National Commentary

Nick Benton’s Gay Science Part 15, This Week: Whitman’s ‘Great Poets’ & A New Gay Identity

“The attitude of great poets is to cheer up slaves and horrify despots” – Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1855). This quote has been framed and posted on the wall in front of my computer in the Falls Church News-Press office for years now. It is the most succinct statement of everything I stand for and my newspaper is dedicated to I have ever come across. That’s little wonder when you consider the source. It is hardly irrelevant that the author, hailed as perhaps the greatest American poet ever, is “one of us.”

“The attitude of great poets is to cheer up slaves and horrify despots” – Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1855).

This quote has been framed and posted on the wall in front of my computer in the Falls Church News-Press office for years now. It is the most succinct statement of everything I stand for and my newspaper is dedicated to I have ever come across.

That’s little wonder when you consider the source. It is hardly irrelevant that the author, hailed as perhaps the greatest American poet ever, is “one of us.”

In fact, I contend that, for a variety of reasons, Walt Whitman’s notion of the “great poet” in his incredibly influential “Leaves of Grass,” first published in 1855, represents a high water mark for defining the positive notions of “gay sensibility,” alternative “sensual perspective” and “constructive non-conformity” that I have articulated as platforms for a new “gay identity” in these chapters.

Whitman, who was gay, coined the term, “great poet” to describe sensibilities that are commensurate with the exercise of democracy in the young American republic and are entirely coherent with “gay sensibility” as I’ve described it, and as I’ve discovered most LGBT people to have experienced it in their own lives.

He coined the term at least 15 years before social psychologists invented the word “homosexual.” Contrasted to existing labels laden with negative connotations in use in his time, Whitman carved out a universal notion of the “great poet” who stands staunchly for equality of all persons, on the side of the plight of the working poor and the oppressed, and for the merits of science, invention, beauty, sensuality, art and reason to lift humanity towards a better place.

“Leaves of Grass,” in its early editions, was condemned by many because it was considered immoral. Its sensual and homoerotic content leaped out from its pages, especially in its “calamus poetry” section. But while many students of same-sex history view this as a precursor of an emerging homosexual subculture in the U.S., “Leaves of Grass” as a whole defies such narrow identity pigeon-holing. That was Whitman’s point.

The “great poet” has command over the whole world by bringing the unique and passionate alternate perspective that drives a constructive non-conformity toward equality, democracy and justice. Thus, Whitman’s 27-page “Leaves of Grass” introduction has a universal expression of “gay sensibility” dripping from its pages.

By this definition, the sensibility that precedes erotic arousal in homosexuals drives them toward an embrace of the talents and professions that correspond to Whitman’s articulation of the “great poet.”

That’s really who we are. The same-sex part is a subordinate but defining component. It is a signpost that we are that element of nature which drives it from what was to what will be, from stagnation or regression toward progress defined by expanding democracy, science, education and art.

It is not defined by the inward-turning, narrow, calcified categorical thinking that sees reality in rigid terms of heterosexual and homosexual, and organizes humanity in defense of one or the other. When everyone is fighting for their own gains, and homosexuals become inclined to seek only their own “rights,” all are thereby susceptible of becoming stingy and indifferent to the plight of others.

The “great poet” of Whitman inclines strongly for equal justice for all under the law, regardless of anything pertaining to orientations, sexual or otherwise. Therefore, striving for the full legal and cultural enfranchisement of homosexuals is a worthy and meritorious undertaking.

However, the “great poet” does not advocate this to the exclusion of the full enfranchisement of all persons, including the poorest and most needy.

While the massive influence of Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” on the psyche of all Americans in the latter half of the 19th century, through its many editions, additions and edits, until and beyond Whitman’s death in 1892, its impact was especially profound in the burgeoning American cities, where the networks of creative and compassionate self-identified homosexuals grew quickly to something that persisted, through ebbs and flows, into the late 1960s, as described in George Chauncey’s “Gay New York, 1890-1940(1995), and Nan Alamilla Boyd’s “Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965” (2003).

That was the world into which came still only the tiniest fraction of the seven percent of all humanity that inclines to homosexuality, and which took me 24 years to first discover in San Francisco in 1968.

But it was around that same time when a sea change occurred in the urban homosexual culture, simultaneously explosive, liberating and ominous. The notion of “great poets” eroded over time, the culture was not prepared for the level and intensity of radical hedonism that suddenly overwhelmed it in the early 1970s. I lived through that, and experienced the tumult that drove it toward the “valley of the shadow of death.”

To be continued.