Poetic Closets

Gay Lines and the New York School Poets

by Hartmut Heep (Author)
©2020 Monographs XIV, 308 Pages


Poetic Closets: Gay Lines and the New York School Poets focuses on John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, and James Schuyler’s homosexuality and their lives in New York City. Ashbery, O’Hara, and Schuyler met because they shared their experiences—and their men—in their poems and in their lives. Rather than connecting the writings of these three New York poets with established literary movements of the past, this study offers a provocative, prosodic reading that reflects the social, intellectual, political, and sexual views of today. In times of increasing conservatism, these poets suggest different paths of poetic and political resistance to the accepted norms of the 1950s and 1960s. 
Poetic Closets will be of interest to readers of poetry on all levels but particularly to students of English, gender studies, or gay studies at universities and colleges. This book also explores New York as a setting and offers fresh insights into its gender-related landscape of bars, museums, and entertainment venues.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Illustrations
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. James Schuyler: Confessions of a Reluctant New Yorker
  • New York in Schuyler’s Poetry
  • Nature as Leitmotif
  • Homosexuality: Longing for Love
  • Mental Instability: Confessions
  • Conclusion
  • An Interview With Nathan Kernan, Schuyler’s Biographer and Friend
  • Chapter 2. Frank O’Hara: New Yorker Among Poets
  • The Poetic Manifesto of Personism
  • Life in New York City
  • City Walks
  • Death or Dying
  • The City and the Beast
  • Poetic Form and Informality
  • New York and Mes Semblables
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 3. John Ashbery: Involuntary “Isms” From the Inner Closet
  • Sexuality as Mysterious Obfuscation
  • City Poet Without a City
  • No City Life
  • An Indifferent Society
  • The Vagueness of Temporal References to the City
  • The Self in the City
  • The Poet and His Tale of the City
  • Negated (Homo) Sexuality
  • Self-Portrait
  • Conclusion
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography

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Figure 1. New York drawing.

Figure 2. Schuyler drawing.

Figure 3. O’Hara drawing.

Figure 4. Ashbery drawing.

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I fell in love with New York during an internship at the United Nations in 1984. Upon my return to Germany, I began thinking about the New York poets. As a comparatist, their language skills, as well as their broad literary focus, were a natural choice for me. I embarked on this book project by securing an interview with James Schuyler’s friend and biographer Nathan Kernan, and by scheduling an interview with John Ashbery. Nathan provided great insights into Schuyler that helped me understand his poems. I am grateful for Nathan’s time and his advice. I met with Douglas Crase and Frank Polach in Chelsea, where we spent a wonderful hot summer evening chatting about the New York School heyday. Finally, I was able to meet with John Ashbery at his place in Chelsea. I was overwhelmed by his kindness and intellectual generosity. I remained in touch with David Kermani, who offered valuable advice along the way.

My colleague Dr. Nicole Andel helped me contextualize sexuality and religion. I am incredibly indebted to my friend and professional editor Angelo Virgona, a Harvard graduate himself and a contemporary of the New York Poets, who shared his love for hyphens, colons, and semi-colons with me and my manuscript. Without him, this manuscript would not exist in its current form. Finally, I must thank my husband, Dr. Charles Levine, ← xi | xii → who ended his professional medical career listening to me endlessly editing and rewriting the same paragraphs. Inspired by the poets himself Charles, slipping into his own New York-state-of-mind, did the series of drawings in this book as well as the cover. He also reminded me that mixing red and yellow makes orange.

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Figure 1. New York drawing.


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In September 2017, after a hiatus of eleven years, the hit TV sitcom Will & Grace (1998–2006) returned to NBC television in a rainbow-colored America. Set in New York City, the show focuses on best friends Will Truman, a gay lawyer, and Grace Adler, a straight interior designer. This historic gap of these eleven eventful years is addressed in the second episode of its ninth season: “Who’s Your Daddy?” Will, played by Eric McCormack, lands a date with Blake, played by the gay icon Ben Platt. Rather than having sex with the young, sexy, and consenting Blake, Will gets on his history soapbox to relate the struggles of the gay community from Stonewall to marriage equality. But for the millennial Blake neither Madonna nor Stonewall, which he confuses with Stonehenge, are reference points, let alone historic markers. Young millennials can now celebrate their coming “out” like a quinceañera party or a belated bar mitzvah. The juxtaposition of coming “out” versus having to stay “in” the closet is lost on them.

For the gay New York School poets John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, and James Schuyler such an openly gay America never existed. Their America criminalized homosexuality and offered no open spaces for them. Only the closet was a “safe space” (Myslik 66), an “in”-sider space, since “coming out” had severe professional, social, economic, and legal consequences. Allan ← 1 | 2 → Bérubé explains that homosexuals in the 1940s were only able to expand their closets (270), given the social anti-gay climate in the United States. Allen Young, Stuart Byron, and Ricardo Brown, among others, emphasize the high personal cost for homosexuals of that generation, if they attempted to leave the safety of the closet. Eve Sedgwick applies the existence in and out of the closet to a person’s public vs. private space. Crossing the line from private to public, according to Sedgwick, means crossing a political line, since the closet “is the defining structure for gay oppression” (71). For gay millennials the closet has become a museum piece that might as well be admired next to any Greco-Roman artefact. As a matter of fact, heterosexuality and its sexual limitations have come under scrutiny. In his essay “Is the Rectum a Gold Mine? Queer Theory, Consumer Masculinities, and Capital Pleasures,” Tommaso Milani opens up the heterosexual rectum to prostate stimulation as part of a “gentleman’s pleasure,” (29) after all “inanimate objects—beers, muffins, or prostate massagers—are not inherently sexed; they do not have a penis, a vagina, or any other sexual organs” (29).

The closet may no longer exist for the millennials, but for the gay poets of the New York School life in the closet was the norm. The intensely politicized sexual nuances between homo-and heterosexuality: trans-, bi-, pansexuality, and other sexual proclivities, were not a concept for the New York poets, nor was a theoretical approach to their own sexual identity. Queer Theory rightly focuses on the misalignment of sex, gender, and desire. Sex, until recently the origin of a person’s biology, is forced into ideals of social gender norms and mores. While it is easy to identify the different forms of oppression and subjugation, the liberation from heteronormativity remains a real struggle. Judy Butler, for example, expands the gender discussion beyond masculinity and femininity by including “multiple identifications,” (89) such as race, class, and religion. The New York School poets, however, operated in a de facto socially and racially segregated world. Likewise, Sedgwick’s claim that “the now chronic modern crisis of homo/heterosexual definition has affected our culture,” (11) was not pertinent in the l950s, nor did Ashbery, O’Hara, and Schuyler question the “conventional understandings of sexual identity by deconstructing the categories, oppositions and equations that sustain them” (Jagose 97). Heterosexuality was the norm and homosexuality, if mentioned at all, was seen as sick, deviant, and criminal. Ashbery, O’Hara, and Schuyler lived in a strictly enforced heteronormative culture, in which very few places permitted a gay lifestyle. These poets established their poetic and personal identities in and around safe spaces by creating their own New York poetic and social closets. ← 2 | 3 →

New York City, a former Dutch colony surrounded by Anglo-Saxon Puritan America, remains as unique as it is energetic. In many respects New York is the least American, and yet, most American place in the United States, not the least because of its overwhelming cultural diversity. This New York way of life is reflected in art and poetry. New York, the city that never sleeps, or at least not alone [“No one I knew in New York was celibate” (White 163)], lies at a cultural, geographic, political, and, as we shall see in this study, sexual crossroads. The city remains at the vanguard of an intense American experience that is above all reflected in its literature. Maggie Nelson emphasizes the uniqueness of New York: “This openness to movement, accident, strangers, and heterogeneity is something of a prerequisite to the dance of daily life” (86). From the mid 1950s to the early 1970s many poets were attracted by the city. Monroe Spears remarks that New York “is the background which produces the typical modern man and the stage upon which he acts” (71), and artists of any couleur came to participate, with different ideas and motivations, in a new city experience unknown in American poetry since the days of Walt Whitman. The poets of the New York School, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and, to a lesser extent, James Schuyler, epitomize this experience.

It is not only the literary work of the New York poets that determines the character of the movement but also their effort to combine various forms of art, especially painting and literature, and their willingness to cooperate, influencing each other and creating the idea of what came to be known as the New York School. The realization of this idea can best be seen in their determination to work together, thus ceding the established concept of individual authorship. The interrelationship of various literary genres, the intimate character of their poetry, and the personal relationships formed around them, is something that signals a new direction: openness, experience, and originality appear to be the guiding principles of these poets. Edmund White describes the fusion of New York and these poets as “hymning the city in the same casual, shrugging, but secretly precise terms” (39). White’s use of the terms “hymning,” “casual,” and “secretly” are of particular interest in this study, since they reflect the traditional social and sexual values that governed New York in the 1950s.

1950: John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara met at Harvard University. 1955: Frank O’Hara moved to New York after a short interlude in the city in 1951. Ashbery followed permanently in 1965, after various earlier stays. These dates may be seen as central to the New York School of Poetry, a loose association ← 3 | 4 → of poets living and working in the city. Despite David Lehman’s extraordinary detective work concerning the beginning of the movement, it is impossible to give a single reason why and when the New York School of Poetry came into being. The relationship among the poets in the group, and the significance of Frank O’Hara within the school, certainly play a major part. It is just as difficult to explain why the halcyon days came to an end starting in the 1970s. Obviously, one cause was the sudden death of Frank O’Hara in 1966. A more important cause, however, seems to be a dissatisfaction and a fatigue with the city itself. Widespread crime and drug use forced many heterosexual, socially mobile New Yorkers to move to the suburbs.

During the 1950s and ’60s, however, the arts were thriving and New York played an important role in the American culture scene. John Myers was an early voice in suggesting that “New York at the time had become suddenly the art center of the world. For years, Paris had been steadily declining in its power to produce fresh, significant painting and sculpture” (8). Monroe Spears states that the generation of the Moderns had gradually begun to view Paris as a city that had “fallen (things fall apart; falling towers) or as fallen (towers upside down in the air, la tour abolie) and therefore moving in the other direction, toward the Infernal City” (71).

The New York poets still kept one foot in Paris, but for sexual rather than intellectual reasons. To them, Paris was synonymous with sexual freedom. Although they spoke French, spent extended periods of time in Paris, and were deeply influenced by French literature, none of the New York poets wrote extensively in any other language but English, and none made Europe their permanent home, let alone renounce their American citizenship. Schuyler, Ashbery, and O’Hara are American poets for whom New York City became synonymous with art and sex.

Previously, the city had formed the man. Since the 1940s a gay subculture had been a part of New York, and this culture became more prominent in the 1960s, culminating in the Stonewall riots in June 1969. Finally, gay men were able to thrive publically. And homosexuals turned their subjective experience into an intricate part of the urban and cultural landscape in order “to forge cultures that helped ensure their survival” (Beemyn 6). The New York poets acted on that stage, but sooner than any other literary group, they were willing to take off their masks in order to present the reader with a gayness not celebrated since Walt Whitman. Intimate situations described by the lyrical personas and personal confessions, focusing on the city as background, made it possible to comprehend the city’s problematic ← 4 | 5 → nature and its personal effects. One major achievement is their reevaluation of the city’s art scene.

The rise of the United States to its superpower status after World War II provided the political stability and economic affluence that allowed a fresh and innovative approach to the arts. Poetry was beginning to play a more active part in the American literary scene of the 1960s, and the fruits of such activities can be seen in various coexisting groupings. New York became a center of poetic creativity with several different locations, such as the Lower East Side and the bohemian Greenwich Village. Allen de Loach describes this unique group of poets as “a body of poets (themselves representative of a larger body of poets) who … were energetic and active in a community situation which emerged as the dominant focus of American avant-garde poetry” (1). Daniel Kane also offers valuable insights into the workings of the group and the importance of community.

Almost simultaneously, albeit with a very different approach to poetry, the formation of the New York School of Poetry began. Marjorie Perloff sums up its beginnings:

Perloff’s use of the term “New York School” is symptomatic of a generation of early critics who applied their own interpretations without really listening to the voices of the poets. Harold Rosenberg spoke against the idea of a New York School as early as 1969. Dore Ashton makes a compelling case rejecting the notion of “School” as being un-American, citing “a constant conflict between individuality and the will to cohesion” (2). Indeed, any literary critic would be hard-pressed to turn the New York poets into permanent poetic bedfellows. Equally inapplicable, if not un-American, is a poststructuralist reading, as suggested by Mark Silverberg. The New York poets believed it to be a poet’s job “to perform what theory cannot yet imagine” (New York 81). To read the New York poets within a theory retrospectively would be misreading them. ← 5 | 6 →

The deconstruction of gender, through language, is a poststructuralist concept, but the New York poets did not question the validity of language or gender. It seems that their association with gender is closely connected to grammar, rather than its arbitrary cultural and social construct. Ashbery, O’Hara, and Schuyler demonstrated different levels of fluency in various foreign languages. French, for example, relates its linguistic gender concept to grammar. In as much as the French definite article le or la exists as a permanent linguistic identity, the New York poets had to attach their biological sex to a heterosexual gender identity as well. Similar to a book (un livre) in French that cannot have a male or/and female (trans)-gender, men in the 1950s could only be heterosexual in public. American society solely permitted the association of male gender with a male heterosexual biological sex. But the New York poets discussed in this study were gay, and they were forced to align their sexual preference with a hetero-normative gender and sexual identity. New York, however, was a place where social and gender definitions where more fluid. Dore Ashton claims that many artists were attracted to the city because of its “chaotic impression of a vital activity” (2) and specifically its lack of a “specific ideology” (2). His argument will lay the theoretical foundation for this study, in which I argue that the glue that held these poets together was their love of poetry and men.

This interpretation has been overlooked by early critics, such as Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler, among others. As heterosexuals, George Chauncey argues, these critics were unfamiliar with the gay world, its special language, and its open and often raw sexuality. Chauncey continues, these early literary interpretations “turned to the more easily accessible records of the elite before grappling with the more elusive evidence of the ordinary” (10). Despite the many interviews given by the poets, the contents of their voluminous correspondence, and the cross- referenced or dedicated poems to each other, hardly any of this has been incorporated as an intricate part of a comprehensive standard literary analysis.

But a new generation of critics, such as Maggie Nelson, Dianne Chisholm, Andrew Epstein, John Vincent, John Shoptaw, Christopher Schmidt, among others, has arrived on the literary scene. Nelson’s study Women, The New York School, and Other True Abstractions is an innovative approach to the women in the group but touches only peripherally on the topic of male homosexuality. Schmidt’s recent study The Poetics of Waste. Queer Excess in Stein, Ashbery, Schuyler, and Goldstein; Vincent’s Queer Lyrics. Difficulty and Closure in American Poetry, as well as Chisholm’s Queer Constellation. Subcultural Space ← 6 | 7 → in the Wake of the City, lack the solid poetic analysis that I propose in my study. Epstein’s Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry clearly underlines the impact of homosexuality, but he also forces New York School poems into a poetic straitjacket of mainstream literary traditions and fashionable “isms.” Edmund White’s City Boy. My Life in New York During the 1960s and 1970s, as well as Brad Gooch’s meticulous City Poet. The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara, while queer, provide a colorful arrière-plan without the textual canvas as foundation. Shoptaw’s ground-breaking study, On the Outside Looking Out: John Ashbery’s Poetry, is truly innovative; however, it does not include Schuyler or O’Hara, nor does it provide a specific scope concerning Ashbery’s work.

While appreciating the literary pioneering spirit of the old guard for plowing through a field without an already established critical canon, these new critics freshly interpret the New York poems “for a poetic inclusiveness … that embraces ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture and language” (Silverberg, New York 28). Such a reading suits a new generation of readers as well. Rather than connecting the New York School poems with poets and movements of the past, by applying Eurocentric and heterocentric values, this new reading reflects more contemporary social, intellectual, political, and sexual views.

Because of the succession of poets coming and going and because of the intrinsic character of the New York School, it is almost impossible to speak of it as a school; the term “movement” seems to be more appropriate. “New York School” is often associated with the art movement that, according to Myers, “like ‘School of Paris,’ meant a geographic center for a wide variety of divergent tendencies in painting and sculpture” (8–9). But more importantly, “school” may be a misnomer because the poets themselves refused to use the term. Alan Feldman recounts an argument concerning the label as follows: “David Shapiro and Ron Padgett remark that it would be ‘facile as well as misleading’ to see these poets as forming a ‘School,’ but that, in fact, is how they are usually still categorized by people who cannot live without patterns” (40). In an interview I conducted with John Ashbery in February 2015, I asked him whether he preferred to be called an American poet or a New York poet. He answered:

Finally, in his study The Poets of the New York School (1961), John Myers thinks that it is more appropriate to “call them a ‘coterie.’” (8).

Lytle Shaw provides a convincing historical and social context for the group. Perloff is correct in her observation that O’Hara was at the core of the group, but she refuses to acknowledge the fact that all the founding poets of the New York School, with the exception of Kenneth Koch, and most of the painters acquainted with the poets, were gay. Although Koch was not gay, he fit well into the gay coterie of Ashbery, O’Hara, and Schuyler, and he even joked about his own heterosexuality while “picking up queer talk” (Diggory 228). Michael Davidson’s term “compulsory homosociality” (30) certainly is correct in this context, but he leaves out one important aspect: most of the poets were gay and had sex with other men. Thus, it is not poetry that brought these men together initially, but their innate sexuality as gay men, with Kenneth Koch as the odd man out. If Steven Watson is right in assuming that the 1950s was “a period of apparent hegemony” (“Rebel”), and that the New York poets “stood outside of these larger societal trends” (“Rebel”), we must come to the conclusion that their shared sexual preferences placed them “A Step Away from Them.” Maggie Nelson calls the gay New York poets “gay giants” (xx), and reads the New York School as “the phenomenon of an artistic gay male brotherhood” (53). Edmund White describes the freedom gay men were able to experience in New York: “To us [homosexuals], however, it represented the only free port on the entire continent. Only in New York could we walk hand in hand with a member of the same sex” (2), but White also noticed that “all these writers I was meeting who were gay—Ashbery, Howard Moss, David Kalstone, Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Poirier—might be open about their sexuality in their private lives, but no one in the general public knew about it” (183). Their closets remained closed.

New York, the magnet for anybody different or talented, offered the poets the ability to fulfill their homosexual desires in an established subculture. Whereas Boston stood for “the puritan suspicion both of the sensuous side of existence and of the heresies of imaginative intellectual life” (Ashton 7), New York has been a metaphor for an almost “anything goes” approach to life, covering “almost every possible political, cultural, economic, physical, and social need” (Manalansan 65). Indeed, New York was the main stage for homosexuals from the 1940s until the 1980s. George Chauncey provides the historical background of the gay scene in New York in his book Gay New York. He points out that the 1930s, a period of relative tolerance towards homosexuals, was followed by two decades of crackdowns, public harassment, and ← 8 | 9 → criminal investigations. This is the period when the New York School poets arrived in the city.

At first, New York’s Greenwich Village was known for its bohemian artists, writers, and single men who would meet casually for dinner or a drink in establishments, such as Uncle Charlie’s and later in the legendary Stonewall, and then disappear for sex in boarding houses, or the infamous YMCA. The Rambles, an area of New York’s Central Park, was a place where men met for outdoor sex. The pier off Christopher Street offered a place for almost nude sunbathing in the summer, and, on occasion, a quick sexual encounter as well. Once the former Meat Packing district became defunct, theme-oriented sex clubs moved in. Times Square was the location for quick lunch breaks during which a sizable married male clientele would engage in homosexual intercourse in one of the blue movie theaters. Frank O’Hara would spend many of his lunch hours in such establishments pleasing married men.

There also existed the flourishing scene of gay bathhouses, in which the gay poets discussed in this study could participate in bacchanalian-like sexual orgies. Martin Manalansan reiterates the significance of the gay sauna as “places to celebrate gay liberation, particularly from the dominant codes of conduct” (75). Liberating sexuality from the yoke of procreation, gay saunas offered sexuality for pleasure only. Manalansan explains the significance of gay New York as follows: parallel to New York’s predominantly white and male-dominated business center in midtown and Wall Street, and the heterosexual residential neighborhoods of the Upper West and Upper East Side, existed a “gendered, ethnicized, and racialized substratum” (64) in Chelsea, the Lower East Side and eventually in Harlem. During the day Ashbery, O’Hara, and Schuyler circulated among their often Harvard-educated, privileged white peers in midtown and on the Upper East Side, while at night they would delve into a unique subculture. Unlike any other place in the United States, New York has truly been multicultural. This fact is certainly reflected in its gay scene as well. Manalansan confirms that “New York City gay life had mushroomed into a plethora of groups and events that catered to almost every possible political, cultural, economic, physical, and social need” (65). Similar to its ever-changing demographic composition, New York’s gay neighborhoods remain in flux as well. Gay life with its bars, coffeehouses, adult and legitimate bookstores, gay gyms, and its gay followers has moved from Greenwich Village to Chelsea, where Ashbery lived, to Hell’s Kitchen, from where it has evaporated into cyber space. ← 9 | 10 →

Although gay men generally refer to New York as the place of personal growth and sexual fulfillment, specifically it is only the borough of Manhattan that offered such possibilities. John D’Emilio, who at one point lived in the Bronx, knew that Manhattan, which is only “a short journey by subway” was the world where “I knew I belonged” (Essays, 4). This type of belonging D’Emilio describes as “a world of gay male sex in the subways of New York, and then finding a street cruising scene. I had finally come to the point of realizing that each sexual experience would not be my last” (Out xii). New York’s gay scene remains unique among other American cities in terms of size; social, racial, and sexual diversity; and its attractiveness for a large international audience of gay men.

In addition to New York, San Francisco, as the only other gay mecca, had emerged. Nan Alamilla Boyd’s study Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965 is just as exhaustive as George Chauncey’s Gay New York. Boyd traces the queerness of San Francisco to the Gold Rush of 1849. While Chauncey associates New York’s gayness with its Ivy League intellectuals, artists, painters, writers, and bon vivants who convene in exclusive clubs, theaters, and the salons of the rich, Boyd’s San Francisco gay scene operates in “a vibrant and opulent city with a reputation for licentious entertainment and vigilante government” (2) that emerged from adventure seekers, the lawless, or stranded sailors. Its political activism is born often ad hoc in bars by homosexuals who share a similar economic and intellectual background. Similarly, J. Todd Ormsbee understands San Francisco’s gay culture as private, originating “in bars and house parties” (1). As such, gay life lacks racial, economic, and geographic diversity. For those reasons, among others, San Francisco did not appeal to the Harvard-educated, Eurocentric New York School poets. Other gay urban centers, such as Miami, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Chicago, are more recent developments in the gay American landscape.

The AIDS pandemic of the 1980s and ’90s, as well as the rise of the computer and internet, changed gay life and gay sex permanently, but by that time O’Hara was long dead. Only as Ashbery, Schuyler, and O’Hara were settled comfortably into their gay New York existence, filling their lives with sexual encounters, did the city begin to be of poetic interest to them. In his study Gay New York, Chauncey confirms that gay men moved to New York, and “developed almost entirely gay social worlds” (272). This fact is crucial to this study, since it provides an explanation for the gay closets of the New York School poets. ← 10 | 11 →

There are several reasons why the homosexuality of the New York School poets is such an integral part of this study. First, it was an important social aspect of their lives: Ashbery, O’Hara, and Schuyler professed it as their sexual preference publically. Secondly, homosexuality, being a topic discussed by the writers of the New York School, became a motif in their poems. Personal relationships meant, for O’Hara and the other New York poets, the inclusion of their sexual experiences with other men, and homosexuality became a crucial part of their city experience. Finally, the impact of homosexuality on the poets themselves cannot be overlooked. Until the current wave of marriage equality, gay discrimination and even gay bashing were socially accepted practices in many parts of the United States. It was not until June 2003 that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down sodomy laws throughout the United States in Lawrence vs. Texas. Although New York City did not provide a decriminalized atmosphere for young homosexuals in the 1940, ’50s, and ’60s, it at least offered anonymity and opportunity to meet, albeit with social and possibly legal consequences.

But being gay really does have an impact on someone’s life. Women’s Studies have pointed out the relevance of an author’s gender identity. Any sensitive reader is also aware of the difference in perception when Caucasians write about African Americans or when African Americans present their experience in their own voice. Each group is able to take on their linguistic expressions, clothing, manners, customs, and traditions, in short their very identity away from a hegemonic, and in the poets’ case, heterosexual norm. And gay men and women are no exception. The focus of this study is the unique impact that being gay had on the New York poets. For that reason, Kenneth Koch, as well as Barbara Guest and other second generation poets, are excluded. The distinctiveness of a gay experience is exemplified by Brad Gooch, the author of the definitive biography of Frank O’Hara, in the following excerpt from his poem “Walk,” published in The Son of the Male Muse:

Like Gooch, O’Hara demonstrates the self-acceptance of a world outside of heterosexual norms. As a result, O’Hara’s acceptance of himself as gay can be documented in his poems, not only by means of their content but also by their language, which occasionally, to quote Alan Feldman, bears traits of a queer talk. According to Feldman, O’Hara “manages to incorporate both homosexual lifestyle and language into poems” (50). In short, O’Hara was queer in an “outer closet.” living an openly gay existence within a clearly defined gay New York.

Homosexuality, as we will see, is equally important in Ashbery’s poetry. He wants us to distinguish between the poet and a lyrical “I.” A carefully crafted meta-language of verbal clusters keeps Ashbery hiding in an “inner closet,” the purposely constructed New York microcosm with selected gay and gay-friendly parameters. For his readers and his critics, he assumes an existence in the closet. Ashbery’s homosexuality is a key element in adding a decisive layer to the rich interpretations already given by others.

Schuyler’s homosexuality, although celebrated in sexual encounters, is overshadowed by his inner depression, paralyzing him as a man and as a poet. What Susan Hegeman calls “the New York intellectuals’ peculiar schadenfreude over their own political irrelevance” (194) is true for Ashbery and Schuyler. O’Hara’s voice, however, represents a gay declaration of independence from heterosexual values. Whereas Ashbery and Schuyler accepted heteronormativity, O’Hara challenged it openly in a flamboyant manner, both socially and poetically. Indeed, all artistic, social, and sexual movements centered around one person, Frank O’Hara. It is due to his initiative and his influence that various poets came to New York, or joined the group, if only tangentially or temporarily.


XIV, 308
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (February)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. XIV, 308 pp., 4 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Hartmut Heep (Author)

Hartmut Heep was educated at the University of Mainz, Germany. In 1993, he received his doctorate in Comparative Literature from the University of Illinois. He is Associate Professor of German, Humanities, and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. He is the author of A Different Poem: Rainer Maria Rilke’s American Translators Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell, and Robert Bly. Dr. Heep has published on Rilke, Brecht, Schiller, Flaubert, Madonna, and gender and masculinities studies.


Title: Poetic Closets
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324 pages