Before his untimely death, few men of letters embodied the jazz-fueled cool of midcentury New York better than poet Frank O’Hara. The Whitman of the modern urban landscape, O’Hara captured the essence of the city, its multitudes, and its motions of constant speed punctuated with moments of stillness.
Heavily influenced by Abstract Expressionism and jazz, his work affected the spontaneity of free-form verse, with a diction that bridged both high and low culture, uptown and downtown. His collection Lunch Poems was said to have been composed over the course of a single lunch break.
A member of the informal group that came to be known as the New York School, O’Hara mingled with the most important artistic figures of the age, including painters Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, and poets John Ashbery and James Schuyler. He shared with the Abstract Expressionists a belief in the work of art as an artifact of spontaneous creation.
Born in 1926 in Baltimore and raised in Grafton, Massachusetts, O’Hara served in the Navy during World War II and saw action in the South Pacific.
An accomplished pianist, he attended Harvard to study music on a GI Bill scholarship, where he roomed with artist Edward Gorey. Upon taking his M.A. in English from the University of Michigan, he moved to New York and quickly embeded himself within the local art and music scene. Employed at the Museum of Modern Art, he also wrote as a critic for Art News and began to seriously pursue poetry.
O’Hara died a tragic and unpoetic death in 1966 at the age of forty, after being struck by an all-terrain-vehicle on the beach on New York’s Fire Island. — ZACHARY DELUCA
If I rest for a moment near The Equestrian
pausing for a liver sausage sandwich in the Mayflower Shoppe,
that angel seems to be leading the horse into Bergdorf’s
and I am naked as a table cloth, my nerves humming.
Close to the fear of war and the stars which have disappeared.
I have in my hands only 35c, it’s so meaningless to eat!
and gusts of water spray over the basins of leaves
like the hammers of a glass pianoforte. If I seem to you
to have lavender lips under the leaves of the world,
I must tighten my belt.
It’s like a locomotive on the march, the season
of distress and clarity
and my door is open to the evenings of midwinter’s
lightly falling snow over the newspapers.
Clasp me in your handkerchief like a tear, trumpet
of early afternoon! in the foggy autumn.
As they’re putting up the Christmas trees on Park Avenue
I shall see my daydreams walking by with dogs in blankets,
put to some use before all those coloured lights come on!
But no more fountains and no more rain,
and the stores stay open terribly late.
O’Hara portrait by Alice Neel.