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On "Love Poem on a Theme by Whitman"

Brian Docherty

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

From Docherty, Brian, ‘Allen Ginsberg." In American Poetry: The Modernist Ideal. Ed. Clive Bloom and Brian Docherty. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. Ó 1995 The Editorial Board Lumiere (Cooperative Press) Ltd.

Thomas S. Merrill

Clothes are not only a hindrance to lovemaking; they are the garment of illusion with which men shamefully hide their humanity.  Mind, too often, is the grim tailor, which appears to be one of the underlying themes of "Love Poem on a Theme by Whitman."  In this poem, the poet shares the nuptial bed of "the bridegroom and the bride" of humanity whose "bodies fallen from heaven stretched out waiting naked and restless" are open to his physical visitation.  As he buries his face "in their shoulders and breasts, breathing their skin . . . bodies locked shuddering naked, hot lips and buttocks screwed into each other," he hears the "bride cry for forgiveness" and the groom "covered with tears of passion and compassion."  What is described so sensually is an orgasm of community--a nude coming together of primal human hearts from which the poet rises "up from the bed replenished with last intimate gestures and kisses of farewell."

The graphic extremity to which the erotic description takes one is an all-out blitzkrieg against shame.  The bed is a possible world of contracted time and space--the identical bed threatened by the "busy old fool, unruly Sunne" that John Donne so beautifully has celebrated.  In Ginsberg's poem, however, it is not the "Sunne" which is the intruding landlady of this secret tryst, but the mind.  Once again, the "cold touch of philosophy" withers primordial love.

Merrill, Thomas S.  Allen Ginsberg.  Boston: Twayne, 1969.

Gregory Woods

Perhaps the most successful of the poems of bisexual celebration is the famous 'Love Poem on Theme by Whitman.' Here, as Ginsberg imagines lying between bride and groom, and making love to both, he avoids his own and Whitman's frequent error, of alternating references to man and woman, which beg to be contrasted (as above). Here, he mixes references to the two genders into a polymorphous whole, into which defining characteristics only occasionally intrude. The result is an admirable expression of that human condition to which neither of the limiting epithets 'homosexual' and 'heterosexual' applies. The emphasis is on shared physical detail, such as shoulders, breasts, buttocks, lips, hands, and bellies -- apart from one reference to a 'cock in the darkness driven tormented and attacking', but even this could be either the poet's or the groom's. An orifice is left uncategorised as a 'hole'. At the climax, when 'white come' flows 'in the swirling sheets', the three seem to merge even into their surroundings, as well as into each other. However, this was an early, Utopian piece, somewhat undermined by the later poems of distaste for female flesh. In order to come any closer to the distant ideal, which has remained unchanged since the writing of 'Love Poem on Theme by Whitman', Ginsberg had first to pass through the matter of the sexism of sexual orientation. The love poem establishes a goal, but the poems of distaste were calculated to show how far he still was from it.

From Articulate Flesh: Male Homo-Eroticism and Modern Poetry. Copyright © 1987 by Gregory Woods.

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