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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...

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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.)

Thomas Byrom

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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 Day 1950, Second Avenue, he spoils himself with chancy disjunctions and licentious associations….

As a Dada poet O'Hara does better. The love of horseplay and the solemn whimsies, the wit that refuses a programme, the uncritical spoofing, the fizziness of the gossip exactly suited him. He revives, for instance, the date poem—"It is 12.20 in New York a Friday"—which imitates "At the Paul Guillaume Gallery" by Pierre Albert-Birot….

He was not a radical poet but the conserver of an avant-garde, or just barely the latest of an arrière-garde. It is fitting that just before he died he was appointed a curator at the Museum of Modern Art. He was very much a caretaker and a presenter of exhibitions, rather than a historian or a forerunning poet.

His aesthetics are from a catalogue of late Victorian camp, a matter of excellent personal taste and of display…. His syntax has little of the crafty or inspired appositiveness of the Surrealist; it is an articulation of mental chatter and drift, and his style depends for its success wholly on his sensibility. Perhaps he is most like E. E. Cummings, the same soft verve, a sentimental eroticism, a certain heart…. Throughout his work there is an unwittingly incomplete parody of Romantic or Transcendentalist attitudes. He is, like Cummings, a cheating kid, he takes it all back, he plays safe. (p. 78)

There are too many moments in O'Hara when you can't tell if he means it, and you laugh anyway, only to have his irrepressible lack of dignity mock any judgment, even the most deserved. As the poet of New York he reflects uncritically and faithfully and with something of the maudlin gusto of Fitzgerald's "My Lost City" the brilliance, the vulgarity of the city. Starstruck, he is quite undone by the glamour in "For James Dean"; but in "Lana Turner Has Collapsed" he recovers his wits and the surface glitters. His characteristic movement is from flat to fantasy, real to surreal, literal reference to comic reverie, and often he shifts up with panache.

The best of Poems Retrieved [are about friendships]…. His several reminiscences of Violet Lang—"To Violet Lang", "Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit", and a couple in Selected Poems—tell us a lot about the quality of his affection, and go deep by staying lovingly and respectfully slight.

His talent was social, and he was perhaps best in his collaborations, where he could count on his own gifts of sympathy and the nourishment of another sensibility to keep him free, high and quick. In the late 1950s he worked with Larry Rivers on a series of lithographs, Stones. Taking turns, O'Hara would scratch out a few lines of poetry, Rivers would draw something, until they had a clumsy, graceful and usually absurd bit of work and play: "US", "Rimbaud and Verlaine", "Love", "Melancholy Breakfast". The poorer stones illustrate precisely how O'Hara's craft could not survive his spontaneity. He was an improviser, a romancer of collage, a first-rate cut-and-paste poet. (p. 79)

Thomas Byrom, "The Poet of the Painters," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1968; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), January 27, 1968, pp. 78-9.

Paul Zweig

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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.

Aram Saroyan

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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.

Fred Moramarco

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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:

                   And here I am, the
                   center of all beauty!
                   writing these poems!

The wonder here is a mock-wonder—whimsical rather than Whitmanic—but it is aimed at calling our attention to the "action" of making the poem. Here, as elsewhere in O'Hara's work, the mock-heroic posturing is only superficially satirical. Underlying the casual chronicles of everyday events in his work is a deep commitment to the transformative qualities of poetry—its ability to open our eyes, sharpen our perceptions, involve us more totally with the world around us. O'Hara's whimsy is, if I may be permitted an oxymoron, a serious whimsy. (pp. 440-41)

[O'Hara's work] has apparent affinities with Pop-Art: in poems like the one beginning "Lana Turner has collapsed" or the delightful poem called "the Lay of the Romance of the Associations" in which the Fifth and Park Avenue Associations in New York attempt to get together, only to be frustrated because "that bourgeois Madison Avenue continues to obstruct our free intercourse with each other." But the sense of playfulness and social satire O'Hara's poems share with Pop-Art seems to me less substantial than the "action" involvement of the writer within the poem and the relationship of that literary idea to the painterly esthetic of Abstract Expressionism. (pp. 442-43)

One gets the … sense of what I would like to call the "casual" total involvement in O'Hara's work in this statement by William Baziotes, the well-known painter of the New York School: "I work on many canvases at once. In the morning I line them up against the wall of my studio. Some speak; some do not. They are mirrors. They tell me what I am like at the moment." The last two sentences are pure O'Hara; the mimetic function of art is limited to an imitation of the artist's immediate sensibility—"what I am like at the moment"—not an external or objective scene or series of events, or enduring and universal human values.

The achievement of O'Hara and the Abstract Expressionists shows us that transient matters can be dealt with in an enduring way. The art of the moment does not always have to be propagandistic and tied to rapidly changing social issues. When the moment-to-moment reality of the individual becomes the focus, the art becomes made up of the very stuff of life itself. Art has always been preoccupied with the universal, these artists seem to be telling us, but life continues to serve up a steady diet of particulars. It is as a careful chronicler of those particulars that O'Hara has made his mark on literary history. (pp. 443-44)

"Poem for a Painter" makes specific O'Hara's painterly sympathies and his inclination to view the art of painting as more able to capture fleeting emotional moments than poetry. In lines reminiscent of Hart Crane, he writes, "The ice of your imagination lends / an anchor to the endless sea of pain." The painterly imagination is frozen; the event captured on the canvas is its own enduring record. O'Hara wrote a great deal about painters in his poetry as well as his prose, and there can be no question, I think, that he attempted to consolidate the achievement of Abstract Expressionism in literary art. (pp. 445-46)

Fred Moramarco, in Journal of Modern Literature (© Temple University 1976), September, 1976.

Marjorie Perloff

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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 artist's "duty to be attentive" to the world of process in which he finds himself. And such attention requires a peculiar self-discipline, the ability to look at something and, paraphrasing Ezra Pound, to "See It New!" (pp. 19-20)

To be "influenced" by another artist … is to find new means of evading monotony, boredom, sameness—to force oneself to "see" in new ways, to defamiliarize the object….

One way of avoiding boredom, of keeping oneself and one's reader "more keenly interested," is to create a poetic structure that is always changing, shifting, becoming. (p. 20)

Openness, quickening, immediacy—these are the qualities O'Hara wants to capture in his poetry….

Photographs, monuments, static memories—"all things that don't change"—these have no place in the poet's world. We can now understand why O'Hara loves the motion picture, action painting, and all forms of dance—art forms that capture the present rather than the past, the present in all its chaotic splendor. And New York is therefore the very center of being, quite simply because it is the place where more is happening at once than anywhere else in the world…. (p. 21)

The surface of the painting, and by analogy the surface of the poem, must [for O'Hara] be regarded as a field upon which the physical energies of the artist can operate, without mediation of metaphor or symbol. The poet's images—for example, the "hum-colored / cabs," the "yellow helmets" worn by the laborers, or the "glass of papaya juice" in "A Step Away From Them" …—are not symbolic properties; there is nothing behind these surfaces. Rather, their positioning in the poet's field, their push and pull interaction, function metonymically to create a microcosm of the poet's New York world—a world verifiable on any city map yet also fictive in its fantastic configurations…. (p. 22)

[Distrust of symbolism is a central tenet of O'Hara's poetic and of his art criticism. For example, he praised Claes] Oldenburg's ability to make "the very objects and symbols themselves, with the help of papier-mâché, cloth, wood, glue, paint and whatever other mysterious materials are inside and on them, into art…. There is no hint of mysticism, no 'significance,' no commentary, in the work."

The aesthetic of presence rather than transcendence is formulated with particular force in O'Hara's first essay on David Smith…. Smith's sculptures, O'Hara argues, defy all our traditional notions of organic oneness and unity. "This is no longer the Constructivist intersection of colored planes, nor is the color used as a means of unifying the surface. Unification is approached by inviting the eye to travel over the complicated surface exhaustively, rather than inviting it to settle on the whole first and then explore details. It is the esthetic of culmination rather than examination."

The esthetic of culmination rather than examination—this formulation applies nicely to O'Hara's own poetry. As in the case of Smith's sculptures, O'Hara's poems reject [a] dense network of symbolic images…. Rather, the reader's eye and ear must "travel over the complicated surface exhaustively," participating in the ongoing process of discovery and continually revising his sense of what the poem is "saying." The observer can no longer be detached. "The best of the current sculptures," says O'Hara, "didn't make me feel I wanted to have one, they made me feel I wanted to be one."… If the art work has presence and if the beholder is as attentive as possible, the process of identification thus becomes complete. (p. 35)

From the first, he accepted Williams as a master, no doubt because he identified with Williams's struggle against convention, pretentiousness, conformity—the "going thing." (p. 44)

O'Hara admires Williams's "liberation of language," his "attempt to find an honest, tough, hard, beautiful thing." He follows Williams in believing that "The objective in writing is to reveal."…

[His debt to Williams] is less to the complex epic poem Paterson than to the Dadesque prose poems of Kora, and especially to the early shorter poems, whose unrhymed tercets or quatrains are distinguished by their very short lines, broken at odd junctures, and their use of colloquial speech. (p. 45)

"Memorial Day 1950" [, one of O'Hara's first great poems, is his] version of Rimbaud's "Les Poètes de sept ans," part autobiographical memoir, part artistic manifesto—a portrait of the young artist escaping from the restrictions of his narrowly bourgeois childhood world. But whereas Rimbaud's poem still observes the unities of time (the terrible long Sundays) and place (the poet's stifling childhood home with its polished mahogany break fronts), and relates stimulus (the smell of latrines) to response (the longing for succulent grass) in what is still an essentially realistic mode, O'Hara's poem is the verbal equivalent of a Dada collage—a bright, colorful, exuberant poem that juxtaposes disparate images in dreamlike sequences.

Whereas O'Hara's first Surrealist experiments like Oranges are partial failures because they present a hothouse world under glass, a world cleverly organized around a particular set of images but too remote from the reader, "Memorial Day" succeeds because it fuses the colloquialism and natural speech rhythms of Williams with the dialectic of polarized images characteristic of Dada and Surrealism. It is a fusion O'Hara would not quite achieve again for some years to come.

The poem's language is dynamic and immediate: "Picasso made me tough and quick," "Once he got his axe going everyone was upset,"… you must look things / in the belly, not in the eye," and so on. Such racy diction is very different from the frequently ornate style of Oranges: "My feet, tender with sight, wander the yellow grass in search of love."… (pp. 48-9)

But, more important, "Memorial Day 1950" is one of O'Hara's first poems to resemble film, with its dissolves, cuts, its images at once concrete and hallucinatory, bleeding into one another. (p. 49)

Of modern English and American poets, Williams, Pound, and Auden remained [O'Hara's] favorites, and certainly he never came to trust the school of Eliot, or to have much interest in Yeats, Hopkins, or Stevens. But despite his advocacy of the poetry of immediate experience, of concrete particulars and contemporary vernacular, his theory [as stated in 1951–52] remained ahead of his practice for another few years…. Auden, reading [his] Surrealist poems of the early fifties, wrote to O'Hara: "I think you … must watch what is always the great danger with any 'surrealistic' style, namely of confusing authentic non-logical relations which arouse wonder with accidental ones which arouse mere surprise and in the end fatigue."

This is an interesting observation. For curiously, the major poems of O'Hara's early New York period—"Chez Jane," "Easter," and "Second Avenue"—are not vernacular poems in the Pound-Williams-Auden tradition but Surrealist lyrics that carry the mode of the earlier Oranges to what is probably a point of no return. These are the poems of what John Ashbery has aptly called Frank's "French Zen period" …—fascinating, if not always successful, experiments. (pp. 62-3)

[In] a Surrealist poem like "Chez Jane," the dialectic of opposites has no "meaning" beyond itself. The "white chocolate jar" and tiger cat do not stand for any particular set of values; rather, the poet is interested in capturing the moment of metamorphosis itself, the moment when tiger piss turns into the sound of "Saint-Saëns."… O'Hara's [jar] is sometimes agent, sometimes acted upon. Everything is potentially something else, and the game is to record these changes.

In "Chez Jane," O'Hara was therefore doing something rather new in American poetry which was, despite the influx of French Surrealism during the war years, still essentially the poetry of Symbolism. Some readers may find O'Hara's poems excessively cold and intellectual; the poet himself is not yet present in the poem as mediator of polarities. But, taken on its own terms, "Chez Jane" has a kind of perfection and finish not yet found in the more prolix Oranges, written three years earlier. It is also quite free of the coyness—what we might call the "Dada giggle"—of such [earlier] poems as "Night Thoughts in Greenwich Village" or "Tarquin."… (p. 65)

[Kenneth Koch] quite rightly notes that O'Hara's technique [in "Easter"] is to detach beautiful words from traditional contexts, that the poem centers around a procession of bodily parts across a vast landscape, and that at the word "Easter," the tone and mood of the poem undergo a definite shift, death giving way to resurrection, separation to union…. Indeed, the poem ends on a note of joy…. Despite the references here to "cunts" and "shit," the poet is presenting a vision of new beauty. Sexual ecstasy is the keynote…. (p. 68)

[Contrary to some critical views] "Easter" does display a sense of form. Its consistent use of high-low polarities, its anaphoric "When the world …" clauses—clauses that are regularly left suspended but that nicely tie lines together—and the elaboration of its central Easter theme (here, of course, a secular, even a blasphemous Easter) make this a very exciting, innovative poem.

Yet the cataloguing technique of "Easter"—the endless piling up of polarized images in exclamatory phrases—is not without its dangers. Six months or so after he completed "Easter," O'Hara tried to carry its form one step further and the result is his most Byzantine and difficult poem, Second Avenue…. (pp. 68-9)

[Second Avenue] is perhaps too painterly a poem, O'Hara's most ambitious attempt to do with words ("you have to use words") what the Abstract Expressionists were doing with paint.

O'Hara does indeed include "everything" [in Second Avenue], and yet the question remains whether a poem, especially such a long poem, can "be the subject, not just about it," whether verbal structure can be so insistently nonmimetic. For the mode of Second Avenue seems to be one of intentional displacement and disorientation. (p. 70)

[One is] hard put to find any line of development in Second Avenue; individual sections appear in no particular sequence; scenes and images are juxtaposed without a view of their place in the larger scheme. Perhaps O'Hara wanted it that way, wanted to stun us by his insistent dislocations,… but such vertige ultimately cannot sustain the poem…. [The] poem's meanderings are less those of a diary than those of a catalogue of insufficiently related items.

Yet in many ways Second Avenue represents a real stylistic advance. (p. 72)

[There] are many lines and passages throughout Second Avenue that have the immediacy, excitement, and sense of presence that characterizes the later poetry. (p. 73)

[By late 1953] all the necessary ingredients were present: the passages of casual, colloquial diction capturing actual speech or actual events, the unique O'Hara syntax with its ambiguous verbal positioning, its odd line breaks and consistent enjambement—all working together to give the reader a sense of tautness and breakneck speed; the versions of painting rendered "poetically"; the vignettes of artists, friends, enemies, people in the street; the images of the city; the art world, the private world. But after Second Avenue, O'Hara learns to relate individual elements more intricately, to forge them into a coherent whole. And he now begins to put what we might call "straight Surrealism" behind him. In the poems of 1954–61, O'Hara's great period, we can no longer identify the echoes of Péret or Tzara or Desnos as readily; Surrealism has now been assimilated into an American idiom.

Nevertheless, when one looks at the oeuvre of these early years—years of testing—one is astonished by the poet's range, his daring, his willingness to experiment—and his frequent successes. If we replaced A City Winter with a more representative collection of early poems—a collection that would include "Autobiographia Literaria," "A Pleasant Thought from Whitehead," "The Critic," "An Image of Leda," "A Postcard from John Ashbery," "Les Etiquettes Jaunes," "Poem (I've got to tell you"), "Memorial Day 1950," "Easter," Second Avenue, and "Chez Jane"—O'Hara's central place in the literary scene of the early fifties would already be assured. (pp. 73-4)

[Painters] and painting provided O'Hara with one of his central subjects. (p. 77)

[One] strategy found in O'Hara's poems about art is to use an allusion to artists or works of art as a touchstone for grounding and authenticating a particular mood. (p. 80)

Another group of poems inspired by art can be classified as meditations on particular paintings with the intent of "translating" the tone of the painting into a verbal medium. These are poems that, unlike the passages from Second Avenue and "In Memory of My Feelings" …, treat the painting as an independent object, without reference to the artist. (p. 82)

[O'Hara] was really more at home with painting that retains at least some figuration than with pure abstraction. Pollock, Kline, and Motherwell may well have been O'Hara's Gods, but, practically speaking, it was difficult to carry over into poetry [total abstraction]…. Words, after all, have meanings, and thematic implications thus have a way of coming in by the back door…. [In] O'Hara's major poems,… he did, of course, make use of such major concepts of Abstract Expressionism as "push and pull," "all-over painting" (composition as continuum with no beginning or end), and Harold Rosenberg's famous observation that in Action Painting the canvas becomes an arena upon which to act rather than a space in which to reproduce. But as a poet, O'Hara displays a certain ambivalence to the great Abstract Expressionists, an ambivalence that creates interesting tensions in his art criticism…. (p. 85)

In O'Hara's art criticism, we find the very same qualities [found in the work of his life-long hero, Guillaume Apollinaire]: an absence of theoretical discourse and, except in rare cases, close technical analysis, counterbalanced by an astonishing ability to recognize greatness, to distinguish between the first-rate and the second-best. Like Apollinaire, O'Hara had the innate gift of entering a gallery in which a large group show was installed and immediately spotting the important painting or paintings. (pp. 86-7)

O'Hara is at his weakest when he tries to generalize about such abstractions as Art, Beauty, Reality, or Nature. (p. 89)

Few of the Poem-Paintings [done with painter Norman Bluhm] contain real poems. Number 3 boasts the single word Bust; number 6, the letters B-A-N-G in the four corners, surrounding a shape that looks like a comical furry phallus. Many are no more than in-jokes…. Number 5, which contains no visual images, is a more or less direct transcript of O'Hara's conversation: the words "I'm so tired of all the parties, it's like January and the hangovers on the beach" are scrawled across the surface of the picture.

Individually, these poem-paintings may be quite negligible—a stroke or two of paint, a few curved lines and drips, and a phrase like "reaping and sowing / sowing and reaping … Skylark," as in number 1. But John Perrault is surely right when he compares these collaborations to "footprints of a wild ballet." Like Chinese ink drawings, they have a lyric charm quite different from the more complex and subtle Stones [lithographs by O'Hara and Larry Rivers]. For one thing, O'Hara has a chance to display his beautiful handwriting which looks like calligraphy. The technique of making lithographs made this impossible in Stones, where the poet uses block print. The combination of O'Hara's rounded letters and Bluhm's curling horseshoe shapes, his thick white paint flecks, and suggestive, fleeting gestures, make Poem-Paintings real works of art even if their verbal messages hardly qualify as "poems." (p. 108)

Indeed, the twenty-six collaborations should be seen as an integral whole, a total event, rather than as separate paintings. Their inventiveness, wit, and charm become increasingly apparent as we study the relation of gesture to gesture, footmark to handprint, lyric phrase to four-letter word, proverb to sexy innuendo, white drop to black letter, and so on.

The "collaborations" of the sixties with such artists as Joe Brainard and Jasper Johns are no longer, strictly speaking, poem-paintings. (p. 109)

O'Hara used long lines frequently, evidently because he liked their appearance on the page—their ability to convey sensuality and strength. When spoken, however, these lines tend to break down into groups of twos or threes, as in the following example:

  Now the violets are all gone,//the rhinoceroses,//the cymbals….

What is heard does not, then, reflect what is seen. (p. 116)

Poetry and life—O'Hara refused, at least consciously, to make a distinction between the two. He regarded both as part of the same vital process, living every moment as if it were his last, forcing himself to go without sleep so as not to miss anything. (p. 117)

"Music," the opening poem of Lunch Poems, written in 1954, contains most of the stylistic devices [which identify a particular lyric as a "Frank O'Hara poem"].

     If I rest for a moment near The Equestrian
  pausing for a liver sausage sandwich in the Mayflower Shoppe,
  that angel seems to be leading the horse into Bergdorf's
  and I am naked as a table cloth, my nerves humming.
  Close to the fear of war and the stars which have disappeared.
  I have in my hands only 35¢, it's so meaningless to eat!
  and gusts of water spray over the basins of leaves
  like the hammers of a glass pianoforte. If I seem to you
  to have lavender lips under the leaves of the world, I must tighten my belt.
  It's like a locomotive on the march, the season of distress and clarity
  and my door is open to the evenings of midwinter's
  lightly falling snow over the newspapers.
  Clasp me in your handkerchief like a tear, trumpet
  of early afternoon! in the foggy autumn.
  As they're putting up the Christmas trees on Park Avenue
  I shall see my daydreams walking by with dogs in blankets,
  put to some use before all those coloured lights come on!
     But no more fountains and no more rain,
     and the stores stay open terribly late.

This is at once an "easier" and a "more difficult" poem than such earlier lyrics as "Chez Jane," "Easter," or "Memorial Day 1950."… [One's] first impression is that "Music" is no more than a record of daily trivia….

But the real strategy of ["Music"] is to remove objects from what Viktor Shklovsky has called "the automatism of perception," by adapting the techniques of film and action painting to a verbal medium. For one thing, the poem is framed as a series of cuts and dissolves, whether spatial, temporal, or referential. Thus in line 3, the highly concrete setting—the Mayflower Shoppe on the Plaza—dissolves into a comic fantasy scene, created by the optical illusion of staring into the Plaza fountain on a rainy day: "that angel seems to be leading the horse into Bergdorf's." Or again, the poem suddenly cuts from Fifth Avenue to Park….

Temporal dissolves work the same way. (p. 121)

Time shifts are not, of course, anything new in poetry, but it is one of O'Hara's trademarks to maintain the present tense (or conditional present as in "If I rest …") regardless, and to supply no adverbial pointers (e.g., "when," "after," "before," "during") that signal a shift. The concept of person is similarly fluid. The "I"—a very familiar, intimate, open "I"—is omnipresent but whom is he addressing?… [A] close friend or lover,… [or] perhaps the Manhattan traffic, the rising moon, the sky, or indeed the whole universe as if to say, "You out there!" While the poet's self thus remains a constant center, anything or anyone that comes within its field of vision can be addressed or called by name. The repetition of definite articles and demonstratives reinforces this sense of intimate conversation and invites the reader's participation: "The Equestrian" (note the ellipsis of the noun here), "the Mayflower Shoppe," "that angel," "the Christmas trees on Park Avenue"—all these references suggest that the reader is familiar with the scene, indeed that he is part of it.

The syntax of "Music" may be described as a system of nonsequiturs. "If I rest for a moment …" the poet begins, but no "then" clause ever follows, and the conditional clause dissolves into the parenthesis of line 3. The second "If I seem to you" clause in line 8 is completed by "I must tighten my belt," a clause that follows grammatically but makes no sense. Appositives and parallel nouns similarly turn out to be pseudo-appositives and pseudo-parallels…. In what sense is a "season" a "locomotive on the march"? And why "distress and clarity," or "the fear of war and the stars"? The use of "and" to introduce coordinate clauses is similarly illogical…. (p. 122)

The syntactic dislocations of "Music" are by no means as radical as those found in such earlier poems as "Second Avenue," with its all but impenetrable verbal surface, its total ambiguity of reference. But the repeated nonsequiturs act to undercut the documentary realism of the poem's scene and introduce the opposing note: an element of fantasy, of imaginative transformation…. Nothing really happens to the poet; it is all potential, conditional, projected into a possible future ("I shall see my daydreams"). And individual images and metaphors are often comically or grotesquely far-fetched, reinforcing the fantasy note…. (pp. 122-23)

How do all these elements work together? Again, the title gives us a clue, for the poem is like a melodic graph of the poet's perceptions. The varied sound images—some documentary and realistic, some fanciful and surreal—fuse to create a pattern that brings to mind modern dance (another favorite O'Hara art form) rather than a "poem" in the traditional sense of the word. (p. 123)

"Music" thus captures the sense of magic, urgency, and confusion of the modern cityscape in its "season of distress and clarity." It presents an impression of total fluidity, conveyed by the repeated use of present participles…. And the deliberate indeterminacy of the long verse lines is offset and heightened by repetitive internal sound patterning…. The effect of all these devices is to create an aura of intense animation.

Like an action painting, "Music" presents the poet's act of coming to awareness rather than the results of that act. (pp. 123-24)

"Music" fuses realism and surrealism, the literal and the fanciful. In so doing, it marks a clear-cut rejection of the Symbolist mode that had dominated American poetry for the first half of the century. Unlike Prufrock's "sawdust restaurants with oyster shells," with their symbolic connotations of aridity, sterility, and decay, O'Hara's Mayflower Shoppe points to nothing beyond itself; it has no underlying significance that demands interpretation. The name "Mayflower," for example, does not, in this context, call to mind our Founding Fathers or the innocence of an Early America; the coffee shop is simply there, an authentic presence we can all locate and recognize. Or again, whereas Prufrock's fear of eating a peach reflects his fear of ripeness and fertility, O'Hara's "liver sausage sandwich" has no particular symbolic properties; it could, for that matter, be a salami or cheese sandwich just as easily. (pp. 124-25)

O'Hara's is thus what Charles Altieri has called a "landscape without depth," a presence stripped of its "ontological vestments." Aerial perspective, three-dimensionality give way to a world of surfaces. In poem after poem of this period, what looks like a flat literalism predominates…. (p. 125)

But whereas any number of minor poets can offer us such a catalogue raisonné, O'Hara's empiricism is deceptive for it modulates easily and surprisingly into fantasy and artifice. The lessons of Dada and Surrealism have, after all, been learned; even the most casual personal poems retain the witty modulations and sudden polarization of images found in the poetry of Tzara, Péret, and Breton, or, for that matter, in the poetry of Apollinaire, which is one of the dominant influences on O'Hara's poetry of this period. (pp. 125-26)

[Surprising] conjunctions of literal reference and comic fantasy are typical of O'Hara; he shifts from real to surreal and back again with astonishing speed. And this is why his poetry is ultimately so difficult to imitate…. (p. 127)

O'Hara's poetry is, as everyone has remarked, one of constant name-dropping. Interestingly, proper names are not used very frequently in the early work….

By the late fifties, O'Hara had established an elaborate network of cross-references to close personal friends, artists, film stars, city streets, bars, exotic places, titles of books, movies, operas, and ballets—in short, the name of anyone or anything that happens to come across the poet's path. (pp. 127-28)

One's first response to these endless allusions is that they are part of a tiresome in-joke. Why should we know who [these people are]? And don't these very private allusions make excessive demands on readers, especially future readers who will need extensive annotation in order to understand a given O'Hara poem? (p. 128)

[In most cases] the referential quality of the names is purposely undercut. As Charles Altieri remarks:

His [O'Hara's] texture of proper names gives each person and detail an identity, but in no way do the names help the reader understand anything about what has been named…. [This] is rather a reminder for the reader that the specific details of another's life can appear only as momentary fragments, insisting through their particularity on his alienation from any inner reality they might possess.

This seems to me precisely the point…. O'Hara goes one step further than Pound, who still uses historical, literary, and mythological figures as touchstones. In O'Hara's poetry, such touchstones have largely disappeared; only the arts continue to be endowed with a certain value. His poetic world is thus one of immanence rather than transcendence; persons and places, books and films are named because they are central to O'Hara's particular consciousness, but they have no "inner reality." Compare O'Hara's treatment of, say, Jane Freilicher to Yeats's mythologizing portraits of Lionel Johnson or Lady Gregory, and the difference will become clear. (pp. 130-31)

When these syntactic and prosodic devices [shifting forms of pronouns, ambiguous references, pseudo-connectives, floating modifiers, spatial and temporal dissolves, ellipsis, absence of punctuation, and quirky line breaks] are used in conjunction, we get a poetry of great speed, openness, flexibility, and defiance of expectations. Like the "all-over" painting, an O'Hara lyric often seems intentionally deprived of a beginning, middle, and end; it is an instantaneous performance. Syntactic energy is thus equivalent to the painter's "push and pull"—the spatial tensions that keep a surface alive and moving. The rapid cuts from one spatial or temporal zone to another, moreover, give the poetry its peculiar sense of immediacy: everything is absorbed into the NOW. (p. 135)

[In O'Hara's major poems] the first person is ubiquitous. In "Music," the pronoun "I" and its cognates appear ten times in the space of twenty-one lines. Yet … "Music" does not explore the speaker's past so as to determine what has made him the person he is; it does not, for that matter, "confess" or "reveal" anything about his inner psychic life. The role of the "I" is to respond rather than to confess—to observe, to watch, to be attentive to things. The poet's ruminations are "Meditations in an Emergency" not "on an Emergency"—an important distinction for it suggests that the self, no longer able to detach itself from the objects it perceives, dissolves and becomes part of the external landscape…. [The] "I" fragments into the surfaces it contemplates…. [The poet] makes no attempt to reflect upon the larger human condition, to derive meaning from a series of past incidents, or to make judgments upon his former self, as Robert Lowell does in the Life Studies poems. Indeed, the past is often so immediate that it becomes the present…. It is a matter of reifying a feeling rather than remembering another person or a particular event; in so doing, that feeling becomes part of the poet's present.

Here the shift in pronouns … is relevant. When O'Hara switches from "I" to "one" in "A Step Away From Them," he enlarges the poem's horizons, making the seemingly personal situation … fictive, theatrical…. [The] confusing second-person references extend the range of the poem, drawing the reader into the situation. "Clasp me in your handkerchief like a tear!" the poet exclaims, and immediately we are drawn into the magic circle. We are there. (pp. 135-36)

O'Hara's poetry is characterized by a remarkable confluence of styles. Aside from the influence of painting … and the close bonds between O'Hara's lyric and the arts of film and music, the poems reflect an unusual combination of literary influences. Dada and Surrealism continue to stand behind O'Hara's distinctive imagery—an imagery inclining toward artifice and the landscape of dream. The colloquialism and celebration of ordinary experience recall Williams and, to a lesser extent, the later Auden; but the use of proper names and documentary "evidence" seems to derive from Pound rather than Williams…. O'Hara's syntactic structures were influenced by Apollinaire and Reverdy, while his peculiar brand of Personism can be traced back to Mayakovsky, Pasternak, and Rimbaud.

The Collected Poems is, in short, a very learned (detractors would say, an eclectic) book. O'Hara's reputation as casual improvisator, unschooled doodler, could hardly miss the mark more completely. (p. 138)

[O'Hara] reanimates traditional genres. Ode, elegy, pastoral, autobiographical poem, occasional verse, love song, litany—all these turn up in O'Hara's poetry, although his tendency is to parody the model or at least to subvert its "normal" conventions. (p. 139)

[The] enigmatic, elliptical "In Memory of My Feelings" (1956) [is] in my opinion not only O'Hara's best autobiographical poem, but one of the great poems of our time. Its central theme, the fragmentation and reintegration of the inner self—a self that threatens continually to dissipate under the assault of outer forces—is a familiar Romantic topos, but O'Hara turns the autobiographical convention inside out, fusing fantasy and realism in a painterly collage-poem, whose form is at one with its meaning. Grace Hartigan, to whom "In Memory" is dedicated, suggests that O'Hara's aim in this poem is to define "inner containment"—"how to be open but not violated, how not to panic." The structure of the poem embodies this theme; it is an extremely "open" lyric sequence that nevertheless never gives way to formlessness, never "panics."

O'Hara's actual biography plays a part in the poem, but it is subordinated to a series of hallucinatory visions and memories. The implication all along is that what matters is not what happened but how one felt or feels about it; the poet writes, after all, in memory of his "feelings." And evanescent as these feelings are, O'Hara unifies his kaleidoscopic visions by repeating certain key images…. (pp. 141-42)

Few poets of our time … could manage the difficult structural and textural modulations of ["In Memory of My Feelings"], its swift and sudden transitions from long flowing line to short choppy one, from romantic melody to jazz syncopation, from fact to fantasy, past to present, self to other, nightmare landscape to the direct presentation of things. The French influence is as important as ever, but it is now thoroughly domesticated, absorbed into the fabric of colloquial American idiom…. (p. 146)

[The odes] reveal a very different side of O'Hara from the one we have considered so far. Their tone is more oracular, impersonal, and exclamatory, their syntax insistently paratactic (the "and" clauses piling up to create an almost unbearable intensity), their prosody more formal and elaborate than is typical of O'Hara. "Ode to Joy" …, for example, has traces of the Greater or Pindaric Ode. Not that its three stanzas resemble the Pindaric model (strophe—antistrophe—epode), but the subject is "elevated" (the triumph of love over time), the tone sublime, and the three "strophes" have an intricate and elaborate prosodic scheme…. [Although] O'Hara's strophes contain neither rhyme nor meter, and although enjambment is used so consistently that the integrity of the individual line is somewhat obscured, the overall pattern is [formal]…. Certainly, its visual appearance on the page is very tidy, the three strophes looking exactly alike. (p. 153)

Thematically, these odes are curious for their avoidance of Personism; they are perhaps closer to such earlier long poems as "Second Avenue" and "Easter." "Ode to Joy" is a celebration of erotic love, of sexual bliss as a way of defying death. This theme is insistently Romantic but O'Hara's imagery is often surrealistic….

[Despite an] injection of parody, "Ode to Joy" is essentially quite serious about its theme…. (p. 154)

O'Hara's model is Shelley-cum-Dada, for the "Ode on Causality," like the "Ode to Joy," frequently injects comic burlesque elements…. But in ending his ode with the rhapsodic reference to the painter's apotheosis (he becomes a work of art), the poet recaptures his original ecstasy.

"Ode on Causality" [the finest of the 1957–58 odes] thus provides us with an interesting example of the fusion between disparate modes and conventions…. The total effect of the poem is that of a Brahms or Schumann lied, interrupted at certain junctures by "noise" passages in the vein of Satie or Cage. Such conjunctions are wholly characteristic of O'Hara's lyricism. (p. 156)

[The love poems written for Vincent Warren between 1959 and 1961,] forty-odd erotic lyrics, should be read in sequence, although they are not found that way in the chronologically arranged Collected Poems. The range of moods from sexual excitement, joy, and hope, to loneliness, delusion, despair, and cynicism, and finally to the stoical acceptance of the way things are is extraordinary. Even such seemingly trivial little songs [repay study]….

The risk of the intimate erotic lyric is that the poet is too close to his own experience to objectify it; in O'Hara's words, "sentiment is always intruding on form."… And we do find cases in the Vincent Warren sequence where the sentiment is stated too flatly … [or] the poem may succumb to triviality … [or to] campy cuteness…. (p. 157)

But for the most part, the Vincent Warren poems do work because O'Hara defines his sexual longing or sexual pleasure in terms of witty and fantastic hyperbole…. [His] analogies are intentionally absurd…. (p. 158)

After the enormous productivity of the late fifties, a lull was perhaps inevitable, and, in any case, the Museum now took up much of his time and energy. Between 1961 and 1963, the poet seems to have suffered periodic bouts of depression. Emptiness, despair, and death now become frequent themes…. (p. 165)

A number of poems contain references to suicide, although O'Hara usually treats this subject with self-deprecatory humor…. (p. 166)

But one must be careful not to generalize about the later poems, for the same Frank O'Hara who wrote "The Clouds Go Soft" [a poignant and "dark" poem], also wrote the wonderfully droll "Poem (Lana Turner has collapsed!)." (p. 167)

[In the early sixties] he organized three major shows for the Musuem: Motherwell, Nakian, and Smith. The catalogues for these exhibitions are now collector's items, the poet's introductions reflecting, once again, his uncanny ability to make the important discriminations about the art of his day. At the time of his death, O'Hara was working on a major retrospective of Jackson Pollock and had begun to make plans for the first major exhibition of de Kooning's painting at the museum. (p. 168)

What is probably O'Hara's best play, The General Returns from One Place to Another, a parodistic fantasy about General MacArthur's return to the Pacific theater in peacetime—a general in search of a war—was produced … in 1964 and published the following year in Art and Literature. This comedy, evidently inspired by a production of Brecht's In the Jungle of Cities, exploits some wonderfully absurd devices…. Unlike some of the early plays like Try! Try!, which are merely silly, The General Returns has shrewd and funny things to say about East-West relations. (p. 169)

One concludes that O'Hara wrote fewer poems during the sixties than he had in preceding years primarily because he was too busy doing other things. Indeed, it is a particularly bitter irony that the very summer O'Hara died was a time of special promise, both personal and literary. (pp. 170-71)

Since the "For Your Information" poems were written … mostly for the poets' [O'Hara's and Bill Berkson's] own diversion, it may be unfair to judge them too stringently on aesthetic grounds. Nevertheless, I would argue that there is a falling off in the FYI poems, that "Lunch Hour" replaces the Personism of Lunch Poems with a somewhat self-conscious gamesmanship. Modulation now gives way to simple repetition ("Plank plank"); the language is usually that of ordinary talk ("roll OVER dammit") and simplistic sound imitation ("tappety-tap drrrrrrrrrrrp!"). These new lyrics are much more loosely articulated: words tend to be spread all over the page, the blank space becoming an important prosodic element as a sort of musical rest. The three-step (or modified two-step) line of Williams's late poems is used frequently as is the device of placing verse paragraphs alternately on the left and right sides of the page…. Often, as in the case of "Lunch Hour," one is hard put to find a raison d'être for the particular prosodic shape used; sheer randomness seems to be the rule. These are poems that can start or stop anywhere, that accommodate almost anything the poet happens to want to record. Their tone, moreover, is curiously detached; O'Hara's former emotional vibrancy … is absent.

But perhaps these "For Your Information" poems are best considered as bits of muscle flexing, exercises that prepare the way for that great Bill Berkson poem, "Biotherm." (pp. 172-73)

How much openness can a poem bear? This is a tricky question, of course, and for a long time I regarded "Biotherm" as just … a witty improvisation, a transcript of the charming if jumbled talk of a marvelous raconteur. Its endless puns, in-jokes, phonetic games, allusions, cataloguing, journalistic parodies, and irrelevant anecdotes may seem, on a first or even a later reading, merely tiresome. Interestingly, "Biotherm" also seems to have much less relationship to painting than do the earlier poems. Film is now the dominant sister art; the poem is full of references to movie stars, Hollywood films, and invented scenarios, and its structure often resembles the film technique of crosscutting at accelerated speed, a technique particularly common in the silent film comedies of the twenties, for example those of Buster Keaton.

If we study O'Hara's crosscutting, we find that everything in this seemingly wild talk-poem relates to everything else…. Although the beach setting is never formally introduced or presented in realistic detail, sand, sea, and cloud images, as well as larger beach scenes, fade in and out at fairly regular intervals…. [The] brief flashes of real and fantastic beach locales provide a sense of continuity rather like that of a Godard film; they are brief reminders that the poem's variations radiate from a center which is the loving relationship between Frank and Bill…. What the poet preserves in "biotherm" in order to entertain his friend is a dazzling array of memories and inventions. (pp. 174-75)

Individually, [some] passages may seem to be pure slapstick, but the remarkable thing about "Biotherm" is that, as in a sophisticated orchestral composition, everything mentioned casually is picked up somewhere later in the poem in an altered context. (p. 177)

"Biotherm" consistently plays off the intensities of personal emotion against the vagaries of everyday conversation. It is an extremely difficult poem because the reader enters the "frame" only gradually, overhearing snatches of conversation …, and only gradually realizing that "Biotherm" is something of a rock opera, partly playful but also full of anxiety, alternating percussive passages with lyrical tunes, an extravaganza celebrating the poet's great love for his friend and memorializing their careless summer beach days…. Another way of putting it is that O'Hara's long lyric sequence is an elegy for "Biotherm," that magic potion that preserves roses—a potion interchangeable with "kickapoo joyjuice halvah Canton cheese / in thimbles" … or "marinated duck saddle with foot sauce and a tumbler of vodka."… Food and liquor images are especially prominent in this poem because the poet's imagination transforms them into Plankton, the "health-giving substance" that makes Biotherm so special. Thus when the poet says in one expansive moment:

I am sitting on top of Mauna Loa seeing thinking feeling the breeze rustles through the mountains gently trusts me I am guarding it from mess and measure …

he is describing not only his guardianship of Mauna Loa but the creative act as well. "Biotherm" is a poem dangerous to imitate for it implies that anything goes, that all you have to do is "merely continue." But in fact O'Hara does succeed here in "guarding it from mess and measure"—that is, from total formlessness on one hand, and from a more traditional rhetorical and prosodic organization on the other. It is his last great poem and one of the important poems of the sixties. (p. 178)

Marjorie Perloff, in her Frank O'Hara: Poet among Painters (reprinted by permission of George Braziller, Inc., Publishers; copyright © 1977 by Marjorie Perloff), Braziller, 1977.

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O'Hara, Frank


O'Hara, Frank (Vol. 2)