The writer Sinead Stubbins has a charming article in the Guardian today about how she, like so many others, came to fall in love with the poetry of Frank O’Hara. The piece also suggests the new, digital byways that lead people to poetry today, especially to the poetry of O’Hara, which has found renewed life in the age of Twitter and social media.
“It’s probably not very dignified to admit that I first encountered the poems of Frank O’Hara on Instagram,” Stubbins writes. “I’m ashamed to say that I had never even heard of him, but I quickly learned the facts.”
She tells the story of scrolling through her feed and stumbling on the now-famous lines from O’Hara’s poem “Mayakovsky,” a passage which has taken on a new, vibrant afterlife online in the years since the passage appeared in the second season of Mad Men.
Now I am quietly waiting for
the catastrophe of my personality
to seem beautiful again,
and interesting, and modern.
Stubbins recalls taking a quick screenshot of the lines and moving on with her day, only to find she couldn’t get them out of her head:
“I couldn’t concentrate. ‘Catastrophe of my personality’ kept repeating in my head, like my brain was trying to memorise it independently of my will. I read the words out loud to myself in my apartment, letting them roll around my mouth like melting toffee, quite sure I had never read a more remarkable sentence in my life. I couldn’t decide if it was hilarious or if it made me want to cry. ‘And interesting, and modern.’ I needed to find the person who had written the words that had ruined my life.”
The freshness, humor, and clarity of O’Hara’s work seemed to cure Stubbins of her fear and loathing of poetry: “I always assumed I wasn’t clever or cultured enough to understand poetry. I love the Fast and the Furious movies, for chrissakes.” I’m not sure if she meant the echo, but Stubbins certainly seems to be channelling O’Hara and his own attitudes about poetry here. In “Personism,” O’Hara famously wrote “Nobody should experience anything they don’t need to, if they don’t need poetry bully for them. I like the movies too. And after all, only Whitman and Crane and Williams, of the American poets, are better than the movies.”
If you’re one of those people who, like Stubbins, always felt poetry belonged to “rich people … who were thrilled when they could tell someone that they don’t own a TV,” O’Hara would definitely be the poet to shatter that stereotype.
For Stubbins, reading O’Hara’s work seemed like finding a whole new form of poetry that was the opposite of stuffy and academic. “It felt like making a new exciting friend,” she writes. “Frank’s poems were conversational and funny and weird in a way that I didn’t know poetry could be.”
I’ve talked a lot on this blog and elsewhere about O’Hara’s strange new role as a consummate poet of the internet age — the widespread feeling that the poetry he wrote over a half-century ago feels oddly, wonderfully of our own moment. I also feel Stubbins is right when she says
“I don’t think Frank O’Hara would think it was silly that I discovered his work on a social media app that is primarily designed for empowering bikini selfies and laxative tea advertisements. He would probably think it was funny. In his 1959 poem ‘Naphtha’ he writes ‘I am ashamed of my century, for being so entertaining, but I have to smile’. I’m looking forward to learning more.”
I felt the same mix of emotions upon discovering that Jennifer Lawrence was recently carrying a $1500 Lunch Poems purse which the media misinterpreted as a copy of the actual book, another moment that probably would have made O’Hara shake his head and smile, a bit ashamed and a bit entertained.