Many of the world’s greatest poets were and are LGBTQ+, from Sappho to Shakespeare, Whitman to Wilde. Here we celebrate our queer contribution to culture on World Poetry Day, March 21.
Some of the most beautiful and affecting verses were, and are, penned by LGBTQ wordsmiths. Thanks to technological advances beyond the golden age of poetry, some poets from the modern era either read their work aloud, or developed spoken word acts that made them famous in contemporary poetry circles and beyond. Reading a poem out loud or listening to it being recited by your favorite gay, queer or nonbinary poet is a fabulous way to mark World Poetry Day. Here are 5 must-hear queer poets speaking their work.
Wystan Hugh Auden (1907–1973) was born in England and emigrated to the United States just before World War II. An Anglican, a graduate of Oxford University, and an upper class gay man, and was part of a 20th Century Golden Age of gay British expats who went on to achieve literary fame, including his friends Christopher Isherwood and Stephen Spender. They frequented the gay bars of Berlin during the Weimar Republic, which was arguably the gayest place on earth in the 1930s. According to historian and essayist Rictor Norton, Auden’s diary for this period (he knew of 170 boy brothels) was considered too obscene for publication. Many of his poems celebrated his love for Chester Kallman (1921–1975) who Auden met in New York in 1939. Both lovers of opera, they collaborated on the libretto for Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress and other works. “Lay Your Sleeping Head”, also known as “Lullaby,” was published in Auden’s collection Another Time (1940) and is considered his most directly gay poem, apparently addressing the struggle with monogamy he had with Kallman:
On the stroke of midnight pass
Like vibrations of a bell,
And fashionable madmen raise
Their pedantic boring cry:
Every farthing of the cost,
All the dreaded cards foretell,
Shall be paid, but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Not a kiss nor look be lost.
O’Hara was arguably one of the first truly modern gay poets, who wove together gay men’s understanding of popular culture and camp with post-modernist poetry. Whether referencing products or movie stars or simple stolen moments between lovers that seem quotidien and yet somehow transcendent, O’Hara was one of a kind and died too young. A free spirit, O’Hara was described by Joe Lesueur in his memoir Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara as libidinally curious and always living in the moment. “Frank had at various times both the desire and the determination to make out with a great majority of the people to whom he was attracted, their diversity being truly mind-boggling: big guys, little guys, macho straight men, flagrantly gay men, rough trade, gay trade, friends, friends of friends, offspring of his friends, blonds, blacks, Jews, and—women: Grace Hartigan, for example.” On July 25, 1966, Frank O’Hara died on New York’s Fire Island at the age of 40 when he was hit by a dune buggy on the beach in the early hours of the morning.
As famous as she was, it must be noted that American poet Mary Oliver, who won the National Book Award and also the Pulitzer Prize, was an openly gay woman whose main concern was protecting the environment. Her poetry is inspired by nature, rather than human problems. A lifelong nature and animal lover, Oliver was also a gifted speaker and had a wonderful sense of humor and a sense of optimism, fueled by her enchantment with solitary walks in the wild. In 2007, she was declared to be the country’s best-selling poet, with readers taking comfort in her simple language and impactful imagery drawn from the natural world. Oliver lived in Provincetown, Mass., with her partner of more than 40 years, Molly Malone Cook, until Cook’s death in 2005. She then moved to Florida and in addition to nature, focused on themes of spirituality.
Kae (formerly Kate) Tempest was born and lives in south-east London and made their live debut as a spoken-word artist at 16 years old. Since then they have won many awards and accolades, publishing their first collection of poems, Everything Speaks in its Own Way; and the verse epic Brand New Ancients, which won the 2012 Ted Hughes Award for innovation in poetry; and the acclaimed poetry collection Hold Your Own to name but a few of their incredible works. Their latest collection of poems, Running Upon the Wires, was published in 2018. There is something old about Tempest, who taps into an ancient oracular tradition—something that goes back to the galvanizing power of Norse poetry told around a camp fire; and something new, summoning the power and provocation of slam poetry. Tempest is also a musician and a playwright and a nonfiction writer. It seems there is no written form they cannot master.
It’s always wonderful to hear of a queer Black poet coming out of the Midwest! Danez Smith was born St. Paul, Minnesota and earned a BA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where they were a First Wave Urban Arts Scholar. Smith is the author of Don’t Call Us Dead, a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award, and it is about their identities as Black, queer, and HIV positive. Prior to that landmark of contemporary queer poetry, Smith wrote Boy (2014), winner of the Lambda Literary Award and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. Smith is also a founding member of the multigenre, multicultural Dark Noise Collective. A compelling live performer, Smith is a 2011 Individual World Poetry Slam finalist and the reigning two-time Rustbelt Individual Champion, and was on the 2014 championship team Sad Boy Supper Club. From 2017 to 2021, they were a co-host of the Poetry Foundation’s podcast, VS.
Gibson, who also goes by Andrew and Andy and a variety of other names is a nonbinary poet from Maine who has lived in Boulder, Colorado since 1999. Their work deals with observational and activist themes around politics, identity, love, and gender norms. It was at an open mic event in Denver that Gibson became inspired to take up spoken word. A four-time Denver Grand Slam Champion, in 2008, Gibson won the Women of the World Poetry Slam (WOWps) in Detroit. Gibson published their books, Pole Dancing To Gospel Hymns, The Madness Vase, Pansy, and Lord of the Butterflies. Gibson has also released several albums incorporating music with poetry. Gibson often performs poems at Button Poetry. They been diagnosed with Chronic Lyme Disease and also ovarian cancer for which they are undergoing treatment.