I never met Frank O’Hara, and in a way, it’s a relief. Secretly, I’ve always suspected he wouldn’t be terribly impressed with me. Where he’s spontaneous, I’m calculated. Where he’s gregarious, I’m not. And it can be so disappointing to admire someone intensely from afar, and then find out up close you’ve got nothing to say.
Besides, there are already so many versions of what-Frank-was-really-like in circulation, what could be gained from adding my two cents to the piggy bank of his mystique?
I did dream about him once, though, in 1988, right after I had moved to New York. In the dream, I was at a poetry reading. It was a drizzly night, and there were only a handful of us sitting on folding chairs in a dreary room. The poet was very young, a guy in jeans with longish hair and, in my opinion, nothing special as a writer. But when he finished, Frank O’Hara came up from the back of the room, where apparently he had been standing, and warmly congratulated him.
Frank was carrying a large shopping bag of towels or possibly sheets, and I overheard him say he had just come from checking out the largest new department store in Moscow. At the time, I considered the dream as I would any other recycled piece of Lower East Side folklore. It was sweet and in character to think of Frank as someone who still took time to encourage younger poets, even after his death. Only in writing this now do I allow myself to dwell on the rather disappointing fact that in my own dream, he didn’t even say hi to me, one of his biggest fans.
It makes me wonder what purpose it might serve to construct this fantasy of being snubbed. Was I being shy or aggressive: “I don’t deserve to be noticed” or “I don’t need your endorsement”? But to be honest, I’m not terribly upset, as I wasn’t in the dream, by his lack of attention. Because even if the ghost of Frank O’Hara does ignore me, his poems and mine have been carrying on the most intimate of conversations for the past twenty years. Perhaps this separation of poem and poet was at least in part what O’Hara refers to when he says in “Personism”: “It [his poetics] does not have anything to do with personality or intimacy—far from it!”
Basically, I still read Frank O’Hara today for the same reason as when I first read him in college: he makes me want to write. Not all poets do. Some prefer you to simply admire their brilliance. Some like to hide their tricks. Some pretend that they have none.
With Frank, there is always a feeling that he’s encouraging you, the reader—and that the poems were, in a very real way, written to have you write back and respond. Kenneth Koch puts it this way: “Sometimes he gave other people his own best ideas, but he was quick and resourceful enough to use them himself as well. It was almost as though he wanted to give his friends a head start and was competitive partly to make up for this generosity.” Koch is, of course, referring to actual conversations he had with O’Hara, yet the same generosity is inherent in Frank’s poems whether you knew him or not.
For anyone familiar with my work, O’Hara’s influence is unmistakable. There’s the use of humor and of pop culture, and on occasion, there’s his rhythm. Something about that pace, maybe because his poems are often walks or at least feel like walks, always reminded me of the way Joe Brainard described Frank O’Hara’s walk. “Light and sassy. With a slight bounce and a slight twist. It was a beautiful walk. Confident. ‘I don’t care’ and sometimes ‘I know you are looking.”‘
Trying to approximate it was like practicing dance steps alone in your room with the radio on or in front of the television, and then feeling that you couldn’t wait to try this out in public. In fact, I guess it was Frank O’Hara who first made me understand the intrinsically sociable and extroverted aspect to writing poetry—no small realization, and one that continues to shape my poems today. As does the O’Hara-esque idea of thinking of poetry as elevated talk, or as Allen Ginsberg once put it, “deep gossip”—eternal banter between the living and the dead. One gets the impression that talk was high on Frank’s list of pleasures, possibly even highest. In that respect, we’re very much alike.
It’s interesting, however, that even the most deliberate imitations of a poet’s style will lead in a totally different direction. And so, what’s stuck with me most over the years is not so much a specific this or that in terms of style, but rather the scope of Frank’s outlook, its largesse. That and the assurance his work gives that the poem is always there, always available, no matter how bleak, bored, confused or elated your mood. Thus one needn’t be a visionary, nor suicidal to write well.
Oddly enough, what Frank’s attitude toward writing most reminds me of is a Bible verse (Romans 10:6-8)—particularly if I substitute the word “poem” for “Christ.” Having done so, it would read:
To which Frank O’Hara, that most secular of poets, might reply without missing a beat: “My heart’s in my pocket. It is poems by Pierre Reverdy.”
MEDITATIONS ON AN EXCLAMATION POINT
The exclamation point (so like a hard-on) was one of Frank’s
favorite punctuation marks. Often he uses several in one line:
“full flowers! round eyes!
rush upward! rapture! space”
As a convention, they link his work to the unabashedly excessive declamatory style of Mayakovsky, Marinetti and the Futurists. But where Futurist poets often come off sounding bombastic and swaggeringly macho with their predilection for technology, speed and “the pure hygiene of war” (a position which by the 1950s was grimly laughable), O’Hara is sly enough to inject more than a note of parody into his celebration of “Kangaroos, sequins, chocolate sodas!/ You really are beautiful!” It’s as if he’s saying, if the Futurists were misguided in the placement of their enthusiasm, why make enthusiasm the villain?
It’s also interesting that in borrowing from the Futurists what is essentially a mannerism designed for a public voice, O’Hara applies it to the personal and the private with startling results. Thus the most mundane acts are transformed into performances of a sort, and even a simple thing like a fallen leaf can become a melodrama of epic proportion.
“Leaf! You are so big!
How can you change your
color, then just fall!
As if there were no
such thing as integrity!”
All in all, the use of these multiple explosions (orgasms) throughout the poems (particularly his early ones) have a twofold effect. First, they give his work a giddiness and a buoyancy that has, in fact, become its trademark. But because the exclamation points are often used in humorous and incongruous places, and because they’re overused, they also end up telegraphing a curious mix of the heartfelt and the insincere. Is he serious or putting us on?
The answer, of course, is always both. His poems ask to be read as genuine, even as they retreat into irony. It is a balancing act that Frank manages well, and one particularly suited to his times. For one can view the 1950s both as a moment when the autobiographical “I” was celebrated (by groups like the confessional poets) and also as one when the convention was beginning to unravel and become aware of its artifice.
For many of the more conservative critics of his era, the high degree of self-consciousness and irony in O’Hara’s poems made it hard to take him seriously. For today’s reader, however, perhaps the possibility that Frank is being sincere proves more of a problem. Or as contemporary poet Jerome Sala once said when wondering aloud why Frank O’Hara’s reputation, if anything, seems to have faded a bit: “Maybe Frank O’Hara is too happy for people today to read?”
I know when I first began writing poetry in the seventies, it seemed a given that O’Hara would soon become a major poet of the stature of Williams and Stevens. So pervasive was his influence, so in-the-air were his ideas, that it was almost not even necessary to actually read Frank O’Hara in order to pick up his style.
But from the perspective of the nineties, it’s not simply a matter of asking why he hasn’t received more critical attention. To a devoted reader like me, it’s a personal question full of bewilderment and surprise: why do Frank O’Hara’s poems no longer speak to us the way they used to?
No doubt, part of the answer is that many poets turn to Frank O’Hara when they’re young and just beginning to write. His enthusiasm and sense of hyperbole matches and fuels their own growing sense of self-importance and unlimited possibility. For similar reasons, Kerouac has always been popular with young people as well.
So yes, once we get older and more cautious, maybe even sober, it’s inevitable that we’d find so much “happiness”—so many cocktail parties, such camaraderie between artists and intermingling of the arts—annoying. In a larger sense, though, it’s important to remember that it’s not only us who have changed.
Indeed, the whole social fabric is different, so that today we are almost diametrically opposed to the values of O’Hara’s time. For example, the core of his work depends on the notion of scene and yes, even (artistic) community—while we find ourselves reading more and more articles about the lack thereof. People, and not just artists either, tend to be more serious, competitive and to have more specialized interests. Remarkably, even poets (who have so little financially to gain) have grown careerist and businesslike in their approach to writing. In such a climate it’s hard not to feel a bit like the ant and the grasshopper when confronted by the casual, insouciant charm of much of O’Hara’s poetry. Why’s he having so much fun while we have to work?
But perhaps “annoyance” is not quite the right word to capture what it is about O’Hara’s work that does not resonate or translate particularly well—that disturbs us in our present tenseness. Perhaps it is more a nostalgia for some lost idealism, a belief in the saving grace of art, that we have grown too cynical to accept.
Two examples of this gap come to mind. One is an old poem of mine, a parody of Frank’s “Having a Coke With You,” which I rewrote in the early eighties as “Having a Coke Alone.” In contrast to Frank’s effervescent desire to share everything he loves (the Frick, “The Polish Rider”) is my rather wandering, melancholy account of spending an afternoon at the movies alone, which ends with the lines: “They have talking vending machines now/ but none that say anything the way you want it said.”
One way to read my poem in relation to his is simply that we are at opposite ends of the same mood swing: he’s in love and I’m not. But more than that, it’s a poem in which I’m already beginning to struggle to explain—to Frank? myself?—some of the differences between his generation and mine.
Another more recent example is a piece by an experimental poet, Rod Smith, entitled “In Memory of My Theories.” Written in the nineties, it cleverly takes O’Hara’s masterpiece “In Memory of My Feelings” a step further down the poststructuralist road of depersonalization. It also underscores the shift from the “age of the artist” to the age of the cultural critic—and a rather somber culture it is at that. From Smith’s book: “… for it is the experience of being powerless/ amidst people, not against nature, that/ generates the most desperate embitterment.”
In death, as in life, a poet’s reputation is not dependent simply on the quality of the work, but rather on its relevance to the historical moment. Thus, poets who once enjoyed enormous popularity, like Frost, may lapse into periods of polite neglect, while other poets relatively obscure in their lifetime, such as Zukofsky, are discovered by new and eager readerships.
Nevertheless, it’s surprising that O’Hara isn’t more influential. Especially because elements of his work seem to speak directly to some of our current preoccupations. At a time when identity and its various modes of construction have become not only an artistic but public and political issue, O’Hara’s improvisatory approach to subjective style would seem to offer some revealing insights.
And besides, to be enthusiastic does not mean to be simple, nor does it mean you are happy all the time. Frank O’Hara’s work has one of the most incredibly wide emotional ranges of any poet I can think of. Yet many would still classify him as being somehow frivolous. Sadly, in the reductivist mood of our times, when everyone oversimplifies for the sake of expediency, the exclamation point has come to be synonymous with the smiley face.
THE POETICS OF TEA
It’s around 2 A.M. and I am doing something I can’t imagine Frank O’Hara doing. Still I’m sure there were times he must have, though perhaps very discreetly. In other words, I am trying to write—with the emphasis on trying. And it is not going well. Everything sounds flat. My particulars are not particularly interesting. In the past, I would smoke up to a pack of cigarettes at times like this as I’d consider one line, cross it out and start another. But now, in my forties, there’s only a cup of Lipton tea on the table next to me. And even that seems wrong. Shouldn’t it be oolong or jasmine? Passionflower? Chamomile or cinnamon? Or if I were a better writer to begin with maybe I wouldn’t need to mask my desperation with these little touches of exoticism. Maybe I could write about sitting and trying to write and the Lipton tea would work, would be enough.
I remember living in Chicago and reading Frank O’Hara and all the New York School poets and thinking that if I did what they did, it wouldn’t work. And it wouldn’t work precisely because I was in Chicago. So I didn’t do exactly what they did. I didn’t namedrop and talk about what street I lived on or what I ate for breakfast or who I had just gotten off the phone with. Instead I relied on a more generic brand of surrealism that I hoped would sound seductive. I did not think of the hierarchies involved in naming and being able to name, or the pleasures of articulating one’s own taste. I did not know then that years later I too would live in New York and talk freely about the type of flowers on the table next to me—in this case, chrysanthemums the color of cold tea at 2 A.M.
Even with a writer you love, there are resistances and points of contention. At times like this, the myth of O’Hara’s instantaneity seems especially oppressive. What, I wondered, would Frank O’Hara say if he were here now. He who supposedly wrote so effortlessly, who gave away poems (sometimes only copies) to friends.
I had done automatic writing before, but the results were always too anarchic and scrambled to mean much. This time, however, I simply thought of Frank, and the pen began to move easily across the page. It was almost like listening to a voice coming from inside myself and also just behind the chair. This is what it said:
Untie your muse
for an hour and stay with me.
I come in pieces
across a great test pattern
or maybe it’s what I used to call sky.
The music is certainly blue enough
but not without its own tenderness
like an arrow shot I know not where.
When will you see me as I am
as industrious with grief as you are
clever at hiding your tiredness.
In poems we shine,
and though we say them with conviction,
the words are never really ours for keeps.
“Now,” said a friend of mine, licking his lips as if he were eyeing a juicy steak, “we’ll have Frank O’Hara—the man.” It was 1993, we were in a bookstore and what he was actually looking at was the new, thick (almost five-hundred-page) biography by Brad Gooch entitled City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara.
Like my friend, I too was eager to find more about Frank O’Hara in print. Aside from Marjorie Perloff’s Poet Among Painters (1977), which is still arguably the best and most illuminating analysis of O’Hara’s poetry, not much else had appeared. But perhaps as my friend’s breathless anticipation implied, the man would prove ideal to fill the void. After all, Frank himself had been skeptical of critics (”the assassin of my orchards”) as well as impatient with the ponderous rhetoric of much literary criticism. So maybe the best way to understand this apparently most blatant of autobiographical poets would be through the actual events of his life.
What I didn’t have the heart to tell my friend at the time was that I had already read the book (having borrowed a review copy of the galleys) and that the events were not all that—well, juicy. Certainly O’Hara’s love life seemed a complicated juggling act. And certainly every chapter is packed to overflowing with famous figures like Larry Rivers, Jasper Johns, Bill de Kooning and Franz Kline—Frank’s own arty version of “the rat pack.” But that was to be expected. What the book lacked were those truly lurid revelations, not necessarily sexual, but often simply bizarre, that provide the undercurrent of guilty pleasure to reading biographies.
In City Poet, Frank O’Hara does not shoot out the TV screen like Elvis, or eat dog food as Judy Garland is once reported to have done or even wear a bit of pale green face powder as one biographer claims T.S. Eliot did on occasion. What I did discover in the Brad Gooch biography is that Frank O’Hara drank rather more than I’d imagined, and that he had the potential to be quite nasty, as is often the case when people drink that way for years. In short, what I discovered was that Frank O’Hara was human.
To Brad Gooch’s credit, he does indeed give us the man—not the legend. City Poet is a serious, respectful and impressively researched account of Frank O’Hara’s life and development as an artist. And just as it does not exploit or sensationalize him as a more trashy bio might, neither does it idealize him. Given the provocative and charismatic nature of O’Hara’s character, both impulses must have been hard to resist.
Still I’m not surprised that some people found Gooch’s book disturbing. It seems inevitable that there could be no one definitive version of Frank’s life to satisfy everyone. So while some found him too gay, since Gooch doesn’t shy away from cataloging numerous sexual episodes, others found him not gay enough: “—sometimes sick, still in bed, often hung over.”
What I found most troubling was the discussion of the poems: not so much interpretations as detailed tracings of the connection between names and images with the real-life people and events they refer to. Thus lines that I had given a more fanciful or imaginative reading suddenly seemed too grounded. Overall, rather than giving me a deeper appreciation of the poems, it made them seem more narrow. Or, as my writing students like to say about poems that use a lot of personal references, “We like it better when we don’t know who the people in it are.”
In all fairness, City Poet is a biography, not literary criticism, but what it helped me to realize is the problematic way in which the whole notion of biography (and not this one in particular) limits our reading of O’Hara’s work.
More than any other poet I can think of, O’Hara’s life is constantly equated with his poems in a very literal way, thereby giving the impression that there are no levels to his work. Serious critics who have never quite known what to make of O’Hara’s writing, with its playful disregard for traditional ideas of what a poem could and could not be, have been content to look no further than the autobiographical surface. And in some of his comments, O’Hara himself is guilty of creating the impression that any in depth explication of his poems is simply belaboring the obvious. Perhaps in the old-fashioned sense of conventional symbolism this is the case. But it strikes me as truly ironic that we could take a writer like O’Hara whose life and work is so much about levels of artistic mediation and somehow turn him into a realist.
Romantic, heroic, tragic—O’Hara is an ideal figure on which to project our fantasies about the life of the artist, though hopefully not at the expense of his work. Grudgingly, the literary establishment has included him in the canon, but I can’t help feeling uneasy over the possibility that it’s the man and not the poems they’ve canonized.
Perhaps another way to think of this is simply that Frank O’Hara hasn’t been dead that long, and therefore his writing is still tied to his life and those that knew him, in a way that makes the work difficult to interpret freely. I’m not saying we should completely disregard the unique way O’Hara used his life and transformed it in his poems. But I do think that if O’Hara is to remain a vital influence, then his words must belong to everyone—and not just those who knew him best. Only then can new ways to interpret his work emerge, apart from even his own intentions for it.
There is something deeply satisfying about the myth of Frank O’Hara, as if it provided poetry with a face and a name for what previously were only philosophical ideas, a life that becomes a work of art and vice versa. And yet the two sides of the equation— his life and his poems—are not true equivalents. Given the choice, perhaps some would actually prefer the man. Not me. I have his poems. His poems are enough.
About the Author
Elaine Equi is the author of many books including Surface Tension, Decoy, and most recently Voice-Over, which won the San Francisco State Poetry Award. A new collection, The Cloud of Knowable Things, is forthcoming from Coffee House Press in Fall 2003.
This essay was originally published in a slightly different form in CONJUNCTIONS: 29 Fall 1997 and appears here courtesy of the author.