Among the images celebrated in 2009 at the National Portrait Gallery’s "Gay Icons" exhibit in London was a photograph of the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. The then nineteen-year-old Hopkins confronts the camera directly, as if he can see someone or something far off. Within five years, the Anglican student of classics will convert to Catholicism and enter the Society of Jesus.
Much has been made of the intimate and even erotic treatment of masculinity in Hopkins' prose and verse. His sexuality remains a mystery—or at the least, ambiguous. (In early notebooks, the poet chides himself for shamefully gazing at choirboys, and in later years, he expresses regret that he’s never seen a woman nude.) A number of scholars and biographers have explored the fragmented record of Hopkins' same-sex desire, but does such longing really manifest in the poet’s work? In a 1934 edition of the Criterion, W.H. Auden claims that "The Bugler’s First Communion" "suggests a conflict in Hopkins between homosexual feelings and a moral sense of guilt." Auden goes on to say that the poem fails "because the guilt is unacknowledged." But what if that "guilt" is acknowledged? If open, how does sexuality complicate meditations on spiritual beauty and God's earthly gifts, as well as the poet's personal relationship with the divine?
Unlike Hopkins, contemporary gay poets—whether inclined toward faith or doubt—openly engage the lyric as a means of entering into dialogue with God, or meditating on matters of faith. Their sexual identity is often an enriching part of the conversation. Many continue to undermine the rhetoric of gayness as an abomination, as demonstrated by postwar poet Robert Duncan in "This Place Rumord to Have Been Sodom." While some scholars assert that Sodom's sin was inhospitality, greed, arrogance, etc., the widespread interpretation of Genesis links Sodomites with homosexuality. It's this "rumord" narrative that Duncan works to revise. "Certainly these ashes might have been pleasures," asserts the poet of the damned. "The devout have laid out gardens in the desert / drawn water from springs where the light was blighted." Duncan's poem, published in 1957—five years before Illinois became the first state to decriminalize homosexuality—transforms the Biblical city destroyed for its sexual hedonism into a place "blessed in the Lord's eyes." Its politics are overt. Duncan uses the language of pilgrimage (a journey of moral or spiritual significance) to resurrect the condemned lovers, and revise negative schemas associated with the Biblical city and its occupants:
Throughout the poem, Duncan repeats and subtly amends images, poeticized phrases, syntactical patterns, and the language of scripture. Taken together, these modifications work to refashion the condemned, transforming (by the poem's end) the notorious Sodomites into a population worthy of communal honor. "In the Lord Whom the friends have named at last Love," claims Duncan's omnipresent pilgrim, "the images and loves of the friends never die."
I offer Duncan's "This Place Rumord to Have Been Sodom" as a point of departure, an example that reclaims the rightful connection between homosexuals and the sacred. Equally significant is the fact that while Sodom itself introduces a familiar homoerotic plot, Duncan relies on third-person narration (the faithful, the friends, the devout, the pilgrims). This creates a significant distance between speaker and subject, as well as the poet and his sexuality. Although politicized poems such as Duncan's continue to appear in print, the record of spirituality and gayness evolves as contemporary poets more openly implicate themselves and their sexuality. Carl Philips, C. Dale Young, Bruce Snider, D.A. Powell, Jericho Brown, Henri Cole, James Allen Hall, and Spencer Reece, among others, engage the devotional with increasing intimacy and stylistic distinction. While some interrogate doctrine, others invoke God's presence. Gone is the coded language of the past; the private journal entries by Hopkins, for instance, that stir critics to deem the priest's poems unconsciously homoerotic. "As a gay person and a Muslim," attests Kazim Ali in A God in the House: Poets Talk About Faith, "as both of these at once, as someone who questioned established political, social and gender norms, I had a long way to go before I could ever speak myself. It is easy to fetishize or romanticize silence when you are silenced."
The speaker in Henri Cole's "White Spine" refuses to be silenced. The poem, a loose sonnet that takes place at St. Peter's Basilica (often considered the greatest church in all of Christendom), opens by challenging the Vatican's condemnation of homosexuality: "Liar, I thought, kneeling with the others, / how can He love me and hate what I am?" In terms of action and metrical orchestration, Cole's predominately trochaic opening brings the churchgoers and clergy to their knees. The lines also announce the poem's rhetorical nature. Despite his cynicism, the speaker moves through the rituals of the holy site:
Here, Cole's clever exploitation of "desire" is threefold. The speaker's longing is simultaneously lustful ("a handsome /priest looked at me"), unreciprocated (a "priest looked at me like a stone"), and spiritual ("I looked back, / not desiring to go it alone"). In other words, it is utterly human. The potential for castigation is clear; the "college of cardinals" wears "punitive red." Because of his sexuality, the speaker remains disillusioned, occupies "a place not my own." In fact, the encounter at St. Peter's leaves him not only dehumanized but also infantile: he is a "beast in a crib." Ultimately, Cole ends "White Spine" by rejecting the church and underscoring the dangers of religious fervor: "Somewhere, a terrorist rolled a cigarette. / Reason, not faith, would change him."
While Cole remains alienated from spiritual politics, C. Dale Young engages faith from the vantage of insider. In "Fourteen," the poet appropriates the sacrament of reconciliation to restage the physical and emotional difficulties of puberty. "Bless me Father, for I have sinned," begins the poem, "It has been / six days since my last confession. I let a guy / cheat off of my science test." Soon, the catalogue turns from typical teenage violations—missed curfews, knocking a classmate down on the basketball court—to "impure thoughts, Father, strange thoughts." The final stanzas of "Fourteen" locate the speaker in a locker room shower where he struggles to resist voyeuristic temptation. Here, Young conflates two fathers: the priest-coach and God the Almighty. "It was like the time last week," the speaker confesses, "after the game":
Although vastly different in tone and design, Young's homoerotic desire for the Father (in this case, both heavenly and earthly) is reminiscent of Donne's Holy Sonnet "Batter my heart three-person'd God." The speakers in both poems seek divine grace. Yet, the boy in "Fourteen" recognizes the church's disapproval of same-sex attraction and does his best not to give in to baptism by desire. "I know this is wrong, Father," he acknowledges. "But I only watched the soap. I only watched the water." Denial of physical longing, self-condemnation, the burdens of guilt—Young grapples openly with prescribed spiritual expectations about sexuality with precision and pathos. Unlike Duncan and Cole, his investigations aren't public, but deeply personal. Their contradictions and formal repetitions enact the recurring difficulties of negotiating and living by spiritual principles that condemn same-sex love.
The tensions the speaker of Young's poems first experience in youth manifest fully in adulthood. In the title poem from Young's collection Torn, the victim of a hate crime arrives at a hospital badly beaten. "Stitch up the faggot / in Bed 6" instructs the emergency room supervisor. And so the doctor-speaker does, while praying that "the tears that ran down" the victim's face were "a result of my work / and not the work of the men in the alley." The broken body. The assaulted spirit. Both require healing. "I wanted him," admits the speaker, a longing emphasized doubly by Young's astute enjambment and stanza breaks, "to be beautiful again." But the doctor-speaker recognizes the danger of desiring beautiful men:
A god-figure himself, the speaker ministers to the injured regardless of their "transgressions. Selflessness is part of his occupation, as is judgment (fools, he deems that other world of men"). Yet, Young's speaker is equally vulnerable because of his relationship with flesh. As a physician, he has the ability to stitch and reshape. Eventually, even God himself is remade, a task Young completes via the lyric. "What more can I say / to explain my God," he writes in "Paying Attention," another poem from Torn. "He has little tolerance / for hatred."
Religious poems by Cole and Young give emphasis to spiritual estrangement and longing. Bruce Snider's "Devotions" is more subtle in its negotiation of sacred matters but equally forthright. The sonnet series narrates the domestic life of a rural same-sex couple as they struggle to adopt a child, a subject I haven't previously seen in verse. "Nothing passes, Lord, but what you allow," begins the first poem as the speaker appeals to God for strength and serenity.
While one partner "blames the state, the neighbors, the way [the couple] filled out the forms and wrote the bios," for their unanswered appeal, the other stresses the importance of patience and piety. Unlike the previous examples, the speaker in "Devotions" doesn't have an adversarial or strained dynamic with the divine. Although it's possible that the state might reject the couple's adoption appeal on grounds of sexuality, the speaker isn't condemned but rather nourished by his spiritual beliefs. In fact, for the duration of "Devotions," gayness is a nonissue with God. Instead, Snider's sonnet series depicts the dailyness of faith, its quiet steadiness and self-surrender. Like many couples hoping for a child, the pair waits each day for their prayers to be answered. "We walk over and over down the worn / path to the empty mailbox:" says the speaker, "Maybe soon."
Throughout "Devotions," spiritual conviction shows itself in the landscape where smoke rises from a trash heap like prayer, and a farm cycles through periods of barrenness and abundance. At the poem's final turn, the couple remains childless. Snider's series, however, affirms multiple forms of devotion. In the lines below, the poet introduces a familiar Biblical plot; in it, God asks a father to prove his fidelity by making a dramatic sacrifice. Snider then turns to quieter, more domestic expressions of belief and steadfastness, which underscore the men's commitment not only to hard work, but to each other:
In many respects, the couple's rural life proves predictable. The speaker and his lover, John, measure time by the seasons. There are months to castrate the bulls, can peaches; hours when the drain in the kitchen sink must be replaced. But sudden moments of grief and loss also interrupt the couple's shared life. "Gray weather" arrives. Things once soft turn "rough." Rather than break them, these challenges and moments of grief bind the speaker and his partner to their faith and to each other. And this conviction, as Snider suggests in the final line of "Devotions," proves enough.
The Episcopal Church ordained its first openly gay priest in 1989 and, in 1994, passed a resolution explicitly affirming that gay, lesbian and bisexual people could not be refused ordination. The poet Spencer Reece became an Episcopalian priest in 2011. The Road to Emmaus, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in April 2014, is a testament to self-recognition, including issues of sexual identity, and spiritual engagement. In "A Few Tender Moments," a three-part prose poem set in the Osborn State Correctional Facility, Reece mixes the sensual and spiritual. Seeing "men packed in on top of each other," a seminarian-speaker describes the prisoners:
The Road to Emmaus is filled with Biblical allusions. Reece references the prodigal son, fifth commandment, 1st Corinthians, among others. He locates poems at Thomas Merton's grave and on the road where the crucified savior once went unrecognized. Mining religious matters as metaphor is nothing new. However, Reece's use of scripture isn't ornamental, but enacted. There's the covenant of same-sex marriage made public in the pages of The New York Times, the Coming Out Group whose new members open like Bibles. Reece writes of handsome men, addicts, and the emotionally injured with as much grace as he does of God. Throughout the collection, his devotion is given; sexuality steady. Equally steadfast are sorrow and faith. What The Road to Emmaus allows us to witness is a new turn in the gay devotional lyric—that is; a narrative in which the exchange of love between man and God is unconditional.
Shortly after Easter in 1868, Hopkins took a walk among oak trees and elms. It was then he resolved to devote himself to a religious order, to enter a life of celibacy and discipline. Upon returning home he burned all copies of his poems, describing the act in his diary as the "Slaughter of the Innocents." Fearing that poetry would distract him from his calling, Hopkins vowed to write no more. Piety, of course, failed to destroy the poet's creative impulses. In 1875, after a German ship struck a sandbank on the Thames Estuary during a snowstorm, Hopkins began to compose "The Wreck of the Deutschland." From the loss of 57 passengers, including five Franciscan nuns, came the span of poems we recognize as signature Hopkins. Still, one wonders what disappeared in the "Slaughter of the Innocents." Were there lines mingling sensual and spiritual beauty? Meditations on martyrs and physical suffering? Some early poem about love? Although there's no way to know what readers lost when Hopkins destroyed his work, the lyric conversation widens and deepens as contemporary poets of varying faiths and sexualities continue to communicate via verse with the incommunicable, to encounter and engage the divine. Like prayer, poetry is a form of ritual and repetition. There are verses for praise and lament. Poetry knows no denomination, race, gender, or sexual orientation—only the breath that it is given. Poetry is itself an ongoing expression of faith. And as Reece claims in "12:20 in New York": "Devotion becomes the most reasonable emotion as we age; / we recognize it in contrast to the losses."
SHARA LESSLEY is the author of Two-Headed Nightingale. Her awards include Washington College's Mary Wood Fellowship, an Artist Fellowship from the State of North Carolina, the Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellowship from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, Colgate University’s O’Connor Fellowship, The Gilman School’s Tickner Fellowship, and a “Discovery” / The Nation prize. Shara’s poems have appeared in Ploughshares, The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, The Missouri Review, and New England Review, among others. Shara is a Contributing Editor for West Branch and was recently Randolph College's first Anne Spencer Poet-in-Residence.
W.H. Auden, review of Gerard Manley Hopkins, by E. E. Phare, (Criterion 13, no. 53, 1934), pp 497-500.
Henri Cole, Pierce the Skin: Selected Poems 1982-2007 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), p. 55.
Robert Duncan, The Opening of the Field (New Directions, 1973), p. 22.
A God in the House: Poets Talk About Faith, eds. Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler (Tupelo Press, 2012), p. 40.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, Selected Poems, ed. Catherine Phillips (Oxford University Press, 1996).
Paul Mariani, Gerard Manley Hopkins, (Viking, 2008).
Spencer Reece, The Road to Emmaus (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), pp. 96, 101.
Bruce Snider, Poetry Magazine (March 2013): http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/245408.
C. Dale Young, Torn, (Four Way Books, 2011), pp. 14, 37, 84-85.