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A member of the New York School of Poets, Frank O’Hara applied the techniques of Abstract Expressionist painting and French Surrealism to his writing. He constructed poems in which he often employed words as units of form and sound without meaning, and juxtaposed seemingly random images and ideas. His poetry is noted for its rather cluttered style. In his verse, O’Hara eschewed traditional meter and poetic diction in favor of a random outpouring of objects and imagery. Often compared to Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams, O’Hara drew on mundane details from urban life to create poetry characterized by immediacy and apparent superficiality.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Music and War
Born Frances Russell O’Hara on March 27, 1926, in Baltimore, Maryland, he was the son of Russell J. O’Hara and his wife, Katherine (Broderick). O’Hara was raised in Grafton, Massachusetts, a suburb of Worcester. While growing up, he was a serious music student and wanted to be a concert pianist. O’Hara traveled every Saturday to Boston to take piano lessons, while attending St. John’s High School in Worcester during the week. When O’Hara completed his high school education, World War II was already underway.
The war began when Nazi Germany, led by Adolf Hitler, invaded Poland in September 1939 and overran the country. England and France declared war on Germany, but Germany soon controlled much of the European continent. The United States entered the war in 1941, after Japan bombed an American naval base in Hawaii. The war was fought in a number of theaters in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the South Pacific, involving sixty-one countries and leaving fifty-five million people dead. O’Hara himself served in the U.S. Navy as a sonar man third class on the destroyer U.S.S. Nicholas for two years in the South Pacific during the conflict.
Harvard and a Hopwood
After the war’s end and his discharge from the military, O’Hara entered Harvard College in 1946. He first studied music, with the goal of becoming a concert pianist. O’Hara later switched to English for his major, and decided he wanted to be a writer. While a student, he wrote his first poems and met John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch, poets with whom he was later associated as a member of a literary circle known as the New York School of Poets. O’Hara was also a founder of the Poet’s Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
After graduating from Harvard in 1950, O’Hara entered a master’s program in English and creative writing at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. While a student, he won a Hopwood Award for a collection of poems, ”A Byzantine Place,” and the verse play Try! Try! in 1951. O’Hara was granted his master’s degree that year and then moved to New York City.
Immersed in the World of Art
In 1952, O’Hara published his first poetry collection, A City Winter, and Other Poems, followed by Oranges (1953). Both were published by the Tibor de Nagy Gallery. He was also employed briefly first as a private secretary to photographer Cecil Beaton, then at the front desk of the Museum of Modern Art as a sales clerk. O’Hara resigned the latter post to become an editorial associate of the publication
Art News from 1953 to 1955. While working there, he, at times, contributed reviews and occasional articles. O’Hara rejoined the Museum of Modern Art in 1955 as a special assistant in the International Program. By 1960, he had been promoted to associate curator.
During this period, O’Hara organized many seminal exhibitions by Abstract Expressionist painters such as Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko, as well as the sculptor David Smith and painters of the New York School, including Grace Hartigan and Michael Goldberg. O’Hara was an astute art critic and wrote an influential monograph on painter Jackson Pollock, a close friend. His art criticism was collected posthumously in Art Chronicles 1954-66 (1975) and Standing Still and Walking in New York (1983).
While working at the Museum of Modern Art, O’Hara published five collections of poetry. Like his earlier works, most were published in limited editions and not widely available. He was an improvisational writer who often dashed off poems on his lunch hour or in the company of other people. Mediations in An Emergency (1957) was the first of his poetry collections to be widely circulated. Odes (1960) included five serigraphs by Michael Goldberg.
That same year, O’Hara published a long poem, Second Avenue (1960), which had been written in 1953. The ambitious poem was composed of eleven parts which featured a catalogue of random juxtapositions. With the publication of Lunch Poems (1964), his reputation gained ground. The last collection published while O’Hara was alive was Love Poems (1965), which included a number of poems about his male lovers, including a series dedicated to dancer Vincent Warren. O’Hara was gay at a time when homosexuality was not accepted by mainstream America. Certain urban areas like New York City, however, had an active gay community and subculture.
After being struck by a dune buggy taxi cab on Fire Island, a well-known gay resort near New York City, O’Hara died on July 24, 1966, at the age of forty. After his death, his poetry received more attention than while he was alive. He won a National Book Award in 1972 for one of many posthumous collections of his poetry, The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara (1971). O’Hara also wrote a number of plays gathered retrospectively in Selected Plays (1978), while his essays were collected in Standing Still and Walking in New York (1975).
Works in Literary Context
A highly innovative postmodern poet, Frank O’Hara’s work was unusual in its stylistic diversity. His work ranges from early surrealistic pieces to his exuberant and highly original ”I do this I do that” poems, which chart his walks around New York during his lunch hour. Above all an urban poet, O’Hara wrote poems that are notable for the way they map New York in the 1950s and 1960s, but also link it to wider global, historical, and psychological spaces.
The joyful profusion of visual detail in his poetry reflects the poet’s exuberant vision of life, especially of the urban scene. O’Hara was also influenced by the gay culture and lifestyle of which he was a part, and included mentions of his male lovers, as well as close male and female friendships in his poetry. As a poet, O’Hara was influenced by a variety of authors and interests including European symbolism and surrealism; the American poetic tradition of Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, and Hart Crane; Abstract Expressionist painting; Pop Art; cinema; and classical and contemporary music.
Influence of Gay Culture
O’Hara’s poetry contains many allusions to gay culture and activities, such as cruising and cross-dressing, and his poems sometimes adopt attitudes that are campy or ethically transgressive. His poetry, nonetheless, is not as unambiguously gay as that of Allen Ginsberg. In some O’Hara poems, it is not apparent that the poet’s lover is male. His homosexuality is most obvious in the vocabulary and style of some of his poems: it has a linguistic, as much as a thematic, presence in his work. This more implicit referencing of his sexuality does not, however, stem from political or social evasiveness about his sexual identity. Instead, his poems convey a fluid and open sense of gender and sexual boundaries, creating a “morphing” sexuality that is more reflective of today’s discourses and practices than of those most visible in the 1950s and 1960s.
Everyday Details of Urban Life
Personal but not confessional, many of O’Hara’s poems document daily experiences. It is poetry of observation, not mediation. O’Hara did not distinguish between art and life—for him the two were inexorably linked. Often described as spontaneous and nonreferential, O’Hara’s poems create a collage of seemingly insignificant details from urban life. He often treats significant events in a trivial fashion, and often includes fleeting images that lack a frame of reference. ”The Day Lady Died,” for instance, contrasts the mundane activities of an ordinary day with a few concluding lines concerning Billie Holiday and her death. ”Personal Poem” lacks any periods or rests, suggesting that objects and ideas are events that should be immediately consumed and dropped. O’Hara’s focus on everyday details reveals the significance inherent in all aspects of experience, and suggests that the value of life is equivalent to the vitality with which it is experienced. O’Hara’s focus on the present, as evidenced by his fast-paced style, has also been interpreted as a warning against dwelling on the past, an explicit theme in The General Returns from One Place to Another (1962), a play in which a caricature of General Douglas MacArthur attempts to recapture past glory.
Cultural Images and Myths
Many of O’Hara’s poems reflect his interest in cultural images and myths. In his poem ”On Seeing Larry Rivers’ Washington Crossing the Delaware at the Museum of Modern Art,” for example, O’Hara mocks America’s first president, George
Washington, as well as the heroic myth associated with the general. O’Hara depicts him as anxious, cold, and fearful. At the same time, however, he pays tribute to Washington and re-mythologizes the crossing by approaching an authentic rendering of the historical event, while portraying Washington as a complex person engaged in a dangerous and difficult endeavor.
Works in Critical Context
Although early critical reaction to O’Hara’s poetry was mixed, his reputation increased steadily after his death, and critics have noted his immense influence on subsequent poets. Most critics have focused on the importance O’Hara imputes to the present and the trivial. In explaining the apparent superficiality of his poetry, critics have argued that O’Hara’s poems lack depth because of the way he treats significant events. Many reviewers believed that the full range and power of O’Hara’s work was revealed only posthumously in editions of his work like The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara and Poems Retrieved (1977). Currently, his reputation is secure as an important and even popular poet in the great upsurge of American poetry following World War II.
The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara
Published several years after his death, the award-winning collection, The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, received generally positive reviews from critics. Writing in Parnassus, Helen Vendler judges this inclusive collection as overwhelming. Vendler writes, ”His charms are inseparable from his overproduction. … [T]hey remind us … of the rapid unfinished sketches done by an artist to keep his hand in, or to remind him of some perishable composition of the earth.” She concludes, however, ”In O’Hara, modern life is instantly recognizable, and a modern ethos of the anarchically personal receives its best incarnation yet.” In Contemporary Literature, Marjorie G. Perloff notes, ”O’Hara was nothing if not learned. His command of language and verse forms, his knowledge of European literature, rivaled not only Lowell’s but Eliot’s and Pound’s …” Herbert A. Leibowitz in The New York Times concludes, ”The pleasures of the Collected Poems confirm his place as one of our best minor poets.”
Art Chronicles 1954-66
Art Chronicles 1954-66is a collection of O’Hara’s art criticism published while he worked at the Art News and for other publications. Critics generally regarded his art criticism as highly as his poetry. In The New Republic, Marjorie Perloff comments that this ”set of essays suggest to me that O’Hara will eventually emerge as the Ezra Pound of the postwar period.” She adds that ”his impressionistic criticism takes on a different cast when one notes that, like Pound, he had an unerring eye for genius, an amazing sense of the difference between the first-rate and the second best.” However, Thomas Byrom was more tempered in his praise. In the Times Literary Supplement, he writes, ”This art criticism . . . is light, fanciful, and untheoretical. When he fashions himself after Apollinaire . . . we should not take him as serious as his immortalizers have done. The emulation is a respectful bit of cheek . . .”
- Gooch, Brad. City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara. New York: Knopf, 1993.
- Perloff, Marjorie. Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters, second ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
- Smith, Hazel. Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara: Difference, Homosexuality, Topography. Liverpool, England: Liverpool University Press, 2000.
- Byrom, Thomas. ”The Poet of the Painters.” Times Literary Supplement (January 27, 1968): 78-79.
- Leibowitz, Herbert. ”A Pan Piping on the City Streets.” The New York Times (November 28, 1971): 7, 28.
- Perloff, Marjorie. ”Poetry Chronicle: 1970-71.” Contemporary Literature (Winter 1973): 97-131.
- –. ”They Were There.” The New Republic (March 1, 1975): 23-24.
- Vendler, Helen. ”The Virtues of Alterable.” Parnassus (Fall/Winter 1972): 5-20.
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