O'Hara, Frank 1926–1966
American poet, playwright, and art critic. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)
O'Hara had the ability, and the power, to use in a poem whatever occurred to him at the moment, without reflection. It is not that he lacked selectivity or discrimination, but rather that his poems grew out of a process of natural selection—discrimination conjoining civility of attention—so that any particle of experience quick enough to get fixed in his busy consciousness earned its point of relevance. He was always, in the painter Willem de Kooning's words, "out buying some environment."…
[His] is a poetry of nouns and pronouns; the verbs often doubtful, in quotes, adornments after the fact (for the names contain actions), or simply useful connectives, reduced to prepositions….
He wrote quickly, revised little but, as his manuscripts show, brilliantly. He had an inventor's sense of when to be tactful and when to be ruthless towards his inspiration. Reading his poems, you find yourself participating in a number of intricate calculations made at breakneck speed. Things add up and cancel out—a new trigonometry of the emotions with each poem. The poet does not deduce, but he is thinking. You are getting the language first-hand, where it begins to be put together in the mind. The words are impetuously themselves, caught on the surface, newly amplified, with new resonance.
One learns from O'Hara how to think a poem through word-by-word to the point where the graph (or ellipse) of a set of perceptions is utterly exposed. With him, composition was a matter of performance, of "staying on the boards." The trick was to maintain a voice, to give it enough force, or gusto, so that the lyric occasion might absorb all contradictions and interruptions—subject to both the poet's will and his fancy. The voice he invented is readily identifiable. It abounds with personality, revealing personal habits of inflection, irritability and jauntiness. On the other hand, it does not seem affected or eccentric; its peculiarity is the peculiarity of authenticity….
As to subject, the "confessional" is his mode—at least that is the outward stance. The "confessional" involves a strong autobiographical tic, straightforward (hopefully) revelation, uniqueness bounding towards universality. Few can attempt it without going haywire. But there is little verse that can be called "lyric" that stands up without it….
Part of his method had to do with Surrealism. But he never "did" Surrealism. He wasn't a buff of the unconscious (he kept from taking naps, he said, because he disliked dreaming) and paranoia (his or anyone else's) generally irritated him. What he learned of Surrealist tactics he applied to his vision of the "personal," to his ideas of what an artist should be, and to what he might do to encourage the flow of inspiration….
O'Hara's sense of tradition, of the good old American-eclectic brand, could be corrupted as little by Surrealist lab-work and "azur" as by Beddoes or "bad Keats." He called Whitman his "great predecessor." An early notebook shows studies of Ronsard, Heine, Petrarch, Anglo-Saxon charms, Rilke, Jammes. There were imitations of Coleridge, translations of Hölderlin, a liking for lines out of Garbo movies, for "Mi Chiamano Mimi" and Das Lied von der Erde. The sly courtliness of his love lyrics (even their occasional nastinesses) found affinities with Wyatt and the "silver" school; his candor looks first to Archilochus and Catullus, then to Blake and Joyce. Pasternak (that torrential sympathy) became a hero, tempering sharpness of invective (Rimbaud and Mayakovsky). He overtakes Baudelaire for disgust, closes in on Verlaine for delicacy. Yeats and Eliot were admired from afar; he didn't buy their principles but he knew what they had done. Rather, he accepted Williams as a master and Stein as a deep source of inspiration, although he might argue that the latter's writings were not really poetry. He once said that Auden's poem 1929 (beginning "It was Easter as I walked in the public gardens") showed him the possibility of writing down one's metropolitan experiences in a manner neither sentimental nor dreary….
The lavishness of some of his poems is almost unbearable. We labor under an indigenous half-sense, always "boiling things down to brass tacks," that mixes metaphors daily and hates ideas. O'Hara openly defied this zombie-nature, casting abstractions all over the place as accomplished facts in the mind….
Frank had a fabulous scope—atypical in a parochial age. The effect of his presence, like that of his work, was to shake us loose from obviousness and affectation, to prompt us to think with every gesture, to be impatient with our tragical conventions.
Bill Berkson, "Frank O'Hara and His Poems," in Art and Literature, Spring, 1967, pp. 53-63.
O'Hara was probably the first poet to ignore taking the traditional step away from undigested daily experience in order to refine it into formal art. In brief, he was the first and he remains the best of the poets of the impure…. [Reading] … an O'Hara poem [is] usually like trying on a new pair of glasses. What had been dim or ignored out of habit or prejudice or preconception suddenly [becomes] incandescent with poetry….
Wit is another part of his example and legacy. Again, O'Hara's edgy, sometimes corny but always very genuine wit is as commonplace as the time of day or the mildly good high one can feel at a cocktail party. It is, as he might say, "real."
At other times, however, O'Hara hides behind a kind of adolescent Wow! and smarty-pants posturing and fails to get at or get across the complex of feelings which clearly originated the poem. Instead, he remains entangled by New York chic and hysterical activity—an acting-out of feelings on the page instead of an exploration into their reality. But at his best, the man speaking in many of O'Hara's poems possesses that rare quality: charm.
Paul Carroll, in his The Poem in Its Skin, Follett-Big Table, 1968, pp. 221-22.
During the halcyon days of the Abstract Expressionist and Imaginative Realism movements, Frank O'Hara was the laureate of the New York art scene. From his posts as critic for Art News and curator at the Museum of Modern Art, he moved as a mercurial presence through the galleries and the studios of such painters as De-Kooning and Larry Rivers, writing monographs about the new masters, encouraging the young, amusing with his talk—and dashing off his poems at odd moments with an insouciance that was legendary. A fascinating amalgam of fan, connoisseur and propagandist, he was considered by his friends, in an excess of enthusiasm, the Apollinaire of his generation, an esthetic courtier who had taste and impudence and prodigious energy….
Because he is at heart a sentimentalist, O'Hara strives for a "clear architecture of the nerves" and half succeeds. Between the lines of his prankish behavior and his celebrations of love and art and friendship, of "all dear and singular things," one reads a plaintive anxiety. The brittle, decorated surfaces of his poems, the droll humor, cloak a Pierrot who is easily wounded. As a distant cousin of the Dadaists, he indulges a talent for spoofing all that intimidates him: the fear of death and failure, the loss of love. But daily ordeals, like hallucinations, break down the witty protocols the poet has built up for self-protection….
By a cruel whim of fate, O'Hara died young. The pleasures of the "Collected Poems" confirm his place as one of our best minor poets.
Herbert A. Leibowitz, "A Pan Piping on the City Streets," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 28, 1971, pp. 7, 28.
Frank O'Hara's work has already influenced a generation of young poets; some of those who are not poets may find it hard to judge the importance of what he has done when critics so often mistake solemnity for seriousness, obscurity for profundity, and the expression of pain for intensity of feeling. O'Hara's poems are buoyant, exuberant, wild, personal, open in troubling and trouble-some ways, sometimes humorous, often about seemingly ordinary or trivial things, and radically original in form. They are the result of an unfamiliar aesthetic assumption: that what is really right there, in the poet's thoughts, fantasies, and feelings, is what is richest in possibility and worth the most attention. Beginning with whatever is there, if one's feelings are stirred by it, is the best way to get anywhere—
That's not a cross look it's a sign of life but I'm glad you care how I look at you….
The honesty and immediacy of the poems are communicated in a verse which has seemingly learned plainness from Williams, variety from Pound, grandeur from Whitman, and music from all three; the result is a poetic line with more capability for drama, more flexibility, and more delicacy in rendering nuances of the speaking voice than any I know in modern poetry….
Frank O'Hara wrote his poems quickly, unexpectedly stirred by something he was thinking or feeling, often when other people were around. The speed and accidental aspect of his writing are not carelessness but are essential to what the poems are about: the will to catch what is there while it is really there and still taking place….
The form of Frank O'Hara's poetry is flexible and consistently experimental—flexible, to accommodate the poem to whatever is taking place; experimental, perhaps for a number of reasons, among them to help awaken, by strangeness of form, new perceptions while he is writing.
For all their use of chance and the unconscious, Frank O'Hara's poems are unlike Surrealist poetry in that they do not programmatically favor these forces (along with dreams and violence) over the intellectual and the conscious. He must have felt the power and beauty of unconscious phenomena in surrealist poems, but what he does is to use this power and beauty to ennoble, complicate, and simplify waking actions. His poems are like atoms for peace rather than for war; he brings unusual powers to everyday activities….
Along with his brilliant intellect and his wide-ranging knowledge of music, dance, art, history, and philosophy, Frank O'Hara had an ability to fantasize himself to be almost anybody, anything, anytime, anywhere; and he also had an unusual gift for friendship and for love, for identifying himself with, and for transforming other people and their concerns. None of which detracted of course from his passionate concern about himself and his own life, and about all this he was always thinking, meditating "in an emergency." It was always an emergency because one's life had to be experienced and reflected on at the same time, and that is just about impossible. He does it in his poems. The richness of his perceptions gives the poems their characteristic dazzle….
Historically, his work seems to me to represent the last stage in the adaptation of twentieth-century avant-garde sensibility to poetry about contemporary American experience. In its music and its language and in its conception of the relation of poetry to the rest of life, it is a poetry which has already changed poets and others, and which promises to go on moving and changing them for a long time to come.
Kenneth Koch, "All the Imagination Can Hold," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1972 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), January 1 and 8, 1972, pp. 23-5.
As a literary artist [Frank O'Hara] was a sort of latter-day Chekhov on the New York scene. When we read O'Hara we are going along and everything seems very casual, but as we come to the end of the poem we hear the gunshot of The Sea Gull. There is no time to analyze, to evaluate. We are faced with something as definite and real and finite as a sudden death….
Unlike Auden or Eliot, who never stopped writing for the undergraduate, Frank O'Hara dispenses with everything in his work but his feelings. This kind of modesty always disappoints culture, which time after time has mistaken coldness for Olympian objectivity.
Morton Feldman, "Frank O'Hara: Lost Times and Future Hopes," in Art in America, March-April, 1972, pp. 52-5.
[It is ironic that] O'Hara's poetry, largely ignored by the Establishment during his lifetime, should win the National Book Award for 1971…. For the New York poets, O'Hara is the Hero: he is invoked, eulogized, and openly imitated on page after page, and his untimely and bizarre death at the age of forty-two has prompted a flurry of O'Hara elegies….
Until very recently … O'Hara was regarded as something of an enfant terrible, a Pop Poet who claimed, in his "Personism: A Manifesto," that "I don't even like rhythm, assonance, all that stuff. You just go on your nerve."… The Collected Poems belies this brash assertion at every turn. O'Hara was nothing if not learned. His command of language and verse forms, his knowledge of European literature rivaled not only Lowell's but Eliot's and Pound's; he could, when he wanted to, write fine sonnets …, aubades …, or eclogues…. His aesthetic, for that matter, was no more revolutionary than Wordsworth's….
But although O'Hara's poetics is essentially romantic, he parts company with Wordsworth on one important point. For him, poetry, far from having its origin in emotion recollected in tranquillity, is the expression of what is happening now. Unlike the confessional poets, who find the meaning of their present existence to be firmly grounded in the past, O'Hara seeks to remove what Coleridge called "the film of familiarity" by placing the poet's self squarely at the center of the poem, in the very process of discovering his world. Not analysis of feeling but its coming into being is what counts, and the reader's job is, accordingly, to participate in the poet's act of discovery.
Marjorie G. Perloff, "Poetry Chronicle: 1970–71," in Contemporary Literature (© 1973 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), Vol. 14, No. 1, Winter, 1973, pp. 97-131.
With Frank O'Hara the actual innovations he made (most notably the racy jumbling of random speech-inflected moments of recall and ephemera) seem minor, and only part of a general pattern that in terms of metrics and linear expression ambles garrulously back through Ginsberg, Cummings, Sandburg home to Whitman. The string of random in-party salutes and invocations in Biotherm is not so far removed from the Great American Catalogues; like film clips the pace is hotted up, but the need to get the poet and all his friends into the poem (into the moment) is only a few steps out of the shadow of The People Yes and Song of Myself.
The surprises, in Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara, are not in the surprise poems, but very often in the smaller lyrics that were done between the big set-pieces. Perhaps inevitably, this is more so in the early section of the book, where the set-pieces (Oranges, Easter, Second Avenue) are so intrusive and ill-digested, and the small poems virtually unknown….
I think there is a danger, particularly in the poems leading to his 'middle period' (In Memory of My Feelings, the James Dean elegies, the Lunch Poems), of paying more attention to the early Major Project Works Easter and Second Avenue, rather than their less strident neighbours. Read within their chronological context, though, they appear clearly for what they are: performances, one-night stands. It's not that they betray some artistic inconsistency or even dishonesty, it's that we have to accept them as experiments only, proving merely that O'Hara was no Lorca or Mayakovsky. Their neighbour poems return us again and again to a more convincingly perceived world (Lorca's Poet in New York is also a perceived world: the matter is of personal vision), a Second Avenue that does not blot out everything with bombast but is human, spontaneous in off-guarded moments, repetitive, lonely, predictable, and utterly untranscendental. The shorter poems of this formative period also emphasize one quality of O'Hara's use of language that remains persistent, though naturally subject to modifications: this is a literary rather than an anti-literary approach to what words have to offer, and expresses itself as much in cadence as in stance…. The surrealism [in Second Avenue] seems as tired as the first English surrealism, and for the same reason, the sludginess of the cadence. And, even further, despite a learning of how to turn the deft knife through the fixed glare of an attitude, the middle period poems still continue to derive their essential nourishment from a thoroughly literary source….
I think many of the poems of the period … which climaxes with For the Chinese New Year & for Bill Berkson, and includes most of the Lunch Poems, must be considered among the most fully characteristic and completely integrated of O'Hara's poems. I suggest they are as much sustained by an underlying pace that is elegiac, as by a surface of chatty immediacy, and their particular charm is in the counterpoint the poet makes between the two tensions thus implied….
The very last poems do reach a sort of elegy that, though close to self-pity avoids this by carefully managing tone and the interplay between speech rhythms and an undertow of feminine-cadence stops. I feel they are somehow more fruitful as bearings for successors of his work than the louder pieces.
Thomas Shapcott, "Two Tombstones," in Poetry (© 1973 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), April, 1973, pp. 41-7.