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 most admired were pictures of individual persons painted with the uniquely personal brushstrokes of painters such as Willem de Kooning and Larry Rivers. He disliked the flat, impersonal, mechanical images silkscreened by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. But he was too generous-minded to persist in his distaste for Warhol, and eventually wrote of one of his portraits that it was “not sarcastic,” as he had expected, but “moving and beautiful.”
O’Hara rushed into print with reviews and essays about the painters he admired, but he resisted most opportunities to publish his poems. Aside from a few pamphlets printed by art galleries in tiny editions, he allowed only two collections to appear in his lifetime, Meditations in an Emergency (1957) and Lunch Poems (1964). Both had to be dragged out of him by their publishers; the second required six years of persuasion by Lawrence Ferlinghetti before O’Hara supplied the contents.
All posthumous editions of O’Hara’s work, including Mark Ford’s sensitively chosen and intelligently introduced Selected Poems , are compiled mostly from poems that O’Hara never hoped to publish. Donald Allen, the ener getic anthologist of the avant-garde who had helped get Lunch Poems into print, put everything he could find into the thick Collected Poems that appeared in 1971, five years after O’Hara’s death; a revised edition appeared in 1995. Allen also published a few further volumes of poems that had eluded him in 1971, and edited a Selected Poems in 1974.
Mark Ford’s selection presents a different O’Hara from the one portrayed by Donald Allen’s 1974 volume. The differences begin on the front covers. The older book displays Larry Rivers’s nude portrait of O’Hara, with the genitals in brighter light and sharper focus than the face. The newer book displays a friend’s photograph of O’Hara’s face in profile, its expression contemplative and alert. Ford’s selection makes it possible to see more clearly how inward O’Hara’s poetry was at its best, and his version of O’Hara is more celebratory than Allen’s, less eager to shock. Among O’Hara’s longer poems, both Allen and Ford include the later “Ode to Michael Goldberg (‘s Birth and Other Births)” and “Biotherm (for Bill Berkson),” which have much to say about hope, liberty, wine, and dessert. But Allen includes, and Ford omits, the early long poems “Hatred” and “Easter,” which have much to say about excrement and pain.
The best books about O’Hara are Marjorie Perloff’s critical study, Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters (1977, revised 1998), and Brad Gooch’s biography, City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara (1993). Both have titles that locate O’Hara in a group or a scene—in much the same way that the nude portrait on the old Selected Poems locates him in a sexual category—although both books are sensitive to the privacy and inwardness of O’Hara’s best work. Gooch repeatedly observes that O’Hara wrote most fluently when he was alone, and that the densely populated world of his most public poems was his defense against an emptiness that both tempted and terrified him.
O’Hara is explicit about this temptation, and about the failure of his usual defenses against it, in a poem called “Anxiety”:
I’m having a real day of it.
something I had to do. But what?
There are no alternatives, just
the one something.
I have a drink,
it doesn’t help—far from it!
A few lines later he wishes he could become “really dark, richly dark, like/being drunk,” but even that would be second-best to the suicidal relief that a total dissolution into emptiness could bring:
pure light, to be as if above a vast
prairie, rushing and pausing over
the tiny golden heads in deep grass.
Among O’Hara’s contemporaries, few poets seem less like him than the repressed, unsociable, provincial English librarian Philip Larkin. But O’Hara’s “Anxiety” has the same tone, mood, and plot of Larkin’s “High Windows,” in which all comforts seem impossible, and Larkin’s anxiety issues finally in
the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.
When O’Hara compared himself with writers and artists among his friends, he insisted that he was attempting less than they did, and tried to suppress his sense that he was achieving more. In one typically self-denigrating letter he wrote: “Where Kenneth [Koch] and Jimmy [James Schuyler] produce art, for instance, I often feel I just produce the by-product of exhibitionism.” In the same letter, however, he pointed toward a deeper motive than exhibitionism: “Sometimes I think that writing a poem is such a moral crisis I get completely sick of the whole situation.” O’Hara was too modest to admit that he believed his friends’ desire to “produce art”—to confront an aesthetic crisis instead of a moral one—was their limitation.
Even his most comic and arbitrary-sounding poems tend to be essays on moral crises. The point of the comedy was not to dismiss the issues, but to disclaim any importance for himself in comparison with the issues. O’Hara’s characteristic tone in his love poetry was that of unrequited passion, as in an early poem, “Poetry,” where his desire to be forever with his art is indistinguishable from his desire to be forever with a person:
All this I desire. To
deepen you by my quickness
and delight as if you
were logical and proven,
but still be quiet as if
I were used to you; as if
you would never leave me
and were the inexorable
product of my own time.
And in one of his last poems, “Cantata,” the closing lines about his orange cat are equally about someone human:
…he looks like my best friend my constant lover
hopelessly loyal tawny and apt and whom I hopelessly love
W.H. Auden famously warned O’Hara against the arbitrary, surrealistic shifts of tone and subject in the poems that he and his friend John Ashbery were writing in the 1950s:
I think you (and John, too, for that matter) must watch what is always the great danger with any “surrealistic” style, namely of confusing authentic non-logical relations which arouse wonder with accidental ones which arouse mere surprise and in the end fatigue.
Auden had not detected the almost opposite motivations behind the “non-logical relations” in O’Hara’s and Ashbery’s poetry. Ashbery’s work, O’Hara said, “is full of dreams and a kind of moral excellence and kind sentiments,” while his own “is full of objects for their own sake” that he treats with “ironically intimate observation.” But Ashbery’s dreamlike sentiments link together whatever happens to be in his mind while he is writing a poem, while O’Hara’s “objects for their own sake” are linked together by his sense that, as in Dante’s Paradise, everything that has profound value in itself is obscurely but profoundly connected to everything that has similar value.
In fact, in O’Hara’s best poems, the relations that Auden called non-logical had a logic of their own. O’Hara was a lapsed Roman Catholic who detached himself cleanly and almost guiltlessly from his religious past. He lost all interest in Catholic theology and morals, but retained an aesthetic sensibility in which saints, shrines, relics, and rituals from wildly different centuries and cultures exist in a single harmonious texture of mutual adoration and love. The abrupt leaps from one object or person to another may look like the arbitrary leaps in Ashbery’s poetry, but they have a logic founded in a Catholic sensibility that persisted after O’Hara discarded Catholicism.
When O’Hara links together a film star, a ballerina, a poet, and a half-dozen friends, he is being less surrealistic than Dantesque. In Canto II of the Inferno , when Virgil tells Dante they will voyage together through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, Dante asks why someone as unheroic as he should be chosen. But heroism is irrelevant; what matters is that others care about Dante. Virgil explains that Mary (from first-century Nazareth) asked Lucia (from third-century Syracuse) to ask Beatrice (from thirteenth-century Florence) to ask Virgil (from first-century BC Rome) to come to his aid. They all exist for each other and for Dante, in more or less the same way that the friends, singers, and actors in O’Hara’s poems exist for him and for each other.