Authors: Frank O’Hara

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American poet

June 27, 1926

Baltimore, Maryland

July 25, 1966

Mastic Beach, New York


Francis Russell O’Hara was born in Baltimore in 1926 and grew up on a farm in Grafton, Massachusetts. He disliked the rural setting and longed for the opportunities of the city. After studying music for a year at the New England Conservatory in Boston, he enlisted in the Navy in 1944 and served during World War II. After his discharge, he enrolled at Harvard University and studied art and literature. Harvard was important for O’Hara in other ways; he met John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch while he was a student there. Together they were to form the nucleus of what came to be known as the “New York school” of poetry. This school stressed wit and surface brilliance in poetry and was opposed to the high seriousness of T. S. Eliot and the New Critics.

Frank O’Hara

O’Hara did graduate work in literature at the University of Michigan, where he won the prestigious Hopwood Award for poetry. He moved to New York in 1951, working first as a volunteer and later as an associate curator at the Museum of Modern Art. He was to live in the city and work at the museum until his death.

O’Hara published a number of essays and articles on painters (such as Jackson Pollock) and remained active at the Museum of Modern Art. He also began to accumulate a surprisingly large body of poetry. He published his first book of poems, A City Winter, and Other Poems, in 1952. The style of O’Hara’s poetry was clear in this early book. It was a mixture of casually recorded incidents succeeding one another. O’Hara called this style “I do this, I do that” poems. There was also stylistic use of detail; the poems included place-names and the names of his friends. Finally, O’Hara often used surreal imagery and very loose structures.

Later, O’Hara issued a manifesto of his poetic beliefs titled “Personism.” In it he rejected all pretentious or overly serious statements regarding the purpose of poetry. It was, instead, to give delight and amuse. Many of his poems are titled “Note to . . . ” (such as “Note to John Ashbery”). These are personal, even intimate, poems. O’Hara also used an intimate approach in longer poems such as “In Memory of My Feelings” and “Second Avenue.”

In 1956 O’Hara received a Ford Foundation Fellowship to work with the Poets’ Theatre, a theater that he helped to found. After working on the connections between poetry and drama, he published a book of poems, Meditations in an Emergency, in 1957. O’Hara was interested and active in nearly all the arts: poetry, painting, theater, music, and film. He was one of the few writers of his time to connect the various arts in his work and his life.

O’Hara published Odes in 1960; the work was remarkable for the serigraphs of Mike Goldberg that were included in the book. O’Hara often refers to painting in his poems, and his work remained close to the art world. This can be seen in the often anthologized poem “Why I Am Not a Painter,” in which he compares the methods of the two arts.

In 1964 O’Hara published one of his most typical books of poetry, Lunch Poems. However, it is difficult, and somewhat misleading, to limit the study of O’Hara’s work to a sequence of published books of poetry. He circulated many of his poems among his friends and never published them; others were published in small journals or in collections such as The New American Poetry, 1945-1960, edited by Donald Allen.

The last book of O’Hara’s poems published during his lifetime was Love Poems (Tentative Title), in 1965. The next year he was hit by a dune buggy on Fire Island and died on July 25. In 1967 a collection of his poems, In Memory of My Feelings: A Selection of Poems, was published; it included some of O’Hara’s best work. In 1971 The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara was published. Critics were surprised to see this large volume of work from such a supposedly casual poet.

Frank O’Hara was a varied poet who wrote in a number of modes. There are many ephemeral and merely personal poems, but there are some major efforts as well. “Second Avenue” is a long, surrealistic poem on his world, times, and friends. There are also a number of poems that deal with the arts. O’Hara wrote on both the fine and popular arts, as poems such as “Rhapsody” and “The Day Lana Turner Died” make clear. Perhaps the mode most representative of his poetry is found in “The Day Lady Died.” The poem is full of references to things and friends, but it is lifted out of the ordinary by the poet receiving the news of the death of Billie Holiday.

Author Works Poetry: A City Winter, and Other Poems, 1952 Oranges, 1953 Meditations in an Emergency, 1957 Odes, 1960 Lunch Poems, 1964 Love Poems (Tentative Title), 1965 In Memory of My Feelings: A Selection of Poems, 1967 (Bill Berkson, editor) The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, 1971, 1995 (Donald Allen, editor) Selected Poems, 1974 Hymns of St. Bridget, and Other Writings, 1975, 2001 (with Berkson) Early Poems, 1946–1951, 1976 Poems Retrieved, 1977, revised and enlarged 1996 Drama: The General Returns from One Place to Another, pr. 1964 Selected Plays, pb. 1978 Amorous Nightmares of Delay: Selected Plays, pb. 1997 Nonfiction: Jackson Pollock, 1959 New Spanish Painting and Sculpture, 1960 Robert Motherwell, with Selections from the Artist’s Writings, 1965 Standing Still and Walking in New York, 1975 Art Chronicles, 1954-1966, 1975, revised 1990 Miscellaneous: Early Writing, 1977 Bibliography Breslin, James E. B. “Frank O’Hara.” In From Modern to Contemporary: American Poetry, 1945-1965. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. Discusses how O’Hara’s “lunch hour poems” demythologize city poetry, in contrast to the work of T. S. Eliot and Allen Ginsberg. Includes footnotes and index. Feldman, Alan. Frank O’Hara. Boston: Twayne, 1979. This book introduces O’Hara as a New York poet. His language, style, and degrees of coherence are analyzed. Themes of “the self,” varieties of feelings, and humor are examined in succeeding chapters. Includes chronology, select bibliography, and index. Gooch, Brad. City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994. This biography of O’Hara details his life from his Massachusetts Catholic boyhood to Harvard University and to New York, where his art criticism became seminal to the abstract expressionist painters and sculptors. Perloff, Marjorie. Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters. New York: George Braziller, 1977. Analyzes O’Hara’s “aesthetic of attention” and surveys the early poems. Perloff’s central chapter looks at his “poem-paintings,” and then his “great period” is presented. Includes illustrations, notes, a bibliographical note, and an index. Vendler, Helen. “Frank O’Hara: The Virtue of the Alterable.” In Part of Nature, Part of Us: Modern American Poets. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980. This essay reviews O’Hara’s work as a genre of overproduced conversation with an incapacity to be abstract and a discomfort with form. O’Hara, however, proved in his late poetry that he could capture the rhythms of America better than most of his contemporaries. Ward, Geoff. Statutes of Liberty: The New York School of Poets. New York: Palgrave, 2001. An acclaimed account of the New York school and its key figures, John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, and James Schuyler, and their growing influence on postmodern poetics.

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