City Poet: The Life and Times of
Frank O' Hara
by Brand Goch
Random House Press, 30.00
Frank O'Hara's short life, somewhat surprisingly, does not always make for the best reading. The poet laureate of 1950s bohemian New York passed his first 20 years in relative quiet, leading a withdrawn existence in a small Massachussetts town. And despite the assurance on the book jacket of Brad Gooch's City Poet that O'Hara's accidental death at 40 struck down a poet "at the height of his powers," this book portrays these last years as more consumed by depression and alcoholism than creative passion.
So while the hefty and turbulent mid-section of this biography is fascinating, it is dragged down at either end by a surplus of mundane details. Quoting extensively from O'Hara's letters, journals and an unpublished novel, Gooch recounts in painstaking detail the poet's placid early years and his startingly unconfrontational outlook. In those years, the poet conformed at least externally to American middle class expectations, escorting girl-friends to prom, enlisting for service in World War II, writing home affectionate letters filled with responsible advice for his younger siblings. Although filled with vague bohemian aspirations and troubled by his homosexuality, O'Hara showed little indication that he would become the master of a sophisticated, eclectic poetic style, a sympathizer with radical aesthetics and politics and a folk hero of New York's 50s art scene.
City Poet really gets off the ground only when it comes to O'Hara's Harvard years. When he enrolled there after the war on the G.I. Bill, he joined an undergraduate population containing an astonishing number of future luminaries, including John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Donald Hall, Adrienne Rich, Harold Brodkey, Alison Lurie, Robert Bly and Robert Creeley. By sophomore year O'Hara and Edward Gorey, his roommate at Eliot House, occupied the center of a flourishing artistic and social scene whose campy, brittle style was a bald rip-off of Oscar Wilde and characters out of Evelyn Waugh and Ivy Compton-Burnett.
This striking change in the social cast of O'Hara's life is most clearly gauged by the change in his literary tone; the small town G.I., who once wrote naive letters home suddenly began to use a cosmopolitan, often arch and usually hilarious poetic voice. At Harvard O'Hara developed his unique style, incorporating the traces of French Surrealism, American popular culture and chatty injoking that would characterize the New York poets. Disappointingly, Gooch records this artistic blossoming and social awakening without venturing much explanation for it; his careful recounting of events does little on its own to bridge the startling disjunction in O'Hara's life.
Still, the story of the poet's circle is a fascinating one, and Gooch proves expert at handling this heady mix of characters. The Harvard section explores the exploits of a set of young men and women almost unbelievably concerned with art and confident of their ability to produce it. City Poet recalls an era when a dispute over the relative merits of Eliot and Stevens could strain a friendship, when a pro-Yeats faction at the Advocate battled with a pro-Auden contingent of modernist mavericks, and when the smoke-filled Grolier Bookshop was a bona-fide artists' hangout. All of these pretensious goings-on would be laughable if they hadn't spawned some of the most talented artists in the nation, and Gooch does an excellent job of evoking the air of social frivolity that surrounded these innovative discussions.
The rest of O'Hara's life--the move to New York, the succession of affairs, the eventual job as curator at the Museum of Modern Art--was equally filled with the motion and sounds of colorful personalities, including Jackson Pollack, Larry Rivers, LeRoi Jones, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler and Allen Ginsberg. These sections of the biography are almost impossibly juicy, filled with gossipy anecdotes and discussions of trends in all the artistic genres with which O'Hara became involved.
At times, this broad canvas tends to obscure the nuances of O'Hara's art. Gooch provides a detailed account of the party, argument or museum exhibit which inspired a particular poem, but usually offers little analysis of the aesthetic or linguistic concerns the poem explores. In some ways, this approach befits a poet who compared his poems to unmade telephone calls, but the overall effect sometimes privileges O'Hara's role as social butterfly over that of poet.
While it may not offer the definitive statement on O'Hara's poetry, City Poet remains an lively presentation of a feverishly lived life. Gooch's intoxicating re-creation of O'Hara's milieu helps unlock some of the more insular references in his work (O'Hara once remarked to a friend on the small size of his audience: "You could fit the people I write for into your john all at the same time without raising an eyebrow"). Although O'Hara's poems to friends create an intimacy in which the reader can often share, Gooch's book adds a valuable contextual frame to works like "Chez Jane," "For Grace, After A Party," "Embarassing Bill," "Vincent And I Inaugurate A Movie Theatre" and "At Joan's."
Despite its frustrating gaps, City Poet generally remains close to its subject, to the emotional intricacies of what O'Hara called his "rococo self." Gooch has done a staggering amount of original research, and his book serves as a useful introduction to the intelligence and energy O'Hara brought to his life and poems.