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Ian Brinton

The Poetry of Frank O’Hara

In January 1949 the Journal which Frank O’Hara kept during his time at Harvard expressed deep unease at the mutability of life:

The fragility of things terrifies me! However belligerent the cactus, ash from a casual cigarette withers its bloom; the blackest puddle greys at the first drop of rain; everything fades fades changes dies when it’s meddled with; if only things weren’t so vulnerable!

He also recognised the importance of art as a way of translating immediate ephemera into something more permanent:

Simply to live does not justify existence, for life is a mere gesture on the surface of the earth, and death a return to that from which we had never been wholly separated; but oh to leave a trace, no matter how faint, of that brief gesture! For someone, some day, may find it beautiful!

A prominent example of O’Hara’s style of making the immediate into the concrete arose from a moment in December 1955 when, in response to being teased by the New York poet James Schuyler about being able to write a poem at any time or in any place, he went into his bedroom to compose, in a matter of minutes, ‘Sleeping on the Wing’:

The eyes roll asleep as if turned by the wind
and the lids flutter open slightly like a wing.
The world is an iceberg, so much is invisible!
and was and is, and yet the form, it may be sleeping
too. Those features etched in the ice of someone
loved who died, you are a sculptor dreaming of space
and speed, your hand alone could have done this.
Curiosity, the passionate hand of desire. Dead,
or sleeping? Is there speed enough? And, swooping,
you relinquish all that you have made your own,
the kingdom of your self sailing, for you must awake
and breathe your warmth in this beloved image
whether it’s dead or merely disappearing,
as space is disappearing and your singularity.

The image of the iceberg is teasingly effective since it not only suggests that what we see is a consciousness which rides above so much more but also, since it is itself in the process of change, it highlights the need for ‘speed’ in order to etch in the ice. The contradictions held in the image are further suggested by the living quality of ‘breathe your warmth’ which promotes the disappearing of the ice-etching. This preoccupation with death, disappearance and the extinction of singularity is central to the poetry of Frank O’Hara and it accounts, partly, for that poetry’s haunting elusiveness.

In August 1956, responding to the deaths of Bunny Lang, whom he had known since Harvard days and Jackson Pollock whose fatal car crash happened some days before, O’Hara wrote the first of what he was later to refer to as his ‘I do this I do that’ poems. In ‘A Step Away from Them’ O’Hara left what his biographer, Brad Gooch, calls ‘a record for history of the sensations of a sensitive and sophisticated man in the middle of the twentieth century walking through what was considered by some the capital of the globe.’

It’s my lunch hour, so I go
for a walk among the hum-coloured
cabs. First, down the sidewalk
where laborers feed their dirty
glistening torsos sandwiches
and Coca-Cola, with yellow helmets
on. They protect them from falling
bricks, I guess. Then onto the
avenue where skirts are flipping
above heels and blow up over
grates. The sun is hot, but the
cabs stir up the air. I look
at bargains in wristwatches. There
are cats playing in sawdust.

to Times Square, where the sign
blows smoke over my head, and higher
the waterfall pours lightly. A
Negro stands in a doorway with a
toothpick, languorously agitating.
A blonde chorus girl clicks: he
smiles and rubs his chin. Everything
suddenly honks: it is 12:40 of
a Thursday.

Neon in daylight is a
great pleasure, as Edwin Denby would
write, as are light bulbs in daylight.
I stop for a cheeseburger at JULIET’S
CORNER. Giuletta Masina, wife of
Frederico Fellini, è bell’ attrice.
And chocolate malted. A lady in
foxes on such a day puts her poodle
in a cab.
There are several Puerto
Ricans on the avenue today, which
makes it beautiful and warm. First
Bunny died, then John Latouche,
then Jackson Pollock. But is the
earth as full as life was full, of them?
And one has eaten and one walks,
past the magazines with nudes
and the posters for BULLFIGHT and
the Manhattan Storage Warehouse,
which they’ll soon tear down. I
used to think they had the Armory
Show there.
A glass of papaya juice
and back to work. My heart is in my
pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.

In an interview from November 1966 for Village Voice, Allen Ginsburg suggested that Frank O’Hara ‘integrated purely personal life into the high art of composition, marking the return of all authority back to the person. His style is actually in line with the tradition that begins with Independence and runs through Thoreau and Whitman, here composed in a metropolitan spaceage architecture environment. He taught me to really see New York for the first time, by making of the giant style of Midtown his intimate cocktail environment. It’s like having Catullus change your view of the Forum in Rome.’ Brad Gooch refers to the poem’s ‘handheld camera fashion’ as O’Hara ‘heads on his lunch hour west and then downtown from the Museum, past construction sites on Sixth Avenue, through Times Square where he stops for a cheeseburger and a glass of papaya juice beneath the Chesterfield billboard with blowing smoke, and then back uptown to work.’ The seizing on moments, the tiny objects, the enticing sights and sounds of the everyday bring to life an intensity of gaze, a celebration of the moment. However, as Marjorie Perloff comments in Poetry On & Off the Page, Essays for Emergent Occasions, ‘for every exotic sight and delightful sensation, there are falling bricks, bullfights, blow outs, armories, mortuaries, and, as the name Juliet’s Corner suggests, tombs.’ The fragility of the everyday is caught melting between the Puerto Ricans who make the day ‘beautiful and warm’ and the end-of-line word ‘First’ which heralds the references to the death of three close friends. As with the image of the iceberg, the poet here seems to be not only a step away from the dead but also from the fast movement of the day: ‘sensations disappear almost as soon as they are presented.’

In The Making of the Reader, David Trotter suggests that ‘it is sometimes maintained that during the sixties many American poets turned away from the guarded complexity associated with Eliot and the later Auden towards another, equally resilient literary ideal: direct and intimate utterance.’ However, as he also points out, ‘straight talking was often quite remarkably oblique’ in both Berryman and Lowell. As a contrast to this, Trotter suggests that O’Hara’s world is intriguingly bound up with gossip:

For O’Hara does not simply refer to his friends, or talk about them; he gossips. Gossip becomes a way of ensuring a certain fluidity in his relationships with other people, and then a specific practice of writing. To gossip about someone is, after all, to distance oneself from them and from one’s feeling for them, to view them temporarily as the objects of an impersonal curiosity…We all gossip and are gossiped about; we swap roles continually—now subject, now object—and so the group is sustained without ever separating into permanent alignments.

To commemorate his thirtieth birthday in June 1956 O’Hara began the poem to which he would return, on and off, over the next four days: ‘In Memory of My Feelings’. Here he presents a multiple person (‘so many of my transparencies’) whose impulses ‘launch themselves repeatedly into improbable and irretrievable escapades’ (Trotter):

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.

My quietness has a number of naked selves,
so many pistols I have borrowed to protect myselves
from creatures who too readily recognize my weapons
and have murder in their heart!
though in winter
they are warm as roses, in the desert
taste of chilled anisette.
At times, withdrawn,
I rise into the cool skies
and gaze on at the imponderable world with the simple identification
of my colleagues, the mountains.

These impulses are not subjected to the ironic distance one might have expected in Robert Lowell’s Life Studies but instead are allowed to thrash around, ‘flail about like vipers in a pail’, until they are petrified into a sculpted form of art, ‘the cancerous/statue which my body could no longer contain’:

And yet
I have forgotten my loves, and chiefly that one, the cancerous
statue which my body could no longer contain,
against my will
against my love
become art,
I could not change it into history
and so remember it,
and I have lost what is always and everywhere
present, the scene of myselves, the occasion of these ruses,
which I myself and singly must now kill
and save the serpent in their midst.

The fluid anxiety which runs through this magnificent poem circles around the vanishing occasions of love in life as contrasted with the immobile friezes of art. David Trotter questions whether pain can ever be converted into statuary and the fluidity of O’Hara’s memory of his naval days in the Second World war and their connections directing both backwards and forwards would seem to echo that sentiment:

An atmosphere of supreme lucidity,
the mere existence of emphasis,
a rusted barge
painted orange against the sea
full of Marines reciting the Arabian ideas
which are a proof in themselves of seasickness
which is a proof in itself of being hunted.
A hit? ergo swim.
My 10 my 19,
my 9, and the several years. My
12 years since they all died, philosophically speaking.
And now the coolness of a mind
like a shuttered suite in the Grand Hotel
where mail arrives for my incognito,
whose façade
has been slipping into the Grand Canal for centuries;
rockets splay over a sposalizio,
fleeing into night
from their Chinese memories, and it is a celebration,
the trying desperately to count them as they die.
But who will stay to be these numbers
when all the lights are dead?

In ‘Fantasy (dedicated to the health of Allen Ginsburg)’ O’Hara writes that

The main thing is to tell a story.
It is almost
very important.

However, as Marjorie Perloff points out in The Dance of the Intellect, it is his poetic strategy to ‘allude to story…and then to turn story fragments inward, applying their possible meanings to himself.’ The story fragments in ‘In Memory of My Feelings’ include references to his Great-Aunt Elizabeth Donahue Reid who died in 1944, a trip to Chicago in 1951 with the painter Jane Freilicher, posing for the artist Grace Hartigan (‘I am naked with a plate of devils at my hip’). The fluidity of these references and the scarcely triumphant conclusion of the poem, saving ‘the serpent in their midst’, may to some extent account for O’Hara’s reaction to Robert Duncan’s comments on the poem’s publication in Evergreen (Autumn 1958) when the leader of the San Francisco Renaissance wrote to him:

Your poem in the current Evergreen Review which I came at warily enuf has won me over—to re-search and see the section in MEASURE anew…I write to tell you that you have another concerned reader: as I in turn have new instances of joy.

According to Brad Gooch:

O’Hara’s reaction was not pleasure but annoyance. Ever since parochial school he had been agitated by authority figures with priestly tones, and Duncan seemed too close to adopting such a stance. O’Hara preferred living in a world of his own discoveries and enthusiasms and not being forced to see himself in the mirror of an older West Coast poet.

O’Hara returned the letter to Donald Allen accompanied by the simple statement: ‘Don—please return this as I haven’t answered it.’

In April 1960 Donald Allen produced his landmark anthology, The New American Poetry:1945-60 (Evergreen Books) which brought together poets most of whose work had only been available in limited editions, chapbooks and magazines. O’Hara’s contribution to the volume was central with fifteen poems including the substantial ‘Ode to Michael Goldberg (’s Birth and Other Births)’ about which he commented ‘it’s my greatest poem’. However, the lack of real interest in ‘the cancerous statue’ underplays even this publication and Michael Schmidt, whose Carcanet Press has recently reproduced Allen’s Selected Poems of Frank O’Hara in a handsome format, has commented:

His casual attitude to his poems tells us much about him and them: it’s not that he didn’t value them, but he didn’t worry much about them after they were written. He was not especially interested in a final permanent text. Donald Allen, editing the posthumous Collected Poems, found more than five hundred (others have been added since), many previously unpublished. Some survived not in O’Hara’s manuscripts but in transcriptions sent by Ashbery to Kenneth Koch when Koch was abroad and Ashbery was trying to bring him round to liking O’Hara’s work. Chance survivals, like the poems jotted down and put in a drawer—the wrong drawer. What mattered was the writing of them.

The importance of the fleeting moment is perhaps caught with greatest humour in the much-anthologised ‘Why I Am 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 colour: 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.

A little like the oil on wood painting. ‘Frank O’Hara’, which Elaine de Kooning produced in 1956, presence is registered in absence: ‘When I painted Frank O’Hara, Frank was standing there. First I painted the whole structure of his face; then I wiped out the face, and when the face was gone, it was more Frank than when the face was there.’

The tenacious pull of absence informs the Whitmanesque qualities of ‘In Memory of My Feelings’:

I haven’t told you of the most beautiful things
in my lives, and watching the ripple of their loss disappear
along the shore, underneath ferns,
face downward in the ferns
my body, the naked host to my many selves, shot
by a guerrilla warrior or dumped from a car into ferns
which are themselves journalières.

D.H. Lawrence diagnosed one aspect of Whitman’s work as ‘always wanting to merge himself into the womb of something or other’ and Charles Tomlinson recognised similarities here with the work of Hart Crane when he came across the latter’s ‘Voyages’:

Meticulous, past midnight in clear rime

—that was a voice that appealed to me, and:

The bay estuaries fleck the hard sky limits.

At the same time I recognized something else in Crane besides this sharp, perceptual view of the sea—an ache that took me back to my growing dissatisfaction with Whitman, an ache that, if I read the poems correctly, was suicidal. Of course, one had the evidence of Crane’s own life…He dreamed of some understanding only to be felt in ‘the vortex of our grave’ or ‘the seal’s wide spindrift gaze toward paradise.’ This paradise seemed to be reached, as in Whitman, by a surrender of self, a violation of the limits of the self, in a communion with impersonal forces, and must involve not just the death of the self, but the death of that sense of individual responsibility which conscience bids us never to violate even for the most obsessive idea of the most spiritual ideal.

Awareness of a pull towards dissolution but tempered with a harder edge of mind and a more personal awareness of fragility is what makes ‘To the Harbourmaster’ so moving that John Ashbery broke down whilst trying to read it on the afternoon of July 28, 1966 in Green River Cemetery at O’Hara’s funeral:

I wanted to be sure to reach you;
though my ship was on the way it got caught
in some moorings. I am always tying up
and then deciding to depart. In storms and
at sunset, with the metallic coils of the tide
around my fathomless arms, I am unable
to understand the forms of my vanity
or I am hard alee with my Polish rudder
in my hand and the sun sinking. To
you I offer my hull and the tattered cordage
of my will. The terrible channels where
the wind drives me against the brown lips
of the reeds are not all behind me. Yet
I trust the sanity of my vessel; and
if it sinks, it may well be in answer
to the reasoning of the eternal voices,
the waves which have kept me from reaching you.


Selected Poems of Frank O’Hara, edited by Donald Allen, Carcanet 2005;
The Dance of the Intellect, Studies in the Poetry of the Pound Tradition by Marjorie Perloff, Northwestern University Press 1985;
Poetry On & Off the Page by Marjorie Perloff, Northwestern University Press 1998;
The Making of the Reader, Language and Subjectivity in Modern American, English and Irish Poetry by David Trotter, Macmillan 1984;
City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara by Brad Gooch, Alfred Knopf 1993;
Some Americans, A Personal Record by Charles Tomlinson, University of California Press 1981 (reprinted by Carcanet in the volume American Essays: Making It New, 2001).

NOTE: This essay first appeared in the UK magazine 'Tears in the Fence'. Thanks to editor David Caddy.

Copyright © Ian Brinton, 2006