Frank O'Hara, the great American poet, writer, and art critic, died 47 years ago today, on the verge of his appointment as curator at the Museum of Modern Art. O'Hara's legacy has lived long past his waking days, transforming him into somewhat of an American icon, a writer marked by an esoteric style, yet honest and immediate. As this magazine wrote in 1977, several years after he died: "Formal criticism of O'Hara is a questionable enterprise, since the whole point of his work was to capture, in Perloff's words, 'openness, quickening, immediacy.' He composed his poems on the typewriter, and wanted them to be read as direct statements about his experience, notations on the quotidian. ... He was the poet of New York."
In honor of Frank, we present two of his poems, both of which appeared in The New Republic, and a short video of O'Hara himself reading one of his best-known poems, "Having a Coke With You."
A Pleasant Thought from Whitehead: November 29, 1969
Here I am at my desk. The
light is bright enough
to read by it is a warm
friendly day I am feeling
assertive. I slip a few
poems into the pelican's
bill and he is off! out
the window into the blue!
The editor is delighted I
hear his clamor for more
but that is nothing. Ah!
reader! you open the page
my poems stare at you you
stare back, do you not? my
poems speak on the silver
of your eyes your eyes repeat
them to your lover's this
very night. Over your naked
shoulder the improving stars
read my poems and flash
them onward to a friend.
The eyes the poems of the
world are changed! Pelican!
you will read them too!
Sleeping on the Wing: January 1, 1972
Perhaps it is to avoid some great sadness,
as in a Restoration tragedy the hero cries "Sleep!
O for a long sound sleep and so forget it!"
that one flies, soaring above the shoreless city,
veering upward from the pavement as a pigeon
does when a car honks or a door slams, the door
of dreams, life perpetuated in parti-colored loves
and beautiful lies all in different languages.
Fear drops away too, like the cement, and you
are over the Atlantic. Where is Spain? where is
who? The Civil War was fought to free the slaves,
was it? A sudden down-draught reminds you of gravity
and your position in respect to human love. But
here is where the gods are, speculating, bemused.
Once you are helpless, you are free, can you believe
that? Never to waken to the sad struggle of a face?
to travel always over some impersonal vastness,
to be out of, forever, neither in nor for!
The eyes roll asleep as if turned by the wind
and the lids flutter open slightly like a wing.
The world is an iceberg, so much is invisible!
and was and is, and yet the form, it may be sleeping
too. Those features etched in the ice of someone
loved who died, you are a sculptor dreaming of space
and speed, your hand alone could have done this.
Curiosity, the passionate hand of desire. Dead,
or sleeping? Is there speed enough? And, swooping,
you relinquish all that you have made your own,
the kingdom of your self sailing, for you must awake
and breathe your warmth in this beloved image
whether it's dead or merely disappearing,
as space is disappearing and your singularity.
Having a Coke With You: A Reading By Frank O'Hara
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