Pride. Sex. Psychedelics.
The words spring to mind quickly when thinking of San Francisco in the seventies. Between the tail end of an active hippy movement and a ferociously blossoming gay scene, this is where the suburban sensibilities of the American middle classes were reborn again in the form of LSD tabs and ethereal clouds of pure thought. Sex seemed like the central axis of the world. The sexual revolution defied the traditional limitations set on sexual and romantic freedoms. For the first time, it seemed, homosexuality, masturbation, contraception, pre-marital sex, pornography and more were all in common discussion. Sex was political. Sex was radical. Sex was, above all, diametrically opposed to the dry dreams of domestic stability idealised by the conservative press. The cups of tea left on the counter for a late-rising second half, syncing schedules and platonic morning hugs, one would think, belonged to another plane of reality altogether. Certainly, in this world of acid trips, politicised sex and fearless activism, domesticity would seem a little out of place.
This at least was the message pushed by the media at the time. They hystericised activist groups and the (mostly well-meaning) hippy communes into anti-Christian ‘sex cults’ and ‘hidden drug orgies’ and prophesied the ‘corruption of family values’. But the dichotomy they play on, between domestic stability and sexual or passionate love, is actually an ancient one. The literary canon has been at it for centuries.
Throughout poetic history there is a sustained theme, especially in the body of work by straight male poets. Love is presented as an urge to physically pursue, worship and chase the, generally female and voiceless, love interest. At the same time, in both literature and culture, waning sexual appetite is equated to waning love. There are very few poets who wax lyrical about the subsidence of quick, passionate nights into slow, intimate, but impotent, mornings. The implicit suggestion is that sexual desire and a wish for domestic stability are in some way opposed.
According to the seventies press, then, it ought to be all the more surprising that the poet to break this dichotomy should have risen from the depths of San Francisco’s sex clubs. Thom Gunn openly took his inspiration from popper-driven open-air orgies; party drugs, one-night stands and gay club culture was all fair game. He also took inspiration from his long-term polygamous relationships and the domestic functionality of the housemates he lived with for over thirty years. His poetry centres specifically on the gay experience and seventies SF; he moves intimately from the inner workings of sex clubs to the enlightening – and the darker sides – of recreational drugs. But he also often imbues his poetry with the kind of communitarian, familiar spirit of hippy communes. His flatmates, to him, were family. He valued the kind of dry, domestic love that grows out of long-term relationships. His poem ‘The Hug’ centres specifically on that experience:
It was not sex, but I could feel
The whole strength of your body set,
Or braced, to mine,
And locking me to you
As if we were still twenty-two
When our grand passion had not yet
My quick sleep had deleted all
Of intervening time and place.
I only knew
The stay of your secure ﬁrm dry embrace.
Joshua Weiner, a close heterosexual friend of Thom’s, describes how “in his life and in his work he [showed] how pleasure and eroticism and domestic stability were, for him, a seamless continuum.” In the essay At the Barriers, Weiner muses on the constraints prescribed especially to straight male poets in love poetry. The antithetical presentation of eroticism and pleasure to domestic stability traps them in the kind of poetic tropes that seem to make it near-to impossible to write the kind of poetry Gunn does. Cue castration anxieties and fears of sterility and empty love. He stresses too the importance of Gunn’s communal living situation too; his constant flatmates provided him much of the domestic stability that the revolving door of lovers could often not, taking turns to cook and clean on a solid rota for thirty-three years. But there is an implicit suggestion that Gunn’s homosexuality frees him somewhat from these constraints. Here, his friend sheepishly underplays Gunn’s revolutionary spirit.
Because looking at queer literary history too more often than not reveals the same tropes as the canonical tendency above. The love interests of Wilde, Mackworth Dolben, Garcia Lorca are, unnamed and ungendered, the objects of a love all the more sexually charged in nature for the difficulty in their fulfilment and the criminality of their attraction to them. Love is expressed – maybe even disguised – through traditionally heterosexual tropes of uneven power dynamics; the pursuer and the pursued, the possessor and the possessed.
Perhaps this parallel happened out of an urge to validate a sexual attraction that was considered a perversion punishable by law. Perhaps it was an act of quiet subversion by using tropes otherwise so unquestioningly applied to heterosexual couplings. Either way, it seems, Weiner was wrong. These static roles ascribed to love poetry were not limited to heterosexual poets.
Which means: Gunn was, even in the radical era he lived in, a true exception. After the seventies, both on the liberal and the conservative side, the ‘acid age’ was dismissed as a drug-hazed misadventure. But San Francisco in the Seventies saw the boundaries of what counted as ‘family’, as ‘love’, as ‘relationships’ radically challenged by ‘alternative’ ways of living. Gunn embodied, and continued to embody the spirit of that era, both in his life and his work.
What I think Gunn really teaches us is this: there is just as much poetic force in the kinds of love that do not conform to traditional tropes of poetry. Be they heterosexual or homosexual, monogamous or polyamorous, sexual or asexual, none of them have to take up those roles. We need to start forging, and appreciating, the roles that lie outside these simplistic dichotomies.