Frank O’Hara’s “Willingness To Be Happy”


From Joan Acocella’s essay “Perfectly Frank”, about Frank O’Hara (a man I have always wished that I had known)- included in the compilation Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints: Essays:

In the doomed-poet drama that has been retrospectively read into O’Hara’s story, this poem [‘A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island’] has been taken as a premonition of death. But to me the most remarkable thing about it is O’Hara’s sense of blessedness, an emotion that surfaces again and again in his verse. Indeed, it is one of the things (“gay, glancing”) held against him by those who feel that he was not a serious person. This, in turn, has led some of his defenders to overstress the sadness – presumably a warranty of seriousness – that can sometimes be detected in his poetry. The light tread of his lyrics, Geoff Ward says, “is only a step away from the grave.” It is true that O’Hara had the Irish sense of life, but the note of grief would be far less persuasive if it were not accompanied, as it almost always is, by the keenest possible responsiveness to life’s goodness. Even at his most depressed, when his romance with Vincent Warren is falling apart, O’Hara is witty. (“I walk in / sit down and / face the frigidaire” – presumably Vincent.) When, on the other hand, that relationship is going well, even bad things seem good to him: “Even the stabbings are helping the population explosion.”

Boyfriends aside, he finds a thousand things to like. Ballet dancers fly through his verse. Taxi drivers tell him funny things. Zinka Milanov sings, the fountains splash. The city honks at him and he honks back. This willingness to be happy is one of the things for which O’Hara is most loved, and rightly so. It is a fundamental aspect of his moral life, and the motor of his poetry.

Here a couple of posts by my friend Ted about O’Hara, one of my favorite poets:

New York as muse

Because too much was never enough for him

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8 Responses to Frank O’Hara’s “Willingness To Be Happy”

  1. Catherine says:

    Wow, serendipitous! I just set up a blog the other day – I used to have one, but it grew stale and I didn’t like it so POOF, it was deleted, but I’ve started craving one again – and because I couldn’t think of anything witty to call it, I took a line from the first poem that popped into my head. So, my (as yet blank) new blog is called Having A Coke With You. I love Frank O’Hara a lot. He’s one of my “happy place” poets, basically for that reason Acocella pinpoints. The joy he finds in life, in art, in the city. I find him very inspirational, and wonderful to read, in that respect.

  2. red says:

    Catherine – totally serendipitous! I love it! Frank O’Hara is one of the most joyous of poets – you can hear the clash and hum of the city in his poems, and see the laundry hanging in his bathroom, and the hot coffee after a night out at a jazz club … I so would love to go back in time and experience the New York that he experienced!!

    Send me a link to your blog if you feel so inclined!

  3. ted says:

    Your photos of New York City are very O’Hara-ian. They make it look glorious. He’s one of the people I wish I could have met too, at a party with plenty of wine.

  4. Catherine says:

    I finally inaugarated my blog, inspired by this post! I included the URL in my name here, but if it doesn’t work, it’s http://www.

    Ha, I didn’t actually mean for the title and the URL to both reference American poets. Ooops!

  5. red says:

    Catherine – Ha!! You show your passions there – it’s great – can’t wait to dig in.

  6. JessicaR says:

    How funny, I’ll have to go back an read his poems again for the “sadness” but he’s one of my favorites too. I love the jumpy rhythms of his poems and never thought them mere froth. I have several of his poems in a book I got as a kid called “Talking to the Sun” which pairs up poems with pictures from The Met. Sesame Street laid the ground work, but that book and poets and writers like him and Langston Hughes ruined small town life for me, for good. I’m in love with big cities and love them for their pasts and for what they are now. For all the smoothing away of character gentrification brings it can’t ever stamp out every spark of life like the suburbs and small towns can. I want to settle in Chicago after I graduate, my Grandfather was from there and it would be coming full circle and shaking off the dust of North Carolina.

  7. red says:

    “Sesame Street laid the groundwork”

    Wow, what a beautiful statement!!

    I lived in Chicago for 4 years and although I have called New York my home for over a decade now, I will always consider Chicago my true home.

  8. ted says:

    sarah salway posted a video of Frank O’Hara reading a poem of his today – I had never heard his voice before!

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