Poetry has always been the province of the consummate insider and the total outsider—a dichotomous split between the institutionalized John Clare types and the silver spoon James Merrill’s. The origin myth of poetry in English is of a literal outsider. Poor Caedmon is so embarrassed to have no songs to sing that he goes out behind the Mead Hall and there is possessed by the spirit of God. And then he goes back inside, where he becomes the consummate insider—the father of English Poetry.
[A quick note on the use of the word queer—because this sometimes gets me in trouble. “Queer” came into use in the 1990s in order to have a kind of umbrella term for all the intersecting sexuality and gender identities that were not “normative.” Back before “cisgender” was a clear analog to “transgender” and the US Supreme Court had ruled that states could outlaw “sodomy” and Britain’s age of consent was higher for same-sex sex acts than opposite-sex sex acts, it was useful to have a world that meant “everything other than traditional male and female roles.” “Queer” also suggests an intellectual investigation of sexuality and gender. I use it because it feel inclusive to me—it allows me to include identities I might not have considered yet. Still, I would only advise you to use the word “Queer” if you can name the last five books you read that were indexed as “Queer Theory” or if you have more than five friends who identify as “queer.” Otherwise, you might do well to stick with “LGBT.” It’s a bit cumbersome, but it basically gets the job done.]
Queers, like poets, have always been both insiders and outsiders—and like poets, played the inside off against the outside. Some queer poets have done it brilliantly. Walt Whitman was able to summon a whirlwind of queer eroticism that celebrated democracy and the America project in ways that more or less make him the father of U.S. poetry. Edward Carpenter celebrated Whitman as a kind of secular saint, and John Addington Symonds asked if he was writing about same sex love. Other poets have been less successful. Oscar Wilde overestimated the extent of his insider status, and found himself on the outside of Britannia’s favor.
When it comes to poetry, queers are a fairly powerful presence. As Eve Sedgwick once put the queer question (paraphrasing Saul Bellow’s tone deaf “Where is the Zulu Tolstoy?), “Where is the gay Shakespeare?” Well… Shakespeare was the gay Shakespeare… sort of. I’ll admit that I think it’s slightly silly to say that Shakespeare was gay (I’m not on sufficient terms with ghost of Anne Hathaway to ask), but I wouldn’t quite say that he was straight. When I teach Sonnet 20, I point out that “I really wish you were a woman because I’d quite like to have sex with you, but since you have a penis, and I can’t, well, just enjoy my affection, and hurry up and have sex with a woman already!” is not exactly a common expression of hetrosexual desire. In fact. Had my roommate said that to me in college, I would have been fairly sure that I wasn’t the only gay one in the room. Still, I would argue that the nexus of desire, gender, and identity expressed in Sonnet 20 has no contemporary analog. This is where the word “queer” is extremely useful.
In America, it’s not uncommon to hear the genealogy of American Poetry start with Father Walt and Mother Emily—Walt Whitman expanded the line to follow the pattern of syntax, while Emily Dickinson broke the line into shards that glittered like mosaic tiles. Dickinson’s sexuality (again, I’m not going to say that she was a lesbian, but she was certainly queer) is explored best by Martha Nell Smith and Ellen Louise Hart in their book Open Me Carefully. Just think of the line “Might I but moor the night in thee” and then get your head in the gutter. (As Oscar said… “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”)
That break happened at the end of the 19th Century—and then central to the reinvention of American Poetry in the mid 20th Century were two more queers (both Jewish!). Adrienne Rich and Allen Ginsberg were unabashedly political and iconoclastic. Ginsberg championed the Beats, and took the outsiders in; Rich left her insider status to pursue Feminist and working class issues in a way that left her looking like an outsider.
When I began studying poetry in the 1990s, AIDS cast a long shadow over the gay community. Homosexuality still tended to operate a stigma, and it often surfaced as something in need of explanation. I remember a professor bringing Craig Arnold’s ‘Hot’ to class, and everyone was confused until I explained that he was having dinner with someone with AIDS. I had to explain Thom Gunn’s ‘First Meeting with a Possible Mother in Law’. The 90’s may have been the heyday of identity politics, but to me it felt like the heyday of tokenism. Once I was at a party and a faculty member turned to me and asked, “Jason, why do gay men like camp?” I think I gave a pretty good answer, but it was hardly an isolated incident. The upside of being tokenized was that I learned to represent.
Queer poets have been extremely important to me, and I’ve often found myself wondering about the line that separates a ghetto from a safe space. There are times when I am with gay poets that I feel entirely at home, and times that I feel completely marginalized. Two of the poets who truly mentored me—who saw something in me worth cultivating and cherishing—are straight. In celebrating queer poets, I don’t think that straight poets should feel that I’m not talking to them. Before anything else, we’re poets. And that is a ghetto and a safe space sine qua non.