A new survey of gay literature breaks with the trend of outing great writers. Jonathan Dyson meets Greg Woods who concedes that Shakespeare and Catullus were probably straight. But Melville...
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GREGORY WOODS is not having "a particularly lucid day". He's been "rushing around doing stupid but urgent things" at Nottingham Trent University where he is reader in lesbian and gay studies. Woods is in his mid-forties. He is softly spoken, diffident, self-effacing even. He seems surprised I want to talk to him. At one point in the interview he pauses, anxiously. "Sorry, I seem to be sitting here talking bollocks to you." In fact he's talking thoughtfully, entertainingly about his lucid and iconoclastic A History of Gay Literature: the Male Tradition. Camille Paglia's name crops up. Although the American lesbian academic has railed against separatist lesbian and gay studies, the two have much in common: they both go against the grain of lesbian/gay/ queer/feminist orthodoxies, they can both write - rare in this field - and they're both happily outside the major academic loop, at provincial universities. Of course, Woods painfully lacks Paglia's self-assuredness. But he is, first and foremost, a poet, so this seems appropriate - his first collection We Have the Melon, was highly acclaimed, a second is due out in the autumn.

He took on the non-fiction world reluctantly. "It was not my idea. The book was commissioned. I was very inhibited initially because I felt there would be all sorts of academics breathing down my neck. But you reach a point when you say, what the hell, let's try this out and see if we can find some continuity in the ways of thinking about male-male desire, where we can say someone in Renaissance Italy or ancient Greece and someone in 19th-century France is feeling the same thing." But the project didn't result in another of the narrow, puerile queer re-readings which ignore cultural, historical and qualitative differences and have Michelangelo cruising down the Castro hand in hand with Armistead Maupin, waving a rainbow flag and checking out Walt Whitman's Calvins. The History certainly includes the usual suspects but it also has non-gay writers who have written about male-male relations in ways which have an added meaning for the gay reader, and, most interestingly, it includes anti- gay writing down the ages by both straight and gay writers. This paradoxical aspect of the gay experience - that it has always been both reviled and hymned, both by society and gay writers internalising society's attitudes, that its artistic expressions veer from the platonic to the in-your-face sexual, that gay writers have often had to hide their sexuality and at the same time somehow find authentic expression for it, even that gay men are both men and women in bed - is at the heart of Woods's History, and his poetry.

The History is broadly chronological, with interludes about particular writers - such as Proust and Shakespeare - and themes: "Homosexual Men by Women", "The Tragic Sense of Life", "Boys and Boyhood", "Black African Poetry". The journey begins with the ancients, of Greece, the Roman Empire, the Middle East, the Far East. Although Western gay writers have looked back to Plato's Athens and Theocritus's libidinous Arcadia as a golden age, in fact homosexuality in ancient Greece was only generally acceptable in the narrowly defined terms of the pederastic relationship between a grown man and a pubescent boy, a relationship as much educational as sexual: "The boy was not strictly meant to show any particular interest in having sex with his lover, and when they did make love, always at the lover's instigation, the boy was not meant to make any demonstrative expression of pleasure ... Fellatio and anal intercourse were not generally considered to be appropriate to the moderation and dignity required of a properly educational relationship." Neither party was presumed to be homosexual in today's terms; both would be expected to have heterosexual relationships (which is the overarching paradox of any "gay" history and which Woods acknowledges, that gayness as we now know it is a relatively recent concept, dating from the late 19th century). It is a similar picture in Rome, where homosexual relations were deemed acceptable within a narrowly defined bisexuality in which beauty was as much to do with age as gender. Virtually all of Horace's odes about boys also mention women and girls. Martial, a bachelor, whose poems celebrate boy-love, follows convention and praises the institution of marriage as the greatest good and lampoons men who are passive partners to younger men or to slaves, while fellators, he says, suffer from a kind of "semeniferous halitosis". There seems to be a similar tension between desires and convention in a quotation from Abu Nuwas, a poet at the court of the caliph of Baghdad in the eighth century famous for his verses in praise of wine (khamriyyat) and boys (mudhakkarat), when he riskily admires the hairiness and strength of a boy emerging from pubescence: strictly speaking, once a boy starts becoming a man you have to find another boy.

The heart of the "gay canon" for Woods is Shakespeare, but he is adamant that he is not claiming him or anyone for the gay cause. "In order to do that," he says, "you would have to have incontrovertible evidence about everyone's sex life or indeed about their dream life, and I don't have that kind of information and I'm not involved in that kind of historical biographical research. I'm just pointing out ways in which they can be read. In a sense I'm claiming them in so far as they've been written about by heterosexual critics as if they were only heterosexual and I'm saying, fine, I expect Shakespeare was heterosexual, I know that Catullus writes wonderful poems about male-male sex but I accept that most of his poetry is about women. I'm not trying to claim the whole author but those parts of the author that are relevant to a gay reader." The key Shakespearean text for Woods is Sonnet 20, in which Shakespeare addresses the paradoxical "master-mistress of my passion", "a man in hue, all hues in his controlling, / Which steals men's eyes, and women's souls amazeth." "Sonnet 20 is the one which there's all the fuss about, people on both sides of the debate about Shakespeare's sexuality always come down to writing about Sonnet 20. It is a hugely influential text right there at the centre of English literature." The academic battle over Sonnet 20, says Woods, is central to how far the canon of English literature can ever be allowed to be a gay canon.

The idea of a canon - a required reading list of great literature - was propounded most famously in this century by F R Leavis in The Great Tradition (1948). It is an idea that has always both lured and appalled critics, writers and readers. The controversy last blew up with Harold Bloom's prescriptive The Western Canon (1994) in which he railed against, among others, feminists and Marxists who were undermining the canon in the name of ideology. Woods is clear where he stands: gay men have always looked to the past to affirm a sexuality that society tells them is wrong, and will always be reworking a gay canon in their own image, just as Bloom's canon is in his own image (white, middle-class, straight American). But, as Woods points out, much of the gay canon is also the straight canon: unlike women and blacks, for example, gay men have tended to be part of the ruling male elite with access to education, and hence they have always been well represented in literature. Even Bloom's list begins and ends with gay works: the Epic of Gilgamesh and Tony Kushner's play Angels in America. "That's what I keep coming back to," says Woods, "that the gay canon is not separate. One's not looking at perverse little offshoots of self-consciously decadent writers, one's looking at the big names."

Woods demonstrates the ambivalence about homosexuality in several of Shakespeare's works. The most notable example of a homosexual couple is Achilles and Patroclus in Troilus and Cressida, famous in the Iliad for their love of each other and their bravery. In Troilus, Thersites mocks Patroclus as "Achilles' brach'", "Achilles' male varlet" and his "masculine whore"; Ulysses, meanwhile, sounds both resentful and jealous when he complains that the "great Achilles ... Grows dainty of his worth, and in his tent / Lies mocking our designs. With him, Patroclus, / Upon a lazy bed, the livelong day / Breaks scurril jests ..." Woods notes the "craven evasiveness" of Kenneth Palmer's annotations to the 1982 Arden edition, in which he says: "it seems unlikely that Thersites meant (or was taken to mean) that Patroclus was a catamite". And talking of the Sonnets, again, he quotes Peter Levi's extraordinary comment that "homosexual love was to Elizabethans inevitably chaste".

The nearer we get to our own "gay" age, the greater the wealth of that historical biographical information which is so lacking in the earlier parts of the History: "living texts" can now be read in the light of their dead authors' lives and letters. In the 19th century two potentially great gay books were not written at all: Emile Zola in France and Stephen Crane (author of The Red Badge of Courage) in the United States both planned to write novels centred on homosexuality. Zola passed his materials on to a friend, who turned them into a non-fictional account of sexual perversions, while Crane was dissuaded by horrified friends. In the 20th century, E M Forster spent a lifetime trying to write a convincing ending to his novel Maurice in which his two male lovers could settle down and live happily ever after without it seeming ridiculous - not that he felt he could have published it in his own lifetime even if he had found an acceptable ending. The work of Herman Melville, back in the 19th century, is analysed by Woods, and is also one of the subjects of a new anthology by David Leavitt and his partner Mark Mitchell, Pages Passed from Hand to Hand, which has extracts from previously lost or censored lesbian and gay writing from the past 250 years by both famous and forgotten authors. Leavitt and Mitchell record that Melville once said: "What I feel most moved to write, that is banned - it won't pay. Yet write altogether the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash; and all my books are botches." Botches seems rather harsh for Moby-Dick and Billy Budd, but that is what they are in a way: Melville can't write explicitly about homosexuality but contrives to explore intense male relationships and sing his paeans to rugged masculinity through setting both stories aboard ship. Both Leavitt and Mitchell, and Woods, quote a rhapsodic passage from Moby-Dick about the manual processing of whale sperm:

"Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers' hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say, - Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humour or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness."

As Woods writes, it is impossible not to read this now as a "virtually pornographic description of a circle jerk". Again, like Forster, Melville found it hard to imagine, or at least write about, two men loving each other and surviving: in Moby-Dick Ishmael's life is not saved by his beloved Queequeg but by Queequeg's buoyant coffin, while in Billy Budd, desire reaches fruition not in love-making but in fatal violence.

Woods always returns to poetry, such as that of the black Langston Hughes in Twenties Harlem. He quotes from Hughes' "Joy". The poem appears to be a straightforward narrative in which the male speaker goes in search of a vibrant young woman called Joy and finds her in the disreputable arms of a butcher's boy: "Such company, such company, / As keeps this young nymph, Joy!" But as Woods points out, if you read it again as a gay man, Joy turns from the name of the young woman into the abstract and rather camp expression of the joy which the male speaker feels at the thought of he himself being in the arms of the butcher's boy. "In a sense the language of poetry allows you to go against the grain of reality," Woods enthuses. "I suppose the problem with prose and with the novel in particular, and I know there are exceptions, is that the novel is in a realist tradition and you have to achieve plausibility; prose is prosaic, you're writing about the real world. I think gay poets have felt freer to find new norms of language to talk about the extraordinariness of their lives. Poetic language is ambiguous and slippery, and certainly if we're thinking of the legal situation it would have been much easier to prosecute an obscene novel than an obscene poem, you would know what obscenity was in a novel when you saw it [Melville's circle jerk excepted, presumably] but it is much more difficult to pin it down in a poem; a poem can confuse explicitness without undermining it."

Perhaps one of the most disturbing chapters in the History is that on the Holocaust. Woods points out the alarming absence of any gay literature about the Nazis' mass extermination of homosexuals, and the failure of the great chroniclers of concentration-camp life such as Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel even to record the presence of "the men with the pink triangles". The chapter also includes extracts from the rabid writings of Nazis about homosexuality as well as the writings of anti-Nazis who equated Nazism with sexual degeneracy/homosexuality. "I felt I had to have a chapter on the Holocaust," Woods says, "because it's such an important moment in the cultural history of homosexuality and it teaches us some very important lessons. It seemed to me some of the most revealing stuff came from people like Rudolf Hoess who ran Auschwitz [and who details his pseudo-scientific theories about and experiments on homosexuals in his memoirs] and the way in which he turns the language of sexology which was developed in Germany as a liberating, enlightened, rational discourse into a literature of extermination. It's very, very nasty, but gay literature can't just consist of positive representation. There's a lot of horror in there, it's a part of the cultural heritage that comes down to us. The story of Sodom is just as important, possibly more important, than idealising versions of gay life."

On the subject of Nazi Germany, Woods recounts a scene from Goodbye to Berlin (1939) in which Christopher Isherwood describes the wonderful physique of Otto but then undermines the description by concluding that he has rather "spindly, immature legs"; 40 years later in Christopher and His Kind Isherwood admits his German boyfriend actually had "an entirely adequate, sturdy pair of legs" but in the earlier work he was worried that he would give himself away. There are many other such compromises quoted here, such as that of Marcel Proust who apportioned his own experiences of love to heterosexual characters, leaving little for the homosexual characters other than relationships or sexual encounters paid for in money or influence, thus playing into the hands of those who denigrate homosexual relationships.

In the modern and truly "gay" age, liberation brought a reaction against the negativity of the past: in the Seventies and Eighties there was huge pressure to write relentlessly positive representations of homosexuality and sex, and to provide unambiguously happy endings. Not to do so was to commit modern homosexuality's cardinal sin: self-hate. Then there was AIDS, and happy endings became almost impossible for a while. This was one holocaust which had its chroniclers: Woods quotes the close of Honor Moore's Memoir with its retrospective scene of dementia: "Jimmy said / your last days the virus at your brain had you / in summer at the door on Fire Island / offering refreshment as guests arrived / beautiful men, one after another." This ghostly return to the modern gay Arcadia, Fire Island, reaches right back across the History to Theocritus - Et in Arcadia Ego (Even in Arcadia I - death - am here). Woods, self-effacingly, doesn't mention his own work in the History. His first collection of poetry, We Have the Melon (1992) was described by Thom Gunn as "a handbook of desire", but that seems inadequate for this not untypical extract, from Part Two, which manages to negotiate both banality and horror, sensuality and objectification, in its depiction of a scene of gay sex:

The straitlaced fister

takes a puppet-master's

view, putting you on

like new opera gloves,

attentive to his nails

lest he ladder you.

Hoodwinked by his own

vanity, he consults

you like a wrist-watch

as if expecting

something to happen

that isn't going to.

Woods is a product of the liberation/ AIDS era. He writes as a gay man, but is aware of the risk of being marginalised, and of writing what is expected of him by both gay and straight audiences. With the latter, there is often hostility over depictions of gay sex, yet sex is central to being gay, it's your qualification as a homosexual, and if most homosexual meeting places revolve around sex, it's because of the covert culture forced on gay men. Woods rejects the argument sometimes put forward that gay writers of the past such as Melville produced such extraordinary work because they were struggling to express feelings forbidden by society. "If repression gives meaning and purpose, then you would have got more great literature out of the Communist Soviet Union than you did out of the United States of America over the same time span, which is palpably untrue," he says. He also rejects the argument that a Melville writing today as an openly gay man could never achieve canonical greatness: Woods points to Edmund White as a writer who has always been openly gay but who has succeeded across the mainstream.

By the end of our talk Woods seems to have lost his hesitancy and warmed to his theme. He has a final rant: "I hate gay writers who pretend that all is good and all is lovely and gay sex is always fabulous. I hate these novels in which the central characters are beautiful and they can cook and they have perfect taste in clothes. I get panics in clothes shops because I don't know what colours match and I burn food and I go into spirals of self-doubt about even being gay. I suppose what I'm trying to do in my writing is establish a positive sense of myself as a gay man that doesn't rely on this kind of pathetic two-dimensional version of continuous happiness."

'A History of Gay Literature: the Male Tradition' by Gregory Woods is published by Yale University Press, pounds 24.95. 'We Have the Melon' is published by Carcanet, price pounds 6.95. 'Pages Passed from Hand to Hand' eds Mark Mitchell and David Leavitt is published by Chatto , pounds 20.