The following is an excerpt from a conference presentation I did on Frank O’Hara’s poem “Ave Maria.” I didn’t get booed off the stage, nor did I accidentally fall off of it, so I thought I’d commemorate the moment by putting this here.
I went on my first date when I was sixteen. I was a gay kid who had recently come out in a small town in rural Michigan, so it’s kind of a miracle that I could get a date at all. Being the romantic kid I was (and which I tragically remain), I had embarrassingly high expectations of my suitor, a boy named Oliver whom I had never met. He was a helpful friend’s gay cousin who lived an hour away, practically next door by Midwestern standards. When he pulled up to the agreed upon meeting place—a pizzeria parking lot— I saw that he was older and odder than he’d been described. He had an early-Beatles bowlcut and drove a very rusty red Mustang that was probably supposed to impress me, but which just made me a bit nervous.
Our plan had been to go to a movie theater in the next county, but the Mustang broke down in a field a couple miles out of town. It simply stopped, somewhat suspiciously. Oliver turned to me with a semi-embarrassed smirk and a nervous swish of his bowlcut, and said, “So here we are.” That’s when I knew the date was going nowhere, literally or otherwise.
As he walked to a farmhouse to call AAA and I started walking the five miles home, I was actually in a really good mood. Of course, I had no way of knowing that this would just be the first in a lifetime of disappointing dates. At that moment, though, I felt like a new creature. I felt like I had briefly stepped through the beaded curtain into the back room of the video store: I had seen the world that I had heard whispered about, that I had been warned against, and in which I knew I belonged.
When I got home, my mother asked where I had been and I made something up. I don’t know why; she knew I was gay and probably would have been relatively okay with the idea of me dating. But it seemed better and, honestly, more exciting to keep it a secret. It was my experience, mine alone, and I felt powerful and adult. Yeah, I could have been kidnapped or assaulted or who knows what, but I wasn’t, so I felt like I had accomplished something, even mastered something. My mother, a smart woman, knew that I was lying, but being a smart woman, she let me have my lie.
It was several years later, in college, that I discovered Frank O’Hara’s “Ave Maria.” Being young and in the full vanity of my own experience, I identified with it completely. I didn’t see the satire in it; I thought it was an honest, earnest exhortation to mothers like mine, telling them to allow their sons and daughters, especially the queer ones like me, to figure out who and what they were in the dark of the movie theater.
I eventually realized that O’Hara’s tongue was somewhere near his cheek when he wrote the poem. From the profane wink of the title to the histrionic guilt trip of the end, O’Hara knew that the mothers of America probably wouldn’t rush to get on board his plan for their kids’ potential sexual awakenings. Even in 1960, before Amber Alerts and Nancy Grace and our culture’s obsession with sexual predation and the vulnerability of children, the argument of “Ave Maria” – that parents acknowledge and accept the sexual agency of their children – would have been beyond the pale. And now? If you were to post this poem on a parenting forum on the internet, you’d have the police called on you.
But beneath the satire and the elegant irony, I think there’s an earnest heart, which can be said about most of O’Hara’s work. Yes, he’s joking, but in that joke, he’s celebrating both the desire and danger that are inherent in probably any teenage sexual experience, but are especially fundamental to the queer life. The gay teenager knows that different rules apply to him or her, and a different life awaits, one that is independent and separate, possibly full of secrets, and purely one’s own. O’Hara, odd optimist that he was, painted that life as gorgeous, gratuitous, Heaven on Earth.
That’s why the mothers must let their kids go to the movies. The poem doesn’t live in the park or the grocery store, but in front of a screen bright with glamorous, far-off places. Fantasy has always been a major part of the queer experience, even now, as reality becomes less hostile than it was. We still want to live in a world better than the world that is. In many ways, “Ave Maria” is a paean to the movie house, temple of the imagination. The mind is where all sex truly starts and where, for better or worse, most of it ends.
Frank O’Hara’s importance to me, and the reason I think he remains relevant, is his way of swimming just below the surface. He is superbly ironic, but always honest, and even surprisingly earnest if you look closely enough. It’s a difficult balance that only the finest poets, now or then, have managed to pull off.
I was shocked when I considered how much of my own work seems to be inspired by “Ave Maria.” I hadn’t realized how thoroughly that poem had gotten into me. Like O’Hara,I’m interested in agency, in how people become themselves, often with the help of actors on screen showing them how. I think that, wherever we’re from, we’re the products of Hollywood: both the Hollywood a few freeways from everywhere, and the weird Hollywood of our hearts, where we make the movies we want to live.