Three Gay Poets and Activists You Should Know
John Ashbery / Poet
b. July 28, 1927
“My poetry is disjunct, but then so is life.”
John Ashbery is one of the most successful 20th century poets. He has won almost every major American literary award, including the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
Ashbery graduated from Harvard University, where he studied English and served on the editorial board of the Harvard Advocate. He received his master’s degree from Columbia University. After graduating, Ashbery spent three years in publishing before moving to Paris on a Fulbright scholarship.
Returning to the U.S. in 1957, Ashbery attended graduate classes at New York University. Thereafter, he returned to Paris, where he supported himself as an editor. He eventually moved back to the U.S. to become the executive editor of ARTNews magazine.
Ashbery’s success began with frequent publication of his poems in magazines such as Furioso and Poetry New York. While in France, his book “Some Trees” won the Yale Younger Poet’s Prize. He has won many awards, including the Bollingen Prize and the McArthur Foundation’s “Genius Award.”
His Pulitzer Prize-winning poem “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” which also won the National Book Award and the National Critics Circle Award, is unique for its triple prize status. The poem pulls together his favored themes: creating poetry and the influence of visual arts on his work.
Ashbery’s career has been marked by controversy. Response to his poetry ranges from praise for his brilliant expressionism and use of language to condemnation for his work’s nonsensical and elusive nature.
A prolific writer, he has published over 20 books of poetry, beginning with “Tourandot and Other Poems.” His work has been compared to modernist painters such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Critics assert that he is trying to translate visual modern art into written language.
Since 1974, he has supported himself through teaching positions, the last of which was as the Charles P. Stevens, Jr. Professor of Language and Literature at Bard College. He lives in upstate New York, where he continues to write poetry.
Allen Ginsberg / Poet and activist
b. June 3, 1926 / d. April 5, 1997
“The only thing that can save the world is the reclaiming of the awareness of the world. That’s what poetry does.”
Allen Ginsberg was a revolutionary poet and committed activist. He was a leader of the Beat movement, which celebrated nonconformity and paved the way for many previously ignored poets. Ginsberg’s works captured his antiestablishment spirit and fostered social change.
He was born Irwin Allen Ginsberg and raised in Patterson, New Jersey. His father, Louis, was a successful poet who walked around the house reciting poetry. His mother suffered from paranoia and was in and out of mental hospitals. Three years after her death, Ginsberg wrote “Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg” (1961), which is considered one of his finest works.
Ginsberg attended Columbia University, where he received a B.A. in 1948. The next year, he met Carl Solomon, whom he credited with “deepening his understanding of poetry and its power as a weapon of political dissent.” His most celebrated poem, “Howl!” (1956), was dedicated to Solomon. Ginsberg was tried and acquitted of obscenity charges partially related to the poem’s homoerotic content. A judge found that the poem had “redeeming social importance,” making “Howl!” a reference case for free-speech advocates.
Ginsberg is credited with coining the term “flower power,” which encouraged protesters to engage in nonviolent rebellion. Once kicked out of Cuba for saying Che Guevara was “cute,” Ginsberg was dubbed a social bandit. His frank writing about homosexuality made an important contribution to gay rights.
In 1954, Ginsberg met the man who would become his life partner, Peter Orlovsky. Like Ginsberg, Orlovsky was an American poet and experienced the mental illness of a family member. Their 43-year relationship ended with Ginsberg’s death in 1997.
Ginsberg’s honors include a National Book Award, a Robert Frost Medal for distinguished poetic achievement and an American Book Award for contributions to literary excellence. In 1987, he was named a distinguished professor at Brooklyn College, where he taught English and creative writing. In 1993, the French minister of culture awarded Ginsberg the Order of Arts and Letters.
Langston Hughes / Poet
b. February 1, 1902 / d. May 22, 1967
“What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or does it fester like a sore—and then run?”
A celebrated poet and novelist, Langston Hughes is one of the most significant voices to emerge from the Harlem Renaissance. A major contributor to American literature, his legacy includes 25 published works.
Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri. After his parents divorced, he moved to Lawrence, Kansas, where his grandmother raised him until her death. By the time he was 14, he had lived in nine cities with various families.
Hughes showed impressive literary aptitude. In eighth grade, he began writing poetry, short stories and plays and was elected “class poet.” His breakthrough poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” was published shortly after he graduated from high school.
In 1921, at the urging of his father, Hughes enrolled at Colombia University to study engineering. He left after two semesters due to racial discrimination.
Over the next few years, Hughes worked odd jobs while pursuing a writing career. He traveled to Africa and Europe on the crew of a shipping vessel before moving to Washington, D.C. While employed as a busboy, Hughes met poet Vachel Lindsay, who helped promote his work.
In 1926, Hughes’s first book of poetry, “The Weary Blues,” was published. Well received by literary critics, it earned him a reputation as the country’s leading black poet. A year later, his second book of poetry, “Fine Clothes to the Jews,” was published. Heavily influenced by blues and jazz, his work portrayed life in black America and addressed racism and oppression.
In 1929, Hughes graduated from Lincoln University. He traveled to Haiti and to the Soviet Union, where he studied communist theory. In 1934, Hughes became head of the League for Negro Rights, the main African-American branch of the Communist Party. A victim of McCarthyism, he was subpoenaed to appear before the Senate Permanent Sub-Committee on Investigations in 1953.
Like most artists of his time, Hughes was not open about his sexuality. Literary scholars point to “Montage of a Dream Deferred,” “Desire,” “Young Sailor” and “Tell Me” as gay-themed works.
Hughes died at age 65 from prostate cancer. His ashes are memorialized in Harlem at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.