Frank O'Hara 1926-1966
(Full name Francis Russell O'Hara) American poet, essayist, playwright, and art critic.
A member of the New York School of Poets, O'Hara applied the techniques of Abstract Expressionist painting and French Surrealism to his writing, constructing poems in which he often employed words as units of form and sound without meaning and juxtaposed seemingly random images and ideas. Often compared to Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams, O'Hara drew on mundane details from urban life to create poetry characterized by immediacy and apparent superficiality. Although early critical reaction to O'Hara's poetry was mixed, his reputation has increased steadily since his death, and critics have noted his immense influence on subsequent poets.
Raised in Massachusetts, O'Hara entered Harvard University in 1946 after serving two years in the U.S. Navy. He studied music at first, hoping to become a concert pianist but later switched to English. While attending Harvard, he wrote his first poems and also met John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch, poets with whom he was later associated as a member of a literary circle known as the New York School of Poets. After graduating from Harvard, O'Hara studied for a year at the University of Michigan, earning a master's degree in English and creative writing and winning a Hopwood Award for a collection of poems and the verse play Try! Try! In the fall of 1951, O'Hara moved to New York City. Except for a two-year stint as an editorial associate for Art News, O'Hara worked for the Museum of Modern Art for the next fifteen years, rising from sales clerk to associate curator. He wrote reviews and articles for the museum and various journals during this time as well as poetry and plays. He published his first collection of verse, A City Winter, and Other Poems, in 1952. Like the other New York School poets, O'Hara established close personal ties with such Abstract Expressionist painters as Larry Rivers and Jackson Pollock. O'Hara died suddenly in 1966 from injuries sustained after being hit by a dune-buggy.
Described as spontaneous and nonreferential, O'Hara's poems create a collage of seemingly insignificant details from urban life. “The Day Lady Died,” for instance, contrasts the mundane activities of an ordinary day with a few concluding lines concerning Billie Holiday and her death. “Personal Poem” lacks any periods or rests, suggesting that objects and ideas are events that should be immediately consumed and dropped. Rarely the subject of his poems, O'Hara appears to be only an observer, as the title of the poem “A Step Away from Them” suggests. However, O'Hara fills his poems with personal details and private jokes intended for his circle of friends. He thus expresses both distance and intimacy, presenting the reader with an elusive and contradictory depiction of himself. He also explores culture images and myths in his work. In his poem “On Seeing Larry Rivers' Washington Crossing the Delaware at the Museum of Modern Art,” O'Hara mocks America's first president, George Washington, as well as the heroic myth associated with the general, depicting him as anxious, cold, and fearful. At the same time, however, he pays tribute to Washington and re-mythologizes the crossing by approaching an authentic rendering of the historical event and portraying Washington as a complex person engaged in a dangerous and difficult endeavor.
Although O'Hara's poetry was initially met with mixed reviews, commentators have reassessed his poetic oeuvre and, as a result, his reputation as a poet has steadily improved in the years since his death. Most critics have focused on the importance O'Hara's poetry imputes to the present and the trivial. In explaining the apparent superficiality of his poetry, some reviewers have argued that O'Hara's poems lack depth because he treats significant events in a trivial fashion and because his images are fleeting and lack frames of references. Others contend that O'Hara's focus on everyday details reveals the significance inherent in all aspects of experience and suggests that the value of life is equivalent to the vitality with which it is experienced. O'Hara's focus on the present, as evidenced by his fast-paced style, has also been interpreted as a warning against dwelling on the past. Other critics have focused on O'Hara's presentation of self. Scholars have also noted O'Hara's interest in cultural images and myths. Commentators have viewed O'Hara's poetry as a reaction to literary history, particularly modernism. Many reviewers have noted the parallels between O'Hara's poetry and that of Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams, while other have commented on O'Hara's influence on later poets.