City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara
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!
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!”