James Stratton Holmes was born on the 2nd of May 1924 in Collins, Iowa. Already from an early age little Jimmy had a fascination for men, mostly jocks, whom he followed around trying to catch their attention. Though his early efforts were not very successful, in later life Jim Holmes caught the attention of many more by his ground-breaking work as translator and poet.
Jim Holmes lived on his parents’ farm until he was 17 and left for college. He taught two years at a Quakers’ high school and returned to college afterwards in 1945. Being a pacifist , his refusal to join the troops earned him a 6 months’ prison sentence in Minnesota that same year. After he’d done his time he got a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in English.
In 1949 he applied for a Fullbright scholarship to go and study in England, but since his application was not granted, he ended up as a teacher at a Quakers’ school in Ommen, The Netherlands. After a year he moved to Amsterdam where he met his lover Hans van Marle at the public toilets opposite the Rijksmuseum. Jim followed Hans to the Vondelpark for a cruisy encounter, which would eventually be the start of their long-term relationship which lasted 36 years.
Before Jim Holmes published his ground-breaking homo-erotic poetry he worked as a translator of (Dutch) poetry and fiction. In fact, he thought his own poetic skills were not good enough, so he decided to translate the work of others. In 1956, one year after the publication of his successful anthology of modern Dutch poetry, his work earned him the Martinus Nijhoff Prize for translations. Jim Holmes was the first foreigner to obtain this prestigious prize.
1958 saw the birth of Holmes’ English-language magazine Delta – A review of Arts, Life and Thought in the Netherlands which would exist for 15 years. In those days, Jim Holmes worked freelance. But in 1964 he became employed at the Institute for Literature of the University of Amsterdam. Eventually he would be one of the founders of the interdisciplinary group for Gay Studies and the department for Language Science.[1. Dutch transl.: Taalwetenschap.] Jim Holmes only learned about leather during the 60s when he felt he couldn’t relate to the dominantly effeminate gay culture. During his travels to New York he discovered the leatherscene as an environment in which he felt much more comfortable . The leather gear and accompanying wear of hankies and workman’s shirts also reminded Jim Holmes of his farm-life youth in the Midwest. Yet he wasn’t keen on strictly following general leather guidelines and rebelled by wearing a pink triangle button on his leather jacket.
The artist who thought his own poetry was irrelevant when there were so many great Dutch poets to translate, came out of his literary closet in May 1970 at a manifestation called ‘Writers for Vietnam’. Pacifist as he was, Jim Holmes sought revolution with words and sentences. It was in these days that Holmes began to read historical homosexual literature. Although he had written poetry previously, his readings led to new poems which were more homo-erotic and on occasion downright sexually explicit, often referring to and unafraid to show the basic tenderness and playfulness of the leather scene. The poems of Holmes also had a slight political angle since they preached sexual freedom – in real life as well in the world of verse and rhyme.
1978 saw the publication of Holmes’ Nine Hidebound Rimes and A Gay Stud’s Guide to Amsterdam. The last one was published under the pseudonym ‘Jacob Lowland’.[2. In English, the word ‘holm’ refers to land which geographically lies lower, hence the surname ‘lowland’.] The Guide contains 23 sonnets, of which the first was written on a Sunday morning train ride to Antwerp when Holmes finished translating one by another poet. During the week that followed he wrote 22 other sonnets which he himself considered ‘light stuff’, but which earned him much praise nevertheless and paved the way for other poetic publications such as Billy and the Banquet(1981) and Early Verse, 1947-1957 (1985).
Argos Warmoesstraat: Argonaut Fleeced
That night we met in Argos, it was grand.
I stood there looking stud in all my leather.
You came in, stared round, got your shit together,
walked over, dropped down floorwards, kissed my hand,
then moved your head on sideways, glanced up grave,
and mouthed my fly. You started mouthing faster,
but stopped to say, “Sir, if you’ll be my master
I want to be your everloving slave.”
That was three weeks ago. It seems like years
we slept together, screwed, and played our games,
topman and bottom in a rear bed-sitter.
Now you’ve gone off with Ron; those red-hot flames
of yours die fast. And leave me with my tears
(like Weighmood’s copious, and goddam bitter).
This poem about an encounter at the Argos bar opens The Gay Stud’s Guide to Amsterdam. It uses words like “stud”, “topman” and “bottom” which the author considered to belong to ‘the language gay men speak’ and might be unknown to the general public, therefore he included a ‘Glossary for use in schools’ at the end of the booklet. Sexual freedom is present in this poem in three ways: first of all Holmes writes about a master-slave relationship, secondly about an open relationship as ‘Ron’ is not his boyfriend (Hans van Marle was) but an occasional fuckbuddy and finally Holmes uses explicit words as “mouthing” and “screwed”. The poem also contains a referral to dutch author Levi Weemoedt-Strauss who is known for his melancholic and rather depressing writings. Jim Holmes called him a ‘verse baker’ rather than a ‘poet’, he must not have been very fond of him.
Being an active leatherman fighting for sexual freedom as well as being a celebrated academic, when Jim Holmes received the Flemish State Prize for translations in 1984, cultural centrum De Brakke Grond (located in Amsterdam) was filled with academic folk and leathermen alike. The 80’s confronted Jim Holmes with some difficult questions though. As many other members of the (dutch) leather scene he quickly learned about HIV and Aids and wondered how to translate this to his poetry:”I don’t know what to write. We have arrived at a dead point, just because my attitude has always been that of the free homosexual of 1981: we’re ahead of the others, while heterosexuals make all kinds of problems we can enjoy a wide variety of sexual acts. Nobody had expected something like this could happen. There were diseases before Aids – and a lot more in New York than here in Amsterdam – but they were curable. And suddenly appears a new disease which one already could have caught five years ago and there is nothing to do about it: now we know that we could have been more precautious. It’s weird, I don’t know how I can work that in my poems.”[3. ‘Jim Holmes: over jongens, poëzie en de dood’, Ron Mooser in Prothese, 1986.] The struggle with HIV as a subject for poetry eventually became a personally physical one. His much fought for sexual freedom and extravagant lifestyle ended in a dreadful diagnosis in 1985. It didn’t cause Holmes to stop writing and he took on new projects, one of them named Another Part of the Lowland which contained new poems by his alter ego. Unfortunately his health decayed and Jim Holmes died on the 6th of November 1986.
At his funeral, both his lover and his students read poetry. One of the poems was one of A.E. Housman which Jim Holmes often used during his lessons on homo-erotic literature and which perfectly illustrates the spirit of the man James S. Holmes was.
Strange, strange to think his blood is cold
And ours flows easy on,
And that straight look, that heart of gold,
That grace, that manhood gone.
Picture credits: Photograph by Thor NL/Tom Ordelmans.
Last update: 2nd of September 2009