The 17-Year-Old & the Gay Bar by Danez Smith is the story of a young person’s first time in a gay bar and the liberation they feel. Although they are not yet of age, they manage to get in with a fake ID, the bouncer knowing that they needed this experience. It is a poem of liberation, coming together in a space of queer identities and finally feeling seen.
The 17-Year-Old & the Gay Bar by Danez Smith begins with being admitted into the gay bar, the poet managing to pass by the bouncer without being questioned. Smith drinks at the bar, then moves to the dance floor to dance with others and enjoy the moment. They feel at home with the men dancing, finding one to make out with, and focusing on the connection with them. There are religious semantics within the poem, Smith using the idea of ‘worship’ in terms of the liberation that being accepted into a community can bring. He worships the space of the gay bar, it brining together He states that he never knew ‘which god to pray to’, and has found a sense of community within the gay bar, feeling at one with the idea ‘to think gay & mean we’.
You can read the full poem here.
The 17-Year-Old & the Gay Bar by Danez Smith is written as one stanza that is partially segregated due to the space of ‘dash’ as an intermission line. The poem is 15 lines long, and has no continuous rhyme scheme. Although indeed one stanza, Smith uses this spacing to define two different settings within the poem, the first half focusing on entry and the bar, the second on the dance floor. The poem is written in free verse, the lack of constant in poetic form reflecting Smith’s personal liberation, finally feeling at home in this new setting.
Smith varies their use of enjambment and caesura to create a disrupted poetic meter. This start-stop meter reflects Smith processing the new atmosphere they have entered into, their thoughts flowing quickly as they scan the bar, but taking more time when focusing on people and more conceptual ideas of religion and worship.
Another technique that Smith uses in writing The 17-Year-Old & the Gay Bar is anaphora. When on the dance floor in the second half of the poem, Smith repeats ‘i want’, compounding the sense that now Smith has finally arrived in an atmosphere they have been accepted into, they have begun to realize exactly what they one, one thing flowing on to the next. The poem is about liberation, with Smith understanding what it is like to be in a space away from prejudice, in which they are truly comfortable.
this gin-heavy heaven, blessed ground to think gay & mean we.
he begs me to dance, to marvel men with the
The poem begins without a capital letter, The 17-Year-Old & the Gay Bar starting as if it were mid-sentence. This en medias res beginning suggests that the story is in motion, the reader being included as an afterthought. The poem is about the personal liberation of Smith, therefore focusing on their experience before the readers.
The use of alliteration across ‘heavy heaven’ creates a sense of comfort, the extended /h/ sound evoking a calm tone as the poem begins. Smith has found a location that they feel comfortable in, reflecting this through the aural qualities of the poem.
Smith writes ‘to think gay and mean we’, focusing on the idea that he has found a sense of community within the gay bar. Smith suggests then growing up gay, seemingly different to those around you, the experience can be incredibly isolating. Yet, now they have reached the ‘Gay Bar’, a symbol of both metaphorical and literal gay union, they have begun to connect with others, feeling at home and finally able to use ‘we’ and mean a ‘gay’ community. It is an incredibly moving line, Smith recounting the first moment they felt a part of a large community of queer identities.
The poet thanks ‘the bouncer who knew’, the bouncer allowing them entry even though they were underage. Smith states that ‘this need to be needed’, relating to the idea that a gay person growing up within a hegemonic context that is heterosexual before any other sexual identity may feel out of place. The moment in which they can enter a queer space and enjoy their time is special, the new sense of ‘belong[ing]’ being something Smith emphasizes through the surrounding use of caesura.
Smith depicts his search for how ‘a man taste full-on vodka & free of sin’, both outlining his desire for connection and also the idea that within this queer space, the occupants become liberated from traditional views of ‘sin’. Following this, Smith begins to draw upon the semantics of religion and worship. This could be rallying against discourses of religion that typically tend to outlaw homosexuality as something morally wrong. Smith fights against this homophobic notion, using religious semantics to create a space of ‘worship’ that is accepting and loving, rather than divisive and exclusionary.
or maybe i’m just tipsy & free for the first time, willing to worship anything i can taste.
These lines depict Smith dancing with different men, a ‘sloppy’ ‘sway’ to the music. The use of sibilance across these lines further the sense of rhythm in the line, the flowing lyrical harmony across the /s/ reflecting the contented Smith’s dancing.
The physical connection with men, both through ‘hand on my thighs’ and ‘live on his tongue’ create a moment of liberation, Smith finally experiencing what they came here to find.
The focusing upon ‘build a home of gospel & gayety’ draws upon the core themes of the poem. First of all, the idea that Smith can ‘build a home’ relates to the safety he feels within this queer space, finally feeling accepted for his sexuality. Then, the mixing of the religious, ‘gospel’, and the play on words relating to homosexuality within ‘gayety’, furthers this sense of community, Smith finding the place where he can fully experience their queer identity.
The final line of the poem, drawing away from the religious imagery of finding ‘Mecca’ within the physical connection to others, discusses liberation. This is the closing thought of the poem, Smith suggested that they feel ‘free for the first time’, the ‘Gay Bar’ acting as a symbol and location of true community and liberation.