A History of Gay Poetry, 3: Crossing the Rubicon

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Three poets of the twentieth century, all of whom were self confessed gay men, crossed the rubicon as the day of liberation dawned. A E Housman, W H Auden and Allen Ginsberg. Three very different people from diverse backgrounds and quite unconnected.

From the gloomy years of war and austerity they braved the storm of homophobia to emerge as fully recognised and professional writers. Auden (pictured) and Housman were both Englishmen and Ginsberg an American. They travelled roads of hostility and criticism but prevailed. They remained true to who they were and refused to allow their identities, thoughts or writings to be affected or influenced by the age they lived in. They have left the literary world with an important legacy, which boldly announces that through poetry all voices can be heard. The voice of dissent, of honesty, integrity and revelation need not be feared as it serves to advance the course of civilised man with his identity intact.

In 1967 the British Parliament amended the law in England and Wales concerning homosexuality, only partly decriminalising it but paving the way in the years to come which followed, for a fuller understanding and general acceptance of homosexuality. Auden witnessed these events whilst Housman had in no small measure prepared the landscape along with many others.

A E Housman, in his book  ¨The Shropshire Lad ¨achieved considerable fame for producing a compilation of 63 poems. The book´s publication was initially funded by Housman but soon in the hands of others who realised its full potential. It has often been said that many servicemen, in their kit bags, during the war, had a copy of this book. I first came across such a copy which was the property of my father. There in the heart of this poetry the reader comes across a poem in which Housman unmistakenly made a profession of gay love for another man. Despite this revelation it did little, if anything, to to tarnish the work or the reputation of Housman as a writer and poet. He possessed courage at the risk of losing all. He was a renowned claccicist and to this day his work on the classics is regarded as being authorative. As a poet his name will live on.

W H Auden was an interesting figure, a man known for his compassion, courage, generosity and humanity. He volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War but soon left on seeing the desecration of churches. He married Erika Mann solely for her to escape certain death in Nazi Germany. He seldom harboured wealth, giving money spontaneously to strangers in need. He led a peripatetic existence, often in the USA, where he became a citizen in 1946, as a professor of English Language and Literature. He was also the Professor of Poetry at Oxford University. In his poems from Two Songs he writes unamibiguously of his love for another man. Song IX for Hedli Anderson and also Songs IV and X. From the dark days of Gay guilt he lived to see a degree of liberation achieved in 1967.

Allen Ginsberg, an American, was his own person; bold, funny, forthright,and prepared to face the wrath of the authorities in the 1950s and the 1960s. His poetry was outrageous in the extreme and explicit to the point of it being pornographic. This either drew people to him or in fierce opposition of him. He was highly political in his poetry and life. ¨The Change Kyoto - Tokyo Express ¨is a startling foretaste of Ginsberg´s work. He was past caring...  Two of his quotes which appeal to me and speak of him,

¨Poetry is the one place where people can speak their original human mind. It is the outlet for people to say in public what is known in private ¨.

When asked what he thought of democracy, he replied ¨Bah! Democracy, Bah! When I hear that I reach for my feather boa!

picture: www.biography.com

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M.C. Newberry

Fri 7th Dec 2018 20:56

It is also interesting to note the appearance of names like E.M Forster and Christopher Isherwood (friend of Auden) coming to the
fore as novelists around this time. There is a freedom in the arts
world that seemed to enable their appearance and acceptance
(as long as they didn't do it in the street and frighten the horses -
to quote the irrepressible Lady Patrick Campbell). The so-called
Bloomsbury Set were achieving prominence and delighting or
outraging sensibilities - according to one's POV...all part of the
post-WW1 relief that the world was still free and to be enjoyed, no doubt. The Aids-generation of writers were to push the freedoms
to extreme levels, with certain publishers prepared to take a
take a stand in the cause of free speech and freedom of sexual
choice, with heterosexual sexually explicit novels leading the way,
following the ground-breaking Penguin publication of "Lady Chatterley's Lover" - with that wonderful line from a prominent
court figure in the case asking whether it was the sort of book
you'd let your servant read? Those were the days!!!

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