by Thomas McGann
Frank O’Hara (1926-1966) was a poet whose life and tragic death are inextricably bound with Fire Island.
He was an influential member of what has come to be known as The New York School, a group of poets, writers, artists, and musicians who were active in the 1950s and 1960s. The movement included poets John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler and Frank O’Hara among others. Artists included Jane Freilicher, Fairfield Porter, Grace Hartigan and Larry Rivers. Some of the musicians in the movement included John Cage, Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, Ned Rorem, and Christian Wolf.
O’Hara’s initial artistic inclination was toward music. He studied at the New England Conservatory in Boston where he developed into a proficient piano player. He joined the Navy during WWII and then, taking advantage of the GI Bill, went to Harvard where he began publishing poems, changing his major from music to English.
After obtaining his masters from the University of Michigan graduate school, he moved to Greenwich Village and began teaching at the New School. As an aside, he got a job selling post cards at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), eventually working his way up to assistant curator of painting and sculptures exhibits – a position that provided him with considerable influence.
As curator, he was in the rare position to introduce artists in one genre to those in others. He developed a personal affinity for painters, becoming friends with Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and Lee Krasner of the Abstract Expressionist movement. His Irish charm, affability, warmth, and passion enabled him to make hundreds of friends and enjoy a lengthy string of male lovers.
O’Hara was known as “a poet among painters,” a poet who created poem paintings. He wrote of the mingling of these artists in the New York movement in a memoir. “We were all in our early twenties … being poets, divid[ing] our time between the literary bar, the San Remo, and the artists’ bar, the Cedar Tavern. In the San Remo we argued and gossiped: in the Cedar we often wrote poems while listening to the painters argue and gossip … the painters were the only generous audience for our poetry, and most of us read first publicly in art galleries or at The Club. The literary establishment cared about as much for our work as the Frick [art museum] cared for Pollock.”
There were collaborations between members of the group. Grace Hartigan did 12 paintings for 12 O’Hara poems. Rivers and O’Hara combined lithographs with poems. The collaborative piece “Stones” was a book of lithographic prints by Rivers with poems by O’Hara. Composer Ned Rorem and O’Hara produced the piece “Dialogues for Two Voices and Two Pianos.” He even made a movie with the painter Alfred Leslie. He shared collages with Michael Goldberg, comics with Joe Brainard, and was the subject of paintings, both nude and not.
This was a creative time for all. Many were homosexual, including O’Hara who had a longtime affair with Larry Rivers. Rivers married twice, fathered four children, and was involved with four other women during his life. This did not stop him from engaging in a homosexual relationship with O’Hara however. Rivers wrote about the gay life, “… queerdom was a country in which there was more fun. There was something about homosexuality that seemed too much, too gorgeous, too ripe. I later came to realize that there was something marvelous about it because it seemed to be pushing everything to its fullest point.”
O’Hara was strictly gay, courting numerous lovers, but Rivers seems to have been the individual with whom he most connected. Rivers painted O’Hara nude, clad only in black combat boots [one of his most renown works], but he also found O’Hara’s attention stifling. O’Hara made demands that Rivers felt unreasonable. After one particular party, O’Hara wanted to go home with Rivers but Rivers thought otherwise. “He [O’Hara] thought he wasn’t putting pressure on me but he actually was. Like we’d be somewhere and I’d be enjoying myself. And he says, ‘Well, are we going?’ Like meaning, ‘Well is anything going to happen?’ I wasn’t in love in that sense.”
O’Hara wrote his poems on the go, on his lunch break, on the ferry, in his office, alone or in rooms full of people. The painter John Button observed: “When asked by a publisher-friend for a book, Frank might have trouble even finding the poems stuffed into kitchen drawers or packed in boxes that had not been unpacked since his last move.”
Fellow poet John Ashbery claims he witnessed O’Hara, “Dashing the poems off at odd moments … he would then put them away in drawers and cartons and half forget them.” O’Hara called this his, “I do this. I do that” poems, insisting that poetry should be “between two persons instead of two pages.”
Early in his career, only two volumes – “Second Avenue” (1960) and “Lunch Poems” (1965) –were in print. His books were printed in editions of only hundreds of copies. It was not until after his death that the plethora of his work was discovered and international acclaim followed.
Here is an example of his work from the poem “Mayakovsky” in the 1957 Grove Press edition of “Meditations in an Emergency,” read by Don Draper on the TV show “Mad Men.”
“…Now I am quietly waiting for
the catastrophe of my personality
to seem beautiful again,
and interesting, and modern.”
One purpose of poetry is to awaken the mind, like a bugle, from its superficial stupor of selfness – to make one ask, “Huh?”
Perhaps no poem captures O’Hara’s talent better than “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island,” arguably one of his finest poems. It was written in answer to the poem “An Extraordinary Adventure Which Befell Vladimir Mayakovsky in a Summer Cottage,” by the Russian poet Mayakovsky, one of O’Hara’s favorites. It appears to foretell O’Hara’s own death.
Frank was heading home after a night partying in Fire Island Pines in the company of J.J. Mitchell. He was drunk and tired. The beach taxi in which they were traveling blew a tire stranding them on the dark beach to await the arrival of a rescue taxi. It was 2:40 a.m.
Mitchell and the other passengers gathered on the dune side of the vehicle while Frank wandered off toward the ocean. A local 23-year-old with his girlfriend was heading for a club in Cherry Grove in an old jeep when Frank appeared out of the darkness directly in front of the jeep. It hit him head-on.
Frank sustained massive injuries, a broken leg, broken ribs and a lacerated liver. He was transported to a local hospital where he lingered for two days before dying. O’Hara was 40 years old. Larry Rivers delivered a eulogy as poignant as Alfred Leslie’s paintings, “The Killing Cycle.” Painted poems again.
While going through O’Hara’s effects, fellow poet Kenneth Koch came across “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island,” the poem O’Hara had written in answer to Mayakovsky’s sun poem. It had been written July 10, 1958, eight years earlier, not far from where he was killed. Almost prophetically, its final stanza talks about his death.
“Sun, don’t go!” I was awake
at last. “No, go I must, they’re calling
“Who are they?”
Rising he said
“Some day you’ll know. They’re calling to you
too.” Darkly he rose, and then I slept.”