30 POETS/ 30 DAYS: FRANK O’HARA


Our Poet of the Day Today is Frank O’Hara! We’ve included a clip of O’Hara reading his poem, “Having a Coke With You,” from his celebrated final volume, Lunch Poems (1965) as well as Nathan Gelgud’s illustration of the piece. On top of his career as a poet, O’Hara became an immensely influential curator at the Museum of Modern Art as a proponent of Abstract Expressionism. As such, a visual medium touches on O’Hara’s professional interests and displays his witty, informal writing style.

Learn about O’Hara’s biography and interests at The Poetry Foundation:

Nathan Gelgud's Illustration of Frank O'Hara's "Having a Coke With You," 2013.
Nathan Gelgud’s Illustration of Frank O’Hara’s “Having a Coke With You,” 2013.

“Frank O’Hara was a dynamic leader of the “New York School” of poets, a group that included John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler. The Abstract Expressionist painters in New York City during the 1950s and 1960s used the title, but the poets borrowed it. From the beginning O’Hara’s poetry was engaged with the worlds of music, dance, and painting. In that complex of associations he devised an idea of poetic form that allowed the inclusion of many kinds of events, including everyday conversations and notes about New York advertising signs. Since his death in 1966 at age forty, the depth and richness of his achievements as a poet and art critic have been recognized by an international audience. As the painter Alex Katz remarked, “Frank’s business was being an active intellectual.” He was that. His articulate intelligence made new proposals for poetic form possible in American poetry.

He was born Francis Russell O’Hara in Baltimore, Maryland, to Russell J. and Katherine Broderick O’Hara but moved at an early age to Grafton, a suburb of Worcester, in central Massachusetts. While growing up, he was a serious music student and wished above all to be a concert pianist. He took courses at the New England Conservatory. O’Hara writes: “It was a very funny life. I lived in Grafton, took a ride on a bus into Worcester every day to high school, and on Saturdays took a bus and a train to Boston to study piano. On Sundays, I stayed in my room and listened to the Sunday symphony programs.” After service aboard the destroyer USSNicholas in the South Pacific during World War II, he entered Harvard (Edward Gorey was his roommate), first majoring in music but changing to English and deciding to be a writer. His first published work was some poems and stories in theHarvard Advocate. While living in Cambridge, O’Hara met poets Ashbery, who was on the editorial board of the Advocate, and V. R. “Bunny” Lang. In 1956 O’Hara was one of the original founders of the Poets Theater in Cambridge. On occasional visits to New York, he met Koch and Schuyler, as well as the painters who were likewise to be so much a part of his life, notably Larry Rivers, Jane Freilicher, Fairfield Porter, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, Michael Goldberg, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and Jackson Pollock. He was the first of the young New York Poets to write regular art criticism, serving as editorial associate for Art News, contributing reviews and occasional articles from 1953 to 1955. He had a long association with the Museum of Modern Art in New York, beginning as a clerk at the information and sales desk in the front lobby, later becoming an assistant curator at the museum and an associate curator of painting and sculpture in 1965, despite his lack of formal training. He was an assistant for the important exhibition, “The New American Painting,” which toured eight European cities in 1958-1959. This exhibition introduced the painters of the Abstract Expressionist movement to European audiences. The title of the exhibition was changed when Donald Allen used it as the title of his anthology The New American Poetry. While employed by the Museum of Modern Art, O’Hara was the curator or cocurator of nineteen exhibitions. He was an active and articulate spokesman for the new painting inside the major collecting museum in New York. He performed his administrative and curatorial duties surrounded by ceaseless conversation about art, poetry, music, and dance.

O’Hara’s poetry, as it developed, joined the post-Symbolist French tradition with the American idiom to produce some of the liveliest and most personable poetry written in the 1950s and early 1960s. O’Hara incorporated Surrealistic and Dadaistic techniques within a colloquial speech and the flexible syntax of an engaging and democratic postmodernism. His special subject was the encounter of the active sensibility with the world about it through extravagant fantasy, a ready wit, and a detailed realism of feelings. The result, a unique blend of elements, has earned him a memorable place in American poetry. He hastened the development of an art form hitherto little practiced in English (The Waste Land [1922], for example, is seldom designated as authored by both Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot) that was to become popular in the later 1960s and 1970s among younger poets—the collaboration: O’Hara wrote poems with Ashbery, Koch, and Berkson; created “translations” from the French; produced a series of lithographs with Rivers, collages with Goldberg, comic strips with Joe Brainard, “Dialogues for Two Voices and Two Pianos” with composer Ned Rorem, and a movie with painter Alfred Leslie. He was the subject of portraits by many of his artist friends—an indication not only of his association with painters but also of the esteem in which the artists held him. His early death only contributed to his legend and kept alive his memory until the publication of his collected writings confirmed for many what a few, mostly his friends and fellow poets, already knew—that he was an immensely gifted poet.”

Frank O’Hara died in the early hours of July 25, 1966 following a catastrophic hit and run on the beach at Fire Island. The 50th Anniversary printing of his most famous collection, Lunch Poems, is available through City Lights Publishers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s