Open Frank O’Hara’s Collected Poems at random, somewhere in the middle, and you may get what looks like a Post-It note to a friend, or versified notes on a Jackson Pollock painting, a James Dean movie or ‘the music of Adolphe Deutsch’. You may also get one of many enticing, informal, secretly-complex poems that sound like nobody else ever has:
How can you start hating me when I’m so comfortable in your raincoat
the apples kept bumping off the old gnarled banged-up biddy-assed tree
and I kept ducking and hugging and bobbing as if you were a tub of water
on Hallowe’en it was fun but you threw yourself into reverse like a tractor
hugging the ground in spring that was nice too more rain more raincoat
(‘Adventures In Living’)
Who was O’Hara, and how did he learn to write like that? Born in 1926, he grew up in small towns in Massachusetts, studied piano seriously throughout high school and served in the Navy at the close of World War II. He attended Harvard, where he began a close friendship with his classmate, John Ashbery. After a year (1950-51) in Michigan writing and translating poetry, he moved to New York, where he rejoined his Harvard friends and their friends – among them the poets Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler and Barbara Guest – becoming part of a social circle that was soon dominated by painters. In 1951 and again from 1955 until his death, O’Hara worked at the Museum of Modern Art, where he became a curator of exhibitions and a well known figure in the New York art world. In 1959 he embarked on a tumultuous love affair with Vincent Warren, the dancer.
Through the early 1960s, O’Hara’s commitments at MOMA increased (so did his drinking). He also became a hero for younger Bohemian poets, who moved into New York scenes he’d helped to establish. Even so, until City Lights published Lunch Poems (still the best introduction to his work) in 1964, his books appeared in limited editions that were hard to obtain outside New York. In July 1966, O’Hara was hit by a beach buggy on Fire Island; he died a few days later. (Brad Gooch’s biography, City Poet, 1993, adorned these facts with lurid guesswork and even speculated that O’Hara had wanted to get killed.) A wider world of readers discovered O’Hara’s verse when his enormous posthumous Collected won America’s National Book Award for 1971; its editor, Donald Allen, has since brought out a Selected and several more volumes of prose and verse.
During the 1950s, O’Hara reviewed art and contemporary classical music. He wrote at least seven poems called ‘On Rachmaninoff’s Birthday’, and many others in which music matters. Yet he will always be linked to the visual arts: American artists made sure of that. ‘In Memory of My Feelings’ is the name of a 1956 O’Hara poem, a haunting 1961 painting by Jasper Johns, a 1967 art-world all-star anthology commemorating O’Hara, and a 1999 exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Contemporary Art, curated by Russell Ferguson. O’Hara collaborated with the Action Painters and the proto-Pop artists Joe Brainard, Norman Bluhm, Mike Goldberg, Franz Kline, Al Leslie and Larry Rivers, on paintings, prints, collages, ‘artists’ books’ and short films: these comprise the core of the exhibition. There are also portraits and other works linked to O’Hara: Johns’s big black canvas, with silverware attached, now looks like a work of proleptic mourning, its dangling fork-and-spoon marking a grave.
That gravity makes it atypical. Works in which the poet himself had a hand are almost always playful, exuberantly or reluctantly so. The best known and liveliest are the series Stones, by O’Hara and Rivers, and another, rougher series with Bluhm, who recalls his work with O’Hara as ‘instantaneous, like a conversation between friends’. Bluhm and O’Hara’s ‘This is the First’ (1960) offers a scrawled text – ‘this is the first person/I ever went to bed/with’ – over a teasing, ambiguous duo of brown arcs: breast and thigh? pear and leaf? a foreshortened phallus? In runny paint below the lower arc, the artists have added: ‘wow!’
O’Hara and his friends worked together not only on visual art but on poetic sequences, and on mock-critical documents like O’Hara and Rivers’s ‘How to Proceed in the Arts’: ‘If you’re the type of person who thinks in words – paint!’ Most of all – with Ashbery, Bill Berkson, Koch, Rivers and others – O’Hara collaborated on plays. Amorous Nightmares of Delay (1996) reissued and retitled O’Hara’s 1978 Selected Plays; two brief new prefaces were added to the original, substantial introduction, by Joe LeSueur, O’Hara’s flatmate. A few of the plays had theatrical runs; more were privately staged at parties, as masques or eclogues in which his friends played outrageously torqued, accentuated or childish versions of themselves or one another: ‘I’m Jane, I’m Jimmy, I’m Larry, I’m Kenneth, I’m John, I’m Barbara, I’m Bob, how are you, folks?’
One collaboration, LeSueur remarks, ‘might remind the reader of nothing so much as children at play, dressing up in grown-ups’ clothes and putting on a show in the backyard’. Another, ‘bitchy and gossipy’, ‘audaciously evokes some of the atmosphere’ of the writers’ and artists’ favourite bars, among them the Cedar Tavern and the San Remo. It can be hard to distinguish backyard and bar: the fun of the plays often lies in their overlap. Stock characters become ‘real’ people, real people become one another (Ashbery plays ‘Jimmy Schuyler’) and all are conflated with works of art:
GIRL: John has this new Bessarabian poet he wants to publish who’s not as good as Jimmy’s novel. He paints gravel poems!
JOHN MYERS: Jimmy’s novel isn’t a person and you know it. And neither is the Bessarabian, for that matter.
(The Coronation Murder Mystery)
Awake in Spain is a hotchpotch of shepherds, Audenesque pastoral airmen, urban gay camp, Shakespearean aristocrats-in-the-woods and what William Empson called the child-as-swain:
TWO SHEPHERDS: We love the country, that’s why we’re handsome, it’s love love love love love. We only quarrel over sheep. We’re terribly natural, aren’t we? Well, is the sky blue? What did you expect, a couple of Air Force Cadets? Not that we couldn’t if we wanted to!
SHEEP: Sure you could.
GRANDMOTHER: Would you boys like to take sandwiches to school or come home at noon?
KING: I’ll get back into that palace, I know I will.
SHEEP: Sure you will.
The ‘New York School’ poets’ apparent independence from worldly concerns, their elaborate self-reference and slippery in-jokes, can make the world of the Cedar Tavern seem – in retrospect – a sort of Arcadia in itself.
Lehman offers a guided tour. Chapters on Ashbery, O’Hara, Koch (‘our funniest poet … a protean comic genius’) and Schuyler (‘the best-kept secret in American poetry’) precede chapters on the concept of movements in art and of an ‘avant-garde’, a term Lehman knows they would not have used for themselves. Lehman’s book anticipates a very broad audience, one which won’t necessarily know the poems. Those who do should enjoy the fruits of his biographical research. It’s neat to learn, for example, that Ashbery and O’Hara could imitate each other’s voices without trying: on the telephone ‘both Ashbery’s mother and … LeSueur were fooled into thinking that one was the other.’
Lehman writes that in O’Hara’s poems ‘one feels the romance of cheap digs in Greenwich Village, chinos and sneakers, a constant flow of adrenaline, taxis, drinks, an opening at the Museum of Modern Art, a party at a painter’s loft, poems written on the run between the San Remo bar and the New York City Ballet.’ To show what makes O’Hara more than just a diarist of a particularly fertile Bohemia would be to show how his poems work, why they sound as they do. Marjorie Perloff took on that job in Frank O’Hara: Poet among Painters (1977), the first academic book on O’Hara. Her new introduction to the reissued volume considers recent scholarly accounts of his work, scores a number of important points against reductive readings and goes on to suggest that O’Hara’s ‘aesthetic is closer to the conceptualism’ of Johns, or of John Cage, or of more recent poets she champions, than to the expressivism of his friends. This intriguing argument can look like special pleading when it’s set beside ‘Personism: A Manifesto’, the closest O’Hara came to a statement of his own aesthetic. A spoof of pretentious late-1950s manifestos like those of Charles Olson, the 1959 prose piece was also a real declaration of purpose: O’Hara’s poems would try to record, though never to stand in for, the idiosyncrasies of human relationships: ‘While I was writing “a love poem” I was realising that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born.’
The close relations between the poems and the man, between the man and the artists and writers around him, have made it easy, even too easy, to see him in terms of a New York School. (The art impresario John Bernard Myers coined the term with the ‘New York School’ of painters in mind.) School or no school, O’Hara certainly made himself a New York poet: the poems admire and try to mimic the city, where ‘however exaggerated at least something’s going on/and the quick oxygen in the air will not go neglected’. The sun itself, in ‘A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island’, tells the poet with cheeky authority:
I know you love Manhattan, but
you ought to look up more often.
always embrace things, people earth
sky stars, as I do, freely and with
the appropriate sense of space …
O’Hara wanted his space to be welcoming, vivid and crowded: ‘One need never leave … New York to get all the greenery one wishes: I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life.’ This is from ‘Meditations in an Emergency’, the best-known and best of his prose poems, whose self-contradictory title also suggests a specifically urban pace. Even in other landscapes (Long Island or Spain), O’Hara’s sometimes jagged associative manner recalls the visual field of Manhattan, where anything – hubcaps, actors, potholes, emeralds – might turn up next to anything else: as ‘Walking’ has it, ‘the country is no good for us/there’s nothing/to bump into … there’s not enough/poured concrete.’ The lesser poems, scattered or rushed (and there are plenty), create a sense of great potential never quite realised, in part because they include so many distractions; one can have the same feeling about New York itself.
It took attention, work and time for O’Hara to become a New York poet – his ‘“do this I do that”/poems’ (as he called them) start in about 1954. Even before then, he could be a superb poet of what we are pleased to call immaturity, creating young people at once touchingly needy, quite serious and crashingly ridiculous:
However the mounting wail of adolescence crashes
upon the amusement park he is not confused, the boy,
he is not discountenanced by any number of silences
or natural events like bombs. ‘Be mine some day!’ he
admonishes automobiles and palatial residences
as well as the ocean and Catholicism.
For every such moment, though, the earlier poems offer yards of flat surrealism and stacks of failed attempts at shock or high camp: ‘our ensembles must never let down the supreme Decorator, who has habituated the course in stars.’
Perloff rightly insists on O’Hara’s early and conscious study – of Williams, Gertrude Stein and the modern French poets. Russians, perhaps, became just as important. ‘A True Account’ is a response to a Mayakovsky poem; O’Hara elsewhere praised Mayakovsky’s verse and saw in himself the Soviet poet’s fragility, writing in a poem called ‘Mayakovsky’:
Now I am quietly waiting for
the catastrophe of my personality
to seem beautiful again,
and interesting, and modern.
O’Hara’s longest published essay about literature concerns Pasternak and quotes from Doctor Zhivago: ‘However far back you go in your memory, it is always in some external active manifestation of yourself that you come across your identity – in the work of your hands, in your family, in other people. And now listen carefully. You in others – this is your soul. This is what you are.’
Those lines might have been O’Hara’s motto. So thoroughly animated by other people, by conversational and social relations, he became a great and almost compulsive poet of occasions – birthdays, parties, dates and missed dates, other people’s poems, paintings, musical performances, good weather, even the chance discovery of a body louse:
There it is stranded in the blue
gaze. And the gaze is astonished, eye
to eye: a speck, and a vastness staring
back at it. Why it’s Louise! Hi, Louise.
A poet who could transform such non-events into mock-celebrations could also turn public occasions to intimate ones:
Khrushchev is coming on the right day! the cool graced light
is pushed off the enormous glass piers by hard wind
and everything is tossing, hurrying on up this country
has everything but politesse, a Puerto Rican cab driver says
and five different girls I see look like Piedie Gimbel
with her blonde hair tossing too, as she looked when I pushed
her little daughter on the swing on the lawn it was also windy
(‘Khrushchev is coming …’)
Concentrate on O’Hara’s ‘I’ for too long and it threatens to – no, it very much wants to – dissolve into a network of encounters with others. To this end, O’Hara even conceives of himself as Grand Central Station: ‘if they are not thundering into me/they are thundering across me … On rainy days I ache as if a train/were about to arrive, I switch my tracks.’ His own Dejection Ode is the subtle and painful poem ‘Essay on Style’, in which he speaks of his feeling that his friends have abandoned him. Language is collapsing – adverbs have lost their function, and in particular,
well since it has no
application whatsoever neither as a state
of being or a rest for the mind no such
thing available …
no I am not going
to have you ‘in’ for dinner nor am I going ‘out’
I am going to eat alone for the rest of my life
For the author of Lunch Poems hardly a worse fate exists.
Ferguson is correct to say that ‘O’Hara’s very sense of self was constantly refracted through his relationships with other people’: if this was so of the man, it remains so of the poems, whose most astonishing formal qualities almost always emerge from O’Hara’s shimmering social life. He describes himself insistently in terms of what goes on around him, zipping back and forth between two present tenses, one for eternal truths, one for the present moment:
You know how
I feel about painters. I sometimes think poetry
Now I have taken down the underwear
I washed last night from the various light fixtures
and can proceed.
(‘John Button Birthday’)
O’Hara can flatten unwary readers with a blitz of proper nouns: who is John Button? who is Piedie Gimbel? Who are ‘Blanche Yurka, “Bones” Mifflin, Vera-Ellen and Alice Pearce’? The poems, Perloff declares, traverse ‘an elaborate network of cross-references to close personal friends, artists, film stars, city streets, bars, exotic places, titles of books.’ Is it the poetry of an in-group, then? Not at its frequent best, though it is a poetry of what it feels like to be, and to want to be, part of an in-group, or even at its centre: we feel the excitement and the mental agility that allowed O’Hara to navigate the vast network, even though we may not know all its nodes. He was, as Lytle Shaw has suggested, a ‘coterie poet’ in some of the ways that Donne was one. Like Donne, he became an energetic poet of intimacy. And like Donne’s, his work is addressed both to a public, populous world (which includes his future readers) and to the poet’s close friends (encouraging them to believe that they’re the ones who matter). This tension between the demands of strangers and the needs of friends is one most of us know. ‘Chez William Kramps’ has no other subject:
What I really love is people, and I don’t much care whom
except for a few favourites who fit, which you understand.
It’s like the sky being above the earth. It isn’t above
the moon, is it? Nor do I like anyone but you and you.
Some academics make much of O’Hara’s poems as gay code, which narrowly misses the point. When he wanted to write about sex, he did: ‘I suck off/every man in the Manhattan Storage &/Warehouse Co. Then, refreshed, again/to the streets!’ To write like that he needed, and had, not a movement but an inner circle. ‘Homosexuality’ is a response to James Ensor’s painting ‘Self-Portrait with Masks’: ‘So we are taking off our masks, are we, and keeping/our mouths shut? as if we’d been pierced by a glance!’ The poem ends with bitter-sweet drama – and public sex:
love a park and the inept a railway station,
and there are the divine ones who drag themselves up
and down the lengthening shadow of an Abyssinian head
in the dust, trailing their long elegant heels of hot air
crying to confuse the brave ‘It’s a summer’s day
and I want to be wanted more than anything else in the world.’
Written in 1954, ‘Homosexuality’ was published only after the poet’s death – but so was most of his verse: he did not want to become, and did not become, a poet (like Ginsberg) of public gay identity, or a public poet of any kind.
He did want to be, and became, a wonderful poet of erotic love – of promises, crushes, attractions of all sorts. ‘I am the least difficult of men’, ‘Meditations’ not-quite-joked: ‘all I want is boundless love.’ ‘Having a Coke with You’ pursues the very traditional theme in which every alternative pleasure pales beside the presence of the beloved: ‘Having a Coke With You/is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, Irún, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne/or being sick to my stomach on the Traveserá Gracia in Barcelona …’ The poems flirt with bathos as they flirt with their listeners, and are saved from sentimentality by continual oddities. ‘Weather near St Bridget’s Steeples’ leaves us to decide whether it describes an atmosphere or a person or both:
You are so beautiful and trusting
lying there on the sky
through the leaves
you seem to be breathing
you look slightly nude as if the clouds had parted
when the wind comes
you speak of an itch or a tickle
In the love poems (especially those dedicated to Warren), all O’Hara’s inventions bear fruit, among them the subgenre he called the ‘anthology’, a string of one or two-line mini-poems. ‘The Anthology of Lonely Days’ shuttles between the flirtatious and the wistful:
Meet you at the Frick please don’t wear pants
XIII FRICK MUSEUM
I’m tired too, of receiving pants, and the
pants always say they’re tired
of being worn …
Such digressive, distracted, flirty poems might well be called celebrations of whim. Taken seriously, they celebrate the freedom to make a range of affective and aesthetic decisions and associations. (Thus Parisian ‘chestnut trees are refusing to bloom/as they should refuse if they don’t want to.’) The ‘true point of contact,’ Ferguson concludes, ‘between New York School painting and O’Hara’s poetry … is to be found … in the idea of the spontaneous.’ And ‘Personism’ is both a display and a celebration of spontaneity:
If someone’s chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don’t turn around and shout ‘Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep’ … As for measure and other technical apparatus, that’s just common sense: if you’re going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so that everyone will want to go to bed with you.
Even the poems of emotional distress (like ‘Essay on Style’) are, or try to be, quick on their feet; they are full of startling cuts, asides, direct addresses to somebody nearby (as if the poem really were a telephone), and streams of particulars that don’t seem to stand for anything. These effects produce what Perloff describes as ‘the sense that we are eavesdropping on an ongoing conversation, that we are present’. Alertness, ‘presence’, immediacy become not only pleasurable pursuits but ethical ones (as they were for Walter Pater): alertness in life, to works of art, to weather, or to one’s friends, has its formal equivalent in the shifts of attention and enjambment that are found throughout the work:
Yes, it’s necessary, I’ll do
what you say, put everything
aside but what is here. The frail
instant needs us and the cautious
breath, so easily drowned in Liszt
or sucked out by a vulgar soprano.
(‘For Bob Rauschenberg’)
Nothing of O’Hara’s life – not a ‘frail instant’ – seems excluded from his poetry: what isn’t there in the poems wasn’t there for him. Many of his poems (and most of his plays) have the odd effect of simulating writing we can never quite judge because we know and like the author so well. And this effect is not just part of O’Hara’s legend, but part of the work his style does on us.
Few poets give us such a formally flexible, generically versatile, minute-by-minute sense of a whole life we might like to think we could live. O’Hara will remain best known for poems of extraordinary happiness, though he was quite as good, and more obviously powerful, with disappointment, apprehension and pain. It has become a standard critical exercise to take an ‘I do this I do that’ poem and show how its pile of minutiae defers or responds to some troubling event – ‘A Step Away from Them’ (a frequent and apposite example) is mostly given up to the pleasant ephemera of lunchtime New York: ‘On/to Times Square, where the sign/blows smoke over my head …’ Then the poem reaches its crucial lines: ‘First/Bunny died, then John Latouche,/then Jackson Pollock. But is the/earth as full as life was full, of them?’ Only in O’Hara’s Manhattan can life seem to go on undamaged by such losses. Understating deep grief and over-emphasising momentary pleasure or present company became for him not just a tonal technique but a way of life – even a way of thinking about one’s own death:
When I die, don’t come, I wouldn’t want a leaf
to turn away from the sun – it loves it there.
There’s nothing so spiritual about being happy
but you can’t miss a day of it, because it doesn’t last.
‘Poem (And tomorrow morning …)’
The verbal strategies of this poetry have analogies in O’Hara’s intense sociability, in the dense and confident personal ‘actions’ in some kinds of 1950s painting, even in the eventfulness of New York. The happiness, social and otherwise, in O’Hara depended on his sense of belonging and his need to belong. In the same way, his feeling for moment-by-moment experience – and his ability to assimilate the poetry to an array of crisp encounters – depended on his sense of time passing, and heading towards death. He told his readers as much, in his poems and his prose, in famous works like ‘Meditations’ and in others, less well known, including a revealing review of George Balanchine’s Roma in 1955. That ballet, he wrote, was ‘something you may live with the dancers, a vital, social, exhausting, and vivacious exchange between you and them, like trying to keep up with an exciting conversation in a foreign language.’ The experience carried throughout, he added, ‘an undercurrent of poignancy and regret, the inexplicable melancholy of a place where you are feeling perfectly happy and do not yet know that your visa has just been cancelled. You want to belong to it, you want to stay.’