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Not You: Frank O’Hara’s Personism as a Poetics of Queer Defiance


Though Frank O’Hara’s poetry is widely recognized as an important queer poet and read for its queer content, little work has explicated the ways in the poems serve as an example of a queer poetics. As such, this project reads O’Hara’s poetic thinking, focusing on his college journal and early writing, his poems to and about Bunny Lang, his poems that explicitly address poems and readers, his love poems to Vincent Warren, and his poetic statements. In doing so, I argue that his poetic statement, “Personism: A Manifesto,” is the culmination of a long history of thinking about poetry in which I read his concept of Personism as a poetics of queer defiance. I trace the figure of the poetic “speaking voice,” a concept popularized by Reuben Brower—who himself drew upon a history of scholars whose work separated the poet from the “I” of a poem—which was coalescing at the same time O’Hara was emerging as a poet. This critical ethos would become a dominant model for thinking about poetry which would be institutionalized into a norm, but at the time of his writing, I argue, O’Hara’s work pushed back on this model. Instead of presenting a “speaking voice” detached from the poet and the poet’s life, I argue that O’Hara’s poetics of Personism allow him to assert historical presence as a queer person, fugitively documenting his life into history. His work defies New Critical logic around a poetry belonging to a reading public, which depends upon universalizing the poetic speaker, stripping the social specificity away from the “I” of a poem, instead writing poetry that refused that sort of removal. It can be difficult to see this resistance without reading O’Hara’s work alongside its contemporary poetic thinking, because many current approaches in queer theory rely on a normative understanding of how to read a poem, which is informed by the New Critical model and can lead to a failure to recognize the ways in which O’Hara poems are inherently queer. My aim, then, is to recontextualize O’Hara’s work, to trace his thinking about and against a “speaking voice,” and present his poetics of Personism as a poetics of queer defiance.

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