Revealing rhymes: once poets veiled their feelings in code; now their poetry speaks volumes about their lives – gay and lesbian poets

John Weir

“I want to tell you something, and yet my shame prevents me,” Sappho wrote in the sixth century B.C. She had a crush on the Greek beauty Anactoria. Writing poetry was her way to put in words what she couldn’t say out loud.

For centuries gay men and lesbians have poured their feelings into poems that both hide and reveal their desires. Sometimes they let you see what moves them — Walt Whitman’s “Limpid liquid within the young man” — but mostly they don’t. “Lifting belly is hilarious, gay and favorable,” Gertrude Stein says, meaning Alice B. Toklas is good in bed. Who knew? Who knows what poets are up to? Are queers more coded in their language than other poets? Sometimes. Increasingly, however, gay and lesbian poets are willing to be direct about their gayness, often going past desire to talk about the fullness of their lives: growing up, growing old, balancing work and family and love. In other words, their poetry is about us, addressed to us, inviting us in.

New works by J.D. McClatchy, Mark Doty, Carl Phillips, and Timothy Liu are just the latest reminder that gay and lesbian poetry has come of age. Where “gay” poetry was a sideline a few years ago, voices as individual as Alfred Corn, Eileen Myles, Adrienne Rich, Maureen Seaton, and Marilyn Hacker are now defining the mainstream. Things have definitely changed since Sappho.

For a long time, of course, gay and lesbian poets had to leave important parts of gay life out of their writing. In the ’20s Hart Crane had sex with sailors in the Brooklyn Navy Yards, but in his epic poem of American life, The Bridge, he makes his lovers gender-nonspecific: “Your cool arms murmurously about me lay.” During the same era Harlem renaissance poets like Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen stayed away from same-sex love in their work, though nearly half the renaissance writers — including Cullen and Hughes — were gay or bisexual.

It took until the ’50s and early ’60s for a group of poets to write openly about gay love. But even so, the pronouns showed a bit of restraint. Frank O’Hara, who was a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, packed his work with moviestar references and homo-tinged events, such as having sex for the first time in a movie theater. But his love poems, like Crane’s, are written to “you”:

oh god it’s wonderful

to get out of bed

and drink too much coffee

and smoke too much cigarettes

and love you so much.

And while Beat poet Allen Ginsberg makes no bones about being gay in his 1956 poem “Howl,” he waited until 1984 to publish “Many Loves,” his pornographically explicit poem about his feelings for his buddy Neal Cassady (the real-life hero of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road):

Neal Cassady was my animal: he brought

me to my knees

and taught the love of his cock and the

secrets of his mind.

Ginsberg’s work is rooted in his own gay experience. He’s always saying, “Look at me.” After the Stonewall riots in 1969, however, poets like Rich, Audre Lorde, and Hacker begin to say, “Look at us”: Their work establishes a community.

In “Twenty-One Love Poems,” Rich addresses both her lovers and her readers as “we.” Lorde is inclusive too, though her tone is more urgent. She has no time to appease anyone, especially not antigay, antisex, anti-public-art politicians like Sen. Jesse Helms:

You’ll get yours

behind the senate toilets

where they’re waiting for you jessehelms

those white boys with their pendulous rules.

Lorde and Rich create a poetry of connection. They want you inside of their work rather than standing outside of it, scratching your head in awe and confusion. Hacker is an equally sociable poet, addressing her 1986 book-long love poem, Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons, to her best girlfriend. “I’m horny as a timber wolf in heat,” she confides, the way you talk to your pals when you don’t care if you sound politically correct.

Hacker, Lorde, and Rich opened up gay and lesbian poetry, making the coded language plainer and clearer. Suddenly it was much easier to talk directly about being gay. It was even necessary. “When I came out as a Lesbian poet I named my first book Sappho’s Boat,” downtown New York poet Myles says bluntly in her 1997 book, School of Fish. Why? “A bookstore called Oscar Wilde wouldn’t carry it because it wasn’t gay enough. I wanted to be in the store. You want gay, here’s Sappho’s Boat.”

Since the mid 1970s, writers such as Myles have been hauling poetry out of the hands of prissy aesthetes and giving it back to homo rock and rollers like Liu, whose new book is Say Goodnight. A former Mormon missionary, he writes with an evangelical fervor that’s both religious and blasphemous. In “Reading Whitman in a Toilet Stall” from 1995’s Burnt Offerings, he imports graffiti from the john wall:


uncut men with lots of cheese. No fats. No


Under twenty a real plus.

A few contemporary gay poets have produced bodies of work that earned not just the respect of their peers but crossover celebrity status. Primary among these is McClatchy. Editor of the The Yale Review and de facto heir to the urbane and formalist style of poet James Merrill, McClatchy is a 52-year-old man whose aging body, in two new volumes, takes on the personality of a difficult lover. The essays in Twenty Questions investigate his bouts with psychotherapy. And the poems in Ten Commandments guide us through experiences like “My Mammogram.” There he is,

Fifty, male, already embarrassed by the size

Of my “breasts,” I’m told to put the left one,

Up an a smudged, cold, Plexiglas shelf.

The swelling in his chest doesn’t turn out to be cancer after all, but the humiliation is real.

Another poet willing to let himself look both tender and absurd is Corn, whose 1997 book, Present, is filled with funny, real moments of daily ordinariness. To Corn poetry isn’t a bunch of pretty words set down in lines that don’t go all the way across the page. It’s his living. “Wages of poetry got us at least this far,” he tells his lover. “[W]e’ve all of three small rooms to keep in shape.

Corn and McClatchy are willing to look vulnerable, sharing lives we all recognize. Doty is equally aware of the fragility of everyday life, especially in his poems about his lover, Wally, who died of AIDS complications. Doty’s work shows the delicate, aching transience of love and beauty in poems so finely sculpted that he has been accused of being too gorgeous for his own good. He counters, divalike, in his new book, Sweet Machine:

— No such thing,

the queen said,

as too many sequins.

What all these poets share, even more than their gayness, is joy — in words, in daily life, in friends, lovers, fast cars, and pop songs. Phillips, whose new book is From the Devotions, describes pleasures as small as the comforting sense of your lover asleep upstairs as you walk at night through a quiet house.

Even when they are self-consciously sexual and/or political, contemporary queer poets have a talent for surprises. For instance, in Denise Duhamel’s and Seaton’s 1997 collaboration, Exquisite Politics, Duhamel is the “straight” girl, while Seaton is “queer.” But try to figure out which identity is which. Who, for instance, is behind “Litany of the Fathers,” which begins

Father of lawn mowers and rakes, we demand

you hear us…

Father who taught nigger, faggot, bitch,

father who farted and laughed,

pay us back

Seaton and Duhamel suggest that the whole code of “gayness” is a fabrication. Their words break through the myth that gay lives are somehow fundamentally different from straight ones.

Nothing makes this clearer than the constant presence, in recent poetry by both straight and gay men and women, of death from breast cancer and AIDS. Loss has become our binding experience. It’s in Hacker’s wrenchingly direct “Cancer Winter.” It’s in Frank Bidart’s “In Memory of Joe Brainard,” in his 1997 Desire, recently nominated for a National Book Award. It’s in poetry by gay writers living — Richard McCann, Michael Klein, Michael Lassell — and dead — Assoto Saint, Essex Hemphill, Melvin Dixon, Paul Monette.

It’s in Marie Howe’s beautiful new book, What the Living Do, which has a series of poems mourning her brother, John, who died of AIDS complications. Howe is straight, but her eulogies for John show the fault line where gay and straight shift and collide. What makes her writing special is its heart-shattering simplicity.

My younger brother, Andy, said: This is so

weird. I don’t know if I’ll be

talking with John today, or buying a pair of

pants for his funeral.

That says enough, and too much. So do the poems in Tim Dlugos’s Powerless, which spans the 20 years of the poet’s life until his death in 1990. “Some things never run out,” he writes in 1973, “my poverty, for instance,” as well as “your blond hair.” By the end of the book, however, with Dlugos writing poems from the hospital room where he is dying of AIDS, everything runs out, including time:

I know AIDS is no chess game

but a hunt, and there is no

way of escaping the bloody

horror of the kill

no way

to bail out, no bright

parachute beside my bed.

Like Sappho, Dlugos has something he wants to tell us. What is so moving about his work is that nothing stops him — not even death.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Liberation Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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