What a delight to see on Poetry Daily yesterday that Knopf has put out a Selected Frank O’Hara, edited by Mark Ford. I have about eight copies of Lunch Poems, and a Meditations in an Emergency, and a Poems Retrieved, and two copies of the Collected, but it is certainly time for a new Selected, and Ford seems like a great person to have edited it. The Collected is often too much, and reading a new Selected O’Hara should be like seeing a museum show of your favorite artist, hung in an all new way by a passionate curator.
O’Hara reminds me every time I read him how dull taxonomies and endless discussions of poetry camps really are. Nothing against criticism, intellectuality, theory, scholarship, etcetera. I’m all for those things. I’m also for remembering that art’s a primary experience—you and the poem and pleasure.

I haven’t seen the Selected yet, but naturally, Ford has included “Why I Am Not a Painter.” The poem always amazes me—a poem about abstraction in painting and the abstract art of signs that poetry is—and the poem is so full of orange-ness, and sardines. It’s a poem I feel I understand everything and nothing about each time I read it—which is, to me, the sign of a great poem. I hate greatest lists; you have to pretend you actually think there’s an objective standard for greatness, that some uber-poem exists out there that all poems are aspiring to be, when of course there are only poets trying to get words to stick together or fall apart in exciting ways. Still, O’Hara must be in the top 200 of every thinking person’s 10 greatest poets of the 20th Century list. Certainly he’s one of my 50 top 5 greatest poets.
“One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life.”
And how glorious, of course.
What I mean is, if you can’t appreciate Frank O’Hara—if he doesn’t bring you great pure reading and living pleasure—honestly, what’s wrong with you?

Originally Published: March 5th, 2008

Daisy Fried is the author of three books of poetry, most recently Women’s Poetry: Poems and Advice (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013).

  1. March 5, 2008
     Kent Johnson

    >I’m also for remembering that art’s a primary experience–you and the poem and pleasure.
    Is that really art's primary purpose-- Pleasure?
    I hope not!

  2. March 5, 2008

    Hi Kent-I don't know what art's primary purpose is. Do you? I just said it was a primary experience. If you ask me exactly what I mean by that I'll probably pretend I don't hear you. Cheers, Daisy

  3. March 5, 2008
     Don Share

    From Ford's intro, this, which I can't resist quoting:
    "I love your poems in Poetry," James Schuyler wrote to Frank O'Hara after reading a batch that included "Radio" and "On Seeing Larry Rivers's Washington Crossing the Delaware at the Museum of Modern Art" in the March 1956 issue of the Chicago magazine. "In that cutting garden of salmon pink gladioli," he continued, "they're as fresh as a Norway spruce. Your passion always makes me feel like a cloud the wind detaches (at last) from a mountain so I can finally go sailing over all those valleys with their crazy farms and towns. I always start bouncing up and down in my chair when I read a poem of yours like 'Radio,' where you seem to say, 'I know you won't think this is much of a subject for a poem but I just can't help it: I feel like this,' so that in the end you seem to be the only one who knows what the subject for a poem is."
    Sounds like pleasure to me!

  4. March 5, 2008
     Kent Johnson

    >Hi Kent-I don't know what art's primary purpose is. Do you?
    Hello Daisy,
    Nope, not at all. Though I'll admit the Not-Knowing, like that provoked by the question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" does provide, on certain occasions, a kind of frisson, a quirky, indefinable sort of Pleasure, like when one looks at an abstract painting, and one just kind of accepts the mystery of it, and the days go by, and suddently one day you drop by again, and the painting has the word DEATH in it!
    And then there is Fear and Trembling, and deepest despair, and it's that art can do that jiu-jitsu sort of thing with one's head that really, really sucks.
    You know, I have a book titled The Miseries of Poetry, and it's dedicated to my first son, and the dedication reads, "To Brooks: Reject Poetry with all of your might."

  5. March 5, 2008
     Steve Mackin

    As Bill Chuck Bill used to say, "If it ain't a pleasure, it ain't a poem."

  6. March 5, 2008

    How much Bill would a Bill Chuck chuck if a Bill Chuck could chuck Bill?

  7. March 5, 2008
     Steve Mackin

    LOL! That's Poetry!

  8. March 5, 2008
     Simon DeDeo

    What I mean is, if you can’t appreciate Frank O’Hara–if he doesn’t bring you great pure reading and living pleasure–honestly, what’s wrong with you?
    Surely we can do better than "Why I am not a painter" -- a rather mediocre Helen to launch a thousand rat-tat-tat chat transcripts! It's always seemed to me like a slightly too-earnest comedy routine. In the genre of chatty-profound metapoem, I think Housman's "Terence, this is stupid stuff" does far better. Within O'Hara, "Ave Maria" (Mothers of America! let your kids go to the movies) has a substance and heft that painter doesn't.
    Which I suppose means that there's really no such thing – despite what critics say – as an acid test for loving poetry. Or art in general? Sorry to be a grouch, but Daisy you rubbed me the wrong way a bit on this one.

  9. March 5, 2008
     Marty Elwell

    Thanks for the post, Daisy. Frank is in my top 1 of 1. Anyone reading O'Hara will have a better idea of the "purpose of art" when they're done (if one can ever be done).
    Why create art?...
    "All this I desire. To
    deepen you by my quickness
    and delight as if you
    were logical and proven,
    but still be quiet as if
    I were used to you; as if
    you would never leave me"

  10. March 6, 2008

    Hey Simon--Ave Maria's a fantastic poem. I don't think Why I Am Not a Painter is just chat though. O'Hara has lots of just-chat--but I think that's not something to dismiss. Is asking for heft and substance the right way to look at O"Hara? I think flicker and wink are also important--and part of the greatness. I guess if the chat didn't come with heft and substance pretending not to be substantial, O'Hara would be amusing but nothing more, but I think you need to acknowledge O'Hara's goal of being insignificant to really embrace his greatness. Daisy

  11. March 6, 2008
     Simon DeDeo

    I think you make a good case for O'Hara. I like him a lot, although I don't find myself re-reading him in between the demands of the new and the old. To you, Painter feels like someone blowing lightly on the back of your neck; to me, it's more like the elbow. I can be a bit of a snob when it comes to intellectual matters -- I'm a physicist! -- and I often prefer the more baroque, fashioned thing; when it comes to the lumpy, which O'Hara does well, I find the angrier, more provoking tone more genial.
    My response, I think, was occasioned more by a certain rhetorical tack -- something I do myself often as a critic -- which is to say that some poem "speaks for itself". I mean, in the end, that's true, but when we're writing for others, I think it can be put up barriers to the minds you're trying to reach.

  12. March 9, 2008
     Michael Dietz

    But surely "Painter" doesn't come anywhere near "speaking for itself." On the contrary, "speaking for itself" is put entirely at issue: the poem stages the paradoxical effacement of whatever you think of as the something of art (call it message, or meaning, or impetus) in artistic process--which is exactly what is "terrible" about orange, and life. (And what gives that line its gorgeous sting.)
    I think it's kind of wonderful how deftly O'Hara turns the poem (again, via a program of negation, the "not" being a painter) into a heartfelt moment of self-discovery and poetic self-dedication. It's easy to see the deftness of touch, the geniality, and miss the program. There's a tendency in approaching O'Hara, even at this late date, to mistake chattiness and social plenitude for a lack of emotional or intellectual depth. I don't think it is, and even where O'Hara problematizes the notion of depth he never just voids it out. (But essentially I'm just paraphrasing "Painter" now.)
    I don't know why we so often approach poems suspicious of the pleasure they offer. I don't read poems, or poets, that don't give pleasure; I suspect anybody's judgement (who doesn't have an academic portfolio) who tells me they do.

  13. March 10, 2008

    Michael--This seems like a great--and elegant--way to talk about "Painter," and O'Hara in general. Thanks for it! Daisy

  14. March 10, 2008
     Kent Johnson

    Poem by David Shapiro
    I am not a poet. I am a painter.
    Why? I love stickers, they're so
    cheap. I put birds on Simon DeDeo's boicycle wheel
    reproduction and then I put some black bling.
    Then I have such fun putting feathers on the
    clock of a bike. I have become a real painter.
    Even Mike hasn't worked with stickers,
    But I'm a stickerist and one day I ask
    Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe what he thinks of
    a hundred of them, and he looks up and purses his
    mind and says: Did you do all of those this morning,
    David. And when Lucio Pozzi comes over and
    sees a few hundred, he says: I'll make a book of them.
    It will cost a little money. And soon my friend
    Drew Brown says to put my money near my mouth
    and what does that mean? Blow them up.

  15. March 10, 2008
     david shapiro

    That wasn't a poem, it's just a piece of a letter that flew into that. I do love
    stickers. I worshipped Frank, which is not just pleasure but" extraordinary liberty,
    uncontrollable beauty like a blue and white swan; resistance to idiocy the
    opposite of poetry; hmm and and, not or but. Frank O"Hara's generosity:
    he apologized for getting me published before I had even asked. But do erase
    my sticker poem. It's true I am an idol worshipper--that's also not just pleasure.
    Giacometti. DeKooning had to take a walk around the block when he saw
    some. Anyway, Frank wrote to me in l962 that most criticism was just
    someone liking another kind of poetry. Theory too is simnilar. Poewtry for me
    is shouting help in 47 languages at once. Something I would make into
    an opera about Jakobson. And allo hius languages were Russian. My first language
    'is music. Ha!

  16. March 11, 2008
     Kent Johnson

    Although I am no Frank O'Hara, I do apologize to David Shapiro for publishing him at the Poetry Foundation before he even asked.
    And I should say that I did take the liberty to change the name of a certain person therein to the name of Simon DeDeo, since like all astrophysicists Simon has a bicycle, and he had written here to say he thought O'Hara's painter poem was a bit of flim-flam. I have met Simon DeDeo, I like him immensely, and I wish to say his name that I wrote into David Shapiro's poem was merely a reference in the most good-natured spirit.
    I apologize again to David Shapiro for posting his poem-from-a-letter without asking, I am a real poet. And into his letters poems drop from the sky like rain in the movies.