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.
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.
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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