The Day Frank Died: Elegies for Frank O’Hara

O'Hara Tombstone 2

Yesterday marked the 47th anniversary of Frank O’Hara’s tragic death at the age of 40 on July 25, 1966.  To mark the occasion, the New Republic posted a brief tribute to O’Hara that features two (very different) poems that were originally published in the New Republic itself (“A Pleasant Thought from Whitehead” and “Sleeping on the Wing”) and a link to the great video of O’Hara reading “Having a Coke With You.”

It seems like a good moment, then, to revisit some of the many elegies written for O’Hara, and there are quite a few.  As Marjorie Perloff once noted in her landmark book on O’Hara, “a whole anthology could be compiled of poems written for Frank O’Hara in the five years or so following his death.”  She wrote those words in 1977, but no one has yet compiled such an anthology (not to mention one that also gathers the countless poems written for and about O’Hara in the years since), but someone should!

Among the best and most important of these is “City Midnight Junk Strains,” written by O’Hara’s good friend Allen Ginsberg just a few days after O’Hara’s death.  I’ve just happily discovered that a recording of Ginsberg’s affectionate and candid poem, which laments  “chattering Frank / stopped forever” and hails his “common ear / for our deep gossip” is available online:

I want to be there in your garden party in the clouds
all of us naked
strumming our harps and reading each other              new poetry
in the boring celestial
Friendship Committee Museum

You’re in a bad mood?
Take an Aspirin.
In the Dumps?
I’m falling asleep
safe in your thoughtful arms.*

Others include David Shapiro’s lovely “Ode” (“Permit me to take this sleeping man / And I will help him on his way … I have something of New York in me / Lying against cement to bring it back”) and Ted Berrigan’s poem “Frank O’Hara

                                              In another picture, a good-
looking poet is thinking it over, nevertheless, he will
never speak of that it. But, his face is open, his eyes
are clear, and, leaning lightly on an elbow, fist below
his ear, he will never be less than perfectly frank,
listening, completely interested in whatever there may
be to hear. Attentive to me alone here. Between friends,
nothing would seem stranger to me than true intimacy.
What seems genuine, truly real, is thinking of you, how
that makes me feel. You are dead. And you’ll never
write again about the country, that’s true.
But the people in the sky really love
to have dinner & to take a walk with you.

Then there is John Ashbery’s masterful poem “Street Musicians,” which, I argue in my book, can be read as a subtle elegy for O’Hara (also in an excerpt available here). It begins:

One died, and the soul was wrenched out
Of the other in life, who, walking the streets
Wrapped in an identity like a coat, sees on and on
The same corners, volumetrics, shadows
Under trees. Farther than anyone was ever
Called, through increasingly suburban airs
And ways, with autumn falling over everything …

And then there’s the elegy that is perhaps my own favorite: James Schuyler’s devastating poem “Buried At Springs” (Springs being the name of the town in Long Island, NY, where O’Hara is buried, just a step away from his hero, Jackson Pollock).

Schuyler’s poem was written in Maine, at Fairfield Porter’s home on Great Spruce Island in Penobscot Bay (a place I wrote about last week), where O’Hara had visited years earlier. The poem is only obliquely about O’Hara, but in some ways that just makes it all the more moving, with the “thin scream” of its ascending grief only barely under control:

There is a hornet in the room
and one of us will have to go
out the window into the late
August midafternoon sun. I
won. There is a certain challenge
in being humane to hornets
but not much. A launch draws
two lines of wake behind it
on the bay like a delta
with a melted base. Sandy
billows, or so they look,
of feathery ripe heads of grass,
an acid-yellow kind of
goldenrod glowing or glowering
in shade. Rocks with rags
of shadow, washed dust clouts
that will never bleach.
It is not like this at all.
The rapid running of the
lapping water a hollow knock
of someone shipping oars:
it’s eleven years since
Frank sat at this desk and
saw and heard it all
the incessant water the
immutable crickets only
not the same: new needles
on the spruce, new seaweed
on the low-tide rocks
other grass and other water
even the great gold lichen
on a granite boulder
even the boulder quite
literally is not the same

II
A day subtle and suppressed
in mounds of juniper enfolding
scratchy pockets of shadow
while bigness—rocks, trees, a stump—
stands shadowless in an overcast
of ripe grass. There is nothing
but shade, like the boggy depths
of a stand of spruce, its resonance
just the thin scream
of mosquitoes ascending.
Boats are light lumps on the bay
stretching past erased islands
to ocean and the terrible tumble
and London (“rain persisting”)
and Paris (“changing to rain”).
Delicate day, setting the bright
of a young spruce against the cold
of an old one hung with unripe cones
each exuding at its tip
gum, pungent, clear as a tear,
a day tarnished and fractured
as the quartz in the rocks
of a dulled and distant point,
a day like a gull passing
with a slow flapping of wings
in a kind of lope, without
breeze enough to shake loose
the last of the fireweed flowers,
a faintly clammy day, like wet silk
stained by one dead branch
the harsh russet of dried blood.

* Apologies for not getting the spacing of these Ginsberg lines right: try as I might, I can’t seem to get WordPress to allow me to space lines of poetry correctly.  (If anyone has any suggestions, please let me know!).

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This entry was posted in Allen Ginsberg, David Shapiro, Frank O'Hara, James Schuyler, John Ashbery, Poems, Ted Berrigan. Bookmark the permalink.