Frank O’Hara’s “Fired” Self

An essay by Caleb Crain originally published in American Literary History 9.2 (1997): 287-308.

Inasmuch as the soul is present, there will be power not confident but agent. —Emerson

A generation ago, gay male poets were supposed to be meek and ethereal. Frank O’Hara wasn’t. O’Hara was aggressively present in his poems; he aspired to “the immediacy of a bad movie.” 1 When David Bergman wrote an essay about “the egolessness of the gay male poet,” he was forced to omit O’Hara as the exception that proved his rule. 2 As O’Hara’s more diffident friend John Ashbery wrote, “One frequently feels that the poet [O'Hara] is trying on various pairs of brass knuckles until he finds the one which fits comfortably.” 3

This brash, anomalous ego strength has an unfortunate side effect: O’Hara’s poems focus on his experience in the here and now so intensely that their constituent elements can seem trivial, and their structure as cavalier and casual as telephone gossip or lunch conversation. O’Hara succeeds because his seductive persona sweeps the reader along, but once the poet himself has departed, the poem left behind may seem as unglossable as a drawerful of ticket stubs and restaurant receipts, mementoes of an ended love affair. The poems’ elements do not seem amenable to analysis and a new synthesis in the classroom.

Literary criticism must, however, find some way to talk about the slick new pleasure O’Hara gave his readers. And O’Hara’s gay persona—expressing anger and desire, insisting on a full emotional presence—deserves the attention of gay studies. This paper will argue that object-relations psychology, in particular the work of the child psychiatrist D. W. Winnicott, sheds light on the structures underlying O’Hara’s poetry and Personism, his theory of composition. It hopes to join O’Hara in the project he names in “Homosexuality” (182): “It is the law of my own voice I shall investigate.”

Violence runs through O’Hara’s work like a spring river under thin ice. Consider the metaphor that opens “Personism: A Manifesto.” Someone has accused O’Hara of obscurity in his poems. O’Hara wants to convince the reader that his poetry is difficult for good reason. Unlike T. S. Eliot, he is too honest or too self-aware to project his own troubles into a grim pronouncement about modern civilization, and unlike Gerard M. Hopkins, he is too much of an extrovert to respond to the accusation only by curling another hedgehog twist in his peculiar soul. He wants to make it clear his poetic decisions are light-hearted, but not frivolous.

Now, come on. I don’t believe in god, so I don’t have to make elaborately sounded structures. I hate Vachel Lindsay, always have; I don’t even like rhythm, assonance, all that stuff. You just go on your nerve. If someone’s chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don’t turn around and shout, “Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep.” (498)

Beneath the humor, O’Hara is declaring that his motives are dead serious: writing poetry feels like being chased by someone armed with a knife. The joke savages O’Hara himself: it mocks him for his cowardice, needles him for his upper-class education, and reveals a state of psychic pain, which it pre-emptively ridicules lest its exposure be mistaken for vulnerability.

But who is O’Hara running from? O’Hara’s metaphor asserts the sincerity of his response, but does not specify the threat he is fleeing. The answer closest to hand is criticism. If pursued by Cleanth Brooks, one ought to run away, not wait to be stabbed with a close reading. The answer just beneath the surface is homophobia. After all, the awkwardness of the manifesto’s title, “Personism,” is an extended joke at the expense of O’Hara’s homosexual desire. In explaining how he has reinvented the love poem, O’Hara harps on the word “person,” stressing its neuter gender:

[Personism] was founded by me after lunch with LeRoi Jones on August 27, 1959, a day in which I was in love with someone (not Roi, by the way, a blond). I went back to work and wrote a poem for this person. While I was writing it I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born. . . . It puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style, and the poem is correspondingly gratified. The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages. (499)

The overuse of “person” and “someone” here is faux caution, because O’Hara deliberately gives the game away by letting slip that this “someone” is “not Roi”—since Roi is an option, the love in question is gay—and by tumbling the poet, poem, and “person” into a gay (or at least bisexual) sex act. Personism’s joke turns on a repression O’Hara does not quite accept. Society requires him to love a “person” rather than a twenty-year-old blond ballet dancer named Vincent Warren; O’Hara toes the line, but not entirely without protest.

Because that protest is legible, homophobia alone does not satisfy as an explanation of the man with the knife. After all, O’Hara does allow his gay desire to surface; although he pretends to veil it for decorum’s sake, his veil is something between a demurely fluttering curtain and a waving flag. Simple homophobia does not seem to have been such a menacing ogre to O’Hara. When friends squirmed at his gay lust, he was capable of giving as good as he got—for instance, needling Kenneth Koch for his case of “H.D.,” or “homosexual dread.” 4

One suspects rather that the man with the knife is an aspect of O’Hara himself, an aspect aroused by violence. Bruce Boone has suggested that O’Hara, like other homosexual men in the pre-gay liberation 1950s, undercuts the authority of the aggression he expresses by trivializing it and by redirecting it at himself. Boone compares the self-violence of O’Hara’s language to the self-violence that Frantz Fanon identified among African intellectuals before the advent of openly anti-imperial protest. 5 By doubling back on itself, the aggression of an oppressed group avoids a direct confrontation with the aggression of the hegemony.

The man with the knife would therefore be a nucleus of aggressive energy split off from O’Hara’s image of his self. Paradoxically, under a regime of homophobia, the great taboo for a self-identified gay man is not the expression of his gayness, that is, his desire for a man as a sexual object; it is the expression of his manhood, that is, the ownership and managed use of his aggressive energies. In “Personism: A Manifesto,” Vincent Warren peeks coyly from behind a “personality” that flatters him by not hiding all that much, but Frank O’Hara, the assertive and ambitious poet, whose experiments baffled and frustrated envious colleagues, is wearing a mask, to keep us from recognizing him as the hoodlum with the knife.

“Personism,” however, is a dynamic text, during which O’Hara manages to take the knife into his own hands. By the end, O’Hara is gloating over his potency as a violent figure with the smugness of James Bond: “In all modesty, I confess that it may be the death of literature as we know it. While I have certain regrets, I am still glad I got there before Alain Robbe-Grillet did.” He even closes with a threatening flourish: “The recent propagandists for technique on the one hand, and for content on the other, had better watch out.” The poet who started by running away, panicky and breathless, now struts, brandishing his ambition: “better watch out.”

The process by which O’Hara’s fragmented self integrates, as it moves through the manifesto, remains mysterious. Maybe he drew courage, in the course of writing, from the success of the piece itself as a bravura performance. Maybe Vincent Warren, or the idea of Vincent Warren as an audience, focused his energies. Maybe Personism, as a philosophy that opposes “personal removal by the poet,” as he thought it through, encouraged him to assume a fuller presence. Or maybe the impending arrival of Don Allen, due to collect the manifesto just as soon as the radio had finished playing Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto and O’Hara had finished drinking his bourbon and water, who promised to install O’Hara prominently in the new pantheon of his anthology of New American Poetry, gave O’Hara enough faith in his own ambition to experience that ambition openly and, as an object-relations psychologist might say, ego-syntonically. O’Hara’s famous generosity to other poets, his insouciance as to the publication of his poems, and his denigration of poetry in favor of painting are not signs that O’Hara’s poetic ambition was small. On the contrary, they are calculated compensations to a personality who feared the consequences of his ambition once frustrated. At heart, he knew, he was fierce. This was a man who once flatly told his roommate, “There’s nobody writing better poetry than I am.” 6

According to the reports of O’Hara’s peers, O’Hara handled his aggression with rigorous honesty, as if the forthrightness of his anger guaranteed, rather than threatened, the integrity of the friendships within which he expressed it. Bill Berkson called it “a grand permission to be direct and pertinent.” 7 Kenneth Koch recalled being impressed by “the kind of smartness you can see in a poem like ‘Hate is one of many responses.’ ” 8 That poem lectures O’Hara’s twenty-year-old lover Vincent Warren on the transformative power of hate. The blunt disillusionment of its lines must have felt like a smack to the pretty young dancer.

. . . why be afraid of hate, it is only there
think of filth, is it really awesome
neither is hate (333-34)

Oddly, though, the poem acts in ignorance of the wisdom that impressed Koch. Its closing lines promise to shield Warren himself from any experience of O’Hara’s hate, and they dismiss, by sentimentalization, any hatred Warren might feel toward O’Hara:

all of these things, if you feel them
will be graced by a certain reluctance
and turn into gold

if felt by me, will be smilingly deflected
by your mysterious concern

If hatred is truly “cleansing and allows you to be direct,” as the poem condescendingly explains, then unfortunately that directness will never cleanse the relationship between the poet and his beloved. The same poet who praises the virtue of “out and out meanness” has smothered his beloved’s impulse to experiment with “meanness” by idealizing his “reluctance.” O’Hara places himself in a paternal relation to Warren; he plays the older man who has learned not to be afraid of hostility. Not only was O’Hara older than Warren, but at Warren’s age, O’Hara had already served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, where he had witnessed, for example, a murdered mess cook, “his hands cut off, his testicles tucked neatly in his cheeks, his lips sewed shut.” 9 He reminded Warren of the disparity between their experiences by titling another poem “Poem V (F) W” (346). O’Hara claimed that he changed Warren’s middle initial from P to F to allay Warren’s fear that the poem would out him, but the alteration within parentheses also signalled that Warren was not a veteran of foreign wars.

Vincent Warren’s “mysterious concern” was meant to provoke. Warren had once seen O’Hara make Joe LeSueur cry, 10 and he must have wondered—partly in apprehension, partly in envy—why his own relationship with O’Hara lacked that intensity. The war veteran, however, despite his posturing, could not respond to Warren’s provocation except by rendering the relationship even more brittle and even less real, erasing the possibility of animosity and intimating that his own authority on the issue should not be challenged.

But even in this poem, where his knack for confrontation slips away from him, O’Hara is struggling to use violence as his tool. He knew the danger early on: “Mackie’s knife has a false / handle so it can express / its meaning as well as / his” (32). This struggle is the matter of many of his poems, as titles such as “Hatred,” “Aggression,” and “Spleen” indicate. In “Memorial Day 1950″ (17), O’Hara conflates his nation’s finest school of destruction, the military, with a cadre of honored “soldiers” who preceded him in the battles of art: Gertrude Stein, Max Ernst, Pablo Picasso, and Paul Klee. Like the navy he served in, the modernist artists give lessons in self-making and in violence. “Picasso made me tough and quick,” just as the military promises to turn boys into men. Gerard M. Hopkins was squeamish about the axe that felled his “Binsey Poplars”: “O if we but knew what we do / When we delve or hew— / Hack and rack the growing green!” 11 But the red-blooded new recruit O’Hara is thrilled to watch while “in a minute plane trees are knocked down /outside my window by a crew of creators.” Auden and Rimbaud are the co-chairmen of O’Hara’s V.F.W. post; fighting with them, he learns how to be all he can be: how to destroy and choose artistic fathers and rivals.

“Memorial Day 1950″ is an early poem; “Poem (Hate is only one of many responses)” comes relatively late. Throughout his career, O’Hara’s handling of aggression swings wildly between exhilarated confidence and doubling over in self-doubt. He is able to find the courage to act as master of his destructive energies, but this courage is fragile. The source of this fragility might lie in societal and internalized homophobia, the poet’s early relation to his parents, or psychic predisposition—but, leaving this biographical investigation to one side, I would like to turn to the question of the strength of O’Hara’s self and his poetic practice by examining the field in which O’Hara exercises, or loses hold of, this courage.

Although O’Hara rarely second-guesses his erotic desire, the castration anxiety he succumbs to if someone checks or challenges his ambition is crippling. When, for example, Don Allen turned down “Personism” and asked O’Hara to write another statement that would better match O’Hara’s odes, O’Hara lapsed into a sulkiness that bordered on a suicide threat. “I am mainly preoccupied with the world as I experience it, and at times when I would rather be dead the thought that I could never write another poem has so far stopped me,” he wrote in “Statement for The New American Poetry” (500). O’Hara was no longer flashing his knife at the world; he was dawdling it along the veins of his own wrist. He disavowed any personal ambition, claiming that “I don’t think of fame or posterity,” and instead of jabbing playfully at literary rivals like Robbe-Grillet or “the propagandists for technique . . . and for content,” O’Hara suffered his enemies with petulant masochism: “contemporary poetry . . . is a useful thorn to have in one’s side.”

In yet a third personal statement, “Statement for Paterson Society” (510-11), O’Hara distanced himself from this despondent mood, calling it “even more mistaken, pompous, and quite untrue, as compared to the manifesto ['Personism'].” Aware of his own vicissitudes, however, O’Hara did not disown the second statement or its despair. He explained that it was “a diary of a particular day and the depressed mood of that day (it’s a pretty depressing day, you must admit, when you feel you relate more importantly to poetry than to life).” O’Hara’s parenthesis refers to the passage in his New American Poetry statement where he wrote that “It may be that poetry makes life’s nebulous events tangible to me and restores their detail; or conversely, that poetry brings forth the intangible quality of incidents which are all too concrete and circumstantial” (500). Except through poetry, the external world and O’Hara’s interior world remain divorced, inaccessible to each other. This sentiment, however, is not peculiar to O’Hara’s depression; the same idea is at the heart of his exuberant “Personism.” Personism, after all, has nothing to do with intimacy—”far from it!” In fact, in the delicate, sexualized juggling act of Personism, the poem both conveys the poet’s emotions toward his beloved and “prevent[s] love from distracting him [the poet] into feeling about the person” (499). The poem screens the poet’s love. It is both the fabric where the story of the love shows up and a barrier to direct contact. While writing the poem, O’Hara is buoyed by the gleeful thought that direct communication is possible, but although O’Hara realizes “that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem,” he does not use the telephone. He is relating more importantly to poetry than life.

This positioning, common to O’Hara in elation and despair, resembles the placement of what the psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott called the transitional object. Winnicott observed that all healthy infants pass through a stage where they insist on carrying with them everywhere a soft but sturdy object that they fiercely own. He believed that this “transitional object” was essential to a child’s developing sense of reality, an important step on the path from the infant’s indulged fantasy of omnipotence to the adult’s resigned acceptance of an object world beyond his control. The transitional object is not purely imaginary; there is a real blanket or stuffed animal under the infant’s control. However, the transitional object is not the object of desire it represents—the mother or her breast—which is not under the infant’s control. “Its not being the breast (or the mother), although real, is as important as the fact that it stands for the breast (or mother).” 12

Winnicott’s developmental theory may seem out of place in the grown-up world of critical theory. As one scholar has put it, to some “it seems perverse to suggest that literature is a teddy bear.” 13 Nonetheless, Winnicott linked the child’s transitional object to the adult’s field of cultural expression, and others have followed his lead. Let me spell out the parallel, in this case, to Personism. In O’Hara’s manifesto, it is important that the poem is not, in fact, Vincent Warren. O’Hara has not picked up the telephone, that modern umbilical. This non-connectedness gives him control over his object, the poem; love has not “distract[ed] him into feeling about the person.” And yet if the poem did not in some way represent Vincent Warren, if it did not “address itself to one person . . . , thus evoking overtones of love without destoying love’s life-giving vulgarity,” the poem would have no meaning for O’Hara.

In Winnicott’s terminology, the field where O’Hara finds and loses the courage to act is a “potential space”: “a resting-place for the individual engaged in the perpetual human task of keeping inner and outer reality separate yet interrelated.” 14 When O’Hara finds the courage to act as a whole and potent self in the course of a poem, he has not built a new psychic structure or solved a problem. Rather, through free-moving and disorganized play, something within O’Hara has spontaneously gestured toward the outer world, in an expression that may surprise the poet himself. This gesture, and the state of creative play that permits it to arise, are fragile. According to Winnicott, however, this “experience of a non-purposive state” is the only way to reach a new level of integrated selfhood. 15 The analyst (or in this case, critic) who insists on a determinant meaning will fragment the experience prematurely. The analyst must resist the temptation to be clever and instead allow a certain level of disorganization. To paraphrase a pun in O’Hara’s poem “The Critic,” the “confusion between penises and / snakes” must not be “met[ed] out” (48). The critic must mercifully allow the confusion to be fruitful and multiply, until the poet reaches his own conclusion. “Creativity,” Winnicott writes, is “a coming together after relaxation, which is the opposite of integration.” 16 When the poet and critic Richard Howard discusses the terms on which he is able to enjoy O’Hara’s chaotic odes, he takes an attitude that resembles Winnicott’s in its reluctance to impose order:

Each time I read “Second Avenue” I bear off a handful of glittering lines, gold flakes that have . . . panned out of the sand, but they are never the same lines and never suggest anything converging, opposing, or even subordinating in the kind of tension that makes for a unity: “as in a rainbow the ends keeps leaping toward the middle,” and perhaps the iridescence is enough. 17

During play, the gesture of the true self is easily interrupted. An adult may break the illusion by demanding that the child test reality. If the adult asks, “Did you conceive of this [the transitional object] or was it presented to you from without?” 18 then the potential space splits, to conform to the “real” state of the world, into internal emotions and external facts. Winnicott registers a plea that “paradox accepted can have positive value” 19; in O’Hara’s terms, “Pain always produces logic, which is very bad for you” (498).

An adult may also frustrate the infant self’s gesture by a less intellectual intervention. To suit his own needs, the adult may force his own interpretation onto a child’s gesture, which the child in order to survive will substitute for his own. Winnicott calls this state “compliance”; it gives rise to a false self organization. To protect his own spontaneous gesture, which he has learned will not be respected, the infant constructs a set of responses that will please the adults around him and allow him to survive. 20 O’Hara struggled with the problem of compliance in a journal entry during college: “In retrospect, the saddest moment of one’s life would seem to be that in which one first became aware that sensibility must be protected by intelligence if it is to survive living.” 21

As a gay child, O’Hara had a “sensibility” that would have needed special protection, even if O’Hara’s parents had been exemplars of child-rearing. As an adult, O’Hara continued to rely upon compliance, despite the sorrow and pain it brought him. In a college paper, O’Hara described hiding his real self while in the navy. Dissociation, he felt, was his only option; there was “nothing to do but say this isn’t really me because the real me slipped away just before you got here.” 22 In his poems, O’Hara is often attempting to recuperate a true self that many false selves have occluded. He attempts a regression, without nostalgia, to a potential space where his spontaneous gesture can move through the clutter of false selves toward the world that these false selves have taken it upon themselves to manage.

In O’Hara’s poetry, therefore, the reader meets these false selves in the process of rupture. They appear as transitional objects that have betrayed their function and lost their vitality: toys used to “murder angels” (53), “dolls [who] meant death” (17), masks that the poet is discarding. They may also appear as weapons—”so many pistols I have borrowed to protect myselves / from creatures who too readily recognize my weapons / and have murder in their heart” (253). In “Military Cemetery” (262), O’Hara chose the grave to symbolize compliance. “There was but one man in every grave,” the true self buried inside a necropolis of false selves, while the usurping undead unfairly roam the world.

Whether the false self is a doll, mask, casket, or gun, it must be set aside. “Here beneath this yew I dig a hole for wooden playthings,” O’Hara vowed in “Oranges: 12 Pastorals” (8). Masks fall at the start of “Homosexuality” (181-82). According to a note on the manuscript of that poem, a James Ensor self-portrait inspired the opening conceit. In Portrait of the Artist with Masks, Ensor had painted his own face as the only one unhidden in a sea of bobbing masks—although the skulls in a jagged row behind him might also be authentic. O’Hara angrily exposes all the faces in the crowd: “So we are taking off our masks, are we, and keeping / our mouths shut?” He then catalogs the tearooms of Manhattan, as if yellow journalism could muck-rake himself and every other gay out of the closet.

Toward the close of “In Memory of My Feelings,” O’Hara boasts that “The conception / of the masque barely suggests the sordid identifications” (256) and then launches into a Whitmanian ego trip of merging his soul with others. By the final lines, though, O’Hara has embarked on a holy quest like a negative Saint Patrick, chasing the Christians, not the snakes, out of Ireland: “I have lost what is always, and everywhere / present, the scene of my selves, the occasion of these ruses, / which I myself and singly must now kill / and save the serpent in their midst” (257).

Selfhood is strewn through O’Hara’s poems, but many of these selves are decoys that the poet is noisily liquidating. Despite the bravado and the battle cries, O’Hara is often as much in search of a self as the gay poets that David Bergman labeled egoless. To borrow another image from “In Memory of My Feelings,” what we hear is the blast as the gun of a false self is “fired”: the false self releases its violence and its contents, demoted from a job it failed to perform, and a new meaning is forged.

O’Hara’s self is heard not seen. The selves of “In Memory of My Feelings” are transparent. The vampires who gamble their amours in “Hôtel Transylvanie” presumably do not reflect (350). “All the mirrors in the world / don’t help” O’Hara writes in an early poem, where he fails to find himself as he cruises men through the mirror at a gay bar:

. . . my eyes in, say, the glass
of a public bar, become a

depraved hunt for other re-
flections. . . . (39)

The eyes of the debauched sailor in “Poem (Now it is light, now it is the calm)” do reflect, but only sterility and exhaustion: “oil scum / / fills his tearless eyes with a / nonchalant reflection, sunless, harmless” (171).

The reflections that O’Hara misses may correspond to a sense that as a gay man, he was unrecognized by his culture. Winnicott believed that an infant finds the strength to express and integrate a true self only if, as it emerges, he sees it mirrored in his mother’s face as she watches him. 23 However, in an essay about “Gender and Voice in Transitional Phenomena,” Claire Kahane has noted that a mother’s ability to mirror her child may be tarnished not only by her own neediness or sadism, but also by her culture’s representations of selfhood. In particular, Kahane worries that a daughter may find herself misrepresented in her mother’s gaze by preconceptions about femininity. In a footnote, Kahane further suggests that “the consequences of negative mirroring also are relevant to other nonhegemonic groups who are represented in the dominant culture as symbols of otherness.” 24 Although David Bergman is not writing within the framework of object relations theory, his understanding of the troubled emergence of the gay self dovetails nicely with Winnicott and Kahane: “The child who will grow up to be gay gazes at himself through a cracked mirror.” 25 O’Hara put the problem even more bluntly. “I wonder if the course of narcissism through the ages would have been any different had Narcissus first peered into a cesspool. He probably did.” 26

As the self-psychologist Heinz Kohut has suggested, an adult’s secondary narcissism may be an attempt to heal himself—to supplement a development stunted by a lack of proper mirroring in childhood. If O’Hara’s personal “course of narcissism” was marred because he looked for his reflection in sewage instead of a clear lake, then perhaps some of his poems’ special urgency derives from a desire to be seen. O’Hara loathed the thought that this desire might be mistaken for self-pity. In poem after poem, he fended off this accusation. When Larry Rivers alluded to O’Hara’s “gorgeous self-pity,” O’Hara protested, playing up his faux naïveté: “I think of myself / as a cheerful type who pretends to / be hurt to get a little depth into / things that interest me” (336). There’s no need to feel sorry for O’Hara because, he claims, he fakes the hurt to get attention. Ordinarily, readers censure self-pity because it uses pain to manipulate their emotions; O’Hara’s apology admits the manipulation but deprecates the pain. In effect, he claims that he’s too superficial and dishonest to be accused of self-pity. His “wounded beauty / which at best is only a talent / for poetry” (201) does not actually need the sympathy it seems to be angling for.

O’Hara spat venom at the self-pity he saw in Robert Lowell’s poetry. He resented Lowell’s “confessional manner which [lets him] get away with things that are really just plain bad but you’re supposed to be interested because he’s supposed to be so upset.” 27 How distant was confessional poetry from O’Hara’s “I do this I do that” poems? In the privacy of a diary, O’Hara could write, “Oh I hate myself and I’m afraid to die!” 28 but when it moves into his poetry, the exclamation point in that line switches its valence, from bald anguish into an urgent cheerfulness, into what Helen Vendler calls an “inveterate air of resolute comedy.” 29 The real but strangely flat pain of “I’m afraid to die!” metamorphoses into a series of determinedly upbeat proclamations: “And here I am, the / center of all beauty! / writing these poems! / Imagine!” (11)

Projection—seeing in another what he could not see in himself—may have sharpened the vehemence of O’Hara’s response to Lowell. Lowell did not feel compelled to shield the reader from his pain with mockery or redirection, and O’Hara may have envied this. But perhaps there is another distinction to be made. At least in O’Hara’s characterization of it, “Skunk Hour” transfers some of the animus of Lowell’s own despair onto the “lovers in a parking lot necking,” turning them into “skunks putting their noses into garbage pails.” O’Hara would have focused that hostile metaphoric energy back onto himself. A voyeur, although debased, is still a seer, and by peeping on a third party, Lowell restores himself to a position of power at the expense of the lovers he snoops on. O’Hara would never have allowed himself that out.

It may even be possible to take O’Hara at his word. Perhaps he really does not want pity. He wants someone to perceive him accurately as a sad person, to hold his fragmented self in an integrating gaze, to give him an honest return glance. As he put it in “Poem (I don’t know as I get what D. H. Lawrence is driving at)”:

. . . now and then it all comes clear
and I can see myself
as others luckily sometimes see me
in a good light (335)

Pity alone would be inadequate, too distanced and too fixed, compared to the relation O’Hara is seeeking. Casting himself as Dido, O’Hara hints that his “own self-ignited pyre” might be the signal fire to attract a desperately desired passion. “Somebody’s got to ruin the queen,” he sighs wistfully; “my ship’s just got to come in” (75). And in “Should We Legalize Abortion?” he impersonates the lover who would take the appropriately amoral action to remedy O’Hara’s brooding:

So stop thinking about how
badly you’re hurt . . . Stop coddling yourself. You can
do something about all this and I’m here to help
you do it! I’ll start by getting your clothes off . . . (483)

The opportunism of O’Hara’s samaritan hides the poet’s real intent behind yet another self-protective joke. O’Hara’s self-pity is not a ruse for sex alone, but the sexual response here does indicate the intensity of the relation he desires. Bill Berkson, one of O’Hara’s platonic lovers, recalled that “Attention was Frank’s gift and his requirement.” 30 A man who could only grieve for his best friend by “impersonating some wretch weeping over a 1956 date book” (318), to quote a particularly disturbing example of O’Hara’s habit of dissociation, would have needed profound and devoted attention to restore a sense of his self’s unity.

Let me summarize my model, so far, of the psychological dynamic of O’Hara’s poetry. When O’Hara writes a poem, he postulates an other who is capable of intense attention, a “person” he is in love with. That person must mirror O’Hara as he really is; in poetic terms, this means the poem has permission to indulge in a disorganization that mimics real experience—the Dadaism of everyday life. That person must also stand as a goal toward which the poem points, giving vitality to O’Hara’s interaction with the poem. In the act of writing, O’Hara plays along the border of two worlds: between on the one hand compliance, the false self’s accumulation of hollow and arbitrary detail, and on the other hand what Winnicott called “fantasying”—suppressed processes of desire that may have lost touch with the outside world. The obverse of compliance is not a healthy, robust self waiting patiently in the wings for its cue, but rather a dissociated, rigidly structured, compulsively repeated set of fantasies, also devoid of the quality of play. 31 The playing is supervised, as it were, by the listening presence of O’Hara’s “person.” In the reassuring presence (which may be fictive) of this person, O’Hara has the confidence to enter a state of disorganization where he can play along the border between compliance and fantasying, which the gesture of his true self may break through.

Like a child playing with her dolls, O’Hara while writing a poem gains access to his inner life. In “On Rachmaninoff’s Birthday #158,” for example, he writes, “I better hurry up and finish this / before your 3rd goes off the radio / or I won’t know what I’m feeling / tonight / . . . or / ever” (418). Whenever O’Hara doubts his poetic gift, he also worries that he will lose touch with his self. He frets about this danger in “At Joan’s”: “I am lonely for myself / I can’t find a real poem / / if it won’t happen to me / what shall I do” (328).

Usually the fantasying under an O’Hara poem is homosexual in content. For example, just beneath the goofy surrealism of “Poem (At night Chinamen jump)” gay men are making love (13). The “affectionate games” that “bruise our knees like China’s shoes” probably include blow jobs. The poem’s birds and apples represent male genitalia, and when “birds sing out of sight,” the lovers have put their cocks “where the sun don’t shine.” The pleasure the poem gives does not come from this fantasying material, however, but from the glancing, somewhat coy interaction between this material and the poem’s apparently trivial surface. The pornography alone, or the Chinamen alone, would not be so entertaining.

In “Walking to Work,” compliance and fantasying appear not in a metaphoric relation where one represents the other, but as two sides of a street O’Hara must walk (126). At the outset, the poet heads toward the “sunny side” of the street, believing he will find happiness in the world of daylight. He is, after all, walking to work. But he can’t quite leave behind “my traffic over the night.” Despite the forcefulness of the last line—”Straight against the light I cross”—the poem never decides between night and day. In fact, O’Hara seems to be “becoming / the street” between them. He crosses “against the light” as well as toward it. His decision is literally between the two sides. The poem foreshadows the later “I do this I do that” poems, because darker and more private matters—here, of O’Hara’s promiscuity and drinking—occur to the poet in a setting that is banal, well-lit, and everyday. O’Hara ends by crossing when he’s not supposed to, while the light is red, breaking the law that would separate the compliant man on his way to the museum from the drunken casual sex he had the night before.

It is in O’Hara’s “I do this I do that” poems proper, however, that compliant reality appears in its most stunning deshabille. The poet seems to have abdicated his duty to order and winnow his recollections; instead, he bobs along on a buoyant gush of detail:

Now when I walk around at lunchtime
I have only two charms in my pocket
an old Roman coin Mike Kanemitsu gave me
and a bolt-head that broke off a packing case
when I was in Madrid . . . (335)

The word personal in the title “Personal Poem” refers to O’Hara’s theory of Personism, but it also marks this poem as willfully his own, as idiosyncratic in its meanings as the charms he is carrying in his pocket. Like religion, poetry is supposed to be an illusion that you share, but O’Hara is keeping his totems to himself. As O’Hara wrote in “Personism,” the poem is “so totally opposed to this kind of abstract removal [of the poet himself] that it is verging on a true abstraction for the first time, really, in the history of poetry” (498). The details are so particular and concrete that they become as weightless and immaterial as the abstract. An outsider might not “get” the story behind this glib, chatty, undirected monologue. He might not understand that he is reading a love poem—that waiting at the end of this laundry list is a lover’s ear that unifies O’Hara’s I.

I wonder if one person out of the 8,000,000 is
thinking of me as I shake hands with LeRoi
and buy a strap for my wristwatch and go
back to work happy at the thought possibly so (336)

The happiness that surfaces at the close sheds light backward through the poem, connecting the random narrative into pillow talk, lovers’ gossip at the end of the day. Like baby booties memorialized in bronze, O’Hara’s trivial day is electroplated with the charge of knowing he is loved.

The burden on O’Hara’s beloveds is enormous. As O’Hara quips, “I am the least difficult of men. All I want is boundless love” (197). The person at whom O’Hara aims his Personism must serve as a distinctive individual whose love anchors O’Hara in the world, but this person must also become “general,” to use a word that has a strangely erotic force in O’Hara’s verse. Jane Freilicher, for example, radiates a beauty that “is general, as sun and air / are secretly near” (185), and Vincent Warren “is everywhere, he is not / a character, he is a person, and therefore general” (373). It cannot have been easy for O’Hara’s beloveds to act as another adult’s holding environment, but O’Hara doomed these relationships anyway by choosing people unlikely to live up to a gay lover’s most modest expectations: women (e.g., Bunny Lang, Jane Freilicher, Grace Hartigan), straight men (e.g., Bill Berkson), bisexuals (e.g., Larry Rivers), and a twenty-year-old (Vincent Warren). 32 Acting out a common pattern, O’Hara was so afraid he would be deserted that he chose people he knew would desert him, but this tack did not deliver him from loneliness or fear. The poem “October 26 1952 10:30 o’clock” records the terror and disintegration O’Hara felt when he thought he had lost his “person.” The crisis: he tried to call Jane Freilicher and she wasn’t home. The emotional response: a panicked lack of selfhood—”This minute I’ve not been able not been / you know simply not been like positively being dead”—ending, without consolation, in a childlike, anguished cry—”Where are you? where are you? where are you?” (106)

O’Hara’s uncertain grip on his aggression, discussed above, corresponds to his uncertain hold on his beloveds. O’Hara erases the possibility that hate will be one of the responses he has to Vincent Warren, because he cannot tolerate the depressive anxiety that would accompany the release of any anger he felt toward Warren. He is too afraid Warren would flee. He prefers not to take the risk, and so relationships where O’Hara becomes truly vulnerable must be either brief or stilted. In “Poetry” (49), for instance, O’Hara knows he can’t keep his mouth shut, so “the only way to be quiet / is to be quick.” But the poet will never be quick enough; he will never break the speed of light to enter the Einsteinian thought experiment where it would be “as if / you would never leave me / and were the inexorable / product of my own time.”

To recast the problem in terms of object relations: O’Hara sometimes acts like a child who is afraid to play with his toys for fear he will break them. As Winnicott defined it, the transitional object must be the sort of thing that can not only be “affectionately cuddled” but also “excitedly loved and mutilated.” 33 Only if it can withstand both affection and abuse can the object help the child cope with his depressive anxiety, i.e., his fear that his violent urges will either destroy the object he loves or provoke it to retaliate against him.

As Melanie Klein observed, “the child’s attitude towards a toy he has damaged” is crucial to understanding how the child relates to his world. 34 If guilt and fear are too great, the child slips back to an earlier mental state where affection and anger are split from each other—a split that divides the child’s ego as well as his experience of the object. It was Winnicott’s innovation to point out that the state of play itself offered the child an alternate means of responding to depressive anxiety. In a state of disorganization, rather than disintegration, the child might surprise himself with a discovery: the object may survive his attacks. Winnicott described a one-year-old who at first was tormented by her destructive impulses. She cried nonstop as she bit spatulas and threw them to the ground. Winnicott allowed her to bite his knuckles without punishing her; he then introduced her to her toes. She was fascinated. “It looked as if she was discovering and proving over and over again, to her great satisfaction, that whereas spatulas can be put to the mouth, thrown away and lost, toes cannot be pulled off.” 35

Unlike the girl who discovered her toes, O’Hara lives in a world without permanence. In the language of object relations, O’Hara is afraid he will destroy his object and therefore never finds an object that can survive destruction, which is the only kind of object that can be used. 36 He may feel he can cuddle and mutilate his poems, but he is never confident he can successfully hate the people behind them. He never quite makes good on “our promise to destroy something but not us” (149), and he must therefore live in the moment, contingently, relating to its details through a mode he somewhat disparagingly calls his “I do this I do that” poems. Søren Kierkegaard would have called him a “man of immediacy,” and Kierkegaard’s description of this state, although unflattering, fits O’Hara eerily well. “Immediacy actually has no self,” Kierkegaard writes:

The appearance of such words as “the self” and “despair” in the language of immediacy is due, if you will, to an innocent abuse of language, a playing with words, like the children’s game of playing soldier. . . . The self is bound up in immediacy with the other in desiring, craving, enjoying, etc., yet passively; in its craving, this self is a dative, like the “me” of a child. Its dialectic is: the pleasant and the unpleasant; its concepts are: good luck, bad luck, fate. 37

Although I would not adopt Kierkegaard’s tone of condemnation, his view of the immediate man’s self matches mine of O’Hara. The poet does play soldier in his poems; he rehearses, endlessly, the act of taking up his gun. His play is as fragile as a child’s, because he is carried along by “desiring, craving, enjoying” that master him more than he them. What a stabler self would regard as trivial, only a matter of luck, O’Hara, in his immediacy, sees as the warp and woof of reality. Luck is central to his “Personal Poem,” which starts with the charms in his pocket, and then reminds us that in English, happiness derives from hap. The poem lists merely what happened on a lunch break, and it ends with the magical words possibly so.

But if chance alone decides happiness—”the least and best of human attainments” (267)—what becomes of the man of immediacy in unhappiness? According to Kierkegaard, the immediate man either plays dead until the conditions of happiness return, or else desires to become someone else.

As a rule, one who despairs in this way is very comical. Imagine a self . . . , and then imagine that it suddenly occurs to a self that it might become someone other—than itself. And yet one in despair this way, whose sole desire is this most lunatic of lunatic metamorphoses, is infatuated with the illusion that this change can be accomplished as easily as one changes clothes. 38

Indeed, O’Hara in despair is comical, smiling through his tears, and his instinct is to “become someone other.” “Am I to become profligate as if I were a blonde?” O’Hara asks in “Meditations in an Emergency” (197-98). “Or religious as if I were French?” Like an old queen rummaging through her closet, O’Hara snatches up his blonde outfit and his French outfit and holds them to the light. Will this do? But the humor and the poignancy of this prose-poem come from the awareness O’Hara betrays that “becom[ing] someone other” is in fact not as easy as “choos[ing] a piece of shawl and my dirtiest suntans.”

“Meditations in an Emergency” is Personism without the person. If there is any “life-giving vulgarity” here, it is not imparted by love, or not by love directly. By writing a poem, O’Hara has re-entered a potential space, a state of disorganization and playfulness, but there is no longer any reassuring figure who would anchor this play and infuse it with meaning. The play is unauthorized. To return one last time to Winnicott’s schema, if “Meditations” is a transitional object, O’Hara is still the one who plays, but it is no longer clear who the object represents. There is real danger that the disorganization could descend into psychosis, and that the object could come to represent an absence, which would at last be permanent and reliable, but dead. As O’Hara, always the good sport, realizes, this kind of poem is a true adventure. “Each time my heart is broken it makes me feel more adventurous . . . , but one of these days there’ll be nothing left with which to venture forth.”

In the phrase venture forth there is again the dialectic of “good luck, bad luck, fate,” but there is another pun as well, elaborated further on. “I’ve tried love,” O’Hara continues, “but that hides you in the bosom of another and I am always springing forth from it like the lotus—the ecstasy of always bursting forth!” Venturing forth, springing forth, bursting forth—in “Meditations in an Emergency,” O’Hara is emerging. “Meditations on Re-Emergent Occasions” was the original title of O’Hara’s piece, in homage to John Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions and to the fact that Larry Rivers had broken his heart before. An emergency, like an adventure, is something that comes up, something that happens, but it is also an occasion for emerging, for the discovery of what happens within as well as without, or for crossing the boundary between within and without. Although Kierkegaard laughed at the immediate man’s desire to change his self like a worn-out suit, he too saw despair as a transformative experience, which would bring the self to itself and to God. O’Hara, as he is expelled from his beloved’s bosom, launches into a new, if not different, sense of himself. “Nothing remains,” O’Hara wrote in “Death,” “let alone ‘to be said,’ / except that when I fall backwards / I am trying something new and shall succeed, as in the past” (187).

O’Hara seems exceptionally present in his poetry because he has to struggle to be there. If a Winnicottian reading suggests that his best poems are struggles, or even failures, rather than victories, this does not turn O’Hara into a patient rather than a poet. True, O’Hara remains disorganized and playful in part to allay the depressive anxiety that might accompany a more mature and responsible voicing of the violence latent in his poetic ambition. It’s easier if the Sun admires Frank O’Hara’s poetry—”I see a lot / on my rounds and you’re okay” (306)—than if O’Hara crows about it himself. But “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island” charms because the ruse is transparent. The strategy would only seem pathological if one confused play with delusion.

O’Hara’s willful disorganization also serves to resist compliance. The flotsam of the “I do this I do that” poems and the free associations of the odes take refuge in their triviality and idiosyncrasy against the reader’s desire to pin O’Hara down. O’Hara wants to communicate not the identity of the poet but the moment of improvisation—the gesture, in Winnicott’s terms, that surprises the playing child as well as anyone watching. Any resolution or ordering of experience runs the Emersonian risk of imprisoning the speaker in his own expression. 39

O’Hara plays even with heartbreak. In “Meditations in an Emergency,” his play is deepening to encompass depression, which he is learning to tolerate. The man of immediacy is beginning to experience depression the way he experienced play: to find a touchstone in sadness, as before he found one in pleasure and luck. While happy, the man of immediacy was anxious, because he knew he relied on the chance of what comes up. In Donne’s words, “How busie, and perplexed a Cobweb, is the Happinesse of Man here, that must bee made up with a Watchfulnesse, to lay hold upon Occasion, which is but a little peece of that, which is Nothing, Tyme?40 But the depressive must learn to abandon himself to the same chance, unsure what he will discover. Thom Gunn described the state with these lines:

So I remained alert, confused and uncomforted.
I fared on and, though the landscape did not change,
it came to seem after a while like a place of recuperation. 41

“I’ll be back, I’ll re-emerge, defeated, from the valley,” O’Hara sings (198). In “Meditations in an Emergency,” the surprise is that O’Hara is trusting himself to survive. 42


The epigraph is from Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” Essays and Lectures (New York: Library of America, 1983), 272.

1 Frank O’Hara, The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, ed. Don Allen (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 231. All further citations to this volume will be indicated by page numbers in parentheses within the text.

2 David Bergman, Gaiety Transfigured: Gay Self-Representation in American Literature (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991), 47.

3 John Ashbery, “Introduction to The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara,” in Frank O’Hara: To Be True to a City, ed. Jim Elledge (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990), 126.

4 Frank O’Hara, Selected Plays (Full Court Press, 1978), 136.

5 Bruce Boone, “Gay Language as Political Praxis: The Poetry of Frank O’Hara,” Social Text 1 (1979): 59-92.

6 Joe LeSueur, “Four Apartments,” in Homage to Frank O’Hara, ed. Bill Berkson and Joe LeSueur (Bolinas: Big Sky, 1988), 55.

7 Bill Berkson, “Frank O’Hara and His Poems,” in Homage to Frank O’Hara, 161.

8 Brad Gooch, City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara (New York: Knopf, 1993), 337.

9 Frank O’Hara, Early Writing, ed. Donald Allen (Bolinas: Grey Fox Press, 1977), 125.

10 Gooch, 336.

11 Gerard Manley Hopkins, Poems and Prose, ed. W. H. Gardner (New York: Penguin, 1985), 39.

12 D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality (New York: Routledge, 1971), 6.

13 Murray M. Schwartz, “Where Is Literature?” in Transitional Objects and Potential Spaces: Literary Uses of D. W. Winnicott, ed. Peter L. Rudnytsky (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 60.14 Winnicott, 2.

15 Ibid., 55.

16 Ibid., 64.

17 Richard Howard, “Frank O’Hara: ‘Since Once We Are We Always Will Be in This Life Come What May,’ ” in Frank O’Hara: To Be True to a City, 114-15.

18 Winnicott, 12.

19 Ibid., 14.

20 D. W. Winnicott, The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development (New York: International Universities Press, 1965), 140-52.

21 O’Hara, Early Writing, 109.

22 Ibid., 112.

23 Winnicott, Playing and Reality, 111-18.

24 Claire Kahane, “Gender and Voice in Transitional Phenomena,” in Transitional Objects and Potential Spaces, 289 n. 6.

25 Bergman, 45.

26 O’Hara, Early Writing, 97.

27 Frank O’Hara, Standing Still and Walking in New York, ed. Donald Allen (San Francisco: Grey Fox Press, 1983), 13.

28 O’Hara, Early Writing, 104.

29 Helen Vendler, “Frank O’Hara: The Virtue of the Alterable,” in Frank O’Hara: To Be True to a City, 241.

30 Berkson, 161.

31 Winnicott, Playing and Reality, 26-37.

32 These are names that made it into the history books. There were probably others, less reportable. According to John Bernard Myers, “He seemed prone to establish friendships with people who can only be described as horrible.” John Bernard Myers, “Frank O’Hara: A Memoir,” in Homage to Frank O’Hara, 37.

33 Winnicott, Playing and Reality, 5.

34 Melanie Klein, The Selected Melanie Klein, ed. Juliet Mitchell (New York: Free Press, 1986), 42.

35 Winnicott, Playing and Reality, 49.

36 Ibid., 86-94.

37 Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 51, 53.

38 Kierkegaard, 53.

39 “As soon as he has once acted or spoken with eclat, he is a committed person, watched by the sympathy or the hatred of hundreds, whose affections must now enter into his account.” Emerson, 261.

40 John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, ed. Anthony Raspa (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1975), 72.

41 Thom Gunn, The Man with Night Sweats (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1992), 20.

42 Lucy B. Smith and Lucy LaFarge first drew my attention to the understanding Winnicott’s theories could offer of the difficulties peculiar to gay selfhood.