Wednesday, June 16, 2021

LGBTQ Poets—Yet Another Source of Pride

By Norman Rosenthal, MD

The enormous contribution by the LGBTQ community to the arts should come as no surprise to anyone. Yet I was surprised in undertaking a recent book project, to find out just how much members of the LGBTQ community have contributed to our poetic canon.

In my recent project, Poetry Rx, I gathered together 50 inspiring poems that I have found to have the power to heal and bring joy to people’s lives, based on my personal experience and my work as a psychiatrist and coach. In organizing work, I was impressed by how many of the poets would have identified as members of the LGBTQ community were they alive today. In fact, more that one third of the poems were written by such poets -- and considering the taboo against “the love that dare not speak its name,” the number is probably larger. Since this is Pride Month, it is a fitting time to honor the brilliant women and men whose poems I regarded as being of particular value in healing, inspiring and bringing joy to our lives. Here they are:

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)
It was Elizabeth Bishop’s famous poem “One Art” that originally set me on the quest to search for poems that are particularly therapeutic and inspirational. Written to her lover Alice Methfessel in the wake of a breakup, the poem grapples with how to come to terms with the art of losing. This brilliant villanelle went through seventeen drafts before the Pulitzer Prize-winning Bishop was willing to send it out into the world. But what a gift it has been to so many people struggling with loss ever since. The poem had a happy ending when Methfessel, who had contemplated getting married, returned to Bishop with whom she lived for the rest of her life.

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950)
Millay was one of the most famous U.S. poets in the early part of the 20th century, particularly celebrated for her brilliant sonnets, three of which are included in my collection. While these sonnets were written to men, Millay, who liked to be called Vincent, radiated an incandescent sexuality that attracted both men and women. As literary titan Edmund Wilson put it, “One cannot really write about Edna Millay without bringing into the foreground of the picture her intoxicating effect on people.” Towards the end of his life, with more than 30 years' perspective Wilson wrote, “Edna ignited for me both my intellectual passion and my unsatisfied desire, which went up together in a blaze of ecstasy that remains for me one of the high points of my life. I do not believe that such experiences can be common because such women are not common.” Besides her male lovers, Millay reportedly had serial and simultaneous sexual relationships with women at Vassar college, according to her biographer Daniel Mark Epstein, appropriately titled “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed.”

W. H. Auden (1907-1973)
I have included three poems by this literary giant, who led an openly gay life: “Lullaby,” “Funeral Blues,” and “Musee Des Beaux Arts.”

“Lullaby,” written by Auden to his younger male lover after an evening of love making, is one of the most acclaimed love poems of the last century. "Funeral Blues," a poem written following the loss of a male partner, became famous when read by an actor in the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral. The movie came out at the height of the AIDS epidemic and touched a chord in people of all types of sexual orientation. After the release of the movie, “Funeral Blues” served as the centerpiece of a special edition of Auden’s love poems, “Tell Me The Truth About Love,” which was a great success, selling approximately 300,000 copies in the English speaking world and translated into half a dozen other languages.

Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933)
Cavafy was born and lived most of his life in Alexandria, where he enjoyed openly gay life in the city’s liberal, cosmopolitan atmosphere. I have included two of his iconic poems in the collection: “Waiting for the barbarians” and “Ithaka.” These poems are shot through with Cavafy’s genius for experiencing and expressing sensual delights while at the same time raising profound questions. “Ithaka,” for example, shows us that it’s life’s journey that matters, not just the destination. The poet encourages us to remember that and enjoy that journey. “Waiting for the barbarians” dramatizes in an absurd operatic style how the citizens of an imaginary city have allowed their fear of outsiders, the barbarians, to define their life goals instead of staking them out for themselves.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Although William Shakespeare is our most famous writer, surprisingly little is known about his life. Volumes have been written about him, but our understanding of the man comes largely from inferences made from his work. Since this genius had such a vast imagination, such speculations are necessarily unreliable. The sonnets may prove an exception in this regard in that they are highly personal, intimate and passionate. They fall into two suites: the first 126 written to a young man and the next 28 to a woman. Although the sonnets are so brilliant that they have been anthologized individually as stand-alone independent works when read sequentially, they form a narrative of two separate love stories. Of these sonnets the poet William Wordsworth said that, “With this key Shakespeare unlocked his heart.”

The three sonnets in my collection were all addressed to the young man. In Sonnet 18 “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” Shakespeare first declares his love for the young man and promises him immortality by memorializing him. Shakespeare was in fact correct when he wrote:

So as long as men can breathe or eyes can see
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee

Sonnet 29 finds Shakespeare consoled by the thought of his lover “When in disgrace and fortune in men’s eyes.” Finally, Shakespeare's most famous Sonnet 116, a paean to the unchanging nature of love, falls towards the end of the relationship. The lovers appear to have had differences concerning fidelity. In this context Shakespeare’s avowal, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediment” appears to be a bold attempt to salvage the love relationship. Although the poem was a great success, the love relationship appears to have dissolved, leaving two blank lines bracketed by parentheses to represent the quiet that occurs at the end of a relationship, when two people have nothing more to say to each other.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)
The so-called Belle of Amherst is one of the most famous American poets. I have included three of her poems in my book, “There’s a certain slant of light,” “Hope is the thing with feathers,” and “Because I could not stop for death.” Her poetry was unconventional when she wrote it and even now is so distinctive that her poems are readily recognizable at first glance. They are short and untitled with characteristic punctuation and an unusual rhyme scheme.

For much of her life Dickinson lived as a recluse, her most affectionate relationship being towards her sister-in-law Susan Gilbert, to whom she wrote hundreds of letters. In one written in 1852, she wrote, “Susie, will you indeed come home next Saturday and be my own again, and kiss me. . . I hope for you so much, and feel so eager for you, feel that I cannot wait, feel that now I must have you -- that the expectation once more to see your face again, makes me feel hot and feverish, and my heart beats so fast. . . my darling, so near I seem to you, that I disdain this pen and wait for a warmer language.” How amazed Dickinson would be to see Pride Month celebrated along with all those who are able to express their love in ways that sadly were not available to her.

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)
Not much is known about the sexuality of Gerard Manley Hopkins but his private papers suggest that he struggled with his gay identity and formed a close attachment with a fellow student at Oxford. One of the Hopkins’ poems in my book is “Pied Beauty”, in which the Hopkins extolls diversity in nature and people. In this regard the ascetic Jesuit monk was extraordinarily modern in his thinking. One could only imagine how overjoyed he would be to see Pride Month being celebrated by the LGBTQ community. Perhaps he would look over the celebrating crowd and cry out the first words of his famous poem, “Glory be to God.”

Norman E. Rosenthal, M.D., is a clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown Medical School and was the psychiatrist who first described seasonal affective disorder and pioneered the use of light in its treatment during his 20 years at the National Institute of Mental Health. He has researched other innovative psychiatric treatments and is the author of several books including the New York Times bestseller Transcendence: Healing and Transformation through Transcendental Meditation and the national bestseller Super Mind. He currently maintains a private clinical and coaching practice in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. His work has earned him national and international attention in the world of psychiatry and psychology, as well as in the media.