O'Hara, Blackness, and the Primitive

By Stoneley, Peter | Twentieth Century Literature, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

O'Hara, Blackness, and the Primitive


Stoneley, Peter, Twentieth Century Literature


Since the publication of Brad Gooch's City Poet: The Lye and Times of Frank O'Hara (1993), those who care to know about the poet's personal life will know that O'Hara had an interest in sexual encounters with seemingly heterosexual African-American men. Among the anecdotes of his adventures in the 1950s, Gooch relates that O'Hara invited the black postman into his apartment for sex, and he fellated a black token clerk in a change booth in Queens (195-96). O'Hara cast the black man in an emphatically sexual role, and this was also a significant feature of the poetry. He frequently wrote of the black man as a fundamentally--even a violently--sexual being. This is given a primitivist or "rite of spring" treatment in the early poem, "Easter' which contains the invocation:

  Black bastard black prick black pirate whose cheek
  batters the heavenly heart
  and signs its purple in the ribs of nightly explosion (99)

These lines and comparable lines in other poems have been taken as offensive racist cliches. It is easy to see why Aldon Lynn Nielsen, among others, has written of "an imagined aura of primal eroticism" (222) in O'Hara's writing of black men. (1) O'Hara identifies a racial or ethnic group that, in its perceived backwardness, comes to stand for an identity that is bold, "pure" or unhybridized, and unselfconsciously sensual. He expresses frustration with his own classed and acculturated white self, and he imagines that the visceral power of the black man will disrupt him and force him towards a new beginning.

Without wishing to remove the lines from the realms of the racist, a qualification might be ventured on the grounds that there is here, as so often in O'Hara's poems, an ironic sense of quotation and "assemblage." Even as he conjures with his primitive other, there is an awareness that this figure too is a symptom of acculturation, a further set of received images and scenarios. He adopts a primitivist mode familiar to him from canonical modern art: the painting of Picasso; Stravinsky's music; the writing of Stein, Lawrence, and others. But O'Hara knew that to engage with the primitive was also to enter into a more popular and domestic cultural routine. In a poem of 1951, "The Poet in the Attic," the boy "Frank" fantasizes a masturbatory panorama of "Zanzibar," "Nubian niggers," and "French sailors" (37). Crucially, this escape into the foreign does not actually take him beyond the family home. What he imagines as "bracelets worn/by mahouts" are in fact "grandpa's teeth," and his association of sex with primitive others is traced directly back to standard US family reading: "He slides warmly o'er the world/on nationally geographic carpets." National Geographic began publication in 1888 as a specialist academic journal, but by the early twentieth century it had become a bestselling mainstream publication. With its photographs of unclothed "natives," it was a byword for a legitimized white American sexual voyeurism. It was, according to Rothenberg, "America's source of wholesome exotica and erotica" (3) .

Although the sexual element of National Geographic is usually assumed to be present in photographs showing the breasts of women of other races, it bears noting that the issues of the journal both for the period of O'Hara's boyhood and the period in which he wrote "The Poet in the Attic" have a great many more photographs of unclothed dark male bodies. Similarly in the cinema, as film historian Richard Dyer has shown, it was quite rare in this period "to see a white man naked," while non-white male bodies were "routinely on display" in the western, the plantation drama, and the jungle adventure film (146). Across a range of media, inviting a heterosexual or a homoerotic gaze, primitivism was a widely-shared practice of projecting desires and fears. It was a cultural mechanism that elicited and contained that which was inherent to the norm, but which could not be recognized as such. …

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