“Attention equals Life.” — Frank O’Hara


“I am the least difficult of men. All I want is boundless love.” – poet Frank O’Hara

It’s his birthday today.

First up: I launched my column at Film Comment with a piece about American poet Frank O’Hara’s love of the movies.

Sometimes I feel I know everything I need to know about Frank O’Hara just from reading his work. His personality is on the page. You feel like he is sitting in the room with you. He operated from love and generosity, and so his talent was often drawn to tributes and celebration, although as any deep person knows: tributes/celebrations often come out of sorrow and loss. It’s not either/or. O’Hara felt things deeply. Feelings overwhelmed him. Mitchell and I reference his poem about Lana Turner all the time. One day, Mitchell did it for me as a dramatic monologue.

by Frank O’Hara

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

Frank O’Hara lived and worked in New York City and his poems clatter with New York sounds and sights, brightness, life, bustle. Nights in jazz clubs, days on 2nd Avenue, diners, movie theatres. Frank O’Hara was not a native New Yorker, but like many transplants he SAW the city in a way those born-and-raised did not. New York almost literally made him possible. O’Hara was a very serious and precocious youth. He was in the Navy, attended Harvard on the G.I. Bill. He found the university atmosphere stifling, met a couple of other artists there, and eventually moved to New York.

O’Hara had found his “tribe”. His friends were artists, many of whom would become world-renowned. John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, to name a few. Some were gay, some were not. What really mattered was whether or not your art was good. In New York, he could be free. People valued his opinion and turned to him for advice. He got a job as a cashier at MoMA and eventually worked his way up to being a curator (this alone tells you so much about O’Hara and what he must have been like). He curated some very important shows at MoMA, probably the most important one being the Abstract Expressionist show in 1958-59, which toured Europe, bringing William de Kooning, Mark Rothko, etc., to the world.

He died at 41 in a freak accident on Fire Island. Terrible loss.

In his poems, O’Hara doesn’t observe life. He’s in the thick of it, soaking it in.


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 his, intensified by breathing

O’Hara loved other people’s work if it was good, celebrated and championed others. He was ambitious, but not ruthless or envious. This does not mean he loved everyone and everything, or cut people slack if he thought what they were doing was bad. He had serious issues with “confessional poet” Robert Lowell, the superstar of the Day. O’Hara was not an ivory tower/academic writer. He had a day job, so he wrote poems when he could: on the bus, on his lunch break, in the bathroom at parties. He would forget where he put them. Often, he would only have one copy of a poem. After his death newly discovered poems started arriving, at almost the speed of light. He had given one to a friend, he had ripped out a page in his notebook and it was discovered somewhere. Poetry was part of the rhythm of his life. He was very conscious of what he was doing. He thought that while you were here on this planet, you might as well enjoy yourself. This “attitude” is one of the reasons why critics sometimes pooh-poohed him. He seemed “light,” “surface”-y. (This type of critique always makes me think of Oscar Wilde: “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.”)

Why I Am Not a Painter

I am not a painter, I am a poet.
why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
“Sit down and have a drink” he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. “You have SARDINES in it.”
“Yes, it needed something there.”
“Oh.” I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. “Where’s SARDINES?”
All that’s left is just
letters, “It was too much,” Mike says.

But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven’t mentioned
orange yet. It’s twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mikes’ painting, called SARDINES.

As an example of O’Hara at his best, a poem he wrote in 1964 about the day Billie Holiday died.

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

Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery

Joan Acocella’s essay on Frank O’Hara, included in the wonderful collection Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints: Essays, is one of the best things I’ve read about him. She reviews a biography of O’Hara by Brad Gooch, a book she does not like all that much. To Gouch, the work is secondary to the life, and that’s a real issue, especially with someone like O’Hara, whose life WAS his work. Because O’Hara died young, because he was gay, there is a lot of retrospective analysis going on (i.e. “He knew he was going to die, he was a martyr to the cause”, etc.) However, as Acocella points out, O’Hara was not “gay enough” for Gooch: Gooch scolds him for this throughout the book. For example, O’Hara slept with women sometimes too, and Gooch labels this as “self-denial”, when .. I don’t know … maybe O’Hara was the type of guy who loved sex and intimacy and loved women too, maybe his sexuality was fluid, Gooch, and also it was a different day and age, and why are you scolding the subject of your biography in the first place? O’Hara displayed attitudes that do not line up with contemporary thinking. He got annoyed by “queers”, for example, and Gooch disapproves of that. (Who cares, Gooch.) Of course O’Hara doesn’t express himself in a 21st century context because … he lived in the 1940s and 50s, not now. Why does this even need to be said?

Acocella understands why the focus of Gooch’s biography is ONLY on O’Hara’s sexual orientation. We are in a corrective atmosphere now, and that’s a good thing, for the most part. But lets not scold O’Hara for not living up to Tumblr’s rules of engagement and language requirements, which will also – incidentally – be out of date by next week! O’Hara is an important mid-20th century American artist. His sexuality is part of what made his voice what it is.

When he loved something (a person, a celebrity, a diner, a sunrise), he LOVED IT.

O’Hara’s rhythms are sexy, informed by his love of jazz and ballet and the movies. He created collages of words, just like disparate pieces of film are put together to create montage. He has a flowing lyricism, and great descriptive power. New York was O’Hara’s ultimate muse.


At O’Hara’s funeral, one of his friends said there were about 60 people there who introduced themselves as “Frank’s best friend.” And each person meant it. Nobody was lying. Frank O’Hara was a man who had a gift for intimacy and friendship. He knew how to connect, he knew how to listen, to be there for people. Not everybody does.



Joan Acocella on “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island”:

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.

Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets:

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.

Frank O’Hara on the “confessional poets”:

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.

Camille Paglia, Break Blow Burn, on “A Mexican Guitar”:

…a coterie poem with a private frame of reference and cast of characters that needs as many marginal glosses as a Neoclassical satire by Alexander Pope. Though it may never be completely decoded, O’Hara’s poem nonetheless delights and rewards the reader with its vivacious imagery, waves of excitement, and unexpected emotional turns. Indeed, our bafflement may replicate the poet-protagonist’s sense of overwhelmed imagination, his striving for meaning and reassurance and for a place in the world.

Michael Schmidt:

Though Ashbery and O’Hara are often evoked together, Ashbery is different in kind from O’Hara. He admires O’Hara’s effortlessness, a function perhaps of O’Hara’s more unproblematic adjustment to New York and his homosexuality, his natural campness, his carelessness about the opinion of others unless he loves them. Ashbery is complex. Like O’Hara he is in love with French writing (O’Hara loves Pierre Reverdy particularly, Ashbery loves Roussel). … His cityscapes are not so consistently New York as O’Hara’s. He tunes in to America and Europe and Orients, often all in the same poem. While O’Hara walks about New York and makes poems, Ashbery doesn’t … his is a different and intellectually more varied world.

Elizabeth Bishop, letter to Robert Lowell, March 30, 1959:

There is one other poet I have found occasionally good–mostly bad in the surrealist way–but I think he’s improving, and very, very clever: Frank O’Hara.

Camille Paglia, Break Blow Burn, on “A Mexican Guitar”:

The high pitch of the poem–its hectic animation, volatile mood swings, and erratic exclamation points (ten in all)–is defiantly anti-masculine. But it’s like music: O’Hara was a gifted pianist who had planned to be a composer until he was converted to poetry in college by James Joyce’s musicality of language. “A Mexican Guitar” is a capriccio–a free-form up-tempo jeu d’esprit with the lilt of a dnace tune. It has the brilliant attack and shifting opalescence of a Chopin etude. The poem is also a pastiche of American idioms, swanky to slangy, and at times parodies the convolution of formal French syntax, literally translated into English. O’Hara wrote his poems at top speed on his typewriter (as if playing the piano), and he treated them cavalierly, indifferent to their fate. That transience also characterizes the social constellation of “A Mexican Guitar,” where Jane and Violet, along with the inquisitive reader, become an impromptu foster family, held together for only so long as it takes to read the poem.

Joan Acocella, “Perfectly Frank”:

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.”

Camille Paglia, Break Blow Burn, on “A Mexican Guitar”:

Like [Wallace] Stevens, O’Hara was deeply knowledgeable about modern painting: he fraternized with the New York Abstract Expressionist and Action painters and became a curator at the Museum of Modern Art. But unlike Stevens with his genteel reserve, the gregarious O’Hara recklessly plunged into direct experience. His swift, surreal poetry was a diary of his brooding longings and sophisticated, febrile life.

John Ashbery:

He had a very sort of pugnacious and puglistic look. He had a broken nose. He didn’t look like a very cordial person.

Michael Schmidt:

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.

Frank O’Hara, “Notes on Second Avenue

I have a feeling that the philosophical reduction of reality to a dealable – with system so distorts life that one’s ‘reward’ for the endeavor (a minor one at that) is illness both from inside and from outside… I don’t know if this method is of any interest in taking little pieces of it. You see how it makes it seem very jumbled, while actually everything in it either happened to me or I felt happening (saw, imagined) on Second Avenue… The verbal elements are not too interesting to discuss although they are intended consciously to keep the surface of the poem high and dry, not wet, reflective and self-conscious. Perhaps the obscurity comes in here, in the relationship between the surface and the meaning, but I like it that way since the one is the other (you have to use words), and I hope the poem to be a subject, not just about it.

Camille Paglia, Break Blow Burn, on “A Mexican Guitar”:

The poem is about the movies. It dates from a period when the grittily realistic, socially conscious Actors Studio was in the ascendant and when gay men were virtually alone in taking seriously the splashy kitsch and brazen glamour of entertainment-oriented, studio-era Hollywood … O’Hara was well aware that his passionate response to Hollywood style would seem absurd or fey to most people, especially men. Here he and a woman friend (the painter Jane Freilicher) are seated in a theater and so united in admiration at what they see that they are ecstatically swept into the movie world, with its swirling conflicts and voluptuous seductions.

Michael Schmidt:

In many ways he is closer to Whitman than Ginsberg ever got; and to Lorca and Mayakovsky because he understands Furtuism 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 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.

Frank O’Hara:

I’m not saying that I don’t have practically the most lofty ideas of anyone writing today, but what difference does that make? They’re just ideas.

Michael Schmidt:

O’Hara in love is overwhelmed, hyperbolic, preening or contemplative.

Joan Acocella, “Perfectly Frank”:

And this amoral, almost animal 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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18 Responses to “Attention equals Life.” — Frank O’Hara

  1. Sylvia says:

    This fills me with so much, I don’t know what to say, except “Thank you.”

    • sheila says:

      Isn’t he just the best? I know what you mean. His poems make me want to pay more attention to everything in life.

  2. Rachel says:

    Lovely post! Did you know about this?


    Also, someone made a tumblr devoted to “To the Film Industry in Crisis'” which I love.


    • sheila says:

      Rachel – wow, I did not know that about his birthday!

      And that Tumblr is so awesome – I’m just so touched by human beings sometimes, who care enough to put together something like that. I shared it on Facebook – thank you!

      • Rachel says:

        I only found out about his birthday after I saw your post. I compile/am compiling a list of writers, artists, and other people of note (for work) and I was looking at my Google Calendar and O’Hara wasn’t on it so I looked it up.

        Isn’t that Tumblr great? It’s things like that that remind you why you love the Internet when everything seems so hateful and outrage-y.

        • sheila says:

          Absolutely. The image of this Tumblr person tracking down pictures of Jeannette MacDonald and Ginger Rogers … not to mention Frank O’Hara’s beautiful poem.

          This line in his poem really pierced through me when I re-read it just now:

          “In times of crisis, we must all decide again and again whom we love.”

  3. Kristen says:

    I love this one. So beautiful and sad.

    Ode To Tanaquil LeClercq

    Frank O’Hara

    smiling through my own memories of painful excitement your wide eyes


    and narrow like a lost forest of childhood stolen from gypsies

    two eyes that are the sunset of

    two knees

    two wrists

    two minds

    and the extended philosophical column, when they conducted the dialogues

    in distant Athens, rests on your two ribbon-wrapped hearts, white

    credibly agile


    scimitars of a city-state

    where in the innocence of my watching had those ribbons become entangled

    dragging me upward into lilac-colored ozone where I gasped

    and you continued to smile as you dropped the bloody scarf of my life

    from way up there, my neck hurt

    you were always changing into something else

    and always will be

    always plumage, perfection’s broken heart, wings

    and wide eyes in which everything you do

    repeats yourself simultaneously and simply

    as a window “gives” on something

    it seems sometimes as if you were only breathing

    and everything happened around you

    because when you disappeared in the wings nothing was there

    but the motion of some extraordinary happening I hadn’t understood

    the superb arc of a question, of a decision about death

    because you are beautiful you are hunted

    and with the courage of a vase

    you refuse to become a deer or a tree

    and the world holds its breath

    to see if you are there, and safe

    are you?

  4. James McGuire says:

    A small thing, I suppose, but I love the story (probably in Gooch’s book, but I’ve read it elsewhere) about F O’H stepping out for lunch from The Modern and ambling down to the Olivetti store where they had a demo typewriter set up outside the store; box of paper, awning, folding chair. And sitting down to write a short piece (legend has it they became Lunch Poems) w/ no pressure, no I AM AN ARTIST! thing happening. Even if it it’s only partly true, an urban legend, it inspires me overtime I think about him.

    Thank you for a lovely and thoughtful piece.

  5. Audrey says:

    “The Day Lady Died” is my favorite Frank O’Hara poem and I scrolled through your post without even reading the first go-around to see if you’d included it!

    Hah, I did read the actual post, but only after reading that poem out loud to myself. So good.

    Also, I appreciate your input on Gooch’s biography. I always have an eye out for potential biographies to read and it’s good to know which ones to bypass.

  6. JD says:

    One of my favorites. A poet your other poet-loving friends sometimes don’t know about. Thank you for printing the Lana Turner one. I needed it!

    • sheila says:

      Hey, JD! Hope you’re well!

      That Lana one … it just says it all.

      Fandom is serious business – as hilarious as it also is!

  7. Dan says:

    //O’Hara always had a job, and a pretty big job at MoMA, so he wrote poems when he could: on the bus, //

    This reminds me of Adam Driver’s character in Paterson. I like to think it’s a deliberate nod.

    • sheila says:

      Oh yeah!!

      And Frank O’Hara loved William Carlos Williams – I love the quote in the post somewhere that according to O’Hara only Williams, Hart Crane and Whitman were “better than the movies.”

      Loved Paterson so much!

      • Dan says:

        I loved it too. Paterson and Only Lovers Left alive we’re so enjoyable I plan on watching more Jarmusch films. Thinking of Mystery Train next.

        Have a happy Easter!

  8. Clary says:

    Hi Sheila
    What you put as a side thought made my day.
    Oscar Wilde: “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.”
    Thank you so much. So much mystery around, right?
    Also, O’Hara.

    • sheila says:

      I love that Oscar quote so much – I have used it probably one times too many in reviewing movies or writing about actors – but I can’t help it. It’s such a perfect quote!!

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