Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2402
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, and his two-year tour did much to pry him away from his family and his religion and give him a new self-reliance. Yet it was really his years at Harvard, from 1946 to 1950, that shaped the man he was to become. When his father died suddenly during the winter of 1947, O’Hara turned his back on his increasingly alcoholic and dependent mother and charged into the heady atmosphere of those postwar years in Cambridge. Within a year O’Hara had turned from music to poetry, staking out his identity as a writer. Francis had become Frank.
Cambridge in the late 1940’s boasted a literary scene of compelling brilliance: John Ashbery, Robert Bly, John Updike, Alison Lurie, Harold Brodkey, Donald Hall, Robert Creeley, Kenneth Koch, and Adrienne Rich were all O’Hara’s contemporaries there, and a young John Ciardi presided over a creative writing class where literary battles erupted between Audenites (O’Hara) and Yeatsians (Hall). O’Hara’s meeting with Ashbery was the crucial event for redirecting his poetry from dandyism to a more robust eclecticism, in which films, popular culture, music, and literature came together in a surrealistic wash of witty, polished verse. He developed at this time too the writing habits that would remain throughout his career and that continually amazed his friends. He wrote quickly and revised sparingly; he loved to write in public or in collaboration; he was notoriously careless about keeping copies of his poems (many survive simply because they were written out in letters to friends who kept them); he was, despite a competitive streak and a healthy ego, largely unconcerned about publication and indifferent to reviews. He wrote, soit seemed, as naturally as he talked or breathed—he called it “playing the typewriter.”
After graduation, Ciardi arranged a position for him in the University of Michigan’s Creative Writing Program, and in his first ten months in Ann Arbor he produced ninety poems and two plays. In the Midwest he came under the spell of William Carlos Williams and wrote poems of greater simplicity and directness, with more colloquial, less mannered speech and rhythms.
Gooch is at his best in conjuring up the New York Village scene in those early and mid 1950’s, the jazz clubs, the artists’ bars, the long nights of epic drinking and smoking and fighting. O’Hara was drawn to the world of the Cedar Tavern, where the New York School expressionists, now giving rise to a second generation of artists like Larry Rivers and Jane Freilicher, proved a generous audience for his poems. He proved just as stimulating to their painting. He had a completely assured eye and a ready tongue; his focus was always on the things he loved, and what he loved he loved ardently. He had the power to tell artists where they had been and to suggest where that might lead. No wonder they loved him, painted him, and collaborated with him.
New York was the inspiration for O’Hara’s poetry—its art and artists, but also the city itself. He wrote, in “Meditations in an Emergency,” that “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 totallyregret life.” He fed on the urban noise and crush and energy, the ballet, the theaters, the galleries, the gay bars, the friends. Beginning with a job selling postcards at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) and writing short reviews for Art News, he worked his way up to be an associate curator at MOMA, handling the first exhibitions of contemporary American art to travel internationally. Although unorthodox in practice and without proper academic credentials, he did know the artists and their work intimately, and he put together a string of successful European touring shows that effectively placed Abstract Expressionism on the map as a peculiarly American contribution to international culture.
Yet as eventful and demanding as this full-time job was, O’Hara managed to make it merge with his hectic social life outside the museum. He was magnetic, the bridge between people otherwise separated. He mixed Downtown with Uptown, even East Coast and West Coast. His readings with Allen Ginsberg and championing of Gregory Corso made him more popular among the San Francisco Beats than were other New York School poets.
At about this time (1959) O’Hara wrote his mock-manifesto “Personism,” originally intended for Donald Allen’s anthology but published in LeRoi Jones’s little magazine Yugen. Prompted by a beery lunch with Jones where the two poets decided to “think of a movement,” O’Hara, fortified by a bourbon and water and Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, sat down and wrote:
After lunch with LeRoi Jones on August 27, 1959, a day in which I was in love with someone…I went hack to work and wrote a poem for this person. While I was writing it I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was horn.
As glib as this sounds, it had substantial implications for O’Hara’s language. He valued the informal diction of telephone conversations over the verbal structure of the printed page. Poetic language should come spontaneously to mind under the impact of immediate experience and not sound as if, by virtue of authoritative, carefully constructed verses, it has the power to register some metaphysical truth free from the contingencies of the poet’s life. Language does not assert its own authority or impose some order on experience, but moves with it, reacts to it, captures the vibrancy of the moment, the concrete details, the authentic sounds. This all has its own music, and O’Hara was nothing if not a musical writer.
The City Lights edition of Lunch Poems (1964) was probably the first volume of O’Hara’s to get him a wider public, but it was Donald Allen’s landmark collection The New American Poetry: 1945-1960 (1960) that dared to present O’Hara’s poems as anything other than amusing coterie trifles. A volume that Ginsberg hailed as a “great blow for poetic liberty,” the anthology made available the work of post-World War II poets who had charted a new and bold direction: away from T. S. Eliot and the pantheon of modernist masters, away from institutionalized high culture and toward jazz, abstract painting, popular culture. Grouped into New York School, Black Mountain, Beat Generation, and San Francisco Renaissance, the forty-four poets in Allen’s anthology raised fresh voices to counter the elegance and formalism of the prevailing academic tradition.
Yet in O’Hara’s last years his world and his friends were changing. Old pals were marrying and withdrawing from the bohemian life; Pop Art and Neo-Realism were the new passwords. Andy Warhol (whom Willem de Kooning blamed for the death of painting) had arrived and rejected the expressive brushstroke in favor of mechanical means of representation. O’Hara was uncomfortable with these changes but neatly sidestepped into sculpture and continued his frenetic round of openings, retrospectives, readings, and Fire Island weekends. It was during one of these weekends in July, 1966, that O’Hara, after a night of eating, drinking, and dancing, walked into the path of a beach buggy and died a day later of internal injuries. Shocking as it was, the accidental nature of his death seems oddly in keeping with O’Hara’s insistence on the contingent, the moment-by-moment experience of living. Yet it is paradoxical, too, that this poet who was so vitally attentive to each moment was extinguished in a moment of inattention. In 1956, rocked by Jackson Pollock’s death in a car accident at age forty-four, he had written a poem about his own funeral in which he urged people not to come, a poem that ends with lines that capture as well as any the poet’s credo for living:
When I die, don’t come, I wouldn’t want a leaf
to turn away from the sun—it loves it there.
There’s nothing so spiritual about being happy
but you can’t miss a day of it, because it doesn’t last.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. LXXXIX, May 15, 1993, p.1670.
Boston Globe. July 13, 1993, p.30.
Library Journal. CXVIII, May 15, 1993, p.68.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 27, 1993, p.3.
The New Republic. CCIX, August 2, 1993, p.33.
The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, June 20, 1993, p.18.
The New Yorker. LXIX, July 19, 1993, p.71.
Publishers Weekly. CCXL, May 17, 1993, p.57.
San Francisco Chronicle. July 11, 1993, p. REV 1.
The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, August 29, 1993, p.5.
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