FRANK O'HARA: Selected Poems (ed. Donald Allen);  Penguin, 1994. £8.99.




O'Hara was just forty in July 1966, when a car accident deprived the "New York School" (as his editor here once famously labelled it) of its most talented and purely enjoyable founder-member. O'Hara's fellow Harvard undergraduate friends John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch have lived long enough to ossify into garrulous and obscure bores: O'Hara, at least, was spared this fate. He remained readable, charming and funny to the end; somehow, he could even bring off whimsicality, whereas they can all too often appear self-indulgent. 

He was well-informed about, and generally sympathetic towards, the Beats, sharing if not the life-style many of their concerns and interests (films, jazz, painting etc). He seems to have approved of some of the more intelligent Beat poets, like Gary Snyder and John Wieners, and certainly had that pair's gift for writing that was both precise (sometimes almost elegant) yet colloquially relaxed. Thus one of his own most successful and anthologized poems, The Day Lady Died, is a neat, wry and highly evocative distillation of the personal and the public, a miniature ode to the end of the 1950s, and a cultural and social criticism of that drab and repressive decade. O'Hara himself in a 1959 statement on poetics included in Allen's important anthology THE NEW AMERICAN POETRY 1945-1960 stated: "What is happening to me, allowing for lies and exaggerations which I try to avoid, goes into my poems. I don't think my experiences are clarified or made beautiful for myself or anyone else, they are just there in whatever form I can find them." This was admirably unpretentious for the time, enabling O'Hara to be autobiographical yet lively, confessional while never sullen or solemn, and at best, allusive without becoming merely ephemeral or disposable. It helped that he had a sharp sense of humour. Indeed, he went on to say: "I dislike a great deal of contemporary poetry - all of the past you read is usually quite great - but it is a useful thorn to have in one's side." 

So O'Hara emerges as the Compleat Big City Bard, a very urbane and entertaining experimenter, whose training in the visual arts (as critic, editor and in a variety of curating jobs at MOMA) together with his periodic forays into playwriting and filmmaking, blended into an original voice, a nicely cultivated mix of sights and sounds. O'Hara acknowledged and delighted in what were chiefly French influences, among these the main 19th century avant-garde from Lautréamont, Jarry and Mallarmé through to contemporaries like Genet, alongside a cultural bran-tub crammed also with many other unique Euro-precursors - Picabia, Stein, Mayakovsky, the Surrealists. But he's better than the mere patchwork of fandom, than ventriloquism from the New World; his self-deprecating charm and the streetwise but enthusiastic tone are part of his own refreshing originality. In the funny yet poignant Les Luths he muses: "what are lutes they make ugly twangs and rest on knees in cafés", while another poem contains its own self-criticism: "I make/ myself a bourbon and commence/ to write one of my 'I do this I do that'/ poems in a sketch pad". In another, the sun tells him: "You may /not be the greatest thing on earth, but/ you're different", and that, in quite a few short poems, O'Hara genuinely is. 

For it is in the shorter poems that he most often convinces. Second Avenue, for instance, which is over 400 long lines long, I find unreadable, and there are other long poems which ramble and grow incoherent. Within the shorter ones, however, moods are more concentrated, better sustained: thus, paradoxically, it's the slimmer, trimmer poems which build to a cumulative effect, sometimes via neat musical patterns (occasionally even rhymes!) The speed and style of these briefer city inscapes is attractive; they don't just luxuriate and spread into mere wads and blobs of words, to daunt the reader through resembling slabs of verbiage laid thickly across the page - as if heavily applied there by some drunken NY Abstraction-man in search of ‘texture' rather than 'meaning'. 

While O'Hara often proves a slick and slippery kind of wordsmith, and may not be a conventionally 'memorable' poet to quote from (though he can coin wonderful phrases and titles when he wants), his best work lingers in the mind. Sometimes certain of his mannerisms pall: rashes of exclamation marks; numerous poems entitled Poem, thereby jokily sending up the whole art business, when just once would make the anyhow none too original point; a glut of arcane and/or foreign-language references; too many overloaded poems addressed to friends and acquaintances. (Such twitches seem more like careless haste than careless rapture. Tics, tics et tics! as the great Ducasse wrote once. Or thrice...) And occasionally so much gossipy energy, such sheer breezy top-of-the-head, top-of-the-world spontaneity and high spirits, can seem wilful, cutesy camp, irritatingly prolix. Well, one must skip and choose: Allen's is a very enjoyable selection, and in O'Hara's case I don't think I'd really want the Complete Annotated... What O'Hara at his best did, in the brief time he had, was to describe and affirm certain important things; such things poets (minor or not) should notice. So to end this piece with one of his own endings: "we peer into the future and see you happy and hope it is a sign that we/ will be happy too, something to cling to, happiness/ the least and best of human attainments".


Reviewed in Stride magazine 1995