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Frank O'Hara's Life and Career


Mark Doty

Urbane, ironic, sometimes genuinely celebratory and often wildly funny, O'Hara would allow a realm of material and associations alien to academic verse to pour into his poems: the camp icons of movie stars of the twenties and thirties, the daily landscape of social activity in Manhattan, jazz music, telephone calls from friends; anything seemed ready material for inclusion into the particular order that the moment of composition would call for. Dadaist even in his approach to his own work, O'Hara composed huge numbers of poems with apparent spontaneity and ease; a friend estimates that his vast Collected Poems contains perhaps only a third of his work, which was often scribbled or typed quickly, stuffed in drawers or left about in stacks. This relaxed attitude toward preservation and collection results in a chronology of composition quite different from the dates of publication, but Meditations in an Emergency and the poems written throughout the late fifties comprise his finest work. "The Day Lady Died," "Steps," "A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island" (a brilliant re-visioning of Mayakovsky's poem on the same theme), and O'Hara's famous lament upon reading of the collapse of Lana Turner ("I have been to lots of parties / and acted perfectly disgraceful / but I never actually collapsed / Oh Lana Turner we love you get up") mark O'Hara at the height of his powers. His language is often casual, relaxed in diction, yet it presses forward with a kind of breathless urgency, a will to celebrate the density and richness of experience—in all its refusal to be summed up, to marshal itself into an orderly vision—by including as much as possible. Many of these pieces have been labeled "I do this, I do that" poems; they report whole chunks of experience, days of walking, conversing, noticing, with careful specificity. Place-names and the names of friends and acquaintances abound; paradoxically, their inclusion seems to make the poems more universal, more available, convinced as we are by their artfully shaped controlling tone of the authenticity of the speaker’s voice. The notion of contrasting and mutually influencing elements arranged on a surface—a key concept in Abstract Expressionism—is important in O'Hara's work. The poems seem, indeed, to spill one into the other, creating one immense canvas which displays in all its parts O'Hara's character engaged in all the business of living—alternately joyful, petulant, obtuse, tired, awed. The finest of his love poems—"Steps," for example, which concludes "oh god its wonderful / to get out of bed / and, drink too much coffee / and smoke too many cigarettes / and love you so much"—disarm with their directness. Their comic, carefully built quotidian contexts allow O'Hara to work with direct statement in an inimitable fashion, generating a current of emotion which rises above his camp humor, his exuberant ironies and mocking play.

from A Profile of Twentieth-Century American Poetry. Ed. Jack Myers and David Wojahn. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1991. Copyright 1991 by the Board of Trustees of Southern Illinois University.


Claudia Milstead

O'HARA, Frank (27 Mar. 1926-25 July 1966), poet, was born Francis Russell O'Hara in Baltimore, Maryland, the son of Russell Joseph O'Hara and Katherine Broderick, who both came from strict Irish-Catholic families. O'Hara always believed he was born 27 June 1926, but his parents apparently lied about his birthdate to hide the fact that he was conceived before their marriage. Shortly after their wedding in Grafton, Massachusetts, in September 1925, the couple moved to Baltimore, where their child was born six months later. They lived in Baltimore for eighteen months before being summoned back to Grafton so that Russell O'Hara could run the family farm for his ailing uncle.

In June 1944, shortly after his high school graduation, O'Hara enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He served as a sonarman third class on the destroyer USS Nicholas. After receiving an honorable discharge in 1946, O'Hara went to Harvard on the GI Bill. He took creative writing classes from John Ciardi and earned a B.A. in 1950. With Ciardi's recommendation, O'Hara was given a graduate fellowship in comparative literature at the University of Michigan, where he earned an M.A. in 1951. His collection of poems, "A Byzantine Place," and Try! Try!, a verse play, won O'Hara the Avery Hopwood Major Award in poetry.

O'Hara then moved to New York to join fellow poet John Ashbery, whom he had met at Harvard. Living at first on the money from the Hopwood, O'Hara wrote poetry and explored the city. In New York O'Hara was finally free to live openly as a homosexual and to indulge his interest in the arts. He worked briefly as an assistant to photographer Cecil Beaton, then looked for a more permanent job, preferably one that would allow him time to write. What he found was ideal. In December 1951 he was hired to work at the front desk of the Museum of Modern Art, selling postcards, publications, and tickets. He often wrote poems while he worked at the counter, and his friends in the art world frequently stopped by to visit. O'Hara began writing articles for Art News and in 1953 became an editorial associate. He continued to write for the publication when he returned to the Museum of Modern Art in 1955.

The abstract expressionism movement, whose major artists were Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and Jackson Pollock, was flourishing in New York, and O'Hara, along with John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch, became part of the avant-garde art scene. In 1952 O'Hara's A City Winter and Other Poems was published, a collection of thirteen poems with two drawings by Larry Rivers. The collection was the first of a series of books by poets with artists' drawings published by the Tibor de Nagy gallery. At this time O'Hara became involved with the Club, an artists' forum that had been established in the 1940s. Beginning in March 1952, O'Hara appeared on a series of panels to discuss art and poetry.

O'Hara's first collection of poetry to receive wide recognition was Meditations in an Emergency (1957). Even though early reviews were unenthusiastic, it became the collection for which he was primarily known during his lifetime. While Meditations was being prepared for publication, O'Hara was approached by a publisher about collaborating with artist Larry Rivers. The resulting project, a series of twelve lithographs titled Stones, was produced between 1957 and 1960. For the work, Rivers and O'Hara worked directly on the stones from which the lithographs were made. O'Hara had to write backward so the text would be readable in the finished lithograph. In 1960 O'Hara published the collections Second Avenue and Odes. Perhaps the most significant event in O'Hara's writing career occurred that year, when Donald Allen published The New American Poetry: 1945-1960. Allen classified the forty-four poets by groups: New York School, Beat Generation, San Francisco Renaissance, and Black Mountain. O'Hara, identified as part of the New York School, was a dominant poet in the anthology, with fifteen of his poems included. Two more collections were published during his lifetime: Lunch Poems (1964) and Love Poems (Tentative Title) (1965). Several more volumes of O'Hara's poems were published after his death, notably The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara (1971), The Selected Poems of Frank O’Hara (1974), and Poems Retrieved: 1950-1966 (1977).

O'Hara sought to capture in his poetry the immediacy of life, feeling that poetry should be "between two persons instead of two pages." He was inspired and energized by New York City as other poets have been inspired and energized by nature. In Meditations he wrote, "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." He described his work as "I do this I do that" poetry because his poems often read like entries in a diary, as in this line from "The Day Lady Died": "it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine."

O'Hara died of injuries he received when he was hit by a vehicle on the beach at Fire Island, on Long Island, New York.

O'Hara's papers are in the Literary Archives, University of Connecticut Library, Storrs. Brad Gooch, City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara (1993), is well researched and is the most comprehensive biography of O'Hara available. It also corrects inaccuracies in the newspaper reports of O'Hara's death. For a critical study of O'Hara's poetry, see Marjorie Perloff, Frank O'Hara: Poet among Painters (1977). A more concise study of O'Hara's life and work is Alan Feldman, Frank O’Hara (1979). Brief obituaries are in Time, 5 Aug. 1966, p. 76, and Newsweek, 8 Aug. 1966, p. 74.

From American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Copyright 1999 by the American Council of Learned Societies.


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