ONE EVENING in 1962, as Frank O'Hara boarded the Staten Island Ferry on his way to Wagner College to read his poetry, he saw a headline -- LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED. This promptly inspired one of his best-known poems, whose 17 lines, concluding with oh Lana we love you get up were finished by the time he stood up to read. So they went on the program, along with an account of their parturition, and the audience was delighted.
It seems that Frank O'Hara wrote most of his poetry in this manner. Entire poems were pecked out at lunch time on the sample typewriter that used to stand at the entrance to the Olivetti showroom on Fifth Avenue. At home, in the middle of a conversation or while watching an old movie on television, he would get up, cross over to his desk and type a few lines or a page. Once, while a TV film crew was recording him in his loft apartment, he answered the telephone without halting the interview. "This is a very peculiar situation," he told the friend at the other end of the line, "because while I'm talking to you, I'm typing and also being filmed . . . Can you imagine that? Yeah. Alfred Leslie is holding my hand while its happening. It's known as a performance . . ."
Now the strategy at work here is that of someone in a very stymied, self-conscious position. Paralyzed by circumstances, he opts to throw everything to the wind and forgo all plans or calculated moves. He leaps before he looks, he shoots from the hip, he seizes the present tense and trusts to his feelings.
This, more or less, was the position of any thoughful young American poet in 1950 (Frank O'Hara was born in 1926). The poetry scene was tight, clenched, airless. The posssibilities seemed exhausted. After Yeats and Eliot and Auden, the fires of English-language poetry were banked. The only thing a fledgling might try for seemed to be tighter and tighter forms, and greater propriety, tanner civility, nicer manners. No civil style survived . . . But the wry, the sotto-voice, Ironic and monochrome . . . said the master, Auden, who was busily writing sestinas, drottkvaetts, syllabic verse and haikus. What was a young poet to do, and where was he to go, except perhaps to a university (on the GI Bill), where feelings suitable for classrooms and faculty teas were enjoined?
Then somehow Frank O'Hara and his friends found another direction. Town instead of Gown, Second Avenue in Manhattan instead of Harvard Yard in Cambridge, and instead of Henry James and Eliot and Auden, a blessed all-American triumvirate: Walt Whitman, for ease and candor and intimacy; William Carlos Williams, for local, homemade feelings, for plums in the icebox instead of the decline of the Wasteland; and Gertrude Stein, whose writing reclaimed the present tense and who said, "I am writing for myself and strangers."
Frank O'Hara, from his earliest poems, might be said to have been writing for himself and his friends. "Whatever is happening to me . . . goes into my poems," he declared and his originality lies in the courage and panache with which he stuck to his own happenings. Like his personal behavior, his poems could be silly, trivial, private, arcane, campy, but they were never -- like those of his contemporaries -- official, monitored to please the establishment or IMPROTANT. They are full of fun, giddiness, loving, joy. There is dross certainly, as there is in Whitman and Williams and Stein. But there is also a fresh, robust, absolutely new tone of voice in American literature. Listen to this: Ah Jean Dubuffet when you think of him doing his military service in the Eiffel tower as a meteorologist in 1922 you know how wonderful the 20th centruy can be. And he knew how good he was, too. "There's nobody writing better poetry than I am," he said, in 1961.
In 1966, at barely 40, Frank O'Hara was struck down by a beach taxi on Fire Island, and joined Byron, Hart Crane, Keats, Marlowe, Sylvia Plath, Rimbaud, Shelley, Dylan Thomas and all the other lyric poets who were never to know middle age. Since then, his friends have been a beehive on his behalf. A monumental edition of his Collected Poems and a substantial Selected Poems, have been prepared by Donald Allen. Now two of his dearest friends have gathered an album of homages -- paintings, photographs, poems, memoirs, anecdotes, affections -- a book abounding with charm and gaiety, unsentimental sweetness and light. Every page is worthy of its hero in that it is intimate, informal vulnerable, fiercely loving. J. J. Mitchell's terse account of the accident on Fire Island made me bawl. So did Larry Rivers' graveside farewell.
But the memoirs by editors Bill Berkson and Joe LeSueur, and those by Kenneth Koch and Terry Southern and John Ashbery and especially by Patsy Southgate would be enthroalling even if their subject were not -- along with Paul Goodman -- the most important poetic voice in America in the third quarter of our century.
But how easy it is to sound pompous, even when sincere, and how hard in a brief review to convey the outspoken, larky, inveterate charm of Frank O'Hara's printed page! Let me conclude by simply quoting one of his own sentences, not from a poem, but from a 1959 manifesto called Personism . He is speaking of form, poetic technique and why he prefers free verse to sonnets: "That's just common sense: if you're going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so that everyone will want to go to bed with you."