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Poetry: Gay Male  
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If we are to speak of a "gay tradition" in literature--and every gay theorist warns us to be careful if we wish to do so--it would be primarily a tradition not of novels but of verse, something like, but even broader than, the contents list of Stephen Coote's Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse.

The "Gay Tradition" in Poetry

Beginning in the ancient world, it would progress with great vitality--considering how widely stigmatized male-male love has been at various points in history--through the Middle Ages and Renaissance, beyond the modern world into the era of the post-modern; from to , from homosexuality to gayness, and beyond. More inclusive than Coote, it might include the epic of Gilgamesh, Hispano-Arabic love poetry, the Chanson de Roland, Turkish divan poetry, and so forth.

Certain forms (the sonnet) and genres (the funeral elegy) have proved particularly fruitful, as have particular periods (the Renaissance) and cultures (Arabic). One can also draw broad conclusions about the outcomes of verse written for specific purposes.

In this context, one thinks of dramatic verse in which the modulations of the gendered voice so frequently faltered: In most dramatic traditions, the words of the two genders were spoken only by males, men and boys, on either side of the defining moment of maturation. The inevitable outcome was an undercurrent of implication that one man might desire another.

Elsewhere, one can see retrospectively that certain poetic movements have enabled their successor movements to voice the homoerotic impulse. For instance, the "Decadence" of the fin de siècle (Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud) offered a conduit into Modernism (T.S. Eliot, Hart Crane).

We are not thinking of mere by-ways, obscure deviations from the mainstream. Male poets who loved boys do not always materialize as radical subverters of conservative traditions or as isolated eccentrics. Gay poetry does not always go against the grain; indeed, there have been many times when it was the grain.

The Traditions of Love Poetry

Again and again, if one examines the most deep-rooted traditions of love poetry, with the most strongly established conventions of both form and topic, not to mention etiquette, one comes across love poems addressed by men to boys.

Such poems are often to be found nestling happily in the midst of heterosexual love poems. For instance, there is an anthology of 656 poems by Chinese court poets of the Southern Dynasties, entitled New Songs from a Jade Terrace. It was compiled by the poet Hsu Ling in about 545 A.D.

As you work your way through the collection, you occasionally encounter a poem which, although as conventional in its imagery and formality as any of the others, is about a desired boy rather than a woman. Yet these homoerotic poems are not simply formal exercises, allowed into the very public space of the anthology because the "friendship" they express is "platonic" or "chaste." On the contrary, a poem like Wu Chun's "A Boy" is explicitly dismissive of "virtue." A man invites a boy to bed--nothing could be less equivocal.

One factor that helps explain why some cultures produce a proliferation of love poems addressed to boys by men is, quite simply, male privilege. The sheer availability of boys makes their concrete presence amenable to transposition into erotic imagery.

The poetry of the Ottoman Empire, for instance, is shaped by the fact of a society in which women's clothing and their segregation rendered them all but invisible to men; boys, on the other hand, might be seen in all their glory at the public baths.

Contextualizing Gay Poetry: The Example of Catullus

The problem for us today is to conceive of how the mind of a poet might work in a society with completely different sexual rules from our own. Consider the erotic range of a poet like Catullus (ca 84-54), the scabrous laureate of the late Roman republic.

His verse includes tender and vibrant love poems addressed to Clodia Metelli ("Lesbia"), a married woman; enthusiastic epithalamia on matrimony; insulting epigrams accusing a man called Gellius of all manner of sexual transgressions, including incest and fellatio; what we might now (inaccurately) call "" tirades against men who loved men instead of boys, or against men who took the "wrong" part in oral or anal intercourse with boys; and so on.

However, it is also clear that Catullus, true not only to the conventions of his society but also to the promptings of his own heart and genitals, loved sex with young men and loved one man, Iuventius, with greater ardor than the feeling was returned.

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Edward Carpenter, an important anthologist of poetry by members of what he called "the intermediate sex." Portrait by F. Holland Day.
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