Letter from Poetry Magazine

Letter to the Editor

by Andrew Epstein
Dear Editor,

I enjoyed reading Vivian Gornick’s compelling and far-reaching meditation on friendship and poetry in the July/August 2008 issue (“The Soul Grown Refined”). Needless to say, I was very pleased that Gornick included a thoughtful reading of my book, Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry, in her essay.

However, I feel it is important to point out an error in a comment that Gornick makes in passing about the death of Frank O’Hara. In the midst of discussing the hectic swirl of O’Hara's social life, Gornick writes that O’Hara “must have been so tired that night he fell drunkenly asleep on the beach at Fire Island!” The comment seems to be an allusion to O’Hara's tragic death in July 1966 on Fire Island, New York. However, as many O’Hara fanatics know, he was hardly asleep on the beach when the awful accident that killed him happened. In Homage to Frank O’Hara (1978), a wonderful collection of reminiscences edited by Bill Berkson and Joe LeSueur, there’s a detailed, eyewitness account by O’Hara’s friend, the writer J.J. Mitchell, who was standing just steps away from O’Hara when the accident occurred. As Mitchell explains, after a night out at a Fire Island dance bar with a group of friends that included the composer Virgil Thomson, O’Hara and Mitchell were taking a beach taxi to the home where they were staying the night. It was about 2:30 AM. The taxi blew a tire, and while the group of about a dozen passengers milled around waiting for another taxi to come, a beach buggy driven by a twenty-one-year-old man on a date came roaring along the sand from the opposite direction and, in Mitchell’s words, “collided head-on with Frank, who had strayed momentarily away from me and the group.” O’Hara sustained massive internal injuries; he was rushed to a hospital in Long Island, where he died two days later at the age of forty.

These events have become legendary in the lore surrounding O’Hara and his poetry. In Marjorie Perloff’s pioneering book, Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters (1977), she recounts the circumstances of O’Hara’s death in detail, in order to counter the temptation to treat O’Hara’s death as a kind of “heroic myth”—a tendency she finds in such works as The Killing Cycle, a series of paintings by O’Hara’s friend Alfred Leslie that dramatize the different stages of the events that led to O’Hara’s death. Later, in City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara (1993), Brad Gooch devotes over ten pages to recounting in exacting detail the moment-by-moment unfolding of the event itself, drawing on interviews with people who were there and even the testimony given at the Department of Motor Vehicles hearing that followed.

Because of the extensive record and the attention that has been lavished on the strange and tragic circumstances surrounding O’Hara’s untimely death, it seems worthwhile to correct the impression that he had fallen asleep on the beach when he was struck down on that fateful summer night forty-one years ago.

Tallahassee, Florida

Originally Published: October 23, 2008

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This prose originally appeared in the September 2008 issue of Poetry magazine

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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