March 27,1926– Frank O’Hara:
“I am the least difficult of men. All I want is boundless love.“
At the conclusion of the opening episode of the second season of Mad Men, the show’s protagonist, Don Draper, buys a book of poetry after being told by a hipster in a Greenwich Village bar that he is incapable of appreciating the writer’s work. The book is Meditations In An Emergency (1957) by Frank O’Hara. Draper reads it later that night in his suburban home, and he is captivated by a haunting stanza from the poem Mayakovsky:
“Now I am quietly waiting for the catastrophe of my personality to seem beautiful again, and interesting, and modern.“
After inscribing the book with the simple message “Made me think of you“, Draper slips out of the house to post it to a mystery recipient, adding yet another layer to this most complicated of television characters. I was so struck with this detail that I started to read everything by and about Frank O’Hara. I was only vaguely aware of O’Hara before Mad Men. But now, I continue to read about him and to delve into his poetry.
O’Hara grew up in small town Massachusetts. After private high school he studied piano at the New England Conservatory in Boston from 1941 to 1944. O’Hara served in the U.S. Navy, and saw battle in the South Pacific (the geographic area, not the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical) and Japan during World War II.
With the funding made available to veterans from the Government, O’Hara attended Harvard University where he roomed with one of my favorites, artist and writer Edward Gorey. Although O’Hara majored in music and did some composing, his attendance at Harvard was irregular and his interests scattered. He regularly attended classes in Philosophy and Theology, while impulsively writing in his spare time. O’Hara was very influenced by the visual arts and by contemporary music, which was his first love. He remained a fine pianist all his life and would often shock his casual pick-ups by suddenly playing a little Rachmaninoff.
He has favorite poets: Arthur Rimbaud, Boris Pasternak, and Vladimir Mayakovsky. At Harvard, O’Hara began publishing poems in the Harvard Advocate, the undergraduate journal of fiction, poetry, art and criticism. Despite his love of music, O’Hara decided to change his major and he graduated from Harvard with a degree in English in 1950.
He attended graduate school at the University Of Michigan, receiving his M.A. in English Literature in 1951.
That autumn O’Hara moved into an apartment in New York City with Joe LeSueur, his lover for the next decade. Known throughout his life for his sociability, passion, and warmth, O’Hara had hundreds of friends and as many lovers throughout his life, many from the New York City art and poetry worlds. Soon after arriving in NYC, he found a job at the front desk of the Museum Of Modern Art (MoMA), and he also began to write poetry in earnest.
O’Hara remained active in the art world the rest of his life, working as a reviewer for Art News. In 1960, he was named Assistant Curator Of Painting And Sculpture for MoMA. He also became good friends with the artists Willem de Kooning, Larry Rivers and Joan Mitchell. During his lifetime O’Hara was known as the “poet among painters“.
O’Hara once wrote that his gayness wasn’t just about sex; it was about a love of the freedoms that went with it. O’Hara sought out what he wanted when he wanted it. Lesueur writes in his memoir Digressions On Some Poems by Frank O’Hara (2003):
“Frank had at various times both the desire and the determination to make out with a great majority of the people to whom he was attracted, their diversity being truly mind-boggling: big guys, little guys, macho straight men, flagrantly gay men, rough trade, gay trade, friends, friends of friends, offspring of his friends, blonds, blacks, Jews, and a few women.“
Certainly other poets expressed this democracy of desires, this unbridled attraction to the people around him, particularly Walt Whitman, in his own nineteenth-century queer way, but O’Hara is unabashed.
In his lifetime, O’Hara published six volumes of well-received, positively reviewed poetry. Posthumously, 11 more were published including The Collected Poems Of Frank O’Hara, which won The National Book Award in 1971.
O’Hara was strolling on the beach on Fire Island when he was struck by a man speeding in a beach buggy during the early morning hours of July 24, 1966. He died the next day. He was just 40 years old when he left this incarnation.
O’Hara’s poetry is the work of a gay poet who knows that he is gay and doesn’t care what his readers think. But in its breezy affirmation of his gayness, his poetry immediately grabs back at what is universal.
If you want to know more about O’Hara, and you really should, try the terrific City Poet: The Life And Times Of Frank O’Hara (1994) by my friend Brad Gooch.
Here is my own favorite O’Hara poem:
Having A Coke With You
is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, Irún, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne
or being sick to my stomach on the Travesera de Gracia in Barcelona
partly because in your orange shirt you look like a better happier St. Sebastian
partly because of my love for you, partly because of your love for yoghurt
partly because of the fluorescent orange tulips around the birches
partly because of the secrecy our smiles take on before people and statuary
it is hard to believe when I’m with you that there can be anything as still
as solemn as unpleasantly definitive as statuary when right in front of it
in the warm New York 4 o’clock light we are drifting back and forth
between each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles
and the portrait show seems to have no faces in it at all, just paint
you suddenly wonder why in the world anyone ever did them
at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world
except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally and anyway it’s in the Frick
which thank heavens you haven’t gone to yet so we can go together the first time
and the fact that you move so beautifully more or less takes care of Futurism
just as at home I never think of the Nude Descending a Staircase or
at a rehearsal a single drawing of Leonardo or Michelangelo that used to wow me
and what good does all the research of the Impressionists do them
or for that matter Marino Marini when he didn’t pick the rider as carefully
as the horse
it seems they were all cheated of some marvelous experience
which is not going to go wasted on me which is why I am telling you about it
when they never got the right person to stand near the tree when the sun sank
O’Hara’s gayness was an expression of his humanity. He offered a new casualness and spontaneity to poetry, making deliriously funny and surprisingly moving poems out of everyday activities recounted in conversational tones. What he called his “I do this I do that” poems often featured glimpses of his adored New York City or anecdotes about friends.
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
LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED!
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