Frank O’Hara was the most sociable of poets, always happy to read aloud at parties, always praising friends or lovers or anyone else who got his attention, almost always portraying his inner life as if it existed only so that it could savor his outer one. O’Hara loved writers, artists, poems, paintings, bars, cafés, food, sex, film stars, buildings, and much else, and he seemed to toss them all into the mixed salads of his poetry with the same indifference to form and logic, the same domesticated surrealism, that characterized much of the American avant-garde of the period. Almost everyone who remembers O’Hara from his heady days in bohemian New York in the 1950s and 1960s remembers him as the liveliest guest at any party in Greenwich Village or the Hamptons where the artistic and literary avant-garde gathered to celebrate itself.
But O’Hara was trying to find something different from what most of the other party guests were looking for, something far more sober, lonely, and serious. The best of the hundreds of poems that he wrote from around the age of twenty-three, in 1949, until his death at forty, in 1966, after a Jeep accident on a Fire Island beach, were private conversations with individual readers, too quiet to be heard in a crowded room. O’Hara wrote a seriously joking prose piece, “Personism: A Manifesto,” that pretended to treat his poetic manner as an exciting avant-garde movement “which will undoubtedly have lots of adherents.” Thanks to this new movement, “the poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages.” For a while, O’Hara also enjoyed writing showy, extravagant party pieces—long poems filled with miscellaneous names, places, and events—but his career began and ended with his shorter, deeper, more finely crafted lyrics, and the word “love” occurs more often in his shorter poems than in his longer ones.
Few who enjoyed O’Hara’s presence in the avant-garde scene seem to have noticed that his jokes, gossip, and wild associative leaps tended to culminate in sermons about the ultimate value of one-to-one relations. “The only truth is face to face,” he wrote in “Ode: Salute to the French Negro Poets,” a poem partly about the prejudicial falsehoods that blur individual faces. The closing couplet reads:
the only truth is face to face, the poem whose words become your mouth
and dying in black and white we fight for what we love, not are
For O’Hara a poem was truthful when it was personal, not in the self-regarding “confessional” style of Robert Lowell’s poems, which O’Hara called “just plain bad,” but in the way in which one person attends to another. What was worth fighting for was “what we love,” not identity, essence, principles, blackness, whiteness, or anything else we might think we are.
O’Hara made his living as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art and as a reviewer for art magazines. The artworks he …