Frank O’Hara is one of the original “New York School” poets, a group that includes John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Bernadette Mayer, Barbara Guest, Ted Berrigan, and others who were active in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Generally these writers celebrated the urban environment and its melting pot of culture, language, and...
Frank O’Hara is one of the original “New York School” poets, a group that includes John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Bernadette Mayer, Barbara Guest, Ted Berrigan, and others who were active in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Generally these writers celebrated the urban environment and its melting pot of culture, language, and style. But, as can be understood from O’Hara’s poems, the city cannot be separated from the anxieties that it causes.
In addition to the classic poems you’ve listed, there are many other works that give a sense of the poet’s unease. A quick listing can include: “1951,” “Walking to Work,” “Anxiety,” “Song (Is it dirty),” and “Meditations in an Emergency.”
Alone in the city at night, after a storm has blown the trees down, but where “these anxieties / remain erect,” the poet deals with his fear of “the serious voices, / the panic of jobs” by confronting them directly and trying to love them. He finds though, at the poem’s end, that “Far from burgeoning / verdure, the hard way / is this street.”
“Walking to Work”
The sense of the pressing crowd and the irritability that it generates are the subjects of this poem. The poet worries, “I’m becoming / the street.”
The unease of the poet is described immediately in this poem: “I’m having a real day of it. / There was / something I had to do. But what?” He tries to spur his memory with a drink, but it makes him feel worse. Wishing for darkness to overcome him, he has a brief flash of potential remembrance at the poem’s end: “Perhaps / that’s it: to clean something. A window?”
“Song (Is it dirty)”
O’Hara has many poems titled “Song;” this one begins with the lines “Is it dirty / does it look dirty / that’s what you think of in the city.” Like the poem “Anxiety,” this “Song” echoes the concern for cleanliness that occupies many urban dwellers. O’Hara’s street sense seems to question this need for sanitized city life by repeating the line “you don’t refuse to breathe do you.”
“Meditations in an Emergency”
This classic poem takes on many subjects of nervousness: fidelity, religion, filth, love, and nature itself. “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.”
O’Hara’s unease shifts easily from the city itself, to nature, to crowds, to dirt, to small gatherings of shifty people on the street. He fully catalogs the urban environment. Its joys and its sorrows are always competing for the poet's attention.