I first discovered Frank O’Hara while watching Mad Men. The last two stanzas of O’Hara’s poem “Mayakovsky” was recited by Don Draper in this expressive, melancholic scene. What first struck me was O’Hara’s language; his verse seemed so alive with motion. A combination of a colloquial tone and elevated artistic discourse created a very satisfying effect for me, something I could at once understand and appreciate as profound. Furthermore, his syntax makes his words dance in a way that I haven’t encountered in other poems. His poems are light and easy to move through, as if affected by a certain smooth coherence.
That is ironic, because his poetry is anything but coherent. Living in the artistic milieu of mid-20th century Manhattan, O’Hara was very much inspired by Abstract Expressionism. He believed that art itself existed on a transcendent level. So rather than the artist commanding the art, he believed that art commanded the artist. This notion has roots in the Greek idea that inspiration occurs when a God “breathes upon” someone, that humans draw creativity from some higher external source. In this manner, O’Hara believed that all “accidents” in art were meant to be. He let his poems progress rather organically, writing about thoughts and feelings as they spontaneously arrived rather than crafting the poem around a premeditated central theme. Compared to poetry of the previous centuries, this approach is quite new. It is abstract, cerebral, and difficult to understand. But at the same time, his poetry is refreshing, innovative, and above all, beautiful. Here are some of my favorite poems by Frank O’Hara:
Instant coffee with slightly sour cream
in it, and a phone call to the beyond
which doesn’t seem to be coming any nearer.
“Ah daddy, I wanna stay drunk many days”
on the poetry of a new friend
my life held precariously in the seeing
hands of others, their and my impossibilities.
Is this love, now that the first love
has finally died, where there were no impossibilities?
Who’d have thought
that snow falls
it always circled whirling
like a thought
in the glass ball
around me and my bear
Then it seemed beautiful
nothing ever fell
nor my little bear
imprisoned in crystal
beauty has replaced itself with evil
And the snow whirls only
in fatal winds
it always loathed containment
I love evil
Frank O’Hara also wrote one of my favorite quotes: “Simply to live does not justify existence, for life is a mere gesture on the surface of the earth, and death a return to that from which we had never been wholly separated; but oh to leave a trace, no matter how faint, of that brief gesture! For someone, some day, may find it beautiful!”