Urban Poet

The New York Times

Frank O'Hara

June 29, 2008

Urban Poet



By Frank O'Hara.

Edited by Mark Ford.

265 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $30.


Death is often a good career move in poetry. No sooner are the obsequies over and the baked meats eaten than the publisher warms up the presses for a definitive edition of the collected poems, solemnly proofread down to the last querulous comma. Yet not all poets are well served by such an exhaustive volume, which may seal up a reputation forever — indeed, such a book has sometimes been called a tombstone. A collected poems may be cruelest to a poet whose genius shone as intermittently as a firefly.

At 40, Frank O'Hara was struck one night by a Jeep on a Fire Island beach. He died scarcely two years after the publication of "Lunch Poems" (1964), the volume that introduced him to most readers. As a poet he wrote so much — so wildly and unevenly much — it has been difficult to reach a just estimate of his wayward, influential talent. O'Hara was born in Baltimore and schooled at Harvard, a roommate of Edward Gorey and a friend of John Ashbery. He soon went to work at the Museum of Modern Art, where he rose to become an associate curator. As he had fallen in among a crowd of painters and poets that included Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Franz Kline, Larry Rivers, Helen Frankenthaler, Jackson Pollock, James Schuyler and Kenneth Koch, it was perhaps natural to make poems out of their parties, feuds, love affairs and drunken gossip.

By the poetic fashion of the day, it was not natural at all. In the heady atmosphere of postwar Manhattan, however, young poets hostile to the philistines surrounding them (even coddled artists believe their society philistine) envied the technical bravado and rebellious invention of the Abstract Expressionists. The poets of the New York School, as they were eventually known, were long on spontaneity and short on traditional literary effect. O'Hara later recollected, according to Brad Gooch's biography, "City Poet," that he and other young poets "divided our time between the literary bar, the San Remo, and the artists' bar, the Cedar Tavern. In the San Remo we argued and gossiped; in the Cedar we often wrote poems while listening to the painters argue and gossip. So far as I know nobody painted in the San Remo while they listened to the writers argue."

O'Hara's earliest poems, the work of Harvard and just after, sound like Wallace Stevens at the soda fountain ("Oh! kangaroos, sequins, chocolate sodas! / You really are beautiful! Pearls, / harmonicas, jujubes, aspirins!"). Jazzy, elated as an eel, a talent giddily in search of a manner, the poet scatters exclamation marks like penny candy. Posing as a wide-eyed innocent, O'Hara was drawn to illogic and absurdity, to modes of presence and display far from poets like Yeats and Eliot and Lowell. When Auden chose Ashbery's first volume for the Yale Series of Younger Poets, he wrote O'Hara a thoughtful rejection, saying, "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 nonlogical relations which arouse wonder with accidental ones which arouse mere surprise and in the end fatigue."

The peculiar thing about O'Hara's "surrealistic" style is that it sounds not like early Ashbery but like late Ashbery. Here's O'Hara:

        How many trees and frying pans
I loved and lost! Guernica hollered look out!
but we were all busy hoping our eyes were talking
to Paul Klee. My mother and father asked me and
I told them from my tight blue pants we should
love only the stones, the sea, and heroic figures.
Wasted child! I'll club you on the shins!

Ashbery developed such insouciant nonsense into a charming anti-literary manner, but O'Hara soon grew bored with it. He was always looking for some vivid stimulus, preferably one a little outlandish — not a bad thing for a curator of modern painting, perhaps, but not necessarily a good one for a poet (O'Hara treated contemporary art with far more deliberation than he treated poetry). He began to make poetry from whatever happened around him — today, he might have written a blog. At the time, however, this preoccupation with the trivial, with the nothing of life that is nothing, seemed to jettison everything — meter, the calculated symbol, the grave poetic tone — associated with the manners of the art. However much one loves "Four Quartets" or "Lord Weary's Castle," it's refreshing to open O'Hara and read:

                                LeRoi comes in
and tells me Miles Davis was clubbed 12
times last night outside BIRDLAND by a cop
a lady asks us for a nickel for a terrible
disease but we don't give her one we
don't like terrible diseases, then
we go eat some fish and some ale it's
cool but crowded we don't like Lionel Trilling
we decide, we like Don Allen we don't like
Henry James so much we like Herman Melville
we don't want to be in the poets' walk in
San Francisco even we just want to be rich.

The headlong style, the lines broken like breadsticks, the punctuation limping along or missing entirely, capture the city's rush and welter, though O'Hara's physical world is curiously impoverished. Every poem seems to start from scratch. The back cover of "Lunch Poems" claimed that frequently O'Hara, "strolling through the noisy splintered glare of a Manhattan noon, has paused at a sample Olivetti to type up 30 or 40 lines of ruminations." This was most unlikely (even more so the notion that he had "withdrawn to a darkened ware- or firehouse to limn his computed misunderstandings of the eternal questions of life"); but the lie was as close to an "Ars Poetica" as the poet ever made.

O'Hara's instincts may have been anti-Romantic, but Wordsworth would have noticed that walking around Manhattan wasn't all that different from walking around some Lake District fell or other. You noticed one thing, then another; and perhaps you composed a few lines as you went. What O'Hara most objected to about poetry, however, was the hard work. A poet like Yeats turned his first thoughts, often in prose, into verse that disguised the labor of its passage ("A line will take us hours maybe; / Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought, / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught"). The labor was never meant to look laborious. O'Hara wanted his poems to look easy as a sewing machine but to take no work at all.

The poet's genius in these "I do this I do that" poems, as he called them, was to stop trying to have a point — the off-course thinking that was normally the means to a poem became the heady, helter-skelter end. He wrote compulsively about what moved him — his lovers, and avant-garde painting, and ballet and of course the movies (few poets have invoked Googie Withers and meant it). Wilde might have said that such things were too important not to write trivially about them; but O'Hara almost never faces up to the emptiness beneath this high life and low desire — if there's a subconscious revealed, it's very hard to detect. The poems describe an urban pastoral where no one has a real job, where martinis flow like nectar and where the days of Elysium are marked by the arrival of a new issue of New World Writing. Whitman's search for the democracy of the American demotic — what he called slang — had a century later become the hilarious musings of a vain young man about town (O'Hara wrote about homosexual life with a cheerful nonchalance rarely matched since;

Allen Ginsberg by contrast was slightly lugubrious about sex). It's hard to know whether Whitman, who took poetry seriously, would have laughed or wept.

Still, it's hard not to smile with appreciation at a poet who can write that he was lying abed when the sun woke him up to say:

                "Frankly I wanted to tell you
I like your poetry. I see a lot
on my rounds and you're okay. You may
not be the greatest thing on earth, but
you're different. Now, I've heard some
say you're crazy, they being excessively
calm themselves to my mind, and other
crazy poets think that you're a boring
reactionary. Not me."

The poem borrows from Vladimir Mayakovsky, from whom O'Hara also took his governing notion that the poem should wrap itself around the poet. Poetry needs to be taken down a peg once in a while; and O'Hara never condescended to the reader, unlike some slapstick poets now. He refused to apologize for his narcissism, his comic pretensions, his sometimes insufferable archness. These were the effects mastered and the price paid.

In the early '60s, there was a distinct falling-off in the verse — what had been effervescent as Champagne turned flat and stale, as sometimes happens in poets who begin with a lot of élan and little of anything else. O'Hara finished fewer and fewer poems, as if exhausted by the very scenes that once provoked him (almost two-thirds of this new edition of "Selected Poems" was written between 1954 and 1960). Still, some of the best poems of lunatic happenstance came in these years, including what is arguably his most famous poem, which ends

and I was in such a hurry
to meet you but the traffic
was acting exactly like the sky
and suddenly I see a headline
there is no snow in Hollywood
there is no rain in California
I have been to lots of parties
and acted perfectly disgraceful
but I never actually collapsed
oh Lana Turner we love you get up.

O'Hara's wonderful poems are all too easily drowned out by the vivifying mediocrity of the rest. At times the banalities pile up and overwhelm the poems — but then they were the poems. Rarely has an American poet so influential (two generations of urban poets have come out of O'Hara's shopping bag) written so many poems dull to anyone except his genial fanatics — his very notion of the aesthetic courted failure as a method. With an Oliver Goldsmith or a Thomas Gray, the mediocre results from a lack of gift, the good from lucky accident. When O'Hara was lucky, he was very lucky, because his method could not help but fail most of the time.

This long-needed new selection of O'Hara's poems, replacing Donald Allen's standard work of more than 30 years ago, has been thoughtfully edited by Mark Ford. He has kept about two-thirds of the old selection, adding 50 or so poems and a small sheaf of the poet's rambling prose statements and reminiscences, some of which sound more like Ernie Kovacs or Lenny Bruce than the author of these insouciantly unserious poems (O'Hara loathed academic hauteur, though he needn't have sounded so oafish about it). The selection is not perfect; Ford has included a grindingly self-conscious play as well as two long poems almost unreadable now, full of campy nonsense like "whoops-musicale (sei tu m'ami) ahhahahahaha / loppy di looploop" and "le bateleur! how wonderful / I'm so so so so so so so so so so happy," which sounds like Ezra Pound on happy pills. (The long poems are weakest not because the manner was difficult to sustain — O'Hara could have gone on forever — but because the manner became so irritating when sustained.) Still, among the shorter poems Ford has missed little of permanent value — I would have kept "Poem ('I ran through the snow like a young Czarevitch')" and "Mary Desti's Ass" — while remaining admirably fair-minded to O'Hara's variety. There may be serious intentions lodged in trivial things, but the poems often remain blissfully trivial.

It's hard to care about a lot of O'Hara's poems, but he doesn't want you to care. To accept the present as a fallen realm risks making it insignificant, although other poets of the period, especially Elizabeth Bishop, wrote deeply without losing their lightness of bearing. In his best poems — "Thinking of James Dean," "Why I Am Not a Painter," "On Seeing Larry Rivers' 'Washington Crossing the Delaware' at the Museum of Modern Art," "Ode: Salute to the French Negro Poets," "The Day Lady Died," "Les Luths," "Poem (Lana Turner has collapsed!)" and half a dozen others — O'Hara found something beyond that terrible vacancy he was trying so hard to fill. (His best poems are rarely his most characteristic or frenzied.) The style, though at times foolish and self-parodic, remains fresh 50 years later. However much these poems live in the world of Lowell's "tranquilized '50s," their giddiness in the face of despair, their animal pleasure in gossip, their false bravado, their frantic posturing and guilelessness and petty snobberies — and these were O'Hara's virtues — give us as much of a life as poetry can.

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