Poems Retrieved by Frank O’Hara

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When a first-rate poet who lived with exuberance, dies young and with drama—in the case of Frank O’Hara, at 40, after a dune buggy collided with him on Fire Island in 1966—his legacy can be badly served. Living readers, future readers and O’Hara himself, wherever he may be, should be especially grateful to Donald Allen, Bill Berkson, Marjorie Perloff and the collaboration between City Lights and Grey Fox, among others, for honoring him so respectfully. Perloff merits mention as someone whose enthusiastic blurb brought me (and should bring others) to a closer reading of her volume, Frank O’Hara, Poet Among Painters, a perfect balance of scholarship, gusto and straightforward assessment of the poet’s work, life and time.

Poems Retrieved was edited by Donald Allen, a friend of O’Hara who also edited The New American Poetry, an influential collection published in 1960. He spent years scrupulously searching for and annotating work that went into The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara. Poet and art critic Bill Berkson, another longtime O’Hara friend and champion, provides a clear introduction to Poems Retrieved, early poems recently discovered by Allen. Berkson is especially suited to the task because of his literary chops and his longtime immersion in visual arts.

What we have here is a lot of poetry worth experiencing, and a radiant reminder that the later work is connected to gifts O’Hara displayed as a young man. Read and recite these poems. Dance a little while you do, and think also of the emerging, now legendary painters O’Hara spent time with, for pleasure, as subjects of his essays, and in his modest day job at the New York Museum of Modern Art. Grace Hartigan, Jane Freilicher, and Larry Rivers were among them.

At Harvard, O’Hara caught the attention of John Ciardi, a tough man to impress who thought his student supremely talented. Perloff quotes Ciardi as saying “He showed his brilliance rather than his feelings. That was a point I often made in talking about his writing. I think, in fact, it was when he used his brilliance to convey, rather than to hide behind that he found his power.”

With Poems Retrieved we are blessed that Ciardi saw this and that O’Hara studied with him. “A Doppelganger” written in 1950, is one of many poems that prove the point :

Do you mean that
my gaze is not a look
and my clothes decide
like a Delacroix banner
what will happen tomorrow although they
are quite foreign to me
hide thoughtful flesh?

Do you mean that
my yellow hair like
thrashing wheat hangs
wild over my forehead
and blue limpets peer
above my cheekbones
Rilkean discoveries?

Do you mean that
one fierce hand drags
by a thumb from my
appendix while the
other photographs old
ladies and my black
eyes roll and swagger
down Washington Street?

Or do you mean that
my head is too high
throw my plate about
the restaurant talk
too loud and bounce
the balls of my feet
my own worst enemy?

is it any of these my
friends you visit when
you think you think of me?

What energetic, poignance he brings to every question! This is the poem of a young man (he was twenty four at the time) observing keenly, and displaying a depth that is not too earnest.

Can one separate the poet from the artists he hung out with and wrote about, in poetry and prose? Should one? The answer is no because of an important question that cannot be fully answered but always hovers, expansively, in any O’Hara appreciation : where precisely did those elements intersect and fuel each other? This a tremendous part of what makes early and late O’Hara so compelling, as in a short, 1954 piece that seems wonderfully Magritte:

“(The Brittle Moment Comes)”

The brittle moment comes
when you clutch the last of the grapes
and with depressing accuracy
the clouds slow down.
A boy drops his marbles
and suddenly the surface of the pool
collapses into noisy laughter.
We look like dead leaves.

“(In The Pearly Green Light)” is incandescently Hopper-esque, though O’Hara was more interested in abstract painting :

In the pearly green light
of early morning when dread
of day and some distant event
is just breaking off my head
of dreams and the security
of nightmares where a note
of myself is always throbbing
its characteristic rote

of personal anxiety I wake
to real fears of war and chance,
and worse, of duty to the dead.
Yet I never wholly fear the romance

of my interior self no matter
how asleep I am, how nearly dead.

Read and weep for a man who knows what war does and who also knows that duty is not a trite concept, but immense and concrete. The duty to O’Hara’s memory is honored again and again in the pages of this collection, sometimes unintentionally reviving the pain of the cannibalization of Kerouac and Plath.

Here is another example of reverberating song Allen retrieved, called “Callas and a Photograph of Gregory Corso” :

The light fell out of the day
into an energy of the sky
and on the rooftop a sob was gathering
as in the distance a man poled pigeons

like a cloud the little boy
sought the occasion of his falling
and across some river a Greek girl
was screaming at her mother

one day the girl would scream
her hatred at La Scala and he
would suffer love to become bombs

if there were no cameras
I would not know this boy
but hatred becomes beauty anyway
and love must turn to power or it dies.

Depending on variables that could fill volumes, O’Hara’s poems can be profound pleasure with or without recognizing each obvious or obscure reference. O’Hara saw, felt and recorded even in poems “casually” tossed aside, once forcing indefatigable Diane di Prima to seek scraps for publication while he lived. As Poems Retrieved repeatedly proclaims, O’Hara is always worth the effort of discovery.

Barbara Berman's poetry collection, Currents, has just been published by Three Mile Harbor Press. More from this author →