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literature

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American Literature: Gay Male, Post-Stonewall  
 
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Part of the cosmology of The Changing Light at Sandover is that gay people--rather than being sinners condemned to one of the pleasanter circles of Hell, as they are in Dante--are the more spiritually advanced sexual group, able to love without the obsession of bodily reproduction. Merrill has published more than a dozen books of poems, two novels, plays, and criticism.

Richard Howard is also a poet and translator who, as the preceding quotation indicates, has been empowered by Auden's example. Howard also draws from the entire body of gay poetry to make up his voice or voices.

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Two-Part Inventions (1974), his remarkable series of dialogues, contains the imagined and imaginary conversations of Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman ("Wild Flowers"); Edith Wharton and Mr. Roseman, who discover on the way to the cemetery that they shared the same lover ("Lesson of the Master"); and Rodin and an unknown railway traveler, who reveal their mutual pederastic desires ("Contra Naturam").

Other poets following in the same line include Daryl Hine, William Meredith, and J. D. McClatchy. Wayne Koestenbaum and David Bergman are two younger poets in this tradition.

Free verse writers are a diverse lot. In San Francisco, a number of poets gathered around Robert Duncan and Allen Ginsberg. Duncan's extremely hermetic poetry has had a more limited influence than Ginsberg's, but it has exerted a major force on those who have come under its spell.

Thom Gunn is an interesting example of an expatriate Englishman who has made his home in the Bay Area since the 1950s. In his tightly controlled, formal verse, he recalls Auden. But his poems that articulate the effects of LSD recall Duncan. His most recent book, The Man with Night Sweats (1992), is one of the most impressive works to be inspired by AIDS.

John Weiners, Jack Spicer, Robin Blaser, and James Broughton also were part of this San Francisco circle of poets.

The New York School of Poetry

Beginning in the 1950s, a group of poets formed a network that has been dubbed the New York School. Of the four leading members, three--John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, and James Schuyler--are or were gay. O'Hara's work is often playfully campy and lyrically soulful, conveying the giddy delight of new love or the sadness of emotional loss. Killed at an early age while asleep on the beach at Fire Island by an illegal dune buggy, O'Hara has had his work brought together in a massive Collected Poems (1971).

Schuyler, who suffered from manic-depression and titled one book The Crystal Lithium (1972), wrote either short, delicate poems of a melancholic tone or long, exuberant odes to joy. His major books include Hymn to Life (1974), The Morning of the Poem (1980), and A Few Days (1985).

Ashbery, perhaps the most celebrated poet of the last two decades, rarely speaks explicitly of homosexuality, but its trace can be felt in many of his enigmatic poems.

African-American Poets

Contemporary black poets have had a rich tradition to build on since many of the major figures of the Harlem Renaissance were gay. Perhaps the two most important African-American gay poets are Essex Hemphill, whose works are featured in the controversial film Tongues Untied, and Assoto Saint. Both have been important anthologists. Hemphill, carrying on the work of Joseph Beam, edited Brother to Brother (1991), and Saint has edited The Road Before Us: 100 Black Poets (1991) and Here to Dare: 10 Black Poets (1992).

Because black writers do not have the same access to publishing as do white writers, and black gay poets have even less, Assoto Saint established his own publishing house, Galiens Press. Both Hemphill and Saint succumbed to complications from AIDS, and they were eloquent AIDS activists.

Edward Field and Alfred Corn

Two of the finest gay poets--Edward Field and Alfred Corn--do not fall into any simple grouping. Field is a poet who has attempted to strip his work of all the artifice he can while still keeping the words resonant with emotion. His poems of plain speaking are often both hilarious and moving. Tender and self-mocking, he extends his love to baby seals, roaches, tulips, and sharks as well as to people of all stripes and nationalities. His sense of absurdity and honesty keep these poems from the sentimentality they invite at every turn.

Variety Photoplay (1967) is often a campy retelling of Hollywood films. A Full Heart (1977) is a richly evocative collection centered on gay life. Counting Myself Lucky (1992) brings together the best of his work over three decades.

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