“The Platonic Blow” – A 20th Century Response to Whitman

W.H Auden was one the the greatest and most intelligent writers of the 20th century and one of my favorite poets of all time. Much of Auden’s work is influenced by politics, religion, philosophy, and love. Auden was gay and fairly open about that fact. He often traveled to Berlin before WWII broke out to enjoy the gay scene in the city and to visit his close friend Christopher Isherwood. Isherwood, whom we briefly discussed in class, traveled with Auden to China, Spain, and eventually to America. They collaborated together on books about the Sino-Japanese War and the civil war in Spain.

I will leave it to you to read Auden’s more famous poems (which is something you really should do) and instead focus on a particular poem that is not as well known. Auden wrote this particular poem to his lover Chester Kallman to be playful and never meant it to be published. It is titled “A Platonic Blow” and you can read it here. It’s worth the read.

Not only is the poem about a guy cruising a man, bringing him back to his apartment, blowing him and rimming him, but it is a finely structured poem on top of that. Auden uses internal rhyme, an end rhyme scheme of ABAB, and each line is metered so that there are five stressed syllables. “A Platonic Blow” is unique in Auden’s work because of the explicit and raw eroticism of it.

Auden and Chester Kallman

I chose to look at Auden and this particular poem in contrast to Walt Whitman. We spent a significant amount of time in class talking about Whitman and his poetry. Whitman is in ways regarded as one of the father’s of queer culture and literature, despite the fact words like queer or gay were not labels he applied to himself. It was the 19th century and these terms were not in play yet; however, Whitman still laid the groundwork for the queer literature to come. As you know from Whitman’s poems we read in class, much of his work was centered around the intersection and combination of the American nation and sex.

Auden and Isherwood

Auden, too, wrote about the nation and sex, but he chose to keep the two separate. His poem “Spain” is one of his greatest works and deals with the idea of the nation. He wrote it while in Spain with Isherwood, and it describes the country in its past, its present, and in its future. Much like Whitman, he had an idea of what he thought the nation should be, although they were writing about different nations. Whereas Whitman saw love and sexual relations between men as a reconstruction of the nation’s relations, Auden never mentions the two in conjunction. He, who was out in a way Whitman couldn’t be, chose to keep his ideas of the nation separate from his ideas of same-sex relations.

It may have been because Auden lived in a strange period where same-sex relations were not so taboo that he did not feel the connection between the homoerotic and politics that Whitman felt. The Weimar Republic was fading and war was approaching, but there seemed to be this bubble in time that allowed for queer culture to flourish for a few years. “The Platonic Blow” highlights the sexual climate of the time, which was becoming much more open than the the one Whitman knew. The poem is blunt, crass and beautifully written, and it seems to say that sex does not need the nation. It can exist outside the confines of politics and borders. Whitman saw sex and the nation as being intertwined, but Auden saw them as separate entities. “The Platonic Blow” is one step further into the explicit erotic that Whitman couldn’t take, and it show so clearly how Auden chose to keep his sexual feelings separate from his published work.

Here are some great Auden links:

Biography

Auden Reading His Own Poems

My Favorite Auden Poem

 

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