BOOKS MAY 28, 2008
Frank O'Hara: Selected Poems
Edited by Mark Ford
(Knopf, 266 pp., $30)
The poet Frank O'Hara is buried under a gravestone bearing a phrase from his poem "In Memory of My Feelings": "Grace to be born and live as variously as possible." Fate contrived that O'Hara should be born various: he had the mind and the heart of a musician, an art critic, and a poet. He himself took care of living variously--as sibling, friend, traveler, partygoer, lover. In his short life--he died in 1966 at forty, in an automobile accident--O'Hara wrote hundreds of poems, first assembled as a whole in 1971 in the Collected Poems, edited by Donald Allen and introduced by John Ashbery. That large volume turned out to be far from complete, and was later supplemented by Early Writing and Poems Retrieved, both published in 1977. In 1974, Knopf issued a winning Selected Poems, which has now been replaced by this fine volume, chosen and introduced by the admirable English poet Mark Ford, himself an expert in the work of the eccentric French novelist Raymond Roussel and in the poetry of John Ashbery.
Just as Eliot brought Baudelaire, Laforgue, and Nerval into English verse at the beginning of the century, so O'Hara vivified it with later French poetry from Rimbaud to Apollinaire: "My heart is in my/pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy." In this selection of almost 150 poems, Ford intelligently exhibits O'Hara's French aspect along with his American one. In "Digression on Number I, 1948," (which was not included in Allen's selection), O'Hara scans art works at MoMA:
A fine day for seeing. I see
ceramics, during lunch hour, by
Miro, and I see the sea by Leger;
light, complicated Metzingers
and a rude awakening by Brauner,
a little table by Picasso, pink.
But the climax of this worldly poem arrives when O'Hara sees--after all these European works--an American one, the painting enigmatically named in the title of the poem: "There is the Pollock, white, harm/will not fall, his perfect hand." The incident might serve as a parable for O'Hara's writing: his heart is not only with Reverdy and Picasso, but also with Pollock and other contemporary American painters, many of them his friends.
O'Hara's life, always an intensely social one, was certainly lived in the company of artists (most of them abstract expressionists). Yet his interaction with them may have served, as fellow poet James Schuyler suspected, less as inspiration than as profitable distraction:
Perhaps the kindest (and it may even be true) way of seeing it would be along the lines of what Pasternak says about life creating incidents to divert our attention from it so that it can get on with the work it can only accomplish unobserved.
Since O'Hara's poems document so many details about his adult life--the New York scene, various lovers, the art world, parties, and so on--and are so charming, irreverent, blithe, and original, it was only gradually that other qualities of their author, the less insouciant ones--his anxiety, his depression, his learning--became apparent to his readers. His literary learning had real depth: he had absorbed English and American poetry from Chaucer through Eliot, and his delight in French poems was a heartfelt one. Lorca, Machado, Benn, Rilke, Pasternak, and many other foreign poets turn up in O'Hara's verse. As a graduate student at the University of Michigan, his prize- entry pseudonym was "Pablo Pasternak."
In O'Hara's witty writing, opposites become identities, and contrasts become analogies. We observe, rapidly cross-pollinating each other, Europe and America, painting and poetry, affection and cruising, drunkenness and wit, love and jealousy, nervousness and confidence. O'Hara's mercurial presence in life-- affectionately attested to in letters and memoirs--had its dark side: alcoholism, sex with strangers, ruptures with friends. The summary of existence that appears on Elizabeth Bishop's gravestone--"awful but cheerful"--suits O'Hara's life, too.
O'Hara's poetry seems at first inextricable from the life, and the early evaluations of his complex body of work tended, understandably, to be for the most part biographical and contextual. Perhaps now, with the passing of the years and their legends, it is possible to judge O'Hara as a poet without relying principally on the well-worn tales of his beginnings in Grafton, Massachusetts, the death of his father during his undergraduate days at Harvard, his eventual move to New York, his ever-changing circle of friends, his work as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, his untimely death. Perhaps we can look at him freshly--not anxiously "placing" him in one tradition or another, whether the tribe of Blake or the tribe of Whitman or "the New York School"-- but rather seeing what an O'Hara poem contributes to our literature, and what it can be for people who are not New Yorkers, and not even Americans. Mark Ford's new selection (offering more of the later work than Allen's Selected) ought to enable a further round of judgment, carried out less by those of us for whom this volume is a reprise than by the young, who may now enjoy the truly effervescent pleasure of reading O'Hara for the first time.
Of course New Yorkers reading O'Hara will always find their city lit by the intimate glow of his poems, and gay readers will be glad of his often joyous scenes--from contemplative to frenetic--of gay society. But there are many other appealing aspects to O'Hara, who has emerged as one of the most original American poets of his time. Consider, for example, O'Hara's light way with a narrative. He referred, in his mock-manifesto Personism, to his "I do this, I do that" poems, the telltale comma suggesting a serendipitous tumble from phase to phase, moment to moment. This casual and jaunty form obscures, but ultimately discloses, what O'Hara rightly called "the catastrophe of my personality":
Now I am quietly waiting for
the catastrophe of my personality
to seem beautiful again,
and interesting, and modern.
The country is grey and
brown and white in trees,
snows and skies of laughter
always diminishing, less funny
not just darker, not just grey.
It may be the coldest day of
the year, what does he think of
that? I mean, what do I? And if I do,
perhaps I am myself again.
The poet's ironically enunciated yearnings for a better erotic future--when someone will find him "beautiful ...,/and interesting, and modern"--are here rapidly undone by the decline from a happy winter of laughter, open skies, and snow into a bewildered darkness and a colder air. The precipitating event is left unspecified, until the closing flurry of confusion shows that the formerly interfused selves of two lovers ("what does he think of/that? I mean, what do I?") have fallen apart. O'Hara's self-correcting minimalist wit drops from the symbolic gray winter into the "philosophical" question of the boundaries between the self and another.
This kind of skidding--from hyperbolic self-irony to a darkening climate, from Keatsian perplexity to the recovery of balance--keeps us alert and listening as we read an O'Hara poem. The passage just quoted resembles in form a classical lied: a disturbing situation, then a faltering into a minor key, then a clearer articulation of the original predicament. O'Hara was an accomplished pianist who intended to be a composer before he found poetry; and his poems are often reminiscent of a known musical structure--a fanfare, a duet, a sonata, a fugue.
O'Hara's genially dramatic narratives entertain not only by their rapidity and their fervent colloquiality, but also by their metaphorical wit. New York cabs, yellow and black, like bumblebees, are "hum-colored"; past pastoral life in pastures, in O'Hara's alliterative joke, is "an innocent past of perverted acts in pastures"; a piano has "black and white teeth"; a lamppost bends over the traffic "pensively like a/praying mantis." Such intuitions--sometimes surreal, sometimes not--accumulate as the poem expands, creating within its airy lightness the gleam of symbolic constellations. O'Hara introduced into American poetry a lightness not found among his predecessors. Even Berryman's alter ego Henry, in spite of his comic role as id, has a mournfulness behind his Chaplinesque antics. Only John Ashbery, O'Hara's closest friend, exhibits a comparable lightness of comedy, but his poems are more philosophical and intellectual than O'Hara's.
Another of O'Hara's talents--and this may be more important to younger poets than his rapid way with narrative--is an exquisite ear. The cadences of conversation are sometimes the sole beauty of a painful poem. When O'Hara forsakes his cascades of metaphor for a stringent simplicity, he can make a brief dialogue stand in for the lonely circumstances of a single gay man hoping to arrange a rendezvous by telephone, and then finding his anticipation rebuffed. A telephone dialogue between two uncertain men (one at home, one elsewhere, trying to confirm a possible meeting) is titled, wryly, "Metaphysical Poem"--a poem unable to gain the desired physical encounter. The piece seems artless--but try to name the tones that the poem evokes and you realize its cunning. The pronouns that linguists call "shifters"--"I," "me," "you," "we"--merge and divide, as the will to meet waxes and wanes; similarly, "there" and "any place" are tossed back and forth, over against "somewhere" and "home." The two desirable places in this lover's complaint are "home" and "here"--places desolatingly seen, as the poem ends, to be unattainable. Here is "Metaphysical Poem," with its intricate interchanges:
When do you want to go
I'm not sure I want to go there
where do you want to go
I think I'd fall apart any place else
well I'll go if you really want to
I don't particularly care
but you'll fall apart any place else
I can just go home
I don't really mind going there
but I don't want to force you to go there
you won't be forcing me I'd just as soon
I wouldn't be able to stay long anyway
maybe we could go somewhere nearer
I'm not wearing a jacket
just like you weren't wearing a tie
well I didn't say we had to go
I don't care whether you're wearing one
we don't really have to do anything
well all right let's not
okay I'll call you
yes call me
Such a poem hints at O'Hara's fondness for Gertrude Stein's linguistic experiments, but it is more moving, in its hapless repetitions of the lovers' evasions, than Stein usually managed to be. Of course an actual conversation would not, when transcribed, sound like this. It is up to O'Hara to imagine the poetically ideal inarticulacy, the minimalist choreography of the back-and- forth of possibility and disappointment. The confidence of the eager lover's opening--"When do you want to go"--is immediately dashed: "I'm not sure I want to go there" says the less eager, "difficult," other. And so the plot unrolls down the page, undoing the plan, undoing the lover, ending in that tenuous "call me." One could set this to music as a duet of stand-off, its form of distant intimacy foreseen in O'Hara's spoof of aesthetic creation in his mock- manifesto "Personism":
I was in love with someone.... I went back to work and wrote a poem for this person. While I was writing it I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born.
The reductio ad absurdum of "Metaphysical Poem"--as the love complaint is brought down to a first-grade vocabulary--is one of O'Hara's favorite lexical moves, and generates many of his best short poems, from the famous diary-like jottings of "A Step Away From Them" and "Poem" ("Lana Turner has collapsed!") to the wry embarrassments of "First Dances." In "First Dances," the classical hauteur of dance is rudely diminished in a teenager's first dance, held at his school (where, the poem tells us, the antiquated word "cloakroom" survives). The poem opens in the hilarity of alcoholic expectation, but it ends in trepidation:
The punch bowl was near the
so the pints could be taken out of the
boys' cloaks and dumped into the
. . . .
It is easy to
dance it is even easy to dance together
sometimes. We were very young
we knew it, everybody knew it.
The sheer waywardness of the thought-process here is adolescent. The joke ("the boys' cloaks") is followed (after subsequent mentions of hysteria, fear, and giggling) by the delighted discovery that it is easy to dance, and the even more heady revelation that "it is even easy to dance together"--but immediately adolescent glumness and self-consciousness move in with the horrible word "ugly, " and social anxiety kills off the joy of young bodies moving together.
O'Hara, assisted by Rimbaud, remembered the exuberance and the shame of adolescence better than any other modern American poet. And whereas "First Dances" is one of the characteristic poems of lexical reduction, "Blocks"--a piece about childhood turning into adolescence--is, by contrast, full of O'Hara's equally characteristic buoyancy and excess. I quote the poem's second and third parts:
O boy, their childhood was like so many
I need you, you need me, yum, yum.
Anon it became suddenly
like someone always losing something
and never knowing what.
Always so. They were so fond of eating
bread and butter and
sugar, they were slobs, the mice used to
lick the floorboards
after they went to bed, rolling their
light tails against
the rattling marbles of granulation.
Vivo! the dextrose
those children consumed, lavished,
smoked, in their knobby
candy bars. Such pimples! such
hardons! such moody loves.
And thus they grew like giggling
Dancing on his thin line between pure energy (in the atomic collisions of words) and pure simplicity (in a scrupulous honesty of expression), O'Hara often succeeded, but sometimes he wrote too much. The roller-coaster ride of his longer poems--Ford has left out the longest ones, such as the 600-line "Oranges"--can be wearying, as showing-off adulterates structure, and "spontaneity" becomes willed. The coterie poems about John and Kenneth and Bunny and Vincent and Joe and their favorite bars have an in-group joy that may not outlast their generation, though they may survive as a form of retro pleasure. In the many glimpses of his friends in such poems, O'Hara often seems to be coming upon metaphors that also fit himself. He cries, to the poet Kenneth Koch,
Kenneth you are really the backbone of
a tremendous poetry nervous system
which keeps sending messages along
the wireless luxuriance
of distraught experiences and hysterical
desires so to keep things humming
and have nothing go off the trackless
and once more you have balanced me
on the wilderness wish
of wanting to be everything to
The portrait of Larry Rivers triumphing over the boringly banal parts of American culture also fits O'Hara, if one substitutes the word "poetry" for "painting": "He is always engaged in an esthetic athleticism which sharpens the eye, hand and arm in order to beat the bugaboos of banality and boredom, deliberately invited into the painting and then triumphed over."
Approaching forty, "wanting to be everything to everybody everywhere," O'Hara filled his life up with activities and people--curating shows for MoMA, writing catalogs, tossing off handfuls of poems, going to openings, collaborating on projects with artists, telephoning his innumerable acquaintances. Ashbery mentions in his introduction to the Collected Poems that it was hard for friends to see O'Hara alone, since he so often surrounded himself with people. O'Hara himself did not see how he could grow up and yet remain himself. Many of his friends had married, and although he was a welcome visitor in their houses, they were lost to the original bohemian groups where he had known them. He drank more and more, to the worry of all.
Brought up a Roman Catholic, an unwilling student in parochial schools run by the Sisters of Mercy and the Xaverian Brothers, O'Hara threw off religion in spite of his mother's disapproval. His adolescent rebelliousness led to his adult candor, another vigorous feature of his poetry. In "Homosexuality" (a poem not included in the earlier Selected Poems), he begins sarcastically, "So we are taking off our masks, are we, and keeping/our mouths shut?" and then goes on to object, in a Whitmanian gesture, to the closet of the shut mouth: "It is the law of my own voice I shall investigate." Finally, as if to take candor to its most candid, he enumerates, in a serio-comic Whitmanian catalogue, various New York locales of homosexual cruising, "tallying up the merits of each/of the latrines" but preferring, to latrines and parks and railway stations, the out-of-the-way corners of the Metropolitan Museum:
14th Street is drunken
53rd tries to tremble but is too at rest.
love a park and the inept a railway
and there are the divine ones who
drag themselves up
and down the lengthening shadow
of an Abyssinian head
in the dust, trailing their long elegant
heels of hot air
crying to confuse the brave "It's a
and I want to be wanted more than
anything else in the world."
Knowing what happened when HIV struck years later, we now read O'Hara's poems of erotic longing with a pang: the innocence of O'Hara's twenties seems lost forever.
One form of that innocence drew him, from his childhood, to movies, and in his relish of the enthusiastic naivete of the young, he could recreate the thrill of Hollywood, especially when, in mock idolatry, he celebrated the fame of film stars. That representation of innocence, and O'Hara's inspired parodies of it, issue in tones uniquely his. The poem called "To the Film Industry in Crisis"--a catalogue of "the great, the near-great, the featured, the extras"-- begins with a winsome overture: "you, Motion Picture Industry,/it's you I love!" O'Hara adores the absurdities of the movies, not only "Eric von Stroheim, the seducer of mountain-climbers' gasping spouses" and other such stars and plots, but also the immovable conventions of the form: "Gloria Swanson reclining,/and Jean Harlow reclining and wiggling, and Alice Faye reclining/and wiggling and singing." O'Hara's own perpetual performance as an entertainer of others allies him with the fantasy world of film desire, where sex is the motive and success alternates with "tragedy" ("Cornel Wilde coughing blood on the piano keys while Merle Oberon berates").
The playful social comedy of O'Hara's "rococo/self" has to be weighed against his passages of tense self-scrutiny--analytical confessions linking him to such fellow poets as Lowell and Plath and Berryman. In "Joe's Jacket," set in the midst of the "enormous party" of life, O'Hara sees into, and sees through, his compulsive drinking and socializing:
I drink to smother my sensitivity for
a while so I won't stare away
I drink to kill the fear of boredom,
the mounting panic of it
I drink to reduce my seriousness
so a certain spurious charm
can appear and win its flickering little
victory over noise
I drink to die a little and increase the
contrast of this questionable
and then I am going home, purged of
everything except anxiety and self
After such expense of spirit, O'Hara feels again the hopeless wish to stop life in its tracks and remain forever boyish, but skepticism mars his desire:
and surely we shall not continue to
we shall be happy
but we shall continue to be ourselves
everything continues to be possible
Rene Char, Pierre Reverdy, Samuel
Beckett it is possible isn't it
I love Reverdy for saying yes, though
I don't believe it
Even in such times of exhaustion, O'Hara's fountain of original metaphor-- his greatest claim to distinction--springs up afresh. When, in early middle age, he lies in bed on a windy morning seeing out the window "the beautiful desperation of a tree/fighting off strangulation," that beautiful desperation is his own. The threat to the poet's throat (and his poetry) appears elsewhere: "it is all suffocating." Yet three years before his death, his mood of grim stoicism--his feeling of being "dried out, balled up, anxious and empty"--can, even so, be persuaded into responsiveness by a gift of a Keatsian basil tree from a friend. A paradoxical admission follows: O'Hara, momentarily solaced, gains not exactly an improvement but a different angle of vision: he sees
that everything is impossible in a
well so what, but there's a difference
between a window and a wall again.
One slab of the enclosing wall of depression evanesces, and the window that replaces it lets light into the prison chamber. Nothing could seem simpler than these closing lines in which a wall becomes a window, but only a powerful imagination, a habit of forthrightness, and a way with words could convey so simply the clarification that magically allows light into a dark and confined mental state. O'Hara's unexpected minglings of liveliness and dailiness, of conversational cadence and erotic vivacity, of brave candor and farcical comedy, inform his irrepressible and panoramic movie-in-words of American modernity. A smaller Selected Poems in paperback could be the heart in someone's pocket, O'Hara as the American Reverdy.
By Helen Vendler