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Frank O'Hara

From Frank O'Hara: Poet among Painters, new ed. U of Chicago Press, 1997


When Frank O'Hara: Poet Among Painters was published twenty years ago, O'Hara was a coterie figure, adored by his New York School friends and acolytes, especially by the painters whose work he exhibited and wrote about--but otherwise regarded (when regarded at all) as a charming minor poet. Herbert Leibowitz, in a largely generous review of O'Hara's Collected Poems for the New York Times Book Review in 1971, called O'Hara "an aesthetic courtier who had taste and impudence and prodigious energy." Even the avant-garde poet/novelist Gilbert Sorrentino, whose New York literary world intersected with O'Hara's through the mediation of Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) and his magazine Yugen, described Lunch Poems as "mov[ing] in a world of wry elegance, of gesture, a world made up of a certain kind of strictly New York joie de vivre: slightly down at heels and rumpled, but with the kind of style always a step above current 'style'."

What is not said in these or the other reviews of O'Hara's poetry in the late sixties and seventies is that the "style" to which Sorrentino draws our attention was a style recognizably gay. Indeed, neither in the moving memorial essays by John Ashbery or Kenneth Koch nor in the many critiques, from Francis Hope's dismissal of the "puppyish charm of [O'Hara's] occasional good impromptus," to Marius Bewley's bemused characterization of the poet's "long invertebrate verse lines" as so many "streamers of crepe paper fluttering before an electric fan," is direct reference made to the poet's homosexuality. When, for example, Thomas Byrom reviewed my book, along with O'Hara's Early Writing and Poems Retrieved, in the Times Literary Supplement, he characterized O'Hara as follows:

His aesthetics are from a catalogue of late Victorian camp, a matter of excellent personal taste. He burned hard and gemlike; he drank and talked volubly. Though he tried on later ideologies, the one he lived was a sociable and less frigid version of Paterian pop, and the one he wrote was a subjective impressionism. His syntax has little of the crafty or inspired appositiveness of the Surrealist; it is an articulation of mental chatter and drift, and his style depends for its success wholly on his sensibility. Perhaps he is most like e. e. cummings, the same soft verve, a sentimental eroticism, a certain heart. . . . Casualness, quickness, openness were what he wanted and often got.

"Late Victorian camp," "Paterian pop." "mental chatter and drift"-- twenty years later we recognize these as code terms for "queer." But at the time I read Byrom's review, (which suggested it was bad form on my part to take this playful poet seriously!), I myself wasn't aware to what extent critiques of O'Hara's "gifts for buoyancy, spontaneity and fun" (Byrom, TLS, 78), were, consciously or not, critiques of a poetic that generated lines like "Even trees understand me! Good heavens, I lie under them too, don't I?" (CP 196), or "you were made in the image of god / I was not / I was made in the image of a sissy truck-driver" (CP, 338). Even in the later 1970s, readers didn't quite know how to respond to such self-exposure. When, in an early draft of Frank O'Hara: Poet Among Painters, I referred to Joe LeSueur as Frank's lover, Donald Allen suggested tactfully that I use the word "friend" instead. "O'Hara," wrote Kenneth Koch in his admiring review of the Collected Poems, "had an unusual gift for friendship and for love." And it is similarly friendship and a shared aesthetic that are central to John Ashbery's moving account, in his introduction to the Collected Poems, of Frank's invention of a "vernacular corresponding to the creatively messy New York environment," with its "scent of garbage, patchouli and carbon monoxide" (see CP x).

I remind the reader of these conventions of the seventies so as to provide the context for my own historical/critical study of O'Hara's work, a study largely devoid of speculation on the role gender played in O'Hara's oppositionality. That he was a radical and "different" poet was my premise, but I regarded that oppositionality (to the aesthetic, not only of Robert Lowell, which he criticized openly, but also that of the then counterculture hero, Charles Olson), as a question of individual ethos rather than as, in any profound way, constructed by the poet's culture or sexual identification. Along the same lines, I paid little attention to the roles race and ethnicity play in poems like "Ode: Salute to the French Negro Poets"--the heady mix of exoticism, curiosity, and egalitarianism with which O'Hara celebrated "the love we bear each other's differences / in race which is the poetic ground on which we rear our smiles" (CP 305), and that prompted the poet to remark on the "Puerto Ricans on the avenue today, which / makes it beautiful and warm" (CP 258).

In 1977, the age demanded a raison d'être for O'Hara's casual, improvisatory, nonmetrical and generally nonstanzaic "I do this, I do that" pieces, pieces that hardly seemed to qualify as poems at all. Hence my attention to poetic lineage (from Williams, from Mayakovsky, from Apollinaire), generic placement (ode? elegy? occasional poem?), and technical device (especially the daring use of line-break). It was important, I felt, to expose an audience accustomed to the well-made ironic lyric of Richard Wilbur on the one hand and the oracular, densely allusive "projective verse" of Olson on the other, to the very different "aesthetic of attention" that is O'Hara's special signature. The impact of culture and sexuality on that aesthetic was undoubtedly underestimated.

How different is the situation today? In one sense, we have witnessed a total turnaround. The first O'Hara biography, Brad Gooch's City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O'Hara (1993), is nothing if not candid about the poet's love affairs and one-night stands--so candid, in fact, that, after some valuable chapters on the poet's childhood, navy days, and Harvard years, it becomes an extended (some would say, excessive) portrait of what it was to burn with a hard gem-like flame in the postwar and pre-AIDS decades. The new respectability of Queer Theory, coupled with the breakdown of the High Culture / Popular Culture divide, and the tolerance, even in the Academy, for open forms and improvisatory discourse-- these have given O'Hara a new place in the canon. He is, for example, included in the most recent edition of the Norton Anthology of American Literature (1989) as well as in Helen Vendler's controversial Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry (1985). In each of these, O'Hara gets considerably less space than Robert Lowell or Adrienne Rich or even Allen Ginsberg, but he does get pride of place in three recent large avant-garde anthologies-- Eliot Weinberger's American Poetry since 1950 (Marsilio, 1993), Paul Hoover's Postmodern American Poetry (Norton, 1994), and Douglas Messerli's From the Other Side of the Century: A New American Poetry 1960-1990 (Sun & Moon, 1994). By 1995, when the Collected Poems, edited by Donald Allen, was reprinted by the University of California Press, it was safe to say that any treatment of midcentury American poetry would have to take Frank O'Hara into account.

Indeed, at a conference on "Poetry of the 1950s" held at the University of Maine at Orono in June 1996, there were more papers (eleven in all) on O'Hara than on any other single poet, and his name cropped up repeatedly in the various keynote addresses on larger topics. Ten years ago, I would guess, the central figure of such a conference, held as it was in Ezra Pound country, would have been Charles Olson. But at the fin-de-siècle, there seems to be a decided shift in sensibility.

And not just a turn to gay sensibility as such, since the speakers focused on such varied topics as the effect of the Cold War on O'Hara's curatorial activities at the Museum of Modern Art, the relationship of his poetry to the film culture of the fifties, the crossing of camp and sublimity in the late poem "Biotherm," and the particular brand of "liberation politics" that links "Meditations in an Emergency" to the "emergence" of formerly subjugated groups.

Thirty years after his death, O'Hara's poetic has thus come of age. But gratifying as this interest is, we must now be careful not to turn this mercurial and highly individual poet into a mere representative of fifties' queer sensibility or Cold War politics. In a recent essay for American Literary History, for example, Caleb Crain examines what he takes to be O'Hara's deep-seated aggression--an aggression that doubles back upon itself since, in the "regime of homophobia" of the "pre-gay liberation 1950s," it cannot direct itself outward-- through the lens of D. W. Winnicott's object-relations psychology. One needs such an explanatory mechanism, we are told, because, taken in themselves, the "constitutent elements [of the poems] can seem trivial, and their structure as cavalier and casual as telephone gossip or lunch conversation. . . The poems' elements do not seem amenable to analysis and a new synthesis in the classroom."

But the "aggression" Crain is at such pains to account for (its exemplar is the wonderfully absurd reference in "Personism: A Manifesto," to "someone chasing you down the street with a knife") is taken to be a given of the poetry rather than shown to be present in its actual fabric. And that fabric, the materiality of the poems, is judged to be "cavalier," "casual" and "trivial,"-- a poetic structure not "amenable to analysis," at least not without an external key like Winnicott's psychiatric theory. Ironically enough, such assessment echoes that of O'Hara's early detractors: in "Personal Poem," for example, the poet, according to Crain, "bobs along on a buoyant gush of detail," and "an outsider might not 'get' the story behind this glib, chatty, undirected monologue" (ALH 301-302). Indeed, the poem's "laundry list" is redeemed only by the poem's conclusion, which reveals it as a love poem:

I wonder if one person out of the 8,000,000 is

thinking of me as I shake hands with LeRoi

and buy a strap for my wristwatch and go

back to work happy at the thought possibly so (CP 336)

Crain comments, "The happiness that surfaces at the close sheds light backward through the poem, connecting the random narrative into pillow talk, lovers' gossip at the end of the day. Like baby booties memorialized in bronze, O'Hara's trivial day is electroplated with the charge of knowing he is loved" (ALH 302).

This reading smooths out the poem's tensions, missing the force of the poignantly tentative "possibly so" of the last line. Indeed, despite the external evidence that "Personal Poem" was written for O'Hara's then-lover Vincent Warren, its narrative, far from being "glib" and "chatty," begins on a note of thinly veiled anxiety:

Now when I walk around at lunchtime

I have only two charms in my pocket

an old Roman coin Mike Kanemitsu gave me

and a bolt-head that broke off a packing case

when I was in Madrid (CP, 335)
Some good luck charms! The poet works hard to cheer himself up: he puns on the "luminous humidity" of the recently completed "House of Seagram with its wet," and enjoys, as in "A Step Away from Them," the sight of construction workers on girders, especially when they are wearing silver hats. But once inside the pub, the anxiety comes back:

I wait for

LeRoi and hear who wants to be a mover and

shaker the last five years my batting average

is.016 that's that

LeRoi's news that "Miles Davis was clubbed 12 / times last night outside BIRDLAND by a cop" (terrifying news for the gay speaker as well as his black friend, given the raids on gay bars so frequent in these years) doesn't exactly help. Never mind: it's the hour of friendship and so the two poets, exchange mutual antiestablishment sentiments--"we don't like Lionel Trilling / we decide, we like Don Allen we don't like / Henry James so much we like Herman Melville"). But how close are "we" really? It is at the moment of saying goodbye to LeRoi that Frank wonders "if one person out of the 8,000,000 is /thinking of me." Obviously, as James E. B. Breslin notes perceptively, that person isn't the LeRoi with whom Frank is shaking hands, but then Frank isn't thinking of LeRoi either. "Friendship," for those who want "boundless love," only goes so far, especially when one has that terrifying sense of being only one in eight million.

To suggest that O'Hara's "laundry list" is made meaningful only by the oblique reference to the poet's putative lover in the final lines is, I think, to posit closure where O'Hara explicitly denies its possibility. "Personal Poem" doesn't make a point; it presents what it feels like, at a fairly bad time, to go to lunch with a friend (who is not a lover), and, in the face of a persistent sense of anxiety, to draw on one's basic reserve of humor and optimism. It is the ubiquity of the experience, not its oppressed-gay-man-in-1959 particularity, that makes the poem so memorable.

Similar questions are raised by Andrew Ross's provocative essay on "The Day Lady Died". The essay argues, quite rightly I think, that O'Hara's fabled "culture of surface" is not without its own political resonances, its implicit critique of a consumerism, dependent upon the sharply defined gender roles of the fifties and the dilemma they posed for the gay man. But Ross's case seems curiously overdetermined:

Looking back over O'Hara's poem we can see how it tends to accept what might have been stereotypically regarded as the social contours of gay masculinity in 1959, the obsession, for example, with trivia, with feelings, with discriminations of taste, and, of course, with the fine arts. The tone of the poem marks its obvious distance from the voice of legitimate masculinity; O'Hara's is not the voice of the public sphere, where real decisions are made by real men and where real politics is supposed to take place. In fact, the hectic itinerary followed by his poet could just as well be that of a genteel lady about town, if you substitute a hairdresser for the shoeshine, the Russian Tea Room for the soda parlor, Rizzoli's for the Golden Griffin, and so on.. . .

In fact, "the 'day lady died' is an account of a lady's day, played out by a man through an imagined lunch hour that is the very opposite of the power lunches being eaten in restaurants in the same few blocks by the men who make real history (SE 388-89),

The difficulty with this argument is that Ross has to posit a "voice of legitimate masculinity" against which O'Hara's own homosexual one may be seen to position itself. But whose voice in 1959 (or, for that matter, at any other time) would this be? Did "straight" poets of the fifties--say, Robert Lowell or Robert Creeley--present themselves as "making real history" over their business "power lunches"? Or weren't they also outsiders by their very status as lyric poets?

The relation to women is even trickier. Ross's argument is that "the social contours of gay masculinity of 1959," which O'Hara's poem supposedly embodies, allow the poet no choice but to assume a feminine role: "the hectic itinerary followed by his poet could just as well be that of a genteel lady about town." O'Hara's elegy (see below pp. 179-82 below) begins with the lines:

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday

three days after Bastille day, yes

it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine

because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton

at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner

and I don't know the people who will feed me (CP 325)

"Genteel" lady shoppers are hardly likely to go out to the Island on a summer Friday afternoon without knowing with whom they are going to have dinner. "The people who will feed me," moreover, is an odd way of referring to one's hosts: who knows what unladylike things that "feeding" is to include? Again, the sense of immediacy and improvisation is underscored by the reference to getting a shoeshine. Ross's suggestion that we need only substitute "hairdresser" for "shoeshine" for the day to reveal itself as a "lady's day," curiously misses O'Hara's nuance. Ladies' visits to the hairdresser are scheduled and regular--part of the routine of putting oneself together, rather like brushing one's teeth and putting on make-up in the morning. But one doesn't schedule a shoeshine or make an appointment to have one: one does it (or rather, a man does it) on the spur of the moment so as to "look good," to make an immediate impression, especially when one doesn't know "the people who will feed me." And the further irony is that, what with the drinking and the partying that could be anticipated at Mike and Patsy's, no one would notice Frank's shoeshine anyway. It is merely a way of (literally) putting one's best foot forward.

Or consider the lines in the following stanza: "I go on to the bank / and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard) / doesn't even look up my balance for once in my life." This seemingly casual and irrelevant reference, far from linking the poet to genteel lady shoppers with their "busy social schedules," has precisely the opposite effect. What bank teller would confront a Madison Avenue matron by looking up her balance? What matron would give so much as a thought to the teller's name? The implication of the lines is that the poet is always self-conscious about being "different": polite and friendly as he is at the bank, Miss Stillwagon evidently perceives him as just a bit queer, and besides he is evidently prone to overdrawing on his account. The routine withdrawal of money thus becomes an incident worth reporting. The name "Stillwagon," moreover, with its oxymoronic conjunction of whiskey still and being on the wagon, anticipates the crisis of Billie Holiday's last days.

It is charged language of this sort (a good bit of which I missed the first time I discussed the poem) that makes O'Hara's work so fascinating. As for "consumerism," it should be noted that every item the poet buys (or contemplates buying) is bought for someone else. Intense friendship, which is the gay poet's alternative to the family networks that determine the largely routine purchases made by the typical New York lady shopper, depends upon the careful discrimination and choice of gifts: Frank knows Patsy's taste for Verlaine and that Mike especially likes to drink Strega. And , in the larger sense, it is the set of choices of the poem's maker that provides us with a catalogue of items, all of which (as I suggest in Chapter 5), relate, like Miss Stillwagon, to Billie Holiday herself. In line 17, for example, the poet contemplates buying "Brendan Behan's new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres / of Genet." Behan, who drank himself to death at a young age, anticipates Lady Day's death from a drug overdose, while the mise-en-scène of Les Nègres sets the stage for Lady Day's climactic appearance at the Five Spot. As for Genet himself (and the characters in Le Balcon), the motif introduced by the invocation of the gay, ex-convict author is that of the artist punished for his or her deviance--punished, in Lady Day's case, by premature death.

To say that the poet's itinerary is conceived as the daily shopping round of a genteel lady thus glosses over precisely those images and phrases that make "The Day Lady Died" the bitter-sweet, poignant elegy it is. "Totally abashed and smiling" (CP 406), fearful and funny, self-possessed and yet profoundly vulnerable, the poet who makes his Manhattan rounds on a Friday (with Bastille Day soon to come!), is the Frank who was given to referring to New York as "Sodom-on-Hudson," the Frank who had written in his Harvard Journal, "I often wish I had the strength to commit suicide, but on the other hand, if I had, I probably wouldn't feel the need. God! Can't you let us win once in a while?" (10/17/48, EW 100). If the sensibility here is indeed "gay," we must remember that not all gay sensibility of the period-- Allen Ginsberg is a case in point-- strikes the note of comic pathos, of humor laced with tough common sense, and especially of complex verbal play, that is O'Hara's legacy to poetry.


"What would Frank have thought of gay liberation? I asked John Button. "Oh, he would have thought it was silly," came the reply, "but he would have loved the dances."

Stuart Byron, Real Paper (SE, 64).

It has taken a long time for such campy irreverence to be taken seriously. In a brilliant review essay for Parnassus (1977), Thomas Meyer put it this way:

However intricate the underpinning gender arrangements, we are still convinced the opposite of all that is authentic, expressive, and profound remains the light, quick, casual though deft gesture. And when considering greatness the absolute enemy is camp, best exemplified by the urban, loose, and high-living male homosexual. . . . Then, too, the material O'Hara worked with looks too often on first glance chi-chi, dizzy, piss elegant, and faggoty. Or else his poems seem adolescent, their exuberance and excitement made embarrassing by what appears a lack of emotional maturity. . . . The qualities of emotion he wrote about, and from, are the hardest to admit: breathlessness, excitement, anticipation and expectation.

Breathlessness, excitement, anticipation: in the first wave of criticism of O'Hara's work, my own included, these qualities were related to what was then called "Action Painting," the painting of Jackson Pollock and his fellow Abstract Expressionists in which, as Harold Rosenberg put it, "the canvas becomes an arena upon which to act rather than a space in which to reproduce" (see below p. 85). In tracking the Pollock--Kline--de Kooning connection, critics were, of course, drawing on O'Hara's own extensive commentary on these painters and his exhibitions of their work. Yet here is an instance when considerations of gender are surely relevant.

In Chapter 3, I observed that O'Hara "was really more at home with painting that retains at least some figuration than with pure abstraction" (below, p. 85), but what I failed to see is that when one actually reads O'Hara's poems against, say, Pollock's drip paintings or de Kooning's erotic images of women, one becomes aware of more difference than similarity. The discourse of male power and authority characteristic of Pollock and de Kooning--a discourse comparable to that of Charles Olson, whom O'Hara overtly criticized as too grandiose, too bent on making "the important utterance" (see below, p. 15), could hardly have been all that congenial to a poet whose signature was "the light, casual though deft gesture." And further: although I paid close attention to O'Hara's collaborations with Larry Rivers, Grace Hartigan, and Norman Bluhm, I now feel I slighted a relationship more significant than any of the above--namely O'Hara's affinity to Jasper Johns.

O'Hara and Johns first met in 1957. At least five of O'Hara's poems refer to or are dedicated to "Jap," including the seminal "Joe's Jacket." (see below, pp. 148-52). Johns for his part has made a number of works that refer to O'Hara, of which the best known is probably Skin with O'Hara Poem of 1963-65. The relationship between the two artists deserves a full study; here I merely want to say a few words about Johns's In Memory of My Feelings--Frank O'Hara (1961),which provides an especially interesting visual analogue to O'Hara's poem by that title, written in 1956, as well as the many related poems that foreground ordinary objects.

In the lower right-hand corner of Johns's painting (see above, p. ii) next to the stencilled title "In Memory of My Feelings," and all but hidden behind the thick blue-gray brushstrokes, we find the outline of a skull and the words "DEAD MAN." The phrase may be glossed by a citation from one of Johns's sketchbooks, as reproduced by John Cage in his essay-poem "Jasper Johns: Stories and Ideas." The note reads: "A Dead Man. Take a skull. Cover it with paint. Rub it against canvas. Skull against canvas."

"With this DEAD MAN," writes Fred Orton, "Johns returns, albeit referentially, to figuration after years of painting flags and targets, numbers and letters." For at left center, silhouetted against a network of blue and greyish abstract forms, is an ordinary silver spoon, with a fork behind it, the two bound together and suspended on a wire screwed to the top of the painting. These utensils, which reappear, together with a knife, in Johns's illustrations for the MOMA commemorative volume In Memory of My Feelings, appear frequently in his work. Ordinary domestic objects, they are curiously stripped of their normal associations by their placement and context. Spoons and forks are to eat with, not to hang suspended from a wire. Spoons and forks are to be held by a human being, using both hands, not bound together as they are here. The empty spoon behind which the fork "hides" thus has no use value; its conventional shape, moreover, seems to have no relationship to what Leo Steinberg defines as Johns's "M-W brushstroke that looks and functions like the corrugated staples carpenters use," nor to the unpainted lower edge of the canvas, and the familiar New York School drip above it. Rather, the spoon, with its shadow aureole, intersects the black line that seems to separate the greyish rectangle above it from the larger blue-white rectangle in which it is embedded. Is this inner rectangle a window? A window-shade? A mirror? Or just an area of the larger rectangle painted in different colors?

The notion of mirror image is further suggested by the hinges that divide the painting in half. But again, these hinges are deceptive: the left half of the painting, far from mirroring the right, does not quite correlate with it. The abstract field (blue, white, blue-gray, a tiny bit of red) on the right provides no match for the image of the hanging spoon and fork or the light gray rectancle on the left, nor to the blue drips on white background beneath it. In Memory of My Feelings thus produces a curious disorientation for the viewer. Halves don't match, a spoon is not to eat with but hangs, so to speak, by a thread like a corpse, and the "skull" associated with "DEAD MAN" has been "covered with paint" and "rubbed against canvas" according to Johns's prescription.

"Metonymy," Fred Orton observes in his discussion of Johns's technique, "is based on a proposed continuous or sequential link between the literal object and its replacement by association or reference. It is the record of a lacuna, of a move or displacement from cause to effect, container to contained, thing seen to where it was seen, goal to auxiliary tool. The metonymic processes are reduction, expansion, and association. . . . {Metonymy] represents not the object or thing or event or feeling which is its referent but that which is tied to it by contingent or associative transfers of meaning" (FF 172). It is precisely such "associative transfers" that characterize O'Hara's "In Memory of my Feelings"(see below pp. 140-46). "My quietness has a man in it": the opening shift from container to contained sets the stage for the insistent role reversals, the split-second displacements of the poet's "transparent selves" --a mobility ("to love is to move") that is finally life-threatening:

and I have lost what is always everywhere

present, the scene of my selves, the occasion of these ruses,

which I myself and singly must now kill

and save the serpent in their midst. (CP 257).

The "occasion of these ruses" is not unlike Johns's staging of the empty spoon as the stick figure of a man about to be hung by the wire around his throat, even as the brushstrokes that make up the painting's ground remain resistant to such translation. "Metonymy," Orton remarks, "permits the utterer to bypass obstacles of social censure including those which are consciously or unconsciously self-imposed" (FF 172). In Johns's painting as in O'Hara's poem, erotic energy becomes the property of objects and utensils, of words and brushstrokes, so that its autobiographical connections remain obscure. "So many of my transparencies," as O'Hara puts it, "could not resist the race!" (CP 253).

I don't want to overplay the identity between poet and painter: Johns's work is much cooler than O'Hara's, less campy and droll, more conceptual and austere. But what has become apparent with the passage of time is that O'Hara's aesthetic is closer to the conceptualism of the John Cage--Merce Cunningham--Jasper Johns--Robert Rauschenberg circle of the fifties and sixties (a circle of gay, if notably closeted and discreet, artists) than to the openly emotive and expressive gestures of Action Painting or Black Mountain or Beat aesthetic. "The secret," as Clark Coolidge put it in his contribution to Homage to Frank O'Hara, "is that flamboyance can be so exact. (discrete?) And the word "discreet" can be used for something more precise than prudence if you move one of those e's to that end." "It's after all," Coolidge notes, "a matter of movement and the standing objects. The dream of starting to speak and the words all coming to you for once in the right order, surprises . . . . "An inclusion of vectors inexplicable to syntax" (BB 183-84).


. . . naming things is only the intention

to make things.

O'Hara, "Memorial Day 1950"

"An inclusion of vectors inexplicable to syntax": Coolidge's notes on O'Hara, published in 1978 within a year of my own book, signaled a shift in the understanding of the poet's work, perhaps even more important than the shift in gay politics I discussed above. For in 1978 a new mimeograph magazine called L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, edited by Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein, made its first appearance, and some important reconfig-urations of the literary map began to take place.

In his own lifetime and for more than decade subsequently, O'Hara was known as a "New York Poet," and his progeny have been taken to be the poets who deliberately adapted his forms and styles: Ron Padgett, Ted Berrigan, Jim Brodey, Michael Brownstein, , John Perreault, Alice Notley, Eileen Myles, and a host of other younger poets loosely associated with St. Mark's Poetry Center in the Bowery. Clark Coolidge's own poetry, for that matter, was first disseminated in Ron Padgett and David Shapiro's Anthology of New York Poets (1970). Yet even in this early appearance, Coolidge was writing a very different sort of poetry from, say, the Jim Brodey, whose "Poem ('Woke This A.M.')" begins with the lines "Woke this A. M. / radio signals in the sunshine at my sleepy door." Consider the following six-line poem (NYP 38):

prune acrylic whose


marls pays loops watts

lock mix deem

white apart


Here word play, asyntacticality, radical ellipsis, and visual configuration point toward the work (Coolidge's own included) soon to be published by such West Coast journals as This (1971) and Hills (1973), and, more prominently, in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. It seems a far cry from O'Hara's "Personism," with its jaunty assurance that "you just go on your nerve." But perhaps it took a New York Poet manqué like Coolidge to understand that O'Hara's "discreet" / "discrete" language (as opposed to the O'Hara mystique), far from sanctifying the "natural," the casual, and the unique speaking voice, was actually providing a groundwork for the newmaterialist poetics.

"Note," cautions Charles Bernstein in "Stray Straws and Straw Men," "that O'Hara's word 'personism' is not 'personalism': it acknowledges the work to be a fronting of another person--another mind, if you will, as much as another nature. O'Hara's work proposes a domain of the personal, and not simply assuming it, fully works it out. His remarkable use of voice, for example, allows, through a musing whimsy in that voice, for fantasy as wild as any surrealist imagines, contained, still, within his proposed boundaries." Another way of saying this is that for O'Hara, "voice," far from being a given, is, as Bernstein says, with comic bombast (referring to poetry in general): "constructed, rule governed, everywhere circumscribed by grammar & syntax . . . designed, manipulated, picked, programmed, organized, and so an artifice, artifact--monadic, solipsistic, homemade, manufactured, mechanized, formulaic, willful" (CD 40-41). Bob Perelman, in his witty spoof of O'Hara's "A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island," points at the same construction of "voice," when he has Roland Barthes interrupt O'Hara's recitation of "A Step away From Them," with the comment:

"Langurously agitating: Frank, I detect a poetic phrase--even an elaborately sounded structure."

And Perelman's own "Alphabet of Literary History" is testimony to the influence O'Hara's "elaborately sounded structures," with their daring mix of "high" and "low" and their predilection for pun and allusion, have had on the next generation. Here is a snatch from the "B" section of "Alphabet":

I ply my needle, ply over

ply. As you word each line,

reader, and examine the lineaments of

the phrases, feel as well the

body reading, its present weather. I

am mad for it to be

in contact with us. But we'd

better skip the finer points, or

we won't get a good spot

to watch the march of literature,

a.k.a. the triumph of criticism. We've

missed the first floats already. Look! (Mar 145)

The O'Hara who wrote "The Critic" (see pp. x,xxxi-xxxiii) would have enjoyed this parodic "Alphabet," although, it must be said, his own work always contained more pain. Take the first four lines of "Ode (To Joseph LeSueur) On The Arrow That Flieth by Day" (CP 300, see below pp. 117-20):

To humble yourself before a radio on Sunday

it's amusing, like dying after a party

"click" / and you're dead from fall-out, hang-over

or something hyphenated (CP 300)

It seems nothing if not natural and direct: Frank, hung-over and grouchy, sounding off to his roommate Joe, the poem hence "between two persons instead of two pages" (CP 499),. But beneath the bravado of "Personism" is, as Perelman's Barthes points out, an "elaborately sounded structure." First, the complexities of genre: the ode evidently alludes to Wallace Stevens's "Sunday Morning," in which the woman's "Complacencies of the peignoir, and late / Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair" replace the expected Sunday church-going ritual. The poet's own Sunday morning ritual is to "humble [himself] before a radio" rather than before the "altar" of his Catholic boyhood. Casual as the reference seems, it thus immediately sounds the note of an alienated Sunday. What we don't yet know is that it also happens to be Mother's Day--a double whammy for this particular prodigal son. The sense of pain soon to be introduced--"do we really need anything more to be sorry about / wouldn't it be extra, as all pain is extra"-- is foreshadowed by the sardonic modulation of "it's amusing" into "like dying after a party." Indeed, the memory of last night is reduced to a "'click'" (with its ambiguous reference to camera--the "party shot"--and gun) and, absurdly, "you're dead from fall-out, hang-over, / or something hyphenated." Here the poem condenses into eight words the relationship of Frank's own situation ("hang-over") to the public sphere (the fear of atomic fall-out), as well as the anxiety of dealing with the unknown, unnamable. "Something hyphenated": it must be one of those diseases you read about in the papers but whose name you can't pronounce.

To read these lines is to see how thoroughly, if obliquely, the naturalistic" ode has internalized the political and sexual discourses of its day. At the time of writing (the poem is dated 11 May 1958), the Soviet Union had just completed the first operative ICBM (see the allusion in line 20), thus prompting the belligerent U.S. reaction to a supposed "missile gap." From Frank's point of view, the missile hysteria marks a kind of moral "death of a nation" (see the film allusion in line 25), a nation which is "henceforth to be called small." In this newly "small" nation, the advent of AIDS was still decades away and yet the talk of death from "something hyphenated" now seems like a curious anticipation of HIV. And yet, the use of the second-person implies, "you" musn't take it all too seriously: "it's amusing"--"'click'"-- just as it's amusing to make up absurd Mother's Day messages and send them to a "Russia" that no longer exists. Amusing, "except I will never feel CONTEST: WIN A Dream Trip pertains to / me, somehow." Even here, though, the defense mechanism kicks in: "(Joe, I wouldn't go, probably)."

O'Hara's language in these mock-odes and elegies (rather than the O'Hara mystique) has provided an important bridge to the language poetics of the 1980s and 90s. Indeed, just as it is no longer enough to read O'Hara's poetry as the verbal counterpart of New York abstract expressionist painting, so it no longer seems satisfactory to view him primarily as a founding father of New York Poetry, a school allied, in Donald Allen's New American Poetry (1960), primarily with Black Mountain, the Beats, and the so-called San Francisco Renaissance. Rather, we can now see that this "master of peripheral vision," as Coolidge refers to O'Hara (BB 184), devised linguistic structures that anticipate the poetics of our own moment, from Charles Bernstein, Ron Silliman and Kathleen Fraser down to Peter Gizzi and Kenneth Goldsmith, Cole Swensen and Susan Wheeler.

It has taken a long time to understand that those "streamers of crepe paper fluttering before the electric fan," as Bewley called them, are actually the most intricate of language games. One artist who did see it, early on, was John Cage, who wrote the following memorial "mesostic" (internal acrostic) on the poet's name:





negative feedbacK


hart's tongue

Ho chi minh



eusebio frAncisco kino (BB 182)

Here it is Hart Crane's tongue that provides, via John Cage's tribute, that small apostrophe (not even a full-fledged letter!) for the name "O'Hara," and "frAncisco" (Frank) is linked to "kino"--the film art that was his special love. The flow of poetry, Cage suggests, depends upon such expanding tributaries.

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1. Herbert A. Leibowitz, "A Pan Piping on the City Streets: The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara," New York Times Book Review, 28 November 1971; rpt. inFrank O'Hara: To Be True to a City, ed. Scott Elledge (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990), p. 24. This excellent collection is subsequently cited as SE.

2. Gilbert Sorrentino, "The New Note" (review of Lunch Poems), Bookweek, 1 May 1966; rpt. in SE 15.

3. Francis Hope, review of Lunch Poems, in New Statesman, 30 April 1965, p. 688.

4. Marius Bewley, review of Love Poems (Tentative Title), in New York Review of Books, 31 March 1966,; rpt. in SE 17.

5. Thomas Byrom, review of Perloff, Frank O'Hara: Poet among Painters, O'Hara's Early Writing, and O'Hara's Poems Retrieved, in Times Literary Supplement, 27 January 1979, p. 78. Subsequently cited as TLS.

6. Kenneth Koch, review of The Collected Poems, The New Republic, 1 and 8 January 1972; rpt. in SE 34.

7. The first edition (Alfred A. Knopf, 1971) supposedly remained in print but prospective readers had a hard time locating copies and it never came out in paperback. The California edition of 1995 has accordingly filled a real need: to date, according to Donald Allen, it has gone through three printings and sold over 5500 copies.

8. Carroll Terrell, a professor of English at the University of Maine and the founder of the Ezra Pound Society, the Pound journal Paideuma, and the two-volume Companion to the Cantos, organized, for many years, an annual Pound conference at Orono. His successor Burton Hatlen, who put together the fifties conference, is the editor of Sagetrieb, a journal devoted to poets of the Pound-Williams-H.D. tradition.

9. These are, in order, "Timothy F. Waples, "Frank O'Hara's Nerve: The Individual Artist's Stake in Cold War Cultural Politics"; Andrew Epstein, "'The Inexorable Product of My Own Time'": Frank O'Hara's Poetry and the Cinema"; Scott Penney, "Camp and the Sublime in Frank O'Hara's 'Biotherm'; and Steve Evans, "Frank O'Hara and the Politics of Emergence." Evans's remarkable paper focused on "Ode: Salute to the French Negro Poets"; another excellent paper on race issues was Benjamin Friedlander's "'The Most Difficult Relationship'": Frank O'Hara on Race in the 1950s." Friedlander has also written an intriguing poetic text called Jetting I Commit the Immortal Spark: Sixty-nine Parts of an Essay on Frank O'Hara for a new series of volumes on poetics to be published by SUNY Press, under the auspieces of the SUNY Buffalo Poetics Program.

10. Caleb Crain, "Frank O'Hara's 'Fired' Self," American Literary History, 9, no. 2 (Summer

11.1997): 287-308, see p. 287. Subsequently cited in the text as ALH.

12. Crain is again relying on "Personism," which, according to O'Hara "was founded by me after lunch with LeRoi Jones on August 27, 1959, a day in which I was in love with someone (not Roy, by the way, a blond). I went back to work and wrote a poem for this person" (CP 499).

13. James E. B. Breslin, "Frank O'Hara," From Modern to Contemporary: American Poetry, 1945-1965 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), p. 222. Breslin's chapter on O'Hara is one of the best treatments of the poetry to date.

14. Andrew Ross, "The Death of Lady Day," Poetics Journal 8 (June 1989): 68-77; rpt. in JE 380-91.

15. In the mythology of the fifties, moreover, as Robert Davidoff has reminded me in conversation, "shoeshine" designates male glamour, as in the popular Fred Astaire song, "There's a shine on my shoe / And a melody in my heart,/ What a wonderful way / To start the day. . . ."

16. In an eerie sense, "stillwagon" also anticipates the Fire Island beach buggy that was to kill Frank O'Hara.

17. See Stuart Byron, "Frank O'Hara: Poetic 'Queertalk'," review of The Selected Poems of Frank O'Hara, Real Paper, 24 April 1974, 20-21; rpt. SE 64-69; p. 67.

18. Thomas Meyer, "Glistening Torsos, Sandwiches, and Coca-Cola," review of O'Hara, Early Writing, Poems Retrieved, and Marjorie Perloff, Frank O'Hara: Poet Among Painters, Parnassus 6 (Fall-Winter 1977): 241-57; rpt. in SE 85-102; see p. 86.

19. It is interesting that O'Hara's fellow curators at MOMA , his art gallery friends, and the painters themselves have largely accepted the connection. See, for example, Waldo Rasmussen, "Frank O'Hara In The Museum," and Renee S. Neu, "With Frank At MOMA," in Homage to Frank O'Hara, ed. Bill Berkson & Joe LeSueur (Berkeley: Creative Arts Book Company, 1980) pp. 81-90, 91-92. Subsequently cited in the text as BB. And even Rudy Kikel, in "The Gay Frank O'Hara," takes the poet's concern for the immediacy of Action Painting as a "characteristic outgrowth of an accepted gay self," Gay Sunshine, 35 (Winter 1978), rpt. SE 334-49, p. 336.

20. See pp. 148-52. The other poems are "What Appears to Be Yours" (1960, CP 380), "Dear Jap" (1963, CP 470), "Poem (The Cambodian Grass is Crushed)" (1963, CP 472), and "Bathroom" (1963, CP 473).

21. See pp. 109 and figure 12 on p. 112. The other art works are In Memory of My Feelings--Frank O'Hara, 1961, 4 the News, 1962, Memory Piece (Frank O'Hara), 1961-70, and Memory Piece (Frank O'Hara), 1961. The latter is a plan and elevation view in ink, graphite, and pencil of a sculpture (Memory Piece) containing a rubber cast of O'Hara's foot, constructed in South Carolina from a cast made in Johns's New York studio . In "For Jap" (see note 17 above), O'Hara wrote, "when I think of you in South Carolina I think of my foot in the sand." See Marla Prather, Nan Rosenthal, Amy Mizrahi Zorn, "Catalogue," The Drawings of Jasper Johns, ed. Nan Rosenthal and Ruth E. Fine (Washington: National Gallery of Art, 1990), p. 166. Both the drawing and sculpture are reproduced here.

22. John Cage, "Jasper Johns: Stories and Ideas," A Year From Monday: New Lectures and Writings (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1967), p. 84.

23. Fred Orton, "Present, the Scene of . . . Selves, the Occasion of . . . Ruses," in Foirades / Fizzles: Echo and Allusion in the Art of Jasper Johns, ed. James Cuno (Los Angeles: The Grunewald Center for the Graphic Arts and Wight Art Gallery at UCLA, 1987), pp. 179-80. Subsequently cited in the text as FF.

24. Leo Steinberg, "Jasper Johns: The First Seven Years of His Art," Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art (New York: Oxford, 1972), pp. 17-91, see p. 44.

25. Ron Padgett and David Shapiro (eds.), An Anthology of New York Poets (New York: Random House, 1970), p. 297. Subsequently cited as NYP.

26. Charles Bernstein, Content's Dream. Essays 1975-1984 (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1986), pp. 45-46. Subsequently cited in the text as CD.

27. Bob Perelman, "A False Account of Talking with Frank O'Hara and Roland Barthes in Philadelphia," The Marginalization of Poetry: Language Writing and Literary History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), pp. 156-65, see p. 161. Subsequently cited as MP.

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