‘Donc le poète est vraiment voleur du feu’: Frank O’Hara and the Poetics of Love and Theft
The title of this chapter is a form of collage, an appropriation and an assimilation, intended to reflect both ‘the stolen hearts and emotional misdemeanours’,2 and the heisting of cultural and contextual materials, which permeate O’Hara’s compositional process. O’Hara steals what he loves, and loves what he steals, and the result is usually a remarkable collage of ideas, moments, quotations, emotions, thoughts, and situations, both his own and those originating in other people, enacting Gregory Ulmer’s notion of collage as ‘a kind of theft which violates “property” in every sense’.3 This chapter’s title is itself, of course, the latest in a genealogy of violated property: for the most part it is borrowed from Bob Dylan’s 2001 album, Love and Theft, the title of which was in turn taken from Eric Lott’s 1993 publication, Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, which was itself a riff on Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel, published in 1960. The quotation – ‘thus the poet is truly the thief of fire’ – comes from a letter written by Arthur Rimbaud to George Izambard in 1871, which is often used as a preface to Illuminations. The letter, with its evocatively primal image of the poet as a thief of fire – as a kind of Prometheus figure – resounds with the passion and unpredictability of O’Hara’s poetry, with its lived qualities, with
the sense that in his writing he was stealing something back from the literary gods, and also with the impression that his writing is unequivocally enmeshed with the authority of witness.