Francis Russell O'Hara (March 27, 1926 – July 25, 1966) was an American poet who, along with John Ashbery, James Schuyler and Kenneth Koch, was a key member of the New York School of poetry. O'Hara was a poet and critic of tremendous energy. He expressed life not as noun, but as a verb, and his "I-do-this-I-do-that" approach to his work influenced a generation of young poets and writers. He eschewed the nihilism of the Beat generation and affirmed that life must be accepted for what it is, not rejected for its meaninglessness, nor apologetically affirmed. His most original volumes of verse, Meditations in an Emergency (1956) and Lunch Poems (1964), are a combination of impromptu lyrics, a jumble of witty talk, journalistic parodies, and surrealist imagery. The urgency and quickness of his voice allows the reader to experience life as O'Hara did in New York.
As one of the first poets to write openly about his homosexuality, O'Hara was an important figure in the development of gay poetry and helped many homosexuals to express themselves more openly in their chosen fields. Yet he was not a campaigner for gay rights or any political cause. He simply lived a busy, energetic life and sought to experience it authentically with all of its joys and sorrows, ups and downs. He was, in many ways, the consummate New Yorker.
Before his life was cut short by an accident in 1966, O'Hara collaborated with many artists to create various different types of art, including "poem-paintings," lithographs, films, and plays. O'Hara was also a highly respected art critic of the 1950s and 1960s. Although he published only six books during in his lifetime, O'Hara's scope of work was vast, and he accomplished a great deal of brilliantly innovative work.
Frank O'Hara, the son of Russell Joseph O'Hara and Katherine Broderick, was born in Baltimore, Maryland and grew up in Grafton, Massachusetts, a suburb of Worcester. He was educated at the private Catholic schools of St. Paul and St. John in Worcester, and studied piano at the New England Conservatory in Boston from 1941 to 1944. He was loyal to his country and, enlisted in the U.S. Navy shortly after his high school graduation, to serve in World War II. O'Hara served in the South Pacific and Japan as a third class sonarman on the destroyer USS Nicholas during World War II, although he was not engaged in any actual combat.
With the funding made available to veterans on the GI Bill, O’Hara attended Harvard University, in Boston, where he roomed with artist Edward Gorey. He was initially a music major and later changed his emphasis to English, though he continued to play the piano and still did some composing. He then met John Ashbery at Harvard and tried his hand in poetry. O'Hara especially appreciated the poets Arthur Rimbaud, Stéphane Mallarmé, Boris Pasternak, and Vladimir Mayakovsky.  He began to publish poetry in the Harvard Advocate, founded the Poets’ Theater at Harvard and took creative writing classes from John Ciardi, whose recommendation later helped O'Hara get into graduate school. He graduated in 1950 with a B.A. in English.
O'Hara was given a graduate fellowship in comparative literature at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. While at Michigan, he won a major Hopwood Award for his collection of poems, A Byzantine Place (1951) and Try! Try! (1951), a verse play. Try! Try! and Change Your Bedding (1951), another play he wrote while at Michigan, were launched at the Poet’s Theater in Cambridge. O’Hara received his M.A. in English Literature in 1951.
In the fall of 1951, O’Hara moved into an apartment in New York City to join fellow poet and friend John Ashbery. O’Hara explored the city and was finally free to live openly as a homosexual. He moved in with Joe LeSueur, who would be his roommate and sometimes lover for the next 11 years. O’Hara worked briefly as an assistant to photographer Cecil Beaton until he found a position at the front desk of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), selling postcards, publications, and tickets in December 1951. He wrote poems in his spare time at work and his friends in the art world would drop by and visit him, all the while having access to the paintings in the museum. He frequented the artists’ studios and sought to become as involved in the artistic process as possible, whether it meant stretching canvases or posing as a model. Thus, he was the subject of many portraits by New York School painters. O’Hara began to write seriously and published one of his first books of poems, A City in Winter and Other Poems (1951, 1952).
In 1953, O’Hara left the MoMA to become an associate editor for Art News. He started writing art reviews and built a reputation as an outstanding critic. He rejoined the staff of the MoMA in 1955 as a special assistant to the International Program, and in 1960 was appointed assistant curator of paintings and sculptures. He selected paintings for several important exhibitions, including The New American Painting (1958-1959) and Twentieth Century Italian Art from American Collections (1960). Though he lacked the formal schooling usually necessary for such a profession, his work was wide-ranging and critically acclaimed.
O'Hara became deeply involved in the New York art scene, and befriended many artists, such as abstract expressionists Willem De Kooning and Jackson Pollock, Norman Bluhm, Larry Rivers and Joan Mitchell. He was known throughout his life for his extreme sociability, passion, and warmth. He had hundreds of friends and lovers throughout his life, many from the New York art and poetry worlds.
At age 40, O'Hara was killed in an accident on Fire Island in which he was struck and injured by a beach dune buggy during the early morning of July 24, 1966. He died the following day of internal injuries and is buried in Springs Cemetery, Long Island, New York.
O'Hara's early work was considered both provocative and provoking. His poems were witty and he enjoyed writing about the little things in life. Most of his work is, like Walt Whitman's, organic, and, is often thought of as "unpoetic" because of its originality, freedom and prose-like style. His language was often colloquial and he would incorporate very specific details of daily life into his poems, even the mundane. This self-proclaimed "I-do-this-I-do-that" style combines the ramblings of traditional American poets like Whitman with the unpredictable stylings of O'Hara's European heroes Stéphane Mallarmé and Vladimir Mayakovsky. Nonetheless, his informal language is often paired with campy, scholarly language, to create a dreamlike, and almost messy tone, which corresponds to his urban New York environment.
Much of O'Hara's work was spontaneous and disorderly. His writing was immediate and often quickly typed out. One collection, Lunch Poems (1964), was so named (by City Lights publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti) because O'Hara wrote the poems in the collection during his lunch hour. He would often write poems in the spare moments he had between friends and the art world. Most of his work was left laying around his apartment or written out in letters to friends. He was notoriously disorganized, and legend holds that before publishing O'Hara's poems, Ferlinghetti had to fly from San Francisco to New York and search through all of O'Hara's coat pockets to find them. It is unknown how many of O'Hara's poems may have been lost. A sometimes-playwright, O'Hara once absentmindedly left his typewriter and a finished play in a train station. His devoted friends created a collection to buy him another typewriter; but, the play was never recovered.
This seemingly careless approach, however, was not completely random in structure and his narrative pacing is brilliant. O'Hara's poetry was free verse, though the sonnet form can be seen in many of his poems. Moreover, even though his line breaks may appear arbitrary and definitely appear to follow the unpredictable form of some of his predecessors, they are very effective in bringing the reader's attention to the sound and immediacy of his words. Thus, his reliance upon the unexpected or chance may have been more deliberate than not. O'Hara's reaction against modernism and non-traditional techniques, nonetheless, are said to have returned American poetry back toward being critical and innovative.
O'Hara became one of the most distinguished members of the New York School of poets, which also included John Ashbery, James Schuyler, Kenneth Koch and Barbara Guest. These poets promoted instability and change, openness and movement, thus producing some of the most experimental American poetry written in the 1950s and 60s. All the while, the abstract expressionism movement, whose major artists included Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock, and Jasper Johns was flourishing in New York. O'Hara became a major contributor to the avant-garde art scene, and this art became one of the main sources of inspiration for his highly original poetry.
Not only did O'Hara's work reflect the urgency, mobility and randomness of the New York School, but he also used New York City as the subject for much of his work. He embraced urban gay male culture and highly regarded the moments, people, places and objects prevalent in New York daily life. He also incorporated the art and names of abstract expressionists into his poetry. His interest in painting allowed him to take risks and explore art in a way that changed poetry as it stood prior to the New York School movement. His poems, like real city life, spill into one another and display the various aspects of the O'Hara's extremely busy life. O'Hara loved New York City and all it had to offer. He embraced and eternalized his experiences. In "Meditations in an Emergency" he wrote, "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."
To O'Hara, art was a process. As he acquired inspiration from the streets and culture of New York, he emphasized the process of creation and the materiality of the artistic medium. Like many abstract expressionists before him, O'Hara was greatly affected by the paint and colors that surrounded him. Thus, the influence of art can be seen in his writings. His first major volume of poetry, A City Winter and Other Poems demonstrates a preoccupation with surrealism, dadaist collage and montage techniques. O'Hara often collaborated with other artists to create innovative and different art forms—he did not confine himself to simply writing poems. For instance, O'Hara worked with other artists to create "poem-paintings," which were paintings with word texts. O'Hara's poems were also combined with lithographs by Larry Rivers in Stones (1959), and Odes (1960) was illustrated by serigraphs by Mike Goldberg.
He attempted to produce with words the effects abstract expressionists had created on the canvas. Though many of his poems also speak to the ways in which he felt the emotional power of painting exceeded that of poetry. In "To Larry Rivers," for example, O'Hara wrote, "You do what I can only name." In O'Hara's Personism: A Manifesto, he explains that although he does not object to abstract thinking, he disapproves of abstraction in poetry and felt as though poetry should not be forced. O'Hara thought that poetry should be personal, and one should feel the artist's voice or presence in his or her work. Thus, while he did object to abstraction in poetry, he did not object to it in painting because he felt as though one could still feel the personal style of abstract expressionists in their paintings.
O'Hara's work was almost entirely autobiographical, and his openness has inspired and influenced many poets who came after him. He was also one of the first poets to write openly about his homosexuality and an important figure in the development and acceptance of gay poetry.
As a major figure of the New York School poets, O'Hara was part of an experimental movement in American poetry that challenged its predecessors, played with poetic language, and led poetry to become more critical and free. He disrupted the predictability of his immediate modernist precursors, and this innovative and challenging style can still be found in poetry today.
O'Hara's stylistic innovations can be seen in the work of John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Ned Rorem, Robert Duncan and Allen Ginsberg. He influenced a generation of younger poets—including Joe Brainard, also famous for his collage-based visual art, Ron Padgett, and Ted Berrigan, the latter of whom became well-known for employing O'Hara's "I-do-this-I-do-that" form in his own poetry.
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