Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Birthday: "Now I am quietly waiting for the catastrophe of my personality to seem beautiful again, and interesting, and modern.”


Francis Russell O’Hara (1926-1966)
Author, poet, critic
Recipient, The National Book Award, 1972

Frank O’Hara studied music at the New England Conservatory, served in the Pacific in World War II, then attended Harvard (where Edward Gorey was his roommate) and the University of Michigan to obtain degrees in English Literature.

Moving to New York, he began teaching at The New School, then got a job in the gift shop at the Museum of Modern Art. By 1960 he was both an established member of the New York School of poets and Assistant Curator of Painting and Sculpture at MOMA. O’Hara wrote well-received articles for ArtNews, and his immense charm and talent made him a well-known figure in the postwar art world:

He became known as a leader of the "New York School" of poets, a group that included John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler. The Abstract Expressionist painters in New York City during the 1950s and 1960s used the title, but the poets borrowed it. From the beginning O'Hara's poetry was engaged with the worlds of music, dance, and painting. In that complex of associations he devised an idea of poetic form that allowed the inclusion of many kinds of events, including everyday conversations and notes about New York advertising signs...his painterly friends and familiars included Larry Rivers, Jane Freilicher, Fairfield Porter, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, Michael Goldberg, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and Jackson Pollock.

O’Hara thought of his poetry as tossed-off, occasional pieces, spur of the moment entries in a diary of blank verse. Like William Carlos Williams, he liked commonplace words and irregular lines. Like the French symbolists and surrealists, he combined reality with the fantastic, the popular and the campy:

Poem [Lana Turner has collapsed!]

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
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

On a summer visit to New York’s Fire Island in July 1966, O’Hara was struck by a beach taxi driver and died of his injuries the next day. He was forty years old.

The Poetry Foundation’s review of O’Hara’s work notes that, while he published widely as an art critic, his poet was both voluminous and obscure, the fame of his first collection not coming until the last year of his life:

O'Hara's work was first brought to the attention of the wider public, like that of so many others of his generation, by [Donald] Allen's timely and historic anthology, The New American Poetry (1960). It was not until O'Hara's Lunch Poems was published in 1965 that his reputation gained ground and not until after his sudden death that his recognition increased. Now his reputation is secure as an important and even popular poet in the great upsurge of American poetry following World War II. His influence on the next generation of poets—including Bill Berkson, Alice Notley, and Ted Berrigan—was immense. He did not cultivate academic alliances or solicit editors and publishers. Painter John Button remarks: "When asked by a publisher-friend for a book, Frank might have trouble even finding the poems stuffed into kitchen drawers or packed in boxes that had not been unpacked since his last move. Frank's fame came to him unlooked-for." His recognition came in part because of his early death, the somewhat absurd and meaningless occasion of that death (he was run down by a beach taxi on Fire Island), the prominence and loyalty of his friends, the renown of his own personality, and above all, the exuberant writings themselves. His casual attitude toward his poetic career is reminiscent of the casual composition of many of the poems themselves. One of his poems, "Poem (Lana Turner has collapsed!)," for example, was written on the Staten Island Ferry en route to a poetry reading, and his most important statement of poetics, "Personism," was written in less than an hour while Allen, who requested it, was on his way across town to pick it up. Koch touches upon this particular quality of O'Hara's genius—his naturalness: "Something Frank had that none of the other artists and writers I know had to the same degree was a way of feeling and acting as though being an artist were the most natural thing in the world. Compared to him everyone else seemed a little self-conscious, abashed, or megalomaniacal." When this quality entered his verse, his work was formally inventive and most compelling...

The extent, the sheer volume of his writings, came as a surprise to many of even his closest friends. Most wondered where he had found time to do it all. Ashbery writes in his introduction to the 586-page The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara (1971), patiently gathered and carefully edited by Allen: "That The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara should turn out to be a volume of the present dimension will surprise those who knew him, and would have surprised Frank even more. Dashing the poems off at odd moments—in his office at The Museum of Modern Art, in the street at lunch time or even in a room full of people—he would then put them away in drawers and cartons and half forget them. Once when a publisher asked him for a manuscript he spent weeks and months combing the apartment, enthusiastic and bored at the same time, trying to assemble the poems. Finally he let the project drop, not because he didn't wish his work to appear, but because his thoughts were elsewhere, in the urban world of fantasy where the poems came from." Although he published more than a hundred poems in scattered magazines and in a few limited editions, there was no sizable representative collection of poems published in his lifetime. And there were no serious critical studies of his writings such as Marjorie Perloff's, Alan Feldman's, or Alice's Parker's. Before the Collected Poems, and later The Selected Poems of Frank O'Hara (1974), there were only two slight volumes—Second Avenue (1960) and Lunch Poems (1965)— readily available; other books were printed in editions of less than five hundred copies, one in only ten copies, and thus were inaccessible to most serious readers.

Personal Poem (from Lunch Poems, 1964)

Now when I walk around at lunchtime
I have only two charms in my pocket
an old Roman coin Mike Kanemitsu gave me
and a bolt-head that broke off a packing case
when I was in Madrid the others never
brought me too much luck though they did
help keep me in New York against coercion
but now I'm happy for a time and interested

I walk through the luminous humidity
passing the House of Seagram with its wet
and its loungers and the construction to
the left that closed the sidewalk if
I ever get to be a construction worker
I'd like to have a silver hat please
and get to Moriarty's where I wait for
LeRoi and hear who wants to be a mover and
shaker the last five years my batting average
is .016 that's that, and LeRoi comes in
and tells me Miles Davis was clubbed 12
times last night outside birdland by a cop
a lady asks us for a nickel for a terrible
disease but we don't give her one we
don't like terrible diseases, then

we go eat some fish and some ale it's
cool but crowded we don't like Lionel Trilling
we decide, we like Don Allen we don't like
Henry James so much we like Herman Melville
we don't want to be in the poets' walk in
San Francisco even we just want to be rich
and walk on girders in our silver hats
I wonder if one person out of the 8,000,000 is
thinking of me as I shake hands with LeRoi
and buy a strap for my wristwatch and go
back to work happy at the thought possibly so

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