Frank O'Hara (1926-1966)
Contributing Editor: David Bergman
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Frank O'Hara's works look so effortless, spontaneous, so stitched from his daily life, that students may forget just how hard it is to make things look easy. It is important to stress the ways the poems are drawn from his life, more than a laundry list of "I do this, I do that." For example, in "The Day Lady Died," the precise and banal details of his train schedule and the presents he is bringing set the stage for the memory of Billie Holiday, a memory that seems to exist out of time. It is Holiday who breaks through the hustle and bustle of his life and has captured through her art--her voice--something nearly eternal. Although she has "stopped breathing" in reality, in his memory of her it is the audience who is dead and she is the one most alive.
O'Hara's connection to abstract expressionism is well established. It might be helpful to show the work of Mike Goldberg, Willem De Kooning, or Grace Hartigan. You might want to discuss the relationship between action painting and O'Hara's aesthetic, especially as developed in "Why I Am Not a Painter."
O'Hara studied music, and for quite a time believed he would become a composer. He worked with Ned Rorem and was a friend of Virgil Thomson. (The Rorem/O'Hara collaboration is available on CD [PHCD 116].) Invite students to read the poems aloud. One discovers a subtle music in them. O'Hara diverges from modernist poets because of his emphasis on voice rather than on image. For all of his interest in painting, it is the immediacy of O'Hara's voice that is the most striking part of his poetry.
Some teachers are afraid to address the homosexual content of his poems. I have discovered that addressing the issue as just one more subject reduces the students' discomfort. If students remain uncomfortable, the best position to state is, "We are all grown-ups here. We must be ready to confront attitudes and positions we both share and do not share."
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Like John Ashbery, O'Hara's friend and fellow Harvard alumnus, O'Hara is always concerned with time and mutability. These questions of time spawn several subthemes: (1) the relationship of art to time (can art take us out of time?); (2) the weakness of the body, its susceptibility to disease, death, and pain; (3) the fleetingness of emotions, particularly love; (4) the pressure of friends and the difficulties of maintaining the bonds of friendship.
Openness is a key word for O'Hara. He wants his poems and his love to be open. We can discuss open poetic forms, open relationships, openness to experience, a willingness to court vulgarity and sentimentality. But openness makes one vulnerable. O'Hara is haunted by this sense of vulnerability to outside enemies and forces. In some ways this mirrors the American psyche of the Cold War--its sense of strength, its desire to be an open society, and its fears--frequently irrational--of enemy attack.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
O'Hara's work is free verse, but as the footnote suggests, "Poem" echoes Shakespeare's sonnet "When in disgrace to fortune and men's eyes." It might be useful to look at how the form of the sonnet, although not copied, haunts the structure of this poem. O'Hara's line breaks look arbitrary, but they often are extremely effective.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
O'Hara's work is often compared to John Ashbery's. One can see their wit, humor, and desire to incorporate things from daily life into their work. But whereas these poems are open to the reader, Ashbery's poems often are hermetic. Allen Ginsberg was also one of O'Hara's friends. The homoerotic world of "A Supermarket in California" compares with O'Hara's "Poem." O'Hara disliked Robert Lowell's poetry. Lowell's formalism and highly wrought poetic surface contrasts strongly with O'Hara's work of the same period.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
Students may be encouraged to try their own I-do-this-I-do-that poems and see why the details in O'Hara's add up to something much more than a list of appointments. What are the similarities and differences between poetry and the other arts? How autobiographical should a poem be? How distanced from the poet's life does a poem have to be to affect a reader? Do the names of so many of O'Hara's personal friends keep the poem from communicating to you as a reader, or does this specificity--even if you don't know who these people are exactly--make the experience seem more immediate? When does gossip become art? How does O'Hara's expression of homosexual love differ from heterosexual love? Or does it?