Joy to the World
What made Frank O'Hara great?
Click on the photographs for an enlarged view.
It is coming on 40 years since Frank O'Hara was struck and killed by a dune buggy on the beach at Fire Island, but his poems still seem fresh, personable, and immediate. They recount a life designed to procure, with stunning efficiency, sex, drinks, chat, and art. His early death, and the hoarseness of many of his last poems, invite the usual stratospherically boring questions about art's connection to self-destructiveness—why must artists make paranoid phone calls to friends and lovers at 3 a.m.? Can't they pay their rent on time? Must they leave their manuscripts in taxicabs? Anyone as excessive as O'Hara was eventually discovers that excess can't be sustained continually—and its loss renders them suddenly, nakedly sorrowful. But that's not why we read O'Hara. We read O'Hara to experience an aesthetically viable joy, an honest joy, without equivalent in American poetry. And Joe LeSueur's Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O'Hara is a memoir of continual excess in pursuit of sex, drinks, chat—and above all art.
O'Hara's New York was to joy what Thomas Mann's Venice was to morbidity. The poet came to New York in 1950, just after Harvard and an M.A. at the University of Michigan; his friend LeSueur took a Greyhound bus one-way from Los Angeles, and they met soon after, at a downtown party. They maintained for nine years a relationship—never quite a romance and never quite not—remarkable for its carefully calibrated ambiguity. In the New York they found (or perhaps made) you could fall in love with Alger Hiss' stepson, or with a handsome Reichean therapist who put you up in his apartment in exchange for doing time in his Orgone box. There you might decide to skip a visit to Joseph Cornell in Flatbush because the train ride was too long. Across town at the San Remo bar, perhaps Chester Kallman was carrying on about his death-defying fellatio technique. You made out with the security guard at the U.N. building every midnight, on your way home. You had a cheap, spacious, and elegant apartment (present-day New Yorkers will marvel at the descriptions of these apartments the way Wordsworth marveled at the Alps). Is it nostalgia that makes every marquee seem a little brighter and every drink a little colder, or was there actually once such a place?
Whether or not this world existed, it didn't exist in American poetry and still wouldn't if O'Hara hadn't written it down. His brilliant contemporaries depicted other Americas: Robert Lowell explored the way inwardness and privacy are harrowed by life in what he took to be an empire; Allen Ginsberg detailed the homemade, improvised ceremonies of the counterculture. Both were more bardic and serious than O'Hara, who declares "Khrushchev is coming on the right day!" in a poem that's mostly about the weather and the availability of blueberry blintzes. Unlike his contemporaries, the menace of modern life was lost on O'Hara, whose remarkable poem "Naphtha" begins as follows:
Ah Jean Dubuffet
when you think of him
doing his military service in the Eiffel Tower
as a meteorologist
you know how wonderful the 20th Century
Who before O'Hara would have thought to praise the coincidence of art and meteorology? It is easy these days to look at his style—rapid, colloquial, and open—and think that it was inevitable. Or to read his poems, so full of mere stuff—addresses, telephone numbers, train schedules, the names of bars and magazines, the names of his friends and lovers—and to think it looks easy. "If you took poetry as much for granted as you did breathing," writes LeSueur, "it might mean you felt it was essential to your life." But the result of this taking-for-granted of poetry, this flushness of life and art, has often been rather lifeless art. Wasn't this the credo of the Paterian aesthete, the poet turning his exquisite verses in the dim light of his parlor? O'Hara's poetry orders us out of the parlor and into the world, the world that through his eyes seems perpetually new, tender, and quick.
O'Hara must make his critics feel, by nature, a little square and solemn. Perhaps it's defensiveness that leads to such morally censorious performances as Brad Gooch's biography City Poet. O'Hara is also an easy figure to pathologize, like Lowell, but for different reasons: It is hard to think about frenetic joy without wondering about the pain it no doubt masks, especially when that joy is stoked, as O'Hara's was, by liberal doses of bourbon in your morning glass of orange juice. But what's invigorating about LeSueur's new book is how it forgoes the conventional stances of memoir, from the elegiac to the didactic, in favor of a kind of radical fidelity to its remembered world. LeSueur can seem almost woefully stranded in O'Hara-land, among its minor flora. (Who slept with Grace Hartigan? How many times? Was it Joe or JJ who emerged that morning from Frank's bedroom?) But he sends us time and again back upon the naked literality of O'Hara's poems, their disdain for symbol, for metaphor, for all the Sophomore-English-Class ways poems mean. Here is LeSueur on O'Hara's most famous poem, "The Day Lady Died":
Was our train on time that Friday? Probably not: the Long Island Rail Road was only slightly more reliable in 1959 than it was in subsequent years. One thing for sure, our good friend Mike Goldberg had taken the usual precaution of taking a thermos of martinis to the station, because if Frank and I failed to get seats on the parlor car, the only part of the train that served drinks, he knew we'd need a blast the second the 4:19 pulled into East Hampton—not, incidentally, "Easthampton" the way it's spelled in "The Day Lady Died."
O'Hara had no interest in cropping his poems to exclude the messy world adjacent to them, and LeSueur's book further widens that already wide world of ordinary events; the picaresque pursuit of drinks and sex is second, in this book, only to the pursuit of art in all its forms.
Why are "artless" styles like O'Hara's and Lowell's so impossible to imitate? Why are so many American poetic styles so seemingly "artless" and thereby inimitable? And what's a young poet, seeking models, to do? The hundreds of sub- and pseudo-Lowells and almost-O'Haras suggest that the most subversive thing about American poetry is its capacity to annihilate its apprentices, to make apprenticeship itself a really bad idea. Go out and find your own New York full of energy and joy, O'Hara seems to say. To which I would add: Good luck.
Dan Chiasson's poems appear in The New Yorker, Paris Review, Threepenny Review, and elsewhere.
Photographs of: Frank O'Hara, John Button, James Schuyler, and Joe LeSueur by John Button (using a timer); Frank O'Hara and Grace Hartigan by Walter Silver.