Born in New York in 1924, Edward Field recounts his life in his poetry. He portrays himself as an aging New York Jewish gay poet who likes plants, traveling, and popular culture and never got enough sex and companionship though he now gets more of the latter. The short version of his life is told in "Bio" (Counting Myself Lucky, 1992); the long version is the sum of all of his poems.
The critical discussion of Field centers on two issues, his diction and the confessional nature of his poetry. Field's diction is straightforward and "unpoetic." He does not seem to force the language into producing special effects, nor does he require his readers to have arcane knowledge.
He was asked to do a children's book of translations of Eskimo poetry (Eskimo Songs and Stories, 1973) because, he explains in "Bio," "I was the only poet they could find, they said / whose poetry was understandable by ten-year-olds." Some readers find that this plainness produces immediacy and honesty, whereas others find it bland and clichéd.
As for his honesty, Field seems to have no inhibitions regarding what he tells his readers. Some critics find this openness brave and engaging, an indication that Field regards his readers as friends. Others wish that Field were more reticent.
Field's development as a gay poet can be traced throughout his volumes. Apart from a sexually explicit version of the Ruth and Naomi story, which has not appeared in either of his collections of selected poems, and "Ode to Fidel Castro," there are few explicit references to homosexuality in his first book Stand Up Friend With Me (1963), which won the Lamont Poetry Selection for 1962.
There are, however, two types of poems in this book in which homosexuality forms the obvious subtext. One is Field's animal poems. In "Donkeys," for example, the animals:
do not own their bodies;
And if they had their own way, I am sure
That they would sit in a field of flowers
Kissing each other, and maybe
They would even invite us to join them.
The other homoerotic poems are about Sonny Hugg, a boyhood friend of Field. In these poems ("Sonny Hugg Rides Again," "Sonny Hugg and the Porcupine," and "The Sleeper"), Field looks up to Sonny the athletic, aggressive boy who inexplicably likes Field. Sonny also has his vulnerable, sensitive side.
In Variety Photoplays (1967), Field uses popular culture, primarily films but also comics and other forms, as one of his principal sources of inspiration. In "Sweet Gwendolyn and the Countess" and "Nancy," there is lesbian material. The only explicitly gay male poem is "Graffiti," a story about a glory hole.
But homoeroticism informs the wonderful "Giant Pacific Octopus," in which an octopus seen in a pet store becomes in Field's imagination a "boychik" with "the body of a greek god" who "will stay, one night or a lifetime, / for as long as god will let you have him."
In A Full Heart (1977), Field came out fully as a gay poet in genial poems that are of a piece with his other work. Field's gay manifesto is "The Two Orders of Love." In this poem, he sees homosexuality as natural as heterosexuality and as necessary:
Nature needs both to do its work
and humankind, confusing two separate orders of love
makes rules allowing only one kind
and defies the universe.
In "David's Dream," Field gives a typical self-deprecating portrait of himself as one who is "no fun. / I talk liberation / but my actions show otherwise." In "Street Instructions: At the Crotch," he portrays the sexually unrepressed person he would like to be.
New and Selected Poems (1987) contains fewer explicitly gay poems than the preceding volume, but by this time Field has established his persona as a gay man well enough that all of his poems read as meditations on life from a gay standpoint.
Counting Myself Lucky (1992) also contains selections from his previous books as well as new poems. In this volume, growing older as a gay man becomes a primary concern.
Field's gay poems tend to fall into a few categories. The poems about sex are often wry and resigned, but sometimes playful and sexy, as, for example, "The Moving Man" in Winston Leyland's anthology Angels of the Lyre (1975).
In addition, there are poems in praise of relationships and poems of regret about the suppression of his homosexuality when he was young, the cost of which still is coming home to him as he grows older, as is clear in "World Traveler."
There are also a few political poems such as "Two Orders of Love" and "Oh, the Gingkos." In the latter, John Lindsay is described as a mayor no one liked, but who not only had trees planted in New York City, he also "stopped the police from raiding gay bars."
Field's poetry is a pleasurable and valuable account of coming to terms with homosexuality in the literary world of New York in the second half of the twentieth century.
Biography by: Terrence Johnson