April 17th, 2008



Francis Russell O'Hara (June 27, 1926 – July 25, 1966)


My Heart

I'm not going to cry all the time
nor shall I laugh all the time,
I don't prefer one "strain" to another.
I'd have the immediacy of a bad movie,
not just a sleeper, but also the big,
overproduced first-run kind. I want to be
at least as alive as the vulgar. And if
some aficionado of my mess says "That's
not like Frank!", all to the good! I
don't wear brown and grey suits all the time,
do I? No. I wear workshirts to the opera,
often. I want my feet to be bare,
I want my face to be shaven, and my heart--
you can't plan on the heart, but
the better part of it, my poetry, is open.   


Frank O’Hara was born Francis Russell O’Hara in Baltimore on June 27, 1926 to a middle class Catholic family and was soon afterwards moved to Grafton, Massachusetts.   During his youth, he recognized early on, his own homosexuality, and thus broke with the Catholic church and rejected all religious beliefs.  During that time, O’Hara studied piano and played proficiently and was heading toward becoming a great pianist and composer by 17 (he studied piano at the New England Conservatory in Boston from 1941 to 1944).  In 1944, he began a 2 year stint in the navy and served as a member of the shore patrol as well as served on the destroyer U.S.S. Nicholas.  Though he was never in combat, he was exposed to it.   When he returned in 1946, he attended Harvard and decided to major in English, not music.  He met John Ashberry his senior year at a party.  In that time, he was already a dedicated and serious writer who considered poetry his saving force from death.  In 1950, he earned a master’s at the University of Michigan, and then joined Ashberry in New York where he secured a desk job at the Museum of Modern Art.  Frank O’Hara loved New York City.  It’s evident in his poetry – its many gestures of love for the city and its pleasures.  He has become known as America’s most enthusiastic poet of city life.  Frank O’Hara was very social and had numerous lovers, one being Joe LeSueur, whom he roomed with in New York for 11 years. 


While in New York, O’Hara became a central figure in the art and literary scene, during one of its most creative periods (abstract expressionism movement).  He wrote influential art criticism and was friends with painters such as Willem de Kooning and Larry Rivers (he even appears in some of his paintings).  He was a curator who was “at home” among the group of newly emerging artists, bringing a non-establishment style into the art world. 


On July 24, 1966, O’Hara was struck by a beach buggy on Fire Island when he and his friends were waiting for a beach taxi to pick them up after a party.   He died the next morning.   


O’Hara wrote prolifically.  He got his writing done in spur of the moment opportunities, whenever there was time and inspiration (lunch breaks, parties, etc).   Many of his poems were left around his apartment or sent in letters to friends.  By the time of his death in 1966, he had published only a fraction of more than 700 poems he wrote in his lifetime.  His first book was A City Winter and Other Poems (1952), followed by Oranges (1953), and Meditations in an Emergency (1957 – his first book with a commercial press).  O’Hara first received national attention when his work was published in Donald Allen’s anthology, The New American Poetry 1945-1960.  All the volumes published during his life contained no more than half of his poetry; only 1 book of poems (Lunch Poems) was available outside of New York in his lifetime.  Frank O'Hara has been criticized for his subject matter, that what he writes about are not necessarily the subjects found in "good poetry."  However, he is a life poet, who seems to write on the transience of being and experiencing, where he establishes a sense of formlessness (rather than order) in his poetry.  In his opinion, he disliked theorizing about poetry where his attitude towards the craft of poetry was that "there ought not to be much."  And when it comes to his poetry, there's a sense that he's not moralizing, rather he aims to capture the fleeting pleasures of observances and feelings, creating poetry with an alluring and desiring pull.   

O’Hara’s Books (published during his lifetime)

A City Winter and Other Poems.
Oranges: 12 pastorals.
Meditations in an Emergency.
Second Avenue.
Lunch Poems.
Love Poems (Tentative Title)

A statement made by O’Hara on writing poetry: " 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."  Click below to read more. 

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From A City Winter

At night Chinamen jump
on Asia with a thump

while in our willful way
we, in secret, play 

affectionate games and bruise

our knees like China’s shoes.
The birds push apples through 
grass the moon turns blue,

These apples roll beneath 
our buttocks like a heath 

full of Chinese thrushes
flushed from China’s bushes. 

As we love at night 
birds sing out of sight, 

Chinese rhythms beat 
through us in our heat,

the apples and the birds 
move us like soft words,

we couple in the grace 
of that mysterious race.


Let's take a walk, you
and I in spite of the
weather if it rains hard
                     on our toes

we'll stroll like poodles
and be washed down a
gigantic scenic gutter
                     that will be

exciting! voyages are not
all like this you just put
your toes together then
                     maybe blood

will get meaning and a trick
become slight in our keeping
before we sail the open sea it's

And the landscape will do
us some strange favour when
we look back at each other


A City Winter
I understand the boredom of the clerks
fatigue shifting like dunes within their eyes
a frightful nausea gumming up the works
that once was thought aggression in disguise.
Do you remember? then how lightly dead
seemed the moon when over factories
it languid slid like a barrage of lead
above the heart, the fierce inventories
of desire. Now women wander our dreams
carrying money and to our sleep's shame
our hands twitch not for swift blood-sunk triremes
nor languorous white horses nor ill fame,
but clutch the groin that clouds a pallid sky
where tow'rs are sinking in their common eye.

My ship is flung upon the gutter's wrist
and cries for help of storm to violate
that flesh your curiosity too late
has flushed. The stem your garter tongue would twist
has sunk upon the waveless bosom's mist,
thigh of the city, apparition, hate,
and the tower whose doves have, delicate,
fled into my blood where they are not kissed.

You have left me to the sewer's meanwhile,
and I have answered the sea's open wish
to love me as a bonfire's watchful hand
guards red the shore and guards the hairy strand,
our most elegant lascivious bile,
my ship sinking beneath the gutter's fish.

How can I then, my dearest winter lay,
disgorge the tasty worm that eats me up
falling onto the stem of a highway
whose ardent rainbow is the spoon's flat cup
and in the vilest of blue suited force
enamored of the heated needle's arm
finds the ministrant an own tongue's remorse
so near the blood and still so far from harm,
thus to be eaten up and gobbled down
volcanoes of speedometers, the strike
that heats the iris into flame and flow'rs
the panting chalice so a turning pike:
you are not how the gods refused to die,
and I am scarred forever neath the eye.

What are my eyes? if they must feed me, rank
with forgetting, in the jealous forest
of lustrous blows, so luminously blank
through smoke and in the light. All faint, at rest,
yet I am racing towards the fear that kills
them off, friends and lovers, hast'ning through tears
like alcohol high in the throat of hills
and hills of night, alluring! their black cheers
falling upon my ears like nails. And there
the bars grow thick with onanists and camps
and bivouacs of bears with clubs, are fair
with their blows, deal death beneath purple lamps
and to me! I run! closer always move,
crying my name in fields of dead I love.

I plunge deep within this frozen lake
whose mirrored fastnesses fill up my heart,
where tears drift from frivolity to art
all white and slobbering, and by mistake
are the sky. I'm no whale to cruise apart
in fields impassive of my stench, my sake,
my sign to crushing seas that fall like fake
pillars to crash! to sow as wake my heart

and don't be niggardly. The snow drifts low
and yet neglects to cover me, and I
dance just ahead to keep my heart in sight.
How like a queen, to seek with jealous eye
the face that flees you, hidden city, white
swan. There's no art to free me, blinded so.

From Love Poems (Tentative Title)

Having a Coke with You

is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, Irún, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne
or being sick to my stomach on the Travesera de Gracia in Barcelona
partly because in your orange shirt you look like a better happier St. Sebastian
partly because of my love for you, partly because of your love for yoghurt
partly because of the fluoresent orange tulips around the birches
partly because of the secrecy our smiles take on before people and statuary
it is hard to believe when I'm with you that there can be anything as still
as solemn as unpleasantly definitive as statuary when right in front of it
in the warm New York 4 o'clock light we are drifting back and forth
between each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles 

and the portrait show seems to have no faces in it at all, just paint
you suddenly wonder why in the world anyone ever did them
                                                                                             I look
at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world
except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally and anyway it's in the Frick
which thank heavens you haven't gone to yet so we can go together the first time
and the fact that you move so beautifully more or less takes care of Futurism
just as at home I never think of the Nude Descending a Staircase or
at a rehearsal a single drawing of Leonardo or Michelangelo that used to wow me
and what good does all the research of the Impressionists do them
when they never got the right person to stand near the tree when the sun sank
or for that matter Marino Marini when he didn't pick the rider as carefully
as the horse
                   it seems they were all cheated of some marvellous experience
which is not going to go wasted on me which is why I am telling you about it


Avenue A
We hardly ever see the moon any more
                                                          so no wonder
   it's so beautiful when we look up suddenly
and there it is gliding broken-faced over the bridges
brilliantly coursing, soft, and a cool wind fans
       your hair over your forehead and your memories
              of Red Grooms' locomotive landscape
I want some bourbon/you want some oranges/I love the leather
                jacket Norman gave me
                                                and the corduroy coat David
     gave you, it is more mysterious than spring, the El Greco
heavens breaking open and then reassembling like lions
                                                 in a vast tragic veldt
     that is far from our small selves and our temporally united
passions in the cathedral of Januaries

     everything is too comprehensible
these are my delicate and caressing poems
I suppose there will be more of those others to come, as in the past
                                                  so many!
but for now the moon is revealing itself like a pearl
                                                  to my equally naked heart


Light     clarity       avocado salad in the morning
after all the terrible things I do how amazing it is
to find forgiveness and love, not even forgiveness
since what is done is done and forgiveness isn't love
and love is love nothing can ever go wrong
though things can get irritating boring and dispensable
(in the imagination) but not really for love
though a block away you feel distant the mere presence
changes everything like a chemical dropped on a paper
and all thoughts disappear in a strange quiet excitement
I am sure of nothing but this, intensified by breathing

To be continued....