October 2, 2014

Frank O'Hara


Frank O’Hara [USA]
1926-1966
 

Frank O’Hara was born at Maryland General Hospital in Baltimore on March 27, 1926. He grew up in Grafton, Massachusetts, attending  St. John’s High School. He studied piano at Boston’s New England Conservatory from 1941-1944.

     During World War II O’Hara served in the South Pacific and in Japan as a sonar-operator on the destroyer USS Nicholas.

     After the war, taking advantage of the veteran benefits, he attended Harvard University, sharing a room with artist and writer Edward Gorey. Although he majored in music and worked on his own compositions, he attended classes irregularly, developing interests in philosophy and theology, while writing in off hours. At Harvard, O’Hara began publishing poems, in the Harvard Advocate and became a friend of rising poet John Ashbery. Changing his major, O’Hara graduated in 1950 with a degree in English.
     The poet went on to attend graduate school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, winning a Hopwood Award while attending school there. He received his M.A. in English literature in 1951, moving to New York City with his roommate and off and on lover, Joe LeSueur. In New York, O’Hara began teaching at The New School.
     In Manhattan, O’Hara quickly developed the large number of friends and admirers, many of them artists, musicians, and writers. He soon became active in the art world, writing as a reviewer for Artnews. At the same time he became an employee for the Museum of Modern Art, selling postcards at the admissions desk. In 1960, however, he was hired as an Assistant Curator of Painting and Sculpture Exhibitions, a position he would retain for the rest of his short life.

     In the early morning of July 24, 1966, O’Hara was stuck in the dark by a jeep on Fire Island beach, after a beach taxi in which he had been riding with friends broke down. He was buried in Green River Cemetery on Long Island, with funeral euologies delivered by Larry Rivers, Bill Berkson, Edwin Denby, and museum head René d’Harnoncourt.
      Although O’Hara wrote poems throughout his short life, he often treated them in nonchalant manner, dedicating them to friends and giving them away or storing them in the midst of books and other papers. His work, although far more complexly structured that many readers and critics had perceived, appeared as autobiographically centered. Even close friends often treated his works somewhat dismissively, Ashbery claiming to have witnessed his friend “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 put them away in drawers and cartons and half forget them.”
    Such a non-serious viewpoint was also promulgated by O’Hara’s own comments. For example, in 1959, he wrote a mock manifesto (originally published in Yugen in 1961), 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 continues, "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 LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), he founded a movement called Personism which may be "the death of literature as we know it."

   "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."
      In fact, as later critics such as Marjorie Perloff, in her groundbreaking study of O’Hara’s work, 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), his work demonstrated a wide-range of influences from Abstract Expressionism, Surrealism, Russian Futurism, and poets associated with the French Symbolists. He was also highly influenced by William Carlos Williams and other radical American poets, and his work reveals a continuation of the Pound-Williams-Olson tradition, while also breaking new boundaries and, ultimately, creating a new wave of poets, generally described as “The New York School.”—although the differences between the writers of the so-called “first generation,” including Ashbery, James Schuyler, Barbara Guest, and others from the younger “followers” during the several decades that have followed, are often quite significant.
      The influence of O’Hara’s work, however one evaluates his own work, has been enormous, and what is often described as the O’Hara “cult,” has only grown through the years. His openly gay behavior and poetics, moreover, have been significant influences on poets and popular culture figures since his death.
      A commemorative volume of his writings, with illustrations by 30 artists was edited by Bill Berkson in 1967.
      Despite his apparent lack of care about his own poetry, finally, O’Hara managed to put together and get published a number of volumes of poetry during his own lifetime, including A City Winter and Other Poems (1951); Oranges: 12 pastorals (1953); Meditations in an Emergency (1957); Second Avenue (1960); Odes (1960); Lunch Poems (1964); and Love Poems (Tentative Title) (1965).  His Collected Poems were published in 1971 by Knopf. Since then numerous other volumes of previously uncollected poems and gatherings of his plays have been published. His plays appear in two volumes Selected Plays in 1978 and Amorous Nightmares of Delay  in 1997.

BOOKS OF POETRY

A City Winter and Other Poems. [with two drawings by Larry Rivers] (New York: Tibor de Nagy Gallery Editions, 1951); 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. [with prints by Michael Goldberg] (New York: Tiber Press, 1960); Lunch Poems (San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books, The Pocket Poets Series (No. 19), 1964, 2014); 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, California: Grey Fox Press, 1975); Early Writing. Edited by Donald Allen (Bolinas, California: Grey Fox; Berkeley, 1977); Poems Retrieved. Edited by Donald Allen (Bolinas, California: Grey Fox Press, 1977; reprinted San Francisco: City Lights, 2013); Selected Poems. Edited by Mark Ford (New York: Knopf, 2008)


For a selection of poems by O'Hara, click here:

For three videos of Frank O'Hara performing, go here:

For a large selection of on-line works, click below:

FRANK O’HARA

from PERSONISM: A MANIFESTO

Everything is in the poems, but at the risk of sounding like the poor wealthy man’s Allen Ginsberg I will write to you because I just heard that one of my fellow poets thinks that a poem of mine that can’t be got at one reading is because I was confused too. Now, come on. I don’t believe in god, so I don’t have to make elaborately sounded structures. I hate Vachel Lindsay, always have, I don’t even 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."
     That’s for the writing poems part. As for their reception, suppose you’re in love and someone’s mistreating (mal aimé) you, you don’t say, "Hey, you can’t hurt me this way, I care!" you just let all the different bodies fall where they may, and they always do ‘flay after a few months. But that’s not why you fell in love in the first place, just to hang onto life, so you have to take your chances and try to avoid being logical. Pain always produces logic, which is very bad for you.
     I’m not saying that I don’t have practically the most lofty ideas of anyone writing today, but what difference does that make? they’re just ideas. The only good thing about it is that when I get lofty enough I’ve stopped thinking and that’s when refreshment arrives.
     But how can you really care if anybody gets it, or gets what it means, or if it improves them. Improves them for what? for death? Why hurry them along? Too many poets act like a middle-aged mother trying to get her kids to eat too much cooked meat, and potatoes with drippings (tears). I don’t give a damn whether eat or not. Forced feeding leads to excessive thinness (effete). Nobody should experience anything they don’t need to, if they don’t need poetry bully for them, I like the movies too. And all, only Whitman and Crane and Williams, of the American are better than the movies. 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. Unless of course, you flatter yourself into thinking that what You’re experiencing is "yearning."
     Abstraction in poetry, which Allen recently commented on in It is, is intriguing. I think it appears mostly in the minute particu1ars where decision is necessary. Abstraction (in poetry, not in painting) involves personal removal by the poet. For instance, the decision involved in the choice between "the nostalgia of the infinite" and "the nostalgia for the infinite" defines an attitude toward degree of abstraction. The nostalgia of the infinite representing the greater degree of abstraction, removal, and negative capability (as in Keats and Mallarmé). Personism, a movement which I recently founded and which nobody yet knows about, interests me a great deal, being so totally opposed to this kind of abstract removal that it is verging on a true abstraction for the first time, really, in the history of poetry. Personism is to Wallace Stevens what la poésie pure was to Béranger. Personism has nothing to do with philosophy, it’s all art. 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 towards the poem while preventing love from distracting him into feeling about the person. That’s part of personism. It was founded by me after lunch with LeRoi Jones on August 27, 1959, a day in which I was in love with someone (not Roi, by the way, a blond). I went back to work and wrote a poem for this person. While I was writing it I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born. It’s a very exciting movement which will undoubtedly have lots of adherents. It puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style, and the poem is correspondingly gratified. The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages.

                                                            [9/3/59]
Frank O’Hara "Personism: A Manifesto" from Yugen #7, copyright © 1961.

 

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