Frank O’Hara in Lockdown)
by Sam Rees
‘It may be that poetry makes life’s nebulous events tangible to me and restores their detail; or conversely, that poetry brings forth the intangible quality of incidents which are all too concrete and circumstantial. Or each on specific occasions, or both all the time.’Frank O’Hara
‘Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.’Audrew Lorde
The practice of how we talk is of great importance right now. This is because it decides the codes of our ideology, and thus the limits of our imagination. With better-defined praxis around the kind of thoughts we should be having, we generate the possibility for intelligible communication. When we are grasping to declare a stance, or make art, or share a petition, and this grasping is fuelled by a neurosis to do something, we will only exhaust ourselves. There are daunting answers waiting for us if we contemplate them. Perhaps, sometimes, it is better to do nothing rather than something, and this is because sometimes making something can destroy something else, and the thing it destroys is better than the thing that has been made. Potentially your ache for self-improvement during a global pandemic shows quite how deeply the structures of a broken system built on productivity and competition and utility have burrowed themselves into your brain. Maybe it is time for us to realise there is self-improvement, but there is also judging one’s worth on the principles of 21st Century capitalism, which seems altogether a stupid idea.
Survival does not have to mean defiance. It can mean tenderness, empathy, self-exploration, playing delicately with the possibilities of consciousness. In short, we do not have to be so sure all the time.
Frank O’Hara (1926-1966) was an American poet and art critic, and a key member of the New York School. His work is beautiful, electric, confounding, and presents a framework for the kind of conversations we should start having with ourselves, conversations around peace, and grief, and love, and most fundamentally, joy.
O’Hara’s starting position is the radical poetics laid out by Charles Olson in what he deemed ‘projective verse’, which clusters around several vital, if difficult, ideas: syllable as a reflection of intellectual movement, ego as antagonist, and, most importantly, breath (as opposed to rhyme or meter) as the basis for a new formal framework of poetry. This last point is so intricately navigated by Olson that one can only butcher it, but the assertion is primarily that the voice, conversational, lateral in its expression, and reflective of human thought, was in need of reintroduction to the poetic approach, and that, as a hugely important method of delivery for the post-war American poets, should have a ‘say’ in a work’s construction.
It would be unfair to call Olsen a complete visionary on these points; Ralph Waldo Emerson had been arguing much the same, if a little too early. The intimate heartbeat at the centre of Walt Whitman’s poetic world seems to show a mind reaching a similar conclusion. It is also now the case that we look back at a period and wince at the hegemony of so much of what was chosen for anthology. However, it is undeniable that Olson articulated, at the right time, and to the right people, an intellectual and practical vision for how the poetry of the mid-20th Century should operate, which unleashed so much of what was powerful in the American avant-garde during the 1960s.
These currents are important to understand when unpicking O’Hara’s practice, a poet of immense humanity, and to whom breath, both in the mechanical particularities outlined by Olson, but also as the representation of spontaneity, misdirection, and erraticism, was clearly of deep importance, both as a methodology, and as a dynamic set of actions with which to move through the world.
O’Hara’s work feels like thinking, and thinks like feeling. It is the mapping of associations and responses to stimuli, of notions that occur to him and sights which appear to him. This makes it, almost with complete consistency, utterly joyous. Take this excerpt from ‘Today’:
‘Oh! kangaroos, sequins, chocolate sodas!
You really are beautiful! Pearls,
harmonicas, jujubes, aspirins!’
The weaving of inanity and specificity, of cultural touchstones and exotic fantasies, exuberance pushing through Dadaism, romance wrestling with postmodernity, all collides with such poignance. O’Hara’s irreverence (his collection Lunch Poems is so-called because he would get them down on his lunch breaks) links him to our contemporary perhaps more than even the likes of Allen Ginsberg; one really gets the sense in O’Hara’s work that poetry does not have to matter very much, which, naturally, allows it a certain enduring tenacity, and in the final judgement renders it very important, and very profound.
O’Hara’s expressivity on matters of human interconnection burns with a hope that leaves one enchanted. In one of his most famous works, Having a Coke With You, he exuberantly declares:
at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world
except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally and anyway it’s in the Frick
which thank heavens you haven’t gone to yet so we can go together for the first time’
This tumbling collection of navigations around the romantic encounter, written for O’Hara’s lover, ballet dancer Vincent Warren, gets right to the heart of what is so unique and incendiary about his style. Reverie and whimsy and longing and lust all spin in this linguistic hurricane, powered by a desperation to articulate thought and feeling through the chaos of culture.
But most fundamentally, O’Hara’s way of thinking should be important to us in the present. His poetic concerns and subjects, along with his practice and attitude to the business of art, begin to illuminate for us a series of perspectives we might do well to consider in our here and now.
Artist John Button remembered how:
‘when asked by a publisher-friend for a book, Frank might have trouble even finding the poems stuffed into kitchen drawers or packed in boxes that had not been unpacked since his last move. Frank’s fame came to him unlooked-for.’
This endearing image contains multitudes. O’Hara was in no way the architect of the notion that art should be taken from the rarefied and sacrosanct, but seldom has a behaviour around one’s own work borne that conviction out so beautifully. O’Hara’s tendency seemed to drift towards an airiness, a distaste for the systemisation or formalisation of the poetic expression, a certain modest type of anarchy which, in its care-free exuberance, allowed for that most liberating of principles to be conceptualised: that poetry was and is the business of anyone, and everyone, of all times, all places, it is and should be seen as an object of the prosaic. In short, art can exist in the small corners and crannies of one’s life, stuffed in crevices and amongst bric-a-brac. Perhaps if art cannot talk to us in our living rooms at four in the afternoon, then it does not really matter if it can talk to us at four in the morning. One engages with O’Hara’s work as the other side of a conversation, as privy to his musings; it is organic and authentic, we are sat beside him on the Staten Island ferry, or in the Museum of Modern Art.
As expressed earlier, there is a current deep-seated anxiety to create, and one must ask where this anxiety is coming from. If it is orbiting around ideas of product, relevance, status and suchlike, then perhaps it is time for us to take a breath. Indeed, O’Hara’s is a poetry of seeking, remembering, re-engaging. Of finding the numinous in the mundane, the complex in the simple, and the romantic everywhere and in all things. It is a way of thinking and feeling which does not demand of anyone that they save the world, or inspire revelation, or transcend with their art, but simply that they move through life seeing beauty as a democratic pleasure, and the recording of it to be of importance as simply a human action, first and foremost. We might see it not as a light in the dark, but a colour on the canvas.
There is deep integrity and passionate examination buried beneath the modesty of O’Hara’s writing. In ‘Digression On Number 1, 1948’, he remarks that:
‘It is a perfect day, warm
for winter, cold for fall.
A fine day for seeing.’
We are living in fine days for seeing. For noticing. For interrogating with honesty: what is wrong with us and the world? What is actually of value? Where is love, humanity, joy? What is the nature of the orthodoxies we cling to, and why do they cause such suffering?
O’Hara’s work leaves no room for misanthropy. It is fanatically naïve, trusting, hopeful. It is a way of talking and being, as well as working, which gently unfolds to us its possibilities. It is art as a companion, not a place of initiation and status, but of inclusivity and understanding. It is art not as a competition of experiences, but an opening-up to all of life’s possibilities as our inspiration. We do not have our most profound moments at the tops of mountains watching the sun rise. We have them with each other, in silly places, doing boring things. And, that being the case, we should perhaps stop craving for our perfect statement on these terrible times. The content of our lives is enough, should be enough, and was always enough.
The hierarchy which permeates modern culture has temporarily collapsed. We can, if we so choose, of course engage in collective delusion, and complement the emperor on his new clothes, however, the authority that artistic institutions previously held has to all intents and purposes dissolved. It will return, no doubt. But in its absence should we not be pushing for new forms of interface? Across all mediums, intimacy and nuance have been increasingly drowned-out by more direct, self-assured work, work which is more comfortable advocating for itself. In this age of quietude, we may find these forms ill-suited to our needs. We may find different tones, textures, colours, are required in this new world, where the reach and scope of our perspective is much reduced, the details of our immediate surroundings intensified, and our singular and collective vulnerabilities re-exposed. We should note in the current absence of overbearing consensuses the spaces that have opened up to us.
There seems no appropriate way to conclude other than to give Frank the floor. In the closing of ‘Steps’ he exclaims,
‘oh god it’s wonderful
to get out of bed
and drink too much coffee
and smoke too many cigarettes
and love you so much’
Grab those thoughts ‘stuffed into kitchen drawers or packed in boxes’, they belong to you, they belong to everyone. They are our friends, allies, protectors. They are the real stuff of living.