As if 2016 hadn’t already provided enough of a reminder that even sexually ambiguous geniuses are only mortal in the end, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Frank O’Hara. During his lifetime the New York poet was more famous for his curatorial work at MoMA than his writing, but in the half-century that’s passed since he was run over by a jeep on Fire Island, his work has become shorthand for many 21st century concerns.
Despite dying well before the invention of email, O’Hara’s reputation as a ‘prophet of the internet’ is growing, fed by thinkpieces that link his ‘I do this, I do that’ style of poetry to mundane Facebook updates, or Russell Crowe’s Twitter feed. In 2015, performance artist and critic Felix Bernstein compounded this image of O’Hara as a trailblazer of oversharing, taking a sideswipe at post-internet art and ‘social media’s Frank O’Hara-ization of us all’.
So far, so familiar. But what about the Frank O’Hara-ization of social media? Searching his name on Tumblr, Pinterest or Instagram brings up post after post quoting his work, often illustrated by drawings of coffee cups, watercolour love hearts or a generic #inspirational sunrise. Visually, it’s obvious why O’Hara’s poems lend themselves so well to these sites: they’re as full of iconic references to James Dean, Lana Turner and Coke as they are of the avant-garde art scene.
It’s easy to dismiss these ‘inspirational quotes’ posts, and it’s true that selective quotation often misses O’Hara’s ironic tone. “Steps”, for example, is one of the most frequently quoted O’Hara poems on all platforms, but we only ever see the last verse. Taken out of its wider urban context – the earlier stanzas mention Greta Garbo, a recent spate of stabbings and the imminent 1961 New York zoning resolution – the poem is ripe for misinterpretation as a romantic expression of the brunch aesthetic:
oh god it’s wonderful
to get out of bed
and drink too much coffee
and smoke too many cigarettes
and love you so much
So, we tend to be snobby about O’Hara’s virtual popularity. A significant proportion of the posts are re-blogging quotes first found in music like Rilo Kiley’s More Adventurous and First Aid Kit’s ‘To A Poet’, or in films such as 2011’s Beastly. While Mad Men, which drew heavily on Meditations in an Emergency in its second season, is deemed an acceptable way to discover O’Hara – because nothing is more artistically credible than affluent white men smoking inside – an attraction to the romanticism of “Having a Coke with You” isn’t. Leaving aside the fact that Beastly is bafflingly underrated for a film that stars Mary Kate Olsen as a high school witch, it isn’t a coincidence that the cultural products dismissed as an inauthentic way to encounter O’Hara are those expressed via a female voice, or explicitly aimed at a teenage audience.
“Leaving aside the fact that Beastly is bafflingly underrated for a film that stars Mary Kate Olsen as a high school witch, it isn’t a coincidence that the cultural products dismissed as an inauthentic way to encounter O’Hara are those expressed via a female voice”
O’Hara’s online popularity goes deeper than its Instagram-ability. As well as the more straightforward love poems, the most recurrent quotes deal with sexuality, loneliness and social anxiety; themes that resonate particularly with Tumblr users. With so many more recent reference points available– from Lost in Translation to Lisa Simpson – what is it about a long-dead poet that strikes a chord?
Initially, it just seems like another confirmation of the millennial failure to connect, backed up by lines like ‘I am lonely for myself’ (‘At Joan’s). Yet O’Hara’s honest treatment of loneliness is characterised by a celebratory sense of humour and acceptance. Even in miserable circumstances, the desire for connection is ultimately seen as a positive thing.
The support of online communities can prove crucial in combatting feelings of isolation and anxiety, particularly in young people struggling with prejudice. O’Hara was writing at a time where homosexuality was still illegal in America; although many of his references to relationships are coded, he was still dangerously outspoken. As young people increasingly identify as existing somewhere on a sexual spectrum, it isn’t surprising that O’Hara’s subversive queerness is appealing. Although he predominantly had relationships with men, O’Hara declined to conform to a rigid sexual identity. His poems are full of declarations of love for men, women, celebrities and inanimate objects, serious and silly in equal measure. As O’Hara’s friend, roommate and lover Joe Lesueur puts it in his memoir Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara:
‘Frank had 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.’
The poem ‘Homosexuality’, to use an obvious example, begins with a reference to McCarthyism and censorship– ‘keeping our mouths shut’– but finishes with an image of drag queens proudly walking the streets, and a rallying, universal cry: “It's a summer day/ and I want to be wanted more than anything else in the world."
This wanting to be wanted takes many forms. O’Hara’s poems are full of playful references to telephone calls and letters to his friends and lovers, but they also address a more universal absent ‘you’– a virtual listener. In ‘For David Schubert’, O’Hara is writing ‘to’ a poet he never met, who died at the age of 33:
I miss you
but I never knew you anyway so there
This acknowledgement of the possibility of ‘missing’ a stranger feels completely contemporary, echoed by the outpouring of Tumblr grief when Zayn left One Direction, in posts about Benedict Cumberbatch and the Milifandom. Hannah Stock, the 18 year-old who recently got a six inch tattoo of Ed Miliband said it was because she “missed him so much”.
Frank O’Hara’s virtual popularity, however selective, isn’t divorced from the ‘real’ subject matter of his work: it’s because of it. And O’Hara, who took intense pleasure in the frivolous, would have enjoyed the superficial side of it as much as the rest. As he writes in ‘Today’, a poem that begins by addressing ‘kangaroos, sequins, chocolate sodas’, these things ‘do have meaning. They’re strong as rocks.’
Follow Helen Charman on Twitter here @helen_charman