The Mayakovsky of MacDougal Street

City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O'Hara

by Brad Gooch
Knopf, 532 pp., $30.00

Side by side with an extract from Leaves of Grass, a line of Frank O’Hara’s adorns the railing along the esplanade of New York’s Battery Park City: “One need never leave the confines of New York to get all the greenery one wishes—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.” Actually, the line (from “Meditations in an Emergency”) is misquoted: the italics have been dropped, with their suggestion of live speech caught in passing.

One wonders what O’Hara would have made of this bit of graven immortality. He would certainly have approved of being paired with Whitman (whom he invoked as “my great predecessor”) and with his eye for city views might well have savored the setting’s incongruous juxtaposition of sea and crowds and corporate architecture, gawking tourists and rollerblading youth against a backdrop of hundred-foot yachts with names like This Is It and Pleasant Moments, the old-fashioned red-and-white Colgate sign on the Jersey side of the water facing off the sleek postmodern kitsch of the palm court of the World Financial Center.

On the other hand, the contemporary panorama might have struck him as unexpectedly sterile and disspirited, a more cowed and anonymous spectacle than the New York of which his poems have become both emblem and repository, the New York of Pollock and Balanchine and Billie Holiday, the Cedar Tavern and the Five Spot and the Roxy, when artists were artists, parties were parties, and record stores tended to be more cozy and idiosyncratic than those in the shadow of the Financial Center.

There is no escaping the nostalgia that pervades any consideration of O’Hara’s life and writing, a nostalgia he helped invent with his mythologizing of his social life. (In a letter to the poet James Schuyler, he wrote, “I make ‘real life’ into a fantasy which bears little resemblance to the actual and largely fortuitous events which inspired it in the first place.”) Do we respond most in reading him to a generic sense of dailiness, or to the evocation of a golden era imagined to have occurred roughly between 1951 and 1965? (That era’s liveliness was of course not all imagination. Consider Brad Gooch’s list of the regulars at the San Remo bar in Greenwich Village, only one of many such clusters: “Tennessee Williams, John Cage, Paul Goodman, Dylan Thomas, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Judith Malina and Julian Beck, Miles Davis, Merce Cunningham, Dorothy Day, and James Agee.”)

Allen Ginsberg said of O’Hara’s New York poems, “It’s like having Catullus change your view of the Forum in Rome,” and indeed one has to go back to fairly remote periods—ancient Rome, eighteenth-century London—to find poetry as meticulous in its gossip and as minute in its urban observation as O’Hara’s. He made himself the patron poet of a this-worldly magic emanating chiefly from the magic city of New York: a utopia of freely circulating…

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