succinctly makes evident the cultural and historical lessons that still remain to be learned; namely, that Jews, even in death, continue to be cordoned off, discriminated against, and restricted in their basic human freedom. Their history is still being suppressed. Field’s images illustrate the need for two powerful Jewish Holocaust imperatives: “Never Forget!” and “Never Again!”
As I said briefly, Field’s favor of anti-conventional Bohemianism is evident. In the post-War years of New York City he enjoyed its cheap and vivid arts scene. The City was less expensive back then and the GI Bill provided for returning vets the chance to attend ivy-league schools on Uncle Sam’s dime. Greenwich Village was an accepting place for down-and-out artists, who could survive there on a shoestring and were readily valued and supported by its small, like-minded liberal-progressive community. And Village living had always been about humanism, creative freedom of expression, and sexual toleration. These left-leaning sympathies were welcoming of communist and socialist ideology.
Field exhibits a Marxist romanticism, as did many other young Jewish artists and intellectuals coming of age in the thirties, fourties, and fifties. The working classes and the proletariat were sacrosanct and communist theory elevated the common laborer regardless of race or gender as exemplifying a more honest, authentic moral identity. The art, craft, and hard work of writers, plumbers, housewives, or even accomplished painters, were one in the same; all were roles to be equally valued and afforded dignity in society. Capitalism was increasingly seen as the enemy. And Field, like Ginsberg and many others, was particularly aware of America’s capitalistic and imperialistic behavior in the fifties. America’s mighty economic and political system promoted particularly aggressive tactics. Ambition, competitiveness, and unbridled consumerism along with patriarchy and social Darwinism, thrived and dominated the culture.
Field witnessed in ensuing decades gradual rent-hikes in the Village and the greedy, harsh dehumanizing demands of landlords who saw the Village as less a diverse and creative community, but more as a goldmine of profitable real estate. His poems gradually move toward defending socialistic and communistic anti-capitalistic views. As he matured and aged, he often lamented over an ever-more materialistic, regimented, and unwelcoming American society; a society where the life of the mind and the creative spirit held less value than did creature comforts, bourgeoise smugness and anti-Bohemianism. Bourgeoise living burgeoned after World War II in America. The standard of living and medium working salaries rose for men. All of this afforded luxuries previously unheard of and helped boost a growing service economy. Field’s desire for a life driven by simple emotion, creative curiosity, and attention to helpfulness, altruism, and individual self-expression, as well as greater honesty, was greatly threatened.
As Field writes in his poem “The Winners and the Losers” from 1992’s Counting Myself Lucky, Poems 1963 - 1992:
What happened to the beautiful losers of my
who let the world destroy them
but stayed true to their dream,
scoffed at materialism, conventions,
a small, beleaguered band
who kept their integrity against the world
and devoted their lives
to Art, Sex, and Revolution?
Youth once believed in them, the madmen
who burned themselves out with drugs and
disappeared into the desert,
or battered society with their shaggy heads.
This loss of rebel spirit, of value not mandated by income, bank account size or accumulation of things, rather lay in those creative intangibles of art, poetry, self-sufficiency, and homespun craft. Life was not subservient to wealth. And Field looks back upon his generation, those Bohemians of the fifties and sixties, who turned New York into a vital, art capital for the world. Again in “The Winners and the Losers” he writes:
But now the winners are in fashion,
disappearing are the last of the bohemians,