My thesis seeks to examine what I identify as the ‘Frank O’Hara phenomenon,’ the way in which Frank O’Hara – not only his poetry, but his image, his body and his biography – has been seized upon by the culture of both his own milieu and today’s popular culture. I am interested in the way O’Hara, poet and curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, has himself been curated, commodified and consumed. Within this framework, I attend to O’Hara as a bio-icon, borrowing from Bishnupriya Ghosh’s coinage of the term in her book Global Icons. In examining how O’Hara has become a widely-circulating icon of exceptional symbolic density, the term ‘bio-icon’ is particularly germane. It encapsulates both the bio element (the ‘life-story’ of O’Hara, a poet characterised by an aesthetic of flux, movement, spontaneity and flamboyant flâneurism), and the icon element (the cultural ‘framing’ of O’Hara as an artefact, transforming him into a familiar sign laden with symbolic density).
My investigation into the material narratives surrounding O’Hara is grounded by the underlying theme of myth, which I argue is a social narrative act, highly mutable and subject to reappropriation; but importantly for O’Hara, also a strategy for self-construction. Chapter One sets out the historiographical problem that my thesis seeks to address: the insistent tangling of biography, constructed myth and poetry that often characterises any account of O’Hara’s literary merit and his legacy. The chapter introduces the mechanics of mythologisation, setting up the theoretical and historical frameworks that govern my examination of O’Hara as a bio-icon. In the next three chapters, I examine three crucial strands of the O’Hara mythology, arguing that each is constructed around a motif or trope upon which the mythologising of O’Hara depends: the telephone, the city of New York, and death of the poet. Each of these three mythemes garners its affective power through the combination of a photographic or artistic image that echoes the motifs in the poet’s own work and is reiterated in the stories told about him. Yet, these very tropes and techniques which O’Hara uses to sustain his image and narrative operate brilliantly, at the same time, as an undercurrent that perturbs the glossy surface of ‘Frank O’Hara’ as he is most well-known. Thus, O’Hara’s poetry ultimately works to unravel the threads of his own reputation, and it is this subversive dissonance that imbues his poetry with its unique resonance. The process of mythopoiesis itself reveals O’Hara’s poetic interventions to the inadequacies of his cultural and historical moment, in which he was embedded and to which he responded.