Poets Are Out in the Presses

Published in: November-December 2004 issue.


KNOWING THAT WE LIVE in a time of hope as well as of threat, I am skeptical of claims that poetry is alive and well in America and that gay and lesbian poetry has been fully embraced by the “mainstream.” While some people insist that we are living during a renaissance of American poetry when more books of poems are published than ever before, others deplore how few Americans read them (a point made in the July National Endowment of the Arts’ “Reading at Risk” survey, which states that fewer than half of all Americans read literature, including poetry, and that that number is dropping in all demographic groups). Yet literary journals abound, and they include a great number of poets, both emerging and established. April has been declared National Poetry Month, and each year major awards, such as the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, are given to poets. Poets make appearances on BookTV and PBS. Thanks to the university MFA programs, which have grown from fifteen in 1975 to 99 in 2001, younger poets graduate in droves and compete in ever-greater numbers to publish first books—as well as to land jobs in English departments that offer a dwindling number of positions. And yet, as The New Yorker reports in a recent profile, most Americans have never heard of even the most important poets.

Against this backdrop—and against all odds—lesbian and gay poets have found publishing opportunities in respected print media. In the past week, for example, with only a cursory glance at the local newsstand, I found queer representation in some key publications. The Boston Review’s Summer 2004 double issue contains a poem by an out lesbian and a review of a book of poems by a gay man; Publishers Weekly includes a forecast about a gay man’s forthcoming selected poems; and while it discusses fewer books of poetry than ever, The New York Times Book Review praised a collection of poems by a gay man living with HIV. Although this might have been merely the luck of the draw (especially considering how little attention is paid to poetry in the Book Review), it is nonetheless true that weeklies and monthlies as disparate as The Washington Post, The New Republic, and scores of others—including, of all places, People magazine—have discussed queer poetry.

While it cannot be denied that, as in nearly every other segment of our society, GLBT people are discounted and discriminated against in the world of poetry, it is encouraging to find that a number of out poets are being assimilated by—as well as influencing—the majority heterosexual culture. Even with blatant homosexual themes, poets such as Adrienne Rich, Mark Doty, Alfred Corn, Olga Broumas, Carl Phillips, J. D. McClatchy, and a host of others have influenced many younger poets, both gay and straight. Two contemporary poets, Marilyn Hacker and Frank Bidart, stand out in this respect.

Hacker and Bidart exemplify the potential of lesbian and gay poets to cross over into the general media landscape. However different in writing style and in the way they’ve conveyed a queer presence to the mainstream world, their longevity, output, and acclaim show how out GLBT poets have flourished since the 1960’s. Each has had a long career and consistently refused to hide in the closet. Without confusing testimony with self-aggrandizement, they have included personal experiences in their poems. Together they have amassed no small number of major awards from the mainstream publishing world—including two Pulitzer Prize nominations, two National Book Critics’ Circle nominations, the National Book Award, the Lenore Marshall Prize, and the Lila Acheson Wallace/Reader’s Digest Award.

Historical Backdrop

Before discussing the work of these two remarkable poets, I’d first like to place their careers in historical context. When speaking of the influence and assimilation of queer poetry within the broader context of heterosexual society, it’s important not only to differentiate between publishers who focus exclusively on poetry and those who include it within the general context of other writing, but also to distinguish between lesbian and gay male poetry.

Lesbian poetry began its crossover life entwined with feminist poetry. From a relatively early date, books of feminist poetry opened their pages to lesbian voices, notably such early anthologies as Rising Tides: 20th-Century American Women Poets and No More Masks!, both first published in 1973. In these early collections, lesbians bravely declared their sexual orientation in no uncertain terms. Within a wider frame of straight poets such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Denise Levertov, Anne Sexton, Lucille Clifton, and many others, lesbian-identified poets such as Muriel Rukeyser, Wendy Weiber, and Audre Lorde took their places. This is not to say that women didn’t have lesbian-exclusive poetry anthologies and magazines; they did. We Are All Lesbians (1973) and Amazon Poetry (1975) were two such books, while journals such as Common Lives / Lesbian Lives, Sinister Wisdom, and other magazines provided space for lesbian work. But it is significant that lesbian poems were, from the beginning of what we now refer to as the Sexual Revolution, included within a wider feminist context.

Not so with gay male poets. Other than a few quixotic experiments (Robert Bly, anyone?), gay male poetry did not evolve within a heterosexual matrix. Much as openly gay men had not been given a place within the larger social framework, gay male poetry was essentially separate from mainstream heterosexual culture. Gay men had to fend for themselves. They did this by establishing magazines such as Sebastian Quill, which declared itself “the world’s first gay male literary publication,” followed by ONE, Gay Sunshine, Gay Liberation, Fag Rag, and Mouth of the Dragon, to name some early ones. And they founded gay presses such as Winston Leyland’s Gay Sunshine Press—which published an early anthology of gay poetry, Angels of the Lyre in 1975—and Felice Picano’s The Sea Horse Press, founded in 1977. These presses and others like them, such as Crossing and Good Gay Poets, offered gay poets a place to establish their own niche in a world that decried their very existence. While there were seminal gay poets who had published uncompromising work in the 1950’s—Frank O’Hara, Jack Spicer, Paul Goodman, John Wieners, and Allen Ginsberg (whose Howl and Other Poems led to the 1957 arrest of Ginsberg’s publishers and a feature article in Life magazine)—their work was brought together as gay poetry only in the 70’s.

Inclusion of lesbians and gays in general readership magazines and anthologies was a process that began in the 80’s. But even by the time of the publication of the groundbreaking Gay and Lesbian Poetry in Our Time (1988), no general circulation magazines would touch explicitly gay poems. By the 90’s, this situation had changed considerably. One reason why heterosexually-oriented publications began to run queer poetry is that the poets themselves fought damn hard to be included, often at the risk of job loss, family crisis, and ridicule. Second, the scourge of AIDS, once it reached national newspapers, however belatedly, in the late 80’s, made homosexuality a reality that provided reason for some non-gays to empathize. A third factor was the rise of lesbians and gay men to positions as editors of books and journals, such as Richard Howard at The Paris Review, Michael Denneny at St. Martin’s Press, Linsey Abrams at Global City Review, Marilyn Hacker at The Kenyon Review, and Charles Flowers and Joan Larkin at the recently founded Bloom.

The result of partial assimilation meant that in the 90’s it became possible for GLBT poets to attend major universities to study their craft and to publish poems in both magazine and book form. They could win prizes for books that only a few years before would never have made it into print. (My own first book, for example, which won a national poetry prize, opens with a poem called “Phone Sex” and contains poems with titles such as “Sacred Anus” and “My Mother Asks If Men Make Love Face to Face.” It was published by a university press in Ohio that focuses on Civil War and Mexican War history.) They began to teach in universities, edit literary journals, and appear in new anthologies that were not exclusively gay, such as American Poetry: Next Generation. The careers of Marilyn Hacker and Frank Bidart have spanned—and influenced—this entire history.

Marilyn Hacker

Marilyn Hacker is the author of nine books, the first of which, Presentation Piece, appeared in 1974 and was both a Lamont Poetry Selection from the Academy of American Poets and winner of the National Book Award. She is also an esteemed translator and respected editor who has included queer voices in literary journals such as Poetry and The Kenyon Review.

To read Hacker’s work—the poems recently compiled in First Cities: Collected Early Poems 1960-1979, her brilliant garland of sonnets confronting her battle with breast cancer in Winter Numbers (1994), her searing recent book Desesperanto (2003) —is to enter bifurcated worlds. Hacker moves with ease between French and American cultures, maneuvers across the tricky terrain of mother-daughter bonds (in poems such as “Iva’s Pantoum” and “Autumn 1980”), and negotiates intercontinental relationships. Her masterful poems penetrate complex formalist poetics with remarkable agility. Reading her requires, albeit indirectly, crossing the border between heterosexual and homosexual modes of being, for her first two books provide only scant clues to what would become, in Taking Notice (1980) and each book thereafter, full-blown, erotically charged lesbian themes. Take for example the following sonnet, from her fifth book, Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons:

First, I want to make you come in my hand
while I watch you and kiss you, and if you cry,
I’ll drink your tears while, with my whole hand, I
hold your drenched loveliness contracting. And
after a breath, I want to make you full
again, and wet. I want to make you come
in my mouth like a storm. No tears now. The sum
of your parts is my whole most beautiful
chart of the constellations—your left breast
in my mouth again. You know you’ll have to be
your age. As I lie beside you, cover me
like a gold cloud, hands everywhere, at last
inside me where I trust you, then your tongue
where I need you. I want you to make me come.

What’s novel here, even nearly two decades after the poem was published in book form in 1986, is the forthright treatment of lesbian love within the historical context of the sonnet sequence. Her use of demotic language in the Italian sonnet form provides tension (and pleasure) for the reader. In true rebel spirit, Hacker melds the explicitness of lesbian sexuality with the complexity of her chosen forms—villanelles, sapphics, alcaics—something that has been a source of controversy in both the publishing world and the lesbian writing community. “Love, Death And The Changing Of The Seasons was the occasion of my ‘divorce’ from Knopf,” Hacker told me, “where I had published three books, whose then poetry editor rejected it in record time, saying she had the impression of reading someone’s private correspondence (in 200-odd Petrarchan sonnets, as it happened). The editor and publisher who finally accepted it did so with the stipulation that they would not publish any further books.”

This example of a renowned publisher getting cold feet in the presence of a hot poem is not the only obstacle Hacker had to confront. “‘How can a young woman poet write like this today?’ said a personal letter I received in 1977 from a feminist, lesbian, politically engaged poet whose work has been one of my beacons. She didn’t mean the absence or presence of feminist or woman-identified subject matter, of which there was plenty; she meant iambic pentameter, sonnets, sestinas, as if, because a break with such forms had been liberating for one poet, it ought to be prescribed for, required of all.”

While acknowledging that GLBT poets who write directly about their sexual experiences have had to face much discrimination in the publishing world, Hacker objects to the word “mainstream.” Though her poetry has been printed in many general readership anthologies and magazines, including The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry, The Pushcart Prize anthologies, The Atlantic, The Progressive, and The New Yorker, she indicates that we must contend with shifting definitions of key terms: “When discussing poetry, I’m never quite sure who ‘mainstream readers’ are. College students? The readership of The Gay & Lesbian Review? The checkout line at a Wal-Mart in Ohio? [C]onfusion [exists]between ‘mainstream’ as in Fox News (versus independent television, radio, and print media) and ‘mainstream’ as in The Paris Review and W.W. Norton.”

Granted, what’s considered “mainstream” in the poetry world is easy to ignore in the dominant, largely non-poetry-reading culture. But what most poets want is readers. To this end, poets give readings and lectures at universities and conferences and serve as visiting poets for MFA programs. But to set one’s sights on becoming the next Ellen Degeneres or Nathan Lane of poetry is, to put it mildly, unrealistic. “There is no poet in this (American, or even Anglophone in general) society who expects to be read by the people who buy Stephen King or Danielle Steele novels to read on planes—unless you’re talking about Jewel or Rod McKuen.”

Adding to the confusion, the lines between straight and gay begin to blur in the poetry publishing world. A gay man writes a review about a book of poems by a lesbian, and it appears in a general readership newspaper. A straight woman asks to review the work of a lesbian poet for a queer journal. A straight man (will wonders never cease?) includes a number of out gay poets in a new anthology published by a noted university press. “I think the gay-straight divide here is presented as a chasm that may not really exist when one is considering readings and literary magazines,” Hacker notes. “I know from my own history—but also from working with students over the last twenty-odd years—that there are many young people in those audiences whose sexuality, like their politics and their ideas about literature and æsthetics, is fluid, subject to change, undecided. This is definitely a place where ‘gay culture’—in the best, and not the sitcom, sense—can intersect with and influence a large number of very different individuals.”

While it is true that dailies and monthlies have in the past reviewed more poetry, it cannot be denied that lesbians and gays have some degree of presence in most poetry publications. Yet Hacker reminds us that there has been a history of suppression of lesbian and gay voices, something that appears to be on the rise today as our community battles the Constitutional amendment defining traditional marriage. “I recall the very painful evening when Minnie Bruce Pratt was awarded the Lamont Poetry Prize for her second book, Crime Against Nature, and the Academy Chancellors, one of whom was gay, cut her off as she was thanking the lesbian/feminist and gay community for making her work possible. It was bringing politics into the Academy, not queer sexuality, that made those gentlemen fidget.”

Whether Hacker is writing about Janis Joplin as a “woman lover I never/ touched, tongued, or sang to” (in “Elegy”), a “Résistant father [who]died in a concentration/ camp” (“Paragraphs from a Daybook”), the boy who “froze on the barbed-wire fence” (“Embittered Elegy”), or “[t]he widowed black man with two half-white children” (“Wednesday I.D. Clinic”), her uncompromising political stance has been a trademark of her poetics, as is her use of “traditional” forms to write about political subject matter. “Meter is—for me, anyway—often a way of getting in touch with the language, of bringing the unconscious or the imagination as well as the cogitating mind into the composition of a poem.”

During her four years as editor of The Kenyon Review (1990–1994), Hacker published poems in traditional form beside “risky” poems that many established literary magazines wouldn’t touch. A generation of lesbian and gay writers owes Hacker a debt of gratitude for making its work available to a general audience. “The possibility of publishing emerging writers, especially writers representing points of view and formal strategies previously absent from The Kenyon Review (which had gone from being ‘mainstream,’ if you will, to something of a backwater on that count) was exciting to me.” Among the many gay and lesbian writers Hacker published during her tenure were Rafael Campo, Michelle Clifton, Wayne Koestenbaum, and Maureen Seaton.

Hacker’s influence extends far and wide. Many straight poets, including renowned poet and feminist critic Alicia Ostriker, cite Hacker as a major U.S. poet. Ostriker describes Hacker as a “model of fearlessness.” “Part of what makes Marilyn so important to me is that she is one of a very small handful of Jewish women poets committed to across-the-board social justice issues, including justice for Palestinians. She is a courage-giver because she writes fearlessly about everything she cares for. This was important for me when I was writing The Volcano Sequence and even more so in my new book, No Heaven.” Ostriker’s comments take me back to lines from the opening poem of Desesperanto, “Elegy for a Soldier”: “To each nation its Jews, its blacks, its Arabs,/ Palestinians, immigrants, its women.”

In an early poem called “Nightsong,” Hacker writes that she will “teach my wound to spell,” which is exactly what she has done in her books. When read together, the body of Marilyn Hacker’s œuvre forms perhaps the most in-depth, technically astute exploration of lesbian experience in American poetry.

Frank Bidart

When a poet is spotlighted in People magazine and praised for his “astonishing originality,” as was Frank Bidart on the publication of Desire, his fifth book, we may have reached a moment of true schizophrenia in the annals of lesbian and gay poetry. The review observes that “Bidart revisits classical encounters—the aftermath of a battle described by Tacitus, an incestuous romance in Ovid—and fashions them into a poetic idiom uniquely his own.” Tacitus? Ovid? Is this the salacious glossy we love to hate? Bidart’s inclusion in this mass market weekly speaks to the potential for contemporary gay and lesbian poets to be found anywhere. This is especially true if the poet cited is as intellectually vigorous, unsentimental, and uncompromisingly gay as is Frank Bidart. (John Ashbery was also featured in the April 13, 1998, issue of People.)

Bidart writes from an autobiographical perspective in intense lyric and dramatic monologue forms. His first book, Golden State, was published in 1973, a year before Marilyn Hacker’s Presentation Piece. Like Hacker, Bidart was reviewed in the mainstream press before being noticed by gay publications. The reason may be that his first book did not address homosexuality overtly (though in a poem entitled “After Catullus,” a reverie leads an unnamed speaker witnessing a heterosexual love scene to desire “put[ting]him to the sword!/ With my prick”). But from Bidart’s second book forward, homosexuality has been directly present. In The Book of the Body, published in 1977, one finds a poem called “The Arc,” a dramatic monologue in which the male speaker is gay and has a sexual encounter with a Vietnam veteran who “asked me if I wanted to get undressed.” After the speaker tells us that he is “embarrassed to take my shirt off” (having lost an arm in a car accident), we learn of the speaker’s internal dilemma:

I wanted to leave.
But afraid
leaving might insult him, I asked him to masturbate.

He closed his eyes. For several minutes
his arm and hand with great energy
worked, as his contorted face tried to concentrate.

I stared at him, wishing
I could know
the image in his mind when at last he came.

Such moments of loneliness and emotional isolation are not uncommon in Bidart’s poetry. The awkwardness of some of his characters, their pathos and misery and guilt, their torturous self-incriminations and dangerously low self-esteem may resonate with the gay or lesbian reader. One might presume that straight readers would feel excluded by Nijinsky’s statement that “Many times Diaghilev wanted me/ to make love to him/ as if he were/ a woman—;/ I did,” or Ellen West’s “attach[ing]herself to an elegant, very thin female patient.” Yet one finds Bidart included in World Literature Today, The New Yorker, The Nation, Atlantic Monthly, and The New Republic (which ran in its May 14, 1990, issue an in-depth review of In the Western Night: Collected Poems 1965-90, by critic Denis Donoghue). Among the many anthologies that contain Bidart’s work are The Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry and The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, a standard text for college courses. Earlier this fall, a public television station in Boston, WGBH, ran a profile of Bidart that follows the native Californian from his Cambridge, Massachusetts, home to his classroom at Wellesley College, where he teaches. Bidart’s sixth book, Star Dust will be published in May 2005.

Stated Bidart in an exchange with me recently: “[F]rom the beginning I’ve been lucky enough to find editors who took my work seriously, and were in a position to publish it. (For any young writer, that is what is crucial: finding an editor who understands and respects one’s art; unfortunately, luck and circumstance have too much to do with that.) Since my second book I’ve been fairly widely reviewed, sometimes favorably, sometimes unfavorably. The dismay in the negative reviews seemed to proceed from discomfort at the formal inventions, the radical prosodic departures in my work. The fact that I am gay never seemed to me the crucial variable in this.”

Of early gay poetry, Bidart remembers “the great liberation and thrill it was to read in the 1950’s and 60’s, before I began publishing, Ginsberg’s or John Wiener’s poems about gay sex. They weren’t first published by ‘mainstream’ presses; places like City Lights opened up the territory and gave us a great gift.”

A master craftsman of the dramatic monologue, Bidart has fused Robert Browning with the American idiom of the confessional lyric. Much as Keats’s notion of “negative capability” may be seen as leading to the dramatic monologues of Browning and thus bridging the Romantic and the Victorian eras, Bidart’s use of dramatic monologue form connects the late 19th-century English form to the 20th-century American lyrics of Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Robert Lowell (for whom Bidart was literary executor and editor of his Collected Poems). Utilizing signature syntax, adroitly rendered punctuation, and poems arranged spatially across the page, Bidart also pushes forward, incorporating a confessional voice with 21st-century philosophical and experimental prosody, most notably in “The First Hour of the Night.”

Upon Bidart’s receipt of the Wallace Stevens Award, straight poet Louise Glück, former Poet Laureate of the United States, wrote this: “Bidart’s poems sound like no one else’s; they look like no one else’s: to accommodate the requirement of his art, that the voice be precisely enacted in its every variation and hesitation, Bidart has made of his form a theatre.”

In “Herbert White,” one of Bidart’s most disturbing poems, the speaker is a child molester and murderer who, for complex reasons—including that “to do the terrible things he does he has to believe someone else has done them”—finds himself engaged in sexual activity with the child’s corpse. This subject matter, however horrifying, is not outside the realm of the traditional dramatic monologue. What differentiates Bidart’s poem is the inclusion of lines such as these:

—You see, ever since I was a kid I wanted
to feel things make sense: I remember

looking out the window of my room back home,—
and being almost suffocated by the asphalt;
and grass; and trees; and glass;
just there, just there, doing nothing!
not saying anything! filling me up—
but also being a wall; dead, and stopping me;
—how I wanted to see beneath it, cut

beneath it, and make it
somehow, come alive…

The suspension of judgment on the part of the reader is one of the hallmarks of the dramatic monologue. Here, true to the form, not only can the reader relate (and feel the shock of relating) to a character as unstable, destructive, and dissociative as Herbert White, but one may also feel Bidart’s presence just beyond the opaque membrane separating the dramatic monologist from his subject. “What is terrifying about Herbert White,” Bidart asserts, “is how much he is an innocent—earnestly trying to feel that things ‘cohere,’ ‘make sense,’ but the only way that he can do this is to engage in horrifyingly destructive actions. It doesn’t contribute to changing or understanding anything to label this ‘evil,’ though the effects certainly are evil. A great deal of what is most terrible in the world, to my mind, proceeds from such innocence.”

Homosexual themes are often presented directly from the poet’s point of view. One example is “By These Waters”:

What begins in recognition,—
… ends in obedience.

The boys who lie back, or stand up,
allowing their flies to be unzipped

however much they charge
however much they charge

give more than they get.

When the room went dark, the screen lit up.

By these waters on my knees I have wept.

These lines, and many others in Bidart’s work, feel wrenched from the central core of a speaker traumatized by his desires, tortured by his longing for another man and achingly aware of the opaque bubble each of us is enclosed in, making it impossible to reach another person.

“What you love is your fate,” Bidart writes in “Guilty of Dust,” a line that takes me back to Pound’s dictum: “What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee/ What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage.” For Bidart that heritage is the dramatic monologue and the personal lyric. “Yeats said that out of our argument with others we make rhetoric, but out of our argument with ourselves we make poetry. I think this is true. If a poem enacts an argument with oneself, it’s not going to satisfy the expectations of ideology. Trying to be a role model is not a way to make good art, except insofar as one places the demand on oneself to tell the truth. But truth is not the opposite of artifice. Art has always ‘lied’ or invented to tell a more complicated or deeper truth than what appears on the surface.”

LESBIAN AND GAY POETS push against walls, cross boundaries, and continually strive not only to document joys and hazards, philosophical quandaries, despairs and rage, but also to provide a vision of what being “other” is in our culture. Hacker reminds us that “Queer poets have brought myriad distinctive voices to the table. There have always been gay and lesbian writers: what is different now, in the post-Stonewall, but also post-civil rights movement, is that our experiences and complex states of being as lesbian or gay individuals can also be examined in our poetry with neither self-censorship or coding.” Gay men and lesbians have not only contributed diversity and the minutely detailed exploration of an entirely different kind of sexual and spiritual union; we have also contributed an enormous body of work to the American poetry canon.


Richard Tayson’s first book of poetry, The Apprentice of Fever, won the Wick Poetry Prize. He teaches at Rutgers University and directs the Writers at Rutgers reading series.


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