Introduction

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O'Hara, Frank 1926–1966

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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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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 861

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...

(The entire section contains 9180 words.)

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