Frank O’Hara: Personality and the Poet

Don’t I look like an ass now? In my last post on poetry, I bragged blogged about how I don’t read The New Yorker anymore. Well, leave it to an old friend to call me out and send me a link to a terribly interesting article by Dan Chiasson from, yes, The New Yorker, about Frank O’Hara, the power of his personality, and how his poetry flows directly from his immense Gatsby-like creation of self.

Chiasson’s delightful prose aside, the article describes how poetry is a secondary activity to O’Hara’s life and personality. “O’Hara’s first real accomplishment was his personality, which became famous long before his poems did,” writes Chiasson. During the 1950s, art was cross-pollination: jazz mingled with literature and painting, and all art gossiped frantically over cocktails in bohemian New York. O’Hara’s personality was a magnetic combination of aesthetics and nuanced, designed taste. His circle of friends — and his poetry — perhaps better than any artist exemplified the “His personality was always a brilliant contrivance, practically a work of art: improvised, self-revising, full of feints.”

There were excesses, of course, and Chiasson is right to point out the undertow of time throughout O’Hara’s poems. O’Hara is in a frantic search and creation for and of identity, and is never satisfied, as Seidel puts it “Too much is almost enough, for crying out loud!” In a flurry of verse, he describes and creates life, hoping to push back time’s advance, to preserve himself and his friends. O’Hara’s poems are richer if one sees not just his charm, but how the charm is a symptom of deeper concerns.

Frank O’Hara lived at the dawn of postmodern mediation of the self. Like all self-reflexive thinkers, his personality is a mix of self-conscious opinions with authenticity, an emulsion stirred by impermanent poetry and immutable time. His personality is a abstract-impressionist obsession with self-creation. His art, therefore, is the practice of thinning of the membrane that separates his self from the outside world. His glorification of cinema perhaps speaks to his talent for acting naturally, his penchant for charming and attracting. All of this brings up the question Dave asked in a recent post, “What is the relationship of an interesting life to an interesting writer? Which springs from which: Does the life lead to the writing, or the writing to the life? Or are they unrelated…” Frank O’Hara’s life and work supplies the answer that they are mutually dependent; in order for him to create his own biography, to author his own self, he writes poetry that catalogs what Chiasson calls “alternative facts: films and paintings and music he loved, friends, lovers, idols.” Personism, indeed. In the end, for all the self-creation O’Hara wants to lay claim to, his poetry and his very self become reflections of his brilliant social life. It is in this way, that his finest poems, classically defined, are a skillful elucidation of the lack of distinction between him, his art, and his circle of friends.

I say “classically defined” in the previous sentence because I disagree with Chiasson’s denigration of O’Hara’s “Collected Poems”, edited by Donald Allen, as a “three-and-a-half-pound bulging grab bag, created to sit idle on a shelf.” He says, “You can’t read it or teach from it; good poems are shimmed between bad and slight ones.” The “bad and slight ones,” I believe, create a need for a new form of critique. If O’Hara’s poetic art is inseparable from his personality and friends, then perhaps we need to submit to O’Hara’s wish and consider his whole body of work to be him. What an aesthetic critique of a human work of art would look like, I’m not entirely sure, but it’s clear that O’Hara’s project extends far beyond his poems. His “bad and slight ones,” therefore, are more interesting and strong when considered together with the context of his life. The sheer volume of O’Hara’s output is a critique on traditional conceptions of what a poem is and of a poem’s presumed self-contained nature. O’Hara’s real art — if it’s not his life — is the fictionalized autobiography that is his “Collected Poems”.

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6 responses to “Frank O’Hara: Personality and the Poet

  1. I was just talking about Frank in my blog yesterday and happened upon your post while browsing through new posts. Thanks.

    Gadfry, I’m still torn about Frank. Can’t decide whether to buy the Complete Poems. I’ll go read that New Yorker article. . .

  2. You talk here about looking at a book as a person. It’s a brilliant idea, and leads to another: looking at a person as a book. Let’s discuss how to begin.

    What is the subject, exactly? If we don’t know what we’re looking at, cohesive examination won’t be possible. Are we looking at a social persona? Including or excluding private moments? I suggest we begin exclusively with public moments–moments in which it is acknowledged that others are present. It won’t require us to really change our own social personas drastically. It might make them seem a little focused and odd, but that’s nothing new for either of us.

    What sorts of notes will we make? I think it would be interesting to team up on a literary analysis of a human persona, tape record a conversation, then listen to it and keep careful track of important points. Ultimately, I think it should result in a formal report, just as literary research does, to be presented at a conference in which others present reports. Maybe someday we will have a conference in which strangers present literary analyses exclusively of other strangers.

  3. Right on, dude:

    http://gawker.com/5005296/a-field-guide-to-2008s-six-douchiest-cliques

    Style.com says: Despite their “whatever, dude” mien, Colen, Snow, and their scruffy tribe of Lost Boys know that a gift for self-promotion is just as important as having a way with a paintbrush. Their biggest sell—apart from their actual art, of course—is their cooler-than-thou posse, of which everyone below 14th Street seems to want to be a part. “You realize that, like, your social context has a lot to do with, like, your success,” Colen recently articulated.

  4. Difficult to think of a collected poems that is not slight poems between strong ones. That is the bane, the beeuty, the fun & the whole idea of it.

  5. i don’t think i think a writer needs to have an interesting life in order to write well (for poets, i think it’s more important to love language and sound than to have a great wealth of subjects; there are so many good poets who seem to have led pretty unremarkable lives). i could be swayed to think differently on that, though.

    however, i definitely think the reverse is true: people with more interesting lives are more likely to write. i think this is because writing offers people who’ve had unique experiences the opportunity to come to know their own lives on a deeper level; writing gives people permission to ask questions and a structured framework in which to ask those questions. i don’t mean to describe writing as therapy, although it certainly can be for some people; i’m talking more about writing as investigation.

    that seems to have been a large part of frank o’hara’s project; he catalogued the vitality he found in new york life both in order to offer ordinary things–and by extension himself–a solid place in a fleeting world, but also in order to pursue the mystery of that Coke or movie star or painting or odd feeling after a party. so his writing was defined by his personality, but his personality was all about–as you write of his art–“thinning… the membrane that separates his self from the outside world.” for me, that’s one of the most appealing things about o’hara’s work; he’s writing poetry of the self, but in the expansive, hungry sense of trying to internalize everything he loves.

    also, what an awesome post, jared.

  6. Pingback: Go Read Moe Tkacik and Jezebel! « No Record Press: The Blog

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