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 desire articulated by sex, talk, drink, art, ballet, parties, movies, and lunch dates, with occasional necessary forays to the Hamptons and Paris. The poems take their place as evidence toward that taxonomy of party-going which would be a prerequisite for a comprehensive social history of the American Fifties and Sixties, and in which the genus O’Hara would have to be clearly distinguished from the varieties associated with Capote, Warhol, or Kesey.

For O’Hara the contemplation of a bright bubble world was at the heart of his deepest concerns: to protect the fragility of pleasure, to extend the live moment without embalming it, to create through poetry a space for perfect liberty, unbridled whim. He welcomes whatever is incomplete, interrupted, unplanned: anything that contradicts the orderly completeness of death. On all occasions he is ready to toss in the little life-affirming asides that serve as something of a vamp for his free-associating riffs: “the Pittsburgh pirates shout because they won/and in a sense we’re all winning/we’re alive” (“Steps”), or “it’s also pretty hard to remember life’s marvellous/but there it is guttering choking then soaring/in the mirrored room of this consciousness” (“In Favor of One’s Time”), or “the only thing to do is simply continue/is that simple/yes, it is simple because it is the only thing to do” (“Adieu to Norman, Bon Jour to Joan and Jean-Paul”).

Decades of echoes and imitations have somewhat blurred the singularity of encountering Frank O’Hara’s poetry in its time. I first came across his work in Donald Allen’s anthology The New American Poetry: 1945–1960 (1960), and can remember how absolutely distinct a sound O’Hara made even in such noisy and variegated company as Charles Olson, Allen Ginsberg, LeRoi Jones, Gary Snyder, Jack Spicer, and Michael McClure. The Allen anthology (for which, we learn from Brad Gooch’s biography, O’Hara served as “primary unofficial consultant”) was uniquely influential in establishing the notion of a generational wave of innovation taking its inspiration from Abstract Expressionism and jazz, yet O’Hara’s work seemed removed from any strong affiliation to a poetic, political, or spiritual school. Its casual directness and un-apologetic ebullience undercut millennia of pedagogical solemnity, and made other poetry—including that of his Beat and Black Mountain contemporaries—seem pompous and portentous by comparison.

First of all it was funny, funny enough to get a laugh from readers without much interest in contemporary verse. The humor lay in capturing the disjunctions and intrusions of actual, as opposed to ideal, thought processes. It was as if he taperecorded his brain at work and then played the most startling moments back for the amusement of his friends. Nothing was unthinkable or unsayable; he was so at home in his emotional disorder that even the depths of anxiety assumed a certain pastoral charm.

The flavoring of the jolt might be mock-grand—“All things are tragic/when a mother watches!”—or nasty-hip—“a lady asks us for a nickel for a terrible/disease but we don’t give her one we/don’t like terrible diseases,” silly-confessional—

I have a drink,
it doesn’t help—far from it!
feel worse. I can’t remember how
I felt, so perhaps I feel better.

—or raucously goofy:

YIPPEE! I’m glad I’m alive
I’m glad you’re alive
too, baby, because I want to fuck you”

There was the impression of a whole world there, not transfigured but literally dragged in, papaya juice and Forbidden Planet, genitals and clouds, Pasternak and Madison Avenue. He acknowledged how much poetry had to compete with in order to register as real pleasure or real experience at all: “And after all, only Whitman and Crane and Williams, of the American poets, are better than the movies.” It took courage to remind the reader so insistently of all the other things he could be doing—making love or going for a walk or throwing a party. To someone who half-suspected that he would really rather be watching Northern Pursuit on television, O’Hara confided that he’d rather be doing that too. His poetry existed not as a distraction from the noise of the world but as a conscious part of it. He meant to be read as he wrote: almost drowned out by all the other voices, somehow penetrating an urban fog of honks and clinks.

O’Hara’s formative poetic taste was for the French modernist dislocations of Apollinaire, Reverdy, Jacob, Desnos, and others (an influence that for all its promise of unlimited freedom weights a little ponderously in some of his earlier work), but he tempered those imported sounds with the American accent and abrupt manners of William Carlos Williams, Vladimir Mayakovsky’s flair for free-form harangue, and his own finely tuned ear for the patterns of conversation floating around him in Manhattan. Clearly these fusions were the product of a long and laborious process, but it was O’Hara’s virtuoso trick to make it appear an invention of the moment.

That he could write so well so fast undoubtedly owes much to the discipline he absorbed through years as an aspiring composer and concert pianist. Curiously, when we consider how much his career was associated with poetry and sculpture, music seems to have provided the deepest impetus. After the names and incidents drop away, his poems can be read as abstract constructions modeled on the works of his early heroes: Stravinsky, Hindemith, Honegger, Prokofiev, Milhaud, Copland—not to mention Rachmaninoff, to whom he dedicated a string of birthday poems. As he wrote in the autobiographical “Ode to Michael Goldberg (‘s Birth and Other Births)”:

the wind sounded exactly like
I first recognized art
as wildness, and it seemed right,
I mean rite, to me

O’Hara’s brand of spontaneity was anything but simple. Its sincerity was mixed with an equal blend of acknowledged insincerity; it made room for splenetic outbursts and seductive asides, cries of faux-naif wonderment, fragments of needling conversation and campy banter, breathless cataloguing of local gossip (“Joe has a cold and is not coming to Kenneth’s / although he is coming to lunch with Norman”), midtown street scenes (“who dropped that empty carton/ of cracker jacks”), and old movies (“Miriam Hopkins dropping her champagne glass off Joel McCrea’s yacht/ and crying into the dappled sea”).

The effect was very much of having an intimate acquaintance ring up, a little crocked, and murmur a stream of amusing, insinuating comments that led unexpectedly into the jab of a home truth (“don’t be shy of unkindness, either / it’s cleansing and allows you to be direct/like an arrow that feels something”) or self-revelation (“I drink to reduce my seriousness so a certain spurious charm / can appear.”) And on top of that he could stand back and describe what he was doing as if he were talking about someone else:

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!
(“My Heart”)

The poems didn’t represent life; they seemed part of it. Like the tanka exchanged by the ancient Japanese courtiers of The Tale of Genji, O’Hara’s lyrics were mechanisms making something happen in life, actions rather than artifacts. Their beauty was of a random scattering whose messiness turns out—as if by accident—to be laid out with an exquisite eye for form.

O’Hara’s most successful trick—an enduring one—was to make any reader believe that he knew him personally. In a letter written to the painter Fairfield Porter in 1955—a letter whose self-deprecating tone is too lovingly elaborated to be quite convincing—he described his poetry as “full of objects for their own sake, spleen and ironically intimate observation which may be truthfulness (in the lyrical sense) but is more likely to be egotistical cynicism masquerading as honesty…. Where Kenneth [Koch] and Jimmy [Schuyler] produce art, for instance, I often feel I just produce the by-product of exhibitionism. Well, chacun à son mauvais goût!” Elsewhere, in the brilliant and comic manifesto “Personism,” he put the matter rather differently: “It does not have to do with personality or intimacy, far from it!”

Brad Gooch’s City Poet is a book that O’Hara would probably have enjoyed reading, if it had been about someone other than himself—Lana Turner, say. It has all the gossipy and glamorous pleasures usually associated with celebrity bios, pleasures rarely found in accounts of the lives of modern American poets. There are no visions, dementia, or suicides here; little solitude of any sort, in fact. The poet figures as part of a particularly brilliant crowd—or perhaps as its secret orchestrator. It is a disconcertingly jaunty chronicle, even as its central character winds down with a shrug of inevitability into too much alcohol and hints of exhaustion. As a portrait the book has a clarity and balance which makes Gooch’s obvious affection for his subject very persuasive for the reader as well.

The lines are outwardly simple. Small-town Catholic upbringing in Massachusetts, early musical training, a World War Two stint in the navy (he was present at the Japanese surrender) which seems to have enabled him to sever his ties to home, four years at Harvard during which his focus switched from music to poetry, and where he first met John Ashbery; graduate work and a prestigious poetry prize at the University of Michigan; and thereafter pretty much the New York whirl, as he worked his way up the ladder at the Museum of Modern Art (by the time of his death he was an associate curator) and became part of that extravagant company of painters and poets including Larry Rivers, Jane Freilicher, Grace Hartigan, Willem de Kooning, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler. He was cut off at forty, as he stumbled in the dark into the path of a dune buggy on Fire Island; Gooch suggests that he might have survived had his liver not already been weakened by years of hard drinking. In the interstices of that life the poetry somehow got written, much of it scattered in letters and one-off copies and smeared notes strewn around his own and others’ apartments.

The revelation here is the O’Hara we don’t really get to meet in his poetry, the earnest youth he more or less discarded, and who emerges as a remarkably appealing character and, not surprisingly, a surpassingly articulate one. Gooch charts his early development largely in his own words: in the letters he wrote home from the navy, for instance, he comes across as serious, self-reliant, and straightforward, with an altogether unironic appreciation of being alive.

His advice to his parents on how to listen to Brahms’s Violin Concerto—“Be sure & notice in the Finale how the theme (main) begins (start of the 8th record I think) and then recurs about twice as fast, or perhaps just with a different emphasis (about 1/2 way thru the 9th record I think)”—foreshadows his poems’ serpentine shifts of tone and tempo. The endearing accents of a home-town kid, as he berates the southerners in his barracks for being “so darn anti-Negro” and relays his enthusiasm for Marlene Dietrich in Kismet (“was she exotic”), give way to a calm self-awareness as he writers from overseas: “Except for swimming, most of my real pleasures are in my mind. So are always at my fingertips.”

By the time his naval stint ends (he served on a destroyer as a sonarman third class) a transformation becomes evident in a series of striking letters to his parents in which he begins to discard his inherited cultural baggage. “Our religion rather encourages us,” he writes, “to picture death as a relief and a refuge, it seems to me as I think of it; and I can’t help but think that that is not healthy and wholesome…why prefer the shadow to the sunlight, water to land?” He quarrels with what he saw as Catholicism’s rejection of the world, retorting: “It is our natural habitat and is not rejection of it cowardice or laziness of one kind or another?”

Once he is back in the States, he is ready to cut his ties. In a letter which (although he makes no open acknowledgment of his homosexuality) is remarkable for its assured candor, he declares: “It’s independence I want. There are things I must learn for myself and undoubtedly they will hurt—but not forever. I’d rather be hurt than stunted anyhow. And besides—perhaps the worst has already happened! It hasn’t killed me yet. Very few things will shock me, I’m afraid.” From the time he got out of the navy, O’Hara lived with the urgency of someone aware of precisely how much he has to do in the time allotted to him. In a journal he kept at Harvard in 1948 he wrote, “One must hurry, one must avoid impediments, snares, detours; one must not be stifled in a closed social or artistic railway station waiting for the train; I’ve a long way to go, and I’m late already.”

We don’t, in Gooch’s account, get any closer to O’Hara than in these early letters and journals. It may be that he was too much the annotator of his own life to allow much space for anyone else to assume that role: or simply that there is less private life to be explored in a life lived relentlessly in company. It was his show, a show so exhilarating that most of his friends seem to have been happy to give plenty of leeway to the contradictions of someone for whom the paths of desire were almost voluntarily complex.

The resulting web of passionate, frequently unresolved sexual and emotional entanglements provides Gooch with his richest material as he parses with a novelist’s eye the intricacies of O’Hara’s involvements with men gay and straight, and with a succession of women—V. R. Lang, Jane Freilicher, Grace Hartigan, and others—who figure in a muse-like role in much of his poetry. It did not make things simpler for him that, in Gooch’s words, “his ultimate dream lover was clearly a straight painter.” (While spending time in Madrid he wrote characteristically that it was “just like New York in that one has the same kind of relationships here…. That is, the queens always hate me and the heterosexual painters seem to like me.”)

Whenever his liaisons threaten to veer into Dostoevskian intensity—in the accounts, for example, of his tempestuous involvement with Larry Rivers—a note of comedy frequently intervenes, as in the account of one would-be lover of O’Hara (another straight painter): “It was a fiasco…. Both of us started to laugh at the same time.” O’Hara was able to make that kind of what-the-hell laughter part of his poetry, at a time when literary homosexuality was generally surrounded by an aura of obligatory anxiety and self-doubt.

Everyone who knew O’Hara seems eager to talk about him at length, and the mingling of their testimony creates the impression of a wake still, after all these years, in progress. If O’Hara was absorbed by his own charm, he was not alone. Willem DeKooning said of his advent among the painters, “Right away he was at the center of things, and he did not bulldoze. There was a good-omen feeling about him.” Larry Rivers’s comment is typical: “Frank was just a joy to be with. He was smart on any subject. Anything you said he had like five responses and you were throwing the ideas against a fantastic wall and it would come back more brilliant than you had ever intended it.” He played the same incandescent role for the poets of what became known as the New York School.

Gooch delineates the social currents of O’Hara’s life skillfully and entertainingly; he is less informative when it comes to the poetic milieu in which O’Hara operated. Analyses of style are too vague to be of much use: we are told that “the New York School could be grouped together because they wrote in language that was illogical and often meaningless,” John Ashbery’s poetry is described as “a record of whatever thoughts, memories, or words were in his mind at a given moment,” and John Wieners’s work is characterized not very helpfully in terms of “visionary exaggerations” and “darkly ‘beat’ personal style.” Minor errors—like identifying Robert Kelly as Robert Creeley in a discussion of “deep image” poetry—betray a certain casualness with regard to the nuances of a world in which O’Hara was a supremely sophisticated participant.

Any biography of O’Hara must be an uncompleted are. He died not precisely at his peak—his poetry had been on the wane for several years, the always heavy drinking was taking a more visible toll—but at thirty-nine he had hardly exhausted his opportunities. He was on the brink of a wider literary fame and his rising curatorial career was giving him an ever more influential role in the art world. At the same time he defined his own moment so precisely that it is hard to imagine him in a subsequent era. By the time of his death he was already ill at ease with much that would become typical of Sixties culture; mystical religiosity and political conformity of any stripe were alike inimical to him. The pugnacious vivacity of his temperament might have found the subsequent decades a trying experience.

John Ashbery, responding to O’Hara’s use of personal references in his poetry, commented: “The fact that no one would know who the people are would add rather than decrease charm.” It remains a question how much City Poet’s gloss on the social and romantic occasions of the poems really changes their effect. How much did we need to know about who Jane and Vincent and Patsy and Mike and Joe were when they weren’t being syllables in a poem? Surprisingly little, I think. We could have guessed most of it, not from information that the poems impart, but from the almost imperceptible shifts of emotion and humor they trace with such uncanny precision. In a poem like “How To Get There” the network of human relations—“lies, lies everywhere writhing and gasping/clutching and tangling”—becomes an abstract space in which the poet stages an elegant disappearing act:

never to be alone again
never to be loved
sailing through space: didn’t I have you once for my self?
West Side?
for a couple of hours, but I am not that person

It was appropriate that one of his very best poems be entitled “In Memory of My Feelings”: it was his faithfulness to the real messiness and fluidity of feeling that made O’Hara so much more than the Surrealist pasticheur he might have become.

The paradox at the heart of his writing is a sort of disinterested selfabsorption. He does not so much transcend the graspings of desire as inhabit them so fully that he achieves an affectionate parody of a petulant and ennui-ridden egoism: “I am the least difficult of men. All I want is boundless love” (“Meditations in an Emergency”), or

I am terribly bored
sometimes it is like seeing a bad movie
other days, more often, it’s like having an acute disease of the kidney
god knows it has nothing to do with the heart
nothing to do with people more interesting than myself
yak yak
that’s an amusing thought
how can anyone be more amusing than oneself
how can anyone fail to be
(“Yesterday Down at the Canal”)

The graph of this self-absorption becomes, in a brilliant poetic sleight of hand, the mirror of a world. In the solitude in which he is never alone, O’Hara turns his mind into a theater where the criss-crossing dialogues never end. Everything talks back to him, even the sun. The least hermetic of poets, he can afford to look in the mirror because he sees everything reflected there anyway:

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

Most of the time it was all of that.