Poetry has existed since humans first had a language, and has been written since writing was invented. From the old Norse epics to the Shakespearean play to the British Romantics writing about their times, poetry has come in many forms and styles with the purpose constantly changing. Both classic lyrical and modern free-verse are all valid and beautiful forms of this art form, and in turn those who have influenced it as an art are just as valid and diverse as the various styles of poetry. Many artists who have massively influenced the direction of poetry (and history as well) have identified as being LGBTQ+, even if at the time it was looked down on or even criminalized.
This identity has also affected and shaped their work as well. Just before us is a list of eight highly influential queer poets who have not only affected poetry, but also the world around them.
One of the great Greek poets, Sappho is not just an incredibly influential to the poetry world, but to the queer community as an icon. Originating from the Greek island of Lesbos, Sappho was a strange case for women at the time who were normally held under strict order, and made a life for herself gaining an education and prolifically writing poetry about the power of love and eroticism, something that she was highly criticized for during her life and centuries after her death.
Little is known about her own personal life other than her home island and work, and it has been suggested by some that she was exiled from Lesbos around 600 BCE. Her death is unknown as well, but some suggest that she killed herself by jumping off Leucadian Cliff as a result of her love of Phaon, a ferryman. In terms of how she affected the modern world, both her name and home island are the root words for the terms sapphic and lesbian respectively. She is also known for the Sapphic meter, which is derived from her lyrical style of poetry.
And your enticing laughter– that has indeed stirred up the heart in my breast. For whenever I look at you even briefly. I can no longer say a single thing.
Regarded as the “father of free verse” poetry, Walt Whitman is one of the most influential poets in American history. His poetry is often considered to be among the most important works of literature in United States history, having influenced a number of poets, including some on this very list, such as Adrienne Rich, as well as current U.S. poet laureate Joy Harjo. His most famous works include the poem “O Captain! My Captain!,” which is famously associated with actor Robin Williams and the film Dead Poets Society, and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” He wrote both of these poems after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in honor of him.
His most famous collection of poetry, Leaves of Grass is considered to be one of the most important works of American literature, but at its time of publication was scorned for it’s sensual content. In life it’s been highly speculated from the content of his poetry that Whitman was gay or bisexual, based on the qualities of his poems and accounts given by men (including Oscar Wilde) who were in contact with him and claimed to understand his sexuality. This was great cause for criticism over the poet in his day, though today we know whether true or not, that Walt Whitman is among the greatest of classical American poets.
When he whom I love travels with me or sits a long while holding me by the hand, When the subtle air, the impalpable, the sense that words and reason hold not, surround us and pervade us, then I am charged with untold and untellable wisdom, I am silent, I require nothing further.Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances
Moving right along into a man who lived as a contemporary with Walt Whitman, perhaps one of the most well known poets on this list and for his time one of the most open about his sexuality, Oscar Wilde was not just known for his poetry, but for his plays and short fiction as well. Specifically his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which resulted in harsh backlash for being obscene and immoral compared to Victorian standards to the critics of time.
His final work of poetry which we have quoted here, was written shortly after being released from a prison sentence for gross indecency with a man, which was a harshly punishable crime in Victorian England. This long poem depicts the harsh realities of what prison was like for him and the others held within, and was released only a short two years before his death from meningitis in 1900. Wilde’s work is something, like Whitman’s, that has greatly affected modern culture, with Dorian Gray having become a favored character of pop culture featuring in the film The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Netflix’s series The Chilling Adventure’s of Sabrina.
Yet each man kills the thing he loves, By each let this be heard, Some do it with a bitter look, Some with a flattering word, The coward does it with a kiss, The brave man with a sword!The Balled of Reading Gaol
Not just a poet, but also an art critic and curator for New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Frank O’Hara was greatly influenced by the art and jazz of New York city in the early 1900’s. His work reflected the avant-garde movements in the art world of his time including surrealism and abstract expressionism.
Being an urban poet in New York most of O’Hara’s poetry is concerned with the then and now of New York, paying little attention to the past and focusing on what was happening in the city and his own life at the time. His poems greatly show this autobiographical influence, in particular the poem Having a Coke with You, which was inspired among others by the acclaimed ballet dancer and his lover, Vincent Warren. In his tragically short life O’Hara spent a roughly ten year span in a romantic relationship with Joe LeSueur until just before his death in 1966. His poems have been collected multiple times during his life and after his death.
It is hard to believe when I’m with you that there can be anything as still, as solemn as unpleasantly definitive as statuary when right in front of it. In the warm New York 4 o’clock light we are drifting back and forth between each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles.Having a Coke with You
With her first collection of poetry, A Change of World, chosen by renowned poet W.H. Auden for the Yale Younger Poets Award in in 1951, Adrienne Rich went on to write poetry and essays increasing in feminist and political material. While her work may have started as something more subdued, she would eventually become on of the most respected and well know poets in America, tackling identity, sexuality, racism and other political issues in her work.
She was well known for her work in protesting war, in particular the Vietnam War, pushing for social justice and work in radical feminism. She is also very well known for her refusal of the National Medal of Arts in 1997 for political differences with the Clinton administration and “because the very meaning of art as I understand it is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration.” Being one of the strongest voices in American free verse poetry, Rich was a strong proponent of social activism on many different levels and through both her poetry and prose especially, she was a force to be reckoned with in her time, and continues to be influential today.
No one has imagined us. We want to like like trees,
sycamores blazing through the sulfuric air,
dappled with scars, still exuberantly budding,
our animal passion rooted in the city.21 Love Poems, I
A spoken word artist and poet, Audre Lorde was self proclaimed as “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” and this comes across greatly in her work. Her poetry is centered around things like racism, homophobia, and sexism, and doesn’t shy away from talking about these necessary and often brushed away topics.
Not only an icon in the poetry world, Lorde was heavily influential in the civil rights, feminist, and womanist movements in her time, her other words outside of poetry touch the same topics as well as disability, mortality, and cancer treatment to name just a few, after her diagnosis and recovery with breast cancer and her fight with the liver cancer that ultimately took her life. She was U.S. Poet Laureate from 1991 until her death in 1992, and influenced multiple foundations including the Audre Lord Project and awards like the Audre Lord Award which is given for lesbian poetry.
Her legacy continues today in the world through her impacts on social activism, civil rights, queer culture and healthcare in today’s world. Her work can be found in her numerous books, including collected editions like this one.
The black unicorn is greedy. The black unicorn is impatient. The black unicorn was mistaken
for a shadow or symbol and taken through a cold country where mist painted mockeries
of my fury. It is not on her lap where the horn rests but deep in her moonpit growing.
The black unicorn is restless the black unicorn is unrelenting
the black unicorn is not
free.The Black Unicorn
A relatively new voice in poetry compared to others on this list, Andrea Gibson (They/Them) has been a part of the poetry scene since their first book release in 2008, a collection titled Pole Dancing to Gospel Hymns. They have their origins in spoken word, which Gibson was inspired to take up after moving to Boulder, Colorado with their partner. Since then, they’ve won multiple awards for their spoken word, and are the first poet to win the Women of the World Poetry Slam.
They consider their poetry to be something that is meant to be read out loud, saying “Every word I write is written to live out loud. The page is not and has never been natural for me. I trust the resonance of my voice more than I trust the words themselves.”
They identify as nonbinary and when asked about gender has said, “I don’t necessarily identify within a gender binary. I’ve never in my life really felt like a woman and I’ve certainly never felt like a man. I look at gender on a spectrum and I feel somewhere on that spectrum that’s not landing on either side of that.” Gibson has been diagnosed with Chronic Lyme Disease and have championed for awareness of the condition and treatment. They were also diagnosed with cancer in 2021, and wrote their newest collection of poetry, You Better Be Lightning as a way of processing their own mortality and those around them in the face of the pandemic.
I open my palm and my lifelines look like branches from an Aspen tree,
and there are songbirds perched on the tips of my fingers,
and I wonder if Beethoven held his breath
the first time his fingers touched the keys
the same way a soldier holds his breath
the first time his finger clicks the trigger.
We all have different reasons for forgetting to breathe.Birthday
The youngest poet on this list as well as the youngest poet to win the Forward prize for best poetry collection for their collection Don’t Call Us Dead: Poems, Danez Smith (They/Them) is also the first nonbinary author to receive this award. Besides this prize, Smith has received multiple other awards for their poetry as well as being shortlisted for the U.S. poet laureate.
Smith is HIV-positive, queer and nonbinary and draws inspiration from this for their poetry. Additionally, their poetry talks about emotional and important topics including, race, gender, and police brutality, and they do so in a way that brings harsh attention to the topical issues in our country today. Their most recent collection Homie: Poems was released in 2020 to wide critical acclaim.
Say the name of the first boy you love, who died.
Say it, and don’t cry.
Say it and love the air around your tongue.
Say it and watch the fire come.
Say it and watch the son rise.Black Movie
Throughout history queer voices have continued to be influential to our world, despite the efforts to silence or eliminate them, and we can look to these newer and future voices to continue the effort to bring inclusivity to poetry and prose alike, until it isn’t something that is even worried about.
For more about influential poets today, you can find their work here!