"To Dance My Own Dance": Remembering Karl Keller, a Man I Never
Honorable Mention, 2002 Affirmation Writing Contest
By Robert J. Christensen
24 August 2001
There was nothing fancy, nothing to suggest who or what he had been. But the big, elegant block letters of his name "Karl Keller" filled the panel on the Affirmation AIDS quilt. At last I knew how he had died, but I still did not know how he had lived.
It had been thirty years earlier that I had first encountered Karl Keller.
Then, I encountered him in print, in the pages of the new publication,
Dialogue, a Journal of Mormon Thought. He had been teaching
at Cortland, one of the smaller campuses of the State University of
New York while simultaneously serving as President of the local branch
of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints--there are branch
members who still remember his warmth and genuine concern. He had a
rather conventional resume: born in small-town Manti, Utah; served a
mission for the Mormon Church; majored in English at the University
of Utah; earned a doctorate in early American literature at the University
of Minnesota; married in 1956 and fathered five children. But Gene England
and Robert Rees, both former Dialogue editors, have called
him a poet of genius and an immensely talented critic, certainly one
of the most talented to have found voice within the Mormon community.
That first Dialogue article, however, announced a less conventional
Karl. He wrote of leaving New York and journeying south to join one
of the Freedom Rides. Most Mormons were prepared to live with both civil
and priesthood segregation. A few questioned privately; but Karl's sense
of rightness, of integrity drove him to action. Segregation was a moral
evil and he had to act for change. And he had to witness to his fellow
Saints that Christ-like action was necessary--and Dialogue
was the only platform available for that witness. "Every soul has its
South," he wrote (Dialogue, 1:2, p. 72).
Every year, for the first ten years or so, he continued to write for
Dialogue. He reviewed the New English Bible (5:4 [Winter 1970]
p. 106-112); and the poetry of Clinton Larsen, the BYU professor and
probably the first Mormon poet of substance (3:1 [Spring 1968], p. 111-118).
He investigated the Catholic writer Flannery O'Connor (9:4 [Winter 1975],
p. 62-71) and the Icelandic Nobelist Halldor Laxness, who had written
a novel, Paradise Reclaimed, about the Mormons (6:3-4 [Autumn-Winter
1971], p. 48-54). He pondered "the delusions of a Mormon literature"
(4:3 [Autumn 1969], p. 13-20), and wondered what it meant to be a Mormon...
and what it meant to be himself. Then from the Mormon world he disappeared.
He disappeared into a world of writing, where his scholarship fused
without seam with self discovery. He closely studied the early Puritans
of New England, and their covenant theology which demanded Church members
be fully converted before baptism. It was a theology which he had also
found in the early Mormon Church. But belief in the covenant had slowly
weakened in both churches, and with the weakening came a shallower spirituality
and a thinning of intellectual rigor. I did not realize it as I read
his Dialogue essay "Far Beyond the Half-Way Covenant" (6:1 [Spring 1971], p. 118-120), but
something was gnawing, eating away at his Mormon roots, a process opaquely
hinted at by the self-identification he had chosen for the essay: "Karl
Keller teaches polymorphous perversity at San Diego State College, is
uncommitted, and loves little children" (p.118).
The gnawing had undoubtedly directed him to the subject of his first
monograph, The Example of Edward Taylor (1975). Taylor (1642-1729)
had been born in England but came to America, studied at Harvard, and
eventually ministered at Westfield, Massachusetts where he opposed the
weakening of the Puritan covenant. He was pious, learned, and inspired
to write a complex metaphysical poetry whose profound spirituality is
often compared to that of Donne and Herbert in England. For both Taylor
and Keller, writing, driven by a need for absolutely honest self-inspection,
was a way of coming to and expressing one's deepest sense of self. It
was a way of finding out who one was and where one stood in the divine
order of things.
Keller's questioning of the Mormon order was the apparent topic of an
early 1970s exchange of letters with Robert Rees, then editor of Dialogue
and a professor of American literature at UCLA. The real topic was Karl
Keller's psychosexual identity. The exchange was published anonymously
as "Letters of Belief: An Exchange of Thoughts and Feelings about the
Mormon Faith" in Dialogue in 1975 (9:3 [Autumn
1974], pp. 9-20.)
The Only Kangaroo among the Beauty, 1979
The Example of Edward Taylor, 1975
Rees wrote of his intellectual satisfaction with Joseph Smith's restored
Gospel, but more important, he thought, were touched lives, for they
"prove a lot more than hard thinking about basic ideas" (p. 14). He
acknowledged the distinction between the Gospel and the Church. "The
Gospel is true," and "offers us more than anything else," he
wrote . While the Church may at times be "inefficient, backward, repressive,"
at other times it may be "instructive, progressive and liberating."
It was less an object to be revered, than it was a tool to be used;
"...the Church exists not only that we might be touched, but that we
might touch" (p. 13).
Keller's contribution centered around themes of discontent and release.
To him, lives touched meant nothing. "It happens every day somewhere,"
he wrote. "I could very easily declare to you that I have been 'touched'
to do very nicely without the Church... People do not make a difference
in the color of my faith but the theology does" (p. 14).
And here too the Mormon Church came up short. Its theology is "a rather easy thing to
concoct" that is "blatantly derivative," "an easy and odd-fitting copy of other things." To him, "the stolen fragments almost do make a coherence," one that left him feeling "manipulated by bad thinking, trite logic, stolen goods." The Church encourages the "very easy virtues" of "blind faith, sincerity, and loyalty," while it scoffs at "the more difficult virtues of intellectuality, creativity, skill, knowledge, and substantiality." Yes, "the social dynamics of the Church" could create "a clean, safe, pleasant, hope-filled place," but one that is "also mindless, artless, anti-humanistic, simplistically nationalistic, crudely authoritarian, uninteresting" (p. 11).
Freed from the Mormon illusion, he claimed he had "discovered in another
kind of life something more organic to my own nature, my own interests,
my own needs, my own desires, my own fulfillment." He was happier then
than he had ever been before, and it rankled that people would worry
whether or not he was "in or out" of the Church. "My new life may look
tragic to you..., but it sure as hell doesn't feel tragic.
It feels good" (p. 19).
There is no use quarreling over who has the tougher life--you, fighting
to keep your faith strong, or me, happily lost in a world where nothing
is very sure but everything is possible."
Then came a vow of defiant independence and release. "I refuse to be
God's rubber stamp. I have to be free to dance my own dance." He said
he did not want the Church to be made into his own image. "I only want
my own image to be in my own image. The Church has no room for me!"
He believed that ".. .for the first time in my life I feel really alive" (pp. 19, 20).
For me, the surprise is that readers have thought Keller was writing about belief, not about the compatibility of a psychosexual identity with the institutional Church and the theological Gospel. As the letters were published anonymously, I had not linked the exchange with Keller, until Rees called it to my attention. The next day I read the letters for the first time, and saw immediately that Keller was really writing about his emerging gay, leather identity. I mentioned it to Rees, and he readily agreed, that Keller's topic--unnoticed--was sexual, not theological. An even greater surprise was the realization that even with Rees, a friend of many years, Keller felt he could not come out of the closet. He felt compelled to hide that new identity, and to drop out of the Mormon community.
In the Mormon closet, but out on the San Diego State campus, Keller turned his poetic acumen to the two true geniuses of American poetry, first Emily Dickinson and then Walt Whitman--deeply personal poets whose visions of life and self left them at the margins of American society.
Johns Hopkins published Keller's The Only Kangaroo among the Beauty:
Emily Dickinson and America (1979). He wrote of Dickinson as a
writer who teased her readers, of seeming to say but yet holding back,
of never quite revealing the truth of herself. Several years later he
returned to Dickinson in his "Notes on Sleeping with Emily Dickinson,"
a most personal of essays: here he spoke of the erotic energy and play
he had found in her poetry. He wrote,
Hard for a man to see, I think, what is erotic about Emily
Dickinson's poetry. Having slept with her once, I found it more masturbatory
than anything else. Her art, I think, became a kind of orgasm withheld,
though lusting still after the concealed and tantalizing, after the
incomprehensible, after fantasy. She plays, but she does not climax
with you. You thereby become a satisfied voyeur of unfulfilled
desire, uncompleted desire. ("Notes on Sleeping with Emily Dickinson"
in Suzanne Juhasz, ed. Feminist Critics Read Emily Dickinson,
Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1983, p. 72).
He reads her as a male reader, a gay man, frustrated by but beginning to recognize
and accept the attractions he had been taught to deny. He never quite
calls her gay, but almost, as he finds her poetry full of sexual desire
and yet withdrawal, denial. She is that self he would--having slept
with her--but could not yet be. Left alone with his unfulfilled, uncompleted
desire. Like Emily, his desires play in his imagination, but do not
climax with him. He writes of Emily, but cannot yet speak of himself.
Sometime during these years there was a break, a self-acceptance, a coming out as a gay man. A leather gay man, whose promiscuous self-discovery put him in dangerous situations. The implications of HIV safer-sex behaviors were not yet clear, especially for a new leather man who found joy in the freedom of his new identity and probably thought himself invincible. Now that he had thought through the entangling complexities of Mormon theology and found himself, what could a mere virus do?
Robert Rees, by then a former editor of Dialogue, a professor of American literature at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and an enduring friend, remembers a visit Karl once made to him at UCLA. He appeared in full leather, and in full spirit. They had a good visit, and as Karl was leaving, he teased Robert, in a stage whisper that echoed up and down the hall, "You've got a cute ass." He was finally comfortable with himself, and probably took a smiling delight in the discomfort
his remark caused Rees. Something had happened to the former branch
president, but what?
During his last years he was hard at work on two manuscripts that were left unfinished at his death. One was a Mormon expose, the other a pioneering study of gay Whitman. The expose attempted to systematically argue out the negative characterization of the Mormon Church touched on in his letters.
His monograph study of Whitman was well advanced, though only fragments
appear to remain. He did, however, publish several articles on Whitman's
homosexuality. Most revealing of both Whitman's and--indirectly--his
own homosexuality is "Walt Whitman and the Queening of America," the
often-reprinted lead article in the inaugural Fall 1983 issue of American
Keller found a tradition at the core of American belief, a tradition
of which Whitman is the prototypical maker. The late poet Allen Ginsberg
spoke of "the warmth of a freely copulating, manly, womanly, comradely,
'open road' humanity that doesn't neglect to pray and meditate." These
"gurus, the bearded meditators, the poets loyal to Blake and Whitman,
the 'holy creeps,' the lyrical, unsophisticated homosexuals" were individuals
whose simplemindedness and purity of heart made them "the more American."
Whitman rejected none, accepted all, and reproduced them all in his
own "faggot-guru" form. He became, in Keller's phrase, "what we
could call a prophet." The mantel, in Keller's reading, was lifted from
Joseph and fell on the shoulders of the homosexual Whitman. American,
spiritual and democratic, Whitman "would be the homosexual prophet of
homosexuality." Joseph's polymorphous sexual, passed over in silence
by Keller but understood by the Mormon reader, became the center of
Whitman's prophetic calling, the Whitman who would sing of "manly attachment."
Whitman, absorbing all of America, absorbed enough to make a prophet of himself, and to enable others to make prophets of themselves. In Whitman, Keller would find a prophetic model for himself, a manly, leather prophet. Whitman would allow Keller to transform his Mormon talk at such a deep level that he, Keller, could, perhaps, be simultaneously--though unconsciously--faithful both to the Mormon tradition he thought himself leaving, and the homosexual dance that would be his own liberating dance.
Another long-time friend, Fred Moramarco, a San Diego State colleague, recalls visiting Karl in his last week. Blind and hardly able to speak, this once eloquent man who had once spoken with witty passion was left isolated, alone. The tragedy was that he could no longer dance his own dance.