Worcester County Poetry Association
Established 1971
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Photo: Fred McDarragh
A Brief Biography

Frank O’Hara’s early life hinted at American themes of mobility, touches of the rural upbringing, and a first rate education. Born to Russell O’Hara and Katherine Broderick in Baltimore, Maryland, on June 27, 1926, Frank and family returned to 12 North Street in Grafton where he grew in the embraces of his parents, brother John (Phil) and sister Maureen. O’Hara’s father and his Uncle Leonard ran a family business comprised of a dairy farm, a John Deere agency, livestock dealership, and a small hardware store for farmers. The family also owned many farms, a lumber mill in Northbrook, and a 1,200 tree apple orchard in Milford.

The O’Hara household was lively, with artistic parents. Russell was a pianist, and both parents were involved with community activities. A great part of their lives included love of music, books, art, theater, movies, and politics. (Members of the family still claim to be Democrats.)The welcomed lively discussions and differences. As a teenager Frank talked about returning when older and raising dogs on Tower Hill Farm on Sibley Street, one of the three farms the family owned. Though time crafted other plans, O’Hara spent many summer days at Kitville, a town beach on Route 140 East toward Upton. During later summers, Frank virtually lived at the Red Barn Summer Stock Theater in Westborough, a bit to the east of Grafton. Other influences shaping Frank’s aesthetic sensibilities included livestock and apples, St. John’s High School in Worcester, the colorful, mellow, seven hills on which Worcester and the surrounding towns stand.

O’Hara’s travels began with his studies of piano at the New England Conservator of Music between 1941-1944. Then the wider world and its complicities landed him on the USS Nicholas, where he worked as a sonar man in the pacific Theatre during World War II. He returned to attend Harvard on the G.I. Bill, meeting up in Cambridge with John Ashbery, a poetic kinship that will anchor, along with Barbara Guest, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler, the New York School of Poetry. But first came the University of Michigan, where he earned an MA in English Literature.

While the restless world called him, Grafton and family life are found in Frank’s short, surrealistic plays such as Try! Try! and Change Your Bedding. And where O’Hara’s poetry is not confessional in the way of Kunitz, where he does not catalogue his places and thoughts like Olson, nor revisit key events in childhood like Bishop’s strong work, childhood is there in “Poem (There I Could Not Be a Boy),” “Memorial Day, 1950,” and an early poem he wrote for his sister, “The Spoils of Grafton”:
Oh piano! Hire a moving van!
Put down the Mendelssohn and run!

The tension between what shaped him, and the need for distance from what shaped him, also turns up in “Autobiographia Literaria,” Here, O’Hara speaks of the alienation he felt in schoolyards as a boy, and yet,
And here I am, the
center of all beauty!
writing these poems!

O’Hara’s love of the place and the people of New York defined his mature life. His work a MOMA, criticism for Artnews, and the poems – sometimes scribbled at lunchtime – cemented his place in the pantheon of New York artists during the turbulent late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1960, O’Hara was named Curator of Painting and Sculpture Exhibitions. He curated and wrote the catalogues for four major shows at MOMA. Yet for all his love of the visual arts, O’Hara’s poetry is what summons us.

With the publication of Meditations in an Emergency (Grove, 1957) he began to share with a wider public the brilliance and spontaneity of his thought and writing. He called his method Personism, which he defined as writing that addresses a poem to one person, creating a tone that involves a powerful inclusivity and love. In poems such as “Having a Coke with You” and “The Day Lady Died,” we enter a living world at times comic, burlesque, political, full of anxiety, difficult to summarize. The poem “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island”
(dated July 10, 1958) captures both the guises:
always embrace things, people earth
sky stars, as I do, freely and with
the appropriate sense of space. That
is your inclination, known in the heavens
and you should follow it to hell, if
necessary, which I doubt.

O’Hara died on Fire Island in 1966.

The Worcester Review Volume XXII, Number 1
Frank O'Hara Special Issue, 2001
Cover by Larry Rivers
Frank O'Hara on the web:

FrankOHara.org - "The Home of Frank O'Hara on the web." And they mean it! An excellent site - you'll be there for hours.

Academy of American Poets - Includes a detailed biography, poetry, prose, essays about O'Hara.

Phil Levine reads "The Day Lady Died" - This is a rare treat!

Excerpt from Marjorie Perloff's biography, Frank O'Hara: Poet Among Painters.

Poetry Foundation - Poems, brief biography.

Modern American Poetry - Poems, essays, biography, bibliography.

Poetry Society of America - Frank O'Hara tribute site includes essays by contemporaries.

O'Hara site - Poetry and links and an extensive bibliography.

WPI Worcester Area Writers - Biography, photos - page created by WPI students.

If you come across any additional sites we should add,
please let us know!
Celebrating Frank O'Hara
Thursday, November 19, 2009

Worcester Art Museum

Keith O'Hara, nephew of the poet, was among the readers at the event.

additional photos
O'Hara scholar and poet Alan Feldman spoke of the growing
interest in O'Hara's work.
Phil O'Hara accepted a certificate naming the WCPA annual poetry contest in honor of his brother Frank O'Hara and offered brief remarks on behalf of the O'Hara family.
KC O'Hara read his grand-uncle's poem "1951".
Participants gathered in the 20th Century American Art gallery.
Keith O'Hara, the poet's nephew, also
read during the event.
Members of the O'Hara Family on hand for the celebration.
"Lana Turner Has Collapsed,"
presenter Robert Steele informed the crowd.
Monica Elefterion offered a
yoga-inspired interpretation of
"Autobiographia Literaria."
Dan Lewis and Mark Wagner were among
the readers.
Carle Johnson:  "Why I Am Not a Painter."
Jim Fay reading "Steps."
See That It Lasts More Than A Lifetime:  Frank O’Hara and “Joe’s Jacket”

A talk for the Worcester Country Poetry Association at the Worcester Art Museum, November 19, 2009

Oh be droll, be jolly
and be temperate!  Do not

frighten me more than you
have to!  I must live forever.

That’s from an early O’Hara poem called “The Critic” (1951).  Recently, at the Dodge Poetry Festival, I had the opportunity to pose a question to a stage full of poets laureate:  I asked them, What are your thoughts about immortality?  So that they wouldn’t think me some religious nutcase, I explained that I was thinking, for example, of Horace saying that he knew his poetry would live on, because he’d been the first to bring Greek meters into Latin.  Well, the answers were bewilderingly disappointing.  The poets all claimed they were writing for living audiences.  “I don’t believe there will be a posterity,” Maxine Kumin said gloomily.  Personally, I couldn’t see how anyone would care to write poetry if he or she didn’t think of including both the poets of the past, and, as well, generations unborn.

When O’Hara, wrote a review of Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago, he gave us a clue––one of many, I think––that his mind was always on the relationship of poetry and immortality.  As you recall, the novel ends with Zhivago’s poems being read years after his death by men who knew him, and felt that he had given them the poems to describe the city in which they now lived:  “They were . . . enveloped by the unheard music of happiness that flowed all about them and into the distance.  And the book they held seemed to confirm and encourage their feeling.”

Years ago, when I first wrote about O’Hara in a book that later became the Twayne United States Authors study on O’Hara, I felt I needed to make an argument for his lasting importance.  Robert Lowell––there’d been a volume in this series on him for years––was then the great, serious poet of the day.  O’Hara was, in a way, his antithesis, though I loved both of them.  Both had a way of weaving their life experience into poems that would ring true long after the specific occasions had passed.  I thought this was similar to the way Catullus can complain about his beloved Lesbia, and address his poet friends, and grieve for his brother, and pull us into his world of 2,000 years ago.  As you may know, O’Hara gave a reading with Lowell on Statin Island and wrote a little poem on the subway on the way:  

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.

Lowell sniffed that he hadn’t written a poem on the way here, implying that poetry required a long process of thought and revision––the opposite of O’Hara’s spur of the moment compositional practice.  And I think for a long while, maybe to some extent even now, O’Hara’s ability to quickly write a poem, revising it very very little if at all, along with his desire to include the incidental details of his times and his milieu, meant that he was rebuking poetry for aspiring to escape the quotidian into timelessness.  But, of course, paradoxically––and here we’re dealing with the mystery of his genius––he did the exact opposite.  “The Day Lady Died,” O’Hara’s well-known elegy to Billie Holiday, is going to live on precisely because O’Hara prepares us for the timeless moment of “leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT” and listening to her by including many of the  incidental details of his lunch hour, including even the name of his bank teller, Stillwagon, first name Linda he once heard.

Nearly forty years after I began my project, I would argue that O’Hara has very possibly eclipsed Lowell, at least as someone who matters to younger poets.  But more than that, I think he is beginning to demonstrate that he, just as Zhivago did, has helped create the art for which an occasion has yet to exist.

Case in point:  The second season of Mad Men!  Don Draper (self-created, and self-named) protagonist, a suit from Madison Avenue, is drinking in a Greenwich Village bar, and four seats down there’s a guy reading a slim volume of poems.  And it’s not Lowell’s but, lo, it’s Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency! and later in the episode Don has purchased the book, and is reading it in his study.  Jon Hamm, the actor who plays Draper, does an understated and yet expressive voice-over reading of the enigmatic little poem that concludes the book:

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. 

Now this reflects a mystifyingly revealing light on Draper, a person whose identity seems to come into and out of existence in a fascinating flux.   It gives a depth to this character that film alone could never give.  I think this is one pretty good instance of immortality––a poet writing words for occasions that haven’t yet arisen––and especially wonderful for a poet like O’Hara who, in fact, wrote so many occasional poems, often for his friends.

The poem I’ve chosen to highlight today is somewhat less known than the Lana Turner poem or “The Day Lady Died”–– it’s a longer poem, “Joe’s Jacket,” in a way a kind of super-sized example of what O’Hara once called his “I do this I do that” poems.

It was written on August 10, 1959––and, by the way, we know this because O’Hara precisely dated most of his poems, and, as I’ve implied, they were almost all of them written quickly and left just as they were.  Though he wrote many poems to his friends, and, as he famously said in “Personism”, he wanted the poem to be “between two persons instead of two pages,” in general, O’Hara seemed to have a casual disregard for contemporary audiences.  Don Allen had to collect his poems to publish them in books, and many poems stayed in the drawer till after his death. I think O’Hara’s diffidence came from his complete confidence in his own genius, and, more broadly, a confidence that poetry––if it really is poetry––has to outlast its own time.  As Catullus says in giving his poems to his friend Cornelius:  “So here’s the book, for whatever it’s worth/ I want you to have it.  And please, goddess,/ see that it lasts for more than a lifetime.”

Anyway . . . August 10, 1959, the day after the weekend that O’Hara began his affair with the handsome young dancer, Vincent Warren, his very own Lesbia I suppose––the attractive and troublesome lover who inspired some of his best poems. . . .

I think meteorologists have a good term to describe the way the poet opens up his inner landscape to us here, “a complex sky”––that is, one in which all kinds of clouds are present at once, puffy cumulus and wispy cirrus, and, above them stratocumulus and whatever.  So too, O’Hara interweaves all kinds of language in this poem:  chatty diary-like narrative, raw confession, campy irony, and, most important, a kind of lyrical intellectual music as well.  If the poem is somewhat long, it is because this is a pivotal moment in O’Hara’s life, as he seems to know.  He’s about to die and be born, I guess, as he implies by mentioning that he was reading D. H. Lawrence’s “The Ship of Death”, a poem about death, true enough, but ultimately about reincarnation:

Oh build your ship of death.  Oh build it!
for you will need it.
For the voyage of oblivion awaits you.

“Of” not “to.”

Joe’s jacket is the seersucker jacket O’Hara like to borrow from his roommate, Joe LeSueur.  The Barbizonian kiddy days refers to the 19th century school of painting, which included painters of rural scenes like Millet, and, I guess, refers to the reason we’re here today at the Worcester Art Museum––O’Hara’s origins in central Massachusetts, specifically rural Grafton Massachusetts.   Jap is the painter Jasper Johns, Kenneth is, of course, “excitement prone” Kenneth Koch, Ashes is John Ashbery––well, it’s a distinguished cast.  But what matters, I think, is how completely O’Hara is able to portray the complexity of his own mind at this particular moment.

Joe’s Jacket

Entraining to Southampton in the parlor car with Jap and Vincent, I
see life as a penetrable landscape lit from above
like it was in my Barbizonian kiddy days when automobiles
were owned by the same people for years and the Alfa Romeo was
only a rumor under the leaves beside the viaduct and I
pretending to be adult felt the blue within me and light up there
no central figure me, I was some sort of cloud or a gust of wind
at the station a crowd of drunken fishermen on a picnic Kenneth
is hard to find but we find, through all the singing, Kenneth smiling
it is off to Janice’s bluefish and the incessant talk of affection
expressed as excitability and spleen to be recent and strong
and not unbearably right in attitude, full of confidences
now I will say it, thank god, I knew you would

an enormous party mesmerizing comers in the disgathering light
and dancing miniature-endless, like a pivot
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 moment
and then I am going home, purged of everything except anxiety and self-distrust
now I will say it, thank god, I knew you would
and the rain has commenced its delicate lament over the orchards

an enormous window morning and the wind, the beautiful desperation of a tree
fighting off strangulation, and my bed has an ugly calm
I reach to the D. H. Lawrence on the floor and read “The Ship of Death”
I lie back again and begin slowly to drift and then to sink
a somnolent envy of inertia makes me rise naked and go to the window
where the car horn mysteriously starts to honk, no one is there
and Kenneth comes out and stops it in the soft green lightless stare
and we are soon in the Paris of Kenneth’s libretto, I did not drift
away I did not die I am there with Haussmann and the rue de Rivoli
and the spirits of beauty, art and progress, pertinent and mobile
in their worldly way, and musical and strange the sun comes out

returning by car the forceful histories of myself and Vincent loom
like the city hour after hour closer and closer to the future I am here
and the night is heavy through not warm, Joe is still up and we talk
only of the immediate present and its indiscriminately hitched-to past
the feeling of life and incident pouring over the sleeping city
which seems to be bathed in an unobtrusive light which lends things
coherence and an absolute, for just that time as four o’clock goes by

and soon I am rising for the less than average day, I have coffee
I prepare calmly to face almost everything that will come up I am calm
but not as my bed was calm as it softly declined to become a ship
I borrow Joe’s seersucker jacket though he is still asleep I start out
when I last borrowed it I was leaving there is was on my Spanish plaza back
and hid my shoulders from San Marco’s pigeons was jostled on the Kurfurstendamm
and sat opposite Ashes in an enormous leather chair in the Continental
it is all enormity and life it has protected me and kept me here on
many occasions as a symbol does with the heart is full and risks no speech
a precaution I loathe as the pheasant loathes the season and is preserved
it will not be need, it will be just what it is and just what happens.

This poem illustrates for me what I think many readers will find in the future:  that O’Hara’s “deep gossip” as Allen Ginsberg called it, is about as deep as it gets.  Though it acknowledges the flow of events at this important juncture, it also generates a music for all of us, and for those who will live after, dwellers in O’Hara’s beloved city, for example, awake far into the early morning, when their lives descend on them with a weight of feeling that’s otherwise indescribable:  “the feeling of life and incident pouring over the sleeping city/ which seems to be bathed in an unobtrusive light which lends things/ coherence and an absolute, for just that time as four o’clock goes by.” 

What I wish for younger American poets now is that they draw courage from O’Hara’s ability to weave references to feeling with lyrical expansiveness and ironic playfulness.  At a time when the poetry of John Ashbery, in which the self is suppressed, or, at the very least, pretty thoroughly camouflaged, seems to have set the fashion, it’s my hope that the poetry of O’Hara will show the way for poets to avoid leaden, self-absorbed confession, enjoy self-irony, but still find a way to render the complexity of their full minds and hearts.  As O’Hara wrote in his poem for the painter Robert Rauchenberg: 

can heaven mean up, down, or sidewise
who knows what is happening to him,
what has happened and is here, a
paper rubbed against the heart
and still too moist to be framed.

––Alan Feldman

The text of Alan Feldman's talk
for the Celebration of Frank O'Hara.

Click here for Dr. Feldman's
webpage, with a brief biography
and information about his poetry.

The book referred to in the text,
Frank O'Hara (Thwayne's United
States Authors Series), is out of
print but is available online from
various sellers.
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