Our Truest Loves: On Poetry and Parasocial Relationships




THERE’S A RUSH that I feel when I see actor Adam Driver on screen. It’s a lovely, singular rush, one that few other performers can elicit in me. His face suddenly feels like the only face I’ve ever seen; I hang on his every word. I wonder what he does on set between takes, and what he thinks about during his commute home. We share a moment, I feel. Then, once he leaves the screen, that moment is over. The rush ends.

Yet as real and true as my love for Adam Driver is, I adore him only through my television screen, where he cannot adore me back; as much as I may feel I know him, I do not. Our moment was make-believe. Our love is one-sided, parasocial.

This term, coined by sociologists Richard Wohl and Donald Horton, refers to “intimacy at a distance,” the kind of intimacy I feel when I watch Adam Driver on screen. Screens have made parasocial interaction ubiquitous, creating “the illusion of a face-to-face relationship” with another individual, or persona. As a result, the most “illustrious [personas] are met as if they were in the circle of one’s peers,” despite there being no chance of reciprocity.

Parasocial relationships are not inherently unhealthy, and experts have found that individuals who engage in them “often express appreciation towards their favorite personas for helping them to get through tough times.” The one-sidedness of parasocial relationships may also provide “relief from strained complementary relationships in […] real life.” But when fans fall hard for personas, where is the line between love and obsession?

“True love — or rather, the truest — is always obsessive and unrequited,” poet J. D. McClatchy writes about David Young’s 2004 translation The Poetry of Petrarch. If that’s the case, then parasocial relationships may be some of the truest, for here love is administered bounteously, without no expectation of reciprocity. There is certainly something profoundly poetic about them.

Pining for the beautiful, unknowable woman at mass, as Petrarch pined for Laura de Noves some 700 years ago, may no longer be a common experience — but how far is it from the experience of contemplating the beautiful, unknowable woman on screen?

On-screen personas are not only irresistible as recipients of our affection, but are also ideal poetic subjects. We can neither touch them nor speak to them, we can only capture them in our imaginations, in our art. Stars are ripe for our interpretation — the perfect images and symbols and metaphors. The proof is in the poetry.

Frank O’Hara certainly made strides toward better knowing his favorite screen personas. O’Hara loved the movies very much, declaring in a 1959 manifesto, “[O]nly Whitman and Crane and Williams, of the American poets, are better than the movies.” He loved going to the cinema and sitting in velvety seats, watching dust dance in the spotlight of a backroom projector. But mostly, he loved the beautiful people on the silver screen. For O’Hara, love for performers was as true as any romantic love, or any love of place or family or country.

At the time O’Hara was writing poetry, film, television, and the mediums’ performers were generally dismissed as topics “not worthy of literature,” according to film critic Sheila O’Malley. “O’Hara broke all kinds of rules,” O’Malley writes, “in particular with his obsessive focus on actors.”

In “Poem [Lana Turner has collapsed!],” O’Hara is distressed after learning from a tabloid headline that his beloved actress Lana Turner has lost consciousness at a Hollywood party. He’s worried for her; it must be really serious, since “I have been to lots of parties / and acted perfectly disgraceful / but I never actually collapsed.” Both Turner’s mortality and his own are at the forefront of O’Hara’s mind:

Lana Turner has collapsed!
I was trotting along and suddenly
it started raining and snowing
and you said it was hailing
but hailing hits you on the head
hard so it was really snowing and
raining and I was in such a hurry
to meet you but the traffic
was acting exactly like the sky
and suddenly I see a headline
LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED!
there is no snow in Hollywood
there is no rain in California
I have been to lots of parties
and acted perfectly disgraceful
but I never actually collapsed
oh Lana Turner we love you get up

As O’Malley points out, some may be tempted to — and often do — read the poem’s tone as “ambivalent” or “self-mocking.” But I choose to read the poem as earnest, and the last line always gets me: “oh Lana Turner we love you get up.” I picture Romeo, hunched over an unconscious Juliet — “O my love!”

O’Hara loves Lana Turner, and he very much wants her to be okay. He also sees himself in her, sees the possibility that someday he too may collapse. He feels no shame in any of these feelings, and he immortalizes them in his art. Loving Lana Turner, or any screen persona, can be as intense and inspiring an expeirence as any other form of love.

But Turner was not the only parasocial love of O’Hara’s life. There was also James Dean, for whom the poet pined. This is where the line between healthy and unhealthy affection becomes murkier. Is the distinction between love and obsession only made clear once lust enters the picture? O’Hara’s poems for the recently deceased Dean straddle this line; the poems were so impassioned that they drew accusations of literary necrophilia. He writes as if the two were lovers:

My loins move yet
in the ennobling pursuit of all the world
you have left me alone in, and would be
the dolorous distraction from

“For James Dean” combines a confession, an ode, and an elegy to reach an unsettling and gorgeous effect. “For a young actor,” O’Hara pleads, “I am begging / peace, gods.”

If, as McClatchy wrote, the truest love is obsessive and unrequited, O’Hara’s love for Dean fits the bill. Perhaps unreciprocated affection is truest because it expects nothing in return. Yet, at the same time, it is also safer than requited love. Dean is dead — he cannot disappoint O’Hara, cannot fail to meet his expectations. A parasocial love can never hurt us.

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In his Netflix stand-up special Make Happy, comedian Bo Burnham responds to a fan’s howl of adoration: “I love you!” Burnham takes a pause: “No, you don’t. You love the idea of me.”

Burnham is standing before that audience member, unmediated by a screen. But the persona and fan are still separated by a stage; the audience member can see Burnham, he can’t see her. O’Hara’s interactions with Turner and Dean were equally one-sided, as the poet only ever interacted with the actors through their on-screen performances. Yet his feelings ring true. Through poetry, O’Hara laments for Turner and prays for Dean. This is not a howl in a crowd — this is the work of a poet inspired. An act of love.

Poets before and since O’Hara have also turned their focus to on-screen personas, and not all lovingly. Parasocial interaction, after all, can breed emotions ranging from adoration to antipathy. One-sided as they are, these feelings are still true — a feeling cannot be false. But feelings can be harmful, and poets (and I) often walk the fine line between healthful and unhealthful scrutiny when it comes to performers.

Admiration is perhaps the most common parasocial feeling toward a persona; the feeling is love at a respectful distance. In her 2004 poem “Hattie McDaniel Arrives at the Coconut Grove,” poet Rita Dove recalls the night McDaniel became the first Black woman to win an Oscar, taking home the statue in 1940 for her supporting role in Gone with the Wind. Dove orients us in “Hollywood, California / where the maid can wear mink and still be a maid.”

Identification is crucial to parasocial experiences, and Dove ponders the thoughts that must have ripped through McDaniel’s mind on that night, empathizing with her experience as a Black woman — often the only one in the room:

what can she be
thinking of, striding into the ballroom
where no black face has ever showed itself
except above a serving tray?

Like O’Hara in his poems to Dean, Dove dignifies McDaniel. She appears stunning, with “gardenias / scaling her left sleeve in a spasm of scent,” “stars and rhinestones clipped to her brilliantined hair”; she’s “poised,” her “huge face a dark moon split / by that spontaneous smile.” And her smile, that purest expression of joy, is for McDaniel both a “trademark” and a “curse.” Dove concludes confidently:

No matter, Hattie: It’s a long, beautiful walk
into that flower-smothered standing ovation
so go on
and make them wait

Here, deep parasocial identification serves to empower; Dove finds dignity in McDaniel, and reflects on the dignity of Black womanhood, which they share. But parasocial interaction can also give rise to antipathy. In his 2005 poem “Brad Pitt,” Aaron Smith studies Pitt’s beauty, privilege, and eating habits. He poses a series of pointed, personal questions to Pitt, an interrogation:

With cotton candy armpits and sugary
Crevices, sweat glazing your donut skin.
Have you ever been fat, Brad?

Pitt becomes interchangeable with any male sex symbol for whom beauty and body become inextricable from identity. “Brad Pitt” considers celebrity infallibility, the ways in which those with the right resources can stay young and thin and lovely forever, and what that means for the rest of us. But in the end, like Dove, Smith identifies with Pitt, transposing his own experiences and insecurities onto a foreign life:

Have you ever wanted a Snickers
More than love and lain on your bed
While the phone rang and rolled one
On your tongue, afraid to eat it, afraid
It would make your jeans too tight?

Then there’s simple curiosity, perhaps the purest and most innocent of all parasocial feelings — the desire to know without the demand to know. Denise Duhamel’s 2009 poem “Delta Flight 659” addresses Sean Penn with compassion and curiosity. The poem is a sestina, the refrain-rich nature of which allows Duhamel to register the obsessive one-sidedness of parasocial relations and to pun and riff on Penn’s productive name:

I’m writing this on a plane, Sean Penn,
with my black Pilot Razor ballpoint pen.
Ever since 9/11, I’m a nervous flyer.

Duhamel chants Penn’s full name like a mantra: “Look, Sean Penn”; “I come in peace, Sean Penn.” But she also considers the actor beyond his on-screen persona, while still exercising an O’Hara-esque sense of awe:

I tried to be your pen 
pal in 1987, not because of your pensive
bad boy looks, but because of a poem you’d penned

that appeared in an issue of Frank. I still see the poet in you, Sean Penn.

All three of these contemporary poets apostrophize their subjects, as did O’Hara. The celebrity recipients of each poem are both absent persons and abstract ideas. Turner is glamour and debauchery; Dean is beauty and sexuality; McDaniel is power and integrity; Pitt is privilege and untouchability; Penn is impenetrability and mystique. These celebrity addressees transcend the limitations of personhood to become cultural objects.

In her book The Drama of Celebrity, Sharon Marcus writes, “Celebrity culture is always a debate about whom and what we value.” The same might be said for poetry. Who gets to be the subject of a poem? In works inspired by parasocial interaction, personas — those ubiquitous beacons — help us stage the dramas of our own lives. As Marcus writes, “The drama of celebrity implicates us all.”

And with the omnipresence of screens, which act as celebrity delivery devices, we are more implicated than ever. Consuming endless streams of content, with access not only to actors’ scripted performances but also to their interviews, vlogs, and social media presences, we can form parasocial relationships more easily and intensely. This proliferation of parasocial relationships is neither inherently beneficial nor damaging. It is simply a modern development that cannot be reversed, that should be integrated into our emotional lives. Critically engaging with our parasocial affections is a healthful act of self-understanding.

I think of my own parasocial affections for my beloved Adam Driver. Maybe I need to channel my lovely rush into a poem — make something of my one-sided love, rather than wallow in it.

For over half a century, poets have thought about what loving one-sidedly but responsibly looks like. Through odes and apostrophes, they have also considered how personas, in McClatchy’s words, receive our “truest” love, our unrequited affection. In that same vein, they also earn our truest hate and our truest interest. Probing those feelings, considering who and what moves us, helps us to better know ourselves. We love, we hate, we obsess — therefore we are.

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Sophia Stewart is a writer, editor, and cultural critic from Los Angeles. You can find her writing here and follow her on Twitter @smswrites.

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Banner image: “James Dean” is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.


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