Frank O'Hara (1926 - 1966)

Life and Works


Francis Russell O'Hara was born on June 27, 1926, in Baltimore, Maryland, to an Irish-Catholic family that would later move to Massachusetts.
There the young Frank studied music and piano until he enlisted in the army in 1944 to serve in the South Pacific. After the war he went to Harvard where he received a comprehensive education in the arts and met many of the figures who would later influence his poetry, most notably John Ashbery.
He published actively in the Harvard Advocate and when eventually he graduated (in English) he received a graduate fellowship at the University of Michigan in 1950. The following year he joined Ashbery in New York, where he found a petty job at the MoMA and began to publish art reviews for ArtNews. He was soon promoted to editorial associate and in 1955 he made a triumphant comeback to the MoMA, this time as an administrator. During those exciting four years in the city he had been actively--frantically one might say--involved in the avant-garde art circles: he knew everybody, participated in everything, inspired, witnessed, modeled, curated and reviewed. It was an integral, hands-on approach that enabled him to vertebrate the so-called New York School of poets and painters, and in the middle of such paradigmatic synergy he was the perfect bridge between the sister arts.
He produced poems that put the visual qualities of Abstract Expressionism into words, with a casual, classy nonchalance that soon earned him a reputation for unpretentious verse and love of personal anecdote, crystallized in his "manifesto" Personism. He rendered the immediacy of everyday life in the busy city with great precision, not naturalistic precision but the highly subjective (and blurred) precision of the futurist painters. There is a great deal of veiled irony (is there another kind?) in his poems, which often goes unnoticed in thestream of uneventful events. The frenzy of daily life, the human/inhuman quality of public transport, popular culture, the marketing of new gadgets, all kinds of social interaction invade/pervade his poetry. Nothing is too ordinary to appear in his poems. And yet there is a powerful impression of (maybe painfully) elaborate ease, of hardworked casualness. The term "subjective impressionism" has been used to describe his work. Besides, he had a humanizing longing for a poetry "between two persons rather than two pages": much of his poetry derives from reactions, emotional states, and moods caused by personal interaction. So much so, and so personal, that he often acknowledged the trivial quality of many of his poems when set against the grand scheme of things. He deliberately called it his "I do this, I do that" poetry.


The volume that put him on the literary map was his 1957 collection Meditations in an Emergency. He actively published on art and poetry, but perhaps his status as a poet derived for a long while from the role he played in the New York School. His (unpretentiously titled) Lunch Poemsappeared in 1964, soon followed by (again much understated) Love Poems (Tentative Title) in 1965. The rest of his work appeared posthumously. For a precise and honest revaluation of O'Hara's talent and impact nowadays please refer to Marjorie Perloff's new (1997) introduction to the revised edition of her seminal Frank O'Hara: Poet Among Painters (New York: G. Braziller, 1977; 1st paperback ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979; Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, with a new introduction, 1998). His untimely death at the early age of 40 occurred while on vacation on Fire Island, NY. He was killed by a beach buggy. Beyond the drama, it was a fittingly campy death for a poet who lived his life as cool and unpretentious as his own poetry.


Autor:Ernesto Suárez Toste (Universidad de Castilla la Mancha)