Erin, Frank O’Hara part 1 of 2

Frank O’Hara


Primary Sources:

O’Hara, Frank. The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara. Ed. Donald Allen. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. Print. This comprehensive collection of O’Hara’s poetry and literary essays includes an introduction by John Ashbery. Ashbery explains that all of O’Hara’s, barring “Meditations in an Emergency” and those previously published in Lunch Poems, were found scattered around O’Hara’s office and apartment after his death—he did not intend for others to read them (vii). Ashbery also writes that the poetry grows out of O’Hara’s life; O’Hara becomes the poetic speaker of his own poetry “because it is he who happens to be writing the poem” (x). Ashbery explores the complexity of O’Hara’s artistic inspirations and his attention to other art while dispelling a reading of O’Hara that places too much significance on any given thing. Collected Poems also includes O’Hara’s manifesto, “Personism,” which outlines a poetic style which “puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person” reading it (499). This manifesto articulates O’Hara’s philosophy that poetry is a dialogue between poet and reader, much like a phone call. Because the collection houses all of O’Hara’s work, it reflects the scattered nature of his oeuvre, and is not for a reader who would like an editor’s guidance in reading O’Hara.

O’Hara, Frank. Lunch Poems. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1964. Print. This collection of thirty-seven poems, as well as facsimiles of O’Hara’s written correspondence with Laurence Ferlinghetti (City Lights’ co-founder) and a preface by John Ashbery, presents itself as a book of short, easy to digest poems. Ashbery’s preface points to Lunch Poems’ contrast to the “conservative” poetry other poets wrote around the same time, and elucidates some of O’Hara’s obscure references while reassuring the reader that if we do not understand some references, it does not matter; the experience of O’Hara’s “disabused enthusiasm” “before heading back to the office, like all of us,” matters more. The collection includes some of O’Hara’s “I do this, I do that” poems (“The Day Lady Died,” “Poem (Lana Turner has collapsed!)”) which are forthcoming and open, as well as “A Step Away From Them,” a poem which uses openness as a cover for a more reserved reticence. This collection asks for a reader who would like to have a midday chat with O’Hara via reading his poetry.


Secondary Sources:

Berkson, Bill. “Frank O’Hara and His Poems.” Frank O’Hara: To Be True to a City. Ed. Jim Elledge. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990. Print. In this essay, included in a scholarly collection, poet Bill Berkson writes about O’Hara’s conviction that ideas were “inseparable from the people who had them.” Though his poems are scattered—both literally, since most of those that ended up in Donald Allen’s Collected Poems were found on scraps of paper in drawers, and in content—O’Hara’s belief in the personality of an idea unifies his poetics (227). Berkson writes in a personal style, recalling the instances in which he first encountered certain O’Hara poems, and decides that his success as a poet “sprang from an agility at matching real verbal beauty with basic personal verity” (230). Berkson’s project is not only to explain the ways in which O’Hara’s poetry is personal, but to personalize his own reading of it by making himself and O’Hara into characters in the piece. His attentive readings of poems hail an academic audience, but one who seeks a poet’s perspective on poetry, rather than an academic’s.

Chiasson, Dan. “Fast Company.” The New Yorker, 7 Apr. 2008. Web. Critic Dan Chiasson begins his essay by differentiating O’Hara’s poetry from anyone else’s: “If you write ninety poems in the course of a few months, you probably mean something different by the word ‘poem’ from what most people mean.” O’Hara was not introspective, but observant (2). Chiasson cites Brad Gooch’s 1993 biography, which demonstrates that O’Hara’s personality was as much a work of art as any of his poems were—the poems become a “secondary” record of that personality (3-4). The life of the poet features significantly in the poetry, then, too; O’Hara wishes to both move quickly and stop time (6, 8). Chiasson reads “A Step Away From Them” for the time lag in O’Hara’s elegies—the people who the poem mourns appear late in the poem (10). But O’Hara’s sense of time allows him to “[swerve] toward autobiography, then away” (14). Chiasson uses O’Hara’s treatment of time to argue that he is an autobiographical poet, but one who gets away with revealing little about himself. This essay addresses appreciators of literature who are not necessarily academics. Since Chiasson offers background on O’Hara’s life and contextualizes the poetry in this way, he writes for a wide audience.

Epstein, Andrew. “‘My Force is in Mobility’: Selfhood and Friendship in Frank O’Hara’s Poetry.” Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006. Print. Critic Andrew Epstein begins a chapter of his scholarly monograph with Larry Rivers’ remarks at O’Hara’s funeral: “Frank O’Hara was my best friend. There are at least sixty people in New York who thought Frank O’Hara was their best friend.” Epstein uses this anecdote to discuss O’Hara as the “quintessential coterie poet” for whom friendship mattered to his poetry as much as it mattered to his life (86). Epstein challenges David Lehman’s claim that O’Hara celebrated friendship on the grounds that it is too simple, arguing that for O’Hara, friendship “becomes a source of both joy and angst,” acting as a center from which various kinds of poetry emerged. Epstein links O’Hara’s penchant for motion with his connections to and separations from people in his poetry: he creates a community while also distinguishing himself from it (87). Epstein discusses O’Hara’s personal relationships in the first section of this chapter, and close reads O’Hara’s poetry of friendship in the next section. This chapter addresses an academic audience who is familiar with Marjorie Perloff and Lehman’s arguments for O’Hara’s celebration of friendship.

Gooch, Brad. City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993. Print. Biographer Brad Gooch traces O’Hara’s early life, his time at Harvard and the University of Michigan, his work in the New York art world and as a poet, through to his death in 1966. Gooch begins with the story of O’Hara’s untimely death by a freak accident, which illustrates the “excessiveness and sheer hubris [that] had always seemed striking to some of his more concerned friends”; the crux of Gooch’s narrative is that O’Hara lived a carefree lifestyle with little regard to the consequences of his actions (4). Gooch includes the story of O’Hara’s heavily attended funeral, which places O’Hara as a popular member of a large group of other artists (11). When Gooch reaches the story of O’Hara’s career in New York, he situates O’Hara as the agitator of the New York School of poets, mixing O’Hara’s poetry with party scenes and a portrait of a highly social poet (196, 208, 210). Gooch writes for a literary-minded audience when he includes O’Hara’s poetry in the story of O’Hara’s life, suggesting that O’Hara’s “live fast, die young” shaped the course of his life and of his poetry.

Hartman, Anne. “Confessional Counterpublics in Frank O’Hara and Allen Ginsberg.” Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 28, no. 4, 2005, pp. 40–56. Web. In this scholarly article, critic Anne Hartman pairs O’Hara and Allen Ginsberg as two poets who were both “excluded” from the Confessional mode of poetry for their homosexuality; they could not afford to be so open. Though O’Hara reveals personal matters in his poems, he directs these matters only to his friends, creating a shield for himself that a poet like Robert Lowell neither has nor needs (41). O’Hara’s distaste for Lowell’s Confessional style led him to create his own subculture of public poetics. O’Hara and Ginsberg, on the other hand, use a version of the Confessional mode to “interpellate” or hail a small community of insider readers, a “homosexual counter-public” (42, 41). In pairing O’Hara and Ginsberg, Hartman transgresses the divide between the New York School and the Beat Generation. She writes for an academic audience who will recognize the pairing as a transgression, and who has a previous understanding of Confessional poetry.

Herring, Terrell Scott. “Frank O’Hara’s Open Closet.” PMLA, vol. 117, no. 3, 2002, pp. 414–27. Web. Herring’s scholarly article considers O’Hara’s simultaneous “visibility” and “invisibility” in his poetry and his ability to “[show] all but disclose nothing” in a style that resembles the “pre-Stonewall silencing of homosexuals” (414, 416). Herring also links the rise of New Critical thought in the 1950s and 60s, and the resulting idea that a poet’s work belongs to the public upon being published, to O’Hara’s style of public privacy: if the poet eventually shares ownership of the poem, he ought to maintain some privacy in writing (415). Herring argues that the intersection of the rises of New Critical theory and of Confessional poetry and the vilification of homosexuals contributed to the O’Hara’s paradoxical openness and “disdain for such personal exposure (416). Herring turns to O’Hara’s manifesto, “Personism,” in the first section of his article for O’Hara’s own articulation of a privately public poetic sphere. Next Herring close reads “Poem (Lana Turner has collapsed!)” and “Personal Poem” to explore the spaces O’Hara creates in which “public individuals paradoxically meet as private persons” and how O’Hara’s attempts at impersonality both fail and succeed (416). Though Herring provides historical and biographical context for O’Hara’s poetry, he writes for an academic audience.

Lehman, David. “Frank O’Hara: You Just Go on Your Nerve.” The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets. New York: Anchor Books, 1999. Print. Poet David Lehman chronicles O’Hara’s life and career, blending a narrative style with academic treatments of several O’Hara poems. Lehman explores the “legend” of an artist who “burns too intensely to last very long,” evaluating the ways in which this mythology essentializes O’Hara (168). Lehman censures O’Hara’s primary biographer, Brad Gooch, prolonging this legend (170). Lehman also treats O’Hara’s poetry as “occasional poetry,” written quickly and without meditation, because O’Hara himself enjoyed the concept (169). Through discussing the poems, Lehman points to O’Hara as a poet for who place matters; New York and O’Hara’s own experience of it features heavily (174). O’Hara’s poetry is personal in this way, and he is thus a vulnerable poet, “animated by ardor rather than cool detachment” (176, 179). The “subtleties” (that is, the quieter ways of expressing meaning) make an otherwise loud and forthcoming poet quiet and vulnerable (188). Lehman’s mode of incorporating O’Hara’s life story into his discussion of the poetry serves to contextualize the coterie references that, at times, make the poetry inaccessible; Lehman writes for an academic audience as well as a member of the general public who is simply interested in O’Hara.

Mattix, Micah. Frank O’Hara and the Poetics of Saying “I.” Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2011. Web. Critic Micah Mattix discusses Herbert Leibowitz, Gilbert Sorrentino, and Thomas Byrom: three critics who have described O’Hara as a minor figure compared to his artist friends. Mattix also cites Marjorie Perloff’s belief in O’Hara as a major poet, even though he is often viewed as a minor one (9). Mattix furthers Perloff’s argument that O’Hara turned away from symbolism in his poetry in favor of creating not an effect of something, but the actual thing as it is. For Mattix, O’Hara’s turn away from symbolism first makes him a major poet, for none of his peers successfully replicated his style; second, it allows O’Hara to use poetry as “a testament to the self,” but not the discovery of one (17, 22). O’Hara’s use of the first person pronoun “I” sets him apart from the people who populate his poems and creates a sense that the self who writes the poems is simply that, and nothing more (23). Mattix close reads O’Hara’s “Memorial Day 1950” and “In Memory of My Feelings” while also broadly considering O’Hara’s treatment of quotidian things and love in his poetry. This monograph is written for an academic audience.

Mendelson, Edward. “What We Love, Not Are.” The New York Review of Books, vol. 55, no. 14, 2008. Web. This review of O’Hara’s Selected Poems, edited by Mark Ford, discusses O’Hara’s ability to write “private conversations with individual readers, too quiet to be heard in a crowded room”; Critic Edward Mendelson argues that the poems which create intimacy with noise all around are O’Hara’s best. Mendelson cites O’Hara’s manifesto, “Personism”—“the poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages”—to argue that though O’Hara’s poetic persona is public and sociable, he values one on one interactions (1). Mendelson reads “Poetry” and “Cantata,” two poems in which O’Hara writes about his relationships to words and his cat as though the two things are human, as evidence of his longing for a connection to a person (3). Exploring O’Hara’s moments of reticence allows Mendelson to remove O’Hara from the coterie in which most critics place him; a poet who is always already in a group is necessarily a social poet, whereas Mendelson’s illumination of O’Hara’s quiet moments of one-on-one communication allow him his own poetic space. Mendelson writes for an audience already interested in O’Hara, but this review is not purely a scholarly source. Rather, it is a consideration of a poet and a selection of his poems for a wider audience.

Perloff, Marjorie. Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977. Print. Critic Marjorie Perloff’s monograph begins with the premise that O’Hara is a “radical,” “different,” and “major” poet alongside his contemporaries; though he is open and forthcoming, he flouts the Confessional mode of poetry used by Robert Lowell (xiii). Perloff, in her 1997 introduction, notes that when she began this project on O’Hara, she did not consider his homosexuality as a reason for this difference. Perloff revises not to place homosexuality at the center of O’Hara’s difference, but to acknowledge its presence in his life and therefore in his work (xiv). Perloff argues that O’Hara’s relation to painters features loudly in his radical and different poetics. O’Hara played with language and Abstract Expressionist painters played with paint and surfaces in similar ways (xxii). Perloff explores O’Hara’s career (at the time of his death, he was the curator of MoMA), which took time away from him that he could have spent writing poetry. But his involvement in visual arts “provided O’Hara with one of his central subjects”: painting (76-77). Perloff’s exploration of O’Hara’s use of words as though they were paint is written for an academic audience who is both familiar with twentieth century poetry and visual arts.

Perloff, Marjorie. “‘Transparent Selves’: The Poetry of John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara.” The Yearbook of English Studies, vol. 8, 1978, pp. 171–96. Web. In this scholarly article, Perloff pairs O’Hara and John Ashbery, two poets who abandoned the American and English symbolist poetic traditions, turning toward the “transparente” instead. In other words, the things in O’Hara’s and Ashbery’s poetry are not symbols for anything else (177). Perloff argues that O’Hara’s attention to things as they are invites his readers into a recognizable landscape and creates a poetic self as external as the things in the poem (188, 192). Pairing O’Hara with Ashbery poses O’Hara as the accessible poet, and Ashbery as the inscrutable one. But accessibility does not make O’Hara a simple or easy poet: Perloff close reads O’Hara’s “A Pleasant Thought From Whitehead,” “Easter,” and “All That Gas” to explore the ways O’Hara experiments with meaning making even while writing formally straightforward and accessible poetry. Perloff’s analysis of O’Hara’s use of language is intended for a scholarly audience.

Shaw, Lytle. Frank O’Hara: The Poetics of Coterie. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2006. Print. This monograph explores O’Hara’s relation to coterie both as a poet who was largely unknown outside of his adoring friend group, and whose poetry requires a familiarity with that friend group (1). Shaw takes this view of O’Hara’s relation to coterie as a “baseline” one which Marjorie Perloff helped set in place in her book, Frank O’Hara, poet among painters (2-3). Shaw points to the ways in which calling O’Hara a coterie poet first raises an interest in his biography, and second eliminates the possibility that the poetry is “public” (4-5). Shaw explores to what extent O’Hara’s life is important to and present in his work, the ways in which O’Hara’s poetry is both accessible and “puzzling,” and O’Hara’s “participation in community” that makes his poetry paradoxically inclusive and exclusive. He makes himself accessible to his reader while making references his friends will recognize (17, 82). Shaw writes for an academic audience with at least a familiarity with O’Hara’s contemporaries, especially the poets of the New York School with whom O’Hara often collaborated. Shaw blends biographical narrative with close readings of poems to produce a work that treats the life and its presence in the poetry with academic rigor, while also familiarizing his reader with the members of O’Hara’s coterie.

Vendler, Helen. “Frank O’Hara: The Virtue of the Alterable.” Frank O’Hara: To Be True to a City. Ed. Jim Elledge. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990. Print. In this essay, critic Helen Vendler points to two problems of O’Hara’s poetry, if we read it as lyric poetry: his poems are never abstract, and his form is inconsistent—sometimes his poems, or lines, are short, and other times they are long, for no obvious reason (234). But Vendler argues that O’Hara creates a kind of poetry that does not need the same conventions or logic that other poets follow. O’Hara writes about “colloquies”: things he sees on the street, or his memories, which are things without clear beginnings or endings. His poems, then do not need to have clear reasons for beginning or ending either (235). O’Hara’s poetry is external, not internal, because of his position as a spectator who did not witness the whole event; he does not assign symbolism or “significance” to his poetry because he only wishes to record what happened, and nothing more (237-38). For Vendler, O’Hara’s poetry is a “demonstration of what mind is by what mind does”; in other words, his language illustrates what he sees without the “metaphysical baggage” of any ideology (249). Vendler writes for an academic audience with an understanding of lyric poetry and the mode of writing what goes on in the poet’s mind without adding meaning to what is already in the experience (234, 238).


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