Francis Russell O’Hara was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on June 27, 1926. He grew up in central Massachusetts in Grafton, a suburb of Worcester. He attended local Catholic schools and graduated from St. John’s High School in Worcester in 1944. After graduation he enlisted in the Navy and served as a sonar operator on a destroyer until his discharge in 1946. During his World War II service he did not see combat, although he was in the Pacific theater.
After military service, O’Hara entered Harvard University as an undergraduate, majoring first in music and later in English. He graduated from Harvard in 1950. While at Harvard, O’Hara was already writing poetry, and he was one of the founders of the Poet’s Theatre in Cambridge. His play Try! Try! was produced at the Poets’ Theatre in 1951. During the Harvard years, he met John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch, who were to become lifelong friends and subjects of a number of his poems. In 1950, O’Hara entered Michigan University to do graduate work in English, and in 1951 he was awarded the prestigious Avery Hopwood Major Award in Poetry. After a year at Michigan, he moved to New York City, which was to become his home until his death in 1966.
O’Hara was deeply involved in the New York art world during these years; he worked as an editor of Art News and as a special assistant and later as an associate curator of the Museum of Modern Art. Painting is very often the subject of his poems, and his technique has often been compared to that of modern painting. O’Hara was a friend of many...
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O’Hara’s poetry altered the range and possibilities of poetry in the middle of the twentieth century. He rejected complex modernism for a poetry of direct speech that dealt with everyday events. O’Hara showed other poets that a poem could be about any subject. It could be a description of the poet’s daily actions or his changing relationships. There was no need for poetry to be profound; it needed only to delight. That delight and wit can be found in the details of nearly all of O’Hara’s poems. O’Hara also expanded the range of poetic structures and subjects by his references to modern painting and French Surrealism. His poetry was at first criticized for being incoherent or trivial; however, later critics have confirmed that his poetry is grounded in an American literary tradition that includes such major figures as Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams.
Although born in Baltimore and reared in rural Massachusetts, Francis Russell O’Hara discovered a more appropriate milieu first among fellow poets and aficionados of the other arts at Harvard (where he received his B.A. degree in English literature in 1950) and subsequently in New York City. In the meantime, he had spent two years in the U.S. Navy in the South Pacific and a year at the University of Michigan, where he received his M.A. in 1951 and the Avery Hopwood Major Award in Poetry for a manuscript collection of poetry (his master’s thesis). Once in New York, he rejoined fellow Harvard graduates Ashbery and Koch and involved himself in various arts in assorted capacities, while remaining, with the others, quite apart from the literary establishment of the day. He worked for the Museum of Modern Art, advancing from a staff position working on circulating exhibitions to an associate curatorship, selecting numerous exhibitions of contemporary American and Spanish artists and being responsible for the catalogs published in conjunction with the exhibits. He also wrote occasional articles and reviews for Art News and had several plays performed. He adopted a very casual attitude toward his poetry, sending poems off to friends without keeping a copy, stuffing them in drawers, gathering material only under pressure from eager editors such as John Bernard Myers. He was intensely involved (whether as friend or lover) with many different and interesting women and men throughout these New York years until his death after a freak accident on Fire Island.
Francis Russell O’Hara was born in Baltimore in 1926 and grew up on a farm in Grafton, Massachusetts. He disliked the rural setting and longed for the opportunities of the city. After studying music for a year at the New England Conservatory in Boston, he enlisted in the Navy in 1944 and served during World War II. After his discharge, he enrolled at Harvard University and studied art and literature. Harvard was important for O’Hara in other ways; he met John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch while he was a student there. Together they were to form the nucleus of what came to be known as the “New York school” of poetry. This school stressed wit and surface brilliance in poetry and was opposed to the high seriousness of T. S. Eliot and the New Critics.
O’Hara did graduate work in literature at the University of Michigan, where he won the prestigious Hopwood Award for poetry. He moved to New York in 1951, working first as a volunteer and later as an associate curator at the Museum of Modern Art. He was to live in the city and work at the museum until his death.
O’Hara published a number of essays and articles on painters (such as Jackson Pollock) and remained active at the Museum of Modern Art. He also began to accumulate a surprisingly large body of poetry. He published his first book of poems, A City Winter, and Other Poems, in 1952. The style of O’Hara’s poetry was clear in this early book. It was a mixture of casually recorded incidents succeeding one another. O’Hara called this style “I do this, I do that” poems. There was also stylistic use of detail; the poems included place-names and the names of his friends. Finally, O’Hara often used surreal imagery and very loose structures.
Later, O’Hara issued a manifesto of his poetic beliefs titled “Personism.” In it he rejected all pretentious or overly serious statements regarding the purpose of poetry. It was, instead, to give delight and amuse. Many of...
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