In the early morning of 24 July 1966 the poet Frank O'Hara was struck and gravely injured by a passing jeep on the beach of Fire Island, and tragically died the following day of a ruptured liver, aged only 40...
Frank O’Hara was born Francis Russell O’Hara in Baltimore, Maryland and grew up in Grafton, Massachusetts. In order to hide the fact that he was conceived out of wedlock, his parents led him to believe that he was born in June while in reality he was born in March.After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, he graduated from Harvard University with a degree in English in 1950 and received his M.A. from the University of Michigan in 1951. He then moved to New York City and began his advancement through creative society.becoming employed by the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). selling postcards, where he would eventually work his way up to the Associate Curator of Painting and Sculpture position.
His quick ascension speaks to the passion, knowledge, and enthusiasm he had for the New York City art world, a world that was thoroughly infused into his writing. During the 1950s and 1960s, O’Hara befriended and championed the new downtown artists, curated exhibits, wrote monographs and catalog copy, writing introductions for exhibits and tours and expressed his various and unusual ideas about the art world in his own poetry.
"I can't even enjoy a blade of grass," he once wrote, "unless I know there's a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life." O'Hara was deeply involved in the New York art scene, particularly with the work of abstract expressionist painters such as Willem De Kooning, Jackson Pollock,Jasper Johns and Franz Kline. Between 1953 and 1955 he worked as editorial associate for Art News, for which his poet friends John Ashbery and James Schuyler also wrote. In 1955 he rejoined the staff of MOMA, where he was appointed assistant curator in 1960.
In fact, O’Hara famously wrote Lunch Poems (largely regarded as his most brilliant and important work) during his lunch breaks at the MoMA. Published in 1964, Lunch Poems, according to John Ashbery, destroyed “the congealed surface of academic poetry.”
During his lifetime he was known as "poet among painters," part of a group of such poets who seemed to find inspiration and support from the painters they chose to associate with.He attempted to produce with words the effects those artists had created on canvas.
O'Hara is best known for his poems, such as 'A Step Away From Them', 'Why I am Not a Painter', and 'The Day Lady Died' (an elegy for Billie Holliday, but some of his later longer poems, in particular 'In Memory of My Feelings' and 'Biotherm (for Bill Berkson)' are equally effective, and have proved influential on a host of younger poets.)
He was a catalytic figure at the intersection of writing, art, dance and music at a seminal time in the US that post war moment when American artists began to assert originality after long being overshadowed by Europeans.
In an essay entitled "Personism: A Manifesto," O'Hara sheds some light on his views towards poetry, declaring that "Nobody should experience anything they don't need to, if they don't need poetry bully for them." In essence, O'Hara wanted poetry to be a personal, spur-of the-moment spontaneity in which abstraction is ruled out in favor of an expression of the artists personal voice or style. A poet of intensity and immediacy, his voice confessional guided by an unchecked passion. I love his work.
Known throughout his life for his extreme sociability, passion, and warmth, O'Hara had hundreds of friends and lovers throughout his life, many from the New York art and poetry worlds. O'Hara was openly homosexual at a time in which this was less acceptable, and often wrote about his sexuality. For example , the poem "At the Old Place" describes dancing at a gay bar. Furthermore Lunch Poems is dedicated to his friend and lover Joe LeSeuer, with whom he lived for about 11 years until his death.
O'Hara published six books of poetry from 1952 until his death. He is buried in Springs Cemetery on Long Island.Since his death his mystique , and the seductive power of his work, combined with the depth and richness of his achievements as a poet and art critic have been recognized by an international audience. His work constantly popular with readers and never out of print.
Here are a selection of some of my favourite poems, by him, difficult choice, so many to chose from.
Why I'm not a painter
I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,
for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
"Sit down and have a drink" he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. "You have SARDINES in it."
"Yes, it needed something there."
"Oh." I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. "Where's SARDINES?"
All that's left is just
letters, "It was too much," Mike says.
But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. 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.
The Day Lady Died
It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me
I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness
and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it
and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
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
My quietness has a man in it, he is transparent
and he carries me quietly, like a gondola, through the streets.
He has several likenesses, like stars and years, like numerals.
blue overhead blue underneath
the silent egg thinks
and the toaster's electrical
the stars are in
"that cloud is hid"
the elements of disbelief are
very strong in the morning
The Sun woke me this morning loud
and clear, saying "Hey! I've been
trying to wake you up for fifteen
minutes. Don't be so rude, you are
only the second poet I've ever chosen
to speak to personally
aren't you more attentive? If I could
burn you through the window I would
to wake you up. I can't hang around
here all day."
"Sorry, Sun, I stayed
up late last night talking to Hal."
"When I woke up Mayakovsky he was
a lot more prompt" the Sun said
petulantly. "Most people are up
already waiting to see if I'm going
to put in an appearance."
to apologize "I missed you yesterday."
"That's better" he said. "I didn't
know you'd come out." "You may be
wondering why I've come so close?"
"Yes" I said beginning to feel hot
wondering if maybe he wasn't burning me
"Frankly I wanted to tell you
I like your poetry. I see a lot
on my rounds and you're okay. You may
not be the greatest thing on earth, but
you're different. Now, I've heard some
say you're crazy, they being excessively
calm themselves to my mind, and other
crazy poets think that you're a boring
reactionary. Not me.
Just keep on
like I do and pay no attention. You'll
find that people always will complain
about the atmosphere, either too hot
or too cold too bright or too dark, days
too short or too long.
If you don't appear
at all one day they think you're lazy
or dead. Just keep right on, I like it.
And don't worry about your lineage
poetic or natural. The Sun shines on
the jungle, you know, on the tundra
the sea, the ghetto. Wherever you were
I knew it and saw you moving. I was waiting
for you to get to work.
And now that you
are making your own days, so to speak,
even if no one reads you but me
you won't be depressed. Not
everyone can look up, even at me. It
hurts their eyes."
"Oh Sun, I'm so grateful to you!"
"Thanks and remember I'm watching. It's
easier for me to speak to you out
here. I don't have to slide down
between buildings to get your ear.
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. That
is your inclination, known in the heavens
and you should follow it to hell, if
necessary, which I doubt.
speak again in Africa, of which I too
am specially fond. Go back to sleep now
Frank, and I may leave a tiny poem
in that brain of yours as my farewell."
"Sun, don't go!" I was awake
at last. "No, go I must, they're calling
"Who are they?"
Rising he said "Some
day you'll know. They're calling to you
too." Darkly he rose, and then I slept.
I'm not going to cry all the time
nor shall I laugh all the time,
I don't prefer one "strain" to another.
I'd have 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. And if
some aficionado of my mess says "That's
not like Frank!", all to the good! I
don't wear brown and grey suits all the time,
do I? No. I wear workshirts to the opera,
often. I want my feet to be bare,
I want my face to be shaven, and my heart--
you can't plan on the heart, but
the better part of it, my poetry, is open.