For most of his life, Frank O’Hara thought today’s date, June 27, was his birthday. Turns out he was wrong. He was actually born March 27, 1926. His proper, strict parents had lied to him because they didn’t want him to know he was conceived before they were married.
I became aware of O’Hara’s poetry sometime in college, I think. I read his writing off and on after that but it was years later that I fell in love with it. That happened after I started taking my own poetry more seriously but mostly because I’d moved to New York. Reading O’Hara after living in New York was for me like what others speak of when they say they never really understood Proust until they read him in French, or they didn’t “get” Rilke until reading him in the original German. New York was O’Hara’s original language. The overload, the lights, the music, the beautiful men, and of course, the art world that swirled around him. No other modern poet had their likeness captured by as many famous artists as O’Hara.
My category tag “I do this I do that” is taken from his disarmingly modest description of the poems he wrote during lunch hours from his job at the MOMA.
I am the least difficult of men. All I want is boundless love.
Even trees understand me! Good heavens, I lie under them, too,
don’t I? I’m just like a pile of leaves.
However, I have never clogged myself with the praises of
pastoral life, nor with nostalgia for an innocent past of
perverted acts in pastures. No. One need never leave the
confines of New York to get all the greenery one wishes–I can’t
even enjoy a blade of grass unless i know there’s a subway
handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not
totally _regret_ life. It is more important to affirm the
least sincere; the clouds get enough attention as it is and
even they continue to pass. Do they know what they’re missing?
— from Meditations in an Emergency
The poems can come across as trivial, and enough critics have certainly labeled them as such, no doubt in part because taken one at a time, most don’t lend themselves to rigorous literary analysis. Possibly because they were never intended to lie flat and still on a page, no more than a few musical notes on a paper score were ever meant to convey a live performance of an entire symphony. O’Hara’s best writing is a stream of consciousness, impressionistic but dead-on, the details that can seem tossed off are instead touchstones and landmarks that synch the reader up with the poet, in lockstep with him in the place and time the poems capture. One of the reasons I love O’Hara is because (like the much more stylistically formal Sharon Olds) his detailed scenes cannot be forgotten once the motion, the sights, the smells and tastes, sink into your brain.
It’s telling to consider that word “trivial” — it comes from the Latin trivialis, “that which is in, or belongs to, the crossroads or public streets; hence, that may be found everywhere, common.”
Poem (Lana Turner has collapsed!)
I was trotting along and suddenly
it started raining and snowing
and you said it was hailing
but hailing hits you on the head
hard so it was really snowing and
raining and I was in such a hurry
to meet you but the traffic
was acting exactly like the sky
and suddenly I see a headline
LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED!
there is no snow in Hollywood
there is no rain in California
I have been to lots of parties
and acted perfectly disgraceful
but I never actually collapsed
oh Lana Turner we love you get up
The Day Lady Died
It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me
I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness
and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it
and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing
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