Frank O’Hara was one of the experimental poets of the mid-twentieth century, associated with John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and other innovative artists that lived and worked in New York City during the 1950’s and 1960’s. O’Hara’s work is flamboyantly original, capturing the details of the cityscape and the lifeblood that ran beneath it. His energetic and vibrant poems are filled with names and places and events of the time, and even while celebrating life, they hold an elegiac undertone.
This new selection presents the essential O’Hara. The poet’s life was tragically shorthe was killed at forty in a freak accident. This collection begins with a poem written in 1949 or 1950 (the editor does not know which year) and ends with a poem written in 1966ironically, an elegy for another poet, Antonio Machado. Thus O’Hara’s writing, or at least his publishing, life spanned about sixteen yearslong when compared with John Keats’s but short if compared with most writers. O’Hara wrote prolificallyeditor Mark Ford said of Donald Allen’s edition of O’Hara’s Collected Poems (1971), “I weighed it on my kitchen scales and found it came in at just over three and a half pounds.” It seems appropriate to weigh this poetry on a scale, like produce. There is not a lot of change in the poetryO’Hara’s distinctive voice speaks consistently in the same tones, at least most of the time, although the effect is never dulled. The subject matter and style vary, providing different takes on the same life and place.
The selection includes useful material beyond the poems. The verse play Try, Try is here, and so are a few prose pieces, including the famous manifesto on Personism, the school of poetics O’Hara founded on a whim, as well as other poetics statements and brief memoirs. Interesting in themselves, the editor’s introduction and the concluding chronology help present a poet who has less currency among today’s poetry readers, and they consider some of the popular O’Hara myths.
These poems emanate a fiery energy, exploding on the page with a force and a visceral presence, as though the poet were in a small room with you, dancing around with excitement and explaining something crucially important in his life. They flow from line to line without stopping for breath; when they do stop, they are often punctuated with exclamation marks or commas or nothing at all. Nevertheless, the line endings seem appropriate, providing an invisible check to the current of language, reminding the reader that these are poems, that they have a form to guide their flow.
Their topicality ensures these poems are fresh rather than dated. The density of proper nouns in O’Hara’s poems is highmany well-known people are addressed directly, or evoked otherwise, always involved in some action that is characteristic. The reader is pulled through a series of rambling speculations that rejoice in the flux and flash of the artistic life, although sometimes glimpsed through the effervescence of the poems is a sadness. This effect is heightened for today’s reader because of the names of stars and artists long since faded. Suggestions of transience were always a part of the poems, through their references to news headlines, flowers, and fruit and through their direct descriptions of the persistent awareness of time’s passage.
O’Hara’s most anthologized poem may be “Poem [Lana Turner Has Collapsed],” in which the intensity of physical, personal presence communicates itself through the imagined connection between the speaker’s world and the star’s. The speaker is “trotting along” through New York’s rainy, snowy weather on his way to meet a friend or lover when he sees a headline, “LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED.” He thinks about the different weather where she is and comments:
there is no snow in Hollywoodthere is no rain in CaliforniaI have been to lots of partiesand acted perfectly disgracefulbut I never actually collapsed oh Lana Turner we...
(The entire section is 1,720 words.)