"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. …