The Books: “The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry” – Frank O’Hara

15210828.JPGDaily Book Excerpt: Poetry

The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, Volume 2: Contemporary Poetry, edited by Jahan Ramazani, Richard Ellmann, and Robert O’Clair

I’ve moved on from the “Modern” volume, and am now in the “Contemporary” volume. The two volumes are organized by birth-date of poet.

Poets are often fascinating in their approach to language and their work, and I can love their work, and all that, but how many would I want to hang around with? How many seem FUN? Well, there are a few, but not many. Frank O’Hara is a beautiful character, a man with wide interests and a joyous approach to life. His “then I did this, then I did that” poems, roaming the streets of New York City, are so accessible, so fun, that all I want to do is tag along. His interests are wide and deep. He worked for the Museum of Modern Art, and a lot of his poems were inspired by the modern artists of the day – de Kooning and others. He was in New York at a vital and exciting time. How much would I love to have been alive in the 1950s and hang around with the artists and bohemians and Beats of that time. O’Hara published a couple of volumes of poetry, but they weren’t major events, like the volumes of his friends. They were with small presses, and seemed personal and perhaps … a bit trivial. Time has been very kind to Frank O’Hara, kinder than some of his contemporaries, and I think it has to do with the conversational tone of his poems, and also the fact that they don’t just seem to be ABOUT life, they ARE his life. There is no separation between poet and language. He wrote his poems on scraps of paper in his spare time (and he didn’t have much spare time, his job and position in the art world was quite prominent), and he died quite young. He was hit by a dune buggy on the beach at Fire Island, a freak accident, horrible. He left behind shoeboxes filled with poems, never before seen or published, a huge body of work (he was the Emily Dickinson of the 50s), and his friends (important people, big poets) ushered them into the public eye.


There’s an element of camp, I suppose, in some of his poems, but to only look at it through that filter would be to miss the wider scope of it. One of the things I love about Frank O’Hara is his unabashed love for the entertainers and writers and painters who moved him. He is a “fan”. He wrote poems for them. This is the kind of thing that “serious” people pooh-pooh, like it’s not a topic worthy of consideration (I’ve gotten it on my blog from time to time; these are the “aren’t there more serious things to discuss in the world than the career of Dean Stockwell?” Sure there are. There are many sites devoted to such topics. Go find them. HOWEVER: my point is: On some level, I can’t think of something MORE worthy of discussion than the artists who touch us. Art is one of the things that keeps us together, connects us, opens up conversation, and admits such beautiful emotions as “enthusiasm”, “joy”, “happiness” – or even things that are thought-provoking and difficult. Who says Lana Turner isn’t a worthy topic for a poem? Shame on you, dumbass!)

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.

There’s something about Frank O’Hara’s poems, its listings of places and names and street intersections and automats and delis that remind me of Joseph Cornell’s work, and makes me wonder if they knew one another. They were in New York at the same time. Cornell never left New York, except for one trip as a kid to the Jersey Shore. Literally. He never left the city. He stayed in Queens, and took care of his brother who had severe cerebral palsy, and in his spare time, scoured the junk shops on Second Avenue for books and movie postcards and objects – all of which he used in making his magical boxes. Joseph Cornell cannot be separated from New York City. His boxes exude that entire landscape: movie palaces, museums, second-hand book stores, Edward Hopper’s lonely nights … it is 100% urban, and so is Frank O’Hara. I can think of few poets of his generation who are so connected to a specific place.

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.

If you haven’t encountered Frank O’Hara’s work, all I can say is: do yourself a favor …

The wonderful Joan Acocella wrote an essay about O’Hara called “Perfectly Frank”, included in the compilation Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints. She writes:

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.

I love that. A “willingness to be happy”. That really really captures O’Hara for me.

Here 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 a poem that O’Hara wrote in 1964 about the day Billie Holiday died. (Mal Waldron, referenced in the poem, was Holiday’s pianist from 1957 until her death. All the other references? You’re on your own.)

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

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7 Responses to The Books: “The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry” – Frank O’Hara

  1. Therese says:

    I have lived in New York City for ten years now, and I think I can safely say that Frank O’Hara was my first ambassador to the city.

    Growing up in Chicago, I didn’t do much thinking about New York City. If I did, I quickly dismissed it. A too-big, over-hyped place rife with crime and garbage trucks and people stealing your bags? No thanks.

    Frank O’Hara was my first glimpse into the beautiful small details and minutiae of New York life – all the sights, sounds, smells, and people that make a place specific and important. In college I did a performance project based on his pieces because I loved his poems. (“The Day Lady Died” was my first introduction.) When I strung a bunch of his poems together, it was then I realized that they read like the ultimate love letter to New York City. It would be years before I moved (or even visited) here, but when I did, I had those poems in mind.

    Many years on, I still think that Mr O’Hara helped shaped my philosophy in how to “read” a city. And I got it without realizing it – just by reading his poems. I loved this piece, Sheila. Thanks.

  2. ted says:


  3. Shunderson says:

    A rather obvious favorite but all time classic Frank O’Hara nonetheless:

    “I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life”

    I love New York.

  4. red says:

    Therese – that is so cool. I guess I did not know that, that O’Hara ushered you into this city, and this Billie Holiday poem. You can even hear the cacophony in his poems, the trains, the traffic, the late-night jazz – I love the energy of the poems.

    My favorite of his is the one about Lana Turner:

    Lana Turner has collapsed!
    I was trotting along and suddenly
    it started raining and snowing
    and you said it was hailing
    but hailing hits you on the head
    hard so it was really snowing and
    raining and I was in such a hurry
    to meet you but the traffic
    was acting exactly like the sky
    and suddenly I see a headline
    there is no snow in Hollywood
    there is no rain in California
    I have been to lots of parties
    and acted perfectly disgraceful
    but I never actually collapsed
    oh Lana Turner we love you get up

    My friend Mitchell has done this as a dramatic monologue, and he has had me rolling on the floor with laughter.

  5. red says:

    Ted – I love how there isn’t a period at the end of the sentence at the end.

    Can’t wait to see you.

  6. Steven_O says:

    I just discovered Frank O’Hara recently, while waiting out a rainstorm in the St Mark’s bookshop. I must have spent a whole hour just reading his poetry… trying not to laugh too loudly after the Lana Turner poem. I think my favorite is a poem about the sun rising on Fire Island. I can’t remember the title, but it was spectacular.

  7. sheila says:

    Oh, he’s just wonderful, isn’t he? The Lana poem is hysterical. LANA WE LOVE YOU GET UP.

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