Present Tense is a new column by Sheila O’Malley that reflects on the intersections of film, literature, art, and culture.

“You, Motion Picture Industry,
it’s you I love!”

—Frank O’Hara, “To the Film Industry in Crisis”

When Frank O’Hara died in 1966 at the tragically young age of 40, the New York Times obituary headline read: “Exhibitions Aide at Modern Art Dies – Also a Poet.” This is delightfully absurd, in retrospect: there’s nothing “also” about it! But O’Hara might have agreed with the assessment. After taking a job as a clerk at MoMA, he eventually became assistant curator, putting together a number of important shows. O’Hara wrote poems in his free time, tossing them into drawers, using them as bookmarks. He’d come to New York in the ’50s, after stints in the Navy and at Harvard. He was a great champion of other people’s work—and movie-mad from a very young age.

Movie stars traipse through O’Hara’s poems, used as comparison (“in it a tall dark figure / sits up like Asta Nielsen in Hamlet”), wielded as similes (“How funny you are today New York / like Ginger Rogers in Swingtime”), or showing up as they show up to all of us, as looming public figures. The movies are a part of our lives, and O’Hara acknowledges this:

Subways are only fun when you’re feeling sexy
and who feels sexy after The Blue Angel
well maybe a little

His poems are filled with his friends’ movie-chatter: “All of us understand why Lucille Ball is such a success.” “As Marilyn Monroe says, it’s a responsibility being a sexual symbol.” “Who do you think you are, anyway? Jo Van Fleet?” To O’Hara, movies help categorize experience. If you can point to a moment in a movie and say, “Yes. I have felt that,” then you are not alone. Walter Benjamin called the movies a “simultaneous collective experience” (making it unique from other art forms), and that’s what O’Hara captures. In “Rhapsody,” he runs into his friend Gianni and…

I know he’s thinking of John Ericson
playing the Rachmaninoff 2nd or Elizabeth Taylor
taking sleeping-pills

Everyone O’Hara knows has seen the same movies (in this case, 1954’s Rhapsody) and there’s comfort and excitement in that collective.

On the flip side is O’Hara’s comment in his 1954 poem “In the Movies”: “I bought a ticket so I could be alone.” Seeking solitude in a movie theater was code, though, code that O’Hara cracks: for him as a gay man in the Eisenhower era, the movies were a place of possible sexual activity. After all, the poem isn’t called “At the Movies.” He’s “alone” “in the movies” “with my own prick / and with my death written in smoke.” Solitude and danger. Furtive touch, eyes on the screen. The private and the public blur, it’s all the same experience, and O’Hara really got this in a way few writers did (or, at least, were willing to acknowledge.) From “In the Movies”:

And we depend on the screen for accompaniment,
it’s mirrors
its music
because I’ve left everything behind but a leaf
and now a dark hand lifts that from my thighs.

All of this informs one of O’Hara’s greatest poems on the movies, “Ave Maria,” which opens with the clarion call: “Mothers of America / let your kids go to the movies!” Why? Because at the movies children may have “their first sexual experience / which only cost you a quarter / and didn’t upset the peaceful home.” He makes his case: “It’s true that fresh air is good for the body / but what about the soul that grows in darkness embossed by silvery images.” This is one of the most accurate depictions in literature of what actually goes on “in the movies.” In his 1959 mock-manifesto “Personism,” O’Hara wrote, “And after all, only Whitman and Crane and Williams, of the American poets, are better than the movies.”

This remains an extremely provocative line, especially from a poet. He meant to provoke, also saying: “Too many poets act like a middle-aged mother trying to get her kids to eat too much cooked meat, and potatoes with drippings (tears). I don’t give a damn whether they eat or not.” O’Hara found abstraction intriguing, and he loved ideas, even “lofty” ones, but what he didn’t like—and what he was trying to combat—was writers writing at a “remove.” O’Hara hated remove. The movies, like almost no other art, obliterate “remove.”

You can see O’Hara’s awareness of this in his early poem “An Image of Leda,” a spin on Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan,” which opens with “The cinema is cruel / like a miracle.” When the lights go down, we are attacked, not by a rapist swan, but by the light on the screen:

limbs quicken even
to disgrace under
this white eye as
if there were real
pleasure in loving
a shadow and caress-
ing a disguise!

This is O’Hara’s version of Hamlet’s question: “What’s Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba / That he should weep for her?” We go to the movies, and we know the story is not real, but still we “weep for” Hecuba. The moment is fake and real, simultaneously.

O’Hara wasn’t the first poet to weave movie references into his work. Vachel Lindsay did it. Hart Crane did it, famously, in “To Brooklyn Bridge” when he wrote,“I think of cinemas, panoramic sleights…” However, the 20th century’s new art form was generally dismissed as a topic not worthy of literature. O’Hara broke all kinds of rules, in particular with his obsessive focus on actors. In 1955, O’Hara was so rocked by the death of James Dean, he wrote a number of desolate odes to the actor, one of which reads:

I take up
the nourishment of his pale green eyes,
out of which I shall prevent
flowers from drowning, your flowers.

Such poems were very controversial when they were published in 1956, bringing howls of outrage for their “necrophilia.” Once again, the question of “remove” is relevant. If “remove” is seen as the desired state, at least for an adult, then what is to be done with O’Hara? There is still some residue of this condescending attitude in contemporary writing about O’Hara. One of his most famous poems is known as “Lana Turner Has Collapsed.” In it, he begs Lana, prostrate in the pages of a tabloid mag: “oh Lana Turner we love you get up.”

I’ve read analysis framing the “Lana” poem as ambivalent and self-mocking. But let’s imagine for a moment it’s not. Let’s imagine O’Hara saw the headline “LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED” and grabbed the newspaper, thinking, with no self-mockery whatsoever: No! Lana’s sick? This can’t be! Let’s imagine that when O’Hara says “Lana Turner, we love you” he actually means it. There’s a reluctance to consider that O’Hara might have not been mocking at all, that he knew that Lana—that James Dean—has great meaning, and when something happens to them the shared grief of fans could generate enough power to light the Eastern seaboard. O’Hara knows that there is “real pleasure” in “loving a shadow” and “caressing a disguise.” It might be the best pleasure of all. The soul grows in darkness.

Sheila O’Malley is a regular film critic for and other outlets including The Criterion Collection. Her blog is The Sheila Variations.