Biography of Frank O'Hara
Francis Russell "Frank" O'Hara was an American writer, poet and art critic. He was a member of the New York School of poetry.
Frank O'Hara, the son of Russell Joseph O'Hara and Katherine (née Broderick) was born on March 27, 1926, at Maryland General Hospital, Baltimore and grew up in Grafton, Massachusetts. He attended St. John's High School in Worcester. He grew up believing he had been born in June, but in fact had been born in March, his parents having disguised his true date of birth because he was conceived out of wedlock. He studied piano at the New England Conservatory in Boston from 1941 to 1944 and served in the South Pacific and Japan as a sonarman on the destroyer USS Nicholas during World War II.
With the funding made available to veterans he attended Harvard University, where artist and writer Edward Gorey was his roommate. Although O'Hara majored in music and did some composing, his attendance was irregular and his interests disparate. He regularly attended classes in philosophy and theology, while writing impulsively in his spare time. O'Hara was heavily influenced by visual art and by contemporary music, which was his first love (he remained a fine piano player all his life and would often shock new partners by suddenly playing swathes of Rachmaninoff when visiting them). His favorite poets were Arthur Rimbaud , Stephane Mallarme, Boris Pasternak and Vladimir Mayakovsky While at Harvard, O'Hara met John Ashbery and began publishing poems in the Harvard Advocate. Despite his love of music, O'Hara changed his major and graduated from Harvard in 1950 with a degree in English.
He then attended graduate school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. While at Michigan, he won a Hopwood Award and received his M.A. in English literature in 1951. That autumn O'Hara moved into an apartment in New York City with Joe LeSueur, who would be his roommate and sometime lover for the next 11 years. It was in New York that he began teaching at The New School.
Known throughout his life for his extreme sociability, passion, and warmth, O'Hara had hundreds of friends and lovers throughout his life, many from the New York art and poetry worlds. Soon after arriving in New York, he was employed at the front desk of the Museum of Modern Art and began to write seriously.
O'Hara was active in the art world, working as a reviewer for Artnews, and in 1960 was Assistant Curator of Painting and Sculpture Exhibitions for the Museum of Modern Art. He was also friends with the artists Willem de Kooning, Norman Bluhm, Larry Rivers and Joan Mitchell.
In the early morning hours of July 24, 1966, O'Hara was struck by a dune buggy on the Fire Island beach. He died the next day of a ruptured liver. O'Hara was buried in Green River Cemetery on Long Island. The painter Larry Rivers, a longtime friend and lover[ of O'Hara's, delivered the eulogy.
While O'Hara's poetry is generally autobiographical, it tends to be based on his observations of New York life rather than exploring his past. In his introduction to The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, Donald Allen says that “Frank O’Hara tended to think of his poems as a record of his life is apparent in much of his work.” O'Hara discussed this aspect of his poetry in a statement for Donald Allen's New American Poetry: "What is happening to me, allowing for lies and exaggerations which I try to avoid, goes into my poems. I don’t think my experiences are clarified or made beautiful for myself or anyone else, they are just there in whatever form I can find them.” He goes on to say, "My formal 'stance' is found at the crossroads where what I know and can't get meets what is left of that I know and can bear without hatred... It may be that poetry makes life's nebulous events tangible to me and restores their detail; or conversely that poetry brings forth the intangible quality of incidents which are all too concrete and circumstantial. Or each on specific occasions, or both all the time."
His initial time in the Navy, during his basic training at Sampson Naval Training Center in upstate New York, along with earlier years spent at St. John’s High School began to shape a distinguished style of solitary observation that would later inform his poems. Immersed in regimented daily routine, first Catholic school then the Navy, he was able to separate himself from the situation and make witty and often singular studies. Sometimes these were cataloged for use in later writing, or, perhaps more often, put into letters and sent off to home. This skill of scrutinizing and recording during the bustle and churn of daily life would, later, be one of the important aspects that shaped O’hara as an urban poet writing off the cuff.
Among his friends, O'Hara was known to treat poetry dismissively, as something to be done only in the moment. John Ashbery claims he witnessed O'Hara “Dashing the poems off at odd moments – in his office at the Museum of Modern Art, in the street at lunchtime or even in a room full of people – he would then put them away in drawers and cartons and half forget them.”
In 1959, he wrote a mock manifesto (originally published in Yugen in 1961) called Personism: A Manifesto, in which he explains his position on formal structure: "I don't ... like rhythm, assonance, all that stuff. You just go on your nerve. If someone's chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don't turn around and shout, 'Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep.'" He says, in response to academic overemphasis on form, "As for measure and other technical apparatus, that's just common sense: if you're going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you. There's nothing metaphysical about it." He claims that on August 27, 1959, while talking to LeRoi Jones, he founded a movement called Personism which may be "the death of literature as we know it."
He says, "It does not have to do with personality or intimacy, far from it! But to give you a vague idea, one of its minimal aspects is to address itself to one person (other than the poet himself), thus evoking overtones of love without destroying love's life-giving vulgarity, and sustaining the poet's feelings toward the poem while preventing love from distracting him into feeling about the person."
His poetry shows the influence of Abstract Expressionism, Surrealism, Russian poetry, and poets associated with French Symbolism. Ashbery says, “The poetry that meant the most to him when he began writing was either French – Rimbaud, Mallarmé, the Surrealists: poets who speak the language of every day into the reader’s dream – or Russian – Pasternak and especially Mayakovsky, for whom he picked up what James Schuyler has called the ‘intimate yell.’” As part of the New York School of poetry, O'Hara to some degree encapsulated the compositional philosophy of New York School painters.
Ashbery says, “Frank O'Hara's concept of the poem as the chronicle of the creative act that produces it was strengthened by his intimate experience of Pollock's, Kline's, and de Kooning's great paintings of the late '40s and early '50s and of the imaginative realism of painters like Jane Freilicher and Larry Rivers.” This interaction between poet and painter is most evident in the poem, "Why I am Not A Painter", in which O'Hara compares the process of writing a poem called "Oranges" with a description of his friend Mike Goldberg's creation of a painting entitled "Sardines". Neither work in the end contains a reference to its title.
O'Hara was also influenced by William Carlos Williams . According to Marjorie Perloff in her book Frank O'Hara, Poet among Painters, he and Williams both use everyday language and simple statements split at irregular intervals. Perloff points out the similarities between O'Hara's "Autobiographia Literaria" and Williams's "Invocation and Conclusion." At the end of "Autobiographia Literaria," the speaker says, "And here I am, the/center of all beauty!/writing these poems!/Imagine!" Similarly, Williams at the end of "Invocation and Conclusion" says, "Now look at me!" These lines show a shared interest in the self as an individual who can only be himself in isolation. A similar idea is expressed in a line from Williams's "Danse Russe": "Who shall say I am not/ the happy genius of my household?"
In Popular Culture
In the 2011 film Beastly, the lovestruck main characters read O'Hara's poem Having a Coke with You aloud to each other.
In season 2 of the television series Mad Men, a character reading O’Hara’s collection of poetry, Meditations in an Emergency appeared in the first episode, and again in the last episode which also used its title as the episode title. In the twelfth episode of season 2, Don Draper finds a copy of Meditations in an Emergency in Anna Draper's home in California.
In the season 1 episode of the HBO series Bored to Death entitled "The Case of the Missing Screenplay", the main character loses a screenplay written by Jim Jarmusch about the life of Frank O'Hara.
Frank O'Hara's Works:
Books in lifetime
A City Winter and Other Poems. Two Drawings by Larry Rivers. (New York: Tibor de Nagy Gallery Editions, 1951 [sic, i.e. 1952])g
Oranges: 12 pastorals. (New York: Tibor de Nagy Gallery Editions, 1953; New York: Angel Hair Books, 1969)
Meditations in an Emergency. (New York: Grove Press, 1957; 1967)
Second Avenue. Cover drawing by Larry Rivers. (New York: Totem Press in Association with Corinth Books, 1960)
Odes. Prints by Michael Goldberg. (New York: Tiber Press, 1960)
Lunch Poems. (San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books, The Pocket Poets Series (No. 19), 1964)
Love Poems (Tentative Title). (New York: Tibor de Nagy Gallery Editions, 1965)
In Memory of My Feelings, commemorative volume illustrated by 30 U.S. artists and edited by Bill Berkson (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1967)
The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara. edited by Donald Allen with an introduction by John Ashbery (1st ed. New York: Knopf, 1971; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995)
The Selected Poems of Frank O'Hara. edited by Donald Allen (New York: Knopf, 1974; Vintage Books, 1974)
Standing Still and Walking in New York. edited by Donald Allen (Bolinas, Calif: Grey Fox Press; Berkeley, Calif: distributed by Bookpeople, 1975)
Early Writing. edited by Donald Allen (Bolinas, Calif: Grey Fox; Berkeley: distributed by Bookpeople, 1977)
Poems Retrieved. edited by Donald Allen (Bolinas, Calif: Grey Fox Press; Berkeley, Calif: distributed by Bookpeople, 1977)
Selected Plays. edited by Ron Padgett, Joan Simon, and Anne Waldman (1st ed. New York: Full Court Press, 1978)
Amorous Nightmares of Delay: Selected Plays. (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997)
Selected Poems, edited by Mark Ford (New York: Knopf, 2008)
Jackson Pollock. (New York: George Braziller, Inc. 1959)
New Spanish painting and sculpture. (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1960)
Robert Motherwell: with selections from the artist's writings. by Frank O'Hara (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1965)
Nakian. (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1966)
Art Chronicles, 1954-1966. (New York: G. Braziller, 1975)
Frank O'Hara: Poet Among Painters by Marjorie Perloff (New York: G. Braziller, 1977; 1st paperback ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979; Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, with a new introduction, 1998)
Frank O'Hara by Alan Feldman (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979 . . . frontispiece photo of Frank O'Hara c. by Richard Moore)
Frank O'Hara: A Comprehensive Bibliography by Alexander Smith, Jr. (New York: Garland, 1979; 2nd print. corrected, 1980)
Homage to Frank O'Hara. edited by Bill Berkson and Joe LeSueur, cover by Jane Freilicher (originally published as Big Sky 11/12 in April, 1978; rev. ed. Berkeley: Creative Arts Book Company, 1980)
Art with the touch of a poet: Frank O'Hara. exhibit companion compiled by Hildegard Cummings (Storrs, Conn. : The William Benton Museum of Art, University of Connecticut, 1983 . . . January 24-March 13, 1983)
Frank O'Hara: To Be True To A City edited by Jim Elledge (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990)
City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O'Hara by Brad Gooch (1st ed. New York: Knopf, 1993; New York: HarperPerennial, 1994)
In Memory of My Feelings: Frank O'Hara and American Art by Russell Ferguson (Los Angeles: The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles / University of California Press, 1999)
Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O'Hara: Difference, Homosexuality, Topography by Hazel Smith (Liverpool University Press, Liverpool, 2000)
Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O'Hara by Joe LeSueur (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003).
Frank O'Hara: The Poetics of Coterie by Lytle Shaw (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2006)
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Frank O'Hara Poems
Why I Am Not A Painter
I am not a painter, I am a poet. Why? I think I would rather be a painter, but I am not. Well,
I've got to tell you how I love you always I think of it on grey mornings with death
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,
A True Account Of Talking To The Sun On ...
The Sun woke me this morning loud and clear, saying "Hey! I've been trying to wake you up for fifteen minutes. Don't be so rude, you are
So we are taking off our masks, are we, and keeping our mouths shut? as if we'd been pierced by a glance! The song of an old cow is not more full of judgment
For Grace, After A Party
You do not always know what I am feeling. Last night in the warm spring air while I was blazing my tirade against someone who doesn't interest
A Quiet Poem
When music is far enough away the eyelid does not often move and objects are still as lavender
Lines For The Fortune Cookies
I think you're wonderful and so does everyone else. Just as Jackie Kennedy has a baby boy, so will you--even bigger.
When I was a child I played by myself in a corner of the schoolyard all alone.
In Memory Of My Feelings
My quietness has a man in it, he is transparent and he carries me quietly, like a gondola, through the streets. He has several likenesses, like stars and years, like numerals.
Meditations In An Emergency
Am I to become profligate as if I were a blonde? Or religious as if I were French? Each time my heart is broken it makes me feel more adventurous
A City Winter
1 I understand the boredom of the clerks fatigue shifting like dunes within their eyes a frightful nausea gumming up the works
Have you forgotten what we were like then when we were still first rate and the day came fat with an apple in its mouth it's no use worrying about Time
After the first glass of vodka you can accept just about anything of life even your own mysteriousness you think it is nice that a box
A Quiet Poem
When music is far enough away
the eyelid does not often move
and objects are still as lavender
without breath or distant rejoinder.
The cloud is then so subtly dragged
away by the silver flying machine