Word was, George Green had been working on this book for decades. A poet-professor at Lehman College, in his 60s, from the ’60s—with the stories to prove it—he’d been published in prestigious journals, was friends with an impressive roster of poets, but had never put out a poetry collection himself. Now finally it had arrived, the summary of a writing life: Lord Byron’s Foot.
The first thing that struck me was the slenderness of the volume. The second was its tone from the title onward: “a little quietly facetious upon every thing,” to steal Byron’s own phrase. The third was Green’s preferred form: a sturdy but sprightly blank verse. Most surprising, though, was his subject matter, which—far from a cartload of stored-up emotional freight—is endlessly, often hilariously, dishy.
And the dish spares no one, from Green’s family to the giants of history and art. A poem about Pavarotti begins: “We had concerns. He was so huge his tux / Looked like a tent.…” An elegy for lost astronauts ends up recounting Samuel Johnson’s reckless gunplay. We meet the senile, awkwardly flirtatious mother of Green’s friend. We meet Green’s own mother, a devout woman who dreamed of walking “among the lilies with the Lord,” but grew to such Pavarottian proportions that her son “had to laugh” picturing it. We learn about Mao’s constipation, John Wayne’s hangovers, and Warhol’s social climbing. We don’t learn much about Green himself, except in fleeting glimpses.
The frisson of reading these poems is exactly like that of hearing “real” gossip. I suspected embellishments. I questioned the teller’s taste, and my own. I was hooked.
More than that, I was fascinated by the book’s larger statement. Why would a poet, hedging his bets on a single volume, try to immortalize something as seemingly ephemeral as gossip? Why dress something so casual in impeccable pentameter? And why would a writer who—in his book’s last poem and perhaps its only true confession—mentions “my return / from the pigpen to Methodism” choose a mode so compulsively irreverent?
Green’s most obvious poetic predecessor is Frank O’Hara, whose obsessions he shares: art, movies, New York, celebrity, ephemerality. Unlike Green, however, O’Hara favored a formlessness that matched the deceptive nonchalance of his content. His poems seem as loose and impulsive as gossip itself. Here’s Frank on the decline of a famous actress:
LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED!there is no snow in Hollywoodthere is no rain in CaliforniaI have been to lots of partiesand acted perfectly disgracefulbut I never actually collapsedoh Lana Turner we love you get up
Here’s Green on the same theme:
Marilyn killed herself because she thoughtthat middle age began at thirty-five.In Liz’s case it did, but she kept going,though Dick went down in flames (Exorcist II).
One is all excitement, the other all cool. In a critical study of O’Hara, Hazel Smith speaks of gossip in poetry as “straddling the realm of the intimate … encourag[ing] voyeurism” and involving the reader in an “erotics of gossip.” It’s a general remark, but it captures O’Hara’s spirit in particular, the tone of conspiratorial relish that pervades his poems. More startlingly, William Logan has referred to O’Hara’s “animal pleasure in gossip.” (I picture the barnyard in Charlotte’s Web.)
It’s hard to portray Green’s work in similar terms. The voyeuristic thrills are there, but we’re watching from a greater remove. The strictness of his blank verse heightens the effect of judgment; many of the poems are elegies that seem to squeeze the juiciest tidbits from their subjects’ lives, then cast them aside. Yet their formality also extends O’Hara’s project of dignifying gossip—of framing it and its subjects for posterity.
“Literature is news that stays news.” So said Pound, not a poet of casual chitchat. The adage evokes a process by which poetic inventions—fresh expressions of timeless verities—trump all the shallow novelties of the passing human scene. If even major headlines struggle to remain relevant in this climate, where does that leave gossip, the shallowest news of all?
An easy answer would be that gossip is now big—and therefore serious—business. Joseph Epstein’s Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit (2011), the most comprehensive book available on the topic, begins with the argument that in the era of cable news and Internet tabloids, “gossip has come to play a larger and larger role in public life” and that it is no longer trivial, “if ever it was.”
That offhand qualifier is crucial. We may have more outlets for public gossip than previous eras, but do we really prize it more than the society that produced Walter Winchell? Or yellow journalism? Every generation thinks it has invented sex, despite all evidence to the contrary; maybe gossip, which draws so heavily on sex, is no different. Maybe regular and tabloid news were never so far apart.
“To a philosopher all news, as it is called, is gossip.” That’s Thoreau writing in 1854, and it’s fun to read today’s “serious” journalism through his jaundiced eyes. Oh my God, you will NOT believe who Angela Merkel caught snooping on her phone calls.…
In fact, the word “news” itself once had a gossipier connotation. In the first chapter of Pride and Prejudice, Austen writes of Mrs. Bennet: “The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.” We can safely assume this news is unrelated to Parliament or foreign wars (although it might have to do with the local soldiers). And it’s true that time tends to blur the two categories: the geopolitical quarrels of 19th-century Europe seem hardly less arcane and provincial to us than the drawing-room politics of the day. Tolstoy, among others, illustrates the ways in which the two realms intersect.
So nothing prevents gossip from finding hospitable niches in literature—but staking one’s poetry on it still seems risky. Novelists have room to digress, to linger over the minutiae of character. Poets, in theory, must deliver their bulletins with greater urgency. “It is difficult / to get the news from poems,” William Carlos Williams wrote, “yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” It’s hard to imagine dying for lack of gossip. Why bother committing large quantities of it to verse?
Then again, why gossip in the first place? Tackling this question at length, Epstein declares that “if ever there was a mixed bag, gossip provides it.” We participate in it for nearly as many reasons as we engage in speech itself: to exchange sensitive information; to subvert or assert status; to advance sexual agendas; to vent social frustrations; for the fun of it. In Epistemology of the Closet, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick provides a philosophical grounding:
… probably everybody who survives at all has reasonably rich, unsystematic resources of nonce taxonomy for mapping out the possibilities, dangers, and stimulations of their human social landscape. It is probably people with the experience of oppression or subordination who most need to know it; and I take the precious, devalued arts of gossip, immemorially associated in European thought with servants, with effeminate and gay men, with all women, to have to do not even so much with the transmission of necessary news as with the refinement of necessary skills for making, testing, and using unrationalized and provisional hypotheses about what kinds of people there are to be found in one’s world.
I like that italicized “need,” with its wry implication that gossip knows no pragmatic limits. (Recent studies have confirmed that all humans are addicted to it—though men are more likely to call their versions of it by other names.) In Sedgwick’s vision, gossip is both a tool and an “art”: a space for the improvisational, the creative.
As readers we might associate social taxonomies with novels and plays, but they have an honored place in English poetry too. I’m thinking of the tradition of “community portrait” poems—often extended sequences—by the likes of Thomas Hardy (Wessex Poems), Edgar Lee Masters (Spoon River Anthology), Edwin Arlington Robinson (various volumes), and Gwendolyn Brooks (A Street in Bronzeville, The Bean Eaters). And the granddaddy of them all, Chaucer. These poets’ works serve many of the classic purposes of gossip: exposing hypocrisies, puncturing pretensions, uncovering secret lives, exploring nuanced social truths.
They also afford many of gossip’s guilty pleasures. We’re clearly meant to laugh along with Robinson at Miniver Cheevy’s fantasies, as though he were the “character” in our local bar. Brooks’s “The Lovers of the Poor” is a scathing indictment of the hypocritical rich, but it wouldn’t work if she didn’t have the goods on her targets’ smallest foibles:
They own Spode, Lowestoft, candelabra,Mantels, and hostess gowns, and sunburst clocks,Turtle soup, Chippendale, red satin “hangings,”Aubussons and Hattie Carnegie. They WinterIn Palm Beach; cross the Water in June; attend,When suitable, the nice Art Institute;Buy the right books in the best bindings; saunterOn Michigan, Easter mornings, in sun or wind.
If this isn’t gossip per se, it’s social information of a very fine-grained and revealing kind. Doesn’t that “nice” say it all? It’s exactly how these ladies view art; exactly how they view themselves; exactly how they do not behave toward others—or the poet toward them.
There I was, talking about Elizabeth Bishop with a distinguished older poet, earnestly dissecting “The Man-Moth” or something, when he interrupted: “You know she tore up hotel rooms.” “What?” I said. “Binge drinker,” he said. “She’d lock herself in hotel rooms for days and trash the place.”
I’d read somewhere that Bishop battled alcoholism, but I’d never heard it put quite that way before. She tore up hotel rooms. I don’t know if it’s true. Maybe the reader does. Maybe it was bad form for the poet to have shared it. Either way, the image is hard to disassociate from her. (If anything, it adds a touch of poète maudit martyrdom to the legend.)
Literary gossip is the final, whispered retort to New Criticism. I say this with all sympathy for the New Critical ideal. Of course beautiful artworks are pristine objects, transcending the squalor of biographical context. That’s the whole point of making them. On the other hand, we know perfectly well that context matters, and matters more the squalider it is. The right piece of gossip can open up a poem: how could we truly understand “No Second Troy” if we’d never heard of Yeats’s sad-sack history with Maud Gonne?
Gossip can even illuminate a whole career. This is the savage lesson of Green’s title poem, “Lord Byron’s Foot.” No poet before or since has generated more gossip than Byron: marriages, divorces, affairs with both sexes, incest, debts, abandoned and illegitimate children, early death. He thrived on scandal, but Green’s speaker obsesses over the one thing he was truly ashamed of:
It’s all we think about—your stupid foot.Your foot, your foot, your clumsy, clumping foot,your limp and gimping, stupid, stubby foot.
Relentlessly, with as little pity as Byron showed in his life and art, the poem reminds us of the physical deformity for which the glamorous persona, the effortless poise of the poetry, may well have been a lifelong overcompensation.
Likewise, it’s tempting—if you credit the Bishop story—to posit a connection between tearing up hotel rooms in lonely agony and achieving the fierce control of “One Art.” Or the dark humor of “Crusoe in England,” whose hero goes on wild homebrew-drinking binges. To dismiss the possibility would be to doubt a central tenet of literature: that “backstory,” “the unsaid,” the submerged part of the iceberg, is the better part of truth.
To the extent that it’s concerned with revelations, gossip in poetry has a way of gazing, like Wilde, from the gutter toward the stars.
For one thing, it shares a kinship with confession. Confession is a kind of gossip about the self, and gossip a kind of confession on behalf of others. (Really, it’s doing them a favor.) The arch-confessionals Lowell and Plath wrote plenty of gossipy lines about friends and neighbors: Lowell in poems such as “Skunk Hour” and “Memories of West Street and Lepke,” Plath in early pieces such as “Ella Mason and Her Eleven Cats” and the thinly veiled portraits of The Bell Jar. And both, of course, drew loved ones into their dramas of the self.
Certainly, gossip is less soul-searching than confession, but isn’t it also a shade less self-involved? Epstein notes that in literary confessionalism “one often ends up confessing other people’s sins, which comes to little more than gossip in a self-serving form.” True, but to spill the dirt on others, we at least have to learn about them. And not all gossip is unkind: it can reflect a love, even a reverence, for its subject. After all, O’Hara’s poem about Lana Turner is a kind of plea for her resurrection.
If gossip has one real virtue, it’s a spirit of voracious curiosity, which in poetry can reach beyond the bounds of time and space. I think of James Merrill at his Ouija board, catching up with Ephraim about doings in the afterlife. I think of Whitman whispering:
This hour I tell things in confidence,I might not tell everybody, but I will tell you.
Of course he addresses—promiscuously, democratically—whichever “you” happens to read the page. And the payoff to his buildup? Not everyday scandal but dropped hints about humanity, mortality, infinity.
Above all I think of my favorite passage from King Lear, in which Lear begs Cordelia:
No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison:We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laughAt gilded butterflies, and hear poor roguesTalk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;And take upon’s the mystery of things,As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,That ebb and flow by the moon.
In this imagined prison-paradise, peasants rub elbows with royalty and the silliest rumors mingle with the highest “mystery of things.” All of Lear is a drama of the high and low forced into conjunction; here the king intuits that the absolutely worldly shares a thin border with the otherworldly.
Maybe it was this same intuition that prompted Green to sprinkle his volume with so much gossip. Gossip may not be gospel, but it can be, as Epstein affirms, a “species of truth”: a kind of testament, however vulgar. It peoples our worlds, metes out a certain justice to them, dispenses its wiseass wisdom. It calls the stars by familiar names and brings them a little closer. I don’t find spiritual comfort in it—or “animal pleasure” either—but in art and life, I love its gleeful way of taking on the mysteries of the human.