Politics & Society
There and Back Again
My junior year of college, I arrived in London on the way to Cambridge — where I would spend the next six months as a visiting student immersed in poetry — on an early January day of classically, delightfully awful weather. My umbrella broke almost immediately, and I was soaked through by the time I made it to my hotel, in the heart of Bloomsbury. The neighborhood immediately charmed me, as I hoped it would, with its plainspoken but stately townhouses, its quiet parks, the British Museum.
There I was: a wet, jetlagged 20-year-old, full of the happiness and giddy expectation that come only with being far, far away from home. After a nap, and once the rain had lifted, I set out for Gordon Square, one of those lovely parks surrounded by historic homes, where I hoped to pay homage to the members of the Bloomsbury Group: Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, Clive Bell, Lytton Strachey, and all the rest, many of whom had lived and worked there. Not so long before, reading about their quietly revolutionary experiments — in art and life, sex and love, and in pleasure above all — had lit a small fire in my imagination, and in my heart too. I sensed an artistic and sexual affinity between the group and me; almost a century after their exploits, I believed I might be happy following in their footsteps. Here was queer artistic history, in the air and underfoot. By a seeming miracle, I was caught up in it, if not quite part of it.
There’s a distinguished tradition of Americans escaping across the Atlantic to find sexual and artistic freedom. As James Baldwin had Paris and James Merrill had Athens, countless others have found the license they craved in Berlin, Venice, or Tangier. Some, like Baldwin, find long fulfillment abroad; others, like Merrill, decide to come back. For me, escaping across the pond set the stage for a newfound inner life animated by a sense of what it is to be queer and happy and in love with poetry, the imaginative force that buoys me most today and threads itself, in my mind, through all other forms of love.
England provided solace and a shock of imaginative stimulation at a critical moment in my life, but I never quite belonged there, nor was I quite happy. It wasn’t until I came back to the United States that a new sense of myself came into flower, but I thank Europe for setting the bud. Being temporarily out of place and away from home allowed me to begin the precarious business of figuring out where and how — with whom, to whom — I hoped to belong.
Like many young people going abroad, I hoped to be transformed by the magic of the faraway, and my pilgrimage to Bloomsbury was a first attempt to invite that transformation. For queer people and for artists, the longing to leave home and become someone else, even if you don’t know who that someone might be, can take on a ferocious hue. In Dallas, where I grew up and went to college, I had felt an urgency to declare just who I was, coupled with a terrifying doubt in my ability to do so adequately. In London, sitting among strange foliage and small winter blossoms where Woolf and her friends once sat, I felt cut free from the tether of home — though I didn’t yet have any notion of what I would do, where I would go, or who I wanted to become with that freedom.
Let a small moment of revelation stand in for many: I remember lounging along the banks of the River Cam and watching the rowers glide by, the swans swimming beside them. In a quiet instant, the poetical and the sexual came together with a spark, and Merrill’s early poem “The Black Swan” began to take on a fuller meaning. In the poem, a child “with white ideas of swans” is drawn to the titular creature, which swims in a lake “where every paradox means wonder”. It’s unclear why the child is so drawn to the swan, which is powerful and alluring and maybe a little dangerous and also healing. The last stanza is heartbreaking:
Always the black swan moves on the lake; always
The blond child stands to gaze
As the tall emblem pivots and rides out
To the opposite side, always. The child upon
The bank, hands full of difficult marvels, stays
Forever to cry aloud
In anguish: I love the black swan.
To a young man yearning for other men almost without knowing it, these lines are also giddying. I had a hint that I was like the child, “hands full of difficult marvels” I didn’t fully understand, and full of love for something, or someone, as yet elusive. The poem helped me recognize that love and pushed me toward its pursuit, the only way to ensure that I did not become quite like the child, forever anguished, forever desiring the always unreachable. Thinking about Merrill’s expression of the fraught nature of love in a place that provided both shelter (from the anxieties of home) and stimulation (the beautiful rowers, the fantastical birds) spurred me to begin seeking that love out, or at least to admit its possibility in my own life. The first step to becoming who one wants to be is sometimes as simple as saying it out loud, or writing it down — even, or especially, in a poem.
Through Merrill and others, I began to realize that the literary imagination is not so different from the imagination it takes to be a good friend or lover. I began to see reading and writing as forms of queer joy — ways of understanding and even liking myself enough to believe that what I had to say might one day mean something to others. As I developed a burgeoning, still furtive sense of belonging to an aesthetic and an attitude, I felt I had been initiated, almost without my knowing, into an ancient, fertile manner of moving through and looking at the world. And as I began to write about what I saw there, the shared intensity between art and sexuality no longer a secret I had to keep from myself, it was as if I had stumbled into happy recognition of the person I still might become and the kind of life I might live.
I think Michel Foucault gets at the joy of this recognition: “It seems to me that a way of life can yield a culture and an ethics. To be ‘gay’, I think, is not to identify with the psychological traits and the visible masks of the homosexual, but to try to define and develop a way of life.” During my time in England and especially upon my return, that culture, ethics, and way of life became tied up, by love, in art — and in poetry most of all.
Getting on a plane or a boat is not the only way to travel, to Europe or anywhere else. John Keats knew this when he wrote his first masterpiece, a sonnet called “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” which begins like this:
Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
The poem is about reading — Keats had been up all night devouring George Chapman’s translation of Homer — and it testifies to the transformative delights of going away through literature. Reading, especially reading poems, is not just a way to enjoy foreign places and fantastical happenings in the mind’s eye. Rather, reading is a way to try on the voice of another — this happens literally when we read a poem aloud — and to assume identities by which we don’t normally define ourselves. To people deeply invested in certain politics of our day, such a statement may seem odd. When identities are felt to be essential aspects of ourselves, suggesting that you can simply read a poem and try on an identity that doesn’t belong to you might sound like blasphemy.
But I believe strongly that you can, and must. In fact, if the messy experiment we call civilization (to say nothing of democracy!) is to have any chance, we owe it to each other to be a little less precious and territorial about our notions of self. No easy feat, but poetry can help. Helen Vendler says it best: “I believe that poems are a score for performance by the reader, and that you become the speaking voice. You don’t read or overhear the voice in the poem, you are the voice in the poem. You stand behind the words and speak them as your own.”
Trying on the voice and identity of a poem’s speaker is akin to travel, especially pilgrimage. You leave home and visit a place that doesn’t belong to you, but there you are, undeniably and irrepressibly in it, as I was in Bloomsbury. There you have the chance to try out different versions of yourself, made possible by the change of language and locale, the relative anonymity and freedom. Then you come back, only to find that your sense of who you are and how you relate to home has shifted. Likewise, you read a poem, assume the speaker’s identity (which is your own in that moment, but not your own forever), and then you come back to your own self. But you find that your voice has changed.
Keats’s most famous formulation is negative capability, which he defines in a letter as the capacity to exist “in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”. Negative capability is not the power actually to be anything or anyone, but it is something like the sincere willingness to try, at least for a while, at least for the duration of a poem. It is the openness to putting on a new face for a moment, whether or not you decide to keep wearing it. And it puts a golden frame around doubt, which must be the only appropriate response to society’s seeming certainty about who we all are and are not, what we are supposed to mean and not mean — gay or straight, Black or white, gentile or Jew, English or American.
A friend recently confided to me that she doesn’t believe in identity at all, and I was only a little surprised to find myself agreeing. After all, in another letter, Keats himself says that the poet “has no Identity.” The “poetical Character,” he feels, “is not itself — it has no self — it is every thing and nothing … it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto.” Delighting in uncertainty, reveling in mystery, meeting doubt with desire: What is a self without these, and what is a life or a love without gusto?
Today, it makes many people happy to obsess over certain differences of identity. I admit it used to make me happy too, or at least it provided a kind of thrill. Now, I find these differences less compelling. In my own circle, I am cheered by the passion with which some queer people stake a claim to their sense of self, and I hope the proliferation of sexual labels encourages imagination and possibility, rather than fixity and limitation. I also hope we remember Carl Phillips’s question: “If the political must be found in differences of identity, who gets to determine which parts of identity are the correct ones on which to focus?”
I wish we could be more whimsical and nonchalant about our identities. I worry about the tendency to define one’s identity so obsessively that no one else on earth could possibly share it. What’s the fun in that?! I dig labels — like queer, bi, and (in the word’s most expansive, permissive, imaginative sense, which is not often how it gets used today) gay — that allow people to recognize and honor themselves yet wink at, and dance with, fixity. These labels embrace the things we share, rather than the ways we are different. They remind me that one can’t be too certain when under the influence of desire, or when at play. And what else is writing a poem, what else being in love?
Travel, art, and queerness are united by happy uncertainty. They involve looking at the world somewhat aslant, with desire and hope for things yet to be discovered. I continue to travel, read, and write in order to find out who I am, not to stake a presupposing claim to myself. Now, once I’ve finished saying a poem or writing an essay — or have flown from Dallas to London and back again — I enjoy the richest sense of self I’ve ever had. But that contentment and comfort with who I am lasts only until the next poem, essay, or flight — which is to say for a moment only. When you’re temporarily removed from your everyday self, whether living abroad or speaking in the poetic voice of another, nothing much at all has to happen for a wonderful lot to change. The basic imperatives are movement, reading, and imagination — and openness to what the world, and the world of the poem, can teach about who you might become.
Packing one’s bags to travel across the Atlantic for a prolonged stay involves no small amount of doubt, no small amount of desire — as does packing one’s bags to come home. Embracing a poem with a speaker unlike myself, putting pen to paper, deciding on a way of life, signaling a hope to belong, declaring love for another: These depend for their joy on those same twinned impulses. And so, too, does venturing forth into New York City — my home for now — and meeting the eyes of strangers, beautiful, a little scary, and swimming with abundant promise face by face.