'Also a Poet'
Fifty years ago, on July 25, 1966, Frank O’Hara died in a tragic accident on New York's Fire Island at the age of 40 when he was hit by a dune buggy on the beach in the dark, early hours of the morning. The following day, the New York Times ran an obituary under the headline “Frank O’Hara, 40, Museum Curator” followed by this subhead: “Exhibitions Aide at Modern Art Dies—Also a Poet.”
“Also a poet”? Strange as it may seem now, O’Hara was better known at the time of his death for his work in the art world than as a writer and one of the founders of the influential New York School of poetry. Indeed, before even turning to his work as poet, the Times obituary discusses O’Hara’s work on the painter Robert Motherwell and a controversial nude portrait of O’Hara painted by Larry Rivers. In 1966, O’Hara was considered a fixture of the Manhattan art scene and a “minor” poet of the avant-garde. Today, he is almost universally viewed as one the few major poets of the second half of the 20th century, beloved for the immediacy and intimacy of his unmistakable voice, for his charming chronicles of daily life, his refreshing embrace of culture both high and low, and his unique mix of insouciance and melancholy. O’Hara’s pervasive influence looms large over contemporary poetry and culture; as the poet Tony Hoagland recently declared, “Frank O’Hara has had the most widespread, infiltrating impact on the style and voice of American poetry in the last thirty years.”
I should be careful not to overstate the case: at the time of his death, O’Hara was hardly an unknown poet. O’Hara seemed to enjoy close friendships with a vast universe of now-famous people across the arts; had already been given a starring role in The New American Poetry, the groundbreaking anthology of “anti-academic,” experimental verse edited by Donald Allen in 1960; and had begun to accrue many admirers and followers. But only two relatively slender, full-length books of his poems were published in his lifetime, and the literary establishment often dismissed his work as too unconventional and lightweight. When The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, a hefty, 586-page gathering of his work, was published to great acclaim several years after his death and garnered a National Book Award in 1972, even his friends were shocked by the sheer volume of the poetry he had left behind. Marjorie Perloff’s 1977 book, Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters, did a great deal to legitimize O’Hara as a writer of significance and drew the attention of literary scholars to his poetry and its connections to painting. Over the following decades, O’Hara’s reputation soared and his place in the canon—measured out with Norton anthologies and course syllabi—became secure.
These days, however, O’Hara seems to be everywhere, popping up with regularity in popular culture, unlike many contemporaries who once overshadowed him. As the British poet Sean O’Brien put it in a recent review, O’Hara’s “presence is now as ubiquitous as weather.” This latest surge may have begun in 2008, when O’Hara’s work made an appearance at a climactic moment on the acclaimed TV show Mad Men. The well-heeled ad executive protagonist, Don Draper, encounters a hipster at a bar reading a volume of O’Hara’s poetry. Stung that this bohemian felt the book wouldn’t interest someone like him, Draper later buys a copy, and the audience watches as he reads an O’Hara poem to himself. Sales of O’Hara’s book Meditations in an Emergency shot up overnight, and the poem featured on the show, “Mayakovsky,” which had previously been rather obscure, suddenly became a favorite. As a result, these lines, which are intoned by Draper and serve as an apt encapsulation of his existential dilemmas, have become some of O’Hara’s best known—or at least most tweeted:
Now I am quietly waiting for
the catastrophe of my personality
to seem beautiful again,
and interesting, and modern.
At the same time, O’Hara seems to have found particular resonance within the world of popular music, a development that led a staff writer for the music site Pitchfork to wonder on Twitter: “When did Frank O’Hara become the poet of indie rock?” Recent years have seen the perennially hip founder of Sonic Youth, Thurston Moore, release a song with his new band Chelsea Light Moving called “Frank O’Hara Hit,” with lyrics about O’Hara’s death. The young, critically acclaimed singer and songwriter Greta Kline (daughter of actors Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates) was inspired to take the stage name Frankie Cosmos after falling for Frank O’Hara’s poetry as a teenager. The indie band Rilo Kiley alluded to O’Hara’s poem “Meditations in an Emergency” in its song “More Adventurous.” The Irish electronica artist New Jackson created an ambient track called “Having a Coke with You” centered around the audio clip of O’Hara reading the poem by that name, and an array of musicians, from David Bowie and Lou Reed to hipsters young enough to be their grandchildren, have name-checked O’Hara or cited his influence.
In recent years, O’Hara’s poetry has also found a warm welcome on the web, where certain lines and passages are posted with surprising frequency on social media. Nearly every day, someone on Twitter will excitedly post the video of O’Hara reading his delightful love poem “Having a Coke with You,” a piece which has had a renaissance of its own, thanks in part to its easy availability on YouTube. Almost as often, one can find these easy-to-adore closing lines of “Steps” being tweeted anew:
oh god it’s wonderful
to get out of bed
and drink too much coffee
and smoke too many cigarettes
and love you so much
One could grumble that the reduction of O’Hara’s poetry to such breezy social media sound bites reduces the complexity and depth of his work; as Helen Charman recently pointed out in an essay on O’Hara’s online popularity, “it’s easy to dismiss these ‘inspirational quotes’ posts, and it’s true that selective quotation often misses O’Hara’s ironic tone.” But, as Charman notes, something deeper seems to be going on with this recent resurgence of O’Hara’s work, and it is connected to his uncanny ability to seem continuously new and of the moment. From what I have seen online, in the classroom, and in many other corners of our culture, all this O’Hara buzz cannot be dismissed as just superficial; a new generation of readers, many of them not very well-versed in poetry, find O’Hara tremendously appealing, moving, and relevant to their lives, just as many poets across the wide spectrum of contemporary poetry continue to turn to O’Hara’s poetry for inspiration and permission to experiment.
Indeed, many commentators have argued that despite being more than a half-century old, O’Hara’s writing feels strangely au courant, a prescient soundtrack for the age of the smartphone, Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr. In a piece on the 50th-anniversary reissue of Lunch Poems for Poetry, Marjorie Perloff observed that although “much of the poetry of the sixties is dated; O’Hara’s, especially in this book, seems curiously up-to-date.” Dwight Garner sounded a similar note in his review of the book for the New York Times, in which he marveled at how “O’Hara speaks directly across the decades to our hopes and fears and especially our delights; his lines are as intimate as a telephone call. Few books of his era show less age.” In 2014, Jane Ciabattari noted for the BBC that O’Hara’s “poems manage to feel contemporary, no matter what the year.” Pondering why his work seems to “endure, inspire and remain fresh,” she turned to poet Adam Fitzgerald, who suggested that it may be because O’Hara’s “poems have the immediacy of a consciousness formed by the internet: fragmentation, collage, name-dropping, checking in, quotations, gossip, scandal, click bait and trends, laconic witticisms and gushy, full-breasted rants. Call him a prophet of the internet.”
With its unusual contemporaneity, O’Hara’s poetry is a good example of what Ezra Pound meant when he said “literature is news that STAYS news.” It’s not hard to imagine that O’Hara would have been thrilled by the unusual afterlife his poetry has enjoyed in the 50 years since his death. Despite his notoriously casual attitude toward collecting and publishing his work, O’Hara always had one eye on posterity. “How am I to become a legend, my dear?” he asks in “Meditations in an Emergency.” He was convinced that inferior work would eventually vanish—“It’ll slip into oblivion without my help,” he once said, explaining why he declined to bash poetry he didn’t like. At the same time, as one can see in poems such as “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island,” which eerily looks ahead to his poetry’s posthumous life, O’Hara felt that truly great art finds a way to survive as it reaches down through time, altering and being altered by successive generations of readers, the words of the dead forever being “modified in the guts of the living,” as Auden said in his elegy for Yeats.
O’Hara seems to hope for just this sort of legacy for his own work in the soaring, prophetic conclusion to his long poem “Ode to Michael Goldberg (’s Birth and other Births)” (1958). After depicting a scene of revolution and fresh beginnings—in which a ship full of slaves “who will soon turn upon their captors” arrive in the New World and “found a city riding there / of poverty and sweetness paralleled / among the races without time”—O’Hara imagines a heroic, exceptionally eloquent individual stepping forward:
and one alone will speak of being
born in pain
and he will be the wings of an extraordinary liberty
With this figure, a stand-in for the poet himself, O’Hara expressed a wish that his own work might live on, inspiring and even liberating those to come in his wake. In a very early poem, “The Critic,” O’Hara addressed “the assassin / of my orchards” as a threat to his survival and spelled out a powerful desire for artistic immortality: “Do not / frighten me more than you / have to! I must live forever.” Fifty years on, he seems to be off to a good start.
Andrew Epstein is the author of Attention Equals Life: The Pursuit of the Everyday in Contemporary Poetry and Culture (Oxford University Press, 2016) and Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry Culture (Oxford University Press, 2006). He is a professor at Florida State University, and he writes about the New York School of Poets on his...