“I don’t trust beauty anymore / when will I stop believing it?”

                       – Reginald Shepherd

To pretend that a conversation about beauty isn’t, in fact, a conversation about privilege is an act of privilege. When an emerging writer pens an essay praising Anne Sexton for her beauty without quoting any of her poems, I sigh. I go read an essay by Audre Lorde. I try to work on a poem, but can’t concentrate. I think about how few gay men were in attendance at the Adrienne Rich memorial reading at Columbia last month and I wonder if, perhaps, she wasn’t beautiful enough for them to show up.

In response to the extensive comments his article “Anne Sexton, Aesthetics, and the Economy of Beauty” has sparked, Jameson Fitzpatrick contends “My aim was merely to defend an aesthetic (which, for me personally, is not raced) I feel is too often dismissed, disregarded and disparaged in contemporary poetry.” Not raced?

Just what are the aesthetic values that Fitzpatrick is championing? Aesthetic is defined as a set of principles underlying and guiding the work of a particular artist or artistic movement. And so, I go back yet again to his article in search of the aesthetic he claims to defend, but find none whatsoever. Instead of examining Anne Sexton, Alex Dimitrov or Eduardo Corral’s aesthetic(s), the article prioritizes their bodies over their bodies of work.

All of this is to say, I have a sneaking suspicion that a discussion about the poetics of beauty isn’t really about poetics at all. Once we face that, what are we left with? An article about a beautiful dead woman, a Latino man who makes people “bristle,” and a young “pretty” New York-based poet. And, besides, what good did Anne Sexton’s beauty do her?

When I look at pictures of her, I don’t see glamour. I see a woman who wrote, “Once I was beautiful. Now I am myself…”

“I suppose at bottom we are all beautiful queens,” writes Toni Morrison in her essay “What the Black Woman Thinks About Woman’s Lib,” “but… one wonders if Nefertiti would have lasted ten minutes in a welfare office.” Morrison’s questioning of the “use” of beauty reminds that being pretty has never helped anyone write a poem.

There is nothing wrong with beauty. I certainly am quite fond of it, but we are doing ourselves no favors by pretending that beauty is what we are really talking about. Fitzpatrick’s article is in praise of a certain type of entitlement. It’s in praise of a certain brand of glamour that, more often than not in Western culture, is married to both race and class privilege. For Fitzpatrick to not understand how this supposed aesthetic could be perceived as “raced” is a perfect example of how blind a person can be to how culture works.

I could go on but we all have poems to write, so I’ll conclude with this: I know Eduardo Corral is beautiful because I’ve read his poems.

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8 Responses to “All the Pretty Ones”

  1. 25 May 2012 at 8:56 AM #

    And this is why I’m a fan of Saeed Jones.

  2. 25 May 2012 at 9:06 AM #

    A very measured and nuanced response to Fitzpatrick’s essay, which has so many misguided lines of thought. You might have let him – and the catalyst behind the piece – off too easy, but the point about privilege and race is certainly one that needed to be addressed on Lambda’s site.

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  4. 25 May 2012 at 12:44 PM #

    I was no longer living in NYC at the time, but many gay men in other parts of the country were celebrating Rich’s vision, changing our Facebook photos to her image (what would the gay male writers who put personal beauty over community think of that?), posting links to her poems, curing up at home reading her poems and essays. Happily, I found out I can still quote “Diving into the Wreck” entirely from memory just as I could in high school almost thirty years ago.

    People (not you, Mr. Jones) seem to be forgetting that the poets of the past left behind their own “blogs” where they complicated these issues. Has no one read Sexton’s amazing, complicated, angry letters? Plath’s unabridged journals? Rich’s mounds and mounds of essays? These poets recognized that the personal and the poetic were impossible to separate. Let them teach us that again.

  5. 25 May 2012 at 3:56 PM #

    As a young and attractive gay writer/performer–the best bits of me can’t wait for Sexton’s words to manifest. Our beauty upstages our work, regardless of how good it is. The world looks at beauty and listens to wisdom. She is too overwhelmed and confused when the two meet. She always chooses beauty. Of course the guttural response is “Oh, poor little shit. beautiful and talented… life must be so hard” but the reality is, The Most Beautiful Woman in Town chopped off pieces of herself and bludgeoned her own face to be truly loved. mostly by herself. But then she killed herself. Unloved, undiscovered by all but a single man who realized the real her too late. but don’t be fooled, being pretty certainly has helped people write a poem or two. however, being ugly has created the literature in most canons.

  6. 25 May 2012 at 3:58 PM #

    but side note: Saeed, you are amazing! :)

  7. 25 May 2012 at 6:34 PM #

    This is excellent. I was wondering if there was such a thing as quality control on this website and I guess it’s random. I’m also happy to see a writer quoting other writers. When I read that other guy’s piece I thought maybe it was a copyright issue or something but now I see it was just sloppy writing. Maybe he will learn how to quote at NYU. They teach that at Rutgers apparently.

  8. […] female writers should be less afraid of having these conversations, should they seem relevant. As Steve Fellner remarked of Corral’s decision not to name names in the Ploughshares interview, politeness and […]

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