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On Queer Joy with Frank O’Hara

Joy, to me, feels inherently queer. 

Over the past years I have come to a strange realisation: there is nothing more radical and exciting than peace. When I was younger I’d always thought that pride was supposed to be a rush, something exciting and intense, but in fact it is the opposite. It’s stillness; stillness within your body, your relationships, and the space you occupy. No one expresses this better than Frank O’Hara. 

To me, he is the perfect poet. He is a wonderful example of a writer who can ground his work in such a strong sense of place and mood without hiding behind lyricism. His love poems are my favourite; they are so accessible in terms of language, but express the poignancy and profundity of loving someone in such a beautiful way. The first one I read was ‘Having a coke with you’ and it absolutely floored me. 

it is hard to believe when I’m with you that there can be anything as still

as solemn as unpleasantly definitive as statuary when right in front of it

in the warm New York 4 o’clock light we are drifting back and forth

between each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles

This poem recounts love in a way that seemed impossible to me; that love can be easy, and calm. O’Hara writes how it can show itself in simple things, like sharing a coke, or wandering the streets in the afternoon light, or watching your partner stand by a tree ‘when the sun sank’. 

Growing up queer, you’re taught that to love is to suffer. Lesbian period dramas pollute you, and your favourite gay books are desperately sad. It’s likely that if you happened to have a queer relationship in your teens (something which most of us never got to experience), it was probably fraught and difficult and, oftentimes, secret. I simply couldn’t fathom the idea that it could be any different. I thought peace was reserved for the type of person who could love unquestioned; a type of person I could never be. This poem was the first time I had ever been shown otherwise, and it remains one of my all-time favourites. 

I felt something similar when I read Steps a little while later. I remember reading the last few lines and feeling completely overwhelmed.

oh god it’s wonderful

to get out of bed

and drink too much coffee

and smoke too many cigarettes

and love you so much

Once again, these lines just embody the idea that loving another person can bring you peace; a concept completely alien to me at the time. However, upon a second reading, these last few lines possibly do not even refer to another person. The ‘you’ could be the city of New York, the adored setting of most of O’Hara’s poems. In a way, I prefer this reading – it moves away from the idea that your queerness has to be activated by somebody else. While that act of sharing is a truly beautiful thing, your queerness should rather be defined by your capacity to love someone that way, and how you identify yourself, something which has always lived inside of you, growing as you have grown. It moves away from relying on that love from another person, and instead paints this kind of joy as something personal, something that you can find internally instead of externally. This reading paints queer joy as finding comfort in yourself; actually loving your life and being happy in your surroundings. For me, queer joy is to love a city and have it love you back, to exist in an environment in which you are celebrated, a feeling which (whilst extending beyond it) feels uniquely situated to queerness. Most of my friends grew up feeling displaced, and it has only been since they have moved away to different cities where there is actually space for them to exhale, they can expand into themselves. It’s a lovely thing to witness. 

Frank O’Hara showed me, for the very first time, what queer joy could actually look like. Let him do the same for you.