Identifying a Homosexual Poetics

17 Oct 2009

Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky

Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, Allen Ginsberg, and the Inheritance of a Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry

Jess Chandler


Walt Whitman was a paradoxical figure. The (purportedly heterosexual) father of American poetry, progenitor of ‘a great original literature’[1] was simultaneously claimed by an emerging homosexual tradition as the creator of a discourse of homosexual poetics. The critical history surrounding Whitman’s work testifies to the persistent negation of a homosexual presence in literary standards. Critics consistently denied the possibility of Whitman’s homosexual poetics in order to preserve the stability of his position as America’s national bard. But Whitman was instrumental in the evolution of a language of male-male love that was distinct and identifiable from the conventions of heterosexual literary discourse. Hart Crane and Allen Ginsberg are Whitman’s ‘Recorders Ages Hence’, inheritors of an alternative tradition who maintained its existence by continual reference to their precursors as a form of validation and solidarity. Both lament Whitman’s ‘lost America of love’[2], extending their hand to the great ‘Meistersinger’[3], and searching for the visionary potential by which they may continue his utopian prophecy of ‘adhesive’ democracy.

“There is that in me – I do not know what it is – but I know it is in me.

I do not know it – it is without name – it is a word unsaid,

It is not in any dictionary, utterance, symbol.”

- Walt Whitman, Song of Myself


Whitman’s writing exhibits a self-conscious awareness that the construction of sexuality is equally dependent upon language as upon the act itself, and his early poetry constructs the search for ‘a word to clear one’s path ahead’. Essential to the process of validating homosexual love was the development of a ‘pass-word primeval’ (SM:87).  for ‘the love that dare not speak it’s name’. Whitman’s use of the term ‘adhesiveness’ first appeared in his “Song of the Open Road”: ‘Here is adhesiveness, it is not previously fashion’d, it is apropos’.[4] It was through the modification of the Friendship tradition that Whitman saw an avenue to homosexual consciousness, and through this the path to a new political order. Whitman’s ‘adhesive’ love restricted the term to refer exclusively to same-sex love that would ‘[rival] the amative love hitherto possessing the imaginative literature, if not going beyond it’.[5] ‘Adhesive’ love was established as the foundation of a language of differentiation. ‘Walt Whitman’ proclaims himself as spokesman, a conduit for the ‘many long dumb voices’:

Through me forbidden voices, Voices of sexes and lusts, voices veil’d

and I remove the veil,

Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigur’d. (SM:87)

His egocentric poetics aspire to prophetic proportions, and the poet is seen as the receptacle of change. Leaves of Grass is a self-revelatory exploration of the self as both marginal and all-inclusive; by placing the self in a position of continual flux and fluidity, Whitman resists definition: ‘Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion’ (SM:80); ‘I am not what you supposed, but far different’(C:148), ‘the mate and companion of all people’ (SM:69), ‘Maternal as well as paternal’ (SM:79). True to his vision of interrelatedness, Whitman denies singular definition. However, there is an exclusivity in his celebration of adhesive love, and despite all attempts for democratic equality, his utopian ideal solidifies the categories he strives to deny. Whitman’s universality is challenged by his determination to speak for and to his adhesive comrades, which often reaffirms the patriarchal inequalities of a homosocial order.

Whitman’s poetry oscillates between points of concealment and revelation, relying upon the protection of ambiguity but with a powerfully suggestive undertone that reveals according to the perception and intention of the reader. Hart Crane is one of Whitman’s perceptive readers, alert to the ‘homotextual’[6] implications of his every word, asserting himself as one of Whitman’s adhesive comrades. His poems search explicitly for a mode of expression through which to communicate homoerotic experience. The evasions and obscurity of his poetry reflect a fear of exposure, resulting in the need to formulate a metaphorical language of implied meaning. Crane’s poems often read like whispers, ‘tremorous’ ‘white falling flakes’, with a tenderness and delicacy that contrasts with the ‘cleaving’ and ‘burning’ of his stifled passions.[7] “Possessions” is concerned with the metaphysics of homosexual desire, seeking ‘a visionary love that can accommodate the homosexual and no longer isolate him as an example of lust.’[8] The poem begins with the image of a ‘key’, a closet metaphor which also evokes an image of entry and penetration. This key must sift,

Through a thousand nights the flesh

Assaults outright the bolts that linger

Hidden, –  O undirected as the sky

That through its black foam has no eyes

For this fixed stone of lust …[9]

Imagery of concealment characterises the blind lust that strives to overcome the fixity of definition. The phallic and totemic ‘fixed stone of lust’ is a plural image of patriarchal power and domination, of the perception of homosexuality as degrading lust, and of the permanent insistence of desire. The speaker is ‘Wounded by apprehensions out of speech’, with a desire that ‘[l]acks all but piteous admissions’. The poet is calling for ‘New thresholds, new anatomies!’[10], a changed perception of homosexual love, expressed through highly metaphorical language, always evading epistemological certainty. “Recitative” develops the homosexually coded imagery of the narcissistic reflective gaze in an exploration of the division of self, and the notion of self and other that Crane posits as facets of homosexual identity. The poem’s title, with its denotation of music and a sung form, is a reminder of Song of Myself, suggesting that Whitman’s omnipresent self has been fragmented by the ‘Janus-faced’ modern world, and this poem is Crane’s search for what has been lost.[11]

Crane’s homosexuality is constructed as mythology, a result of his acute awareness of the illusory nature of definition. Allen Ginsberg, writing amidst an established discourse of sexuality, was no longer striving for linguistic identification, but rather for the unsettling language of indiscretion and explicit description. Howl and other Poems was taken to court on charges of obscenity; the verdict of its ‘redeeming social importance’[12] was a pivotal moment in admitting an explicitly homosexual vocabulary into the national lexis, as well as in affirming the right to freedom of speech in America. Ginsberg, like Whitman, believed in a universal, spiritual love, denouncing the ‘tendency among gay people…to plaster labels over everybody’, advocating instead ‘the nameless love that everybody is.’[13]

His depiction of homosexual experience is focused upon the eroticism of physical love, and the acts of homosexual men, rather than the proclamation or self-identification of sexuality, which is taken for granted. Ginsberg persistently violates the barriers of acceptable speech, thereby confronting public prejudice. “Many Loves” begins with an epigraph from Whitman’s Calamus poems: ‘Resolved to sing no songs henceforth but those of manly attachment.’ The poem that proceeds from this proclamation of adhesive love may imitate the basic subject and stylistics of Whitman, but its revealing honesty illustrates the developed possibilities for linguistic expression. Instead of Whitman’s tenuously controlled statements of there being ‘something fierce and terrible in [him] eligible to burst forth’ which he ‘dare not tell…in words’ (C:164), Ginsberg’s commitment to honesty leads him to depict exactly those things that Whitman did not dare. He is not confined to metaphor. Perhaps what is most revolutionary about Ginsberg’s poetry is his fearlessness in proudly exposing his own sexual experiences, ‘[accepting] his own constitution as the very condition of his life and poetry.’[14]

While the evolution of the language of homosexual poetics may seem to culminate in Ginsberg’s explicit poetry of social protest, in his references to Whitman and Crane, Ginsberg identifies himself as the progeny of an alternative American tradition, proclaiming the candid sincerity of his poetry as the cumulative result of those who spoke before him. Though Ginsberg’s poetry refuses the obliquity of his predecessors’ work, his use of the Whitmanian line, and references to tropes of the homosexual tradition (Melville and Crane’s sailors, Whitman’s comrades), shows a consistent awareness of the encoded communication that characterises the tradition. In Song of Myself, Whitman’s erotic passages leave the gender of the sexual partner unspecified, with undertones that encode a homoerotic meaning. In Section 11, as ‘twenty-eight young men bathe by the shore’, the poet assumes the female persona of the twenty-ninth bather, allowing him to indulge in erotic fantasy:

The beards of the young men glisten’d with wet, it ran from

their long hair,

Little streams pass’d all over their bodies.

An unseen hand also pass’d over their bodies,

It descended tremblingly from their temples and ribs.

The young men gloat on their backs, their white bellies

bulge to the sun, they do not ask who seizes fast to them,

They do not know who puffs and declines with pendant

and bending arch,

They do not think whom they souse with spray. (SM:73)

Bathing itself is an established trope of homosexual fantasy, and water is figured as a baptismal locale for homoerotic experience. The visual focus is entirely upon the young men, drawing attention to the democratic experience of non-directed sex, of hands unseen, and lovers unknown. Both hetero- and homosexual fantasy may be interpreted from this scene, a dual intention that characterises much of Whitman’s poetry, as he utilizes the ‘resource of encoding ‘forbidden’ texts in ‘permissible’ ones.’[15] His exploitation of the friendship tradition functions in order to encode more explicit sexuality beneath established tropes of homosocial comradeship:

O camerado close! O you and me at last, and us two only.

[…]

O something ecstatic and undemonstrable! O mystic wild! (SP:63)

In Crane’s poetry, homosexuality is ‘textually obscure, hidden in a multitude of oblique references that encode it as the authorizing secret of the text.’[16] According to Crane’s ‘logic of metaphor’, symbolic meaning takes precedence over literal, referential meaning, and so the reader must be acutely alert to metaphorical suggestion. Crane was aware of the forbidden nature of homosexual love, and the severe punishment of homosexuals in history, acknowledging that his ‘modern love were / Charred at stake in younger times than ours.’[17] “C 33” is codified by its very title, which indicates the number of Oscar Wilde’s cell number at Reading Gaol, where he was imprisoned on charges of gross indecency. For those who decode this, the poem may be read as a poetic alignment of the alienation of the artist with the persecution of the homosexual, figuring Wilde as a rejuvenative force, able to create ‘transient bosoms from the thorny tree’, who by suffering for love, became a testimony to its intensity. In “The Tunnel” section of The Bridge, Crane again draws attention to encoded signs of homosexuality, ‘A burnt match skating in a urinal’, referring to the sign of a lighted match used by gay men to make themselves known to one another.[18] The interpretation of queer texts requires shared recognition. The poetry of Whitman and Crane ‘challenges heteronormative meaning’[19], oscillating between lucidity and obliquity, refiguring and undermining the signification of normative tropes, unsettling hermeneutic certainty in order to create a poetry of multiple signification, unrestricted and undefined.

“And so it was I entered the broken world

To trace the visionary company of love.”

- Hart Crane, “The Broken Tower”

Whitman, Crane and Ginsberg are visionary poets, formulating utopian ideals of spiritual renewal and political equality founded upon a reconfiguration of sexual freedom and adhesive democracy. Homosexual love holds the potential for liberation, as the ‘counterbalance and offset of [the] materialistic and vulgar American democracy.’[20] Whitman aspires to write ‘spiritual poems’ of the ‘soul and of immortality’, focusing on an ‘ideal of manly love’ (SP:53). By speaking ‘the pass-word primeval, I give the sign of democracy’ (SM:87), he declares, claiming visionary powers through which an ideal may be forged. In Song of Myself, the poet is tormented by his unspeakable love, but once he has affirmed his ‘new identity’, his visionary poetics commence: ‘I am afoot with my vision’ (SM:95). Whitman intertwines the spiritual and mystical with the physical and sexual, for ‘the body includes and is the meaning, the main concern, and includes and is the soul’(p.58). His poetry is invigorated by the ecstasy of possibility, and reads at times like an incantation, as paratactic phrases culminate in euphoric celebration:

O something unprov’d! something in a trance!

To escape utterly from others’ anchors and holds!

To drive free! to love free! to dash reckless and dangerous!

To court destruction with taunts, with invitations!

To ascend, to leap to the heavens of the love indicated to me![21]

Whitman conceives sexual expression between men as ‘a means to a mystic penetration of the universe and a more democratic vision of the American future.’[22]

In Crane’s Platonic utopia, love is conceived of as spiritual experience, able to transport the lover into a visionary world. The “Voyages” sequence presents a quest to inscribe homosexuality as unmediated existence amidst ‘the great wink of eternity’.[23] The sequence is transcendental and sublime, forcing a poetic encounter beyond the boundaries of reality. The third poem announces the ‘Infinite consanguinity’ of homosexual love, a ‘tendered theme’ ‘enthrone[d]’ in a temporary suspension of disorder:

And so, admitted through black swollen gates

That must arrest all distance otherwise, –

Past whirling pillars and lithe pediments,

Light wrestling there incessantly with light,

Star kissing star through wave on wave unto

Your body rocking!

and where death, if shed,

Presumes no carnage, but this single change, –

Upon the steep floor flung from dawn to dawn

The silken skilled transmemberment of song;

Permit me voyage, love, into your hands… [24]

The homosexual body becomes the trope for an ordered universe, and passage through the ‘black swollen gates’ enacts the movement from the caress of hands to active love-making. The ‘whirling pillars’ and wrestling light, the movement of the waves, the metaphysical love of the kissing stars, create an impassioned sense of desire and urgency. This, infused with the imagery of ethereal light, leads to the transfiguring ‘transmemberment of song’ and the final moment of desire to escape into the visionary world of love. The sequence’s final section focuses on the possibility of utopian escape to the ‘still fervid covenant, Belle Isle’, where love may transcend the physical and achieve pure spirituality:

The imaged Word, it is, that holds

Hushed willows anchored in its glow.

It is the unbetrayable reply

Whose accent no farewell can know.[25]

The word becomes the material and physical representation of spiritual love, a corollary to the ‘logic of metaphor’, a linguistic expression of visionary experience that transcends traditional linguistic signification, the incarnation of something beyond language.

The visionary poet is the linguistic creator of imaginative potential. While Crane’s poetry is trailed by the despair and disappointment of reality, Whitman and Ginsberg ground their prophetic visions in political prospects, proposing utopian realities that rely upon the rejuvenative force of liberated sexuality. The utopian rhetoric of these three poets poses a problematic dissociation from traditional discourses of American utopias, the ‘American dream’ having been founded upon institutional, and therefore patriarchal and heterosexual norms. Writing prior to the solidification of a homosexual discourse allowed Whitman a semiotic uncertainty that enabled him to wed homosexuality to the utopian. For Crane and Ginsberg however, as ‘America’ and ‘homosexuality’ become fixed in their signification as distinct geopolitical and social categorisations, they ‘lose the elasticity that allowed Whitman to make them utopian.’[26] Crane responded by the search for visionary transcendence; escape rather than fulfilment. He gestures toward Atlantis and Belle Isle as utopian spaces, with the recurring motif of travel indicating the desire for removal from ‘the broken world’. He is ‘twisted by the love / Of things irreconcilable’,[27] finally resigned to the incompatibility of his ‘modern love’ amidst present reality. The perfect love he yearns for may only be found in release from the physical world. Ginsberg’s ‘mystical visions and cosmic vibrations’,[28] his Blakean insistence on the poet as prophet, celebrate the escape of metaphysical experience, but always return to social reality, asserting and believing in the real possibility of change. Ginsberg makes dystopia the American, Cold-War reality, vehemently rejecting it and positing Whitmanian adhesive revolution as a restorative alternative to the ‘fall of America’:

Visions! omens! hallucinations! miracles! ecstasies!

gone down the American river!

dreams! adorations! illuminations! religions! the whole

boatload of sensitive bullshit![29]

Visions and dreams are ‘sensitive bullshit’ in Moloch’s fallen world, but when ‘Truth breaks through!’[30], new prophecies will form.

The antithetical relationship of homosexual and utopian discourses is a result of power mechanisms, the product of a traditional association between homophobia and nationalist sentiment, maintained by institutional (religious and legal) castigation. Whitman and Ginsberg are highly political poets, and the homoerotic component of their poetry is fundamental to the social reforms they propose. Whitman’s Democratic Vistas places adhesiveness at the centre of his vision of America:

It is to the development, identification, and general prevalence of that fervid comradeship, (the adhesive love, at least rivalling the amative love hitherto possessing the imaginative literature, if not going beyond it,) that I look for the counterbalance and offset of our materialistic and vulgar American democracy, and for the spiritualization thereof.[31]

Calamus is the poetic expression of this ideal; the poet will ‘teach robust American love’ (C:162), for ‘the main purport of these States is to found a superb friendship, exalté, previously unknown’. (C:165). “For You O Democracy” announces the poet’s role as author and creator of democracy:

Come, I will make the continent indissoluble,

I will make the most splendid race the sun ever shone upon,

I will make divine magnetic lands,

With the love of comrades,

With the life-long love of comrades. (C:150)

The ‘love of comrades’ is the foundation of the ideal potential of American politics, a social, democratic virtue, and an antidote to all that is degrading. Whitman’s democracy celebrates anonymity, in which passing strangers are loved as brothers, or erotic partners, like the ‘young fellow [who] drives the express wagon (I love him, though I do not know him;)’ (SM:76). In his Preface to the 1876 edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman announced that the ‘special meaning of the “Calamus” cluster…mainly resides in its political significance…[For] it is by a fervent, accepted development of comradeship…that the United States of the future…are to be most effectually welded together, intercalcated, anneal’d into a living union.’[32]

The emphasis of the Beat poetry of the 1950s lay with forms of social protest, and Ginsberg’s political dialectic is consciously informed by his attitude to sex. Homosexuality was still ideologically suppressed in American society, despite its linguistic identification, and so remained a focal point for social protest.[33] For the American homosexual of the mid-twentieth century, the state posed as an intrusive, discriminating and controlling force. Ginsberg saw that ‘emotional giving between men’ had been ‘repressed by the spirit of competition and rivalry characteristic of capitalist home economics.’[34] The homosexual is one of those ‘destroyed by madness’; he is the ‘figure of angelic innocence, his love a protest against the insensitivity and madness which surround him.’[35] He is one of those,

who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly

motorcyclists, and screamed with joy,

who blew and were blown by those human seraphim,

the sailors caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean

love,

who balled in the morning in the evenings in rose-

gardens and the grass of public parks and

cemeteries scattering their semen freely to

whomever come who may [36]

The language is designed to shock, the celebratory response calculated to assert homoerotic possibility. Ginsberg’s anarchic sensibility underlies his political and sexual project, a revolutionary and subversive incarnation of Whitmanian homosexual democracy. “Howl” is not simply a cry of pain, but an exclamation of the need for a reconfiguration of society, and a reminder of the redeeming features of humanity, beginning with our primal state as physical, sexual beings:

The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy!

The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand

and asshole holy! [37]

In prophetic tones, Ginsberg constructs a vision to oppose and surmount the reality of political oppression, a world in which the homosexual label is removed, and in which sexuality is free.

“What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman.”

- Allen Ginsberg, “A Supermarket in California”

Literary traditions are the product of collective sensibilities bound by a commitment to a particular mode of expression. The marginalisation of homosexuality as antithetical to normative social mores, paradoxically facilitated the emergence of a fervently committed tradition, unified by its sense of alienation. With the exception perhaps of Herman Melville, there was no self-conscious tradition of homosexuality amongst Whitman’s American predecessors, and it became his self-appointed task to venture into ‘paths untrodden’, to speak of ‘standards not yet publish’d’, to ‘announce adhesiveness’ – for ‘who but I should be the poet of comrades?’ (SP:54).

Leaves of Grass came to operate ‘as a conduit from one man to another of feelings that had, in many cases been private or inchoate.’[38] The emblematic symbol of the Calamus-root, a planted seed waiting to bloom, became ‘the token of comrades’, given ‘only to them that love as [Whitman himself was] capable of loving.’ (C:152) The appeal to Whitman’s authority, the evocation of his symbolic tropes, continues to function for the homosexual poet as an announcement of inheritance, and as a claim to the continuity of a tradition. Whitman’s poetry establishes great intimacy with its reader, the poet’s ‘camerado’, to whom ‘I tell things in confidence, / I might not tell everybody, but I will tell you’ (SM:81). His readers are called upon to inherit and continue the tradition he has begun:

Eleves, I salute you! come forward!

Continue, your annotations, continue your questioning! (SM:108)

The image of the bridge became Crane’s symbol in imagining an interlinking between past, present, and future. While writing The Bridge, Crane began to feel himself ‘directly connected with Whitman.’[39] His alignment to Whitmanian poetics was objected to by most in his literary circle: Allen Tate’s discomfort with his friend’s admiration for Whitman was inseparable from his homophobic prejudices:

Hart had a sort of megalomania: he wanted to be The Great American Poet. I imagine that he thought by getting into the Whitman tradition, he could carry even Whitman further. And yet there’s another thing we must never forget – there was the homosexual thing, too… The notion of ‘comrades’, you see, and that sort of business.[40]

What complicates this issue is Whitman’s stature as ‘The Great American Poet’, founder of a patriarchal, heterosexual, national tradition. Even Ezra Pound was forced to concede the influence of his ‘pig-headed [poetic] father’, making a poetic pact with the man who ‘broke the new wood’ of American poetry.[41] For Crane, the homosexual visionary, to claim Whitman as the ‘Great Navigator’, the ‘joyous seer’[42], is to undermine and reconfigure the American canon.

“Cape Hatteras” is Crane’s ‘ode to Whitman’[43], taking its epigraph from Whitman’s “Passage to India”. The poem is structured roughly as a sonnet sequence, carrying traces of a love poem. Allegiance to Whitman is announced, before proceeding to lament the apparent failure of his ideal, as Ginsberg was to do in The Fall of America. Crane’s world is ‘a new realm of fact’, a mechanical, technological age, in which ‘[d]ream cancels dream’, and man sees himself as ‘an atom in a shroud’ (CH:43.45). Crane’s aviator is Whitman’s Columbus, questing after truth. Whitman is addressed in familiar, even sentimental terms, evoked in his role as lover on the road to Paumanok:

“ – Recorders ages hence” –  ah, syllables of faith!

Walt, tell me, Walt Whitman, if infinity

Be still the same as when you walked the beach

Near Paumanok – your lone patrol – (CH:47-51)

Reference to the Calamus poem “Recorders Ages Hence” demonstrates Crane’s understanding of Whitman’s intended legacy, and his undertaking to assume the poet’s role. The plane crash that forms the climax of the poem implies the destruction of Whitman’s myth; but after the silence that proceeds the devastation, the poem turns to an image of Whitman’s re-ascension, as rebirth is symbolically engendered:

O Walt! – Ascensions of thee hover in me now

As thou at junctions elegiac, there, of speed

With vast eternity, dost wield the rebound seed!

The competent loam, the probable grass…

… O, upward from the dead

Thou bringest tally, and a pact, new bound

Of living brotherhood! (CH:159-67)

Evoking the Calamus-root symbol (‘probable grass’) with which Whitman ‘[bound] us throbbing with one voice’ (SM:83), Crane affirms his pact with the re-ascended Walt, in an impassioned apostrophe that celebrates the hope of rejuvenation, which, as Whitman claimed, will be founded upon comradeship and brotherhood. Whitman is the conductor of future poets, whose ‘wand / Has beat a song…there and beyond!’ (CH:73-4). The poem is a powerful rebut to Eliot’s sterile waste land, affirming rebirth out of the dead ground of modernity. It is Whitman who,

Stood up and flung the span on even wing

Of that great Bridge, our Myth, whereof I sing! (CH:206-7)

Whitman was the great preacher of Crane’s ‘living brotherhood’ and originator of the great Myth of America. Whitman’s bridge is ‘the rainbow’s arch’, and with The Bridge, his ‘vision is reclaimed!’ (CH:221). A bridge of flesh is formed as the poem ends, Whitman taking the poet’s hand in his, ending with a gesture to an indefinite but hopeful adhesive future:

Yes, Walt,

Afoot again, and onward without halt, –

Not soon, nor suddenly, – no, never let go

My hand

in yours,

Walt Whitman –

so – (CH:223-235)

In this ‘mystical synthesis of “America”’, it is the fusion of Mythology and homoeroticism that will enable rejuvenation.[44]

Crane’s suicide seems tragically symbolic of the failure of the Whitmanian dream, or perhaps confirmatory of its essentially mythical and visionary nature. Ginsberg inherits the tradition at a point of even greater loss, amidst the continuing persecution of homosexuals in the McCarthy era. His verse is infiltrated with the memory of Whitman and Crane, affirming his awareness of and affinity to the homoerotic bases of modern poetry. References to his predecessors become a means both of lamenting what is lost, and of understanding how things may be regained. “A Supermarket in California” is Ginsberg’s most direct address to Whitman, placing his ‘lost America of love’ in symbolic comparison to Whitman’s dream. Ginsberg allows Whitman to transcend his historical moment, thereby suggesting his potential to reinvigorate the present. ‘What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman’, the poet asks, as he walks self-consciously down the marginal ‘sidestreets’, ‘looking at the full moon’, that traditional poetic symbol of love. Whitman is imagined as a ‘childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys’, and as the poet follows his ‘Angel’, he is ‘followed in [his] imagination by the store detective’. It is a dream marred by guilt, trailed by the possibility of persecution, and accompanied by fear of the loneliness and non-procreative nature of homosexual love. The poem expresses loss amidst the degradation of consumer society, and the need for an American poet to direct the future:

Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors

close in an hour. Which way does your beard point

tonight?

(I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in

the supermarket and feel absurd.)

The poet’s America seems absurdly incompatible with that of Whitman’s ‘America of love’. The final line proclaims Whitman’s role as ‘dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher’, looking back to his America, and lamenting society’s forgetting of his dreams, immersed in the ‘black waters of Lethe’.[45] Ginsberg’s realization of his part within a tradition solidifies his relation to the past, while making him aware of ‘a future to which he has an obligation.’[46]

The existence of a literary tradition functions both as an indicator and means of direction for prospective inheritors, and as a self-conscious, recognisable signal towards identification. By developing within a specialised canon of intertextuality, a poetics is created which proudly exhibits its heritage and the influence of its predecessors. Whitman’s ‘adhesive’ ideal of ‘[i]ntense and loving comradeship, the personal and passionate attachment of man to man’[47], ‘so fitly emblematic of America’[48] is not merely a dream of democracy, but a proclamation of literary companionship, a desire for adhesiveness between poets, and an erotically charged plea for immortality and solidarity through the continuance of his ‘limitless, unloosen’d’ dream:

Camerado, this is no book,

Who touches this touches a man,

It is I you hold and who holds you,

I spring forth from the pages into your arms – [49]


[1] Walt Whitman, Democratic Vistas, in The Complete Poetry and Prose (New York: Pellegrini & Cudahy, 1948) p.210. All further references will be to this edition.

[2] Allen Ginsberg, “A Supermarket in California”, in Selected Poems 1947-1995 (London: Penguin Classics, 2001) p.50. All further references to Ginsberg’s poetry will be to this edition.

[3]

Hart Crane, “Cape Hatteras’, in The Complete Poems, ed. Marc Simon (New York & London: Liveright, 2001) p.83. All further references to Crane’s poetry will be to this edition.

[4] Whitman, “Song of the Open Road”, pp.182-3

[5] Whitman, Democratic Vistas, p.262

[6] Term coined by Jacob Stockinger in his 1978 article “Homotextuality: A Proposal”

[7] Crane, “Legend”, p.3:l.6,8,11

[8] Thomas E. Yingling, Hart Crane and the Homosexual Text (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990) p.124

[9] Crane, “Possessions”, p.18:l.5-9

[10] Crane, “The Wine Menagerie”, p.25,l.29

[11] Crane, “Recitative”, p.25:l.17,22,28,1

[12] “Howl” obscenity trial transcript, in Howl: Original Draft Facsimile, ed. Barry Miles (New York: Viking Penguin Inc., 1987) p.174

[13] Allen Ginsberg, Gay Sunshine Interview, with Allen Young, (Bolinas: Grey Fox Press, 1974) p.7

[14] Mark Shechner ‘The Survival of Allen Ginsberg’, in Lewis Hyde (ed.), On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1984) p.335

[15] Michael Moon, Disseminating Whitman (London: Harvard University Press,1991) p.25

[16] Yingling, Hart Crane and the Homosexual Text, p.110

[17] Crane, “Modern Craft”,p.142:l.11-12

[18] Crane, “The Tunnel”, p.99:l.60

[19] John Vincent, Queer Lyrics (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002) p.xv

[20] Whitman, Democratic Vistas, p.262

[21] Whitman, “One Hour to Madness and Joy”, p.141

[22] Robert K. Martin, The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry (1979) (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1998) pp.xvi-xvii

[23] Crane, “Voyages” II, p.35:l.1

[24] Crane, “Voyages” III, p.36:l.1-4,9-19

[25] Crane, “Voyages” VI, pp.39-40:l.25,29-32

[26] Ibid.,p.141

[27] Crane, “The Bridge of Estador”, p.174:l.22-3

[28] Ginsberg, “America”, p.62

[29] Ginsberg, “Howl”, II,p.55

[30] Ginsberg, “Wichita Vortex Sutra”, p.161

[31] Whitman, Democratic Vistas, p.262

[32] Whitman, Preface to Leaves of Grass, 1876 edition, in The Complete Poetry and Prose, p.294

[33] The House UnAmerican Activities Committee was charged with ridding American institutions of homosexuals as well as Communists.

[34] Ginsberg, Gay Sunshine Interview, p.14

[35] Martin, The Homosexual Tradition, p.166

[36] Ginsberg, “Howl”, I,p.51

[37] Ginsberg, “Footnote to Howl”, p.57

[38] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985) pp.205-6

[39] Crane to Gorham Munson, March 2, 1923, in Selected Letters, p.137

[40] Allen Tate, in an interview with John Unterecker, in Langdon Hammer’s Hart Crane and Allen Tate: Janus-Faced Modernism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993) p.177

[41] Ezra Pound, “A Pact”, in Selected Poems 1908-1969 (London: Faber and Faber, 1975) p.45

[42] Crane, “Cape Hatteras”, pp.77-84,l.56,224. Further references will be given in parentheses in the text, indicated by ‘CH’.

[43] Crane to Otto H. Kahn, September 12, 1927, in The Complete Poems and Selected Letters and Prose of Hart Crane, ed. Brom Weber (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1966) p.348

[44] Crane to Gorham Munson, February 18, 1923, in Selected Letters, p.131

[45] Ginsberg, “A Supermarket in California”, p.59

[46] Moracarmo on Ginsberg, in On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg, ed. Lewis Hyde (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1984) p.227

[47] Whitman, Democratic Vistas, p.250

[48] Whitman, “Preface” to Leaves of Grass, 1876 edition, p.294

[49] Whitman, “So Long!”, pp.512-3

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