- Dishing Dirt in Poetry's House of Fame
A reviewer might feel tempted to trash-talk a book on the juicy topic of gossip. Wouldn't that be fitting and fun? Alas, Chad Bennett's Word of Mouth: Gossip and American Poetry is so careful and decorous, it is beyond reproach. The writing is groomed, the research meticulous, the choice of subjects—Gertrude Stein, Langston Hughes, Frank O'Hara, James Merrill—strikingly diverse. By patiently unpacking a crowd of difficult poems, Bennett shows how twentieth-century poetries have used gossip as mode to expand the formal and rhetorical possibilities of lyric. The word queer does not appear in the book's title but is central to Bennett's reading. Gossip has historically been considered the province of women and gay men, the disempowered and socially marginalized. (There is no essential link here; the point is that the devaluation of gossip disempowers these groups the most.) Previous literary critical treatments of gossip have focused on the social, and to some degree feminized, genres of the play and the novel. Poetry meanwhile has been defended as a genre of solitary meditation and private soliloquy. Bennett disrupts these commonplaces, suggesting that lyric, a mode "self-reflexively concerned with the matters of privacy … so crucial to gossip," puts private and public modes of address in tension (2). Poetry thus serves "as a neglected archive" for considering the negotiation of private [End Page 397] life and social positioning. This is especially the case for queer subjects, who use gossip to perform "nonce-taxonomic work," a phrase of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's that recurs repeatedly in Word of Mouth (215). Gossip tells us who is to be trusted and who belongs where; who is in and who is outed.
Stein, the subject of Bennett's first chapter, is an exemplary figure by which to explore the tensions between publicity and private lyric utterance. For decades the most famous writer nobody had read, Stein redressed this situation with the 1933 publication of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, in which she spills the tea (gay code for gossip) about the writers and painters in her Paris circle, to much commercial success. In that same period Stein also wrote the hermetic Stanzas in Meditation, commonly taken as the experimental ballast or antidote to the "audience writing" of the Autobiography. Following the lead of Richard Bridgman, Bennett argues that Stanzas is not so much a volte-face as a lyric meditation on what it means to gossip, and in turn become its object. In a tricky argument, Bennett suggests that the poem's confusions of "I" and "it" are Stein's way of mulling over gossip's ability to objectify its targets. Yet the pronoun that receives the most play in the poem is "they," making 2,665 appearances. Most critics believe the pronoun refers to the reading public Stein sought in writing the more popular book, and Bennett concurs. The pronoun play in Stanzas is sometimes dizzying, and I was impressed by Bennett's skills in parsing this long, dense work. If there is anything to be desired here, it would be a fuller excavation of Stein's reception—how the reading publics of the thirties and fifties (when Stanzas was posthumously published) responded to these works—and how gossip functioned in the period specifically. In Bennett's very close reading, Stanzas seems a poem that might have been written in the seventies or the nineties—which certainly speaks to Stein's continued relevance and influence over contemporary literature.
Bennett includes more historical grounding in the second chapter, on Langston Hughes. The opening begins brilliantly, with Bennett's beautiful handling of an anecdote about gossip and the archive. Writing to Carl Van Vechten, whose papers had just been bought by Yale University, Hughes jokes that he was "about to tell" Van Vechten a piece of juicy gossip, before he grew self-conscious, knowing his [End Page 398] letter would enter into the library's collections (79). Bennett suggests this letter is "prescient" in identifying...