All the Pretty Ones
“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.