O'Hara, Frank 1926–1966
O'Hara was an American poet, playwright, and critic. Although best known as a poet and prose writer, O'Hara was also drawn to the world of art, serving as assistant curator at the Museum of Modern Art as well as contributing to periodicals in the field of art criticism. His poetry is noted for its rather cluttered style, for O'Hara eschewed traditional meter and poetic diction in favor of a random outpouring of objects and imagery in his verse. The joyful profusion of visual detail in his poetry reflects the poet's exuberant vision of life, especially of the urban scene. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)
Some poets should be allowed to wear their talents lightly. Frank O'Hara … has been badly overdone by his friends and devotees, with their disfiguring puffs and silly elegies…. Devotion often makes a dull business of criticism.
But O'Hara is still bobbing. His gifts were for buoyancy, spontaneity and fun. Though he tried to write de profundis, his best poems stay closer to the surface and take their joy and verve from the gregarious life he led. He was, like Pound but in a smaller pond, the entrepreneur for a generation of artists….
He was especially the poet of the painters; he gave them a literacy, as their muse and critic, at a time when theory tended to precede paint and the word directed the image. But his touch was always personal; the public defending could be left to Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg…. O'Hara was a smaller but not less commanding prominence. His art criticism, some of it collected in Art Chronicles 1954–1966, is light, fanciful and untheoretical. When he fashions himself after Apollinaire, who discovered the Cubists tucked away in Room 8 of the Salon d'Automne of 1911, we should not take him as seriously as his immortalizers have done. The emulation is a respectful bit of cheek, and a bit of chic too, playful and sassy. He was never so grave, never a campaigner. His manifesto Personism (1959) is a comic piece, speaking only for itself, and not, as has been claimed, with the voices of Rimbaud, Mayakovsky and Pasternak….
[O'Hara loved French poetry,] and his work is full of allusions to Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Apollinaire, Reverdy, Tzara, Péret. He identified in his life with the Symbolists, and in his writing with the Dadaists and Surrealists….
His Surrealist experiments of the late 1940s and early 1950s are really schoolboy productions. He liked to justify them by talk of "all-over" and "push-and-pull" and the other tags of Abstract Expressionism, but they are poetry of the surface only in being superficial. In all his early work, Oranges, Memorial...
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1956–57 were good years for literary revolution. That is when Meditations in an Emergency and Howl appeared on opposite coasts, two of the most important first books of poetry to be published in America since the war. O'Hara like a violin, Ginsberg like a waterfall, let loose the flood of deep associations. They created a torrential rhetoric that literally washed away the poetry of the "silent generation." Certain texts in Meditations in an Emergency are clearly imitations of the French …, [when, for example, the] packaging of [a] poem into five line stanzas is not so much evidence of formal intention, as a joke about literary form. The language slips and leaps and interrupts itself with the limberness of the surreal countervoice. The text has no real subject matter; it is what it means: an incoherence of rhythms and images that is oddly seductive. Although passages like this are not the best part of Meditations in an Emergency, they form the bedrock of pure style from which the book emerges. O'Hara himself describes the paradox of his poetry: "I will my will, though I may become famous for a mysterious vacancy in that department …" The will that makes meanings struggles bravely with a flood of surreal associations, and the will loses; but the failure is a victory. The poem knocks down the retaining walls of form and meaning. Ordinary situations and rooms and streets become Rimbaudian voyages…. More than a decade later, Meditations in an Emergency remains a moving book, perhaps because O'Hara understood the risks, as well as the charms, caused by his "mysterious vacancy of the will." O'Hara was fascinated by the eternal youth of the psyche; but he was elegiac too, in mourning for the drabness of the "logical" world which would never be changed by literature. (pp. 275-76)
Paul Zweig, in Salmagundi (copyright © 1973 by Skidmore College), Spring-Summer, 1973.
O'Hara places himself most succinctly in his most famous essay, "Personism: A Manifesto," perhaps the closest thing to a definitive statement of the poetics of the New York School, when he worries if he isn't "sounding like the poor wealthy man's Allen Ginsberg …"…. And yet, in his own way, Frank O'Hara was no less intent upon the liberation of American poetry from the clutches of the New Criticism of the forties and fifties, which, as he elaborates in an interview less than a year before his death, tended to look upon art as the raw material of criticism….
He can talk about Jackson Pollack and Andy Warhol, about Gregory Corso and W. H. Auden. Throughout it all, he seems to be having a good time. More casual in tone than Allen Ginsberg, he is often equally as penetrating.
Aram Saroyan, "Prose of a New York Poet," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 14, 1975, p. 27.
It is in the poetry of New York poets like O'Hara and Ashbery that the painterly esthetic of Abstract Expressionism manifests itself in literary art, though Olson's criticism provides for us its literary rationale. (p. 440)
O'Hara's connection with the New York art scene dates from about 1950, when he first worked at the Museum of Modern Art and became acquainted with many of the most innovative painters in the New York area at the time. But I am concerned here less with the biographical relationships between O'Hara … and the New York painters than with the esthetic relationship between [his] poetry and the canvases of the New York School. The "casual insight" that O'Hara finds at the center of Jackson Pollock's achievement, for example, is a description as well of his own poetic style. Writing about Pollock, O'Hara finds
the ego totally absorbed in the work. By being "in" the specific painting, as he himself put it, he gave himself over to the cultural necessities which, in turn, freed him from the external encumbrances which surround art as an occasion of extreme cultural concern.
These external encumbrances are precisely what O'Hara liberates himself from in his own poetry. His is not a poetry of extreme cultural concern, but rather is one focused on the momentary and the transient, on the hundreds of minor details which make up all of our days. His poetry is concerned with movies he has seen, friends he has visited, stores he has shopped at, birthdays he has celebrated, meals he has eaten. The "action" of O'Hara's life is in his poetry in the same way that Pollock's creative life is directly captured in his paintings.
So many of O'Hara's poems are playful, "casually insightful" celebrations of the esthetic autonomy of the creative act. The last stanza of "Autobiographia Literaria" (the serious, Coleridge-inspired title, of course, totally at odds with the spirit of the poem) specifically celebrates this esthetic ego involvement:
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[It is] my growing conviction that O'Hara is one of the central poets of the postwar period, and that his influence will continue to grow in the years to come. He is also an important art critic, his improvisatory but incisive essays and reviews recalling those of an earlier poet-art critic whom he loved—Apollinaire. And his collaborations with painters, composers, playwrights, and film-makers have given us some of the most delightful mixed-media works of the fifties and sixties. (p. xii)
The notion of being "needed by things" … is a central feature of [O'Hara's] poetic. It derives, quite possibly, from Rilke, whose poetry O'Hara knew well and loved…. For both Rilke and O'Hara, it is the...
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