Hi, Louise!

Stephen Burt

  • In Memory of My Feelings: Frank O’Hara and American Art by Russell Ferguson
    California, 160 pp, £24.50, October 1999, ISBN 0 520 22243 1
  • The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets by David Lehman
    Anchor, 448 pp, US $16.95, November 1999, ISBN 0 385 49533 1
  • Frank O’Hara: Poet among Painters by Marjorie Perloff
    Chicago, 266 pp, £13.50, March 1998, ISBN 0 226 66059 1

Open Frank O’Hara’s Collected Poems at random, somewhere in the middle, and you may get what looks like a Post-It note to a friend, or versified notes on a Jackson Pollock painting, a James Dean movie or ‘the music of Adolphe Deutsch’. You may also get one of many enticing, informal, secretly-complex poems that sound like nobody else ever has:

How can you start hating me when I’m so comfortable in your raincoat
the apples kept bumping off the old gnarled banged-up biddy-assed tree
and I kept ducking and hugging and bobbing as if you were a tub of water
on Hallowe’en it was fun but you threw yourself into reverse like a tractor
hugging the ground in spring that was nice too more rain more raincoat
                                 (‘Adventures In Living’)

Who was O’Hara, and how did he learn to write like that? Born in 1926, he grew up in small towns in Massachusetts, studied piano seriously throughout high school and served in the Navy at the close of World War II. He attended Harvard, where he began a close friendship with his classmate, John Ashbery. After a year (1950-51) in Michigan writing and translating poetry, he moved to New York, where he rejoined his Harvard friends and their friends – among them the poets Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler and Barbara Guest – becoming part of a social circle that was soon dominated by painters. In 1951 and again from 1955 until his death, O’Hara worked at the Museum of Modern Art, where he became a curator of exhibitions and a well known figure in the New York art world. In 1959 he embarked on a tumultuous love affair with Vincent Warren, the dancer.

Through the early 1960s, O’Hara’s commitments at MOMA increased (so did his drinking). He also became a hero for younger Bohemian poets, who moved into New York scenes he’d helped to establish. Even so, until City Lights published Lunch Poems (still the best introduction to his work) in 1964, his books appeared in limited editions that were hard to obtain outside New York. In July 1966, O’Hara was hit by a beach buggy on Fire Island; he died a few days later. (Brad Gooch’s biography, City Poet, 1993, adorned these facts with lurid guesswork and even speculated that O’Hara had wanted to get killed.) A wider world of readers discovered O’Hara’s verse when his enormous posthumous Collected won America’s National Book Award for 1971; its editor, Donald Allen, has since brought out a Selected and several more volumes of prose and verse.

During the 1950s, O’Hara reviewed art and contemporary classical music. He wrote at least seven poems called ‘On Rachmaninoff’s Birthday’, and many others in which music matters. Yet he will always be linked to the visual arts: American artists made sure of that. ‘In Memory of My Feelings’ is the name of a 1956 O’Hara poem, a haunting 1961 painting by Jasper Johns, a 1967 art-world all-star anthology commemorating O’Hara, and a 1999 exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Contemporary Art, curated by Russell Ferguson. O’Hara collaborated with the Action Painters and the proto-Pop artists Joe Brainard, Norman Bluhm, Mike Goldberg, Franz Kline, Al Leslie and Larry Rivers, on paintings, prints, collages, ‘artists’ books’ and short films: these comprise the core of the exhibition. There are also portraits and other works linked to O’Hara: Johns’s big black canvas, with silverware attached, now looks like a work of proleptic mourning, its dangling fork-and-spoon marking a grave.

That gravity makes it atypical. Works in which the poet himself had a hand are almost always playful, exuberantly or reluctantly so. The best known and liveliest are the series Stones, by O’Hara and Rivers, and another, rougher series with Bluhm, who recalls his work with O’Hara as ‘instantaneous, like a conversation between friends’. Bluhm and O’Hara’s ‘This is the First’ (1960) offers a scrawled text – ‘this is the first person/I ever went to bed/with’ – over a teasing, ambiguous duo of brown arcs: breast and thigh? pear and leaf? a foreshortened phallus? In runny paint below the lower arc, the artists have added: ‘wow!’

O’Hara and his friends worked together not only on visual art but on poetic sequences, and on mock-critical documents like O’Hara and Rivers’s ‘How to Proceed in the Arts’: ‘If you’re the type of person who thinks in words – paint!’ Most of all – with Ashbery, Bill Berkson, Koch, Rivers and others – O’Hara collaborated on plays. Amorous Nightmares of Delay (1996) reissued and retitled O’Hara’s 1978 Selected Plays; two brief new prefaces were added to the original, substantial introduction, by Joe LeSueur, O’Hara’s flatmate. A few of the plays had theatrical runs; more were privately staged at parties, as masques or eclogues in which his friends played outrageously torqued, accentuated or childish versions of themselves or one another: ‘I’m Jane, I’m Jimmy, I’m Larry, I’m Kenneth, I’m John, I’m Barbara, I’m Bob, how are you, folks?’

One collaboration, LeSueur remarks, ‘might remind the reader of nothing so much as children at play, dressing up in grown-ups’ clothes and putting on a show in the backyard’. Another, ‘bitchy and gossipy’, ‘audaciously evokes some of the atmosphere’ of the writers’ and artists’ favourite bars, among them the Cedar Tavern and the San Remo. It can be hard to distinguish backyard and bar: the fun of the plays often lies in their overlap. Stock characters become ‘real’ people, real people become one another (Ashbery plays ‘Jimmy Schuyler’) and all are conflated with works of art:

GIRL: John has this new Bessarabian poet he wants to publish who’s not as good as Jimmy’s novel. He paints gravel poems!

JOHN MYERS: Jimmy’s novel isn’t a person and you know it. And neither is the Bessarabian, for that matter.

(The Coronation Murder Mystery)

Awake in Spain is a hotchpotch of shepherds, Audenesque pastoral airmen, urban gay camp, Shakespearean aristocrats-in-the-woods and what William Empson called the child-as-swain:

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