Brian Docherty: On "Love Poem on a Theme by Whitman"

Living life to the full meant accepting all aspects of sexuality and refusing to be limited by heterosexuality and monogamous pair-bonding. In practice, as far as Ginsberg was concerned, this meant homosexuality or bi-sexuality. As in all the best American movies, the Beat story was very much a ‘buddy’ story, with women featured only as ‘minor characters’. Neal Cassady was the central figure in the drama, hero of On the Road and Visions of Cody and man of action who lacked Kerouac’s Catholic inhibitions. Although basically heterosexual, he was capable of intimate relationships with men, including Ginsberg, who fell in love with him at first sight. The many poems to or about Cassady make it clear that Ginsberg virtually worshipped him. Marriage, first to Luanne, and then to Carolyn Cassady, did not restrain Neal Cassady, as the 1954 poem ‘Love Poem on a Theme by Whitman’ makes clear. This poem is in Ginsberg’s most Whitmanian manner, yet there are clear differences in tone and style. The announced ‘theme’ is based on Whitman’s own poem ‘The Sleepers’, particularly lines 11-20:

 

The married couple sleep calmly in their beds, he with his

palm on the hip of the wife, and she with her palm on the

hip of the husband,

The sisters sleep lovingly side by side in their bed,

The men sleep side by side in theirs,

Another mother sleeps with her little child carefully wrapt

I go from bedside to bedside, I sleep close with the other sleepers

each in turn

I roll myself upon you as upon a bed, I resign myself to the dusk

 

The poem can be read as a celebration of homosexual love and companionship and a rejection of monogamy, and the 1855 edition [of Leaves of Grass] contained a passage excised from subsequent editions, perhaps to avoid prosecution:

 

The cloth laps a first sweet eating and drinking,

Laps life-swelling yolks ... laps ear of rose-corn, milky

and just ripened:

The white teeth stay, and the boss-tooth advances in darkness,

And liquor is spilled on lips and bosoms by touching the glass,

and the best liquor afterward

 

It seems clear that Whitman is describing the act of fellatio, probably by another man; Martin takes the view that nineteenth-century women were unlikely to indulge in fellatio, and that Whitman wrote ‘The Sleepers’ as an example of ‘the role of sexuality in the establishment of a mystic sense of unity’. This is close to Ginsberg’s approach to sex, in so far as he views buggery as a means of achieving religious ecstasy and union with the godhead. Whitman’s poem is structured as a vision, while Ginsberg enters unambiguously into the bedroom to interpose himself between the married couple.

Ginsberg is more explicit and less mysterious than Whitman, but the poem gains from its directness, whilst having a strong rhythm and a solidity of expression which make it one of the best of the pre-‘Howl’ poems.

[…]

‘not a real man any way but a goop’ (CP 60). Relations between men and women are clearly problematic for Ginsberg and it is significant that he needed Whitman’s guidance and example to write ‘Love Poem on Theme by Whitman’. Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac were both bisexual to some extent, and even Burroughs fathered a child by the wife he shot in Mexico City, but Ginsberg celebrates the exclusivity of sex with younger (blond) men, as the opening two poems in Section III testify. Ginsberg’s partner for many years from 1954 on was Peter Orlovsky, and ‘Malest Cornifici Tuo Catullo’ presumably records the start of this relationship. ‘Dream Record: June 1955’ records the stereotype of casual relationships and drunken sex, a paradigm of pre-AIDS innocence. Versions of this poem, such as ‘Sweet Boy Gimme Your Ass’ are scattered throughout the Collected Poems and White Shroud.

[…]

In 1968, Ginsberg provided an eloquent definition of adhesiveness, in testimony before Judge Hoffman at the ‘Chicago Seven’ trial. In reply to a question by prosecutor Foran on the religious significance of ‘Love Poem on Theme by Whitman’, he replied:

Whitman said that unless there was an infusion of feeling, of tenderness, of fearlessness, of spirituality, of natural sexuality of natural delight in each others bodies, into the hardened materialistic, cynical, life denying, clearly competitive, afraid, scared, armored bodies, there would be no chance for spiritual democracy to take root in America — and he defined that tenderness between the citizens as in his words, an ‘Adhesiveness’, a natural tenderness, flowing between all citizens, not only men and women, but also a tenderness between men and men as part of our democratic heritage, part of the Adhesiveness which would make the democracy function: that men could work together not as competitive beats but as tender lovers and fellows. So he projected from his own desire and from his own unconscious a sexual urge which he felt was normal to the unconscious of most people, though forbidden for the most part

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Criticism Overview
Title Brian Docherty: On "Love Poem on a Theme by Whitman" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Clive Bloom, Brian Docherty Criticism Target Allen Ginsberg
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 15 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Allen Ginsberg
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