- Frank O’Hara and the Poetics of the Digital
We are poised to leave behind the most comprehensive everyday record of ourselves in human history. The sheer volume of that archive—enabled by the software innovations of Web 2.0—increasingly pushes the limits of discerning categorization while showing no sign of abating. As Lev Manovich has remarked, it seems “only a matter of time before the constant broadcasting of one’s life becomes as common as email.”1 Indeed, for those involved in lifelogging and sousveillance (or inverse surveillance), advances in wearable computing and biometric sensing technology have already made Manovich’s prediction a daily reality. Inhabiting the extreme edges of our cultural compulsion toward self-reporting, lifeloggers and those in the Quantified Self movement have not only made long-running theoretical concerns with panopticism seem suddenly antiquated, but must in turn have something quite profound to tell us about the ways in which our conceptions of personhood and social belonging have evolved (and continue to evolve) within new theaters of the self across the arc of technological modernity.2
Over the past few years, my curiosity regarding the origins and assumptions of compulsive personal narration and voluntary self-tracking sparked a scholarly interest in the poetry of Frank O’Hara, for I began to suspect that his poetics might somehow be implicated within the past half century of that history. At the very least, so I believed, O’Hara’s ability to transform the details of his life into an involved and involving poetics of the self might help engender a series of pertinent questions regarding the emergence and characteristics of life narration within social media. His poetry struck me as particularly suited to this purpose for two reasons. The first might be discovered in O’Hara’s own description of his poems—in “Getting Up Ahead of Someone (Sun)” (1959)—as “I do this, I do that” poems, which appear to simply chronicle the events of his life and of those around him in a way that is roughly equivalent to a Facebook [End Page 45] update.3 Benjamin Lee has similarly noted that the recent scholarly resurgence of O’Hara’s popularity might be attributed not only to the interests of queer theory but also to the “era of text messages and social networking. This is, after all, the poet who claimed to have invented his own poetic philosophy when, one day after lunch with a friend and while writing a poem for a lover, he realized that ‘if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem.’”4 O’Hara offered this insight in 1959’s “Personism: A Manifesto,” composed upon the request of Donald Allen for inclusion in The New American Poetry (1960). Allen immediately deemed “Personism” a faux manifesto, compromised by O’Hara’s affinity for humor, and requested a new poetic statement that eventually took the more conventional form of “Statement for The New American Poetry” (1960). To this day, however, O’Hara’s mock manifesto remains the more intriguing document precisely because of his quip regarding the telephone, a witticism that speaks to the ways in which information and communication technologies had already begun to restructure expressive practices and our conceptions of social life. The offhand, conversational style of O’Hara’s poetry bears the imprint of such transformations—as does his standing as a coterie poet highly dependent upon a collective of fellow artists and friends for both personal support and creative inspiration. Responding to what they understood as conformist or herdlike tendencies within 1950s culture, O’Hara and other members of the postwar avant-garde chose to inhabit particular or defined “scenes,” alternative venues of association that now enable us to glimpse a revealing example of what we commonly call social networking as it existed just prior to the technological transformations of the digital era.
As O’Hara’s poetics continue to resonate deeply within the discursive forms structuring so much of our digital, everyday lives, I decided to include several of his poems in a course that I was teaching on technology and literature. Immediately following my recitation of “The Day...