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In and Out: Recognizing Both Sides of the Poetry of Frank O'Hara

Reviews and essays about Frank O’Hara alternately observe him as a talented poet and as a talented gay poet. The fact that O’Hara’s more overtly homosexual poems only appeared after his death seems irrelevant to both points of view. However what O’Hara chose or was allowed to publish during his lifetime is important, displaying not only what society was willing to accept but what O’Hara was willing to discuss. While O’Hara clearly indulged in writing graphic, up-front poems about gay life similar to contemporaries like Allen Ginsberg, these poems were not published during his life in favor of more subtle poems about homosexuality such as “To the Harbormaster,” where meaning was subject to interpretation. This dividing-line of obscure gay-themed poems during life and openly gay-themed poems after death seems clear, yet reviewers choose not to notice it. Instead, O’Hara is viewed as only one thing or the other: a poet whose entire body of work exhibits no gay issues and agendas or a gay poet whose complete catalog of poems exhibits campy language and graphic depictions of sexual romps. The reality is that the poems published during his life many times do not exhibit the gay qualities often ascribed to O’Hara but neither are they devoid of any subtle references either. The references are subtle for a reason, and whether this is a decided approach fostered by O’Hara or a repressed approach in an oppressive culture is a curious point that should receive more devoted examination. What is truly important is understanding O’Hara’s significance in representing his time in history and understanding his legacies to both the gay rights movement and to poetry.

Of the two factions of critics being considered, the more difficult to examine are those who view O’Hara as simply a poet because they exclude any mention of his homosexuality. Some of these critics may simply wish to present O’Hara in an equal fashion with other poets, without categorizing him simply as gay, but to exclude not only a part of who he was as a person but also a part of the subject matter of his poetry is narrow-minded. O’Hara had many facets, and being gay was clearly a significant part of who he was. To exclude this part of him is to fail to understand the man or his work in proper contexts. And to fail to acknowledge the more open, forward expression of his homosexuality in poems published after his death, even if the more subtle poems published during his life are overlooked, seems a conscious decision based not in criticism but in prejudice. One critic, looking at O’Hara’s posthumous poems, could see “no radical changes in style or subject matter [in Collected Poems from previous books of O’Hara’s poetry],” (Leibowitz. 25) even though homosexuality was much more clearly an included subject than it had ever been before in O’Hara’s work. Another critic, also reviewing Collected Poems, seems to have the same blindness. “O’Hara does write on subjects. Mostly they are conventionalized subjects matching the conventional occasions that draw him out.” (Berthoff, 139) Berthoff elaborates, listing a variety of themes including love, tributes to artists and musicians, marriages and parties, dead movie stars and friends, friends “who may need cheering up,” Romantic voyage poems, and poems about “attaching oneself to the astonishing energy and variety of New York City by day or night.” (Berthoff, 139-140) Berthoff curiously avoids mentioning homosexuality, however, seeming in fact to go out of his way to avoid the subject at all. This exclusion of homosexuality as a subject in O’Hara’s poems appears in the reviews and essays of countless critics. “The Collected Poems cover a period of eighteen years (1948-1966). They move in general from being experience-inspired outbursts of imaginative creation to being imaginative illuminations of ordinary experience.” (Koch, 35) The poems in that book may have those qualities, but Koch fails to mention any hint of homosexuality, even though he elaborates on a number of other included subjects. Rudy Kikel, viewing O’Hara as specifically a gay poet, considers the examinations of other critics to be incomplete specifically because they never mention his homosexuality. Noting the work of critic Marjorie Perloff, Kikel commends her for her “excellent beginnings,” but adds that, “although she discusses Frank O’Hara’s poems for Vincent Warren straightforwardly – that is, as the love poems they are – there is some neglect of O’Hara as a gay poet.” (Kikel, 335, original emphasis) That neglect is the specific problem with this faction of poets in failing to fully understand and appreciate O’Hara and his works.

The other faction of critics view O’Hara’s work from completely the opposite direction, seeing him as very gay poet with very gay poems all of the time. This position is easily as flawed as those who neglect O’Hara’s homosexuality because in this view he is only a gay poet with no differentiation between the works published during his life and those published after his death. While O’Hara was clearly gay, not all of his poems express that part of who he was. To reduce O’Hara to simply being gay and writing from a gay perspective is just as limiting a view of the man and his works as that presented by the non-gay-O’Hara faction. Some critics fail to accept that O’Hara can be more than just his sexuality. “Without the fact of O’Hara’s being gay held strictly in the forefront of a critic’s and his or her reader’s mind, I wonder, however, whether the fully subversive nature of the poet’s contribution can be appreciated.” (Kikel, 336) This is as narrow-minded as seeing O’Hara without any reference to homosexuality at all. Being homosexual is only one part of O’Hara and his poetry. During his life, O’Hara’s homosexuality was somewhat hidden in his poetry and his public persona. He was active in gay life, but this was not widely observed and certainly was not part of his published works. Yet some critics want to see things otherwise. “O’Hara, a homosexual, was completely unself-conscious about his sexuality (at least in his poems).” (Zinnes, 58) This is completely false. O’Hara (or his publishers) seem to have been very conscious of how he was perceived in his works.

Many of the gay-O’Hara critics (for lack of a better term) blindly want to see O’Hara as a very gay man who was always gay, through and through. Consider the views of one critic who begins with a comparison of O’Hara to the seminal gay poet. “Born almost one hundred years apart, Walt Whitman and Frank O’Hara lived to chronicle their eras while exposing their most intimate selves.” (Eberly, 69) O’Hara was nothing like Whitman, who faced public ridicule and lawsuits for openly expressing his ‘love for the comradeship of men.’ Whitman published Leaves of Grass at his own expense so that it would not be rejected or edited, yet the same critic believes that “O’Hara chose (and it must be seen as a choice) not to publish most of his work during his life [notably his poems of an outwardly homosexual nature], thereby shielding himself from prosecution and his poetry from amendation.” (Eberly, 76) The comparison of the two men and their works is blinded by the desire to see all gay poets as the same champions of equal rights, and they simply are not. Even having suggested that O’Hara chose not to publish his outwardly homosexual works, Eberly suggests that “O’Hara’s poetry was often criticized – and minimized – in a code whose vocabulary signaled to its audience that the poet in question was gay and so not to be taken as seriously as his heterosexual peers.” (Eberly, 76) Eberly seems to have no decided approach; did O’Hara choose not to publish his gay-themed poems or did he write them in code? His opinion becomes even more complicated, however. After all of his statements of O’Hara’s obscurity and indirectness in his poems, Eberly states that “O’Hara frequently used a sexually suggestive vocabulary which often became graphic.” (Eberly, 78) Is there a lack of gay-themed material consciously excluded by O’Hara, or are his poems in code, or are they full of graphic images? Eberly makes no clear argument about what the case may be, and the reason that he cannot do so is because there is not clearly one simple path to understanding how O’Hara presented his homosexuality. The poems O’Hara published during his life are different than those published after his death, and the failure of both factions of critics to recognize and appreciate this important aspect of O’Hara’s works is appalling.

Many of the gay-O’Hara critics want to view all of his works as gay. Whether the presentation was subtle or forward in a poem, these critics want to see every poem as inspired by O’Hara’s homosexuality. Consider the views of a few different critics. “The originality of O’Hara’s designs are here rooted in gay impulses, the rejection of ‘normalcy.’” (Kikel, 337) Another critic thinks that “’Why I am Not a Painter’ explores a more personal aspect of O’Hara’s experience not only as a poet but as a gay man writing in the mid-1950s, for this poem about painting is also about appearances, about concealing and revealing reality, about identity, and about ‘passing.’ These are issues that confront all homosexuals, who must decide how much of themselves they will expose to the heterosexual world which surrounds, threatens, and minimizes them.” (Eberly, 74-75) O’Hara’s poems, in these and the following views, are simply reduced to the result of gay impulses. Citing the ideas of Jonathan Dollimore, Hazel Smith suggests that, “gay writing is as much a matter of style as content.” (Smith, 105) She further develops this idea by citing an analysis of the ideas of Roland Barthes as made by critic Robert Martin. Martin, as Smith notes, believes that Barthes suggests that, “one can write ‘homosexually without writing homosexuality.’” (Smith, 105) Smith sees various ways that O’Hara is thus expressing homosexuality simply through his writing style. Smith, along with other critics, views one aspect of O’Hara’s homosexual style as camp, “a style … that favors ‘exaggeration,’ ‘artifice,’ and ‘extremity.’” (Smith 106) Critic Rudy Kikel makes similar arguments, claiming that O’Hara used styles and ideas that were “dimensions of the sensibility that his gayness made available to him,” namely: “’camp.’” “gay ‘doom,’” and “gay ‘love.’” (Kikel, 338) Gay ‘doom,’ as seen by Kikel, consists of believing “society’s worst fears about itself for oneself, to invoke on oneself – if there is no [Gay Rights] Movement to ward off the oppressive stereotyping – the haunting projection of the ‘Other.’” (Kikel, 340) Gay ‘love,’ according to Kikel, is the spirit of Romantic love that “seem[s] full of the flights, … the flotations, … and the transports of love” that are often seen in O’Hara’s love poems. (Kikel, 343) Based on the views of all of these critics, “O’Hara’s gay sexuality overlaps, then, with the carnivalesque, the campy, the humorous, the linguistically inventive, the deconstructive, and the ethically subversive in his work. His homosexuality is not just one of these things, and all these things are not only components of homosexuality.” (Smith, 126) The truth of the matter, however, is that this is overinflating O’Hara’s homosexuality and presenting views that not only reduce the man and his works to a product of gay impulses but is also suggesting that every O’Hara poem has some homosexual undertones. This in itself is a ridiculous supposition, but it also fails to address and appreciate the differences of how O’Hara’s poems approach homosexuality during his life and after his death. These poems are not written in the same fashion, regardless of how many gay impulses may be behind them. Some are symbolic and subtle while others are graphic and open.

O’Hara was not like Whitman and he was not like his contemporaries, such as Allen Ginsberg. He presented a view of homosexuality in his work, but it depends upon when you view those poems as to what they are like. They have different subjects and approaches to homosexuality during his life and after his death. While some gay-O’Hara critics want to see everything that O’Hara wrote as gay-themed, others condemn him for not being gay enough. Hazel Smith sees O’Hara as failing to clearly address his homosexuality in his poetry, “consequently critics have often found it difficult to discuss sexuality in his work.” (Smith, 108) Smith sees O’Hara expressing his homosexuality in a non-essentialist manner where homosexuality simply failed to be an important part of his self-definition. “Early criticism, written before the rise of queer and gay studies, failed to confront fully the gay aspect of O’Hara’s work, or did not see it as an important part of his self-definition.” (Smith, 108) Contrary to the confrontational attitudes to poetry shown by some of his gay contemporaries such as Ginsberg, O’Hara’s poetry “is politically at odds with the time in which it was written.” (Smith, 109) O’Hara’s homosexuality, according to Smith, is a “non-essential” part of O’Hara whereas homosexuality is an “essential” part of poets such as Ginsberg. (Smith, 109) “Because O’Hara’s poetry does not confront homosexuality as directly as Ginsberg’s, it has sometimes been thought to be evasive about it.” (Smith, 126) Smith tries to defend O’Hara, stating that his attitude was simply “too radical for its time” and would have been better appreciated now that the gay rights movement has adopted a less in-your-face approach to promoting acceptance. (Smith, 112) While this approach to understanding O’Hara seems less ridiculous than the ‘gay impulses’ criticism, it still is inadequate and for the same reason – O’Hara’s poems are different during his life and after his death, and must be viewed as such to fully understand and appreciate both how they were written but also what they mean as a complete body of work.

Few critics seem to really take note of the fact that O’Hara’s body of poetry is quite different after his death than it was during his life. Particularly critics who are on one side of the gay fence or another seem to find the issue unimportant. Occasionally a critic will seem to stumble close to taking notice, like Stuart Byron when he states that he and a friend had a “mutual hope that the publication of the collected work of this poet would reveal many more poems on The Subject which O’Hara had not published in his lifetime.” (Byron, 64) But even this is an unfortunate view because not only does Byron use the rest of his essay to sing the praises of O’Hara’s gay poems in the Collected Poems as if that were the only theme discussed, but he seems to fully believe that nothing O’Hara published while he was alive really discussed the topic of homosexuality. Byron adds that “while a lot of the poems that O’Hara published when he was alive had gay references, the most direct of his poems never got past the manuscript stage – for reasons that are, of course, obvious when you consider that O’Hara died three years before Stonewall.” (Byron, 65) Failing to accept and appreciate the subtle presentation of homosexuality that would be publishable and acceptable during his life fails to realize the important struggle that O’Hara made to present his work. O’Hara was not Ginsberg, and he wanted to try a different approach, most likely an approach similar to the abstract, symbolic artwork he so greatly appreciated during his life. Critic Hazel Smith also gets close but misses the struggle O’Hara underwent during his life. Smith suggests that O’Hara has “a ‘morphing’ sexuality, in which one type of sexuality continuously turns into another,” yet she also believes that “sexual identity in O’Hara’s poetry is characterized in difference: it loops, bends and splinters but never crystallizes.” (Smith. 102) Smith walks the line between both major positions, seeing O’Hara definitively as a gay poet but also as a poet whose gay rhetoric or ideas were never substantial or consequential. The fact that Smith sees both sides of the argument is a step in the right direction but still falls short of acknowledging the importance or even the reality of the difference of the poetry during O’Hara’s life and after his death.

If anything, critics might be expected to simply take the easy way out and conclude that O’Hara was just a victim of homophobic censorship. Consider one critic’s views of “Early Writing and Poems Retrieved, which includes work not discovered in time to be included in the Collected Poems, not deemed significant or complete enough, or some gay readers might suspect, not deemed fit – such may have been the state of gay liberation in 1972 – to see the light.” (Kikel, 334, original emphasis) Many poems did ‘see the light,’ however. Those poems may not have been as graphic or as forward as some seen after O’Hara’s death in Collected Poems, but they were available and positive views of homosexual life and feelings. To simply see all of O’Hara’s works as all gay or all un-gay is limiting enough, but to fail to recognize that O’Hara included gay subjects in many works, not just those published after his death, is equally as much of a failure. The significant differences of how and why O’Hara presented poems differently during his life than those which were released after his death should be recognized as significant for his own time as well as for the future.

O’Hara’s true legacy can only be appreciated when his works are observed as notably different during his life and after his death. O’Hara’s works have relevance to history, to the gay rights movement, and to poetry, not only in respect to the 1950’s and 1960’s but to everything to come afterward as well. In regards to history, it is important to recognize that O’Hara was a product of his times. The publication of poems that were subtle or cryptic during his life, whether limited in expression by his choice or by the demands of a publisher, in either case emphasize the social climate of that time and not only show how institutions like the publishing industry reacted to mainstream views but also suggest what considerations had to be made by any person who was homosexual and facing the public. Hazel Smith, while she fails to properly explore this idea, still sees the truth of O’Hara’s predicament. She writes that, “O’Hara’s poetry is part of an impressive ‘tradition’ of American gay writing which has had to deal, sometimes evasively, with the penalties of disclosure in a highly homophobic society.” (Smith, 103) Smith notes in a foreword to her book that, “O’Hara’s non-essentialist gay identity did not seem politically charged because in the 1950s and 1960s a more direct political stance was needed to rebut a homophobic society.” (Smith, 5) But O’Hara didn’t have to be a vocal, visible homosexual to be a proponent of gay rights. Just because contemporaries like Ginsberg were attacking the establishment directly did not mean that O’Hara felt comfortable doing the same nor does it mean that O’Hara believed that such rhetoric was successful in swaying the homophobic opinions of the general public. “O’Hara didn’t live to see that time [of Gay Liberation after Stonewall]:his poems issue from the grey fifties and the early sixties, when alleged sexual permissiveness extended only to heterosexual activity.” (Ward, 52) Even so, O’Hara presented homosexual love in poems such as “To the Harbormaster” without suffering scandal, lawsuits, or ridicule, and without offending people or struggling to get such poems published. Ginsberg, for all of his credits as a pioneering advocate of gay rights, faced all of those problems throughout his life and in many cases alienated the homophobic readers that might have been more likely to read and appreciate O’Hara’s more subtle messages. Neither approach to homosexual expression is better than the other; each is simply different, and both should be seen to have a significant place in both history and the development of a gay rights movement.

Lastly, and most importantly, O’Hara should be seen for his real contributions to poetry. He should not be subcategorized as a gay poet, but he should not be seen without that important part of who he was either. He was a gay poet, but that was not all he was. “Like other gay male artists of the century, his major theme stemmed from the conflict between promiscuity and monogamy – wanting to be loved by the whole world vs. wanting a deep relationship with one person. But O’Hara’s genius, the thing that both justifies and condemns ‘reducing’ him to a gay poet, is that the conflict became an all-encompassing world-view: living for the moment as against living for something larger.” (Byron, 67) This sort of understanding of the overall themes of O’Hara’s poetry, not excluding nor dominating his homosexuality but contextualizing it with O’Hara’s life as a whole, is far closer to a true appreciation of the man and his works. While it still fails to delve into the differences of his poems during his life and after his death, this view is nonetheless closer to a realistic, useful analysis of O’Hara’s abiding concepts.

Works Cited:

Berthoff, Warner. “’Everything is All Right and Difficult’: the Poems of Frank O’Hara.” American
Trajectories: Authors and Readings 1790-1970. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1994.
Byron, Stuart. “Frank O’Hara: Poetic ‘Queertalk.’” Ed. Jim Elledge. Frank O’Hara: To Be True to a
City. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1990. 64-69.
Eberly, David. “A Serpent in the Grass: Reading Walt Whitman and Frank O’Hara.” The Continuing
Presence of Walt Whitman: The Life After the Life. Ed. Robert K. Martin. Iowa City: U of Iowa
P, 1992. 69-81.
Kikel, Rudy. “The Gay Frank O’Hara.” Ed. Jim Elledge. Frank O’Hara: To Be True to a City. Ann
Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1990. 334-349.
Koch, Kenneth. “All the Imagination Can Hold.” Ed. Jim Elledge. Frank O’Hara: To Be True to a City.
Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1990. 31-37.
Leibowitz, Herbert A. “A Pan Piping on the City Streets: The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara.” Ed.
Jim Elledge. Frank O’Hara: To Be True to a City. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1990. 24-28.
Smith, Hazel. Hyperspaces in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara: Difference/Homosexuality/ Topography.
Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2000.
Ward, Geoff. “Frank O’Hara: Accident and Design.” Statutes of Liberty: The New York School of
Poets. New York: Palgrave, 1993. 36-82.
Zinnes, Harriet. “Review of The Collected Poems.” Ed. Jim Elledge. Frank O’Hara: To Be True to a
City. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1990. 55-58.


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In and Out: Recognizing Both Sides of the Poetry of Frank O'Hara,
by Paul Cales,
© May 2002