Frank O’Hara, Selected Poems, Carcanet Press, 1991 (2005 reissue)
By the time of his death on Fire Island in 1966—run over by a beach buggy in the middle of the night—Frank O’Hara was a familiar figure in those circles where the
art scene and the street-level gay subcultures overlapped. Not only was he Associate Curator at the New York , but he had established himself as an energetic presence on the vibrant poetry circuit of the day. Fully immersed in the business of working out how to live and write in a new era as an openly gay man, he wrote about his own milieu in his own city: New York, the place he calls Sodom-on-Hudson (‘Commercial Variations’), where the very leaves fall from the trees ‘like angels who’ve been discharged for sodomy’ (‘Second Avenue’). Museum of Modern Art
Hardly anywhere else interested him. In ‘Meditations in an Emergency’ he distances himself from what was expected of a certain type of gay poet: ‘I have never clogged myself with the praises of pastoral life, nor with nostalgia for an innocent past of perverted acts in pastures. No. One need never leave the confines of New York to get all the greenery one wishes—I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life’. His work is so firmly based in the one place that he could be accused of parochialism, were it not for the fact that
is such a special case as a world-wide exemplar of the modern urban experience. In any case, his poetry is often very European in its influences: Rimbaud, for a start, as well as the full spectrum of European modernist painters. New York
O’Hara’s roommate and sometime lover Joe LeSueur later said of him: ‘there were times when I thought he was in love with at least half of his friends, for it was possible for him to get so emotionally involved that it wasn’t unusual for him to end up in bed with one of them and then, with no apparent difficulty, to go right back to being friends again afterward … He didn’t make distinctions, he mixed everything up: life and art, friends and lovers—what was the difference between them?’ What O’Hara particularly valued was a queerness that overlapped with everything else: work and leisure, high art and low life, sadness and hilarity, sex and friendship, masculinity and femininity, straightness and bentness.
Because he loathed the idea that he should ever have to close himself off from any aspect of life, he refused to mix in closed gay circles and snobby elites. Joe Le Sueur later wrote: ‘if he was going to be adamantly opposed to the gay ghetto principle as exemplified by Cherry Grove on Fire Island, Lenny’s Hideaway downtown, the Bird Circuit uptown, any gay gathering where straights were excluded or not wanted—in other words, a way of life that promoted compulsive cruising, misogyny, and homosexual separatism—he must have felt it necessary, as a point of pride and as a moral obligation, to hammer home to straight people the clear, unmistakable message that he was an uncontrite, arrogant queer who was not about to sing miserere or fall on his knees to anyone.’ Or if he were to fall to his knees, he would do so only for an angelic physique.
O’Hara is that miraculous creature, a poet who is actually enjoying his life. The tone of his work is so optimistic that even when he says ‘All I want is boundless love’ (‘Meditations in an Emergency’) it is as if he is not asking for much. His mood is infectious. When he ends one of his poems of street observations with the challenging question to the reader, ‘why are you reading this poem anyway?’ (‘Petit Poème en Prose’), the implication is that we might be better occupied walking the streets, creating the encounters out of which to make poems of our own. Poetry must be based not in detached contemplation, but in active involvement and celebration: ‘What is the poet for, if not to scream / himself into a hernia of admiration for / paradoxical integuments’ (‘Ashes on Saturday Afternoon’). His language is often subculturally specific—‘it’s the night like I love it all cruisy and nelly’ (‘Easter’)—as if he expects everyone, philiac and phobic alike, to take part in the gayness of his gaiety and the nelliness of his tears. Joy and pain are opposite sides of the same vibrancy—unhappiness is a necessary corollary of happiness. But his was not the ‘tragic’ happiness to which the Cold War American queer was said to be both prone and doomed. The gay men he knew had ways of dealing with the standard heartbreak of living with love and hatred: ‘I don’t want any of you to be really unhappy, just camp it up a bit and whine, whineola, baby’.
Included in this volume is O’Hara’s light-hearted but serious manifesto of what he called ‘Personism’, whereby the poem speaks ‘between two persons instead of two pages’. Only half joking when he says this method will prove ‘the death of literature as we know it’, he advocates a poetry that speaks directly to the reader as an individual rather than loftily down to a crowd. He acknowledges—as so many poets do not, now as then—that there is more to life than verse, and more to verse than versification. (His own preferred art forms were painting and cinema. As he put it, ‘only Whitman and Crane and Williams, of the American poets, are better than the movies’.) While his poems can—and often strive to—seem casual, they also display a phenomenal mastery of open forms. Of technique, he has this to say: ‘As for measure and other technical apparatus, that’s just common sense: if you’re going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you. There’s nothing metaphysical about it.’
[This review first appeared on the Chroma blog.]