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O'Hara, Frank

O'HARA, Frank

O'HARA, Frank (b. 27 March 1926; d. 24 July 1966), poet, playwright, art critic.

Frank O'Hara was a highly innovative postmodern poet whose work was unusual in its stylistic diversity. One of the members of the New York School of poets (a group that also included Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, and John Ashbery), he was a contemporary of the Beats and the Black Mountain poets. His poetry shows an eclectic array of influences and interests: European symbolism and surrealism; the American poetic tradition of Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, and Hart Crane; Abstract Expressionist painting; Pop Art; cinema; and classical and contemporary music. His work ranges from early surrealist pieces to his exuberant and highly original "I do this I do that" poems, which chart his walks around New York during his lunch hour. Above all an urban poet, O'Hara wrote poems that are notable for the way they map New York in the 1950s and 1960s, but also link it to wider global, historical, and psychological spaces.

Born in Baltimore, O'Hara attended St. John's High School in Worcester, Massachusetts, and then served as a sonarman third class on the destroyer U.S.S. Nicholas in World War II. He graduated from Harvard College in 1950, having changed his major from music to English, and was also one of the founders of the Poet's Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was awarded a Master of Arts degree at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in 1951 and then moved to New York, where he published his first book, A City Winter, and Other Poems (1952). He was employed briefly on the front desk of the Museum of Modern Art but resigned to become editor of Art News (1953–1955).

O'Hara rejoined the Museum of Modern Art in 1955 as special assistant in the International Program and became associate curator in 1960. During this period he organized many seminal exhibitions by Abstract Expressionist painters such as Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Robert Motherwell, as well as the sculptor David Smith and painters of the New York School, including Grace Hartigan and Michael Goldberg. He was an astute art critic and wrote an influential monograph on Jackson Pollock. His art criticism was collected posthumously in Art Chronicles (1975) and Standing Still and Walking in New York (1983), both edited by Donald Allen. From 1957 to 1965 he published five volumes of poetry: Meditations in An Emergency (1957); Odes, with five serigraphs by Mike Goldberg (1960); Second Avenue (1960); Lunch Poems (1964); and Love Poems (Tentative Title) (1965). O'Hara also wrote a number of plays, gathered retrospectively in Selected Plays (1978).

O'Hara was an improvisational writer who often dashed off poems on his lunch hour or in the company of other people. His poems are very intense but at the same time humorous, talk based, gossipy, and poetically subversive. The focal point of an artistic coterie, O'Hara was also a prolific collaborator: his co-produced works include poems with Kenneth Koch and Bill Berkson, a series of lithographs with Larry Rivers, poem-paintings with Norman Bluhm, and a film with Alfred Leslie. A devotee of all the arts, O'Hara had an enormous appetite for films, concerts, and dance performances, references to which saturate his poems.

O'Hara was gay, and the intensity of his friendships was legendary. The range of his relationships was also immense, as he pursued close friendships with several women, most notably Bunny Lang, Jane Freilicher, Grace Hartigan, and Patsy Southgate. These women, as well as male lovers including Larry Rivers, Joe LeSueur, and Vincent Warren; and male friends such as Bill Berkson and Kenneth Koch figure prominently in his poems. O'Hara died at the age of forty, when he was hit by a beach-buggy on Fire Island, a well-known gay resort near New York City. His Collected Poems (1971), Selected Poems (1974), Early Writing (1977), and Poems Retrieved (1977) were edited by Donald Allen and published after his death.

O'Hara's poetry contains many allusions to gay culture and activities, such as cruising and cross-dressing, and his poems sometimes adopt attitudes that are campy or ethically transgressive. His poetry, nevertheless, is not as unambiguously gay as that of Allen Ginsberg; in some O'Hara poems it is not even apparent that the poet's lover is male. His homosexuality is arguably most obvious in the vocabulary and style of some of his poems: it has a linguistic, as much as a thematic, presence in his work. This more implicit referencing of his sexuality does not, however, stem from political or social evasiveness about his sexual identity. In fact, O'Hara was ahead of his time in his attitude toward his gayness. His poems convey a fluid and open sense of gender and sexual boundaries, creating a "morphing" sexuality that is more reflective of today's discourses and practices than of those most visible in the 1950s and 1960s.


Berkson, Bill, and Joe LeSueur, eds. Homage to Frank O'Hara. Berkeley: Creative Arts Book Company, 1980.

Diggory, Terence, and Stephen Paul Miller. The Scene of My Selves: New Work on New York School Poets. Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, 2001.

Gooch, Brad. City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O'Hara. New York: Knopf, 1993.

Perloff, Marjorie. Frank O'Hara: Poet among Painters. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Smith, Hazel. Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O'Hara: Difference, Homosexuality, Topography. Liverpool, U.K.: Liverpool University Press, 2000.

Hazel Smith

see alsocrane, hart; johns, jasper; theater and performance; visual art; whitman, walt.

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