The Life and Times of Frank O'Hara

By Brad Gooch

Knopf. 532 pp. $30

IN THE EARLY 1950s, when T.S. Eliot and the academic New Critics were all-powerful, Randall Jarrell wrote admiringly of Whitman, "They could have put on his tombstone: WALT WHITMAN: HE HAD HIS NERVE. He is the rashest, the most inexplicable and unlikely . . . of poets." At that moment Frank O'Hara, just out of Harvard, was embarking on his own nervy career as a poet, and Brad Gooch's big, engrossing biography emphasizes the rash, headlong, prodigal quality of his talent. "I don't even like rhythm, assonance, all that stuff," O'Hara wrote in a manifesto. "You just go on your nerve. If someone's chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don't turn around and shout, 'Give it up! I was a track star at Mineola Prep.' "

When O'Hara died at 40 in 1966, hit by a jeep after midnight on a Fire Island beach, the painter Larry Rivers said at his funeral, "Frank O'Hara was my best friend. There are at least sixty people in New York who thought Frank O'Hara was their best friend." Busy in love, busy at his job as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, drinking a lot, O'Hara was careless of his poems, produced at an astounding rate. He stuffed them in drawers, lost many, couldn't get them together for publishers who wanted to put out a book. One of his best early poems, "Memorial Day 1950," survives because John Ashbery copied it out in a letter to Kenneth Koch. When Koch went to O'Hara's apartment after his death, he found stacks of poems, including one that became an anthology piece, "A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island," which no one who knew him had ever seen.

Five years after his death, the nearly 600-page Collected Poems, with a moving, characteristically acute introduction by Ashbery, was a revelation. Nobody had guessed the magnitude of his work. It's a terrible shame that the economics of publishing sent this magnificent book out-of-print. The 1974 Selected Poems is a meager substitute: we need O'Hara whole, light-hearted off-hand improvisations alongside epic pieces like "Meditations in an Emergency" and "In Memory of My Feelings."

Instead of a formal critical biography, Gooch has produced an anecdotal, vividly gossipy chronicle of New York artistic life in the '50s and '60s. O'Hara was at the center of an excited postwar life of a city that was beginning to feel itself the artistic capital of the world. He stayed out late drinking with the abstract expressionist painters and went constantly to Balanchine's New York City Ballet, which, Gooch observes, had no subscription policy yet and could be attended as casually as going to the movies, which O'Hara also loved to do. He wrote quickly and enthusiastically about his daily life in what he called his "I do this I do that" poems. One of them, "Lana Turner Has Collapsed!," was composed on the Staten Island ferry on his way to a joint reading with Robert Lowell and read to the audience a few minutes after he finished writing it.

O'Hara's love life is a sad story: "Frank always gave his heart," says the painter Grace Hartigan. "The men he fell in love with were always cooler than he was." He was hurtfully attracted to straight men. "Frank was always convincing straight men that they could go to bed with him," said Richard Howard. O'Hara had a longish affair with Larry Rivers, who wrote an ungenerous account of it in his recent autobiography. By the end of his life, he was beginning to despair of himself as "an old homosexual." Ashbery, visiting him in the morning, found him drinking vodka-and-grapefruit-juice before setting off to work at the Museum.

The later pages are a record of diminished spirits and lowered vitality. He wrote less in his last years and was depressed by his inability to produce. One clings to the earlier account of his amazing energy and generosity. Gooch observes that he was the only poet to read the work of contemporaries at his public appearances. When Ashbery was still an exotic, unknown poet, O'Hara read his poems to audiences who did't yet know his work. When Ashbery showed up in New York after long residence in Paris, O'Hara threw a party for him. "At this party all sorts of young poets that Frank had gotten to know . . . came up to me and acted as if I was some kind of celebrity." Ashbery told Gooch. "I was completely dumbfounded."

"City Poet" accomplishes the best thing a biography can do, make one wish one had met its subject. O'Hara cruising at lunch hour from the museum, jotting down what he sees, is the quintessential mid-century New York poet.

Walter Clemons, former book critic for Newsweek, is completing a biography of Gore Vidal.