While most of my friends chose to head-bang to Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Guns N’ Roses on the hour-long train ride to high school, my yellow Sports Walkman usually played something a little slower and more somber. From the Geto Boys to The Sisters of Mercy, I appreciated an urban noir and dark, surrealist aesthetic, but not every band could complement the beauty of their music with lyrical prowess. Enter Stephen Patrick Morrissey, who proved to be a kindred spirit from my very first encounter with his verse.
As an observant and sensitive black girl struggling to find a place in a very white, middle-class neighborhood in Queens, I devoured his forlorn anthems, particularly his work with the Smiths. Though Morrissey’s lyrics were perhaps a bit morose for a developing mind (“And if a double-decker bus / Crashes into us / To die by your side / Is such a heavenly way to die”), they were searing and resonated for me in a way that the chart toppers at the time—Ace of Base, TLC, and Snoop Dogg—didn’t. Here was a pasty-faced, awkward Irish singer who couldn’t have been more culturally or physically unlike me. And yet his lyrics mirrored my sense of disorientation and indignation.
I attended grade school in a New York City where Michael Griffith was chased to his death in Howard Beach, Queens, and Yusef Hawkins was shot to death in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, for simply looking like me. I can distinctly recall the boys I worshipped in grade school arguing in classroom discussions that both deceased teens got what they deserved for being in neighborhoods in which they didn’t belong. I was keenly aware of the fact that I too did not belong. Morrissey’s lyrics—such as “When you walk without ease / on these / Streets where you were raised / I had a really bad dream / it lasted twenty years, seven months and 27 days”—cut to the bone.
But Morrissey did more than simply expand my own narrow view of what pain and isolation looked like (despite the fact that he himself, perhaps internalizing intolerance, had been known to flirt with fascist and xenophobic themes in songs such as “Bengali in Platforms”). He introduced me to another Irishman in Britain who struggled as an outsider, a man whom Morrissey credits with saving his adolescence and who helped shaped my own literary development: Oscar Wilde.
“As the world’s first populist figure (first pop figure) Oscar Wilde exploded with original wisdom, advocating freedom for heart and soul, and for all—regardless of how the soul swirled,” Morrissey writes in the British edition of his autobiography (due out in the United States this week). Morrissey is an unabashed reader of poetry (his memoir quotes lines from Robert Herrick, Patrick Kavanagh, and A.E. Housman, in addition to Wilde), and he’s been talking about Wilde’s influence for decades. “Every line that Wilde ever wrote affected me so enormously,” Morrissey told Rolling Stone back in 1984. He cited Wilde and James Dean as “the only two companions I had as a distraught teenager…. It was almost as if I knew these people quite intimately, and they provided quite a refuge from everyday slovenly life.” Morrissey wasn’t shy about paying tribute to Wilde, appropriating his words (a line from The Importance of Being Earnest appears in the song “Rubber Ring”) and his mannerisms (Morrissey often carried or wore gladioli, reportedly Wilde’s favorite flower). But while Morrissey was obsessed with Wilde’s aesthetic and his stylized and sometimes sardonic plays and prose, I gravitated toward his beautiful short stories and poetry, in particular the poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol.
After being sentenced to two years in prison in 1895 for sodomy and serving his time at Reading Gaol, Wilde dropped his wry detachment and wrote what many scholars consider to be his greatest poem, if not his greatest work, The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Through this work he also converted a music-loving teenager into a poetry fan.
I bought my first Oscar Wilde poetry anthology at a secondhand bookstore in London (which I happened upon because it was next door to a record store carrying the latest Morrissey album). I was in London on spring break during my junior year of high school. I remember reading The Ballad of Reading Gaol on the plane ride back across the Atlantic—mainly because I had seven hours to kill in a smoke-filled cabin. At first I was overwhelmed by its length (more than 600 lines) and its structure (divided into acts), but The Ballad of Reading Gaol’s universal themes of horror, brutality, and isolation soon drew me in.
At six o’clock we cleaned our cells,At seven all was still,But the sough and swing of a mighty wingThe prison seemed to fill,For the Lord of Death with icy breathHad entered in to kill.He did not pass in purple pomp,Nor ride a moon-white steed.Three yards of cord and a sliding boardAre all the gallows’ need:So with rope of shame the Herald cameTo do the secret deed.We were as men who through a fenOf filthy darkness grope:We did not dare to breathe a prayer,Or to give our anguish scope:Something was dead in each of us,And what was dead was Hope.
Two things struck me while reading: first, Wilde’s language was as smart and accessible as ever; and second, the harsh prison experience transformed the Wilde I was familiar with into a new man, one more adept at expressing compassion and empathy. As Wilde wrote in De Profundis, a letter to his alleged lover Lord Alfred Douglas from prison:
[I must] absorb into my nature all that has been done to me, to make it part of me, to accept it without complaint…. The plank bed, the loathsome food, the hard ropes shredded into oakum till one’s fingertips grow dull with pain … the dreadful dress that makes sorrow grotesque to look at, the silence, the solitude, the shame—each and all of these things I have to transform into a spiritual experience.
Suddenly the London sophisticate, who was known to preach the gospel of the superficial, was forced to, as he wrote in his letter, “become a deeper man” and acquire the “privilege of those who have suffered” while suddenly understanding that “sorrow, being the supreme emotion of which man is capable, is at once the type and test of all great Art.”
Wilde’s poem, dedicated to fellow Reading Gaol prisoner Charles Thomas Wooldridge, who was sentenced to death for the premeditated murder of his wife, is a long, gothic protest of sorts, indicting the British penal system, if not the world, for its inhumanity:
Some love too little, some too long,Some sell, and others buy;Some do the deed with many tears,And some without a sigh:For each man kills the thing he loves,Yet each man does not die.He does not die a death of shameOn a day of dark disgrace,Nor have a noose about his neck,Nor a cloth upon his face,Nor drop feet foremost through the floorInto an empty space.
This verse was particularly effective in critiquing the selectively enforced rules of the British justice system. It also evoked images of the sort of American justice that Billie Holiday sang about in “Strange Fruit.” In The Ballad of Reading Gaol Wilde has “developed a profound imaginative sympathy for the victims of society’s official cruelty,” William E. Buckler wrote in Victorian Poetry, “and had given to it a voice that would be heard for a long time to come far beyond the coteries of the happy aesthetic few.”
But what struck me most about this poem was Wilde’s ability to, in the midst of serving an unjust sentence, empathize with his wardens and find humanity in his oppressors:
But why he said so strange a thingNo Warder dared to ask:For he to whom a watcher’s doomIs given as his task,Must set a lock upon his lips,And make his face a mask.Or else he might be moved, and tryTo comfort or console:And what should Human Pity doPent up in Murderer’s Hole?What word of grace in such a placeCould help a brother’s soul?
This was transformative for me. As a thorny teenager I had plenty of justifiable rage, but I also knew that my situation was complicated. Some of the same boys who said awful things about black people would also religiously reserve a spot for me on their recess tag teams or call my house nightly to chat. So when I heard Morrissey sing in “Cemetery Gates,” “Keats and Yeats are on your side but you lose because Wilde is on mine,” I was starting to feel the same way. By candidly giving voice to complicated contradictions, Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol took me out of my bounded Queens neighborhood and, eventually, into the greater world lexicon of conflicted, socially conscious poets such as Nikky Finney and Reginald Shepherd.
Finney and Shepherd are completely different types of composers—she is known for her narrative-driven, often political poetry, and his work is dominated by abstract lyricism and occasional mythology—but both write with a sometimes subtle, often not so subtle, subtext of interloper alienation. This is largely because of their race (both are African American), but it is also, as with Wilde and Morrissey, because of their sexuality.
Finney writes from this vantage point in “The Aureole” as she recalls witnessing and internalizing the mistreatment of a woman, whom she calls Brenda Jones, in her Southern hometown, which she has described as small and homophobic: “I will be what Brenda Jones was stoned for in 1969. / I saw it as a girl but didn’t know I was taking in myself.”
Finney goes on to say:
She fends off their spit & words with silent two-handedtwists & turns of her socket wrench. A hurl of sticks &stones and only me to whisper for her, from sidewalk far,…
As Wilde was able to do in The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Finney speaks as an almost invisible insider, someone who can bring the perspective and privilege of the oppressor into a poem while capturing the heart and humanity of the oppressed. She recently commented on this panoramic perspective in an interview: “I think that is the thing that has made me a poet, really—my curiosity about people, my empathy with people. Yes, I look at them in not easy ways, but I also hope I don’t forget that they are people too, with foibles and fragilities and missteps.”
Very few people would compare Wilde, Finney, and Shepherd, but to me they all employ the same pained and beautiful language. I’m convinced that having Wilde train me in poetic empathy and nuance made me more sensitive to this particular type of emotional estrangement, the type that comes with being an outsider from within—which most black kids who grew up in a white neighborhood, or gay people who grow up in a heteronormative world, understand.
Shepherd gives voice to this unique type of immersion and artistic code switching in his poems. In “A Brief Manual for Swimmers,” he writes:
… We choose our tintsfrom colors offered us, and could I chooseanother pigment I would drownin it, diving beneath your skin
“A Muse” says: “He winds through the party like wind, one of the just / who live alone in black and white, bewildered.” Shepherd’s muses and the objects of his desires (and ire) were often “blue-eyed” men, as illustrated in the poem “Skin Trade”:
…He’s my Americatwisted in dirty sheets, my inspirationfor a sleepless night. No getting around thatwhite skin
He subversively speaks of idol worship and the internalization of colonial attitudes with a vulnerability, complexity, and courage that I hadn’t previously been exposed to through any art form.
Shepherd, who grew up in public housing in the Bronx and was educated at prestigious, mainly white institutions, said, “I have been oppressed by many things in my life, but not by literature, which for me has always represented potential and not closure.” I know the potential that Shepherd spoke of, and I can remember feeling it for the first time 35,000 feet in the air, when little else made sense.