Since his accidental death in 1966 at the age of forty, Frank O’Hara has been surrounded by a gauze of myth that has effectively silenced serious evaluation of his poetry and sustained documentation of his life. Only Marjorie Perloff’s careful and important study of his work in relation to contemporary New York artists and modernist writers, Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters (1977), succeeds in clearing a path through the tangle of anecdotes in which O’Hara has mostly lived. In various memoirs he has been portrayed as an intensely vital urban sprite who nevertheless brooded darkly about mortality and actively courted death himself. Alternatively, he has been reduced to a propulsive, campy Pan, gulping a breakfast vodka and grapefruit juice, dashing off his occasional “I do this I do that” poems on lunch breaks from his job at the Museum of Modern Art before heading downtown for yet another bout of boozing and erotic sparring with Greenwich Village artists at the Cedar Tavern or the San Remo Bar. Academic critics have largely been responsible for perpetuating this latter view of O’Hara as a negligible if witty writer of impromptu verse for a small, incestuous circle of friends, a dilettante in both artistic and literary worlds.
Both views inadequately capture the richness and interest of O’Hara’s poetry and personality, and to some extent Brad Gooch’s biography does offer a more comprehensive picture of the artist. It lays to rest certain popular myths while supplying foundational support for others. Moreover, in its sheer amplitude the book captures something of its subject’s unbridled generosity, the seemingly limitless flow of O’Hara’s talk, its capacious range and suggestive juxtapositions. Gooch has assembled the results of many interviews, and readers can now know exactly what films O’Hara saw and with whom, what music he listened to as a boy with his family, what bars he frequented as a Navy Shore Patrol officer in San Francisco, what friends he propositioned and with what results. The book is astonishingly easy and enjoyable to read, full of incidents and personalities both comic and pathetic, a kind of high-level gossip. What is sadly missing in the recital of facts, however; is any real sense of O’Hara’s enthusiasm, his high-spirited irreverence and poisonous wit. Again and again O’Hara’s friends testify to the poet’s richly affectionate nature, his charm, his passionate attentiveness to people, art, cities. Little of this comes across. Gooch is a plodder, choosing to place pertinent material from the life in a clear chronological connection with the actual work, but without registering much of a reaction to the frequently melodramatic nature of the events he narrates. His neutrality is very likely a deliberate rhetorical choice to counter earlier partisan accounts, yet the biography could do with a more argumentative edge. Gooch fails to offer much of a case for O’Hara’s significance as a poet or his originality as an artist. He does not argue for the innovative way (intoxicating to younger poets such as David Shapiro and Daniel Berrigan) that O’Hara transformed his life into his poems, for his nonchalant craft in blending the two and creating, as critic Helen Vendler has said, “a new species.” O’Hara’s readers will not find here any particular analysis of why some of these poems are among the most loved of any written in the last century.
The only point on which Gooch does mount something like an argument is O’Hara’s homosexuality. Practically every interviewee is asked to weigh in on the question of O’Hara’s sexuality. If Gooch does have a thesis, it is to show that O’Hara was suppressed as a young Catholic boy, but once away from the provincial Massachusetts town of his youth and embarked on the journey to Harvard University, New York City, and Europe, he could freely express his gay identity and become the great gay “city poet” of midcentury, the logical successor to Walt Whitman. The introverted, earnest, well-read mama’s boy could evolve into the witty, gregarious avant- gardist of art and sex. Gooch catalogs O’Hara’s male love affairs assiduously, from the passionate and artistically productive relationships with painter Larry Rivers and dancer Vincent Warren to the turbulent, often violent couplings with men met in streets, bars, and subway lavatories. One learns that O’Hara glorified straight males, pursued an episodic and compulsive promiscuity, and eroticized the teaching of younger men who throughout his life gathered enthusiastically around him.
All of this fills in important gaps in the biography, though the detailed accounts of O’Hara’s drunken evenings in bed with this or that reluctant or eager partner can become, after a time, deadening. More illuminating would have been to tease out the warmth, humanity, and romantic sentiment of O’Hara’s sexual life, since these overwhelmingly color his poetry. O’Hara knew that he worked best as a love poet, that he was most prolific when he was in love: His two years with Vincent Warren (1959-1960) resulted in more than one hundred lyrics, his first openly gay love poems. During the next two years, after their breakup, he wrote fifty poems, in 1964 fourteen, in 1965 two, in 1966 one. When romance deserted him, the muse soon followed.
Still, the mercurial figure of O’Hara does transcend the stodgy handling of his biography. Readers see the young Francis in his youth, surrounded by loving parents and doting aunts (teachers, librarians, nuns), reading widely (especially James Joyce), playing the piano and pronouncing grandly on music (his favorites Sergei Rachmaninoff and Paul Hindemith), and avidly going to the cinema. Fastidious and bookish, ferocious in his passions and discoveries, O’Hara also educated himself about art.
He left this hothouse existence to join the Navy in 1944,...
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