David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: 21 Poems That Shaped America (Pt. 2): “Ave Maria”


“And how shall they preach except they be sent?” –Romans 10:14-15
“And he said unto them, I must preach the kingdom of God to other cities: for therefore am I sent.” –Luke 4:43
“And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.” –Mark 16:15

One of the most nostalgic images of the decade before the Great Depression is itinerant revivalists traveling small towns throughout the South and Midwest to minister the Kingdom of Everlasting Life. Can you imagine? You’d arrive on the outskirts of town with a wagon and a sizable tent for the revival, post bills for the big event, and exhort townspeople to venture into faith. Everyone’s invited with a promise of prizes, preaching, games, food, and drink, plus salvation and divine healing for the sick and afflicted. You’d promise the fires of enthusiasm would be lit for a great uprising and everyone will be rekindled. You’d say, “A great darkness is coming for us all, and only believers in the true law can be reborn and enter salvation.” Traveling evangelizers could make a good living preaching to small crowds like that. But they were always on the lookout to reach larger and larger audiences. Then came radio.

Today, because of our decades-long acquaintance with televangelism, we associate the hell fire tradition as a reactionary theology. It’s interesting for me to discover that one of the pioneers in bringing deliverance to millions through the new mass media of radio in the 1920s was S. Parkes Cadman, a Methodist minister from New York, who promoted tolerance and interfaith cooperation. Reaching millions in their own homes with a weekly Sunday afternoon gospel radio broadcast on NBC Radio, Cadman used his riveting oratory and claims of moral and spiritual authority as a self-proclaimed Ambassador of God to minister, by 1928, to a nationwide audience of thirty million. Father Charles Coughlin, a Roman Catholic priest from Detroit, on the other hand, I have certainly heard of, and he was a considerably different sort of political-religious radio pioneer. Coughlin’s radio show also reached thirty million listeners. What were first benign episodes of catechism for children later became a vehicle for Coughlin to weave his powerful oratory with strongly held anti-communist, anti-semitic, and anti-usury views that he merged with opposition to modern economic and social developments. He defended state-sponsored violence by the Nazi government and other fascist political parties in Europe, opposed US involvement in overseas conflicts, and alleged that “atheistic Jews” murdered twenty million Christians and stole $40 billion of Christian property. His mixture of politics and religion was, one might say, deplorable.

By the end of the Second World War, millions more people made up the radio audience for broadcast ministers like Aimee Semple McPherson, Bob Jones, Sr., G.E. Lowman, Charles Fuller, and others in the US. In the 1950’s Billy Graham and Oral Roberts led a different wave of evangelists into the new medium of television. But Federal Communication Commission (FCC) regulators were concerned with the rise of evangelical broadcasters. While the FCC favored ecumenical ministries, the largest religious group seeking access to radio and later television licenses were fundamentalists. The FCC determined that evangelicals had to create their own organizations, programs, and networks for mass syndication. Evangelists would pay for their own airtime on their own networks in order to acquire and retain media access. To do so, they would have to solicit private donations. The source of that funding was their audiences.

Freed from FCC control, mass media fundamentalists railed against Jews, Catholics, blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, and Asians. They ignited the brimstone against “overeducated” people trained in skepticism and science, against the United States government, against rebellious wives, and also lesbians who, millions were told, oppose motherhood and promote abortion. They railed against atheists who were accused of trying to steal Christmas, against divorcees of all faiths, and especially diseased, depressed, and miserable homosexuals who some accused of being behind the rise of Hitler and also leading the decline of civilization. Broadcast evangelical Christianity’s obsession with fear and hate became the bottom line of an entrepreneurial business plan designed to accumulate money and power. Based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Oral Robert’s television ministry by 1957 reached 80% of the possible television audience through 135 of the possible 500 stations. Above all sex was a constant subject for mass media evangelists, as you can hear in this infamous Oral Roberts sermon in the 1980’s:

There is one place in the woman’s body where the male organ was designed to penetrate, the vagina. Only one organ was made to bring forth light. It’s the male organ. It’s not in lesbianism where the tongue of the female goes into the vagina of another female. It’s not in the male, where the male organ goes into the part of the body where the waste matter comes out of the body as poison, and he penetrates that part of the body in homosexuality. It’s not to be put in the mouth of the man or the woman. It is the male organ penetrating the vagina of the woman…He says, ‘Look at the orifices of the body, the openings of the body.’ Certainly you can’t put the male organ or the woman’s tongue in the eye. Maybe touch the ear. Certainly not in the orifices of the nose or the navel. But there are a couple three other places. There’s the mouth. There’s the anus where the poisons of the body are excreted. You can put it there. They didn’t know how to handle it. There was a fire that rose up in them they didn’t know how to contain. Everybody knows when the sexual arousal reaches a certain point, the person goes insane. A bull after a cow in the heat, if he cannot reach the cow and there is a barbed wire fence between them, will go through the barbed wire fence and cut himself to pieces in order to impregnate the cow. I was raised on a farm. I saw it. Men and women go wild. And then when it’s perverted and becomes homosexuality, it’s not only wild, it is insane. And the heat becomes so intense, the sexual heat becomes so intense, the male organ doesn’t want the vagina of the woman but to turn that person over and to enter into the rear where the poison comes out. And it keeps coming out until they develop AIDS with no immunity against the disease, and they D-I-E. They die. God made the female breast, young man, and what’s wrong with you handling it, fondling it. Sure you’re married to this girl, you’re married to this man, but come on, now, let’s have a good time. Somebody go get a six pack. Bring in some bourbon. Pick up the phone and send in a couple call girls. I go to church too but it didn’t make me queer—[aside] well I wouldn’t buy that 100%. [Interrupting his sermon, Roberts says, “Please erase that from the tape, I didn’t intend that, let’s edit that out.] The only way you ever become one flesh is when the male organ penetrates the woman vagina. The only organs that can come together is the male organ and the vagina of the woman. And they become one. And if you interrupt that in any way, then you become adulterous or a fornicator or homosexual. And you’ve introduced a foreign subject. You’ve adulterated. And if in your sexuality you’re outside of marriage, if you do anything with the male organ outside marriage, then you’re outside creation. [These days] you don’t have to wait to get married to have intercourse. You don’t have to sexual relations only with your wife or husband. You can go outside and get it all. You don’t have to use only the male organ on the vagina. You can use your tongue. You can use other orifices of the body. You can pervert it. You can pervert everything. [You think] man, I [need] a quick fix. I can get you there now. I can satisfy you. I can set your impulses on fire. I can make your senses vibrate. I can let you lay hands on everything that came into the world and get it delivered to you now. Now, folks, that tastes good, that feels good. I can’t tell you how good that feels and how good that tastes.

It’s hard to guess whether this passage’s obsession with carnal knowledge—among its many offenses—isn’t after all just old-fashioned titillation, using sex to sell, not a cold brew with friends, but redemption with Jesus. Imagine then, by the middle of the 1950s, you’re living in New York City. You’re a gay man, like Frank O’Hara, who turns from the conformity and absolutism of an orthodox Catholic upbringing to value the mysterious shimmering pleasures and complexities of art and music and film and poetry. It’s a life that’s a nightlife, a life of friendships and fleeting affairs, of avant-garde art galleries and bookstores and foreign movies. Of going to work in the morning and coming home in the evening. It’s a life filled with antipathy toward cultural censors. Above all, there’s a casual adoration with the sensuality of Hollywood stars like Marilyn Monroe and Rita Hayworth, Lana Turner and Veronica Lake, and musicians like Billie Holiday and Mal Waldron. Living in a world strictly governed by anti-gay laws and discrimination, you might feel a joyful delight in the underbelly of a dark movie theater. Slip into a row away from other patrons, and no one will notice or object to what you’re doing with your date so long as you keep your petting and panting and making out beneath a whisper or the sounds of chewing popcorn. A poem, perhaps O’Hara thought, composed in the voice of a moralist huckster, just might write itself, a poem that associates juvenile homosexual sex with pickups in the back rows of movie theaters. Brad Gooch’s biography, City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara, provides some background to O’Hara’s devotion to the movies:

Aunt Lizzie had been the one to introduce him to the world of the movies. She often took him to Loew’s or Warner’s, the large movie palaces in Worcester, with their red velvet seats, organ-pipe pillars, and filigreed arches. To his great delight and titillation, she even allowed him to see movies that had been banned by the Catholic Legion of Decency: Greta Garbo movies, Marlene Dietrich movies, B movies…The silver screen was a revelation to this young boy who was so prone to romanticizing reality. Hollywood’s vamping and stalking silhouettes were a welcome alternative to the mores and morals of Grafton…O’Hara never shrugged off his early infatuation with the movies. It contributed to a pop component of his sensibility and gave him another standard by which to judge the poetry of his time. As he wrote in “Personism,” a mock poetry manifesto published in Evergreen Review in 1959, “And after all, only Whitman and Crane and Williams, of the American poets, are better than the movies.”

To read “Ave Maria” is to recall Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” for the way O’Hara pleads with mothers to permit their children’s entrance into their first sexual experiences. O’Hara’s poem shapes an American vision of sexual and creative freedom by reshaping the fanatic religious idea that you’ll be punished if you don’t sin, not if you do. When you embrace this darkness of the movie theater’s silvery illusions, “Ave Maria” argues, godlessness and wickedness can be liberated. Going to the movies is an act of liberation because even though God may not be near, well… James Dean is. “Ave Maria” was published in 1961 in Swank magazine and also in O’Hara’s iconic book, Lunch Poems. It goes—

Mothers of America
                                     let your kids go to the movies!
get them out of the house so they won’t know what you’re up to
it’s true that fresh air is good for the body
                                                                             but what about the soul
that grows in darkness, embossed by silvery images
and when you grow old as grow old you must
                                                                                they won’t hate you
they won’t criticize you they won’t know
                                                                         they’ll be in some glamorous country
they first saw on a Saturday afternoon or playing hookey
they may even be grateful to you
                                                            for their first sexual experience
which only cost you a quarter
                                                       and didn’t upset the peaceful home
they will know where candy bars come from
                                                                                 and gratuitous bags of popcorn
as gratuitous as leaving the movie before it’s over
with a pleasant stranger whose apartment is in the Heaven on Earth Bldg
near the Williamsburg Bridge
                                                       oh mothers you will have made the little tykes
so happy because if nobody does pick them up in the movies
they won’t know the difference
                                                         and if somebody does it’ll be sheer gravy
and they’ll have been truly entertained either way
instead of hanging around the yard
                                                                 or up in their room
                                                                                                     hating you
prematurely since you won’t have done anything horribly mean yet
except keeping them from the darker joys
                                                                             it’s unforgivable the latter
so don’t blame me if you won’t take this advice
                                                                                      and the family breaks up
and your children grow old and blind in front of a TV set
movies you wouldn’t let them see when they were young


Galway Kinnell, writing in Poetry in June 1958, characterizes O’Hara’s writing as giddy and evasive, a voice that “seldom expresses emotion without ridiculing it, too.” And he also praises O’Hara’s flair for mockery, as in “Ave Maria,” a tour de force of a faux, pious argument that preventing children from the carnal pleasures of the dark (movie theater) is evil. If only O’Hara could have broadcast the poem over some evangelical Poetry 700 Club Network to millions of people across America because one irony of televangelism is that despite the fundamentalist approach to religion, despite its traditionalist view of society, despite its appeals to anti-modernist, anti-technological populism, despite its rank discrimination, televangelists were dependent upon modern technology to impart the old-time religion upon which their ministries were based. Here you have a modern miracle—broadcast media—that holds the power to spread the Gospel of fundamentalist Christianity to millions of congregants. Look no further than a popular gospel song like “Turn Your Radio On,” which was a huge hit in 1972 for country star Ray Stevens, to see how much faith these charismatic evangelists have in so-called Godless mass media. Faith, that is, in using mass media to inspire and manipulate and raise gobs of money from audiences who view Hollywood and the “lamestream media” as purveyors of filth.

I read O’Hara’s “Ave Maria” as an antecedent of the counter culture of the 1960s. Flaunting gay sex can be seen as a form of countering the sneering flimflam preachers on radio and TV who attacked gays, lesbians, drag queens, transgender people, male prostitutes, and other nonconformist youth as wicked and un-American. But after the 1960s and 1970s—after SDS and LSD, after the approval of the Pill and the courage of the Freedom Riders, after the Feminine Mystique and Dylan going electric at the Newport Folk Festival, after the rise of the Beatles and public draft-card burnings, after opposition to the Vietnam War and the shooting at Kent State, after the Summer of Love and Woodstock and other iconic counter cultural events, including the Stonewall Riots in Greenwich Village in 1969 that led to the rise of the Gay Rights Movement—a conservative backlash took hold. A renewed fundamentalism that I have long viewed as a threat to civilization, culture, and democracy rose again in the mass media ministries of Billy Graham, Oral Roberts, and a slew of new bible thumpers like Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Pat Robertson, Jimmy Swaggart, and Jerry Falwell, among other lesser-known actors in the piety racket. With their flashy, 24-hour cable TV networks, growing political influence, and courtship with the Republican right, televangelists were at the height of their power during the Reagan 80s.

I have to ask: Did public affection for these fraudulent theocrats who preyed on the gullible begin to turn in 1987 when Oral Roberts preached to his audience that he needed to raise $4.5 million in three months or “God will call me home” but not only did he not meet this goal but remained alive? Or was it when, in the same year, it was reported that Rev. Jim Bakker of Praise the Lord Ministries had paid over $100,000 in hush money to a former church secretary with whom he had had a sexual encounter, and also misappropriated church funds by living so lavishly with his wife, Tammy Faye, that neither even knew how much money they were earning from donations and sales of their products? Or was it the following year, in 1988, when Rev. Jimmy Swaggart admitted to soliciting sex from prostitutes? Swaggart was such a pious fraud—it should be remembered that he was the one who had initiated the investigation into Bakker’s misconduct, as well as that of another evangelist, Martin Gorman. Gorman, however, retaliated, and exposed more of Swaggart’s encounters with prostitutes.

Televangelist Oral Roberts gestures as he speaks, 1987. (AP Photo)

With hindsight—I’m thinking of the devastating experience of AIDS in the US and around the world with over a million deaths, but also with the new victories of the LGBTQ community, including marriage equality, hate crime prevention laws, and the striking down in many states of sodomy laws, with Hollywood experiencing a Golden Age in the new mass media of streaming programming—you look back at “Ave Maria’ by Frank O’Hara and see how the America he shapes is one that stands against hatred, bigotry, and superstition, and where love can be enjoyed without reference to the supernatural.


This is part 2 of a 21 part series. Part 1 is on Etheridge Knight’s “The Idea of Ancestry.” These pieces will appear every two weeks. We value your feedback and your suggestions for other pieces to be included in this list of poems which shaped, and continue to shape, America.


Editor’s note: there was a typo in the introduction to the transcript of Oral Roberts’s sermon. It originally said the sermon was preached in the 1950’s. It should have said the 1980’s. Sorry for the mistake.

David Biespiel is a poet, literary critic, memoirist, and contributing writer at American Poetry Review, New Republic, New York Times, Poetry, Politico, The Rumpus, and Slate, among other publications. He is the author of numerous books, most recently The Education of a Young Poet, which was selected a Best Books for Writers by Poets & Writers, A Long High Whistle, which received the 2016 Oregon Book Award for General Nonfiction, and The Book of Men and Women, which was chosen for Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the 2011 Oregon Book Award for Poetry. More from this author →