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McClatchy, J.D. (b. 1945 )  
 
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Poet J. D. McClatchy, Jr., a master of traditional poetic forms, most notably the sonnet and sonnet sequence, ranks as a significant voice in contemporary American letters. He is also a prolific anthologist, the editor of the prestigious Yale Review, and a noted librettist.

McClatchy has written openly about gay desire and love, among other topics, combining the intelligence of W.H. Auden and the linguistic virtuosity of James Merrill with a unique ability to mine his memories and experiences to create emotional honesty.

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McClatchy has also made some cogent remarks on gay poetry and the slippery notion of a "gay sensibility" in literature. As editor of the anthology Love Speaks Its Name: Gay and Lesbian Love Poems (2001), he states: "Over the centuries, the homosexual temperament has seemed especially suited to engaging the themes of bafflement, secret joys, private perspectives, forbidden paradises, hypocritical conventions, and ecstatic occasions. In fact, it would be fair to claim that our gay and lesbian poets are the wisest inquirers after love."

McClatchy is the author of five original volumes of poetry. The most recent, Hazmat (2002) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and won the Lambda Literary Award for poetry. The volume investigates the hazardous materials of life, self, and world. In addition, his selected poems, Division of Spoils, appeared in England in 2003. He is also author of two prose collections, Twenty Questions (Posed by Poems) (1998), a book of memoirs and critical essays, and White Paper: On Contemporary American Poetry (1989), another collection of essays that offers close readings of poets such as Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Anthony Hecht, and Sylvia Plath.

Beginnings

Born Joseph Donald McClatchy in 1945 in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, the son of observant Catholics, McClatchy was raised in a wealthy suburb of Philadelphia and attended all-male Jesuit schools, where he received his introduction to classical literature.

McClatchy's sequence of three sonnets "My Old Idols" (Ten Commandments, 1998) remembers his childhood and teenage years. In one section, the speaker recalls a favorite Latin teacher, Father Moan, who made him "quiver" when "He'd slap the pointer against his thigh." In another, he looks back at his ten-year-old self and an initiation into sex with his friend's older brother in an ice rink's restroom. He writes, "I fumbled with small talk, pretending to be shy. / Looking past me, he slowly unzipped his fly." Another section recalls McClatchy's teenage infatuation with opera legend Maria Callas.

McClatchy's family was not literary, but it was musical. Music was very much a part of the poet's childhood, and he often attended symphonies and orchestra performances. His love and expansive knowledge of music can be seen in poems such as "Night Piece" (The Rest of the Way, 1990), which comprises the two poems "Ravel's Insomnia" and "Stravinsky's Dream." His early musical education is also evident in his keen ear for finding music in language. Not surprisingly, he has written several libretti for leading composers, including William Schuman (A Question of Taste, 1989), Francis Thorne (Mario and the Magician, 1994), Bruce Saylor (Orpheus Descending, 1994), and Tobias Picker (Emmeline, 1996).

McClatchy enrolled in Georgetown University in 1963 where he studied English, earning his A.B. summa cum laude. He went on to graduate studies in Renaissance literature at Yale in 1967. However, in his first year of graduate school and not exempt from the Vietnam War draft, McClatchy frantically sought a teaching position in order to escape the war. He ended up teaching at two small Philadelphia-area colleges.

For the next three years, McClatchy lived a life described, in a Poets & Writers Magazine profile, as socially and emotionally empty. As McClatchy explained, "I was afraid of being gay and what the consequences would be, so I just closed everything down, studied Old Norse, and took flying lessons."

McClatchy recounts this period in his life and his coming out in "My Fountain Pen," a memoir from Twenty Questions. In the essay, he describes a breakdown he experienced in 1973. "I could manage being gay, but not the added burden of disguising it," he explains.

Twenty Questions also includes McClatchy's musings about the loves of his life and how he has written about them: "Each of these men I have disguised in--or really, transformed into--poems in order to keep hold of them. Like some minor god in an old myth, I've changed them back into secrets."

It was in the first years of the 1970s that McClatchy began to read contemporary poetry for the first time in earnest, admiring especially Theodore Roethke and James Wright. During this time of intense reading he decided he wanted to be a poet. Eventually, he wrote his dissertation at Yale not on Renaissance literature, as he had planned initially, but on contemporary American confessional poetry. He received his Ph.D. in 1974.

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