Happy Birthday, Frank O’Hara!

March 27th is the birthday of a favorite poet of mine, Frank O’Hara. Little known today, perhaps because he was killed in a car accident in 1966 at the age of forty, O’Hara was a leading figure in the New York School, a loose grouping of artists, poets, painters and musicians active in the 1950s and 1960s. They were known for drawing inspiration from contemporary sources: jazz, news media, action painting, expressionism, and even commercial advertising.

O’Hara was a poet of the streets. He employed a personal, free-verse rhythm that perfectly captured the chaotic exuberance of American city life. Friends described him as dashing off poems during smoke breaks at work (no slouch there either, he was curator for the Museum of Modern Art), in taxis, and at lunch. One of his early collections is titled, appropriately, Lunch Poems. John Ashbery, another member of the New York School, has described O’Hara’s poems, like the paintings of Pollock and de Kooining, as “chronicles of the creative act that produced them.”

It’s unfortunate O’Hara isn’t more widely read. Despite their half-century in age, his poems still sound contemporary and have a lot to offer to the reader. And he’s often funny. In Lana Turner Has Collapsed!, O’Hara interprets a random tabloid headline through his campy, gay sensibility:

Poem (Lana Turner Has Collapsed!)

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

But he could also be sensitive:


Have you forgotten what we were like then
when we were still first rate
and the day came fat with an apple in its mouth

it’s no use worrying about Time
but we did have a few tricks up our sleeves
and turned some sharp corners

the whole pasture looked like our meal
we didn’t need speedometers
we could manage cocktails out of ice and water

I wouldn’t want to be faster
or greener than now if you were with me O you
were the best of all my days

And at his best, O’Hara could integrate disparate elements such as the boisterous city life and his love for jazz to write a cluttered, yet deceptively simple poem that is about much more than a day in the life of the poet:

The Day Lady Died

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

About Stefen Styrsky

Stefen Styrsky's fiction has appeared in The Offing, Number Eleven Magazine, Inch, and the Tahoma Literary Review. A few years ago he earned an MA degree in fiction writing from the Johns Hopkins University. Stefen lives in Washington, DC.
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