Frank O’Hara

Frank O’Hara

Frank O’Hara was born in Baltimore in 1926 and raised in Massachusetts. After service in the Navy he studied music at Harvard and the University of Michigan. In 1951 he moved to New York, where he was employed by the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). “I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass,” he once wrote, “unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life.” O’Hara was deeply involved in the New York art scene, particularly with the work of abstract expressionist painters such as Willem De Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Franz Kline. Between 1953 and 1955 he worked as editorial associate for Art News, for which his poet friends John Ashbery and James Schuyler also wrote. In 1955 he rejoined the staff of MOMA, where he was appointed assistant curator in 1960.

O’Hara is best known for his I-do-this, I-do that poems, such as ‘A Step Away From Them’, ‘Why I am Not a Painter’, and ‘The Day Lady Died’ (an elegy for Billie Holliday, but some of his later longer poems, in particular ‘In Memory of My Feelings’ and ‘Biotherm (for Bill Berkson)’ are equally effective, and have proved influential on a host of younger poets.) Donald Allen edited his Collected Poems (New York, 1971; Manchester, 1991) and also a Selected Poems (New York, 1974). See also City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara, by Brad Gooch (New York, 1993).

In an essay entitled “Personism: A Manifesto,” O’Hara sheds some light on his views towards poetry, declaring that “Nobody should experience anything they don’t need to, if they don’t need poetry bully for them.” In essence, O’Hara wanted poetry to be a personal, spur-of-the-moment spontaneity in which abstraction is ruled out in favor of an expression of the artists personal voice or style. Consequently, many of his poems were composed during spare moments. Most, in fact, were left around his apartment or sent in letters to friends.

In the early morning of 24 July 1966 he was struck and gravely injured by a beach-buggy on the beach of Fire Island, and died the following day. He is buried in Springs Cemetery on Long Island. O’Hara published six books of poetry from 1952 until his death.

Chinamen Jump

At night Chinamen jump
on Asia with a thump
while in our willful way
we, in secret, play
affectionate games and bruise
our knees like China’s shoes.

The birds push apples through
grass the moon turns blue,

these apples roll beneath
our buttocks like a heath

full of Chinese thrushes
flushed from China’s bushes.

As we love at night
birds sing out of sight,

Chinese rhythms beat
through us in our heat,

the apples and the birds
move us like soft words,

we couple in the grace
of that mysterious race.

Call Me

The eager note on my door said “Call me,”
call when you get in!” so I quickly threw
a few tangerines into my overnight bag,
straightened my eyelids and shoulders, and

headed straight for the door. It was autumn
by the time I got around the corner, oh all
unwilling to be either pertinent or bemused, but
the leaves were brighter than grass on the sidewalk!

Funny, I thought, that the lights are on this late
and the hall door open; still up at this hour, a
champion jai-alai player like himself? Oh fie!
for shame! What a host, so zealous! And he was

there in the hall, flat on a sheet of blood that
ran down the stairs. I did appreciate it. There are few
hosts who so thoroughly prepare to greet a guest
only casually invited, and that several months ago.


So we are taking off our masks, are we, and keeping
our mouths shut? as if we’d been pierced by a glance!

The song of an old cow is not more full of judgment
than the vapors which escape one’s soul when one is sick;

so I pull the shadows around me like a puff
and crinkle my eyes as if at the most exquisite moment

of a very long opera, and then we are off!
without reproach and without hope that our delicate feet

will touch the earth again, let alone “very soon.”
It is the law of my own voice I shall investigate.

I start like ice, my finger to my ear, my ear
to my heart, that proud cur at the garbage can

in the rain. It’s wonderful to admire oneself
with complete candor, tallying up the merits of each

of the latrines. 14th Street is drunken and credulous,
53 rd tries to tremble but is too at rest. The good

love a park and the inept a railway station,
and there are the divine ones who drag themselves up

and down the lengthening shadow of an Abyssinian head
in the dust, trailing their long elegant heels of hot air

crying to confuse the brave “It’s a summer day,
and I want to be wanted more than anything else in the world.”

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