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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Frank O'Hara
(1926-1966)


Joe LeSueur, a playwright and Frank O’Hara’s roommate for nearly a decade, wrote in a memoir, “as far as I could tell, writing poetry was something Frank did in his spare time.... For that reason, I didn’t realize right away that if you took poetry as much for granted as you did breathing it might mean you felt that it was essential to your life.”1 For many readers, the enormous appeal of Frank O’Hara’s work—and he is among the most appealing of all American poets—is that he combines a seemingly effortlessness of expression with a life-sustaining intensity of purpose. The poems were often dashed off almost always on the typewriter—The Lunch Poems, for example, got their title because they were written on O’Hara’s lunch hour—but they came out of the wholeness of O’Hara’s experience and emotions. As funny as they often are, they always indicate a shrewd awareness of people, places, and history. And although O’Hara is one of the most joyous poets America has produced, a darkness always hovers below the surface, accentuating the brightness above.

Frank O’Hara was born in Baltimore, Maryland, and grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts. He attended Harvard University, where he studied music, and the graduate school of the University of Michigan. But he is most associated with New York City and the Long Island coast, especially Fire Island, where he died in a freak accident—run over by a jeep on an island where cars are banned. With John Ashbery (a friend from his undergraduate days), James Schuyler, and Kenneth Koch, O’Hara formed the central core of what has been dubbed the New York School. Although what primarily bound these poets was personal friendship, they do have certain poetic similarities that unite them: (1) They all emphasize the immediacy of the individual poetic voice rather than the impersonal presentation of images. (2) They playfully combine elements from high and low culture, incorporating into their works the most mundane aspects of urban life and such features of popular culture as comic strip characters, Hollywood movies, and popular songs. (3) They fearlessly court the comic, the slapstick, the vulgar, and the sentimental. (4) They experiment with surrealism, although the dream-like often dissolves into the quite ordinary.

O’Hara, Ashbery, and Schuyler are also united by their involvement in the visual arts. All three worked at various times for Art News, writing articles and reviews. O’Hara worked first as a ticket taker, then as a curator for the Museum of Modern Art, organizing major exhibitions by the end of his life. O’Hara was a personal friend of many important artists including Larry Rivers, Willem de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, and Fairfield Porter. The directness and energy which many of these artists wished to bring to painting, O’Hara sought to register in his own work.

One of the typical modes in which O’Hara worked was what he called the “I do this I do that” poem. Many lesser poets have attempted to imitate O’Hara’s seemingly documentary style, but few have caught his eye for detail, his ear for the music of American English, or his sensitivity to the wide fluctuation of mood. O’Hara was also among the earliest poets to write unself-consciously of his homosexual relationships. His love poems—and he wrote many of them—have a frankness, a joy, and a pathos that would seem more revolutionary if they did not appear so natural and easy.

David Bergman
Towson University

1Joe LeSueur, “Four Apartments” in Homage toFrank O’Hara, eds. Bill Berkson and Joe LeSueur. New York: Big Sky, 1978, p. 47.


Texts
In the Heath Anthology
The Day Lady Died (1964)
Poem (1965)
My Heart (1970)
Why I Am Not a Painter (1971)

Other Works
A City Winter and Other Poems (1952)
Meditations in an Emergency (1957)
Jackson Pollack (1959)
Lunch Poems (1964)
Collected Poems (1971)
Art Chronicles, 1954-1966 (1975)
Early Writing (1977)
Poems Retrieved, 1951-1966 (1977)
Selected Plays (1978)
Standing Still and Walking in New York (1983)



Cultural Objects
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Pedagogy
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Links

From Frank O'Hara: Poet among Painters
(http://wings.buffalo.edu/epc/authors/perloff/ohara.html)
The Introduction to Marjorie Perloff's book on O'Hara.

Frank O'Hara
(http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/ohara/)
A list of works, biographical notes, and a guide to O'Hara on the web.

The Academy of American Poets
(http://www.poets.org/poets/poets.cfm?prmID=165)
This exhibit provides a biography, selected poetry, list of works, and links.

What's With Modern Art?
(http://www.jacket.zip.com.au/jacket06/ohara.html)
O'Hara's reviews in Art News from 1953-55.



Secondary Sources

Bill Berkson and Joe Lesueur, eds., Homage to Frank O'Hara, 1978

Mutlu Konuk Blasing, Politics and Form in Postmodern Poetry: O'Hara, Bishop, Ashbery, and Merrill, 1995

Jim Elledge, Frank O'Hara: To Be True to a City, 1990

Alan Feldman, Frank O'Hara, 1979

Brad Gooch, City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O'Hara, 1993

David Lehman, The Last Avant-Garde, 1998

Marjory Perloff, Frank O'Hara: Poet Among Painters, 1977

Geoff Ward, Statues of Liberty: The New York School of Poets, 1993




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