Recently appearing in the Washington Post, Mann’s autobiographical poem "Monday" focuses on a bad date with a beautiful, dumb gay man who was too lacking in cultural knowledge to keep up with him. From a cursory glance at the poem, it may seem unfair to raise any questions about its aesthetic or cultural politics. But the ending of the poem, an attempt to transcend its comic origins, reveals that the poem begs to be taken seriously. It wants to be seen as a work of art with a capital A. If Mann had the courage to make a simple comic rift, I would have left it alone. But he wants to go a step further, and as a result, so will I.
I have a two fold purpose in offering an analysis of this poem: 1.) to identify the ways in which gay narrative poets feel compelled to transform comic frivolousness into something tragic and the ostensibly meaningful 2.) the reasons behind that decision 3.) how critics unyieldingly affirm that decision through privileging the serious over the comic; thereby, marginalizing poets who don't depend on pathos for their work in terms of awards and grants.
I have written about Mann's work before. In my previous post, I wrote about James Allen Hall. I am currently working on a longish essay about these two poets and a few others. This post is an attempt to explore my ambivalent feelings about them and the critical inception they have received. As narrative poets, they may appear to be on opposite sides of the poetic continuum, but, in actuality, they are relying on similar popular rhetorical strategies, which (justifiably and unjustifiably) result in them being the two most reviewed young gay poets receiving cross-over success. This analysis is crucial when so many other gay poets with so many other aesthetic camps are ignored.
Here’s the more fun first two stanzas of Mann’s poem “Monday”:
While you wait for the J train, for work, think
of your new boyfriend, who loves apostrophes,
sizzle-pants, and you.
Who pointed out the "Andrew Lloyd Webber" house
and said his feelings have started to "Escalade."
You'll forgive him for now, smarty pants.
(Your last, the crisp progressive, declawed
his cat to save his Ethan Allen chairs.) Besides,
there's such promise, such furniture and new sex!
I do hope that Mann radically changed the details of his autobiographical experience. It would be unethical for him not to do otherwise since his date is living in the world.
Having said that, here’s the significant problem: its final lyric moment:
Look: wildflowers bloom in the streetcar tracks;
a syringe lies in the grass. It isn't
beautiful, of course, this life. It is.
Like some gay poets, you could make the claim that there’s a particular queer writerly anxiety in legitimizing their comic work with an unnecessary seriousness. He makes a leap from the playful to what some choose to seem as a profound worldview: there are the wildflowers blooming, a syringe laying the grass.
Perhaps the word “look” in the tenth line that bothers me the most. That damned imperative.
Am I supposed to look towards the sunflowers or look away from his satirical targets. If it’s the latter, I need to ask why Mann feels the sudden need to avoid his autobiographical comedy. Is there something else to see in them, something beyond the strategic caricature, that he allows himself to be distracted; or is it the former, he needs to ditch his comedy and towards that dreadful seriousness, those stupid looming wildflowers.
The world is beautiful and frail, Mann purports, emblematic of his characteristic ambivalence toward humanity. Mann is a comic, and his best work illustrates that. One of the rules of comedy: don’t apologize for your own jokes. The weak philosophizing is nothing more than a way of saying I’m sorry, I really am a serious poet. Or worse: see I'm more than gay. I can move beyond the camp. Queer poets need to see camp as something that could and should be honored as an end in and of itself.
With Proposition 8, I find this sort of philosophizing annoying. The world is not beautiful for gay men. It is a bad place where bad institutions (LDS churches) say that gay men are not equal. It's much more important to "flame on" than wallow in our own false, romantic perceptions of the world that lead to further middle-class inertia. How many gay poets does the Washington Post publish? And what is their stake in publishing a poem that allows a tired universality eclipse specific gay content?
Here’s a poem of his when he’s doing his better work:
AMERICAN (BATHROOM) GRAFFITI
Brent is a total fox and a mustache thief.
I’ve got amyls,
videos of dogs peeing,
and some time to kill.
What’s a mustache thief?
Like a turd burgler?
Or a butt pirate?
Please do not write dreamless prose.
It makes us feel awkward.
Free strong bad advice right here.
Fuck my fucking hole you fuck.
Mann feels no need to add on a closure that ultimately serves as an apology. Celebratory, tasteless, he offers a poem that no Washington Post would ever consider running. It's a truly gay poem. "Monday" ditches its queer sensibility, campiness, shallow one-liners, for an uninspired universality. You can feel heterosexual audiences saying, "Oh. That's what you were up to all along." And worse: we, as gay poets and critics, give them their cues.
I'd rather read the poem against the grain, and make the claim that Mann is strategically parodying himself. While he insensitively (and I mean that descriptively, not critically) cruelly mocks the uneducated queer, ribs the middle-class one, he --the artist with the capital A--tries to justify his own disappointments with his what ultimately is a hyperbolic "literary" non-sequitur, rather than an artful extension of one-liners. It's the ultimate declaration of self-pity: your gay.com date went bad and now the whole world is falling apart. What’s a poet to do, but share it with the rest of the world?
To draw the most embarrassing broad analogy, the critical reception of Mann’s work acts in the same way awards ceremonies treat films from the Coen brothers. (Who aren’t gay, unfortunately.) When they’re engaged in their best comic riffs like “Burn After Reading” or ”Ladykillers,” their work is ignored, but attach Cormac McCarthy and some pontification embedded in the narrative, you’ve got one of the most overhyped (Academy-Award winning) movies of all time: “No County for Old Men.”
Needless to say, this is unfair nit-picking over a single poem. But this example is meant to prove a larger point: gay poets often feel the need to ditch their comedy in an attempt to be seen as an important poet. Which isn’t that bad of a thing: everyone wants good reviews.