Frank O'Hara Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

What is painterly about Frank O’Hara’s poems?

Is Walt Whitman’s influence on O’Hara greater in techniques or themes?

Does the fact that people are much more important than external nature in O’Hara’s poetry reflect his poetic theory or his temperament?

Does O’Hara’s rejection of traditional notions of poetic form liberate or limit his work?

Do O’Hara’s poems reflect craftsmanship—the quality that he tends to scorn in his pronouncements about poetry?

Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Frank O’Hara was always a poet, no matter what he wrote. His plays (published in Selected Plays, 1978), only a few of which are actually capable of being produced with any degree of dramatic effectiveness, are more often plays with words and visual effects than exploration of character or idea through dramatic conflict. Some juxtapose a vast variety of characters (from O’Hara’s own friends to Benjamin Franklin, Marlene Dietrich, William Blake, and Generalissimo Franco), most with only a single short speech, with connections nonexistent outside O’Hara’s fertile imagination. Others of these short plays offer sustained characters speaking in non sequiturs or in monologues unheard by other characters. In one play, Try! Try! (pr., pb. 1951), the monologues work in an interesting way, since there is a plot with a recognizable triangle of characters and actual dialogue, besides some poetic and psychologically suggestive monologues. Another produced play, The General Returns from One Place to Another (pr. 1964), uses verbal, visual, and dramatic means to satirize the American military abroad, particularly in the person of Douglas MacArthur.

O’Hara’s prose has been collected in Standing Still and Walking in New York (1975, Donald Allen, editor). The volume consists chiefly of miscellaneous pieces on modern art and contains a small quantity of literary criticism as well.

Besides writing for Art News, O’Hara worked on the catalogs for various exhibits at the Museum of Modern Art, including those on contemporary American painters Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell. His art criticism tends to be impressionistic rather than technical, but it effectively conveys the essence of contemporary painting.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Other than the advent of the Beat movement, probably the most exciting thing to happen to American poetry in the mid-twentieth century is the ascendance of vital and natural voices, with all the immediacy of actual human talk, through the work of the New York School of poets. Heading them were Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and Kenneth Koch, with O’Hara’s voice being the dominant one. Drawing elements from Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein, French Surrealists such as Guillaume Apollinaire and Pierre Reverdy, and the Russian poets Vladimir Mayakovsky and Boris Pasternak, O’Hara shattered the prevailing poetic standards regarding language, form, and content and forged his own verse with tremendous vigor and fire. He did not want to produce the sort of pristine, shapely work that could be found in scores of other volumes, admired by the literary establishment of New Critics for their traditional forms, metaphoric complexities, and mythic overtones. O’Hara rejected all these familiar ingredients, writing in unfettered free verse, shifting images and metaphors wildly throughout a poem, and dealing with earthy subject matter or very personal experiences without any effort to make them seem universally significant. He received the Avery Hopwood Major Award in Poetry in 1951 and the National Book Award in Poetry in 1972 for The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara.

Most of O’Hara’s poems flow, without any attempt to structure...

(The entire section is 420 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Breslin, James E. B. “Frank O’Hara.” In From Modern to Contemporary: American Poetry, 1945-1965. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. Discusses how O’Hara’s “lunch hour poems” demythologize city poetry, in contrast to the work of T. S. Eliot and Allen Ginsberg. Includes footnotes and index.

Feldman, Alan. Frank O’Hara. Boston: Twayne, 1979. This book introduces O’Hara as a New York poet. His language, style, and degrees of coherence are analyzed. Themes of “the self,” varieties of feelings, and humor are examined in succeeding chapters. Includes chronology, select bibliography, and index.

Gooch, Brad. City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994. This biography of O’Hara details his life from his Massachusetts Catholic boyhood to Harvard University and to New York, where his art criticism became seminal to the abstract expressionist painters and sculptors.

Perloff, Marjorie. Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters. New York: George Braziller, 1977. Analyzes O’Hara’s “aesthetic of attention” and surveys the early poems. Perloff’s central chapter looks at his “poem-paintings,” and then his “great period” is presented. Includes illustrations, notes, a bibliographical note, and an index.

Vendler, Helen. “Frank O’Hara: The Virtue of the Alterable.” In Part of Nature, Part of Us: Modern American Poets. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980. This essay reviews O’Hara’s work as a genre of overproduced conversation with an incapacity to be abstract and a discomfort with form. O’Hara, however, proved in his late poetry that he could capture the rhythms of America better than most of his contemporaries.

Ward, Geoff. Statutes of Liberty: The New York School of Poets. New York: Palgrave, 2001. An acclaimed account of the New York school and its key figures, John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, and James Schuyler, and their growing influence on postmodern poetics.