The Sunday Poem : Frank O’Hara


Frank O’Hara by Alice Neel, 1960. Oil on canvas (85.7 x 40.6 x 2.5 cm). Gift of Hartley S. Neel. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. © Estate of Alice Neel.

Art critic and New York School poet Frank O’Hara studied piano at the New England Conservatory in Boston from 1941 to 1944 and served in the South Pacific and Japan as a sonarman on the destroyer USS Nicholas during World War II.

With the funding made available to veterans he attended Harvard University, where artist and writer Edward Gorey was his roommate. He then attended graduate school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and received his M.A. in English literature in 1951. That autumn O’Hara moved to New York City where he began teaching at The New School.

Known for his extreme sociability, passion, and warmth, O’Hara had hundreds of friends throughout his life, many from the New York art and poetry worlds. Soon after arriving in New York, he was employed at the front desk of the Museum of Modern Art and began to write seriously.

As his biography on the Poetry Foundation website details, he brought a refreshing new casualness and spontaneity to poetry, making deliriously funny and surprisingly moving verse 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—most of whom were themselves poets or painters.

Friends with artists like Willem de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Larry Rivers and Joan Mitchell, O’Hara also worked as a reviewer for Artnews, and in 1960 became Assistant Curator of Painting and Sculpture Exhibitions for the Museum of Modern Art.


“Back Table at the Five Spot” by Burt Glinn. Gelatin silver print. Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts. At the “back table” are (left to right) Frank O’Hara, Larry Rivers, and Grace Hartigan. (Photo courtesy the Special Collections Research Center at the Syracuse University Library)


In 1966 Richard O. Moore produced and directed USA: Poetry for National Education Television. The twelve part documentary series showcased many poets including, O’Hara, Anne Sexton, John Ashbery, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley, Gary Snyder, Kenneth Koch, Ed Sanders, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, Richard Wilbur, and Denise Levertov. This classic film of Frank O’Hara reading “Having a Coke with You” is one of my favorites in the series.

Tragically, O’Hara’s brilliant career as a writer and art curator was cut short by a freak accident just four months after this film was made. In the early morning hours of July 24, 1966, the poet was struck by a dune buggy on Fire Island beach. He died the next day of a ruptured liver at the age of 40. He was buried in Green River Cemetery on Long Island. The painter Larry Rivers, a longtime friend of O’Hara’s, delivered the eulogy.

Frank O’Hara in 1958 (Photo by Harry Redl)

As part of the New York School, O’Hara’s poetry shows the influence of Abstract Expressionism, Surrealism, Russian poetry, and poets associated with French Symbolism. In the introduction to The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, the poet John Ashbery says, “O’Hara’s concept of the poem as the chronicle of the creative act that produces it was strengthened by his intimate experience of Pollock’s, Kline’s, and de Kooning’s great paintings of the late ’40s and early ’50s and of the imaginative realism of painters like Jane Freilicher and Larry Rivers.”

O’Hara discussed his own approach to writing in Donald Allen’s New American Poetry:

“What is happening to me…goes into my poems. I don’t think my experiences are clarified or made beautiful for myself or anyone else, they are just there in whatever form I can find them…My formal ‘stance’ is found at the crossroads where what I know and can’t get meets what is left of that I know and can bear without hatred…It may be that poetry makes life’s nebulous events tangible to me and restores their detail; or conversely that poetry brings forth the intangible quality of incidents which are all too concrete and circumstantial. Or each on specific occasions, or both all the time.”




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Read More About Frank O’Hara



“Having a Coke with You” Copyright © Frank O’Hara. O’Hara biography courtesy The Poetry Foundation and Wikipedia. Thanks to poet Matthew Dickman and for sharing this video.


By | 2016-11-11T21:52:40+00:00 08.12.12|The Sunday Poem, Words|2 Comments

About the Author:

I’ve spent almost 20 years helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. (One friend likes to call me “the arts enabler.”) From 1999-2012 I worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony, but I've also done time at an arts magazine, a library, an art museum, and a raptor rehabilitation center. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, curating, and creative projects full-time. In 2015 I was named a “Top 100 Artist, Innovator, Creative” by Origin magazine. I've appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, and in 2017 I was the recipient of the Wampler Art Professorship at James Madison University. I am the founder of the Gwarlingo Salon series, which connects artists like DJ Spooky with rural audiences in the Monadnock region. In 2017 my collaborator Corwin Levi and I will publish our first book, Mirror Mirrored, which combines Grimms’ fairy tales with vintage illustration remixes and the work of contemporary artists like Kiki Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, and Amy Cutler. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, but have called New Hampshire home since 1999. My studio is located in the historic, mill village of Harrisville. I miss fried okra, the early southern spring, and restaurants that stay open past 9:00 p.m., but rural life agrees with me. In New Hampshire I can see the stars, go kayaking or snowshoeing, watch bald eagles fish in the lake, and focus on my creative work in silence. I no longer have to worry about traffic jams; deer, wild turkeys, and frost heaves are the primary road hazards here. Although I live in the country, I’m fortunate enough to be part of a vibrant arts community that extends beyond this small New England village. The quiet days are punctuated by regular travel and frequent visits to museums, theaters, readings, arts events, lectures, and open studios around the country. (You can read my full CV here.) Thanks for visiting Gwarlingo. I hope you'll be in touch.


  1. Tina Schumann August 12, 2012 at 1:27 pm


    I just want to say that you really do such a wonderful job on this site. They are like mini documentaries: elegant, intelligent, informative and worldly in the best sense. Where do you find the time? No matter. I so enjoy them and always learn something. Is there an award for Blogs? I would nominate you.

    Best, Tina Schumann/Seattle

  2. steven August 12, 2012 at 4:46 pm

    from the Allen Ginsberg blog – Allen Ginsberg on Frank O’Hara –

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