The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara
By Frank O’Hara
Original Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Current Publisher: University of California Press
There were two Winners of the National Book Award in Poetry in 1972: Howard Moss and Frank O’Hara.
Katie Peterson writes:
My dad has a jazz album that came out in 1958 called “Everybody Digs Bill Evans.” Bill Evans, that is, the jazz piano player, genius in his own right who was also at the center of a famous trio responsible for the amazing album “Waltz for Debby.” I’m not sure whether Frank O’Hara ever saw Bill Evans but I like to think he did (O’Hara was a huge fan of jazz, and haunted the New York scene where Evans played in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s). I am in the mood today to (unofficially) title this blog post Everybody Digs Frank O’Hara, because when I think of O’Hara I think both of jazz and of digging. Look, 2011, you still know what I mean by digging: liking, having a preference. O’Hara has become one of the strong preferences of a generation of young poets—for his love of popular culture, for his amazing love poems to men and dancers and music and New York, and for his limitless joy.
O’Hara made a life in poetry out of improvisation and having preferences. The Collected Poems, which appeared eight years after the poet’s tragic early accidental death, is full of both. What the poet John Ashbery says about the mood of the Collected Poems in the thoughtful, eloquent introduction remains an apt characterization: “His career stands as an unrevised work-in-progress; the fact that parts of it are now missing or unfinished is unimportant, except as an indicator of the temporal, fluctuating quality that runs through his work and is one of its major innovations.” Ashbery says this because the poems themselves so keenly ask us to stand in the present moment of experience. In each poem, the energy of improvisation, a thinking and feeling and writing in the moment, meets a desire to just give voice to what a person likes. Here are the first lines of one of O’Hara’s greatest love poems:
Having a Coke With You
is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, Irún, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne
or being sick to my stomach on the Travesera de Gracia in Barcelona
partly because in your orange shirt you look like a better happier St. Sebastian
partly because of my love for you, partly because of your love for yoghurt
partly because of the fluorescent orange tulips around the birches
partly because of the secrecy our smiles take on before people and statuary
it is hard to believe when I'm with you that there can be anything as still
as solemn as unpleasantly definitive as statuary when right in front of it
in the warm New York 4 o'clock light we are drifting back and forth
between each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles
If you like something, you want to keep talking about it. Walt Whitman knew this, and so he made lists of things and people in America. The lines above smash together the energy of a Whitmanian list with the discernment and precision of a Shakespearean sonnet. O’Hara’s not happy only with listing—he wants to find a way to articulate the recipe of love in all its proportions and measurements. Even the contemplative moment that ends this wonderful first stanza of the poem is joyful, and impossible to predict from the decidedly ordinary brand-name sugary beverage that begins the poem. But then, I consider how, when you’re a kid, what soda you like the most is so important. It’s one of the first social choices you get to really stand behind. At the core of so many of the experiences that connect us to this world, there’s some element of judgment making. And so, maybe, we’re always educating ourselves to know what we find beautiful.
Back to Bill Evans for a second. I said I wasn’t sure Frank O’Hara had ever heard Bill Evans, but I do know—as a reader of O’Hara’s poems will come to know—that O’Hara knew and loved jazz. In “The Day Lady Died,” he commemorates the day Billie Holiday’s mortal body left the earth with a narrative that reaches back into a memory of seeing her perform. It’s a crime to include an excerpt of the poem and I don’t want to ruin it for you, reader, by placing it in the middle of this piece of debased prose. Suffice it to say that O’Hara makes taking a walk and having a memory feel like Christmas and Easter on a roller coaster. The memory he ends the poem with will take you back to the world of smoky jazz clubs and hep cats. By the end of that poem that world just seems more real to me than my own. I almost miss it. Maybe it’s because no cell phone can go off inside these poems, or maybe it’s just because Frank O’Hara has an astonishing gift for writing experiences, not descriptions of experiences. I dig him so much he makes me want to feel really awkward using the word “dig” just to be as cool as him.
Katie Peterson is the author of a book of poems, This One Tree (New Issues, 2006). She has received fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and the Foundation for Contemporary Arts. Her reviews have appeared in the Boston Review and the Chicago Tribune. She teaches literature at Bennington College. (Photo credit: Ariana Ervin)
Poetry Finalists that Year:
- A.R. Ammons for Briefings: Poems Small and Easy
- Jon Anderson for Death & Friends
- Robert Fitzgerald for Spring Shade: Poems, 1931-1970
- Robert Hayden for Words in the Mourning Time
- John Hollander for The Night Mirror
- Galway Kinnell for The Book of Nightmares
- David Shapiro for Man Holding an Acoustic Panel
- Allen Tate for The Swimmers and Other Selected Poems
- James Wright for Collected Poems
Poetry Judges that Year: Geoffrey Hartman, Daryl Hine, Kenneth Koch, May Swenson, William Stafford
- Frank O’Hara (1926-1966) was born in Baltimore, MD.
- In addition to being an award-winning poet, O’Hara was also very active in the art world and worked at the Museum of Modern Art for many years.
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