Poetic Injustice

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.

18 Comments on "Poetic Injustice"

  1. Pierre Lapin | March 10, 2019 at 4:15 pm |

    I carelessly thought this was going to be about John O’Hara and then wasted my time reading about a “poet” I’d never heard about. After reading that “poem” of his, I understood why I ‘d never heard of him.

  2. @Pierre Lapin

    Meditations in an Emergency is a classic of American poetry; I’d recommend reading a little more before you embarrass yourself with conspicuous displays of philistinism in the future.

    Interestingly, Schuyler — who was mentioned — was good friends with the painter Fairfield Porter. Ivy devotees would, I think, enjoy Porter’s work, as the style is very old New England in a lot of ways.

  3. Tanalootoyou | March 10, 2019 at 5:50 pm |

    Mad men…. you wouldn’t like it.

  4. RBM

    Well said.

  5. Got the Mad Men connection. Not thrilled by this sort of thing either. Also not sure how reading more would make someone like this. You either do or you don’t.

  6. Marc Chevalier | March 10, 2019 at 10:23 pm |

    @Pierre Lapin: you wasted a minute of your life (and 10 seconds of ours) by complaining that a free article had wasted your two previous minutes. Forgive us if we don’t weep for you.

  7. Pietro Coniglio | March 11, 2019 at 12:15 am |

    M. Chevalier,
    One really can’t expect a Frenchman to be a judge of poetry, considering what goes under the name of poetry in France today.

  8. Pierre Lapin | March 11, 2019 at 12:23 am |

    “Meditations in an Emergency” is not poetry, and most certainly not a classic in any sense. Simply prose ramblings.
    If you believe that adhering to time-tested standards in judging poetry is philistinism, might I suggest you check your dictionary?
    P.S.Do you also think that Thom Browne abominations are classic?

  9. Marc Chevalier | March 11, 2019 at 12:52 am |

    @Pierre Lapin: if only you’d write your replies as haikus.

  10. Pierre Lapin | March 11, 2019 at 1:17 am |

    @Marc Chevalier:
    An excellent idea.
    Thanks for your kind suggestion.
    I’ll try to do so in future.

  11. Pierre Lapin | March 11, 2019 at 1:24 am |

    @Marc Chevalier
    No more from me.
    Have a good day.

  12. Lexicologue | March 11, 2019 at 1:42 am |

    Pierre Lapin,
    Samuel Johnson said that “to circumscribe poetry by a definition will only show the narrowness of the definer”.

  13. André Dupont | March 11, 2019 at 10:35 am |

    Does the same apply to Trad/Ivy style?

    “To circumscribe Trad/Ivy style by a definition will only show the narrowness of the definer”.

  14. @ Peter Rabbit:

    What made you think this was about John O’Hara? There is a picture of someone who is not John O’Hara at the top of the page and the name “Frank O’Hara” appears in the second line.

    If you wasted your time, it’s probably your fault as you don’t know what John O’Hara looks like and you don’t know a Frank from a John, something which has the potential to cause you all sorts of problems in your life.

  15. @Pierre Lapin

    Well, you wouldn’t be in a position to judge Meditations in an Emergency, would you, considering you’d quote “never heard” of Frank O’Hara?

    My comment about philistinism was, in fact, in response to your admission as to “never” having heard of him; you’re certainly entitled not to ‘like’ Frank O’Hara (or other members of the New York school) but to dismiss him on the basis of one poem (which you referred to by placing it in inverted commas, one wonders why), and to have “never heard” of him, struck me as rather the embodiment of the term. The reality is that the New York school (and John Ashberry in particular) simply *are* recognized as a major movement in American poetry; again, one can disagree as to whether this is deserved or not (I believe it is), but ignorance of their existence is the mark of an un-serious reader.

    Further, to the notion that further reading wouldn’t be beneficial and that one “either likes it or you don’t” — literature isn’t like flavors of potato chips; deep reading is PRECISELY how one can come to enjoy difficult and complex works. I pity anyone who hasn’t come to this enriching and rewarding discovery.

    As to the connection between Ivy dress and 20th century American poetry; to suggest that admiration for the latter betrays the sensibilities of the former seems more than a little odd — am I to assume that you yourself prefer the breeches and stockings of the 18th century? At least that would be consistent with your absurd point.

  16. Henry Contestwinner | March 13, 2019 at 2:40 pm |

    Christian Chensvold
    often wears something old
    or at least something classic, like argyle.
    He also runs the blog-type website Ivy-Style.

  17. I thought I had written a clerihew for Christian before, and sure enough:


Comments are closed.