Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Gay Poetry

Recently I came across my battered copy of The Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse, edited by Stephen Coote.  It's a striking collection.  The introduction is also worth reading, as an overview of the LGB experience in Western history.  (He doesn't really mention the T's.)  For example, the early Christian era was surprisingly tolerant of homosexuality.  Coote tells this amusing story about a certain Archbishop of Canterbury:
In 1102 the Council of London wanted to make the public aware of how serious 'sodomy' was (evidently they weren't) and to insist on it being confessed as a sin.  This was the edict Anselm quashed, declaring, rather oddly for an archbishop, that sodomy was so widespread that nobody was embarrassed by it anyway.
Many of the poems in this book I cannot share with you, because I don't want this blog to be X-rated.  The ancient Greek and Roman ones are perhaps the most shocking - if you had any doubts, understand now that "Platonic" love does not mean what everybody thinks it means.  When I hear people say that true civilization originated in classical Greece, I wonder if they've ever read any of these poems.  Although to be fair, the Romans (not so much the Greeks) spent a lot of time complaining about the increase in sexual perversion and the loss of good old-fashioned family values.  And they described these sexual perversions in minute and accurate detail, almost as if they had personal experience in the matter.  (Incidentally, one of Juvenal's satires, aka rants, describes a marriage between two men.)

Anyway. Here is a poem by Meleager, a Greek who was born in what is now the country of Jordan, in the 1st century BCE (translated by Peter Whigham):
At 12 o'clock in the afternoon
in the middle of the street -
Summer had all but brought the fruit
to its perilous end:
& the summer sun & that boy's look
did their work on me.
Night hid the sun.
Your face consumes my dreams.
Others feel sleep as feathered rest;
mine but in flame refigures
your image lit in me.
Most of the poems in this book were written by men, but I do think the editor made an effort to include women.  The second poet listed is Sappho (Homer being the first) but then he has to skip almost 2,000 years to present us with some love poems by anonymous medieval women, and a lesbian Troubadour named Bieris de Romans.  Unfortunately he doesn't include the multi-talented Aphra Behn, who lived in the 17th century.  Here's one of her most well-known poems:

To the Fair Clarinda, Who Made Love to Me,
Imagined More Than Woman

Fair lovely Maid, or if that Title be
Too weak, too Feminine for Nobler thee,
Permit a Name that more Approaches Truth:
And let me call thee, Lovely Charming Youth.
This last will justifie my soft complaint,
While that may serve to lessen my constraint;
And without Blushes I the Youth persue,
When so much beauteous Woman is in view.
Against thy Charms we struggle but in vain
With thy deluding Form thou giv'st us pain,
While the bright Nymph betrays us to the Swain.
In pity to our Sex sure thou wert sent,
That we might Love, and yet be Innocent:
For sure no Crime with thee we can commit;
Or if we shou'd - thy Form excuses it.
For who, that gathers fairest Flowers believes
A Snake lies hid beneath the Fragrant Leaves.

Thou beauteous Wonder of a different kind,
Soft Cloris with the dear Alexis join'd;
When e'er the Manly part of thee, wou'd plead
Thou tempts us with the Image of the Maid,
While we the noblest Passions do extend
The Love to Hermes, Aphrodite the Friend.

Another one he doesn't mention is Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea (1661-1720).  Here's an amusing excerpt from:

The white mouse's petition to Lamira the Right Hon'ble
The Lady Ann Tufton now Countess of Salisbury

With all respect and humble duty
And passing every mouse in Beauty
With fur more white than garden lillies
And eyes as bright as any Phillis
I sue to wear Lamira's fetters
And live the envy of my betters
When I receive her soft caresses
And creeping near her lovely tresses
Their glossy brown from my reflection
Shall gain more lustre and perfection
And to her bosom if admitted
My color there will be so fitted
That no distinction could discover
My station to a jealous Lover.

(The full text can be found here.)

I encountered Behn and Finch in Emma Donoghue's book Passions Between Women.  Although I haven't read it, Donoghue has also edited a collection of lesbian poetry called What Sappho Would Have Said: Four Centuries Of Love Poems Between Women.  (That is actually the UK title; the US title is the much less poetic Poems Between Women: Four Centuries Of Love, Romantic Friendship And Desire.)

As I mentioned above, Greece and Rome, the cradle of Western civilization, celebrated the sexual love of men for beautiful teenage boys.  (Coote discusses the problematic aspects of this, as well as the concurrent condemnation of sexual activity between women.)  Christianity gradually criminalized homosexuality, but still tolerated passionate expressions of non-sexual love between men or women.  This continued for the next five hundred years.  As always, Shakespeare is a good example:

When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts my self almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
   For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
   That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

The 19th century was a strange era.  At its beginning, same-gender love was still revered.  When Tennyson wrote "Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all," in 1849, he was thinking of a man he had loved.  Characters as different as Lord Byron (best known for his scandalous intrigues with women, including his half-sister) and Henry Thoreau wrote love poems to young men.  In 1869 the word "homosexual" was invented, and by century's end the new science of psychology had "proved" that all same-gender love was tainted with sexuality and therefore evil.  From then on (which has really only been about one hundred years), one could only proclaim one's love for someone of the same gender if one was willing to be seen as openly, flamboyantly, or at least predominately, "homosexual."

However, the good news is that the gay rights movement started in the 19th century as well.  As far as I know, its progenitor in the English-speaking world was Edward Carpenter.  I've written about him before.  Although it's rather preachy, I have to include a section of his long prose poem, Towards Democracy:

The love of men for each other - so tender, heroic, constant ;
That has come all down the ages, in every clime, in every nation,
Always so true, so well assured of itself, overleaping barriers of age, of rank, of distance,
Flag of the camp of Freedom;
The love of women for each other - so rapt, intense, so confiding-close, so burning-passionate,
To unheard deeds of sacrifice, of daring and devotion, prompting;
And (not less) the love of men for women, and of women for men - on a newer greater scale than it has hitherto been conceived;
Grand, free and equal - gracious yet ever incommensurable -
The soul of Comradeship glides in.

[here follow some romantic vignettes of same-sex affection]

And this is of a boy who sat in school.
The masters talked about Greek accidence and quadratic equations, and the boys talked about lobs and byes and bases and goals; but of that which was nearest to his heart no one said a word.
It was laughed at - or left unspoken.
Yet when the boy stood near some of his comrades in the cricket-field or sat next them in school, he stocked and stammered, because of some winged glorious thing which stood or sat between him and them.
And again the laughter came, because he had forgotten what he was doing; and he shrank into himself, and the walls round him grew, so that he was pent and lonely like a prisoner.
Till one day to him weeping, Love full-grown, all-glorious, pure, unashamed, unshackled, came like a god into his little cell, and swore to break the barriers.
And when the boy through his tears asked him how he would do that, Love answered not, but turning drew with his finger on the walls of the cell.
And as he drew, lo! beneath his finger sprang all forms of beauty, an endless host - outlines and colors of all that is, transfigured:
And, as he drew, the cell-walls widened - a new world rose - and folk came trooping in to gaze,
And the barriers had vanished.

Wonderful, beautiful, the Soul that knits the Body's life passed in,
And the barriers had vanished.

Everywhere a new motive of life dawns.
With the liberation of Love, and with it of Sex, with the sense that these are things - and the joy of them - not to be dreaded or barred, but to be made use of, wisely and freely, as a man makes use of his most honored possession,
Comes a new gladness:
The liberation of a Motive greater than Money,
And the only motive perhaps that can finally take precedence of Money.

(The full text can be found here.)

For a less idealistic view of gay life, here's C.P. Cavafy (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard):

He Asked About the Quality

He left the office where he’d been given
a trivial, poorly paid job
(something like eight pounds a month, including bonuses) —
left at the end of the dreary work
that kept him bent all afternoon,
came out at seven and walked off slowly,
idling his way down the street. Good-looking,
and interesting: showing as he did that he’d reached
his full sensual capacity.
He’d turned twenty-nine the month before.

He idled his way down the main street
and the poor side-streets that led to his home.

Passing in front of a small shop that sold
cheap and flimsy things for workers,
he saw a face inside, a figure
that compelled him to go in, and he pretended
he wanted to look at some colored handkerchiefs.

He asked about the quality of the handkerchiefs
and how much they cost, his voice choking,
almost silenced by desire.
And the answers came back in the same mood,
distracted, the voice hushed,
offering hidden consent.

They kept on talking about the merchandise —
but the only purpose: that their hands might touch
over the handkerchiefs, that their faces, their lips,
might move close together as though by chance —
a moment’s meeting of limb against limb.

Quickly, secretly, so the shop owner sitting at the back
wouldn’t realize what was going on.

And last of all, I present Christopher Isherwood:

On His Queerness

When I was young and wanted to see the sights,
They told me: 'Cast an eye over the Roman Camp
If you care to.
But plan to spend most of your day at the Aquarium -
Because, after all, the Aquarium -
Well, I mean to say, the Aquarium -
Till you've seen the Aquarium you ain't seen nothing.'

So I cast my eye over
The Roman Camp -
And that old Roman Camp,
That old, old Roman Camp
Got me

So that now, near closing-time,
I find that I still know nothing -
And am not even sorry that I know nothing -
About fish.


  1. I like your blog, though I am not transgendered. You and your readers are invited to visit my blog for literate gay men, homoeroticpoems(dot)BlogSpot (dot) com

    1. Thanks Pier. (I was actually just rereading this book yesterday.)

  2. Looking for a poem I read some time ago, a short poem by a gay American poet from the '50s, where he talked about seeing some guy on his lunch break reading a movie magazine with Sal Mineo on the cover--thought it was Frank O'Hara's but I can't find it in my O'Hara books. Any idea what this poem is--title and poet?

  3. Sorry Chad, wish I could help but you've stumped me. Maybe it will come to you.