The Books: Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints, ‘Perfectly Frank’, by Joan Acocella

On the essays shelf:

Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints: Essays by Joan Acocella.

Unlike a lot of poets, I feel that I know everything I need to know about Frank O’Hara by reading his work. He emerges, there, on the page, witty and deep and observational, his mind and heart moving towards tributes and celebrations, rather than complaining or angst. He was in New York City in the 50s, perhaps its Golden Age, and you can feel/hear the landscape clattering around his poems, the sense of brightness, possibility, life, bustle. Nights in the jazz clubs, days on 2nd Avenue, breakfast diners, and movie theatres. Frank O’Hara was not a native New Yorker, but he took to it. It made him possible. A gay man, who had been in the Navy, who had been a bit of a serious precocious prude growing up, he went to Harvard on the G.I. Bill. But he found it stifling, met a couple of other artists there, and eventually moved to New York.

New York set him free. He found his “tribe”. He hung out with painters, writers, dancers, musicians. Some were gay, some were not. But the fact of sexuality was less important in an artistic atmosphere. There, he could be free. He celebrated people. People valued his opinion. He had gotten a job as a cashier at MoMA and eventually (which speaks to his ingenuity and ambition) worked his way up to being a curator. He curated some very important shows there. This is a man who died at 41 in a freak accident on Fire Island. He crammed in a lot of life while he was here. And you can feel that voraciousness, that desire to live, that happiness to be alive, in his poems.

O’Hara wrote poems when he could. On his lunch break. At parties. He would forget where he put them. He would only have one copy. He died young, so after his death newly discovered poems started pouring in – he had given one to a friend, he had ripped out a page in his notebook and it was discovered somewhere – He treated poetry as part of the rhythm of his life . He was very conscious of what he was doing. He was not just a naive guy a-goggle at the wondrousness of life and the movies and jazz. He thought about what he was doing. He was highly read. He just thought that while you were here on this planet, you might as well enjoy yourself. This is not a pose that is respected amongst poets (and is one of the reasons why critics sometimes pooh-poohed him. They failed to see the seriousness behind what he was doing. Unless you wear your seriousness and misery on your sleeve, then your poetry isn’t “important”, or some such nonsense.)

O’Hara wrote:

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 they 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 after all, only Whitman and [Hart] Crane and [William Carlos] Williams, of the American poets, are better than the movies.

I love him.

I love him because he makes me happy. In somewhat dark days, he is a gentle spirit, he is not insistently happy in a way that seems alien or off-putting. It’s just that he enjoys the bustle of life, and he finds things that are absurd and points them out, he is always looking, thinking, laughing.

Michael Schmidt, in his Lives of the Poets, makes the interesting point:

His casual attitude to his poems tells us much about him and them: it’s not that he didn’t value them, but he didn’t worry much about them after they were written. He was not especially interested in a final permanent text … He preferred to work with galleries, as though the poems were entries in an exhibition catalog, an exhibition made of his daily life.

Schmidt also writes, comparing him to the Beats, who were his contemporaries:

O’Hara begins with a rather witty, spoken simplicity, the poems in the language he used with his friends, wry, light, a little naughty, but without the scatalogical grittiness of the Beats. Ginsberg may have affected some of his poems, “Second Avenue” in particular, but while Ginsberg is always comfortably unwashed and hairy of face, O’Hara is cleanshaven and unobtrusive, keeping his own rather than everyone else’s counsel. There is a reticence about the man and the poems. In many ways he is closer to Whitman than Ginsberg ever gets; and to Lorca and Mayakovsky because he understands Futurism and Surrealism, and when his poetry surrealizes it is with a knowledge of what he wants the surreal to do for the poem. He doesn’t blunder and risk like Crane, or rant like Ginsberg. His poems are busy in the world; they haven’t the time to stand back and preach or invent monstrous forms. He is the most New York of the New York poets.

As an example of O’Hara at his best, here is a poem he wrote in 1964 about the day Billie Holiday died. (Mal Waldron, referenced in the poem, was Holiday’s pianist from 1957 until her death.)

The Day Lady Died

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

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
in Ghana are doing these days 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 her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

Marvelous.

Joan Acocella’s essay on Frank O’Hara is one of the best things I’ve read about him. She writes about a biography (really the first one of O’Hara) by Brad Gooch, one she does not appear to like all that much, although she gives credit where credit is due. As is often the case with biographies, Gooch does not seem to understand how to talk about “the work”. Because O’Hara died young, because he was gay, there is a lot of retrospective analysis going on. (“He knew he was going to die, he was a martyr”, etc.) O’Hara, too, was not gay enough for Gooch, and Gooch scolds him in the text. O’Hara slept with women sometimes too, and this was labeled “self-denial”, when maybe it was just that O’Hara was the type of guy who loved sex and intimacy and it was a different day and age, and who are you to scold him? O’Hara wasn’t politically correct enough – he got annoyed by “queers” – etc. and Gooch doesn’t like that. Of course O’Hara wasn’t politically correct because he was a gay man in the 1940s and 50s not now. He’s also more broad-minded and more inclusive than your snippy little comments, Gooch! (I haven’t read Gooch’s book. I don’t have a leg to stand on. But I am annoyed by this type of analysis, especially when it is an artist I love.) Acocella understands why the focus on ONLY O’Hara’s sexuality. In our day and age, we are in a corrective atmosphere. For too long, for centuries, gay artists had to hide who they were, and their sexuality could never be mentioned. Now, the pendulum has swung, and an important thinker and artist like Frank O’Hara is reduced to who he slept with and how many times. Hopefully, we will find some balance eventually in our critical evaluation. O’Hara’s work is not about sex, although there is a sexiness to his rhythms, really informed by his love of jazz and the ballet. With all the chattiness, he has a great lyricism, and great descriptive power. How much do I wish that I lived in Frank O’Hara’s New York!!

He sounds like a lovely man. Someone I would have liked to know. I can’t say that about too many poets. I mean, I love Milton too, but I don’t think, “Damn, he and I would have been besties.”

At O’Hara’s funeral, one of his friends said that there were about 60 people there who introduced themselves as “Frank’s best friend.” That says something. That says that this was a man who knew how to connect, he knew how to listen, to be there for people. He had a gift of friendship. It’s really too bad he died so young. It would have been interesting to see where his writing would have gone to, had he lived. But still: we have a ton of his stuff still to enjoy.

Here are a couple of posts by my friend Ted about O’Hara:

New York as muse

Because too much was never enough for him

Here is an excerpt from Joan Acocella’s essay.

Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints: Essays, ‘Perfectly Frank’, by Joan Acocella

What [O'Hara] loved, he fostered. Important though he was as a curator and writer, he was probably more influential in the art world simply as a hand-holder, an encourager. He would look at his friends’ work and tell them what it was, and how wonderful it was. As Kenneth Koch described it to Gooch, “they’d have all these wonderful ideas and feelings about themselves, and they’d say ‘Duh’, and Frank would say, ‘Yes, you put that green there. T hat’s the first interesting thing that’s been done since Matisse’s Number 267.’” Larry Rivers and Grace Hartigan notably thrived under his encouragement, and so did others. Edwin Denby, though he was twenty-three years older, said that O’Hara was a catalyst for him. “But then,” Denby added, “he was everybody’s catalyst.”

O’Hara’s fostering of other people’s work was all the more effective in that it was not, for him, a moral imperative, something he felt he should do, but something he did naturally. He was an instinctively generous person. At poetry readings, he routinely devoted large parts of his allotted time to reading the work of others – a rare practice. He was kind to the competition: of his circle of poets, he was practically the only one to hold out a hand to the Beats. On the few occasions when he went on record against another artist, it was usually for lack of generosity. He accused T.S. Eliot of having a “deadening” effect on modern poetry, primarily by laying down exclusionary rules: “saying you’re not supposed to read Milton, and so on … Which is ridiculous.” His widely quoted criticism of Robert Lowell, from an interview published in 1966, was aimed at the same fault: failure of goodwill. Commenting on Lowell’s “Skunk Hour,” with its scene of the poet prowling in a lover’s lane, O’Hara said:

Lowell has … a confessional manner which [lets him] get away with things that are really just plain bad but you’re supposed to be interested because he’s supposed to be so upset … I don’t think that anyone has to get themselves to go and watch lovers in a parking lot necking in order to write a poem, and I don’t see why it’s admirable if they feel guilty about it. They should feel guilty.

O’Hara’s generosity toward the world sometimes has a certain proto-flower-power coloration: “Oh! kangaroos, sequins, chocolate sodas!” one poem begins – but it is an early poem (1950). Over the years, his goodwill toughened, became more objective without becoming less good. Specifically, it was subsumed into what came to be the dominant attitude of all his mature writing, critical or poetic: attention. “Attention equals Life,” he wrote in his introduction to Denby’s 1965 essay collection, Dancers, Buildings and People in the Streets. That was his praise of Denby – that he kept his eyes open – but the description fits O’Hara as well. And this amoral, almost anim al quality of attentiveness gives to O’Hara’s sweetness a sturdier character. What might have been sentimentality becomes large-mindedness, zest – a capacity for interest and enjoyment that can still, across the space of decades, suck us back into the minds-on-fire spirit of those years.

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3 Responses to The Books: Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints, ‘Perfectly Frank’, by Joan Acocella

  1. ted says:

    I am going to have to get this Accocella book, it sounds amazing. Yes, the Gooch bio is rather limited. People are contradictions. Get over it. It’s a juvenile work. But ah, the poems. O’Hara was fantastic. An original.

  2. sheila says:

    Ted – It’s just so RICH (Acocella’s book).

    Hopefully, in the years to come, we can have a more sophisticated bio of the man – he intersected with so many people and lived in NYC in such an important time in its artistic history. I love him so much!!

    Great seeing you last night!

  3. sheila says:

    and I love his comment on Robert Lowell. “They should feel guilty.”

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