What is the meaning of the word "camp" in relation to Frank O'Hara's poetry?

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Francis Russell "Frank" O'Hara (March 27, 1926–July 25, 1966) was a poet and curator at the Museum of Modern Art. He was prominent in the New York City art scene and part of what is known as the New York School. His poems were strongly autobiographical and reflected the nature...

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Francis Russell "Frank" O'Hara (March 27, 1926–July 25, 1966) was a poet and curator at the Museum of Modern Art. He was prominent in the New York City art scene and part of what is known as the New York School. His poems were strongly autobiographical and reflected the nature of the gay community in New York in the period.

The term "camp" refers to a certain style that is ironic and parodic, glorying in extravagantly bad taste. Perhaps the work that most defined the camp aesthetic was the 1964 essay subsequently expanded to a book by Susan Sontag, "Notes on 'Camp'". In the New York art world, camp was especially associated with the gay community and included phenomena such as drag queens. Often camp culture celebrated the excesses of Hollywood femininity, but in an ironic way; Marilyn Monroe, Tallulah Bankhead, Bette Davis, and Marlene Dietrich often appeared in camp poems and art as iconic images of femininity and were often imitated in cross-dressing, with their sexuality very much exaggerated.

In O'Hara's work, the camp styles of swish and drag portray the gay male sensibility as effeminate but in a way that affirmed gender bending rather than castigating it. This acceptance of gay non-binary masculinity in O'Hara's work and his references to popular culture as appropriated by the gay community serve as a subversive critique of the gender roles of his period.

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The Oxford English Dictionary (according to the article on “camp” cited below)

gives 1909 as the first print citation of camp as "ostentatious, exaggerated, affected, theatrical; effeminate or homosexual; pertaining to, characteristic of, homosexuals".

Although the word “camp” later came to have much broader meanings – meanings not always associated with homosexuals – the meaning quoted above fits much of the work produced by the American poet Frank O’Hara. The word “camp” continues to suggest anything that seems “ostentatious, exaggerated, affected, [and] theatrical,” especially if these traits also seem deliberate, humorous, ironic, and defiant. Things or works that seem “camp” are usually written in mockery or defiance of sober, serious, middle-class culture.

In all these ways and for all these reasons, O’Hara’s poem “At Kamin’s Dance Bookshop” might be considered a particularly “campy” poem. Although the poem seems to celebrate a famous nineteenth-century Austrian ballerina, it was dedicated to O’Hara’s male lover, Vincent Warren, a handsome New York ballet dancer. Elements of "camp" seem apparent almost immediately:

Shade of Fanny Elssler! I dreamt that you passed over

me last night in sleep

was it you who was fast asleep or was it me? sweet shade

shade shade shill spade agony freak

geek you were not nor were you made of ribbons but

of warm moving flesh & tulle

you were twining your left leg around your right as if

your right were me

I’ve never felt so wide awake

Among the elements of “camp” in these lines are the following:

  • The poem opens with an exclamation about a ballet dancer – the kind of exclamation one might stereotypically associate (in a male speaker) with an effeminate male homosexual. O’Hara is obviously mocking this old stereotype by embracing it. He is having fun with the stereotype by playing into it and up to it. Indeed, the whole tone of this poem is playful and non-serious, and it is this very refusal to take things seriously that helps to make the poem seem “campy.” The poem seems even funnier if we assume that the speaker is not really imagining Fanny Elsller at all but instead is using this pretense as a way to express erotic feelings for Vincent Warren.
  • The “campy” playfulness involves not only what is said but the exaggeration implied by the tone. The poem is also playful in the way it dispenses with such standard elements of a “serious” poem as predictable meter, predictable line length, predictable stanza form, or predictable anything. The poem is in part a joyful joke, and it is partly its jokiness that makes it “campy.”
  • Particularly playful and campy is the flood of similar-sounding words that begins at the end of line 3 and extends to the beginning of line 5. Here the speaker is largely and simply playing with sounds.
  • Other aspects of “camp” in these quoted lines involve the fairly explicit allusions to flesh and suggestions of sexual arousal: “warm moving flesh . . . / you were twining your left leg around your right as if / . . . your right were me.” Such phrasing, especially in a homoerotic context, would have seemed fairly provocative to most of O’Hara’s contemporaries. The poem is “campy” in part, then, because it tries to shock and even offend some of its readers, as the lines that follow the ones just quoted suggest:

I seemed to be wearing tights entwined with your legs

and a big sash over my crotch

 

 

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