Why Queer Poetry Still Matters

In a time when acceptance is illusory, it’s more important now than ever that stories from the outside are told.

The times have changed since Lawrence Ferlinghetti was born in 1919; they’ve changed, too, since he helped found San Francisco’s legendary City Lights Bookstore, in 1953. But by 2007, when Ferlinghetti released Poetry as Insurgent Art, the internet had instigated such constant disruption that the only real “change” would be a calm — a thing, it seems, is impossible in the technological age. Much of today’s poetry reflects this chaotic reality, and, in writing, the everyday and commonplace have become the new obscene. This feeling is captured in Poetry as Insurgent Art’s “I am signaling you through the flames,” which reads:

I am signaling you through the flames.

The North Pole is not where it used to be.

Manifest Destiny is no longer manifest. 

Civilization self-destructs. 

Nemesis is knocking at the door.

What are poets for, in such an age?
What is the use of poetry?

In his conclusion, Ferlinghetti calls to the poet-reader, addressing them as Whitman, Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, etc. — all famous writers, some of them queer. And that’s maybe apt, as it’s long been queer writers who have made the case for poetry as activism — even today, when their voices might no longer seem necessary and poetry is sometimes a punchline. Because even as their stories creep in from the margins, queer lives are not transformed into fairytales by marriage equality and the cooption of drag culture. Queer voices must still be heard, and poetry’s tradition of tribal truth-telling always has and continues to make it the perfect tool for the dissemination of those voices.

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Queerness was present in poetry long before queer was queer or gay was gay. It’s an intricate and delicate endeavor to delve into the world of Sappho and Plato and the way ancient writers spoke of loving others of the same sex, one that requires years of playing and thousands of words of rules. The confusing-to-translate nature of Greek society’s abundant writing on communal love, specifically between men, has puzzled interpretation of ancient attitudes toward same-sex love, or even same-sex sex. The trend, whether sodomitical or communal, appears to have been widely recorded in the arts until Roman dominance, becoming glaringly absent when Christianity took root.

From then, it either disappeared or hid under a heavy blanket of symbolism, as did most of what could be considered taboo — such is the nature of taboo. There was surely gay lust and love in the poems and writing in the centuries in between — likely even in Shakespeare — but it wasn’t until the late 1800s and onward that we saw a resurgence of what looked to be in-your-face queerness in poetry. There was Whitman, Wilde, and Rimbaud — and the latter’s maybe-unwilling lover, Paul Verlaine, too.

Thousands of years after Plato condemned man-on-man sex, poets in the late 1800s and early 1900s still felt the need to distance themselves from the acts that were hinted at in writing. Whitman, who has become an icon for the proudly weird and queer, dismissed his possible gayness. As an example of his arguably queer content, here are lines from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass that express love for a person or thing named as him:

Not the air delicious and dry, the air of ripe summer, bears lightly
along white down-balls of myriads of seeds,

Wafted, sailing gracefully, to drop where they may;

Not these, O none of these more than the flames of me, consum-
ing, burning for his love whom I love,

Of course, transcendentalist Whitman may have been referring to nature, though he didn’t make that argument when questioned about this section of his book, saying, “That [this part] has even allow’d the possibility of such construction as mention’d is terrible. [These are] morbid inferences … & seem damnable.” (Pay no mind — or do? — to the fact that Whitman basically confirmed to reporters that he had sex with Oscar Wilde. Pay no mind either to his comically phallic “To A Locomotive In Winter.”)

How to explain the separation between Whitman’s writing and his explanation, then? This was the era when homosexuality was just catching play as a signifier of a lifestyle, and certainly long before any kind of understanding of what that meant. The public cost for sleeping with men in the late 1800s was still so great that Wilde, who, more than Whitman, was provably and openly gay, very publicly denied his own homosexuality, knowing that to have accusations of it proven would (and did) secure his demise and fall from favor.

It’s no wonder that, in the years that followed, as the lifestyle and urge became legitimized, and more queer selves were embraced, unabashedly gay poets loudly overtook the medium. This artistic coming out preceded the Stonewall riots of ’69, but intensified along with the world’s coming to terms with queerness, and has only grown louder since.

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The last hundred years or so bore an unbelievable bounty of queer poets. We’ve been given the unsung gay poets of the Harlem Renaissance, such as Richard Bruce Nugent, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Langston Hughes, and Countee Cullen. We were given James L. White, Adrienne Rich, W.H. Auden, too, and the Beats, who spoke freely of homosexuality in widely read and disseminated poems. Before that, openly bisexual Malay won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Today, the standard bearers of poetry have shifted from the mainstream to the unseen, with established queer poets like Audre Lorde, Eileen Myles, Mark Doty, and Maggie Nelson continuing to make way for younger queer poets like Danez Smith, Saeed Jones, sam sax, Ocean Vuong, and Derrick Austin.

It’s imperfect to conflate these artists with one another, and doing so risks erasure of each person’s struggles. The black queer writers of the Harlem Renaissance were not so vocal about their sexual identity beyond their immediate community, because the option wasn’t available to them in the way it was to the Beats, who were largely white men and so didn’t face the public and intellectual skepticism that is so often the subtle, subconscious result of systematic racism. So, to say that white gay men have struggles equal to those of lesbians, the transgender community, or black men and women — let alone queer black men and women — certainly takes away from the accomplishments of the Harlem Renaissance and those who have followed. And yet, in the differences between these communities, commonality can still be found in the way they were divorced from the rest of America. Or, more simply put: there’s unity in diversity, just as there’s comfort in poetry’s formal and linguistic oddities.

“I think what drew me to poetry first was how other it was. This wasn’t the language of ordinary talk, but something compressed, allusive, something that seemed to point to more than it could say,” Mark Doty told me via email. And he has been, in one form or another, crafting poems since high school. “If you read them now, you wouldn’t know what they were about. I was pretty well hidden, sometimes even from myself. But it was a life-saving thing, to have a form for feeling.”

For Danez Smith, who approaches poetry through spoken word rather than the other way around, it’s that form’s community-building power that drew him to it. For an example of that power, look no further than the stereotypical, embarrassing “O Captain! My Captain!” scene from Dead Poets Society. Now place that scene in any small town where a poet or business owner is motivated to hold a poetry reading — and, of course, people actually attend — and suddenly the like-minded and cast-aside find themselves in a room together, willingly, and without fear of retribution. “Since the beginning, for me, for many spoken word artist and poets, we have always known that our craft and indeed our worth is grounded in community, in the relationships between people,” says Smith. “That relationship could be between poet and audience, between poet and poet, between audience and audience and the joy that comes in sharing the good news of a poem with someone, but thank god for spoken word because it necessitates other people.”

Smith’s words ring especially true when taken to their logical conclusion, which is that spoken word and poetry are at their most powerful when the audience is in some way changed by the things they’ve heard or read. Doty elucidates on this, points out how poetry’s compact form allows it to penetrate preconceived notions. “I’ve written a number of poems that touch upon the consequences of homophobia in a direct way, consequences that aren’t abstract but which wound our bodies and our spirits. I can’t tell you how many times straight readers have said to me something like, ‘I never really got that before, I never imagined how it felt.’ I am amazed by that, that a poem might make that happen.”

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That such impact is possible with so little is one of poetry’s biggest draws. All one needs for materials are a pen and pencil — or even a notes application on an iPhone. All one needs as a method of dispersal is a mouth, or a Twitter account with a few followers and a key retweet. All one needs for validation and a place with the new young establishment is to land a few poems in a key journal or to have a chapbook pressed by one of the many publishers who have come to make up the ever-growing web of small presses that are chiefly responsible for today’s poetry renaissance, especially for queer poetry.

Magazines/websites like Assaracus, Bloom, Gertrude, and The Offing — as well as a rotating stable of others, given the tenuous nature of all new literary endeavors —specialize in queer lit, while most other journals embrace it, even if they don’t make a point of it. The possibilities are seemingly endless, which, as a statement, is the antithesis of publishing. Poetry at its root and in its offspring is one of the few artforms that has remained consistent in its ability to start a fire — this is what Ferlinghetti was reminding us of. In that way it makes little sense that poetry has been lumped into the white, whiney world of book publishing, then, as its strengths almost defy commodification.

The makeup of the publishing industry, too, proves its divorce from poetry, as it continues to be as homogenous as ever. This is not to say that zero queer people work in the industry, or that blockbuster books are never queer-centric, but they’re nowhere near — and never will be — the majority. It’s not likely that marginalized poets who want to make careers in the publishing industry while chasing the financially nil passion that is poetry will ever do so, because, as an institution, publishing doesn’t embrace these voices. Poetry, meanwhile, is a tradition, and its tradition is activism, inclusion, and defiance — a perfect draw for those of us who feel overwhelmingly othered in the world, for whatever reason.

“When I was in high school, Def Poetry introduced me to the idea that poets were living, breathing, brown people, not just the dead white bros I had learned about, not just something of the Harlem Renaissance, but of black folks who are black today,” says Smith.

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Just as Whitman and Wilde denying their sexuality is excusable given their world’s blindness to their lifestyle, you might think it’d be understandable, too, if the poets addressed by Ferlinghetti felt no need to defend or vocalize their own lifestyles. The headline news for a time made it seem as if queer lives had become completely accepted. The White House colored itself rainbow when, in 2015, the Supreme Court’s ruling on Obergefell v. Hodges hypothetically legalized same sex marriage throughout the United States, giving all Americans the pastoral pleasure of legalized lifetime commitment. Gay representation in media is at an all-time high, and RuPaul’s Drag Race has come to define a generation through subverting its vocabulary, all the kids “throwing shade” at and “dragging” those who’ve done them wrong. Caitlyn Jenner is about to pose nude on the cover of Sports Illustrated. And we’ve been blessed with a deluge of queer movies — good and bad — in the past few years.

But these policy victories and the mainstream’s cooption of queer culture don’t mean that suddenly queer lives are not at risk. Just as Barack Obama’s inauguration didn’t sweep clean the United States’ foundational racism, the legalizing of same sex marriage didn’t stop gay-bashings. It also didn’t stop North Carolina or Mississippi from passing laws that allow discrimination of those who have sexual identities or orientations that don’t pass muster with religious types. The threat is still very much real for those of us who live in ways condemned by the Bible or bigots. In a time when acceptance is illusory, it’s more important now than ever that these stories from the outside are heard.

But is poetry really the best way to make these voices heard? Especially if, as some always argue, poetry is dead, and that that death is due to poetry’s inability to bring about change in the world because it “might not be loud enough any longer”?

This claim has been refuted countless times, and it’s going to keep being made, even when evidence is clearly to the contrary. We’re not arguing one way or another here; all of publishing is struggling, online and off. Poetry, though, has been dead — financially — for a while. Maybe even always. Even the poets who win the biggest possible literary awards see paltry book sales. This is why poetry has most stereotypically been embraced by the tweed-and-patches world of academia: it’s truly there, more than anywhere else that money goes to die. It’s also there that institutional figures seem most ready to make known their ignorance of trends outside of the Times or establishment journals.

Paradoxically, it’s this failure on the business side of things that makes poetry so powerful as a tool for otherwise unheard voices. As the publishing industry and the very small poetry establishment from years’ past continue publishing safer material from legacy artists and Ivy-indebted journals, the smaller spaces are growing larger and open to everyone, and it’s in those spaces that these voices resonate loudest.

Maybe this is why Whitman wrote of his love in poems but refused to acknowledge it in public, beyond the text: within his chosen medium, he was free to express things that were otherwise forbidden. Why should he have to cop to them outside of his work? Explanations for actions belong in novels; poetry is for the action they explain. To find such reticence as Whitman’s in poets today is unlikely; the poems themselves are less coded. All the queer media, and the legalizing of same sex marriage, does not fix things, but it’s made it less of a cultural suicide for a poet to say what type of person they’d like to have sex with in the context of a poem, or a tweet, or in a journal, or at a reading.

It’s poetry’s ability to harness that expression that makes it so appealing to those of us who feel the need to shout about what it is we stand for, especially because what we stand for is not what an influential American audience of policymakers, or moms and dads, would stand for. Poetry is never going to be loud enough to enact change. Congress can’t even do that. Poetry is as easily dispersed as a word. A novel’s message takes days to appreciate. A poem’s takes seconds. The trodden-upon’s stories are the most urgent; nothing serves them better than poetry.