Robert Garnham on Frank O’Hara

Over the years I have been influenced and affected by many poets, and my own style, whatever that is, has been formed by immersing myself in the works of greater types. Those who have shown me how to express myself artistically remain as references, that I might ask myself how they have got round the usual problems we all encounter while writing. In the world of performance poetry, the humour and wordplay of Rachel Pantechnicon was an early indication of the joy and hilarity which exists all around us and how it can be applied to performance. And Byron Vincent demonstrates that words, words, words in all their brilliance, can combine with imagery, panache, performance, real life and deep humour to create something sublime of which I remain truly jealous.

Oh my.

But the biggest influence on my poetry is one which I seldom try to replicate. Frank O’Hara was a poet I’d discovered during my university years. Previous to reading him for the first time, I’d not been a fan of poetry, with the exception of Allen Ginsberg. O’Hara’s words – and the fact that he was seen as worth of study- had a profound impact on my understanding of what poetry is and what it can be about. His poems are about everyday life in a major city, meeting friends, parties, culture, gay society, relationships, sex, bonhomie, art, and enjoying life to the full.

O’Hara came to me at just the right time. Very quickly, I read almost everything he’d written, from Lunch Poems to Meditations In An Emergency, a line from which sums up my own feelings about metropolitan society. ‘I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store, or some other sign that people do not totally regret life’.

O’Hara’s oeuvre remains famous now mainly because of his so-called ‘I do this I do that’ poems, usually written during his lunch hour while he was working at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. These poems describe the minutiae of his life, details which incorporate both high and low culture. One of his most famous ‘I do this I do that’ poems is ‘A Step Away From Them’. (1956).

It’s my lunch hour, so I go
for a walk among the hum-colored
cabs. First, down the sidewalk
where laborers feed their dirty
glistening torsos sandwiches
and Coca-Cola, with yellow helmets
on. They protect them from falling
bricks, I guess. Then onto the
avenue where skirts are flipping
above heels and blow up over
grates. The sun is hot, but the
cabs stir up the air. I look
at bargains in wristwatches. There
are cats playing in sawdust.

(…)

Neon in daylight is a
great pleasure, as Edwin Denby would
write, as are light bulbs in daylight.
I stop for a cheeseburger at JULIET’S
CORNER. Giulietta Masina, wife of
Federico Fellini, è bell’ attrice.
And chocolate malted. A lady in
foxes on such a day puts her poodle
in a cab.
There are several Puerto
Ricans on the avenue today, which
makes it beautiful and warm. First
Bunny died, then John Latouche,
then Jackson Pollock. But is the
earth as full as life was full, of them?
And one has eaten and one walks,
past the magazines with nudes
and the posters for BULLFIGHT and
the Manhattan Storage Warehouse,
which they’ll soon tear down. I
used to think they had the Armory
Show there.
A glass of papaya juice
and back to work. My heart is in my
pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.

This poem is filled with what some might describe as ‘low culture’, mentioning Coca Cola and cheeseburgers, neon, and builders with dirty, glistening torsos. But it also mentions abstract expressionist painters, many of whom were friends of the poet, Federico Fellini and Pierre Reverdy. It was this mix of different cultures, this self-curating, this very admittance that there really is no difference between one art form and another, or one way of living ones life and another, which struck me as so totally at odds with literary study and it’s cañon. It also helped that he was eating burgers and looking at builders with their shirts off.

If Frank taught me anything, it was how to end a poem. This sometimes seems the most difficult thing to do while writing, but O’Haras poems often end on the last line surprise, the stunning send-off. Every time I come to the last line of a poem, I always wonder WWFD?

I could write about Frank O’Hara all evening.

In a couple of weeks I shall be forty, which is the age O’Hara reached before he was wiped out by a dune buggy while walking in the dark on Fire Island in 1966. I hope to live for much longer. Like Frank, I’m surrounded by creative types and friends. Like Frank, I have to fit my poetry and writing in to the humdrum of having a full time job. Of all the writers and poets I’ve studied over the years both for university and college and for private interest, it is O’Hara whose life and philosophy seem most to mirror my own.

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