Queer Love Poems for Valentine's Day
In Djuna Barnes’s novel Ladies Almanack (1928), an unnamed Lady of Fashion undertakes an ethnographic experiment. She tries to record the way that lesbian lovers talk. Ultimately, though, she finds the task impossible. No matter what embarrassing fluff she writes down, the reality is in fact much, much worse: “More dripping, more lush, more lavender, more mid-mauve, more honeyed, more Flower-casting, more Cherub-bound, more downpouring, more saccharine, more lamentable, more gruesomely unmindful of reason or Sense” (45–46).
She could be describing Valentine’s Day, too, point for point.
In honor of the season, here is what Barnes long ago promised but failed to provide, a lushly lavender sugary flowery assortment of queer I-Love-You’s. They are full of cherubs of both sexes—none bound, I promise, wrong holiday—and, yes, delightfully devoid of prudence and prudish good sense.
1. “Voyages” III by Hart Crane
Hart Crane (1899–1932) grew up in Ohio, the son of the candy magnate who invented LifeSavers. After high school, he cheerfully chucked bourgeois respectability and moved to Greenwich Village, where he quickly acquired a taste for a different kind of sweet: sailors picked up in waterfront bars. In 1924 he met the love of his life, a strapping blond, blue-eyed Dane named Emil Opffer. Crane’s poem sequence “Voyages” records the wild intensity of their romance. The third part is the most famous. The sea stands for the engulfing, tumultuous passion that the lovers feel. At first they appear to swim in the open ocean, tenuously together amid a perilous vastness. Then they seem, beyond “black swollen gates,” both to drown and to be reborn into a better, higher existence. Throughout, grammar warps as the speaker wrestles with emotions and urges that exceed the bounds of reason. He even begins to invent new words: “transmemberment” suggests the experience of being dismembered and transfigured at the same time. Crane struggles to express the incredible, mind-blowing, transformative power of finding mutual love in an intolerant age.
2. “Power in Silence” by Michael Field
“Michael Field” was the pseudonym of two not-so-proper Victorian Englishwomen, Katherine Harris Bradley (1846–1914) and Edith Cooper (1862–1913). Bradley and Cooper were prolific collaborators, authoring more than 25 plays and five books of poetry. “Power in Silence” revisits the Romantic notion (found in Shelley, Keats, and others) that poets are like “pert birds” in “open sky,” giddily aloft and making glorious music. In three delicate, elaborate stanzas, Field’s poet-speaker repeats this argument’s essentials, but she also insists on giving credit where credit is due, to the “royal, jewelled” queen behind the throne, the precious woman who sustains and nourishes the poet and who, drawn “sobbing” and “throbbing” to her breast, inspires her to “magnify their love” in song.
3. “τεθνάκην δ’ ολίγω ’πιδεύης φαίνομ’ αλαία” by Allen Ginsberg
The peculiar Greek title is a quotation from Sappho’s Fragment 31, one of the first and foundational love poems in the Western tradition. It roughly translates as “a little short of dying I seem,” and in the original it caps Sappho’s recital of the physical ailments brought on by looking intently at her girlfriend (petrified tongue, fire beneath the skin, blindness, buzzing in the ears). Ginsberg (1926–1997) means “dying” a bit more literally. He presents himself as an aging Silenus, loving serially, best as he is able, a parade of gayboys. This homoerotic idyll unfolds, significantly, in Sapphics, the same strict metrical form used in Fragment 31 and thereafter indelibly associated with the Lady of Lesbos. Ginsberg’s poem is a love letter not only to the “[r]ed cheeked boyfriends” who graced his time in Boulder, Colorado, but also to the ancient rowdy randy perverse pagan literary tradition that he was teaching his students at the Jack Kerouac School for Disembodied Poetics.
4. “Love and Death” by George Gordon, Lord Byron
Near the end of his life, Byron (1788– 1824) dedicated himself to the cause of Greek independence from Turkish rule. He also fell ass over teakettle in love with his page, a young man named Lukas Chalandritsanos. Alas, Chalandritsanos seems to have been the only person in Europe, male or female, capable of resisting Byron’s Jude Law–like allure. “Love and Death” begins with a convoluted stanza that depicts the would-be lover and his intended as virtuous comrades in arms who would sooner slay each other than witness the defeat of their noble mission. After that gruesome opening gambit, Byron abandons any pretense of macho stoicism, and the poem becomes much more vulnerable and intimate. He reminds Chalandritsanos that through emergency after emergency—shipwreck, sickness, earthquake—his first and every thought has been for his beloved. He has done his all to care for him and to shield him from hurt, “yet thou lov’st me not, / And never wilt.” The final lines are sad but perfect, like Patsy Cline: “Love dwells not in our will / Nor can I blame thee, though it be my lot / To strongly, wrongly, vainly love thee still.”
5. “Didn’t Sappho say her guts clenched up like this?” by Marilyn Hacker
In the mid-1980s Hacker (b. 1942) met a much younger woman named Rachel. Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons (1986) is a sonnet-and-villanelle sequence that retells the whole of their affair with extraordinary honesty and directness. This poem arrives early in the collection. Hacker is in the first flush of infatuation and feels as though she has lost control of her emotions and her body. Like Ginsberg, she looks to Fragment 31 by Antiquity’s high priestess of queer, Sappho, for help in understanding what she’s going through. She finds there a disconcertingly apt idea, namely, that love causes physical distress (“her eyes watered, knees melted”). True enough, she sweats all night (“bed is just a swamp to roll in”), she has stomach trouble (“the need . . . to consume . . . one pint of Maalox”), and she is so turned on that she’s forever on the verge of climax (“I’d cream my jeans touching your breast”). And she discovers the all-too-literal meaning of one gastrointestinal metaphor in particular. While she knows how to handle plain old lust, “it’s all the rest / of what I want with you” that frightens her to the core, so to speak.
6. “Recreation” by Audre Lorde
Lorde (1934–1992) was a bard of the erotic. She saw its pulse and thrum as expansively life-affirming and life-creating. She also saw it as a source for revolutionary change. What else could it be, given the prodigious resources that U.S. society had fearfully marshaled over the centuries to prevent her and women like her, lesbian and African American, from speaking their desires openly, publicly, and distinctly? In “Recreation,” she uses references to writing—“paper and pen”—to describe sex with her beloved. For Lorde, both activities require a decisive rejection of constraint (“we cut the leash”), and both are not only sources of immense intense pleasure (“recreation” in the sense of sport) but also vital means of re-creating, renewing, the self via a continual process of interchange and exchange (“my body / writes into your flesh / the poem / you make of me”). Love repopulates the “word countries” of the mind and makes possible the writing of unforgettable images: “Touching you I catch midnight / as moon fires set in my throat.” Love makes the poet who she is.
7. “Poem (À la recherche de Gertrude Stein)” by Frank O’Hara
In mid-20th-century Manhattan, O’Hara (1926–1966) knew tout le monde when le monde was artsy, avant-garde, ambitious, and smart. Though he had many lovers, only one swept him off his feet: the dancer Vincent Warren. The lyrics written for Warren combine joy, spontaneity, innuendo, and vertigo. “Poem (À la recherche de Gertrude Stein)” is typical. The first two lines—“When I am feeling depressed and anxious sullen / all you have to do is take your clothes off”—serve as a sort of thesis statement that the quick-thinking, madly witty poet then variously explores and restates. He dispenses with punctuation, which permits him to rush headlong through sentences loosely stapled together by coordinating conjunctions (“and”); subordinating conjunctions (“when,” “where”); and participles (“making,” “creating,” “dividing”). He doesn’t seem to care about consistency as long as each individual statement is striking or moving or true. Without contradiction “your arms and legs” can be at one moment “an eternal circle” and at another “a golden pillar beside the Atlantic.” In the end, he cannot sustain the manic energy, and he doesn’t quite dare avow ever-after storybook love: “since once we are together we always will be in this life come what may.” We will always be what? “Together” is implied but unstated. Can a new couple ever be sure that their love will outlast the violence of first passion?
8. “To My Excellent Lucasia, on Our Friendship” by Katherine Philips
Four centuries ago Philips (1632–1664) pioneered the genre of the “romantic friendship poem.” She discovered that women writers, if they threw in a few references to innocence and/or chastity, could get away with florid declarations of undying same-sex love more melodramatic, more hothouse, than anything to be found later in Ann Bannon’s Beebo Brinker. We have no way of knowing whether Philips (who calls herself “Orinda” in the poem) and her neighbor Anne Owen (aka “Lucasia”) were lovers in a physical sense—but does it matter? Philips announces that before meeting Owen she was pretty much a zombie, a “Carcass” that jerked through its daily routine like a wind-up clock. Owen has saved her from that fate. She has become her “Soul,” her very “Life.” While men (“Bridegrooms” and “Crown-conquerors”) might think that they rule the world, the two women have in fact escaped patriarchy’s reach: “I’ve all the World in thee.” Their “Flames,” no longer constrained by “false fear,” will “shine . . . Immortal.”
9. “You, Therefore” by Reginald Shepherd
How does a person say “I love you” in our post-ironic age and not sound greeting-card vapid? In “You, Therefore,” Reginald Shepherd (b. 1963) manages the trick. He doesn’t avoid romantic clichés: you’ll find the moon and stars, scads of flowers, a rain-speckled bower, the heaving sea, strawberries, and a soft-focus snowbound bedroom vignette. Shepherd takes these hoary materials, however, and presents them with the awkwardness, stuttering, and pseudologic of a man choked by passion. The poem is a single meandering sentence with peculiar repetitions (“if I say to you, ‘To you I say’”); faulty grammar (“you” are “a kind of dwell and welcome”); odd puns (“you . . . have come to be my night”—oh Lancelot!); overheated sound play (“like the sea, salt-sweet . . . trees and seas have flown away”); and attempts to qualify or take back things just asserted (“the snow was you, / when there was snow”). The style saves the subject by roughening and skewing it, giving it the feel of authenticity (a little like antiquing a piece of furniture, perhaps). Shepherd conveys persuasively the way somebody can “fall from the sky” into your life and renew it utterly, giving you the home you’d been seeking for years.
Brian Reed is an associate professor of English at the University of Washington, Seattle. He is the author of the book Hart Crane: After His Lights (2006) as well as articles on such poets as Susan Howe, Ezra Pound, Tom Raworth, and Carl Sandburg.