Frank O’Hara’s “Virtual Popularity” on Social Media

 

At the British website Dazed, Helen Charman has an interesting take on what she calls “the Frank O’Hara-ization of social media,” a phenomenon I’ve been tracking myself over the past couple of years: “Searching his name on Tumblr, Pinterest or Instagram,” Charman writes, “brings up post after post quoting his work, often illustrated by drawings of coffee cups, watercolour love hearts or a generic #inspirational sunrise.”

Charman is right — I’ve been struck by how often quotations by O’Hara appear on various social media platforms these days, often far from the rarefied precincts of contemporary poetry.  In particular, a handful of O’Hara quotes and clips appears with striking regularity: especially the lines made famous by Mad Men (“Now I am quitely waiting / for the catastrophe of my personality / to seem beautiful again, / and interesting, and modern”); the now ubiquitous video of O’Hara reading “Having a Coke With You“; the once-obscure poem “Animals” which seems to have found special favor in England recently due to its placement on the Tube as part of London’s “Poems on the Underground” program; and, as Charman points out, the exuberant, impossible-not-to-like last lines of  “Steps”: “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.”

Charman acknowledges that “it’s easy to dismiss these ‘inspirational quotes’ posts” and “to be snobby about O’Hara’s virtual popularity.”  But, she argues, “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.”

But “what is it about a long-dead poet that strikes a chord” today?  Charman suggests that a key factor may be O’Hara’s inspiring and very contemporary way of treating sexuality: “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.”

Ultimately, she argues, “Frank O’Hara’s virtual popularity, however selective, isn’t divorced from the ‘real’ subject matter of his work: it’s because of it.”

You can check out the whole piece here.

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