There have been gay poets—or, at least (if you prefer historical accuracy) poets who presented same-sex erotic passion—for as long as poetry has been written down; maybe longer. Think of Sappho, whose name has referred for centuries both to the idea of eros between women and to the ancient idea of lyric itself: think of what may be her single most famous poem, “He seems to me equal to a god, that man/ Who sits beside you,” its first sentence a feint towards opposite-sex desire, its substance an homage to the young woman Sappho loves. Shakespeare’s sonnets, most of them addressed to a comely young man, have inspired centuries of arguments about his erotic investment in, “the master-mistress of my passion.” Walt Whitman insisted that he wrote for, and about, both women and men, but what records there are tell us that he loved men; he put his poems about same-sex love (“adhesiveness,” as he called it) in a discrete segment of his lifework, Leaves of Grass, entitled “Calamus” (after the phallic plant of the same name): Whitman inspired what later became gay movements as his poetry circulated internationally—in England, Edward Carpenter and J. A. Symonds thought they had found in his work a model for gay Utopia. Federico Garcia Lorca’s “Ode to Walt Whitman” called together, under Whitman’s name, the stigmatized homosexual men of the Old and New World, trying to wring new lives from their frequent self-hate.
The expansion of forms and inventions in American poetry after the Second World War would not make much sense without the gay writers in it…
The expansion of forms and inventions in American poetry after the Second World War would not make much sense without the gay writers in it, though many of them chose not to make their sexuality obvious in their work. Even Thom Gunn, the transplanted Englishman who later described the “barricades” of Pride Day in San Francisco, was anything but explicit about sexuality in his poems of the 1950s and early 1960s: he pointed out later, in interviews, that obviously gay foreigners risked deportation. Frank O’Hara, who might or might not have been surprised to find himself on so many collegiate reading lists now, put his friends, his sex life, and his friends’ sex life into his poems without apology: he even wrote a good poem called “Homosexuality,” and some of his most affecting poems came out of his tumultuous love affair with the dancer Vincent Warren. And yet, when O’Hara died in 1966, gay poets still felt that they had to disguise their desires if they wanted to hold the respect of a larger public: O’Hara himself reached (as he knew) only a coterie, and other gay poets of his generation, poets whose books appeared from New York trade houses to wide reviews, had to think hard about how much of their love lives to permit into their work. Some of those poets—James Merrill and Adrienne Rich—kept writing for decades (Rich is still doing remarkable work). The stories we tell about those poets’ careers are, in part, stories about the new openness to gay experience, to same-sex love in its many forms and to the signs of gay subcultures, that those poets felt able to get into poems, and able to publish, after the moment of Stonewall.
The first book about a tradition of gay poetry in the English language, the first book to say that there was such a tradition—and that it was a good thing, that enduring poems could not have been written had gay men and women not described that aspect of their lives—was almost certainly Robert K. Martin’s The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry. Martin could draw direct lines from Whitman to Hart Crane, to Gunn, to Merrill; in the same years Adrienne Rich, and soon afterwards Audre Lorde and Marilyn Hacker, could publish whole books, well-received books, now movement classics (most notably Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language), about the new loves in their own lives.
only now can we see a generation of poets, at least in the United States, who have grown up with the idea of gay pride
And yet only now, almost forty years after the Stonewall riots that touched off the modern gay rights movement (the riots that are the reason for Pride month in June), can we look back and see the difference to poetry that Stonewall made: only now can we see a generation of poets, at least in the United States, who have grown up with the idea of gay pride, with the idea that their sex lives and their love lives, in the first poems they publish as in the last poems they write, can be either as clear or as hidden, as celebrated or as subject to mixed feelings, as the poets’ own emotions allow. These poets may offer snapshots from closeted years, from difficult teenage lives, from scandals in their early lives, but they write in the knowledge that almost anyone in this country who reads poetry seriously will see coming out as something to be celebrated, same-sex love as, simply, love. They write, now, after Vermont and Hawai’i and Massachusetts and California, for readers who know that a prothalamium or an epithalamium (poems in formal celebration of a marriage) can celebrate a marriage no matter the sex of the partners. They write poems of dilemmas, of difficult emotions, of mixed feelings—Auden, by some lights the most accomplished gay poet of the last 100 years, called poetry the clear expression of mixed feelings—but they also write for a climate in which same-sex love is love, as a matter of course: a climate created by the movement and the moment remembered in June.
It wouldn’t be fair to end without examples: here are two of my favorites—you can also find your own. D. A. Powell’s first book, Tea, described a coming out inseparable from a rough early life and from the advent of AIDS: Powell called a fine later book Cocktails, meaning at once the drugs taken to treat HIV and a sociable round of drinks. (You can read Powell’s own blog at the Poetry Foundation this year.) If Powell’s poems look back to the years of Act Up, Liz Waldner’s poems fit the “queer and now” late 1990s in which they first began to acquire a following: she describes love between men and women, love between women, desire and erotic commitment—especially in her fine, slippery book Dark Would (the missing person)—and draws clear lines from the era of Sappho to the age of the text message and the drag king. Her poems celebrate not only the variety of people we can love, but the ways in which we can declare it: “What happiness and a relief,” she writes, “I once again seem to be me.”
Stephen Burt is the author of The Forms of Youth: Twentieth-Century Poetry and Adolescence (Columbia University Press). His essays and articles on modern and contemporary poetry have appeared in many journals in America, Britain, and elsewhere, among them American Literary History, Boston Review, London Review of Books, the New York Times Book Review, the Times Literary Supplement, and the Yale Review. Burt is an Associate Professor of English at Harvard University.
Copyright 2008 Stephen Burt
This post originally appeared on Beacon Broadside.