To celebrate Pride and the publication of 100 Queer Poems, edited by Andrew McMillan and Mary Jean Chan, ‘Speak its name’ is a collection of contemporary and twentieth-century voices by queer poets and poems with queer themes through a transhistorical and archival lens. The collection celebrates the work of contemporary LGBTQIA+ poets and the voices that paved the way for them, irrespective of whether the identities of the twentieth century poets it includes was public knowledge, presumed, or speculated upon.
I was never taught that many of the poets we studied at school were gay. Section 28 had been repealed more than five years prior, yet our curriculum was marked by silence and non-disclosure regarding queer identity in literature, with any speculation as to the sexuality of the poet, or their speaker, explained by our lack of understanding, tantamount to our oversexualised nature as teenagers. We had no concept of innocence, no appreciation for the platonic. We saw only sex where there was none. I realise now that the poems were, as my teachers had stressed, about love after all; a love that, as Alfred Douglas had written over a hundred years prior, ‘dare not speak its name’.
This experience is not mine alone. Many queer readers grow up with a dearth of representation and often facts, not always told the poets they study were gay, or not necessarily heterosexual. You may ask what relevance a poet’s sexuality has on the poems they write. When you’re a queer reader sometimes the knowledge alone that the writer you’re reading loved as you love or saw beyond gender as being binary, can be enough to set you free, to prove that your desires exist and have a precedent which, as queer readers are wont to discover for themselves later, goes a long way back. The Poetry Archive is an excellent resource for filling in some of the blanks. Sadly, there is no way of knowing what Sappho sounded like, but we only need consider her fragments and how throughout history poets have had the pronouns in their poems changed to suit the sensibility of their time to see how power can act to silence expressions of desire which are contrary, disruptive, and deeply troubling to its prevailing cultural hegemony.
Whatever your opinion on the categorisation of a poem as queer or otherwise, scepticism about whether we should archive the work of non-heterosexual poets at all e.g., anthologising their work under the categories of lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, or trans, etc., risks further erasing marginalised perspectives and ignores McMillan’s centrally important and emotive point in his introduction to 100 Queer Poems that as a teenager, gifted a copy of Thom Gunn’s Collected Poems after coming out, reading Gunn made him feel ‘worthy of poetry, worthy of literature.’
Whether you are a queer reader looking for solace or representation in poetry, or a lover of poetry irrespective of the identity of its author, one cannot underestimate the value of seeing ourselves (whoever we are) and the experiences we’ve had represented in art. Thereby, we feel validated for being witnessed, and as McMillian notes, we are afforded dignity. Beyond questions of categorisation and terminology, it is impossible to ignore the number of “canonical” poets that make up this collection and the profound impact LGBTQIA+ poets have had on the form. It also invites us to re-evaluate the terms we arrive with regarding these more familiar poets:
Think of Langston Hughes, the poet of the Harlem Renaissance; think of John Ashbery of the New York School; think of Wilfred Owen, the war poet; think of W. H. Auden, the poet of a particular kind of Englishness. There are poets who often survive because there is another claim to their identity – they can neatly fit into another ‘school’, another ‘movement’ – and therefore are palatable for being taught in classrooms, for being read at weddings or funerals, for being remembered. What becomes of these poets if we centre that part of their identity that is overlooked? (McMillan)
This collection is by no means exhaustive. It offers an entrée into thinking in terms of queer poems and poets, prompted by the first major anthology of its kind for decades, to reflect on the forebears of the ‘queer poem’ and some of their descendants, pay attention to the poem’s word choice, themes, and the direction its desire is oriented towards. Can a poet be both canonical and marginal? How do poems written by LGBTQIA+ poets and poets who may not be identified as such speak to one another? What exactly is a queer poem?
100 Queer Poems, edited by Andrew McMillan and Mary Jean Chan is published by Vintage.
Oakley Flanagan is a writer and poet. Their poetry appears in bath magg, Poetry London, Poetry Review, Under the Radar and Wasafiri. Oakley is an alum of Roundhouse Poetry Collective and The London Library Emerging Writer Programme. Their pamphlet is forthcoming with Out-Spoken Press.