Into a Future of His Choice: Catching Up with Frank OHara
Frank O’Hara invented a form of poetry about the instant communication of overwhelming experience. He captures life’s excruciating immediacies so directly that they flow and flood into his reader, like an interpersonal nervous system. “In sensuality I find a harvest dawn / thundering through my hand,” he writes in “The Afternoon.” Like cells firing impulses across synapses, the poems seem unfiltered biorhythms, transmitting desires, daydreams, impulses, emotions, associations, and perceptions as they happen, granting intimate access to a multifarious Frank O’Hara, that would be the envy of Walt Whitman, that other American avatar of conflicted multitudes. Reading him, we seem to live under his very skin, what poet and critic Trace Peterson, calls O’Hara’s “way of inhabiting poems that makes everything possible.”
In comparison to his unaffected frankness, even the finest confessional poets during O’Hara’s time, such as Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton, seem self-conscious and withholding. He could be as politically pissed off and as socially unacceptable and sexually explicit as The Beats, but he was often far more sophisticated than they about how much of an outlier anyone can be in a capitalist culture that coopts its dangerous rebels and replaces them with glamorous movie stars.
Nearly 50 years since his death, much American lyrical poetry today also seems timid by comparison, suggestive of pious poets in ascetic isolation from a vulgar, fallen world. O’Hara’s poems still concentrate on getting high and getting laid, and there is an underlying aggressiveness at work that also seems at odds with much of today’s spirit of go-along uprightness, as O’Hara’s poems mount an all-out assault on America’s enduring weapons of mass intimidation, like sin, shame, money, morbidity, and moral respectability. Written when the hierarchy that separated high and low culture had only started to crack, his poems were already cultivating personal ecstasies from within that coming new world disorder—a scene from a Russian novel and sidewalk traffic on Second Avenue, the music of Prokofiev and the bank teller of late summer, shoppers at Bergdorf’s and the dance steps of Gene Kelly, an East Hampton-bound train and a Buick repair shop, Al Leslie’s portraits and Mary Desti’s ass.
Although we are up to our necks in torrents of information age ephemerae, and collating data in the service of social status and the literal “like,” O’Hara’s poetic instants are the opposite of such indiscriminate documentation or point-and-click narcissistic absorption of the outside world. He’s busy in the next room cavorting with strangers and doesn’t care if you like his posts or unfriend him. He is an observant surrealist seeking out and receiving face-to-face contacts with wild realities, surrounded by bodies, waving to us with a martini held high and inviting us into the pool. He uses collagist juxtapositions and subconscious images to recreate—in a colloquial, “don’t bullshit me” American patois no one else has matched since—the forgotten pleasures and competing emotions and jarring intuitions that are the essential meaning of every real encounter.
Living life as an openly gay man in the paranoid Cold War 1950s, mindful of its risks to his personal safety or to making a respectable living, he put full faith in art as an overpowering instrument for living a fuller life and, with his wiry build and nose that looked like it had taken a punch or two, he seemed like he was daring anyone to tell him to do things otherwise.
An existentialist on the lam from despairs he never spells out in the poems, he pursues the next moment like it is his last. “Anxiety,” he writes, “is just another form of entertainment.” He seeks out the orgasmic and hedonic flashes that get filtered from ordinary memory, and records every cinematic distraction and unwholesome impulse that would otherwise be censored or redacted by the puritan ethos. That’s why he places the writing on the same moral plane as the living. “What is happening to me,” he explained, “goes into my poems.”
What is happening to him now is that his influence on both contemporary American poetry and on pop culture is greater than ever. Evidence of this is everywhere. This month, The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, cosponsored by The Poetry Project and East Village eatery Two Boots, unveiled a handsome plaque on his former home on East 9th Street, the day before poets from a variety of schools and several generations gathered to read the whole of O’Hara’s epochal Lunch Poems to a massive crowd at St. Mark’s Church. On July 12, The Fire Island Pines Arts Project, to be moderated by poet Adam Fitzgerald, has assembled yet another roster of distinguished guests to read from O’Hara’s works, including the prolific American novelist Edmund White and Pulitzer-Prize winning Irish poet Paul Muldoon. Meanwhile Lunch Poems (1964/2014) has just been republished by City Lights Books in an expanded edition that includes a preface by O’Hara’s New York compatriot John Ashbery and an appendix filled with facsimiles of correspondence spanning 1963 to 1965 between O’Hara and the book’s publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Recent translations of his poetry into French, by the O’Hara scholar Olivier Brossard and the New York School poet Ron Padgett, seem to indicate that O’Hara, after Jerry Lewis, might soon become an idée fixe in France. Biographies, monographs, critical studies, and even YouTube clips related to O’Hara have gone viral over the last 15 years. He has even become a cable TV star. In Mad Men’s groundbreaking second season, its tortured antihero, Don Draper, facing another meltdown, famously reached for Frank O’Hara rather than for his glass of Scotch. O’Hara’s collection Meditations in an Emergency (1957) provided both a thematic arc and episodic title that season, which culminated during the Cuban missile crisis. The closing lines of the poem “Mayakovksy” named after O’Hara’s beloved Russian revolutionary poet, delivered to a national TV audience the “catastrophe of my personality,” that is the euphoric charge behind his poetics.
“My quietness has a number of naked selves,” he writes in perhaps his most retrospective poem, “In Memory of My Feelings.” Alluding to his military service at the end of World War II, he asks us, “How many selves are there in a war hero asleep in names?” and he records this perpetual tailspin of the self, delving into and parading its multifarious confusions. “I am a girl walking downstairs / in a red pleated dress...I am a champion taking a fall...I am a jockey with a sprained ass-hole I am the light mist/in which a face appears.” His gravestone in Green Rivers Cemetery in East Hampton echoes that same sentiment from that same poem: “Grace / to be born,” it ebulliently declares “and live as variously as possible.”
O’Hara’s biography lurks like a sunken Atlantis below the teeming surface of his poems. He survived an uninspiring Catholic and working-class upbringing, mainly in Grafton, Massachusetts. His sense of hearing and eyesight were so acute that he served as a sonarman and then as a plane spotter on a U.S. warship during World War II where he is said to have feared that he might be responsible for the killing of the next great Japanese composer. A gifted musician and fervent music aficionado, he majored in English literature at Harvard and completed a graduate degree at Ann Arbor. In the summer of 1951, he happened on a manifesto in The Kenyon Review written by the poet, novelist and anarchistic social critic Paul Goodman. Goodman advocates that the postwar American “advanced guard” writer emerge as the figure who uncomfortably articulates deep-seated “inner irk,” a personal disquiet which is part of a nagging discontent felt at large across the whole culture but kept docilely unvoiced. The essay provided a virtual template for O’Hara in addressing and remediating various forms of social “self estrangement” and for creating an “intimate community,” of artists and like-minded people, writing poetry that seems, in Goodman’s words, like “learning to speak” all over again and comes to its unprepared readers like “an act of love, embarrassing in its directness,” a writing that risks being perceived, as O’Hara’s poetry often was, as hostile to literary standards and destructive of the prophylactic border between public and private. He successfully finished graduate school and moved to New York City, settling by 1957 on the Lower East Side, sharing for many years an open relationship with his partner Joe LeSueur. In addition to constantly writing poetry and giving readings, he worked hard at collaborations in theater, film, and visual art productions with a range of New York painters and poets, he taught a poetry workshop at The New School and mentored many poets who came into his orbit; he held court at both the intellectual congregation and debate forum known as The Club and the late night, early morning boozing sessions at The Cedar Tavern. He rose from being a counter clerk at MoMA to becoming one of that museum’s most influential curators during what was the most transformational period in American art history. His most overlooked achievement might be his blazing a new downtown form of art criticism, which shows how poetic phrasing and closely looking yield analytical judgments of surprising depth. (Exhibit A: his 1959 essay “Jackson Pollock,” a tour de force which takes on Cubism, the postwar European crisis, the spiritual dimensions of Action Painting, and the psychical intersection between atomic age terror and Pollock’s frenetic method.) O’Hara’s death, at age 40, after he was run over by a dune buggy on a Fire Island beach in late July of 1966, resonates in American literary culture as a macabre kind of accidental and anticlimactic martyrdom.
O’Hara lived at 441 East 9th Street from 1959 to 1963, years that have been thought to be his most productive. In addition to summing up his career as poet and art critic, the commemorative plaque unveiled earlier this month designates O’Hara as “one of the last avant garde.” That unfortunate final clause proved to be the only major false note during the ceremony, brushing aside as it does the subsequent decades of experimental American poetries. Poet Edmund Berrigan read O’Hara’s poem “Avenue A,” a few yards from that very street. All who were present—small barking dogs, curious bicyclists, and the saleswomen at the local boutiques that now flank the poet’s former doorway—shared a street-fair solidarity as the orchestral sway of “Avenue A” conveyed us “far from our small selves and our temporally united / passions in the cathedral of Januaries.” Poet Tony Towle, a protégé and friend of O’Hara, took over that apartment, along with poet Frank Lima, in 1963, and Towle was on hand to recall his mentor, noting that “it was here that O’Hara wrote much of the work that made up Lunch Poems, almost all of the contents of Love Poems (Tentative Title), many of which he wrote for Vincent Warren, and also the unique ‘Biotherm,’ for Bill Berkson.” Towle reminisced about living and working at poetry in that building, when the cockroaches “paraded” through the apartment, the crosstown bus fumes were far worse than they are today, and the rent was $56 a month (which, adjusted for inflation, comes out to about a mere $394 a month in 2014 dollars). Towle then read the iconic poem “The Day Lady Died,” which eulogizes Billie Holiday and celebrates her music as a form of rapture, as O’Hara’s persona is described, “leaning on the john door in the 5 Spot / while she whispered a song along the keyboard / to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing.”
These festivities continued one night later at The Poetry Project when over 230 people filled the Second Avenue church for a two-hour long reading of O’Hara’s Lunch Poems. It might have been the most diverse reading lineup of 36 contemporary poets ever assembled by The Poetry Project, reflecting just how many different schools of poetry owe debts to his work. There were poets who came out of The Black Arts Movement and the New York School. Many were drawn from poetry communities like LGBTQ, Nuyorican, The Belladonna Collective, Flarf, Language, and Deep Image.
If there is a challenge posed by O’Hara to these readers, it is the zig-zag motion of his lines, which rush like the strokes in a black-and-white painting by Franz Kline, or shift about in the up-and-down, right-to-left colored grids of Piet Mondrian. Creating their directions as they occur on the page, the poems seem to be the literary equivalent of jaywalking. Sophisticated jazz compositions might be another analogy his poetry’s arrangements. His chosen diction and points of reference operate like an ensemble, each trading one riff for another and then interlinking otherwise disparate movements through subtly recurring motifs. Line breaks happen in unexpected places, as do jokes. Introspection is subverted by campiness and even the most commonplace objects take on philosophical meaning.
Erica Hunt kicked off the session marvelously, breaking into song during the poem “Music” giving it an exhilarating gospel lift—“clasp me in your handkerchief like a tear, trumpet / of early afternoon! in the foggy autumn.” Sharon Mesmer deftly handled the relatively long prose/verse hybridity of “Alma,” perhaps the only poem ever to blend Arthur Rimbaud’s hallucinatory visions with the deadpan style of an encyclopedia article. Edwin Torres turned in the most histrionic reading of the evening, for “Image of the Buddha Preaching” which involved props like a FedEx box and a singing bowl for meditation. His stop-and-start performance played out brilliantly, like a scene from a Beckett play. Hettie Jones, former wife of the recently deceased Amiri Baraka (born Leroi Jones), took the occasion of “Personal Poem,” written by O’Hara the day after her 25th birthday, to speak eloquently about his unflagging encouragement of her fragile vocation as a writer. “Personal Poem,” typifies how his poems evade the safe-distancing of memory while delineating the affective power of one’s surroundings, so that a construction shed near the Seagrams Building thwarts him as vehemently as does the shocking news that, “Miles Davis was clubbed 12 / times last night outside BIRDLAND by a cop / a lady asks us for a nickel for a terrible / disease.” If poetry is news that stays news, it requires this kind of bloody precision to maintain its urgency. His poetry has a political dimension, too, in how its instantaneous precision sustains, rather than passes over, the trauma-inducing blows and impact of the indifferent American social machinery.
As the marathon reading with its polytonal voices showed so well, O’Hara’s poetry oscillates between states of inspired confusion and creative adaptation, with each poem unveiling a newer and always intrepid self. As poet Cedar Sigo puts it, there is in these restless cadences, “the expectation of being an entertainer [that] sometimes reminds [the reader] of drag. How liberated we feel in the grip of such queer diction. The performer has to move against the fact that it is impossible for the poem to contain all of New York’s energy.” Yet he tries to match and even outmatch the city’s energy. Take the poem “Steps,” read by former Umbra poet and Jimi Hendrix biographer David Henderson which features a persona who preempts the flattening effect of the city’s grind by getting high on its oddity the very second he walks out his door: “How funny you are today New York / like Ginger Rogers in Swingtime / and St. Bridget’s steeple leaning a little to the left / here I have just jumped out of a bed full of V-days, (I got tired of D-days).”
Each time O’Hara seems to appear transparently in a poem, another revised O’Hara stand-in takes over. Poetic language is like layers of skin that a snake sheds against the friction of cultural engagements or sexual conquests or improvised redirection. Moodiness, as a natural range of emotional states, is a trusted virtue. The delight in the changing weather of the psyche is what “Mayakovksy,” the poem featured on Mad Men, is about, as its wanderer explores displacements caused by his shifting desires and then sees himself as that very inconclusiveness:
It may be the coldest day of
the year, what does he think of
that? I mean, what do I? And if I do
perhaps I am myself, again.
In a fashion parallel to Draper’s “real” but unknown identity as “Dick Whitman,” O’Hara’s “he” shadows his “I” and “real” identity plays out as the cat- and-mouse game it actually is. An unwavering sense of who and where we are in this world is a comforting but unmaintainable idea, knocked out of place as it is by every jolt this overcrowded place provides. The impossibility of self-possession is what he names “going on your nerve” in both how we live through it and how we write about our exciting uncertainties. In existence as such, we are actions, not subjects or objects. “If someone’s chasing you down the street with a knife,” O’Hara tells us, “you just run, you don’t turn around and shout ‘Give it up, I was a track star at Mineola Prep!”