O'Hara, Frank 1926–1966
O'Hara was an American poet, playwright, and art critic. (See also Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 1; obituary, Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28.)
Frank O'Hara, who died at [forty] in an accident, run down on the beach at night in the summer of 1966, had a constant apprehension of what death must reveal in the life of his personality—or rather, a constant conviction that it was death itself which would reveal that life…. Without death, the opacities of a selfhood would mean nothing to him, would deprive him of eternity…. Mere life, more and more living, would strip the poet of that senseless creature inhabiting him, that self to whom he owed the best of his illusions and his conflicts. Only his flaws, properly nursed, could "save" him, allow him to keep for the rest of us…. O'Hara urged himself—with a loyalty astonishing in a poet who prayed for "grace to be born and live as variously as possible—the conception of the mask barely suggests the sordid identifications," even obliged himself to see life as an ensemble of impulses not for resisting but for bearing us toward death: "I don't think I want to win anything I think I want to die unadorned." (p. 397)
It is obvious that for the artist obsessed with his expressive vocation—and I take an obsession with personality to be an expressive vocation, the need to manifest that personality, to invite for our amusement and even instruction its distinctive postures—anything and everything is doomed to become occasion, including the pursuit of occasion….
Yet no occasion is ever adequate to the impulse that wants to make it an occasion—all poetry is in this sense the acknowledgment of failure, the aporia of poetry's impossibility ("if you don't eat me I'll have to eat myself"), and what is required of the poet is to make this submission, this admission, this fidelity to failure as Beckett calls it, into a new occasion, a new term of relation between the poet and his poem, a new expressive act. This requirement O'Hara fulfilled from the first. (p. 399)
Passing into myth, Pasternak had said, and surely O'Hara would have recognized his death on that beach, the onslaught of a monster sent against him by the very powers of meaninglessness he opposed—would have recognized his death as the death of Hippolytus (his true Phaedra was New York), and that death does deny accident, leaving behind the hero's name and his poetry which is the nomination of what he was:
the momentary smile and underneath, a
small irresponsible glory that fits. (p. 412)
Richard Howard, "Frank O'Hara," in his Alone With America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States Since 1950 (copyright © 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969 by Richard Howard; reprinted by permission of Atheneum Publishers, New York), Atheneum, 1969, pp. 396-412.
Now that Knopf has given us O'Hara's Collected Poems they had better rapidly produce a Selected Poems, a book that wouldn't drown O'Hara in his own fluency. For the record, we need this new collection; for the sake of fame and poetry, we need a massively reduced version, showing O'Hara at his best. His charms are inseparable from his overproduction—the offhand remark, the fleeting notation of a landscape, the Christmas or birthday verse, the impromptu souvenir of a party—these are his common forms, as though he roamed through life snapping Polaroid pictures, pulling them out of his camera and throwing them in a desk drawer sixty seconds later. And here they are—some overexposed, some underdeveloped, some blurred, some unfocused, and yet any number of them succeeding in fixing the brilliance of some long-forgotten lunch, or the curve of a body in a single gesture, or a snowstorm, or a childhood movie. If these poems are photographic in their immediacy, they remind us too of the rapid unfinished sketches done by an artist to keep his hand in, or to remind him of some perishable composition of the earth. If there were a movie equivalent to a sketch, some of these poems would be better called verbal movies—the "I-do-this, I-do-that" poems, as O'Hara himself called them. (p. 5)
[Two] aspects of his work tended to do O'Hara in: his radical incapacity for abstraction (like Byron, when he thinks he is a child) and his lack of a comfortable form (he veered wildly from long [poems] to short, with no particular reason in many cases for either choice). The longest poems end up simply messy, endless secretions, with a nugget of poetry here and there, slices of life arbitrarily beginning, and ending for no particular reason…. The theoretical question O'Hara forces on us is a radical one: Why should poetry be confined in a limited or closed form? Our minds ramble on; why not our poems? Ramblings are not, to say the least, the native form of poets with metaphysical minds, but O'Hara, in his fundamental prescinding from the metaphysical, believes neither in problems nor in solutions, nor even in the path from one to the other. He believes in colloquies, observations, memories, impressions, and variations—all things with no beginnings and no endings, things we tune in on and then tune out of…. The inherent limitation seems not to be a formal one within the poem, but rather an external one—the limited attention span of the poet or his reader. (pp. 5-6)
The wish not to impute significance has rarely been stronger in lyric poetry. It happened, it went like this, it's over. Why is it worth recording? Because it happened. Why is what happened worth recording? Because what else is there to record? And why should we want to read it? Because what else is there to know except what has happened to people? Such a radical and dismissive logic flouts the whole male world and its relentless demand for ideologies, causes, and systems of significance. The anarchic elasticity of O'Hara's poetry depends entirely on his athletic effort to make the personal the poetic—the personal divested of religion, of politics, of mysticism, of patriotism, of metaphysics, even of idealism…. O'Hara's designedly light explanation of his theory of poetry (which he winsomely named "Personism") rests on intimacy and immediacy. (p. 9)
The reason O'Hara can be truly aerial is that he genuinely has no metaphysical baggage. No religion, no politics, no ideology, no nothing…. Dismay followed by elation, comfort succeeded by loneliness, getting mad giving way to a shrug, apathy followed by quickening—these are O'Hara's dimensions and out of them he creates his poetic space. There are ominous sighs in the later poems, sighs especially about America, that make us wonder whether O'Hara could have kept up the verve and bounce and amplitude of his best poems, but even a sad poem wafts up, often enough, a comic energy. (pp. 18-19)
Guessing, observing, looking, reading, comparing, reflecting, loving, writing, and talking, he takes us through life as though he were the host at a spectacular party. We may regret the equableness and charm of our guide, and wish him occasionally more Apollonian or more Dionysian (the sex poems aren't very good, though they try hard and are brave in their homosexual details), but there's no point wishing O'Hara other than he was. The scale he works in is deliberately, at least by past ideological standards, very small. Klee might be the painter who seems comparable, in his jokes, his whimsical collocations, his tenderness, his childlike naïveté, his sprightliness, his muted levels of significance, his sentiment. In O'Hara, modern life is instantly recognizable, and a modern ethos of the anarchically personal receives its best incarnation yet. If it satisfies some portion of us less than a more panoramic ambition, we are self-betrayed in recognizing the frailty of our own supports. We cannot logically repudiate ideology and then lament its absence (though Stevens made a whole poetry out of just that illogic). O'Hara puts our dilemma inescapably before us, for the first time, and is therefore, in his fine multiplicity and his utter absence of what might be called an intellectual syntax, a poet to be reckoned with, a new species. (p. 20)
Helen Vendler, "The Virtues of the Alterable," in Parnassus (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Fall/Winter, 1972, pp. 5-20.
Frank O'Hara is one of the nicest bores around. The less of him you read the better he is. [Where] O'Hara really shines is a poem or two anthologized with strangers. Why is this? An O'Hara poem is fresh, cheerful, and impudent. The line is alive, and he can be funny and affectionate without pose. It's not that he is never serious; when he gets serious he giggles. But a pound of O'Hara makes you wonder how frightful the solemnity is he's always chasing away. It's the reverse of waiting for those presidents carved in rock to grin. Vive la bagatelle. There's nothing worse than Bly or Piercy (or Lowell) being serious, unless it's these magnificently printed happy poems in bulk. Think if Picasso had painted nothing but plates and funny sculptures. Such unrelieved gaiety calls up the sort of Paradise Loft he never wrote, full of broken bones and real pain, not these sailings after lunch. They are social and bright, like what technicolor does to New York apartments in clever films. They are nostalgic for the present. He is a gifted writer determined to be trivial, and while his fribble is better than other people's mush or woof, there is that lack in the poems of what one imagines in the man and, lacking, resents.
Gerald Burns, "Portrait of the Artist as Charming," in Southwest Review (© 1974 by Southern Methodist University Press), Spring, 1974, p. 201.
"One need never leave the confines of New York to get all the greenery one wishes—I can't even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there's a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life." This speaker in "Meditations in an Emergency" is, of course, Frank O'Hara's creation and not O'Hara himself, but he speaks (with some irony) for a poet who moved to New York as Marvell did in his garden, who made from details of the landscape an oddly significant vision.
O'Hara does not write about the city; he lives in it. In friendly reciprocity, a New York has come to live in the poems that no longer exists in fact. More likely it never existed. Knowing that once there was a Golden Griffin bookstore or a Ziegfeld Theatre, knowing that there is indeed a Seagram building not to mention an Allen Ginsberg, a literary tourist would be deceived into imagining that the whole of O'Hara's New York once had a geographical reality. His ceremonious naming makes the reader forget that the persons, places, things thereby gain meaning in a poetic universe rather than mass in a physical one.
Illusion suggests, even in many of his best-known poems, that the poetic narrative retails experience "as it happened." Behind this, however, stands a structure of personal encounters—their potentialities, their actualities, their aftermaths—working on all the senses to characterize his special world…. It is a necessary quality of this poetry that it speaks above or through the noise of cars and buses—in New York it's not volume but style that earns a hearing in a big cocktail party. (pp. 109-10)
The appearance of coincidence works for O'Hara in the city as does a suggestion of surrealism, a dramatic style of conversation, and a musical notion of prosody. The city worked for him in providing not just the events and encounters but a special pace, a sense of gathering—images, tones, ideas. O'Hara placed himself at a center by working, throughout his poetic career, at the Museum of Modern Art. He had started out as a music student; by 1950, apparently, he was dividing his time between his poetry and others' painting. In addition to work (as curator by the time of his death in 1966) at the Museum, he wrote [art] criticism for Art News and Art & Literature…. His close friend-ships with artists working in and near New York contributed to [his] book on [Jackson] Pollock, produced poems like his "Ode to Willem de Kooning", "Ode to Michael Goldberg ('s Birth and Other Births)", and the lithographs made with Larry Rivers. (p. 112)
O'Hara on Pollock seems truly to be talking to himself: "Surrealism," he notes, "enjoined the duty, along with the liberation, of saying what you mean and meaning what you say, above and beyond any fondness for saying and meaning." Saying and meaning like this demand activity on an appropriate scale and, toward the end of the essay, O'Hara describes Pollock's discovery of what came to be called Action Painting, when "the scale of the painting became that of the painter's body." As O'Hara extends this notion of "scale, and no-scale," he touches a reader's sense of the poet walking the city in "The Day Lady Died": what impresses itself as the shape and substance of the poem is, again in O'Hara's words for Pollock, "the physical reality of the artist and his activity of expressing it, united to the spiritual reality of the artist in a oneness which has no need for the mediation of metaphor or symbol." (pp. 112-13)
O'Hara directed formidable technical resources toward his poetic goals. In his brilliant memoir, "Frank O'Hara and His Poems" [see excerpts in CLC-2], Bill Berkson says, "An early notebook shows studies of Ronsard, Heine, Petrarch, Anglo-Saxon charms, Rilke, Jammes. There were imitations of Coleridge, translations of Hölderlin," and, one could add, references to Eliot as well as Olson, Stevens as well as Stein. O'Hara experimented with rhyme and off-rhyme in early poems like "After Wyatt" and "The distinguished / and freshly dusted Apollodorus-type." He developed a prosody that permitted the unobtrusively electric effects of even his most prosy works, but his intense artistic concern with syntax reached farthest and deepest.
O'Hara's remarkable way of making a sentence, or not-making a sentence, shapes his poems from 1951 on. Syntax covers anything from minute dependencies in a three-word sequence to massive interrelationships in the longest poem; it gives the poet a handle on time. O'Hara's sentences held firm around any range, any reference he reached for. (pp. 114-15)
O'Hara's poems after 1960 or so insist instead on separate moments. Syntax becomes a means of separating one moment's perception from another's, and the infrequent pattern that works like sentences signals a special occasion, a moment worth extending over time and space. (p. 115)
Inevitably syntax involves time, and time held prizes for O'Hara throughout his career. It acts in his poetry dramatically. Some private sense of menace may have endowed him with enormous respect for time's paradoxical uses. (p. 116)
Susan Holahan, "Frank O'Hara's Poetry" (copyright © 1974 by Susan Holahan), in American Poetry Since 1960: Some Critical Perspectives, edited by Robert B. Shaw, Dufour, 1974, pp. 109-22.
Read in conjunction with the Collected Poems (1971), [the] set of essays [Art Chronicles 1954–1966] suggests to me that O'Hara will eventually emerge as the Ezra Pound of the postwar period. His poetry—brilliant, droll, exciting, iconoclastic—may not measure up to the Cantos, but like Pound, O'Hara helped to bring about a revolution in artistic sensibility….
Despite—or perhaps because of—this great range of interests, the academic establishment, ready to enshrine an Adrienne rich in a Norton Critical Edition, still refuses to take O'Hara seriously. His poems, written at odd moments of the day or night, are accused of frivolity, formlessness and excessive in-jokes. No doubt, his art criticism will be similarly dismissed by certain academics as being too impressionistic. True, O'Hara is likely to refer to paintings as "tragic," "demonic," "sullen," "somber," "tender," "luminous" or "joyful," without backing up these adjectives with any overt theory of art. Yet his impressionistic criticism takes on a different cast when one notes that, like Pound, he had an unerring eye for genius, an amazing sense of the difference between the first-rate and the second-best. (p. 23)
O'Hara was … always testing critical commonplaces; like Pound's, his approach to art was insistently individual, independent. By the mid-'60s, when the human figure began to reassert itself, O'Hara was one of the first to discern its new potential. (p. 24)
Marjorie Perloff, "They Were There," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), March 1, 1975, pp. 23-4.