the exuberance of frank o’hara: “here I am, the center of all beauty! writing these poems! imagine!”

 

Introduction to Frank O’Hara: Selected Poems


by Mark Ford


"I love your poems in Poetry," James  Schuyler wrote to Frank O’Hara after reading a batch that included "Radio" and "On Seeing Larry Rivers’s Washington Crossing the Delaware at the Museum of Modern Art" in the March 1956 issue of the Chicago magazine. "In that cutting garden of salmon pink gladioli," he continued, "they’re as fresh as a Norway spruce. Your passion always makes me feel like a cloud the wind detaches (at last) from a mountain so I can finally go sailing over all those valleys with their crazy farms and towns. I always start bouncing up and down in my chair when I read a poem of yours like ‘Radio,’ where you seem to say, ‘I know you won’t think this is much of a subject for a poem but I just can’t help it: I feel like this,’ so that in the end you seem to be the only one who knows what the subject for a poem is."

Schuyler’s elaborate metaphors, and his account of the way the poems have him physically "bouncing up and down" in his chair, suggest much about the unique and liberating nature of Frank O’Hara’s poetry. Unlike the tasteful, carefully crafted "salmon pink gladioli" on offer elsewhere in the magazine, O’Hara’s poems enable Schuyler to break free "(at last)" from the sterile security of terra firma and embark on a panoramic survey of life in all its surreal variety. But the sense of the sublime the poems make possible is achieved not by addressing themselves to particular subjects but by a passionate, unembarrassed responsiveness to whatever happens to happen, however incongruous or seemingly trivial. Like so many of O’Hara’s readers, Schuyler finds himself galvanized by an injection of "immortal energy," to borrow a phrase from "Radio"—even though the poem’s ostensible subject matter (Saturday-afternoon classical-radio schedules) may seem none too promising. What matters, and gets communicated, is the poet’s self-reliant assertion: "I just can’t help it: I feel like this."

O’Hara disliked and distrusted theories of poetry but was in no way naive about his own procedures, which result, in his best work, in a style of writing that somehow manages to fuse immediacy and excitement with a glamorous hyper-sophistication and extreme self-consciousness. "I’d have," he tells us in "My Heart,"

            the immediacy of a bad movie,
not just a sleeper, but also the big,
overproduced first-run kind. I want to be
at least as alive as the vulgar.

When asked by Donald Allen for a statement to accompany his selection in the groundbreaking anthology The New American Poetry of 1960, O’Hara responded with a spoof manifesto entitled "Personism," in which he playfully ridiculed the very notion of writing according to some program or set of preconceived ideas: "You just go on your nerve. 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 poetic form and other technical aspects of poetry, "that’s just common sense: if you’re going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you." His own personal breakthrough occurred, we learn, shortly after lunch with Leroi Jones on August 27, 1959, "a day in which I was in love with someone (not Roi, by the way, a blond). I went back to work and wrote a poem for this person. While I was writing it I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born."

While O’Hara’s poems do often seem to unfurl with the randomness and intimacy of a telephone call (and how he would have adored cell phones!), they are also unobtrusively guarded, as he puts it in "Biotherm (for Bill Berkson)," "from mess and measure." From the outset of his career, O’Hara knew he wanted to develop a kind of poetry radically different from that being written and published by most English-language poets. In a talk given in 1952 at the Club—an artists’ forum on East Eighth Street where painters, and occasionally poets, exchanged ideas and insults—O’Hara targeted especially those laboring under the "deadening and obscuring and precious effect" of T. S. Eliot. "And after all, only Whitman and Crane and Williams, of the American poets," "Personism" declares, "are better than the movies." Early O’Hara reveals the influence of Williams, certainly, but also O’Hara’s immersion in numerous European (mainly French) poets and, in particular, the work of Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Lautréamont, Apollinaire ("I dress in oil cloth and read music / by Guillaume Apollinaire’s clay candelabra"), René Char, André Breton, Pierre Reverdy, Mayakovsky, Pasternak, Rilke, and Lorca.

O’Hara was born in Baltimore in 1926, and grew up in Grafton, Massachusetts. His parents were both of Irish descent, and he attended Catholic schools. Initially, he intended a career in music, as a pianist or reviewer or composer. He was enrolled for a time in the New England Conservatory, but his studies there were interrupted by America’s entry into World War II. O’Hara enlisted in late 1944 and served as a sonarman on the destroyer U.S.S. Nicholas in the South Pacific, and in operations off Japan itself. On his demobilization in 1946, he applied to Harvard and was accepted, again to study music; but after a freshman year of increasing disappointment with the music department, he switched his major to English and devoted himself to the writing of poems that he submitted to the scrutiny of his close friend Edward Gorey and the poet-on-campus, John Ciardi. A number were accepted for publication in The Harvard Advocate, one of whose editors was John Ashbery. The two met, however, only shortly before Ashbery graduated in the summer of 1949 and moved down to New York.

While it is true that the poems O’Hara wrote as an undergraduate, and then as a master’s student in creative writing at Ann Arbor in Michigan, are occasionally, as Ashbery has suggested, "marred by a certain nervous preciosity," they also reveal a poet deliberately experimenting with all manner of unfamiliar and iconoclastic idioms, in search of a distinctive and effective style of his own. The most successful seem to me those—like "Autobiographia Literaria," with which this selection opens, or "A Pleasant Thought from Whitehead" or "The Critic"—that deploy a faux-naif tone to celebrate O’Hara’s triumphant sense of his own poethood:

And here I am, the
center of all beauty!
writing these poems!
Imagine!

In the extraordinary "Memorial Day 1950," he offers a more extended and combative vision of his metamorphosis into a poet, one "tough and quick" enough to think with his "bare hands and even with blood all over / them." It’s in this poem also that O’Hara begins the copious acknowledgment of inspirers and artistic heroes so characteristic of his work: It was Pablo Picasso who made him tough and quick (with a little help from "the world"), and further tributes are paid to Gertrude Stein, Max Ernst, Paul Klee, the Fathers of Dada, Auden, Rirnbaud, Pasternak, and Apollinaire.

But O’Hara’s poems are full not only of the familiar names of the illustrious but of those of his numerous friends. (Of course, some of these, such as Willem de Kooning, were already famous, and others, like Larry Rivers or Jasper Johns, would become so.) One of O’Hara’s earliest attempts to make poetry out of his social life was "A Party Full of Friends," first published in Poems Retrieved. It mentions many of those who crop up most often in O’Hara’s poems—Violet (V.R. or Bunny Lang), Jane (Freilicher), Hal (Fondren), Larry (Rivers), John (Ashbery), and so on. Thesassy exuberance of his early experiments in surrealism is here applied to commemorating a party that Ashbery hosted in his furnished room on West Twelfth Street while O’Hara was staying with him during a Christmas break from Ann Arbor in 1950. The poem initiates what one might call O’Hara’s mythopoeic gossip mode:

Violet leaped to the piano
stool and knees drawn up
under her chin commenced to
spin faster and faster sing-
ing "I’m a little Dutch boy
Dutch boy Dutch boy" until
the rain very nearly fell
through the roof!

Not since Alexander Pope has a poet so filled his work with the names and doings of his contemporaries, though while Pope expended his genius on presenting his enemies as dunces, O’Hara set about celebrating the exchange of inspiration and innovation, of art and love and rumor, among the painters, poets, novelists, dancers, filmmakers, composers, and musicians who made up his ever expanding circle and his first readership. "You are really," he wrote to Kenneth Koch in "Poem (The fluorescent tubing burns like a bobby-soxer’s ankles)"

         the backbone of a tremendous poetry nervous system
which keeps sending messages along the wireless luxuriance
of distraught and hysterical desires so to keep things humming

O’Hara had a similarly catalytic effect on his artist friends, and liked to keep things "humming" at a steady pitch of excitement. One of his most famous poems, "Why I Am Not a Painter," wittily explores the mysteries of the relationship between poetry and painting, in particular his and the painter Mike Goldberg’s shared fascination with the possibilities of abstraction. "It was too much," Goldberg remarks of the SARDINES he has removed from his painting, while O’Hara’s long poem about orange never actually gets around to mentioning the color:

               There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven’t mentioned
orange yet. It’s twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike’s painting, called SARDINES.

O’Hara engaged in a series of intriguing collaborations with painters such as Larry Rivers, Norman Bluhm, Jasper Johns, and Joe Brainard, and as a reviewer for ARTNews and as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art did much to promote the work of the artists who meant most to him. "His presence and poetry," Koch recalled in an essay of 1964, "made things go on around him which could not have happened in the same way if he had not been there." Certainly the concluding lines of ”A Party Full of Friends" suggest he realized on this early visit to New York that he had found there his ideal milieu:

           Someone’s going
to stay until the cows
come home. Or my name isn’t
                        Frank O’Hara

The Manhattan of O’Hara’s poetry is a quasi-mythic city alive with nuance and possibility. "515 Madison Avenue / door to heaven?" ask the opening lines of "Rhapsody." At times the city assumes a distinct personality, as in "To the Mountains in New York," where it is figured as a brash, aging vamp, "noisy and getting fat and smudged / lids hood the sharp hard black eyes," but more often it serves as the site and inspirer of O’Hara’s restless, fractured, shimmering fantasies, or as radiant backdrop to his intense friendships and brief or prolonged love affairs. In "Homosexuality," which is explicitly about cruising, he tallies up the merits of various latrines—"14th Street is drunken and credulous, / 53rd tries to tremble but is too at rest"—before poignantly voicing the secret thought of all who come to the city in quest of the good life: " ‘It’s a summer day, / and I want to be wanted more than anything else in the world.’ "

The poems that won most plaudits in O’Hara’s tragically shortened lifetime were those he called his "I do this I do that" poems, such as "A Step Away from Them," "The Day Lady Died," "Adieu to Norman, Bonjour to Joan and Jean-Paul," all set in the present tense of O’Hara’s lunch hour: "It’s my lunch hour. . . ," "It is 12:20 in New York a Friday. . . ," "It is 12:10 in New York and I am wondering. . ." These were collected in his immensely popular City Lights collection of 1964, Lunch Poems, for which O’Hara himself composed the jacket copy:

Often this poet, strolling through the noisy splintered glare of a Manhattan noon, has paused at a sample Olivetti to type up thirty or forty lines of ruminations, or pondering more deeply has withdrawn to a darkened ware- or firehouse to limn his computed misunderstandings of the eternal questions of life, co-existence and depth, while never forgetting to eat Lunch his favorite meal. . .

In fact, he normally typed up his midday ruminations upon return to his office in the Museum of Modern Art after his cheeseburger and glass of papaya juice, but the image here presented of a poet capable of writing any time, any place, was essentially a true one. James Schuyler, who shared an apartment with O’Hara in the mid-fifties, recalled one morning when he and Joe LeSueur began to tease O’Hara about his ability to compose at speed and on demand, at which "Frank gave us a look—both hot and cold—got up, went into his bedroom and wrote ‘Sleeping on the Wing,’ a beauty, in a matter of minutes." "Is there speed enough?" this poem appropriately demands, a question that reverberates throughout O’Hara’s oeuvre.

Yet despite his frequent public displays of poetic facility, even close friends were surprised at the extraordinary bulk of his Collected Poems when it appeared in 1971; I once weighed it on my kitchen scales and found it came in at just over three and a half pounds. And that was not all; in the years following its success (it won the National Book Award and demolished once and for all the notion that O’Hara was some kind of poetic dilettante or lightweight), Donald Allen discovered enough unpublished material to fill two further volumes, Early Writing (1977) and Poems Retrieved (1977). In 1978 Full Court Press published his Selected Plays. O’Hara’s drama is, I think, worthy of more attention and performance than it has received, and I have included here the second version of Try! Try! This short verse play is at once a brilliant comedy of bad manners; a highly original take on that old chestnut, the love triangle; and a devastatingly witty exploration of the way O’Hara felt his war experiences had shaped his sense of modernity. The veteran Jack returns home, his "feet covered with mold," only to find his wife, Violet, in the arms of the snake in the grass John. In a vivid and moving speech, Jack recounts how his initial martial exhilaration curdles into self-doubt and despair; when he is eventually shot by a sniper on a beach in the Pacific, he feels almost relieved: "I fell like a / sail, relaxed, with no surprise. / And here I am." But if he expected the story of his sufferings to move or shame his auditors, he is soon disabused: "Do you think everything can stay the same," John demands, "like a photograph?"

No, O’Hara’s work insists and illustrates, time and again. Indeed, his approach might be described as the opposite of photographic. His poetry delights in mobility, in metamorphosis, in excess, in consumption—particularly of coffee, cigarettes, and alcohol—, in interactions of all kinds, with taxi drivers, with paintings, poems, and symphonies, with friends and lovers (who else could have titled a poem "You Are Gorgeous and I’m Coming"?), with a louse he names Louise and describes trekking across his own body, with the city itself ("How funny you are today New York / like Ginger Rogers in Swingtime"), and of course, with the haloed stars of the silver screen whom he addresses in poems such as "To the Film Industry in Crisis," "Thinking of James Dean," and the delightful "Poem (Lana Turner has collapsed!)" that he dashed off on the Staten Island Ferry on the way to a poetry reading at Wagner College in February 1962.

Lana Turner has collapsed!
I was trotting along and suddenly
it started raining and snowing
and you said it was hailing
but hailing hits you on the head
hard so it was really snowing and
raining and I was in such a hurry
to meet you but the traffic
was acting exactly like the sky
and suddenly I see a headline
LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED!
there is no snow in Hollywood
there is no rain in California
I have been to lots of parties
and acted perfectly disgraceful
but I never actually collapsed
oh Lana Turner we love you get up

The state of hurry in which O’Hara presents himself here is far from unusual; in poem after poem we see him "reeling around New York," "wanting to be everything to everybody everywhere," rushing "to get to the Cedar to meet Grace," or "entraining" with Jap (Jasper Johns) and Vincent (his lover, the dancer Vincent Warren) for a weekend in Southampton at "excitement-prone Kenneth Koch’s." "If I had my way," he once responded when asked if he was ready for bed after an all-night party, "I’d go on and on and on and never go to sleep." His last surviving poem, an elegy for the Spanish poet Antonio Machado, celebrates "purple excess" and the "soul’s expansion / in the night."

O’Hara was only forty when he died as the result of injuries sustained in an accident that occurred in the early hours of July 24, 1966, after an evening spent at the home of Morris Golde on Water Island and at the discotheque in Fire Island Pines. The beach taxi in which he and his friend J. J. Mitchell were traveling broke down. As they waited for a replacement to arrive, a Jeep approaching from the opposite direction swerved to avoid the stranded taxi and travelers, and it struck O’Hara. He was taken by police launch and ambulance to Bayview General Hospital on Long Island. Despite an operation to stabilize his condition that afternoon, O’Hara died the following evening. He was buried in Green River Cemetery in Springs, where, some eight years earlier, he had visited the grave of one of his greatest heroes, Jackson Pollock. A line from "In Memory of My Feelings" is inscribed on his headstone: "Grace to be born and live as variously as possible."

from Frank O’Hara, Selected Poems (edited by Mark Ford)

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