NOTES ON AN EXUBERANT POET | August 31st 2008National Archives
There was a time when Ryan Ruby would've taken a punch for broody, gloomy T.S. Eliot. But years in the thrum of New York City have encouraged a taste for something more jazzy and irreverent ...


The closest I've ever come to a fist-fight was in my sophomore year in college, at a bar on Amsterdam Avenue, after a heated argument with an editor of the Columbia Review. The point of contention? Whether T.S. Eliot or Frank O'Hara was the better poet. This memory makes me smile, not because it's silly to get a black eye for defending an aesthetic preference--it isn't, entirely--but because today I wouldn't so foolishly write off Frank O'Hara.

The argument itself boils down to a disagreement over the place of seriousness in poetry. Eliot was high serious, just as he was highbrow and High Church Anglican. For him, poetry was a brooding art, born in the long, dark night of civilisation's soul. O'Hara, by contrast, was playful, campy, irreverent. He wrote as he lived: exuberantly, with a surfeit of exclamation points. When his nerves were bothering him, as they often seemed to do, Eliot put Parsifal on the gramophone; when O'Hara was drunk, as he often was, he listened to Charlie Parker.

In his famous essay, "Tradition and the Individual Talent", Eliot wrote in favour of impersonal poetry and peopled his poems with figures from literature and mythology. O'Hara found this stuffy, and parodied what he called "abstract removal" in his mock-manifesto, "Personism." His short lyrics are bawdy gatherings at which his friends, lovers and colleagues drop in for a drink or three. ("For Grace, After A Party" for example, or "Poem Read at Joan Mitchell's" or "A Party Full of Friends", all of which have been included in Mark Ford's recent, discerning selection of O'Hara's poetry and prose.) Or in these lines, celebrating the painter Jane Freilicher's engagement:

and Joan was surprising you with a party for which I was the decoy
but you were surprising us by getting married and going away
so I am here reading poetry anyway
and no one will be bored by me because you're here

Yesterday I felt very tired from being at the FIVE SPOT
and today I felt very tired from going to bed early and reading ULYSSES
but tonight I feel energetic because I'm sort of the bugle,
like waking people up, of your peculiar desire to get married ("Poem Read at Joan Mitchell's")

How could one prefer the insufferable pedant to the jolly man-about-town? Well, I was 19, and poetry was my religion. Fun, at least where line breaks were concerned, was heretical. Poetry, I believed, should elevate its readers--we angsty few--above the banalities of existence, help us to mourn the increasingly rapid decline of our culture, allow us to place collect calls to the genius dead for advice on how to live authentic lives. Sure, Eliot's poems were difficult and depressing, but when you sign up to sweep the floor of the temple, you don't complain that the hours are long, that the working-conditions are poor or that your peers are all out dancing.

Ultimately, the truce between O'Hara and me was brokered by New York City, a mutual friend. Visiting Battery Park one day, I noticed a quote from his prose poem, "Meditations in an Emergency", which would lend its name to the title of his first published collection, written in gold along the railings. It read:

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.

Like Baudelaire in Paris, like Eliot in London, O'Hara was a city poet. What's more, his city was my city, and that is a strong enough foundation to support a relationship several-storeys high. Eliot remains the superior poet--il miglior fabbro, if you like--but O'Hara's "Meditations in an Emergency" and "Lunch Poems" have found their way into my back pocket far more often than has "The Waste Land" or "The Four Quartets" in recent years.

* * * * *

Frank O'Hara arrived in New York in the summer of 1951--exactly a half-century before I did--after tours of duty at Harvard, in the Navy and in a Master's programme in the music department of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He got a job working at the ticket counter at the Museum of Modern Art. From there--and from the San Remo bar and the Cedar Tavern in Greenwich Village--he became a lightening rod for the city's poets and painters.

Like Guillaume Apollinaire during the Banquet Years in Paris, O'Hara was New York's "impresario of the avant-garde". Around him coalesced what would become known as the New York School of poetry. He counted poets John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler and LeRoi Jones (now known as Amiri Baraka) as his personal friends, creative interlocutors, mutual muses and mentors. He was the link between the New York School and the Beats, and between them all and pioneering painters such as Willem DeKooning, Jasper Johns, Jane Freilicher and Larry Rivers.

More than any other artist of his generation, O'Hara took Paul Goodman's observations about advanced-guard writing to heart. Following Goodman's advice, O'Hara established a community by "putting his arms around [his fellow artists] and drawing them together." Like a latter-day Clarissa Dalloway, O'Hara threw parties that were really external metaphors for his own multitudinous personality:

What confusion! and to think

I sat down and caused it all! No!...


don't care. Someone's going

to stay until the cows

come home. Or my name isn't

Frank O'Hara ("A Party Full of Friends ")

Goodman believed that friends were the key to any successful artistic movement: "In literary terms, this means: to write for and about them personally." And that's exactly what O'Hara did. Grace Hartigan, a painter, appears in a number of his poems, as does Freilicher, as do Kenneth Koch and his wife Janice. He wrote an ode to DeKooning, and dedicated poems to Larry Rivers and James Schuyler. In "John Button Birthday", he writes, "...I remember JA" that is, John Ashbery,

staggering over to me at the San Remo and murmuring

"I've met someone MARVELLOUS!" That's friendship

for you, and the sentiment of introduction.

Murmuring in capital letters and exclamation points: that's Frank O'Hara for you. One would be hard pressed to come up with a more accurate description of his own brief yet expansive lyrics.

But the friend that appears more often than any other in his work is New York itself. O'Hara characterised his poems as "I do this, I do that" pieces, in which he plays a flaneur moving through the city's streets at an energetic clip. "It is 12:10 in New York and I am wondering / if I will finish this in time to meet Norman for lunch," is a characteristic opening salvo ("Adieu to Norman, Bon Jour to Joan and Jean-Paul").

In his hands, mundane details of city life are magically amplified. In O'Hara's New York there is a "Heaven on Earth Bldg / near the Williamsburg Bridge" where the young of America can repair with "pleasant strangers" after a night at the movies ("Ave Maria"). This building is not to be confused with "515 Madison Avenue", which may or may not be the "door to heaven" itself ("Rhapsody"). In O'Hara's New York, the "drunken and credulous" latrines on 14th Street are to be preferred to the ones on 53rd Street for furtive trysts ("Homosexuality"); the neon sign at the Cedar Tavern is good luck to rub ("Poem Read at Joan Mitchell's"); and there is a "Paradise Bar" on St Marks Place ("Post the Lake Poets Ballad").

Even the moon, rarely seen through the city's skyscrapers, becomes "so beautiful when we look up suddenly / and there it is gliding broken-faced over the bridges" ("Avenue A"). New York is not a city that has ever lacked for admiring wordsmiths, but few have captured the excitement of living here better than O'Hara did in his 15 years of residence.

* * * * *

Saul Bellow, who elevated Chicago to similar heights, once wrote that America takes a perverse pride in its dead poets. By committing suicide, or by succumbing to alcoholism or insanity or expatriation, they testify to the fact that American reality is too great a burden for any but the most practical men to bear. Though O'Hara died young, at the age of 40, when he was hit by a dune buggy after a long night of heavy drinking on Fire Island, his life and work resist a reflexive, all-too-easy placement in the canon of American poet-martyrs.

One gets the impression that O'Hara was very much at home in America, especially that sliver from the East River to the shining Hudson. He wrote enthusiastically about Hollywood movies, jazz and even, when sipped in the right company, Coca-Cola. It is difficult to imagine Poe, Crane, Eliot, Berryman, Schwartz or Plath--incorrigible melancholics about whom Bellow's observation rings true--yawlping, as O'Hara did, "YIPPEE I'm glad I'm alive!" ("Ode to Michael Goldberg ('s Birth and Other Births)")

And, of these poets, only O'Hara actually makes you feel that way, too. Reading his poetry provides a rush not unlike the one you get when your train unexpectedly goes express to your stop.

(Ryan Ruby is a writer based in New York. He is working on a novel set among the bohemians in postwar Greenwich Village.)