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Postmodern Village
est. 1999
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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:

          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,
                           perhaps more,
          You linger to see his back, and the back of his neck
                            and shoulder-side.
            . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 
          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)
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.

W.H. Auden, however, represents the opposite extreme. By all accounts and purposes, his life itself was one of extreme disorder:

          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)
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.

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":

          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)  
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 literary unrighteousness.

Even more striking is Auden's ability to contain wanton sexuality itself within the righteous confines of rhyme and meter:

          "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, 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.

Auden probably says it best in a brief mediation on the Freudian social self:

          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)
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.

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:

          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)
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).

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:

          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) 
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.

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.

Works Cited

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, 1956.

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: Continuum, 1990.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass, 1892. New York: Penguin, 1958.