Written Text and Notes from 1999 Lecture on Gay Poetry at Provincetown Poetry Festival
Updated: Apr 5
Readings: 35 min
Lecture: 21 min.
After 30 Years: The Effects of Stonewall on Gay Poetry
Thanks Dennis. First let me say that I have no doubt that “gay poetry” and “gay literature” are cultural and historical artifacts, labels based in our present contemporary moment. In several decades, “gay poetry” and “lesbian poetry” will be absorbed into the American cannon as part of a poetic of gender and multiculturalism, which dominated this late phase of the twentieth century. History will always write us differently. Every age has its preoccupied vision and paradigm. There is much exciting scholarship to be done to sketch out The Poetics of Gender, Race and Identity Politics, and The Literature of Multiculturalism. Fusion Poetry is already on its way to defining the new century.
Also let me mention that today I am focusing on gay male poetry but keep in mind that gay poetry could not exist without lesbian verse, women’s verse and the entire influence of the traditional American cannon.
The triumph of the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion was in its unified activist spirit. Modeled directly on the black Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Movement and The Sexual Revolution/ Hippie Revolution of the sixties, Stonewall with its ensuing Gay Liberation Movement demanded a large and visible national urban as well as rural gay coalition to effect change. The act of “coming out” at all levels of society was an act of political self-identification. By embracing gay identity, the individual joined a political union, if you will, which provided mutual support, protection and strength in numbers.
The pressure on American language to proclaim this new identity and to find a vernacular for celebrating its vitality, for moving from dissemblance to disclosure, from the isolation of “otherness” to a theatricality of “otherness,” is heard most immediately in gay verse. Burke’s rhetoric of motives prevailed. Verse needed to persuade others to come out. Poetry was everywhere in the early gay underground newspapers and magazines. Swift, expedient, direct, it lent itself to both polemic and manifesto. Of course, gay verse was important prior to Stonewall. ONE magazine began publishing in the early fifties. Somewhat assimilationist, it still presented the human side of gay experience--strong emotions and anxiety wedded to eloquence.
Byrne Fone in The Columbia Anthology of Gay Literature makes an interesting point about pre-Stonewall and post-Stonewall gay literature:
Coming out in pre-Stonewall Literature was only occasionally political—the important exceptions being Don Leon’s anonymous author [alleged to be by Lord Byron], Walt Whitman, John Addington Symonds, and Edward Carpenter—and even then the political element was subject to the imperatives and dangers attendant upon public exposure. Thus coming out in pre-Stonewall texts more often tended to be an essentially personal, private, and often anonymous enterprise (729).
Pre-Stonewall poetry tended to rest in the shadowlands of restricted hidden enclosure, where queenly voices spoke their dispirited burdens of impossible desire or men furtively shared their sex in teahouse bathrooms in parks and subways. It also dwelled in a finely esoteric, erudite and highly aesthetic tradition which shared a certain feeling of pathos and defeat, a sadness born in the lines of Cavafy. Gay poetry of that time also felt a nostalgia towards its fathers and precursors, Whitman’s tradition, expansive and individualistic, reincarnated no better than in Ginsberg.
In my actual dissertation entitled “The Calamus Root: American Gay Male Poetry Since World War II” I have lay out a taxonomy of various historical periods, movements, scenes and aesthetic themes which all draw from various facets of gay culture. I will not cover those periods today but I will read to you various poems from different moments in the tradition. To begin with, pre-Stonewall poetry reflects a growing restlessness with American life and mores as depicted in the fifties and early sixties:
1)Frank O’Hara “Homosexuality” (1954) [Fone, pg. 705] 1.33 min (p1)
2)“A Supermarket in California” 1955 Allen Ginsberg[Fone, 707] 2.16 min (p2)
3)Adrian Stanford’s “Remembrances of Rittenhouse Square” magazine 1965. [ pg. 84] 57 sec (p3)
4) Ralph Pomeroy “Gay Love and the Movies” (1969) [Fone, pg732] 2.05 min (p4)
You can hear the early spirit of liberation awakening, even as it struggles with a shadowy and censored world of marginalization.
* * *
Frank O’Hara and Allen Ginsberg of the late fifties brought the gay aesthetic to a wider national audience. They shared the consciousness of a gay underground experience, airing out both dirty underwear and witty repartee.
Ginsberg , Adrienne Rich, Judy Grahn, and Audre Lorde foremost were responsible for American Poetry’s zig zag toward the “personal as political.” Certainly it was headed that direction anyway. These poets gained from the successes of the Beat movement, the feminist movement and the Black Arts Movement. Rich’s feminist/lesbian poetry in the early seventies and Ginsberg’s sexually graphic and celebratory works set the stage for the gay or lesbian poet to become poetic spokespersons for American political, cultural and social thought. Grahn, Rich, Lorde and Ginsberg crossed the line, raised the bar in risk-taking and visibility, which previous poets such as Rukeyser, Bishop and Crane had flirted with but for various reasons were never able to undertake as a life direction.
For the most part, American poets of the pre-Stonewall era who happened to be gay were not focused upon participating in a poetics of gender which sought to subvert a language denigrating to women and homosexuals, although William Carlos Williams had returned the American tradition to a common, contemporary vernacular. This poetic became the perfect vehicle for emerging social and political views.
The post-Modern occurred at the moment American culture was subdivided into the multicultural experience and French theories of epistemology came into play. It also felt it’s beginnings in the Beats, Charles Olson and the post-World War II esprit of America. Variously condemned and argued by critics, scholars and historians, the fact remains that post-modern identity politics and culture have irrevocably changed the literary landscape of late twentieth century America. Along with this we see the feminist challenge to the male-dominated world of American poetry. Women in the women’s movement understood the challenge and difficulty of writing themselves into the American cannon, of displacing traditional male views, male genres and styles. Women needed to re-invent a language, find expression and lyricism for their own lives and sexuality, rejecting the self-destructive mythic torment of a Sexton or Plath. Their writing needed not only to be politically strong and expressive but also to be strongly crafted and elegant to meet the criticism of the male establishment. This double standard and this enormous desire to reinvent their stereotypical domain as writers of nature, flowers and bitter domesticity propelled them toward a highly polished poetry of ideas. Experimentation abounded as they reclaimed their bodies and their vision.
Writing one’s experience in the late twentieth century has required a self-critical perspective, a greater awareness of literary history, world history and the social critiques of Marxism as well as the post-Modern philosophers such as Lyotard, Jameson, Baudrillard. It was no longer possible to retreat to the romantic introspection of the English Romantic poets, or to Whitman’s own expansive democratic vista, or the dark, fractured abstract irony and stream of consciousness of the high Modernists.
So what of Stonewall and American gay poetry itself? Several significant effects that Stonewall had on American poetry were:
1)Poetry and the personal were co-opted in the service of the political and vice versa. American poetics drifted toward the multicultural and identity politics. American verse became a cultural entity which drew upon a newly claimed “personal history,” “personal culture” and “community.” Gay poems about Cavafy and Whitman were everywhere. The hidden signals of pre-Stonewall poetry, as telling as a carnation in a lapel or lavender handkerchief, gave way to a more visible signification of gay poetic tradition and unity.
2)The homoerotic in American poetry was foreground with greater confidence in order to express that which had been censored and to liberate it from heterosexual love verse, which had dominated the western tradition for centuries. The homoerotic was no longer marginalized and erotic verse (in the tradition of Roman and Greek literature) enjoyed its revival.
3)Cultural transmission of American poetry proliferated with the explosion in the sixties of political underground presses. The mimeograph, Xerox and desktop technologies propelled the countercultural, gay, lesbian and feminist movement. The political presses that churned out leaflets and newsletters began to support literature. The ensuing gay publishing revolution afforded a cheap venue for the sharing of poetry. The censorship of the traditional American houses and presses which had hindered poetic careers such as Hart Crane and Robert Duncan had fostered a more self-sufficient, anti-establishment spirit in poets which left them poised in the wake of Stonewall to exercise a new separatist claim and challenge to the American tradition. Gay and lesbian reading series, gay and lesbian bookstores were hastily created to feed the desire for books about gay life and history.
4.) Gays and lesbians were brought together by mutual political interests and affinities and a cross-mentoring and literary influence was exerted, which broadened experimentation and fostered a rich democratic coalition of feminist, black, Latino, and other ethnic minority perspectives.
In post-Stonewall writing, Fone tells us that gay writers had:
moved ‘coming out’ away from being a question of private
recognition and acceptance and translated it into the realm of public political action, arguing that coming out is a necessary political act and the primary
political weapon in the battle against homophobia. If gay literature after Stonewall celebrated the immediate intoxication of gay liberation, it soon turned to portraying the dizzying sexual and social choreography of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s: gay life—and what had come to be called a gay lifestyle—had suddenly become rich with the multiple possibilities of desire, a desire reflected in life in the ultra-masculine, outfront “clone”-style fashions of the seventies and eighties, which resolutely repudiated the more uptight elegance of the straight world’s jacket and tie as well as the nelly effeminacy that characterized the pre-Stonewall gay’s self-image (Fone 730).
I would like to read a poem that came out in the early post-Stonewall period:
1)William Barber “Explanation” (1973) [Fone 734] 39 sec (p5)
* * *
Some have argued that the Stonewall experiment was derailed, diverted in its early years to the narcissistic excesses of the Mafia controlled bathhouses and sex bars, the euphoria of drugs and the eventual arrival of plague. In some ways this is true when you consider the mid to late seventies and the preoccupation with gay ghetto life, the turn to sex, drugs and the commodification of the gay community. “Out of the Closets and into the Camps”  might summarize this derailment. A hypermasculinity and outlaw status was born of the ghetto and the traditions of Baudelaire, Genet and Ginsberg.
The gay Beat spirit continued. Boston with its “Fag Rag” magazine became a site for the reinvention of a true Boston-style gay tea party for American poetics. Charles Shively is to be congratulated. Rudy Kikel as well.
1) Dennis Cooper “Hustlers” Dream Police p64 54 sec (p6)
2) Kirby Congdon “Motocyclists” pg82 A Day for A Lay 29 sec (p7)
American poetics was caught in the crossfire. It was inevitable that sexuality, race and gender in the late seventies became the final twentieth century frontier for self-revelation and self-expression in American poetics. Gay poets such as Charles Ortleb and Aaron Shurin were exploring the issues of male sex and gender from the front lines. Again Boston and New York supported this Zeitgeist. A poem such as Ortleb’s award winning 1975 “Militerotics” (published in Bifrost’s Mouth of the Dragon ) reflects this period:
1)“Militerotics” The Son of the Male Muse pg. 132 I 1.5 min (pp 8-9)
2)Aaron Shurin’s “Exorcism of the Straight/Man/Demon” p165 Son of a Male Muse. 1.57 min (pp 10-11)
Some gay poets were of a different sort. Less political, sometimes wealthier, more literate, accomplished, aesthetic-minded, they took to the high road. A pre-Stonewall cosmopolitanism had always reigned with Auden, Merrill and beyond. Literate, accomplished, Christopher Street magazine became one vehicle for this poetry. Gay poets, like others before them, found a respected if not veiled life in high places of influence. Mostly white, these poets built a culture of reference, allusion, questioning their priviledged education and framing their adolescence through the lens of erudition:
1)Richard Howard “Decades” Section V “Garrettsville.”p.5 For Hart Crane-
Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence becomes “Fellow Feelings.” 1.47 min (p12)
2)Henri Cole, The Visible Man “Etna” pg. 15 1.41 minutes (pp13-14)
Still other cosmopolitan gay poets continued a tradition of O’Hara, Schuyler and Whitman. Liberationists in tone they presented specifically a new gay domesticity and urbanity. A form of light verse, Vers de societe (French for social verse), brief, sophisticated, graceful , and witty about social relationships and conventions, attends some although not all of their work. Merrill, Howard, and McClatchy certainly have this as well:
1) Alfred Corn “A Marriage in the Nineties” pg. 88 from Present 5.46 min (pp 15-16)
2) Edward Field. “Couples Syndrome,” p 69 A Frieze for a Temple of Love. 2.38 min (pp 17-19)
The early wave of identity politics in American poetry of the eighties flourished with the advent of gay multiculturalism. A sense that “difference” was not only of sexual preference and gender but rested in race as well. Several poems from the African-Caribbean-American tradition are:
1)“Family Jewels” Essex Hemphill pg. 190 Larkin and Morse anthology
1.25 min (p20)
“Heart and Soul” Assotto Saint pg. 44 “Wishing for Wings” 1.18 min
Gay hispanic and Asian-American poetry began to take its start as well on the heels of this verse movement.
In the late eighties the culture of AIDS became a reality. Transforming verse, it brought anger, loss and elegy to the fore.
1)Michael Lassel “How to Watch Your Brother Die” Fone pg 801]
4.08 min (pp22-23)
2)“Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” David Warren Frechette, p. 127 “Here to Dare” 1.57 min (pp24-25)
To the queer generation and generation X, Y, and Z we have Mark Bibbins, Mark Doty and Justin Chin who add the new influences of Language Poetry, Performance Poetry, the indeterminacy of Ashbery’s school and the multicultural Diaspora. It is a medium for a new disjointed reality of both identity and feeling as well as a new sense of humor. The American themes still hover, gay themes, loss, AIDS, celebration, eroticism, desire, censorship but the great age of Identity Politics and Multiculturalism has shifted to a newer modernity at the turn of the century. Like Ginsberg’s poem I read at the start we are now shopping in a much more complex world of metaphors, a supermarket no longer of discrete innuendo, political metaphor and left-leaning philosophies. Communism and capitalism have changed, the social experiments have been dismantled and subsumed in a global capitalist village of virtual realities, poetics is logging on to a newer sense of being. Fusion in our poetry has brought both spoken word, performance and written forms, into a new assimilation of possibilities. A neo-surrealism forms this world of virtual identities and poetry. Mournful yet humorous, non-cynical, they are less self-conscious in their gayness—poems not about sexual orientation, but about any perception or perspective that is “other.” Queer, in essence means “Other,” and the other becomes one more complex screen of reference to interact with.
1)Bibbins “Kamikaze” Take 3. Pg 62 39 sec (p26)
2) Timothy Liu “Highway 6” From Burnt Offerings, pg. 14 1.25 min (p27)
3)Justin Chin “ Bite Hard” “Risings” pg 21 “Bite Hard.” P.p. 21-23 3.15 min
A Brief American Gay Poetry Publishing Chronology Since Stonewall (1969)
1969: Paul Mariah, the poet, founds ManRoot magazine and the ManRoot press in San Francisco with Richard Taggett.
August 1970: Winston Leyland’s seminal bi-monthly, then quarterly, magazine, Gay Sunshine, appears and continues through the decade to the early eighties.
1971: Fag Rag magazine is established by the Boston Gay Liberation Front.
March 1971: Leyland’s Gay Sunshine ushers in an entire generation of gay literature. Gay Sunshine’s March, 1971 issue covers the first ever “Gay Poetry Reading” which occurs at San Francisco State College. Leyland writes: “as far as I know the first such reading in the country to include prominent gay poets.” The reading featured Paul Mariah, William Barber, Alta, Richard Taggett, Robert Duncan, Judy Grahn and Thom Gunn.
1973: Leyland’s Gay Sunshine along with Ian Young’s famous anthology The Male Muse: A Gay Anthology help to shape and define the Post-Stonewall generation of gay male poets.
In 1974 Andrew Bifrost founds Mouth of the Dragon (A Poetry Journal of Male Love). In the same year RFD (A Country Journal for Gay Men Everywhere) begins its operation.
1975: The anthology Angels of the Lyre appears, edited by Leyland.
1977: Orgasms of Light, edited by Leyland.
1976: Christopher Street magazine premiers.
1977: The Sea Horse Press is established by Felice Picano.
1979: Richard K. Martin’s The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry
1980: Picano publishes A True Likeness, the first lesbian and gay anthology.
1983: Steven Coote’s The Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse
1986: Gay black poets emerge in the eighties with such influential ventures as Blackheart Collective which started Other Countries magazine. Joseph Beam publishes his anthology, In the Life.
1988: Gay and Lesbian Poetry in Our Time, edited by Carl Morse and Joan Larkin.
1989: David Waggoner’s magazine Art and Understanding premiers, “America’s AIDS magazine.” Michael Klein’s AIDS anthology of poetry, Poets for Life.
1991: Essex Hemphill and Joseph Beam’s Brother to Brother . That same year Assotto Saint’s famous The Road Before Us: 100 Gay Black Poets is published. Multicultural/identity politics verse.
1992: Here to Dare: 10 Gay Black Poets ,edited by Assotto Saint.
1994: Gents, Bad Boys, and Barbarians: New Gay Male Poetry, edited by Rudy Kikel. New poets on the scene as of 1994.
1995: The Name of Love:Classic Gay Love Poems, edited by Michael Lassell. First of the gift book, love poetry classics.
1995: The Badboy Book of Erotic Poetry, edited by David Laurents. A period of increased marketing of erotic verse and erotic fiction.
1998: Poetry Nation: The North American Anthology of Fusion Poetry, edited by Regie Cabico and Todd Swift. Queer ‘zine generation and beyond.
1999: A Day for a Lay: A Century of Gay Poetry, edited by Gavin Geoffrey Dillard. Retrospective of the gay tradition
Young, Ian. The Stonewall Experiment: A Gay Psychohistory. New York: Cassell, 1995.
Yingling, Thomas E. Hart Crane and the Homosexual Text. Chicago U. of Chicago Press, 1990.
Faas, Edbert. Young Robert Duncan: A Portrait of the Poet as Homosexual in Society.
Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1983.
 Allen Tate severely attacked Hart Crane in an essay over the issue of his homosexuality. Tate implies
“that homosexuality is equivalent to ‘intellectual deterioration’ and finds that because Crane was ‘confirmed in his homosexuality’ he was ‘cut off from any relationship…in which the security necessary to mutual love was possible’” (Yingling 61)
 John Crowe Ransom refused to publish Duncan’s previously accepted poem, “An African Elegy,” in the Kenyon Review because it had homosexual content. Ransom proclaimed that the magazine was “not in the market for literature of this type—overt homosexuality” (Faas 152).
 “The Stonewall riots were a watershed for gay people, and when the dam broke, a lot of idealism, anger and longing burst out of their social restraints, carrying with them the debris of deep repression, confusion and self-hatred. What Ginsberg called ‘the wounded look’ had been momentarily startled into awareness, but the wounds were too deeep to be easily healed, the methods of healing were little known, and even such ideology as Gay Liberation possessed was largely left over from other movements. The ideas of earlier thinkers like Carpenter, Whitman and Heard, which could have provided inspiration and direction, were obscured or forgotten. Gay Liberation burst onto a North American society suffused with commercialism, organized crime, sexual neurosis and homophobia, a society which, as the fate of black civil rights and the hippies showed, had a cunning ability to co-opt radical movements” (Young 56).
 Title of chapter 2 from Ian Young’s The Stonewall Experiment.
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by Walter Holland, copyright, April 15, 1999, All Rights Reserved