Art history- Frank O’Hara.
Fire Island was a haven for many artists. Poet Frank O’Hara was just one. His poetry was intermingled with the growing Art scene in New York. His untimely death on Fire Island only fueled his legend…
Artwork by Alfred Leslie.
Frank O’Hara was a dynamic leader of the “New York School” of poets, a group that included John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler. The Abstract Expressionist painters in New York City during the 1950s and 1960s used the title, but the poets borrowed it. From the beginning O’Hara’s poetry was engaged with the worlds of music, dance, and painting. In that complex of associations he devised an idea of poetic form that allowed the inclusion of many kinds of events, including everyday conversations and notes about New York advertising signs. Since his death in 1966 at age forty, the depth and richness of his achievements as a poet and art critic have been recognized by an international audience. As the painter Alex Katz remarked, “Frank’s business was being an active intellectual.” He was that. His articulate intelligence made new proposals for poetic form possible in American poetry.
He was born Francis Russell O’Hara in Baltimore, Maryland, to Russell J. and Katherine Broderick O’Hara but moved at an early age to Grafton, a suburb of Worcester, in central Massachusetts. While growing up, he was a serious music student and wished above all to be a concert pianist. He took courses at the New England Conservatory.
O’Hara’s work was first brought to the attention of the wider public, like that of so many others of his generation, by Allen’s timely and historic anthology, The New American Poetry (1960). It was not until O’Hara’s Lunch Poems was published in 1965 that his reputation gained ground and not until after his sudden death that his recognition in 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.
O’Hara’s earliest poems exhibit much of the promise and brilliance later fulfilled. Despite the somewhat casual method of composition he later became celebrated for and the colloquial air or ease of those poems themselves, O’Hara was from the start a skilled and knowledgeable poet, well aware, if not always respectful, of the long tradition of the craft. Frank O’Hara lived in New York City for fifteen years, from 1951 until his death, in 1966. In that time, he wrote hundreds of poems, often several a day, hunting and pecking on a portable Royal with great speed. (Trained as a pianist, he called writing “playing the typewriter.”) He arrived late in New York, having grown up in Grafton, Massachusetts, attended Harvard after a tour of duty in the Navy, and then spent a year in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a distant planet settled for the manufacture of master’s degrees. He had already made an auspicious start as a poet. After nursing a failing novel through his first months of studying creative writing at the University of Michigan, he junked it, wrote ninety poems and two plays, and won a prize.
As Brad Gooch’s 1993 biography demonstrated, O’Hara’s first real accomplishment was his personality, which became famous long before his poems did. But his personality was always a brilliant contrivance, practically a work of art: improvised, self-revising, full of feints.
. He was the subject of portraits by many of his artist friends—an indication not only of his association with painters but also of the esteem in which the artists held him. His early death only contributed to his legend and kept alive his memory until the publication of his collected writings confirmed for many what a few, mostly his friends and fellow poets, already knew—that he was an immensely gifted poet.
The collection of his poems by Allen and the arrangement of them in chronological order make it possible to discuss O’Hara’s work in the order of its development; however, the contents of the first edition published during his lifetime are not preserved. Two subsequent volumes prepared by Allen, one including O’Hara’s earliest poems, mostly from notebooks and unpublished manuscripts among his papers and the other poems overlooked or unavailable at the time of his compilation of the complete poems, supplement the Collected Poems.”
Among the poems of this early period, “Oranges” stands out. A series of twelve prose poems (originally nineteen) written while he was home from Harvard during the summer of 1949, they are less the “pastorals” of their subtitle than a decidedly anti-Arcadian surrealistic parody beginning: “Black crows in the burnt mauve grass, as intimate as rotting rice, snot on a white linen field.” About twenty copies of the poems, with a painting by Hartigan on the cover, were later published on the occasion of an exhibit of Hartigan’s Oranges paintings. As Terence Diggory has demonstrated, Hartigan did twelve paintings for twelve O’Hara poems in the fall of 1952, and by so doing redefined her relationship to Abstract Expressionism and proposed a mode of “collaboration as a dialogue of multiple selves” between poets and painters that influenced poets and painters alike. The poems themselves do not even mention the word of the title, a cleverness the poet was well aware of. O’Hara gives an account of the series in his more justly famous “Why I Am Not a Painter,” written in 1956:”
O’Hara died at forty, struck by a passing jeep on a beach on Fire Island. It was a freak accident, but people have wanted to read it as the operation of fate. Elegy is therefore in the air when we read O’Hara. (David Lehman’s study of O’Hara and his circle was titled “The Last Avant-Garde.”) The present tense is gradually being edged out by the future perfect; it’s getting late, but, as he writes, “someone’s going / to stay until the cows / come home.” During the years O’Hara was writing, the old Penn Station was being razed and Robert Moses was planning to run a highway through SoHo. An elegist will always find work in New York, where even the most incandescent night turns a little Stygian before it ends in smoke and ashes:
Down the dark stairs drifts the steaming cha-cha-cha. Through the urine and smoke we charge to the floor. Wrapped in Ashes’ arms I glide.
The “Ashes” here is John Ashbery, but O’Hara delights in the self-undermining pun.
Known throughout his life for his extreme sociability, passion, and warmth, O’Hara had hundreds of friends and lovers throughout his life, many from the New York art and poetry worlds.
He was a catalytic figure at the intersection of writing, art, dance and music at a seminal time in the US – that postwar moment when American artists began to assert originality after long being overshadowed by Europeans. O’Hara was a sort of Hermes figure of the time, the painter Jasper Johns told Brad Gooch, O’Hara’s biographer, “carrying messages among poets and painters, both as a poet and Museum of Modern Art curator, involved in not only the studios but the lives of the artists.”
This mistaken account of Frank O’Hara’s death a few years earlier was repeated and widely believed in Australia. Brad Gooch researched his death thoroughly, and two decades ago presented a detailed account in his 1993 biography of O’Hara, City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara. It happened not in the sunlight, but late at night, at 2:40 a.m. on Sunday morning July 24th, 1966. O’Hara was tired and drunk.
Finally [late on Saturday night] they grew tired of the scene [at the Fire Island Pines bar disco] and made their way down to the beach to hail a taxi. White Cap Taxi Company owned by a Patchogue resident, operated a fleet of a dozen red-and-white covered jeeps with oversized wheels that ran twenty-four hours a day — its drivers being required to wear white caps, although they usually didn’t bother. O’Hara and Mitchell squeezed into one of the taxis, already overcrowded with seven or eight “groupers” — young men and women who pooled their resources to rent a cottage for the summer. They were on their way to the singles community of Davis Park with its own nude beach less than a mile up from Water Island. O’Hara and Mitchell were the only two passengers on their way to the more reclusive Water Island. Within minutes of setting off, however, the taxi threw its left rear tire, leaving its passengers stranded on the darkened beach near Crown Walk, still within the limits of Fire Island Pines. The driver radioed for another taxi while keeping his headlights shining up in the air to warn any oncoming traffic. There was no other illumination from the roadway or the sky, as the first-quarter moon had set a few hours earlier, and little if any light from the houses on the beachfront about 150 feet away. The passengers milled about while the driver tried to fix the tire. J.J. Mitchell loitered on the land side of the broken-down taxi. O’Hara, who had been standing by Mitchell, wandered off momentarily toward the rear to look up out at the water. The rest was a bleary nightmare.
Driving down the beach with a girlfriend in the direction of the stalled water taxi was twenty-three-year-old Kenneth Ruzicka from Patchogue. His vehicle was an old red four-cylinder jeep built in 1944 with a square, sharp hood and a steel beam across its front serving as a bumper. Living in Davis Park that summer while working driving taxis or doing odd jobs for the summer visitors on the island just a brief ferry ride across the bay from Patchogue, Ruzicka was a popular local boy. With square jaw and dark wavy hair, the handsome young man had been a football star on the Patchogue Raiders as well as a member of the school’s soccer and track teams. His legend in the 1961 yearbook: “Maneuvers smoothly on the football field where he prefers to be.” That night, according to Ruzicka, he and his girlfriend were on their way to a discotheque at Cherry Grove. It was reportedly common practice for Suffolk County police and rangers, as well as local workers, to go for such joy rides in their jeeps.
The time was approximately 2:40 a.m. Claiming to have been blinded by its headlights, Ruzicka attempted to avoid the water taxi upon which he was suddenly bearing down. “There was a light,” says Ruzicka. “I had driven taxi cabs so I knew what the conditions were. If the lights were in my eyes then there must be a flat tire on one side, so you give a wide upsweep so that you wouldn’t be involved with anybody who might be around a taxi.” The maneuver, however, was too little too late. Mitchell yelled “Frank!” as the rest of the passengers jumped back. O’Hara had just stepped out from the darkness and was standing in the path of the oncoming machine. In Ruzicka’s testimony at a hearing of the New York Department of Motor Vehicles in February 1967, he emphasized that he was going slowly, “anywheres from fifteen to twenty. I was up in the soft sand in second gear.” He emphasized O’Hara’s culpability as well. “He was coming towards me, that’s all I could see,” testified Ruzicka. “He didn’t even try to move, he just kept on walking.” That O’Hara was smashed by the right front fender instead of the left implies that he was taking a wide arc as he stepped out to face the oncoming headlights. Ruzicka claimed that the wheels did not run over O’Hara. “He kind of fell over the right fender,” he said. “I think just the hood had a little indentation in it, not a permanent dent, just like a buckle, like you hit a refrigerator.” (Pp458–459)
Later, at the funeral on July 28, 1966, O’Hara’s sometime lover artist Larry Rivers spoke.
Frank O’Hara’s funeral: Larry Rivers delivering the eulogy, Springs Cemetery, New York State, 27 July 1966. Other speakers (l to r) the Reverend Renton, Bill Berkson, Edwin Denby, John Ashbery. Photo courtesy Camilla McGrath.
“Larry’s [Larry Rivers, artist] eulogy was searing, cauterizing,” says Henry Geldzahler, then a young curator at the Metropolitan. “He took us out of our bodies, threw us first into the grave and then into the sky.”
“Frank was my best friend,” Rivers began, his eyes fixed on the closed casket, his posture akimbo, his saxophone of a voice even and steady. “I always thought he would be the first to die among my small happy group. But I day-dreamed a romantic death brought about by too much whiskey, by smoking three packs of Camels a day, by too much sex, by unhappy love affairs, by writing too many emotional poems, too many music and dance concerts, just too much living which would drain away his energy and his will to live. His death was on my mind all the sixteen years I knew him and I told him this. I was worried about him because he loved me.”
Rivers then began describing O’Hara as he looked when he had visited him a few days earlier at Bayview General Hospital in Mastic Beach, Long Island, where O’Hara had survived for almost two days after his accident. The more Rivers went on, the more groans came from the mourners. Some yelled “Stop! Stop!” “He was purple wherever his skin showed through the white hospital gown,” Rivers continued. “He was a quarter larger than usual. Every few inches there was some sewing composed of dark blue thread. Some stitching was straight and three or four inches long, others were longer and semicircular. The lids of both eyes were bluish black. It was hard to see his beautiful blue eyes which receded a little into his head. He breathed with quick gasps. His whole body quivered. There was a tube in one of his nostrils down to his stomach. On paper, he was improving. In the crib he looked like a shaped wound, an innocent victim of someone else’s war. His leg bone was broken and splintered and pierced the skin. Every rib was cracked. A third of his liver was wiped out by the impact.”
A gasp stopped Rivers short. It was O’Hara’s mother. “People had acted as if Frank’s mother wasn’t there,” remembers Elaine de Kooning’s sister, Marjorie Luyckx. Suddenly they turned to take in the family scene. Katherine O’Hara, dressed in black and looking terribly frail, was standing by the grave. (p.9)
Text from: Gooch, Brad. City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1993.