Frank O'Hara


Personism: A Manifesto

The Collected Poems of Frank O´Hara, ed. Donald Allen (1971; Berkeley:
U of California P, 1995), 498-99.

Everything is in the poems, but at the risk of sounding like the poor wealthy man´s Allen Ginsberg I will write to you because I just heard that one of my fellow poets thinks that a poem of mine that can´t be got at one reading is because I was confused too. Now, come on. I don´t believe in god, so I don´t have to make elaborately sounded structures. I hate Vachel Lindsay, always have; I don´t even like rhythm, assonance, all that stuff. You just go on your nerve. If someone´s chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don´t turn around and shout, "Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep."

That´s for the writing poems part. As for their reception, suppose you´re in love and someone´s mistreating (mal aimé) you, you don´t say, "Hey, you can´t hurt me this way, I care!" you just let all the different bodies fall where they may, and they always do may after a few months. But that´s not why you fell in love in the first place, just to hang onto life, so you have to take your chances and try to avoid being logical. Pain always produces logic, which is very bad for you. I´m not saying that I don´t have practically the most lofty ideas of anyone writing today, but what difference does that make? They´re just ideas. The only good thing about it is that when I get lofty enough I´ve stopped thinking and that´s when refreshment arrives.

But how can you really care if anybody gets it, or gets what it means, or if it improves them. Improves them for what? For death? Why hurry them along? Two many poets act like a middle -aged mother trying to get her kids to eat too much cooked meat, and potatoes with drippings (tears). I don´t give a damn whether they eat or not. Forced feeding leads to excessive thinness (effete). Nobody should experience anything they don´t need to, if they don´t need poetry bully for them. I like the movies too. And after all, only Whitman and Crane and Williams, of the American poets, are better than the movies. As for measure and other technical apparatus, that´s just common sense: if you´re going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you. There´s nothing metaphysical about it. Unless, of course, you flatter yourself into thinking that what you´re experiencing is "yearning."

Abstraction in poetry, which Allen [Ginsberg] recently commented on in It Is, is intriguing. I think it appears mostly in the minute particulars where decision is necessary. Abstraction (in poetry, not in painting) involves personal removal by the poet. For instance, the decision involved in the choice between "the nostalgia of the infinite" and "the nostalgia for the infinite" defines an attitude towards degree of abstraction. The nostalgia of the infinite representing the greater degree of abstraction, removal, and negative capability (as in Keats and Mallarmé).

Personism, a movement which I recently founded and which nobody knows about, interests me a great deal, being so totally opposed to this kind of abstract removal that it is verging on a true abstraction for the first time, really, in the history of poetry. Personism [end p. 498] is to Wallace Stevens what la poésie pure was to Béranger. Personism has nothing to do with philosophy, it´s all art. It does not have to do with personality or intimacy, far from it! But to give you a vague idea, one of its minimal aspects is to address itself to one person (other than the poet himself), thus evoking overtones of love without destroying love´s life--giving vulgarity, and sustaining the poet´s feelings towards the poem while preventing love from distracting him into feeling about the person. That´s part of Personism. It was founded by me after lunch with LeRoi Jones on August 27, 1959, a day in which I was in love with someone (not Roi, by the way, a blond). I went back to work and wrote a poem for this person. While I was writing it I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born. It´s a very exciting movement which will undoubtedly have lots of adherents. It puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style, and the poem is correspondingly gratified. The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages. In all modesty, I confess that it may be the death of literature as we know it. While I have certain regrets, I am still glad I got there before Alain Robbe-Grillet did. Poetry being quicker and surer than prose, it is only just that poetry finish literature off. For a time people thought that Artaud was going to accomplish this, but actually, for all their magnificence, his polemical writings are not more outside literature than Bear Mountain is outside New York State. His relation is no more astounding than Debuffet´s to painting.

What can we expect of Personism? (This is getting good, isn´t it?) Everything but we won´t get it. It is too new, too vital a movement to promise anything. But it, like Africa, is on the way. The recent propagandists for technique on the one hand, and for content on the other, had better watch out.


Marjorie Perloff

From her 1997 Introduction to the revised edition of her Frank O´Hara: Poet among Painters, U of Chicago Press, 1997

When Frank O´Hara: Poet Among Painters was published twenty years ago, O´Hara was a coterie figure, adored by his New York School friends and acolytes, especially by the painters whose work he exhibited and wrote about--but otherwise regarded (when regarded at all) as a charming minor poet. Herbert Leibowitz, in a largely generous review of O´Hara´s Collected Poems for the New York Times Book Review in 1971, called O´Hara "an aesthetic courtier who had taste and impudence and prodigious energy." Even the avant-garde poet/novelist Gilbert Sorrentino, whose New York literary world intersected with O´Hara´s through the mediation of Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) and his magazine Yugen, described Lunch Poems as "mov[ing] in a world of wry elegance, of gesture, a world made up of a certain kind of strictly New York joie de vivre: slightly down at heels and rumpled, but with the kind of style always a step above current ´style´."When Frank O´Hara: Poet Among Painters was published twenty years ago, O´Hara was a coterie figure, adored by his New York School friends and acolytes, especially by the painters whose work he exhibited and wrote about--but otherwise regarded (when regarded at all) as a charming minor poet. Herbert Leibowitz, in a largely generous review of O´Hara´s Collected Poems for the New York Times Book Review in 1971, called O´Hara "an aesthetic courtier who had taste and impudence and prodigious energy." Even the avant-garde poet/novelist Gilbert Sorrentino, whose New York literary world intersected with O´Hara´s through the mediation of Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) and his magazine Yugen, described Lunch Poems as "mov[ing] in a world of wry elegance, of gesture, a world made up of a certain kind of strictly New York joie de vivre: slightly down at heels and rumpled, but with the kind of style always a step above current ´style´."

What is not said in these or the other reviews of O´Hara´s poetry in the late sixties and seventies is that the "style" to which Sorrentino draws our attention was a style recognizably gay. Indeed, neither in the moving memorial essays by John Ashbery or Kenneth Koch nor in the many critiques, from Francis Hope´s dismissal of the "puppyish charm of [O´Hara´s] occasional good impromptus," to Marius Bewley´s bemused characterization of the poet´s "long invertebrate verse lines" as so many "streamers of crepe paper fluttering before an electric fan," is direct reference made to the poet´s homosexuality. When, for example, Thomas Byrom reviewed my book, along with O´Hara´s Early Writing and Poems Retrieved, in the Times Literary Supplement, he characterized O´Hara as follows:

His aesthetics are from a catalogue of late Victorian camp, a matter of excellent personal taste. He burned hard and gemlike; he drank and talked volubly. Though he tried on later ideologies, the one he lived was a sociable and less frigid version of Paterian pop, and the one he wrote was a subjective impressionism. His syntax has little of the crafty or inspired appositiveness of the Surrealist; it is an articulation of mental chatter and drift, and his style depends for its success wholly on his sensibility. Perhaps he is most like e. e. cummings, the same soft verve, a sentimental eroticism, a certain heart. . . . Casualness, quickness, openness were what he wanted and often got.

"Late Victorian camp," "Paterian pop." "mental chatter and drift"-- twenty years later we recognize these as code terms for "queer." But at the time I read Byrom´s review, (which suggested it was bad form on my part to take this playful poet seriously!), I myself wasn´t aware to what extent critiques of O´Hara´s "gifts for buoyancy, spontaneity and fun" (Byrom, TLS, 78), were, consciously or not, critiques of a poetic that generated lines like "Even trees understand me! Good heavens, I lie under them too, don´t I?" (CP 196), or "you were made in the image of god / I was not / I was made in the image of a sissy truck-driver" (CP, 338). Even in the later 1970s, readers didn´t quite know how to respond to such self-exposure. When, in an early draft of Frank O´Hara: Poet Among Painters, I referred to Joe LeSueur as Frank´s lover, Donald Allen suggested tactfully that I use the word "friend" instead. "O´Hara," wrote Kenneth Koch in his admiring review of the Collected Poems, "had an unusual gift for friendship and for love." And it is similarly friendship and a shared aesthetic that are central to John Ashbery´s moving account, in his introduction to the Collected Poems, of Frank´s invention of a "vernacular corresponding to the creatively messy New York environment," with its "scent of garbage, patchouli and carbon monoxide" (see CP x).

I remind the reader of these conventions of the seventies so as to provide the context for my own historical/critical study of O´Hara´s work, a study largely devoid of speculation on the role gender played in O´Hara´s oppositionality. That he was a radical and "different" poet was my premise, but I regarded that oppositionality (to the aesthetic, not only of Robert Lowell, which he criticized openly, but also that of the then counterculture hero, Charles Olson), as a question of individual ethos rather than as, in any profound way, constructed by the poet´s culture or sexual identification. Along the same lines, I paid little attention to the roles race and ethnicity play in poems like "Ode: Salute to the French Negro Poets"--the heady mix of exoticism, curiosity, and egalitarianism with which O´Hara celebrated "the love we bear each other´s differences / in race which is the poetic ground on which we rear our smiles" (CP 305), and that prompted the poet to remark on the "Puerto Ricans on the avenue today, which / makes it beautiful and warm" (CP 258).

In 1977, the age demanded a raison d´être for O´Hara´s casual, improvisatory, nonmetrical and generally nonstanzaic "I do this, I do that" pieces, pieces that hardly seemed to qualify as poems at all. Hence my attention to poetic lineage (from Williams, from Mayakovsky, from Apollinaire), generic placement (ode? elegy? occasional poem?), and technical device (especially the daring use of line-break). It was important, I felt, to expose an audience accustomed to the well-made ironic lyric of Richard Wilbur on the one hand and the oracular, densely allusive "projective verse" of Olson on the other, to the very different "aesthetic of attention" that is O´Hara´s special signature. The impact of culture and sexuality on that aesthetic was undoubtedly underestimated.

How different is the situation today? In one sense, we have witnessed a total turnaround. The first O´Hara biography, Brad Gooch´s City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O´Hara (1993), is nothing if not candid about the poet´s love affairs and one-night stands--so candid, in fact, that, after some valuable chapters on the poet´s childhood, navy days, and Harvard years, it becomes an extended (some would say, excessive) portrait of what it was to burn with a hard gem-like flame in the postwar and pre-AIDS decades. The new respectability of Queer Theory, coupled with the breakdown of the High Culture / Popular Culture divide, and the tolerance, even in the Academy, for open forms and improvisatory discourse-- these have given O´Hara a new place in the canon. He is, for example, included in the most recent edition of the Norton Anthology of American Literature (1989) as well as in Helen Vendler´s controversial Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry (1985). In each of these, O´Hara gets considerably less space than Robert Lowell or Adrienne Rich or even Allen Ginsberg, but he does get pride of place in three recent large avant-garde anthologies-- Eliot Weinberger´s American Poetry since 1950 (Marsilio, 1993), Paul Hoover´s Postmodern American Poetry (Norton, 1994), and Douglas Messerli´s From the Other Side of the Century: A New American Poetry 1960-1990 (Sun & Moon, 1994). By 1995, when the Collected Poems, edited by Donald Allen, was reprinted by the University of California Press, it was safe to say that any treatment of midcentury American poetry would have to take Frank O´Hara into account.

Indeed, at a conference on "Poetry of the 1950s" held at the University of Maine at Orono in June 1996, there were more papers (eleven in all) on O´Hara than on any other single poet, and his name cropped up repeatedly in the various keynote addresses on larger topics. Ten years ago, I would guess, the central figure of such a conference, held as it was in Ezra Pound country, would have been Charles Olson. But at the fin-de-siècle, there seems to be a decided shift in sensibility.

And not just a turn to gay sensibility as such, since the speakers focused on such varied topics as the effect of the Cold War on O´Hara´s curatorial activities at the Museum of Modern Art, the relationship of his poetry to the film culture of the fifties, the crossing of camp and sublimity in the late poem "Biotherm," and the particular brand of "liberation politics" that links "Meditations in an Emergency" to the "emergence" of formerly subjugated groups.

Thirty years after his death, O´Hara´s poetic has thus come of age. But gratifying as this interest is, we must now be careful not to turn this mercurial and highly individual poet into a mere representative of fifties´ queer sensibility or Cold War politics. In a recent essay for American Literary History, for example, Caleb Crain examines what he takes to be O´Hara´s deep-seated aggression--an aggression that doubles back upon itself since, in the "regime of homophobia" of the "pre-gay liberation 1950s," it cannot direct itself outward-- through the lens of D. W. Winnicott´s object-relations psychology. One needs such an explanatory mechanism, we are told, because, taken in themselves, the "constitutent elements [of the poems] can seem trivial, and their structure as cavalier and casual as telephone gossip or lunch conversation. . . The poems´ elements do not seem amenable to analysis and a new synthesis in the classroom."

But the "aggression" Crain is at such pains to account for (its exemplar is the wonderfully absurd reference in "Personism: A Manifesto," to "someone chasing you down the street with a knife") is taken to be a given of the poetry rather than shown to be present in its actual fabric. And that fabric, the materiality of the poems, is judged to be "cavalier," "casual" and "trivial,"-- a poetic structure not "amenable to analysis," at least not without an external key like Winnicott´s psychiatric theory. Ironically enough, such assessment echoes that of O´Hara´s early detractors: in "Personal Poem," for example, the poet, according to Crain, "bobs along on a buoyant gush of detail," and "an outsider might not ´get´ the story behind this glib, chatty, undirected monologue" (ALH 301-302). Indeed, the poem´s "laundry list" is redeemed only by the poem´s conclusion, which reveals it as a love poem:

I wonder if one person out of the 8,000,000 is
thinking of me as I shake hands with LeRoi
and buy a strap for my wristwatch and go
back to work happy at the thought possibly so (CP 336)

Crain comments, "The happiness that surfaces at the close sheds light backward through the poem, connecting the random narrative into pillow talk, lovers´ gossip at the end of the day. Like baby booties memorialized in bronze, O´Hara´s trivial day is electroplated with the charge of knowing he is loved" (ALH 302).

This reading smooths out the poem´s tensions, missing the force of the poignantly tentative "possibly so" of the last line. Indeed, despite the external evidence that "Personal Poem" was written for O´Hara´s then-lover Vincent Warren, its narrative, far from being "glib" and "chatty," begins on a note of thinly veiled anxiety:

Now when I walk around at lunchtime
I have only two charms in my pocket
an old Roman coin Mike Kanemitsu gave me
and a bolt-head that broke off a packing case
when I was in Madrid (CP, 335)

Some good luck charms! The poet works hard to cheer himself up: he puns on the "luminous humidity" of the recently completed "House of Seagram with its wet," and enjoys, as in "A Step Away from Them," the sight of construction workers on girders, especially when they are wearing silver hats. But once inside the pub, the anxiety comes back:

I wait for
LeRoi and hear who wants to be a mover and
shaker the last five years my batting average
is.016 that´s that

LeRoi´s news that "Miles Davis was clubbed 12 / times last night outside BIRDLAND by a cop" (terrifying news for the gay speaker as well as his black friend, given the raids on gay bars so frequent in these years) doesn´t exactly help. Never mind: it´s the hour of friendship and so the two poets, exchange mutual antiestablishment sentiments--"we don´t like Lionel Trilling / we decide, we like Don Allen we don´t like / Henry James so much we like Herman Melville"). But how close are "we" really? It is at the moment of saying goodbye to LeRoi that Frank wonders "if one person out of the 8,000,000 is /thinking of me." Obviously, as James E. B. Breslin notes perceptively, that person isn´t the LeRoi with whom Frank is shaking hands, but then Frank isn´t thinking of LeRoi either. "Friendship," for those who want "boundless love," only goes so far, especially when one has that terrifying sense of being only one in eight million.

To suggest that O´Hara´s "laundry list" is made meaningful only by the oblique reference to the poet´s putative lover in the final lines is, I think, to posit closure where O´Hara explicitly denies its possibility. "Personal Poem" doesn´t make a point; it presents what it feels like, at a fairly bad time, to go to lunch with a friend (who is not a lover), and, in the face of a persistent sense of anxiety, to draw on one´s basic reserve of humor and optimism. It is the ubiquity of the experience, not its oppressed-gay-man-in-1959 particularity, that makes the poem so memorable.

Similar questions are raised by Andrew Ross´s provocative essay on "The Day Lady Died". The essay argues, quite rightly I think, that O´Hara´s fabled "culture of surface" is not without its own political resonances, its implicit critique of a consumerism, dependent upon the sharply defined gender roles of the fifties and the dilemma they posed for the gay man. But Ross´s case seems curiously overdetermined:

Looking back over O´Hara´s poem we can see how it tends to accept what might have been stereotypically regarded as the social contours of gay masculinity in 1959, the obsession, for example, with trivia, with feelings, with discriminations of taste, and, of course, with the fine arts. The tone of the poem marks its obvious distance from the voice of legitimate masculinity; O´Hara´s is not the voice of the public sphere, where real decisions are made by real men and where real politics is supposed to take place. In fact, the hectic itinerary followed by his poet could just as well be that of a genteel lady about town, if you substitute a hairdresser for the shoeshine, the Russian Tea Room for the soda parlor, Rizzoli´s for the Golden Griffin, and so on.. . .

In fact, "the ´day lady died´ is an account of a lady´s day, played out by a man through an imagined lunch hour that is the very opposite of the power lunches being eaten in restaurants in the same few blocks by the men who make real history (SE 388-89),

The difficulty with this argument is that Ross has to posit a "voice of legitimate masculinity" against which O´Hara´s own homosexual one may be seen to position itself. But whose voice in 1959 (or, for that matter, at any other time) would this be? Did "straight" poets of the fifties--say, Robert Lowell or Robert Creeley--present themselves as "making real history" over their business "power lunches"? Or weren´t they also outsiders by their very status as lyric poets?

The relation to women is even trickier. Ross´s argument is that "the social contours of gay masculinity of 1959," which O´Hara´s poem supposedly embodies, allow the poet no choice but to assume a feminine role: "the hectic itinerary followed by his poet could just as well be that of a genteel lady about town." O´Hara´s elegy (see below pp. 179-82 below) begins with the lines:

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don´t know the people who will feed me (CP 325)

"Genteel" lady shoppers are hardly likely to go out to the Island on a summer Friday afternoon without knowing with whom they are going to have dinner. "The people who will feed me," moreover, is an odd way of referring to one´s hosts: who knows what unladylike things that "feeding" is to include? Again, the sense of immediacy and improvisation is underscored by the reference to getting a shoeshine. Ross´s suggestion that we need only substitute "hairdresser" for "shoeshine" for the day to reveal itself as a "lady´s day," curiously misses O´Hara´s nuance. Ladies´ visits to the hairdresser are scheduled and regular--part of the routine of putting oneself together, rather like brushing one´s teeth and putting on make-up in the morning. But one doesn´t schedule a shoeshine or make an appointment to have one: one does it (or rather, a man does it) on the spur of the moment so as to "look good," to make an immediate impression, especially when one doesn´t know "the people who will feed me." And the further irony is that, what with the drinking and the partying that could be anticipated at Mike and Patsy´s, no one would notice Frank´s shoeshine anyway. It is merely a way of (literally) putting one´s best foot forward.

Or consider the lines in the following stanza: "I go on to the bank / and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard) / doesn´t even look up my balance for once in my life." This seemingly casual and irrelevant reference, far from linking the poet to genteel lady shoppers with their "busy social schedules," has precisely the opposite effect. What bank teller would confront a Madison Avenue matron by looking up her balance? What matron would give so much as a thought to the teller´s name? The implication of the lines is that the poet is always self-conscious about being "different": polite and friendly as he is at the bank, Miss Stillwagon evidently perceives him as just a bit queer, and besides he is evidently prone to overdrawing on his account. The routine withdrawal of money thus becomes an incident worth reporting. The name "Stillwagon," moreover, with its oxymoronic conjunction of whiskey still and being on the wagon, anticipates the crisis of Billie Holiday´s last days.

It is charged language of this sort (a good bit of which I missed the first time I discussed the poem) that makes O´Hara´s work so fascinating. As for "consumerism," it should be noted that every item the poet buys (or contemplates buying) is bought for someone else. Intense friendship, which is the gay poet´s alternative to the family networks that determine the largely routine purchases made by the typical New York lady shopper, depends upon the careful discrimination and choice of gifts: Frank knows Patsy´s taste for Verlaine and that Mike especially likes to drink Strega. And , in the larger sense, it is the set of choices of the poem´s maker that provides us with a catalogue of items, all of which (as I suggest in Chapter 5), relate, like Miss Stillwagon, to Billie Holiday herself. In line 17, for example, the poet contemplates buying "Brendan Behan´s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres / of Genet." Behan, who drank himself to death at a young age, anticipates Lady Day´s death from a drug overdose, while the mise-en-scène of Les Nègres sets the stage for Lady Day´s climactic appearance at the Five Spot. As for Genet himself (and the characters in Le Balcon), the motif introduced by the invocation of the gay, ex-convict author is that of the artist punished for his or her deviance--punished, in Lady Day´s case, by premature death.

To say that the poet´s itinerary is conceived as the daily shopping round of a genteel lady thus glosses over precisely those images and phrases that make "The Day Lady Died" the bitter-sweet, poignant elegy it is. "Totally abashed and smiling" (CP 406), fearful and funny, self-possessed and yet profoundly vulnerable, the poet who makes his Manhattan rounds on a Friday (with Bastille Day soon to come!), is the Frank who was given to referring to New York as "Sodom-on-Hudson," the Frank who had written in his Harvard Journal, "I often wish I had the strength to commit suicide, but on the other hand, if I had, I probably wouldn´t feel the need. God! Can´t you let us win once in a while?" (10/17/48, EW 100). If the sensibility here is indeed "gay," we must remember that not all gay sensibility of the period-- Allen Ginsberg is a case in point-- strikes the note of comic pathos, of humor laced with tough common sense, and especially of complex verbal play, that is O´Hara´s legacy to poetry. [...]