Poetry News

Amiri Baraka's Unique Friendship With Frank O'Hara

By Harriet Staff

bobsy twins

At Locus Solus, Andrew Epstein has excerpted a great piece--especially for those interested in Frank O'Hara's vision of friendship and his own work--on the relationship between Amiri Baraka and O'Hara, part of a longer study from Epstein's book Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry. Epstein also penned a recent tribute to Baraka that has been republished at In These Times. An excerpt of the excerpt on the 'Bobsy twins':

In his recent, posthumously published memoir about O’Hara, one of his closest friends and longtime roommate Joe LeSueur includes Baraka in a short list of people who were not merely “casual friends and acquaintances” of O’Hara’s, but rather “friends who saw him all the time, who confided in him, and who in some instances went to bed with him” (126). LeSueur adds that, among the legions of young poets who flocked to O’Hara in the early 1960s – like such acknowledged members of the New York School’s so-called “Second Generation,” Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett, Bill Berkson, Frank Lima, Tony Towle, and David Shapiro – Baraka was surely one of the most important: “Frank was closer to Roi than he was to Ted or any of the others, Bill Berkson excepted” (244). And because Baraka was “unusually mature and accomplished for his age,” and also because as editor of Yugen and The Floating Bear “he was one of Frank’s publishers,” LeSueur affirms that “from the beginning of their friendship, Roi was a colleague of Frank’s and never, like some of the other budding poets, a disciple, or in future years, after his death, what I called an O’Hara freak, as in Jesus freak…” (245).

In one letter, O’Hara characterized his friendship with Baraka by using the familiar trope of siblinghood, simultaneously hinting that such closeness can turn into a threatening merger of identities: “We’ve been giving a lot of readings together which is getting to be like the Bobsy [sic] Twins so we’re stopping out of exhaustion” (Gooch 426). At editorial meetings for Kulchur, the poet Jim Brodey recalled, the two were playfully in cahoots – “[Frank] would make remarks, then LeRoi would make a remark, and they’d kick each other under the table” (Gooch 388). In her memoir, Baraka’s ex-wife Hettie Jones observes that this tight, even fraternal bond was founded on a sense of kinship and resemblance. “He and Frank O’Hara had become good friends,” Jones writes, “They were equal and alike, small, spare, original, confident, stuck on themselves for good reasons” (98). Despite such ample evidence of their close affiliation, despite their frequent references to one another in their works, little attention has been paid to Baraka’s friendship with O’Hara, nor to his more general proximity to the New York avant-garde milieu centered around O’Hara and the New York School of poets (in contrast to the Beats, with whom he is much more often associated).

Almost a decade younger and a much later arrival on the New York scene, Baraka was deeply influenced by O’Hara’s poetry and intellectual sensibility. In his Autobiography, Baraka offers a capsule assessment of what he saw and admired in his friend’s work: steeped in “the high sophistication and motley ambience of the city,” O’Hara’s was “a French(-Russian) surreal-tinged poetry. A poetry of expansiveness and big emotion. Sometimes a poetry of dazzling abstraction and shifting colorful surfaces. It was out of the Apollinaire of Zone but also close to Whitman and Mayakovsky” (233). When asked years later by an interviewer about what he might have learned from O’Hara and Ginsberg, Baraka responded, with a touch of defensiveness,

the only aspect I could say of O’Hara and Ginsberg that I could have possibly appropriated was the kind of openness that I always got from them… . O’Hara’s openness was much more casual and personal (Ginsberg’s was super dramatic). O’Hara’s openness and Ginsberg’s openness might have influenced me because finally I wanted to write in a way that was direct and in that I could say the things I wanted to say, even about myself, and maybe that did help me to lose any restraints as far as doing it. (qtd. Harris 141; printed in 1980)

Later, Epstein unravels this marvel:

Furthermore, as I discuss later in more detail, O’Hara’s fascination with Baraka was no doubt complicated by a powerful romantic, sexual attraction that may or may not have been reciprocated. (Critics have begun to unpack O’Hara’s complicated attitudes about race, including the sexual fantasies about black male sexuality that frequently enter his work, which undoubtedly shape his friendship with Baraka). Gooch relates that “O’Hara’s relationship with Jones was always a matter of conjecture to those around them and O’Hara did little to allay the confusion.” He goes on to quote Kenneth Koch’s recollection of O’Hara’s initial excitement upon meeting Baraka:

He said he’d met this marvelous young poet who was black and good-looking and very interesting. ‘And not only that,’ he said, ‘he’s gay’…. I don’t know whether LeRoi yielded to Frank’s almost irresistible charms or not… So I assumed that LeRoi was gay for a while, but that’s before I got to know him. I don’t know whether Frank was serious or not. Maybe he was just optimistic. (337)

Much more where that came from at Locus Solus.