Frank O’Hara’s Lessons for Being Gay

July 1, 2013 | 14 books mentioned 6 8 min read

covercoverAt summer arts camp, nestled into our scrappy bunk beds, the tainted scent of bug spray and boy’s locker room riding the night air, the newly-out gay boys slyly passed A Boy’s Own Story and The Picture of Dorian Gray as though they were fetish porn to be viewed strictly under covers with a flashlight after lights out. These books along with a litany of others taught us how to be gay. But it’s unfortunate then that our secret libraries lacked one great-uncle that I would gladly hand down to my younger compatriots. So, in this moment of giving thanks and talking about what the new gay future looks like, I’d like to propose a toast to a man we owe more to than we have ever admitted: Frank O’Hara.

We have arrived at an incredible moment. With the Supreme Court’s rulings on DOMA and Proposition 8, marriage equality across the country appears to be within grasp. In the last decade, public support for gay marriage has risen from a meagre 31% (from a Gallup Poll in December 2003) to 55% (from a Washington Post-ABC News Poll in May 2013). In Minnesota, only six months passed between a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages failing by a mere 2.5% of the vote, to full marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples being signed into law.

When I was in high school in that same state, kids—and sometimes teachers—unabashedly called each other “fag” as the catch-all insult. One of the only gay adults I knew was fired for coming out at Dayton’s in Minneapolis, where he had worked for years, selling sheets and towels to housewives; a lesbian choir teacher at my school had sexual harassment allegations lobbed at her from hysterical students just for checking their breathing during voice lessons. And, of course, above this cloud of loathing and paranoia, a short lifespan from AIDS seemed not just frightening, but in our worst fears, inevitable for young gay men.

And yet, even with all the progress we’ve made, there’s trepidation. Has this moment come too soon? And even with legal rights, what about the undercurrent of disgust that continues from certain parts of the population? Just last month, a man was murdered a block away from Stonewall in one of New York’s queerest neighborhoods by a man who targeted him for being gay. And there’s been a lot chatter about heteronormativity and the attempts of the straight population to neuter what makes homosexuality special—the rebellion, the sense of self-invention, the break with tradition and history—and while O’Hara isn’t exactly a role model in his own fraught relationships, his poetry tells us something about who we are and who we might be.

O’Hara’s queerness has always been there to see but it was consistently obstructed either by critics, his friends, or in a few cases, himself. While Marjorie Perloff was working on a study of his poetry, she reported that when “I referred to Joe Lesueur as Frank’s lover, Donald Allen suggested tactfully that I use the word ‘friend’ instead.” Sounds like Thanksgiving with my aunt and uncle! But like a fat cartoon bear hiding behind a birch tree, it was plainly there to see.

coverWhat I find so essential, celebratory and let’s-throw-a-parade-gay about him is his ability to love whatever is aesthetically pleasurable that he comes across. Take a look at his poem, “Today,” included, along with the other poems in this essay, in the 2008 collection Selected Poems:

Oh! Kangaroos, sequins, chocolate sodas!
You really are beautiful! Pearls,
Harmonicas, jujubes, aspirins! All
The stuff they’ve always talked about

Still makes a poem a surprise!
These things are with us every day
Even on beachheads and biers. They
Do have meaning. They’re strong as rocks

His work is filled with unexpected tastes and nearly absent of any sort of hierarchy. Kangaroos? Lovely. Long terrible B films? Satisfying. Rachmaninoff? Sublime. Drinking a Coke with a cute guy? The best. O’Hara presides over a democracy of affection.

And have you ever seen so many exclamation points from a grown man? It’s like listening to a kindergarten teacher! He’s just so enthusiastic that he can’t help but cram the poem with one jubilant thing after another. This is ecstasy, like the build up to an orgasm frothed into mania. But the sequins, sodas, and jujubes are also solid—“They’re strong as rocks.” These are foundations for our lives.

coverCritics have called this aspect of O’Hara’s sensibility camp, hit the print button, and called it a day. But that’s not quite what’s at work here. When I think of camp within the gay community—say, reenacting scenes from Mommy Dearest or a certain love of Cher riding a Navy cannon in black fishnets and a sneer—there’s an element of performance in the opinion: it feels like a socially learned behavior rather than an incidental personal taste. If you look at Halperin’s How to be Gay, it’s clear that some scholars believe that mainstream entertainments, for example—the book cites Mildred Pierce—are passed among members of the gay community as primers, or instructive texts on how to behave (and in Halperin’s class at University of Michigan, they are). It’s not so much innate that we love Mildred Pierce as something we learn, which is to say it may be separate from what we actually like. Camp also gives us a protective barrier of irony from our pleasure in lowbrow likes. The irony distances us, and says “Hey, I know this is terrible. But it’s also fun!”

O’Hara collapses that ironic distance and it’s all sincerity. He’s so sincere, that as much as I admire him (and I really admire him!), I’d feel embarrassed to have written some of his poems. Not because it’s shameful, but because it’s just too, too much. But he means it.

coverAnd this is where camp becomes a problem. Camp, at its heart, is about taste. And taste, as we know, is a sort of fingerprint of thought—and of attraction. Critics evaluating O’Hara, as Marjorie Perloff pointed out in her excellent study Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters, labeled his work as “late Victorian camp” or “streamers of crepe paper fluttering before an electric fan” or “mental chatter and drift.” Invariably, these feel like codes to the knowing reader, that his work was just plain gay.

Camp is often a derogatory term. We like it, but we feel like we shouldn’t. Just as the foodie loathes his enjoyment of Chicken McNuggets, we can’t just say we like something, but rather we can have the barrier of camp to say, “I love this and I know it’s awful.” There’s shame in the attraction, just as when we were young gaylings the world around us often reinforced that our feelings are shameful.

O’Hara’s poems are an antidote to this feeling of shame over the tastes we find natural and immovable. James Schuyler, perhaps the most sublime poet of the small thing made infinite, in one of his many catty, bright, loving letters to his dear friend O’Hara put it best:

Your passion always makes me feel like a cloud the wind detaches (at last) from a mountain so I can finally go sailing over all those valleys with their crazy farms and towns. I always start bouncing up and down in my chair when I read a poem of yours like “Radio,” where you seem to say, “I know you won’t think this is much of a subject for a poem but I just can’t help it: I feel like this,” so that in the end you seem to be the only one who knows what the subject of a poem is.

The pleasures of a poem like “Radio,” good enough to make Schuyler ride his chair, come primarily from our empathy with O’Hara since we all know how awful it is to want some small satisfaction after a week of drudgery—the radio plays nothing but rubbish when all we want to hear is something great—and the comic distance between O’Hara’s invocation of the grand emotions and subjects of poetry (longing for “immortal energy” when one is “mortally tired”) when, in fact, it’s a fifteen line poem where Frank is bitching at his radio for playing such crap.

But these small things are everything. It’s true that we feel just as strongly, however irrational it may be, about the minute pleasures of our lives as we do about the supposedly great things. Our emotional responses don’t always differentiate between the two even if our minds tell us that we should. One look at a Black Friday stampede at Target shows us this, and O’Hara says as much in “Today.”

What I think I learn from his poetry—if anything as auspicious as learning happens from contact with verse—is how to like. What we prefer, what we enjoy, and what we desire are as singular as a fingerprint and in O’Hara’s work having a coke with the man he loves is as sublime as a masterpiece by Leonardo or Michaelangelo.

I don’t think there’s a love poem that means more to me—and notice here that I don’t make any claims as to whether or not it’s the love poem that should mean the most to you—than O’Hara’s love poem for Vincent Warren “Having a Coke With You.”

The pleasure he takes in sharing a soda with Warren is arbitrary, intuitive, and surprising. (For the curious reader, there’s an endearing video online of O’Hara’s gentle delivery, eyes looking through the camera with a book in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other.)


is even more fun that going to San Sebastian, Irún, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne
or being sick to my stomach on the Traversera de Gracia in Barcelona
partly because in your orange shirt you look like a better happier St. Sebastian
partly because of my love for you, partly because of your love for yoghurt
partly because of the fluorescent orange tulips around the birches
partly because of the secrecy our smiles take on before people and statuary

Of course it’s going to be better than being sick to his stomach in Barcelona, but what has love of yogurt or orange tulips go to do with it? (Sure, they match the color of Warren’s charming shirt, but they are a part of the landscape and not even something the object of O’Hara’s love is responsible for). It’d be like telling my boyfriend that I fell in love with him because of the mural at the bar we met at. But, come to think of it, why not? And look how long the lines get, as though the form of the poem itself can barely contain what Frank is feeling, and there’s so much he’d like to say that it strains to be held between the two edges of the page. Eventually, this conversational, upfront tone isn’t enough and he reaches for an actual metaphor, something surreal. O’Hara needs a new sort of language, something absent in his everyday experience, to capture what happens between his body and Vincent’s:

it is hard to believe when I’m with you that there can be anything as still
as solemn as unpleasantly definitive as statuary when right in front of it
in the warm New York 4 o’clock light we are drifting back and forth
between each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles.

Now I get why Schuyler told his friend, “you seem to be the only one who knows what the subject for a poem is.”

This isn’t to say that everything O’Hara casts his eye on and sets into lines is golden. Sometimes it’s sloppy, dull, or nonsensical. “It’s 12:10 in New York and I am wondering / if I will finish this in time to meet Norman for lunch.” I don’t know about you, but I cannot wait to hear what happens at 12:15! Will he finish the poem??? Ugh. And don’t get me started on the way he namedrops his friends in the poems…

But these are poems of immediacy, poems of taking the world as it exists, in that moment. It feels like the past and future falls away and all that remains is now. When O’Hara thinks he’s wrong, he corrects himself: “I am ill today but I am not / too ill. I am not ill at all.” He’s agile, and like a jazz musician he’s not so much playing the music as playing the changes. In “My Heart,” he declares, “I want to be / at least as alive as the vulgar.”

coverWhat I love about O’Hara is the way that he is camp, because it’s not too camp. It is not camp at all. What his poems declare, to quote his friend Schuyler, is “I just can’t help it, I feel like this.” Certainly other poets have expressed this democracy of taste, this unbridled attraction before him—particularly Whitman, in his own nineteenth-century queer way. As O’Hara once commented to his roommate and sometimes lover, Joe Lesueur, homosexuality wasn’t just about sex, it was about his love of the freedoms that went with it. O’Hara seized on this and sought out what he wanted when he wanted it. As Lesueur describes in his memoir Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara, “Frank had at various times both the desire and the determination to make out with a great majority of the people to whom he was attracted, their diversity being truly mind-boggling: big guys, little guys, macho straight men, flagrantly gay men, rough trade, gay trade, friends, friends of friends, offspring of his friends, blonds, blacks, Jews, and—women: Grace Hartigan, for example.”

Our lives won’t be all kangaroos and blond ballet dancers. And difference can be painful, it can be felt like a disfigurement, and it’s easy to envy, at times, the ease of life for people in the majority. As O’Hara laments “you were made in the image of god / I was not / I was made in the image of a sissy truck-driver.” But there’s joy in loving what you love, a purity in expressing it exactly in its unchecked, effusive and messy truth, and O’Hara felt no shame in putting that feeling out there with an exclamation!

is a poet and playwright from Minnesota. He works in editorial at Farrar, Straus and Giroux and lives in New York, NY.