Hey Gurl: Queerness & Romantic Friendship in Poetry

Gilson, D.

It is winter, the coldest, snowiest one Washington has had in years. I don’t like this town, its general stuffiness, though I love school, as I always have. Last year I assisted a professor who grew up in the same suburban DC neighborhood as Eve Sedgwick; I dated a man whose dissertation was chaired by the late theorist; for a week on my way to and from school, I read and re-read her essay “White Glasses” on a crowded Metro bus. In writing on her friendship with the poet Michael Lynch, Sedgwick wonders, “If what is at work here is an identification that falls across gender, it falls no less across sexualities, across ‘perversions.’ And across the ontological crack between the living and the dead” (257). So as I read this, I’m thinking of how I came to be queer and now, about the boundaries between what is a poet and what is a scholar, about the boundaries between friendship and romance and eroticism, and about the relationship we have with both the literature and theory we read.

In the winter of 1952, Frank O’Hara took the advice of his psychiatrist, cutting the co-dependent ties he had with an alcoholic he loved dearly. “Save yourself,” the doctor told the poet and museum curator, “You can’t do anything about your mother.” O’Hara had traveled home from his beloved New York to Grafton, Massachusetts, explaining this need for independence to the matriarch of the O’Hara clan. In the circle of New York School painters O’Hara considered his closest friends, one woman, Grace Hartigan, stood on the periphery, though she had always intrigued the poet. Later that winter, the two friends would become the closest of intimates; it is their budding relationship — one of romantic friendship, assuredly — and the art that results from it that I cannot stop thinking about.

Upon O’Hara’s prodigal return to New York City at the end of February, biographer Brad Gooch explains the upward momentum of O’Hara and Hartigan’s relationship well:

When O’Hara returned to New York, his friendship with the painter Grace Hartigan began to intensify. O’Hara was, in fact, very upset by the break with his mother, and Hartigan, who had never felt his mother was exactly a good influence, tried to comfort him during this crucial time. “I never met Frank’s mother,” says Hartigan. “I didn’t want to because I was so loyal to Frank and I thought she caused him so much pain.” Hartigan was going through a transition of her own — one of many. She had a son from a first marriage in Elizabeth, New Jersey. She then briefly married ex-Marine and painter Harry Jackson, though their marriage was annulled soon after a honeymoon in Mexico. (211)

The poet and the painter came together in a tumultuous time in their individual lives, out of crisis and into a sort of queer collectivity, I posit in the vein of José Muñoz, that allowed for their artistic collaborations, a type of utopia reaching, to flourish. Though this collaborative aspect of their friendship is essential historically, and well documented critically in projects like Marjorie Perloff’s Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters, what I am most interested in here is their romantic friendship as expressed through the little poem “For Grace, After a Party,” and further, how that friendship is, at least potentially, one of great queerness.

But before I turn to that intimacy, it seems important here to briefly consider a historicity of intimacy in the short form poem. In a strange stream of connection, akin to an echo that Lynne Huffer senses when she “meets” Foucault in the archive of both her life and research, Frank O’Hara’s poetic harkens back to Shakespeare’s. It was Shakespeare, after all, who gives us the earliest model of a sequence of poems between two people: his Sonnets, the first 126 written to a young man and the remainder, with some breakage, written to the racially Othered “dark lady.” Over four hundred years later in his 1959 manifesto, O’Hara founds a new — oh, but it isn’t new — literary movement, proclaiming:

Personism, a movement which I recently founded and which nobody knows about, interests me a great deal, being totally opposed to this kind of abstract removal that it is verging on a true abstraction for the first time, really, in the history of poetry . . .  Personism has nothing to do with philosophy, it’s all art . . . But to give you a vague idea, one of its minimal aspects is to address itself to one person (other than the poet himself), thus evoking overtones of love without destroying love’s life-giving vulgarity, and sustaining the poet’s feelings towards the poem while preventing love from distracting him into feeling about the person. (248)

What opens up here is, perhaps, a queer space of desire-triangulation between the poet, the poem, and the addressee.1 O’Hara quickly moves to praising his idea, explaining, Personism is “a very exciting movement which will undoubtedly have lots of adherents. 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” (248). Perhaps the poem can open upon a queerness Will Stockton demands be tied to the body’s “antiheteronormative modes of embodiment,” while also opening up the literal and literary queer space of the poem itself.            

Further, the queer space evoked here necessitates queer, as opposed to straight, time. O’Hara, not surprisingly, was just rearticulating an idea we know already exists with Shakespeare — that the poem can be between two persons — and conceivably even earlier.2 In his book Cruising Utopia, where O’Hara is a central figure of study, José Muñoz places the importance of a potentially queer time in sync with literary and cultural analysis —

I begin this chapter on futurity and a desire that is utopian by turning to a text from the past — more specifically, to those words that emanate from the spatiotemporal coordinate Bloch referred to as the no-longer-conscious, a term that attempts to enact a more precise understanding of the work that the past does, what can be understood as the performative force of the past. (19)

O’Hara the poet, thus, does not exist without Shakespeare the poet, and I, a poet-scholar, without both of them. Nor does Shakespeare hold literary and cultural meaning without both O’Hara and I writing in a queer time that follows the Bard’s own present into both a future which is now the past and a future which is always yet to come. As such, queerness is both completely historical and ahistorical, a both-and-ness possible only, I am beginning to think, through the meaning making of a capacious queerness that does not leave behind the bodies of real-life living homos, in the case of O’Hara and I, to borrow a term from Kevin Floyd, or the always-haunting Shakespeare, whichever being of sexuality we wish to assign him.3

Queer time necessitates that we join a dual-lineage of both historicity and futurity. Thank god that the poem — and the larger project of the poem, the poetic — is between two people at last. Indeed, my own work, I humbly offer, enters an intimacy with both Shakespeare, through the sonnet form found throughout my poetry, and O’Hara, through both the textual experience of learning to read by reading him as a child and the energy that I hope, in even some fractious way, continues from his lines into my own. Muñoz beautifully mines O’Hara’s widely anthologized “Having a Coke with You” for not only the utopian possibilities, but also the intimacy, the between-personesses, that verse contains. “Having a Coke with You,” Muñoz contends,

tells us of a quotidian act, having a Coke with somebody, that signifies a vast lifeworld of queer relationality, an encrypted sociality, and a utopian potentiality. The quotidian act of sharing a Coke, consuming a common commodity with a beloved with whom one shares secret smiles, trumps fantastic moments in the history of art. Though the poem is clearly about the present, it is a present that is now squarely the past and in its queer relationality promises a future. The fun of having a Coke is a mode of exhilaration in which one views a restructured sociality. (6-7)

The exhilarated queer intimacy is evident in O’Hara’s poetic, and especially so in a poem like “Having a Coke with You,” where the utopian future of a very gay relationship between two men, one infused with both sexual and aesthetic concerns, is, seemingly, only a page away. But so many of O’Hara’s most intimate poems are positioned between the poet and women, celebrities, such as Billie Holiday or Lana Turner, or close friends, such as Bunny Lang or Grace Hartigan, the latter of whom is especially intriguing to me now, at a time in my own life where I cannot shake the romantic friendships I have been having with women all along.

A few years into their budding romance — I do not know what else to call it — O’Hara writes this little poem to Grace Hartigan:

For Grace, After a Party
            You do not always know what I am feeling.
Last night in the warm spring air while I was
blazing my tirade against someone who doesn’t
            me, it was love for you that set me
            and isn’t it odd? for in rooms full of
strangers my most tender feelings
                                                            writhe and
bear the fruit of screaming. Put out your hand,
isn’t there
            an ashtray, suddenly, there? beside
the bed? And someone you love enters the room
and says wouldn’t
                                    you like the eggs a little
different today?
                        And when they arrive they are
just plain scrambled eggs and the warm weather
is holding.

Muñoz poignantly speaks to the queer relationality (and utopia) of a poem like “Having a Coke with You,” but I’m curious now, what is that queer relationality when the poet turns to writing about how his “most tender feelings / writhe and / bear the fruit of screaming” not for a male body, the expected object(s) of his sexual desire, but for a female friend, one with whom he often quarreled as a lover might quarrel, with whom he often collaborated, traveled, and for whom he confessed a romantic love?

To put it simply: what happens when a gay man has a crush on a woman? The poem itself admits the feelings from (homosexual) O’Hara to (heterosexual) Hartigan4 are quite surprising; perhaps this is especially so considering O’Hara’s better known poems like “Having a Coke with You,” which are markedly homosexual in their desiring. Yet, O’Hara is not satisfied to live in the completely static, dystopic terrain of the homo-hetero binary and begins by dispelling what is expected of him and his desire: “You do not always know what I am feeling.” If “Having a Coke with You” brings homosexual desiring to the quotidian, surely “For Grace, After a Party,” queers the quotidian between a homo- and heterosexual. This quotidian nature is evident when O’Hara, speaking about Hartigan, explains how “someone you love enters the room / and says wouldn’t / you like the eggs a little / different today?” but they end up being “just plain scrambled eggs.” Gooch points to this everydayness of their relationship, explaining O’Hara “and Hartigan became pals — often talking on the phone about parties, art, boyfriends. They shared an enthusiasm for movies, as well as for fanzines” (212). And yet, the desiring is not solely quotidian, and the poem is not satisfied to rest on the everydayness alone.

If queer theory, as it seems, is often unwilling to take up the subject of romantic love as potentially possessing a sense of meaningful futurity, queer poetry may be an apt genre to fill this lack. I cannot shake, and this is a good thing, the potentiality through intimate coupling Muñoz sees possible, one that supports his claims on queer collectivity. In “For Grace, After a Party,” O’Hara is initially coy about his feelings for Hartigan: “Last night in the warm spring air while I was / blazing my tirade against someone who doesn’t / interest / me, it was love for you that set me / afire, / and isn’t it odd?” But the poem, harkening back to the sonnet form, contains a turning volta where the poet becomes more explicit about his strange feelings, describing Hartigan, matter-of-factly, as “someone you love.” Love is not, despite the fact Hartigan and O’Hara slept with other people, sometimes the same men, an inaccurate, albeit strange with queer potentiality, adjective to describe the feelings between the two. Hartigan explains, “We fell in love… I think Frank as a homosexual was really unusual in his amount of love for a few women…that’s something I’ve never encountered” (Gooch 212). The sentiment here, through both O’Hara’s poem and Hartigan’s proclamation, is breathtaking; I know many contemporary queer theorists would be all-too-quick to dismiss it, rolling their eyes and heaving a heavy sigh, but what I see, a sight the work of Muñoz has made viable, is a great potentiality for a very human, queer futurity.

Because the poem gets read again and again after O’Hara’s premature death in 1966, the queer coupling of man and woman, O’Hara and Hartigan, becomes wrought and rewrought in a horizon of futurity the poem itself — where the “warm weather / is holding” and continues to hold indefinitely — can certainly imagine, a historical horizon that will come to include Stonewall, the AIDS crisis, the proliferation of queer theory in the academy, and the ongoing fight for queer recognition in both the neoliberal marketplace and body politic. As we understand it through the poem, O’Hara and Hartigan’s kinship is not unlike the relationship Sedgwick had with the gay poet Michael Lynch, a relationship understood through matching eyeglasses the two intimates wore and memorialized through Sedgwick’s MLA address and subsequent essay “White Glasses.” Therein, Sedgwick — with her breath crushing upon what could only be called romantic love — questions their identities:

And the I who met Michael and fell in love with his white glasses? It was nobody simpler than the handsome and complicated poet and scholar I met in him; it was a queer but long-married young woman whose erotic and intellectual life were fiercely transitive, shaped by a thirst for knowledges and identifications that might cross the barriers of what seemed my identity. (253)

We have already learned Shakespeare’s sonnets are about the love one feels for inappropriate objects.5 Though the love is quotidian, how revolutionary, how queer, indeed, it must be for O’Hara to write to Hartigan “it was love for you that set me afire.” And further still, the queer marriage — because the idea of queer marriage seems much more queer here instead of the homo coupling we see all around us today — bed of Lynch and Sedgwick, which opens a space for desire on the horizon; “When I am in bed with Michael,” Sedgwick claims, “our white glasses line up neatly on the night table and I always fantasy that I may walk away wearing the wrong ones” (257).

Despite calls to assimilate, queers’ love for inappropriate objects might yet be all around us today, in these strange days of neoliberal ideology, too. Lisa Duggan warns of the ability for certain queer bodies to integrate towards straightness because “greater acceptance of the most assimilated, gender-appropriate, politically mainstream portions of the gay population has already occurred — in politics, media presentations, and the workplace — since the mid-1990s especially” (44). Where Duggan sees a pessimism necessitated by neoliberalism, however, I am beginning to see a day-glo optimism of potentiality. Thus, I am curious: are the queer utopias we see in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, arguably, and unabashedly in the dyads of both O’Hara-Hartigan and Sedgwick-Lynch, a model for the queerest relationship one can have in the twenty-first century? Robert McRuer argues that “if contemporary queer work is articulated to the idea of a collective movement or renaissance . . . it might be seen as disrupting or transforming the straight narrative and business as usual” (2). Thus, is a relationship between a gay man and a beloved woman, an ally in aesthetic and cause and living, one of truly queer potential?

The boy on whom I currently crush, a seemingly gay man with a girlfriend, claims his relationship as revolutionarily queer. For months, I have laughed or rolled my eyes at this. Now, however, I question: can I believe — both emotionally and theoretically — what he claims, having thought upon the work of O’Hara and later Sedgwick, both of whom may support his assertion? Can I believe this, despite the slippage of my own crush on him? I turn now to the poetic exercise — trained first as a poet and then as a theorist — to try and make sense of this, a triad of sonnets harkening back to Shakespeare on the affections of O’Hara, Sedgwick, and myself. The trying will not result in any hard or fast answer, of course — queerness is always on the horizon. And yet, it is not in vain. We can at least conclude this: there is queer potential for futurity in these bodies, a queerness that must be at once capacious, while not leaving behind the very real bodies and antiheteronormativity they envisage. A queerness that is both then and now and yet to be.


I. Winter, 1952
Frank O’Hara walks into an office, complaining.
Save yourself, the Psychiatrist tells the Poet,
You can’t do anything about your mother.
In queer time, Frank replaces her with Grace
Hartigan, firecracker formerly on the periphery
of the New York School painters O’Hara
considered his closest friends. She swiftly
becomes the subject of a short poem:
“For Grace, After a Party,” where Frank tells
her, it was love for you that set me / afire,
/ and isn’t it odd? for in rooms full of / strangers
my most tender feelings / writhe and bear
the fruit of screaming. The faggot, dear Frank,
has a crush on a woman, and isn’t it odd?

II. Winter, 1986
It is fate: Eve Sedgwick meets Michael Lynch
at the 1986 MLA Convention. She crushes
hard, first on the signature thick, white glasses
upon his face, rushing to buy a matching pair,
and then quickly on the man behind the specs—
Michael, the poet succumbing to AIDS. Spring
comes. They fall in love. They lie together
and Eve, returning to Eden, the queer garden,
that which is always in the future, pontificates—
When I am in bed with Michael, our white glasses
line up neatly on the night table and I always
fantasy that I may walk away wearing the wrong
ones. Eve is married, yet denies no one, not
Adam, nor Michael, nor the woman bearing white.

III. Winter, 2013
And isn’t odd? When I walk into a classroom,
I sit next to a different Michael? That he smiles
at me? That I read O’Hara & Sedgwick as I crush
into him, into this gay boy with an eight month
girlfriend? That I cannot touch him or be touched,
so I take him in the daylight to a coffee shop?
That when I sit across from him as he reads,
I pretend to read, too, but instead read the map
that is his eyelashes and cheekbones and lips?
That I cannot tell where the map two boys
are reading will end? That when he removes
his glasses and places them next to my own
on the table between us, that I, for a moment,
dream I will walk away wearing the wrong ones?


1In fact, it is often said of O’Hara’s work that the poems could easily have just been letters, postcards, or phone calls made from the poet to his friends, lovers, and intimates.

2Or in the very least, I hope earlier, from the beginning of poetry. I never want to give Shakespeare the credit for having invented the human and thus the world, as some scholars have been apt to do.

3See also the litany of scholars working to “queer” a Shakespeare that existed way before any modern sense of queerness as sexuality. Menon’s (problematic, to euphemize best I can) introduction to the collection Shakesqueer is but one prominent example.

4I realize these binaries are perhaps reductive, but the critical and biographical work done on both figures seems to point to these identities as rather static throughout their respective lifetimes.

5See page 319 of Aranye Fradenburg’s “Momma’s Boy” in Madhavi Menon’s Shakesqueer.

Works Cited

Duggan, Lisa. The Twilight of Equality? Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy. Boston: Beacon, 2003. Print.

Fradenburg, Aranye. “Momma’s Boy.” Shakesqueer: A Queer Companion to the Complete Works of Shakespeare. Ed Madhavi Menon. Durham, Duke University Press, 2011. 319-27. Print.

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

McRuer, Robert. The Queer Renaissance: Contemporary American Literature and the Reinvention of Lesbian and Gay Identities. New York: New York University Press, 1997. Print.

Menon, Madhavi, ed. Shakesqueer: A Queer Companion to the Complete Works of Shakespeare. Durham, Duke University Press, 2011. Print.

Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: NYUP, 2009. Print.

O’Hara, Frank. Selected Poems. Mark Ford, ed. New York: Knopf, 2008. Print.

Sedgwick, Eve. “White Glasses.” Tendencies. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993. 252-56. Print.

Stockton, Will. “Shakespeare and Queer Theory.” Review of Shakesqueer: A Queer Companion to the Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. Madhavi Menon. Shakespeare Quarterly 63.2 (2012): 224-35. Print.

This text was accepted for publication after an anonymous peer review process.
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