“Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their children than the unlived life of the parent.” – Carl Jung
I grew up with a depressed alcoholic Father. I’d sit watching TV beside him in the evenings as he knocked back a steady line up of scotch/rocks and smoked his Kents. I loved my Father though his misery seemed way too much like the family business I was expected to eventually shoulder. My Dad seemed like a frightened, tired fugitive who’d joined the family by pretending to belong here; reading the paper nonchalantly until the coast was clear. This turned out to be close to the truth.
I discovered something surprising about him while reading through a stack of his old poetry.
Pretend you’re me. Five years after your distinctly heterosexual and masculine father dies.
Here’s my new story, delivered to me at that hour and minute. My Dad was Gay and living in permanent exile from his own life. Or he was Bi, in the closet, and living an untrue life. Or maybe there is something I’m missing. I’m building a story out of fragments connected by gaps of unknown size and shape. Being Gay or Bi in the mid-twentieth century is sufficient reason for any rhetorical person to hide, but insufficient for me to understand my father. Who was he hiding from? His family? He held them in contempt or at a cold distance. Society? The law? I have a sort of theory. I’ll get there eventually.
I’m uncomfortable revealing his most private secret to you, one that he never wanted to reveal to me. A secret he may not have revealed to anyone after his early twenties. I’m reluctant to expose his story out of concern for his feelings, his pride, and his shame. But none of these exist now, except in me on his behalf. OK, I can’t hurt him with this story. I’m the only one morally responsible and there’s no victim to protect.
Maybe I’m naive but I was shocked at first because he was so gruff and masculine, it played hard against type. However, it did resolve my lifetime question: Why the hell is this guy so uncomfortable? It made him a more sympathetic character to me. He stifled his most basic feelings and lived in that prison. He nursed a broken heart for a lost love grown perfect in the virtual world of separation. Many of us do something similar, but a happy life keeps that pot on low heat, on a back burner. His pot boiled away till it charred. Pay too much attention to your ghosts and they come to own you.
So is my poor Dad redeemed through homosexual suffering? If it was a poem about missing another woman we’d just think “what a jerk, what about his poor wife?” I can’t help but consider the unknown prices my mother paid for his choices. His fear of exposure might have been the reason for courting and marrying her. If so, he was to that extent, a stinker, a cold-blooded user. If so, he used a lovely young woman selfishly as a living shield against shame. But I can’t know what was in his heart or hers. Did he make a fool of her? I don’t think so. I think they actually had something real, but he was such a divided and anguished person that he (eventually) sank the marriage. He came with his secrets and left with them still sealed.
The problem is that hindsight isn’t 20/20. It shows the path taken, but not why. How old was he when he wrote: “The Boy is Old and Gay”? He says “and I am no longer young.” The poem feels like a heavy lifetime of regret, maybe from a guy in his fifties.
“But that Summer is now two-thirds as old as I am.” …He was 35 when he wrote it.
He was a “nasty, furtive old man” of 35.
As a young adult (like 19 years old) he gained notoriety as a rising poet. He wrote this while serving on the USS Providence during WWII. It was published in Stars and Stripes where it got noticed by Carl Frickin Sandburg, who sent a note of encouragement. An exec from Simon and Schuster thought it would become the ‘In Flanders Fields‘ of WWII. Clearly, that didn’t happen. I’m just saying the potential and talent were there.
Instead, he quit the poetry business. Dad went to Madison Avenue and stopped writing poetry. He married my Mom. He turned away from one path, towards another. Why though? It was promising, there were warm updrafts toward high places.
Here’s why he quit
The poet and the poem’s job is to reveal.
The first obligation of a poem is to mean something, it exists to mean something. Then it must be constructed to deliver that meaning effectively. If the reader doesn’t learn the secret of the poem, the result is futility after effort. The poem can be ornate or simple but it must speak clearly, or clearly enough, to be understood once you read it correctly. A poet is allowed to ask for thoughtful reading in exchange for that meaning. The meaning can be nakedly overt or revealed in a cleverly roundabout way. The goal of a poem is to generate a specific perception in the reader, an engineered eureka moment. In this, it is like a play carefully plotted and paced to lead the audience to an exact dramatic destination. A poem unwinds to its meaning. A poem is a set of steps to uncover a specific truth. It also has to be recognizable as truth in the same unequivocal way that we recognize the taste of salt. It has to have a meaning that is true.
The other thing revealed is the poet. Poets communicate themselves. This is their inspiration and satisfaction. “I was heard and understood. I’m not alone. I reached them, they felt what I felt.” When does an ordinary person write poetry? When they overflow with meaning and truth. When the need to connect their truth to another is overwhelming.
A poem that dissembles or mumbles cannot be great. Obfuscation doesn’t even miss the point of poetry so much as reverse it. Used to avoid exposure or censorship, soft evasive words, and euphemisms self-censor, crippling the poem. Minus their truth, poet and poem are worthless. If the poet can’t communicate their truth they might as well go to Madison Avenue and write commercials.
If you read his poems closely, (there are three below, out of hundreds) the gay issue is the meaning, the truth, but it is the elephant in the poem that we don’t talk about. He was trying to simultaneously share intense personal truth while withholding incriminating information: You can only read them correctly with a decoder ring to uncover their secrets. (To be fair, when he wrote of other things, he was precise and unambiguous.)
Poem 1: The Great Discovery: Joy and determination but wrapped for secrecy – and the revealing clue, sadly echoing (from the boy is old and gay) “How we laughed, my love and I that pre-war summer at the Island“…this is that island, Dangerous and thrilling.
Poem 2: Serena: It’s clear only on the inside cultural down-low…It’s about being gay in enemy territory…and not showing your hand.
Poem 3: Phenobarbital – It’s about surrendering to the act of silencing yourself, and drugging the pain.
It’s starkly clear that he spent his whole career as a poet shout-mumbling the truth through a gag he was holding tightly over his own mouth. He wanted to be transparent and free and he made certain that he never was. He was desperate to be known and equally desperate to stay hidden. His poetry was the public face of the private life he dared not risk exposing. He wanted to tell the overflowing truth of his heart as it progressed, first joyful, then cautious, then sorrowful. Had he told the truth he would have lost his family, friends, reputation, and opportunities. Imagine writing a poem and instead of choosing the perfect word to help you tell the truth, you keep choosing something purposefully inaccurate. This is un-poetry, the opposite of poetry, it is also the self-destruction of a writer who loved getting as close to the truth as his skills could carry him. He must have come to despise this experience and the results; One careful, safe lie after another resulting in a pile of half-assed, chicken shit poems.
I’m not being mean, the problem with those poems is that they’ve been disemboweled. They weren’t allowed to live. The effort then becomes creative taxidermy, making the corpse impressive. His art mocked his inspiration, and the self-knowledge that he could do it so much better than he dared.
Fear silenced him. Except for his last poem, The Boy is Old and Gay. There at the memorial service for his unlived life, he spoke truthfully and so vulnerably to an empty room, and then locked the door on his way out. He resigned from the business of trying to share his heart. He went dark, he went radio-silent and submerged.
That’s a tidy but artificial place to end the story. It describes the crushing of a poet. The tidal forces of fear within and impending rejection all around chased him basically, into my family and being my dad. The cultural oppression was real, but to tell the whole story, my dad was painfully sensitive to rejection and generally expected the worst. He was witty and very fast, it could put us at ease or cut. He was easily angered and frustrated. Beyond spanking me once or twice he never hit or threatened me but he exploded when angry, filling the air with harsh, bitter words. He scared me, his unpredictability and anger was a job for the bomb squad, not children.
It’s important (to me) that he had a relatively successful marriage with my mom for 27 years. When they divorced he began to face his issues in a grown-up way. He worked diligently and got his shit together. He had a spiritual opening where he woke suddenly to the beauty and love in the world. He changed. He was shyly, adorably happy doing things like watching ducks in a pond. He was letting the world in. Then he met my step-mother, Joyce who was basically, perfect for him. He loved deeply and was loved deeply back. They married and were a happy mutual admiration society until he died, 27 years later.
The later years showed me how tender he was and how fearful about exposing his feelings. He first told me he loved me when I was forty years old and it wasn’t easy for him then. There’s nothing neat here, our big dumb lives swerve all over the fucking road. “The Boy is Old and Gay” wasn’t a tragedy, just the weary epilogue of a lonely, played-out chapter. There were many lonely miles ahead, then love.