Queer culture is appropriating old poems that use gay to mean happy instead of queer. We have been robbed of so much queer literature, we’re allowed to steal whatever scraps are available. The straights killed Oscar Wilde, they have to give us this.
I’m being facetious, but only sort of. I do read poetry that uses the word gay through an ahistorical gay lens. I can’t help myself. I see that word, and expect to find something that belongs to me, something I belong to. Even when I know that isn’t what the author meant to make me do, it’s a hard instinct to turn off.
I could make an argument about death of the author, and maybe I should, but I feel like the real issue is historicity. I’m putting an anachronistic concept onto the work. It’s the problem of how you can’t really call Alexander the Great gay, even though he totally was, because the idea of sexuality as an identity didn’t exist in his era. I feel much worse about putting gayness into a setting where it didn’t exist as a coherent identity than I do reading homoeroticism in a text where the author didn’t intend it.
(I actually feel really good doing that. The Outsiders has strong homosocial tendencies. The author is dead. Stay gay Ponyboy.)
I’m reading Wallace Stevens for a class right now, and I’m really enjoying it. He uses a lot of gorgeous abstract language, poems that are about the orders of the words and the images they create, not about a thing you can point at easily. So I guess it’s understandable that I was able to read one of his poems entirely anachronistic unintended manner.
Here, you go read it and then keep on with what I have to say.
When I read this, I thought gosh, this would be a wonderful poem to read at the funeral of someone who had died of AIDS in the middle of the crisis. I’ve read so much about these funerals, seen them recreated in fiction, and recorded in documentary. I was too young to remember my godfather’s funeral, I’ve only heard stories. My mother was so upset by the hellfire and damnation offered at the small town they grew up in, that she organized another memorial at our hippy church in the cities. I have to imagine there was lots of singing. I know his mother came down for it. I wonder if my mother sang, she loves being asked to sing at funerals — but maybe she was too busy holding me, or too busy crying.
There was just something very striking in the poem. The repeated line, “Too many waltzes have ended” speaks to the scale of loss. And the lines “Yet the shapes / For which the voices cry, these, too, may be / Modes of desire, modes of revealing desire,” could say something community, that is united in desire, even as it is wracked by tragedy. The stuff about Hoon doesn’t fit anywhere, but that’s alright, having a line that doesn’t fit or make sense just adds to the over all strength of the poem. I don’t want to do a close reading, filling each line with ahistorical significance that I placed there. That isn’t the kind of writing I like spending my time doing, and I feel it will be stronger if you make the connections yourself.
“Sad Strains of a Gay Waltz” could be about just about anything you need it to be. Stevens could not have anticipated my reading. He might not have appreciated it. He was a Republican. But also, he believed in the importance of imagination, so maybe he would have been fine with my appropriation of his words. And if not, the author is dead, he’s dead, and so is my godfather, so are so many. “Too many waltzes have ended.”
Too many poems were not written, a generation of gay writers lost before their time, still falling. Today would have been Oscar Wilde’s 163rd birthday, but he only made it to 46. I can take whatever poem I want and get my dirty gay feelings all over it, and no one can stop me.