Vol. 6 No. 11 · 21 June 1984
SIR: You published recently a poem of Brian Oxley’s (LRB, 5 April) in which gay men are dehumanised by metonymy into ‘AIDS carriers’. In asserting that ‘the yellow-brick road’ has been ‘abandoned to tank-battles and AIDS carriers’ Mr Oxley alludes to the popularity among gay men of MGM’s The Wizard of Oz, and implies that they live, these irresponsible lepers, in a Wizard of Oz world of unreality. I presume that you were unaware of the scurrility involved in his words when you vetted them for publication, and hope that it is unnecessary to remind you that from rhetoric of this sort Auschwitz is ‘only a bus-ride away’.
Thunder Bay, Ontario
Brian Oxley writes: It goes against the grain to defend or explain one of my own pieces of verse. I write as well and as clearly as I can. After that, judgment and interpretation belong to the reader. However, on the basis of a misunderstanding, Mr Macdonald suggests that I am anti-gay and fascist, and this requires an answer. The poem has no special reference to gays. I used AIDS as a new and frightening venereal disease poisoning the dream of untrammelled sexuality. I would apologise to gays who took this to refer specifically to them. It is news to me that The Wizard of Oz is specially popular among gay men. The context makes clear that I am writing about the naive mythology of the Sixties. The yellow brick road stands for the various shortcuts to paradise on offer in those days, particularly that of travel to the mystic East. The overland route is now closed by trouble in the Lebanon, Iran and Afghanistan. In many cases, what lies over the rainbow has been horribly degraded. More Westerners now head for the brothels of Bangkok than the ashrams of India, and return with herpes rather than enlightenment. The rhetoric in question is not mine but that of the Beatles, Timothy Leary, the Charismatic Movement, and others. The poem says their dreams were delusions, which I find very sad.
The reference to Auschwitz is uncalled for. Here, if you like, is an abuse of language – in the use of the name as a war cry by groups whose position is very different from that of the victims of the Nazis. As a response to the poem it is far too serious. In the politics of language, unremitting seriousness is oppressive. There has to be room in poetry for bad taste, playfulness, scurrility, if poetry is to be liberated and liberating.