The Poetics of Cruising

Queer Visual Culture from Whitman to Grindr

2022

Jack Parlett

A groundbreaking new history of urban cruising through the lenses of urban poets

The Poetics of Cruising explores the relationship between cruising, photography, and the visual in the work of leading poets. Whether it’s Whitman’s fixation with daguerreotypes, Langston Hughes’s hybrid photographic works, or Frank O’Hara’s love of Hollywood movie stars, argues Jack Parlett, the history of poets cruising abounds with this intermingling between the verbal and the visual, the passing and the fixed.

The Poetics of Cruising is a thoughtfully researched and rigorous examination of the literary pleasures of sex in public across two centuries. Jack Parlett explores the poetics and politics of cruising, a queerly ekphrastic practice, at the intersections of gender, race, and class. Moving between past and present, words and images, close reading and close looking, The Poetics of Cruising explores the enduring appeal of cruising without nostalgia.

Fiona Anderson, author of Cruising the Dead River: David Wojnarowicz and New York’s Ruined Waterfront

The Poetics of Cruising explores the relationship between cruising, photography, and the visual in the work of leading poets, from Walt Whitman in the nineteenth century to Eileen Myles in the twenty-first. What is it that happens, asks Jack Parlett, and what is it that is sought, in this often transient moment of perception we call cruising, this perceptual arena where acts of looking between strangers are intensified and eroticized? Parlett believes that this moment is not only optical in nature but visual: a mode of looking that warrants comparison with the ways in which we behold still and moving images.

Whether it’s Whitman’s fixation with daguerreotypes, Langston Hughes’s hybrid photographic works, or Frank O’Hara’s love of Hollywood movie stars, argues Parlett, the history of poets cruising abounds with this intermingling between the verbal and the visual, the passing and the fixed. To look at someone in the act of cruising, this history suggests, is to capture, consider, and aestheticize, amid the flux and instantaneity of urban time. But it is also to reveal the ambivalence at the heart of this erotic search, where power may be unevenly distributed across glances, and gendered and racialized bodies are marked. Thus, in identifying for the first time this confluence of cruising, poetry, and visual culture, Parlett concludes that the visual erotic economy associated with gay cruising today, exemplified by the photographic grid of an app like Grindr, is not a uniquely contemporary phenomenon.

Innovative, astute, and highly readable, and drawing on compelling archival material, The Poetics of Cruising is a must for scholars of queer and LGBTQ literature and culture, modern and contemporary poetry, visual studies, and the history of sexuality.

Jack Parlett is junior research fellow in English at University College, Oxford, where he also teaches literary theory and modern American literature. He is author of a poetry collection, Same Blue, Different You.

The Poetics of Cruising is a thoughtfully researched and rigorous examination of the literary pleasures of sex in public across two centuries. Jack Parlett explores the poetics and politics of cruising, a queerly ekphrastic practice, at the intersections of gender, race, and class. Moving between past and present, words and images, close reading and close looking, The Poetics of Cruising explores the enduring appeal of cruising without nostalgia.

Fiona Anderson, author of Cruising the Dead River: David Wojnarowicz and New York’s Ruined Waterfront

The Poetics of Cruising is an innovative, astute, and highly readable account of the intersections of gay life, visuality, and poetics in the work of important gay writers from Walt Whitman to David Wojnarowicz. Analyzing unpublished materials alongside literary texts, The Poetics of Cruising—a model of how to combine history, theory, and close reading—is a fascinating and beautifully written account of cruising as a practice, aesthetic, and methodology.

Christopher Castiglia, Pennsylvania State University

Contents

Introduction: A Look

1. Passing Strangers

2. Walt Whitman, Looking at You

3. Looking for Langston Hughes

4. Frank O’Hara’s Moving Pictures

5. David Wojnarowicz’s Portraits

Coda: A Click

Acknowledgments

Notes

Index