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John Barton. sexual disorientations: sexual identity and gender expression in the writing life. Toronto: League of Canadian Poets, 1997.

Poetics of Orienteering

Whether we are writers or readers, we locate ourselves in the text through a comprehension of word choices, how they act as signifiers to carry valences of meaning.

When it comes to sexuality, the mainstream position even today is “compulsory heterosexuality.” In other words, heterosexuality is an unexamined prerequisite to being fully human.

Marginalized people, in this case those who are marginalized on the basis of gender expression and/or sex identification, can choose to accommodate mainstream aesthetics or to conflict with it.

The poetics of the beautiful: a tendency from an aesthetic point of view to create poems that are examples of the beautiful. It is a poetics necessitating the composition of poems about gay male experience, for example, that are aesthetically pleasing and therefore less threatening to non-gay audiences. The cultivation of the beautiful can be dangerous, for this approach may unwittingly accommodate and even foster an ill-conceived, blind, and even shallow empathy among certain seemingly tolerant and self-deluded heterosexuals who believe themselves to be liberal and open-minded. The beautiful potentially shields them from undiluted realities that might otherwise make them uneasy. In response to poems that cause them discomfort, they might express this uneasiness through the posture of critique. complaining that the poems are excessively personal, are more therapeutic in motivation than aesthetic, are over-wrought or, worse, over-written. Many gay-male or lesbian writers may write the beautiful to protect themselves. The beautiful becomes a mask unrelated to the life of the wearer. On the other hand, poems written to be beautiful sometimes have a subversive utility. They anaesthetize non-gay and non -lesbian readers and therefore allow for the transmission of previously unknown and unimagined experience. Nevertheless, the beautiful suggests closure, that by the end of the poem everything is alright or safe.

Related aesthetic environments to the beautiful are the inclusive and the representative. Both often describe experience using mainstream frames of reference so that marginalized experience can be recognized by those whose own experience is not marginal in the same way.

The poetics of discomfort seeks to disrupt the assumptions of the (straight or straight-acting) readers’ potential for complacency, for their high regard for their own tolerance. Poems of discomfort aim to create social unease. The readers’ responses to such discomfort may be to arrest it (its anarchic disordering of the mainstream ethics is criminal), to silence it (it is social noise). Poets of discomfort, even they are writing love poems, want to challenge complacency, forcing readers to examine their own discourse, to consider why they feel uncomfortable.

The poetics of disorientation aims to reproduce the disorientation gay men and lesbians feel in a heterosexist society, to create an environment where straight or straight-acting readers lose track of themselves. It also aims to disorient gay and lesbian readers out of their acceptance of the status quo by remaining socially subtextual.

The poetics of orienteering seek to locate readers in the wilderness of the poet’s reality whatever that may be, using the vocabulary, references and positions indigenous to that reality, defining the beautiful and the not beautiful in his or her own terms.



From : sexual disorientations: sexual identity and gender expression in the writing life. Toronto: League of Canadian Poets, 1997.

John Barton's works copyright © to the author.


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