From Whitman to Wystan and Back to Ginsberg,
or How Free Verse Caused the AIDS Crisis
by A. X. Gaiman
Free verse has often been cited as the main complication in the death
of poetry. Dana Gioia and other literary diagnosticians have properly
identified its cancerous effects on the body poetic. Having eaten verse
from within, it should be no surprise that the damage free verse has
caused should go far beyond this tiny corpus of literature. Indeed,
free verse has epidemiological implications as it is the primary motivating
factor--the vector, so to speak--of the spread of AIDS in America, if
not the entire Western World.
Little new could be said about Walt Whitman's homosexuality. The evidence
of it in his verse is all too obvious, but of most interest here is
the fact that he never "came out" either to his contemporaries, or,
importantly, to himself. Whitman remained in strict denial about his
gayness. Since homosexuality can only be seen in the ferment of the
times as an aberration, the chaos and disorder of his verse becomes
his only outlet: immorality must be expressed in some way, and in Whitman
it became the liberties he took with rhyme, form and meter:
By strictly ordering his life along "proper" moral grounds and never acting
on his own illicit urges, Whitman attempted to defuse his iniquity. But
iniquity too long denied is iniquity delayed; it must reappear somewhere.
This versification of bad behavior as expressed by disordered verse still
has social implications: Bill Clinton famously used a copy of Whitman's
Leaves of Grass to express his adulterous affections for one Monica
Lewinsky, the iniquity of the book leaking through the verse, heightening
the "forbidden fruit" aspect of their affair.
But the expression of a well-made man appears not only
in his face,
It is in his limbs and joints also, it is curiously in
the joints of his hips and wrists,
It is in his walk, the carriage of his neck, the flex
of his waist and knees, his dress does
not hide him,
The strong sweet quality he has strikes through the
cotton and broadcloth,
To see him pass conveys as much as the best poem,
You linger to see his back, and the back of his neck
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The swimmer naked in the swimming-bath, seen as he
swims through the transparent green-
or lies with his face up and rolls
silently to and fro in the heave of
the water (99)
W.H. Auden, however, represents the opposite extreme. By all accounts
and purposes, his life itself was one of extreme disorder:
Auden, then, ordered the universe through his poetry, ordering, even,
his homosexuality. The rightness this established helped him begin dealing
with his own iniquity in a righteous, Christian way: "Interestingly, it
was only after his reconversion to Christianity that he could accept his
inclination. He would then acknowledge that homosexual acts were sinful--and
continue to practice them" (Johnson 27). Thus Auden was able to apply
the entirely reasonable notion that he could hate the sin and love the
sinner all the way to himself.
At Oxford, in the various American college towns where
he camped out, in New York where he inhabited a cold-
water flat in a slum building, he lived in chaos, a
chaos of papers, books, clothes, dirty ashtrays, and
dirty dishes, all strewn about in shocking disarray.
His bed was never made, and in cold weather it was
covered not with blankets but with coats and
miscellaneous garments; its legs were likely to be
missing, and the whole thing propped up with ancient
phone books. A friend, in despair, once asked him
"Can't you keep any order in your life?" He replied
merely, "Yes, in my poetry." (Johnson 20)
Part and parcel with this is the long-term relationship he was able
to maintain with Chester Kallman, in form if not in function emulating
the God-sanctioned pattern of heterosexual marriage. As imperfect as
this relationship and Auden's hopes for it turned out to be, Auden believed
that the intention of the act had transformative power; in this case
the act was marriage and the intention an expression of God's (Agape)
love (Jacobs 86). This allowed and was allowed by a controlled, appropriate
relationship with verse, here represented by all of "Their Lonely Betters":
Here language becomes the vector of responsibility--of keeping "time,"
a purely human creation, a way of transcending the bestiality of our own
natures. The "promises" we keep are to ourselves in the form of fidelity,
in the form of fidelity only a controlled communication can express, the
promise of the marriage vow, itself a controlled rhyming between two people.
Auden also acknowledges the double-edged sword of linguistic expression,
as the simple creatures are not "capable of lying," not capable of expressing
iniquity in their verse forms, in other words, incapable of disseminating
As I listened from a beach-chair in the shade
To all the noises that my garden made,
It seemed to me the only proper words
Should be withheld from vegetables and birds.
A robin with no Christian name ran through
The Robin-Anthem which was all it knew,
And rustling flowers for some third party waited
To say which pairs, if any, would be mated.
Not one of them was capable of lying,
There was not one which knew that it was dying
Or could have with a rhythm or a rhyme
Assumed responsibility for time.
Let them leave language to their lonely betters
Who count some days and long for certain letters:
We, too, make noises when we laugh or weep:
Words are for those with promises to keep. (751)
Even more striking is Auden's ability to contain wanton sexuality itself
within the righteous confines of rhyme and meter:
Auden, then, both reflects and projects the notion of a controlled sexuality.
Just as meter and form contain what is otherwise the absolute chaos of
language, the chaos of sin is here moralized through its versification.
"When the beggars raffle the bank notes
And the Giant is enchanting to Jack,
And the Lilly-white Boy is a Roarer,
And Jill goes down on her back[.]" ("As I" 739)
Auden probably says it best in a brief mediation on the Freudian social
The same Super-Ego that keeps the Id in check is the symbol of God the
Father, lording supreme over the chaotic world. The Super-Ego is He who
makes us repent, who puts perspective and. above all, form, to our sin.
In a subtle allusion to the Ten Commandments, Auden here invokes "Honor
thy father and mother" in "praise you parents who gave you," reminding
us that the font of all holiness and stability derives from the family
of The Trinity and that all-important model of the family in human existence.
Let your last thinks all be thanks:
praise your parents who gave you
a Super-Ego of strength
that saves you so much bother. ("A Lullaby" 754)
Contrasting is the historical and sociological transition represented
in Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg comes of age as Auden is moving toward his
own sunset in the 1950s and 1960s. Not at all ironically, Ginsberg comes
at a time of increasing sexual freedom:
Indeed, it rightly could be said that Ginsberg helped to create this freedom,
helping to begin the San Francisco-based counter-cultural rebellion and
staying at its forefront throughout its life (and somewhat beyond it).
who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burn-
ing their money in wastebaskets and listening
to the Terror through the wall,
who got busted in their pubic beards returning through
Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New York,
who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in
Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried their
torsos night after night
with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, al-
cohol and cock and endless balls[.] (10)
What was terrifying about Ginsberg was not merely his open homosexuality:
Auden, too was comfortable with his own fallen state. Rather it was
Ginsberg's Satanic lack of guilt at his own homosexual iniquity. It
has obvious components in his verse:
This is obviously complete Id. There is no leavening, no balance as in
Auden between moral chaos and poetic containment: Ginsberg's verse openly
embraces his own lack of moral control.
who howled on their knees in the subway and were
dragged off the roof waving genitals and manu-
who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly
motorcyclists, and screamed with joy,
who blew and were blown by those human seraphim,
the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean
who balled in the morning in the evenings in rose-
gardens and the grass of public parks and
cemeteries scattering their semen freely to
whomever come who may[.] (13)
Thus a lack of moral control was projected from Ginsberg's verse and
political activism directly into the social ferment of late 20th Century
America. Like a perfect collection of woolen drapes suddenly reaching
flashpoint in a house fire, Ginsberg's influence, his rays of moral
chaos, finally flared up in the Stonewall riots of 1969. Most historians
agree that this event marked the beginning of the Gay Pride movement
and the homosexual stage of the sexual revolution. The licentiousness
of Ginsberg's verse translated directly into the licentiousness of the
post-Stonewall homosexual lifestyle.
Within ten years of the riots, the AIDS epidemic began. The disease
spread in the Western World primarily through the homosexual community.
It spread quickly due to the promiscuity of the homosexual population
of the time, a promiscuity promoted by the free verse produced and championed
by Ginsberg and his followers, who, by the 1980s and the height of the
AIDS crisis, represented the mainstream of American poetry.
The re-emergence of classical forms and meters since the 1980s has
been a sort of repentance. As the nation awakened from its liberal stupor
in the early 1990s to face the glowing Truth of the Republican Revolution
of 1994, poetry has re-emerged from the moral incertitude of free verse
into the righteousness of meter and form.
In order to live upstanding lives, we must feel the rigid lash of strong
discipline. In order to write upstanding verse, we must contain ourselves
within strict meter and rhyme. We can only hope that the Neo-Formalist
movement will eventually bring about a more righteous culture. There
are signs this is already happening, having its precursor in the said
Republican Revolution of 1994. The nation has, just recently, and after
a long struggle with the forces of free verse chaos, elected both a
Conservative House and a Conservative president, again creating the
possibility of Millennialist perfection.
Auden, Wystan Hugh. "As I Walked Out One Evening."
Ellmann and O'Clair. 738-9.
- - - "A Lullaby." Ellmann and O'Clair. 753-4.
- - - "Their Lonely Betters." Ellamnn and O'Clair. 751-2.
Ellmann, Richard and Robert O'Clair, eds. The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 1988.
Ginsberg, Allen. Howl. San Francisco: City Lights,
Jacobs, Alan. What Became of Wystan? Change and Continuity in Auden's Poetry. Fayetteville: U of Arkansas Press, 1998.
Johnson, Wendell Stacy. W. H. Auden. New York:
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass, 1892. New York: