LeRoi and Frank: On the Friendship of Amiri Baraka and Frank O’Hara


Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and Frank O’Hara

In the weeks since Amiri Baraka passed away, there has been a flood of tributes and commentary on his work, his controversial career, and his immense legacy and importance. Many of them have discussed his “Beat” phase and touched on aspects of his early connections to the avant-garde.  But as is often the case, not much has been said about Baraka’s close alliance with Frank O’Hara and the New York School of poetry, a topic I’ve also touched on herehere, and here.

To try to help fill this gap, I’m posting an extended excerpt here from my book, Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry, about the close personal and literary relationship between Baraka and O’Hara.  (This is just one part of a much more extensive argument I make about Baraka’s work as a whole and its interconnections with O’Hara, including discussions of Baraka’s works that echo O’Hara’s writing or refer to him by name — if you’re interested, please check out another longer excerpt from a different chapter here, or the book as a whole).

So here it is — an excerpt (sans the lengthy footnotes) from my chapter “‘Against the Speech of Friends’: Baraka’s White Friend Blues” in Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry (Oxford University Press, 2006).

Roi and Frank: The Bobbsey Twins in Greenwich Village

Soon after Baraka dove into the heart of the New York avant-garde milieu in the late 1950s and began establishing a tight network of literary alliances and friendships, he grew close to that human whirlwind at the center of the art and poetry world, Frank O’Hara.  Of all the friendships Baraka established with prominent members of the avant-garde, his relationship with O’Hara became one of the most important in his early development, and one of the most interesting alliances within the New American Poetry movement.  At what was arguably the peak of both of their careers (from roughly 1958 to 1964) they were deeply involved in each other’s lives and works, supporting one another’s writing, reading each other closely, performing together frequently, appearing alongside one another in the pages of Baraka’s two journals Yugen and The Floating Bear, and working as editors together on the journal Kulchur.  If for this reason alone, it is necessary for us to reconsider Baraka as a figure deeply intertwined with the developing New York School and its poetics.

In his recent, posthumously published memoir about O’Hara, one of his closest friends and longtime roommate Joe LeSueur includes Baraka in a short list of people who were not merely “casual friends and acquaintances” of O’Hara’s, but rather “friends who saw him all the time, who confided in him, and who in some instances went to bed with him” (126).  LeSueur adds that, among the legions of young poets who flocked to O’Hara in the early 1960s – like such acknowledged members of the New York School’s so-called “Second Generation,” Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett, Bill Berkson, Frank Lima, Tony Towle, and David Shapiro – Baraka was surely one of the most important: “Frank was closer to Roi than he was to Ted or any of the others, Bill Berkson excepted” (244).  And because Baraka was “unusually mature and accomplished for his age,” and also because as editor of Yugen and The Floating Bear “he was one of Frank’s publishers,” LeSueur affirms that “from the beginning of their friendship, Roi was a colleague of Frank’s and never, like some of the other budding poets, a disciple, or in future years, after his death, what I called an O’Hara freak, as in Jesus freak…” (245).

In one letter, O’Hara characterized his friendship with Baraka by using the familiar trope of siblinghood, simultaneously hinting that such closeness can turn into a threatening merger of identities: “We’ve been giving a lot of readings together which is getting to be like the Bobsy [sic] Twins so we’re stopping out of exhaustion” (Gooch 426).  At editorial meetings for Kulchur, the poet Jim Brodey recalled, the two were playfully in cahoots – “[Frank] would make remarks, then LeRoi would make a remark, and they’d kick each other under the table” (Gooch 388).  In her memoir, Baraka’s ex-wife Hettie Jones observes that this tight, even fraternal bond was founded on a sense of kinship and resemblance.  “He and Frank O’Hara had become good friends,” Jones writes,  “They were equal and alike, small, spare, original, confident, stuck on themselves for good reasons” (98).  Despite such ample evidence of their close affiliation, despite their frequent references to one another in their works, little attention has been paid to Baraka’s friendship with O’Hara, nor to his more general proximity to the New York avant-garde milieu centered around O’Hara and the New York School of poets (in contrast to the Beats, with whom he is much more often associated).

Almost a decade younger and a much later arrival on the New York scene, Baraka was deeply influenced by O’Hara’s poetry and intellectual sensibility.  In his Autobiography, Baraka offers a capsule assessment of what he saw and admired in his friend’s work: steeped in “the high sophistication and motley ambience of the city,” O’Hara’s was “a French(-Russian) surreal-tinged poetry.  A poetry of expansiveness and big emotion.  Sometimes a poetry of dazzling abstraction and shifting colorful surfaces.  It was out of the Apollinaire of Zone but also close to Whitman and Mayakovsky” (233).  When asked years later by an interviewer about what he might have learned from O’Hara and Ginsberg, Baraka responded, with a touch of defensiveness,

the only aspect I could say of O’Hara and Ginsberg that I could have possibly appropriated was the kind of openness that I always got from them… .  O’Hara’s openness was much more casual and personal (Ginsberg’s was super dramatic).  O’Hara’s openness and Ginsberg’s openness might have influenced me because finally I wanted to write in a way that was direct and in that I could say the things I wanted to say, even about myself, and maybe that did help me to lose any restraints as far as doing it.  (qtd. Harris 141;  printed in 1980)

Notwithstanding Baraka’s rather cagey retrospective assessment, his work shows the profound impact of not only O’Hara’s candor and open, mobile poetic form, but also his embrace of the demotic, the casual, and the colloquial, his pluralism and impatience with rigid absolutism, his attention to popular culture and quotidian urban existence, his use of ironic humor and play within the heretofore deadly serious realm of poetry, and his steady attention to friendship and the vagaries of the protean self.

As we will see, O’Hara himself makes often subtle appearances in Baraka’s work, becoming a locus of complex attitudes about friendship and homosexuality.  Just as Baraka would become a figure, or as Aldon Nielsen puts it, an “intertext” in O’Hara’s poetry, O’Hara is an important marker in Baraka’s verbal and mental landscape, a magnetic force he is drawn towards and repulsed by – an attractive symbol of the avant-garde, whiteness, and homosexuality he will later feel compelled to renounce (Writing 214).  In other words, Frank O’Hara (via both his poetics and his presence as avant-garde companion) plays a significant role in Baraka’s poetry and its ongoing effort to represent and understand friendship and community.  It is also not hard to spot signs of O’Hara’s language, his poetic tone and typical motifs, dotting Baraka’s work.  For example, the dire, prophetic ending of Baraka’s important essay “Cuba Libre” seems to echo, in a strange way, the last words of O’Hara’s “Personism”: where O’Hara writes in 1959 that “Personism” “like Africa, is on the rise. The recent propagandists for technique on the one hand, and for content on the other, had better watch out,” in 1961, Baraka characteristically appropriates and makes over O’Hara’s language and idea into a more political, serious statement: “But the Cubans, and the other new peoples (in Asia, Africa, South America) don’t need us, and we had better stay out of their way” (CP 499, Home 63).

In his 1984 Autobiography, Baraka spends several pages recalling his relationship with O’Hara with evident fondness. “Frank and I were friends,” he writes.  “I admired his genuine sophistication, his complete knowledge of the New York creative scene” (234).  In his eyes,

Frank was one of the most incisive and knowledgeable critics of painting in New York at the time.  The New York school was chiefly, to me, O’Hara.  And if you were anywhere around Frank, as he launched into this subject or that, always on top, laughing, gesturing, exclaiming, being as broad as any topic, and the easy sense of sophistication which gave him an obvious “leadership,” you’d understand. (He’d turn red at such a suggestion.  “Listen, my dear, you can take that leadership business and shove it!”). (233)

As Baraka recalls, the friendship took off quickly and was energized by a sense of camaraderie, alliance, and mutual exchange: “I started meeting Frank for lunch some afternoons at joints near our workplaces – We’d meet at some of those bar-restaurants on the Upper East Side and drink and bullshit, exchange rumors and gossip, and make plans and hear the latest about the greatest” (234).  (One of these lunches would be immortalized in O’Hara’s well-known “Personal Poem,” where the two poets dine on fish and ale, talk about Miles Davis being beaten by police, and gossip about their likes and dislikes).  Baraka informed O’Hara’s biographer Brad Gooch that the two had an unusually healthy alliance that stood out in the back-biting, competitive avant-garde scene: “I think Frank and I had an unspoken agreement not to jump on each other.  We tended to be allies.  It was a political jungle Downtown.  Even as an artsy world, it was still very political, and very much he-said and she-said, and rumors of this and rumors of that, and a coup in the East and a coup in the West.  But we were very supportive of each other” (Gooch 338). 

An alliance with the well-connected O’Hara also undoubtedly opened doors for Baraka, as he recalls that “with Frank O’Hara, one spun and darted through the New York art scene, meeting Balanchine or Merce Cunningham or John Cage or de Kooning or Larry Rivers” (A 235).  In Gooch’s O’Hara biography, Baraka explains that “Frank introduced me to Lincoln Kirstein, Leonard Bernstein, Lauren Bacall.  Bernstein came up with this idea that he wanted to do music for The Toilet” (although he does go on to say how he rebuffed the tuxedo-wearing Bernstein in true bohemian fashion, telling the composer “I would get somebody elegant like Duke Ellington.  I told him he didn’t even dress as good as Duke Ellington”) (427-8).

Like many intense friendships, the relationship seems to have been inspiring, mutually satisfying, and even symbiotic.  For his part, O’Hara was drawn to Baraka for a number of reasons.  For one thing, Baraka stirred O’Hara’s political sensibilities and his passionate convictions about racial equality and justice.  Gooch observes that “Jones’s involvement with the politics of race in America was thrilling to O’Hara.  As Kenneth Koch once remarked to David Shapiro, ‘Frank is a revolutionary poet without a revolution’” – and knowing Baraka gave him special proximity to the most burning issue of the day (426).  Even long after Baraka had renounced the entire world of the avant-garde for what he felt was its apolitical passivity, he still believed that O’Hara, like Allen Ginsberg, was more politically progressive and committed to the Civil Rights struggle than the rest.  “Frank at least had a political sense,” he told O’Hara’s biographer.  “Kenneth Koch and Kenward Elmslie and all those people were always highly antipolitical, which is why I couldn’t get along with them longer than two minutes” (Gooch 425).

Furthermore, as I discuss later in more detail, O’Hara’s fascination with Baraka was no doubt complicated by a powerful romantic, sexual attraction that may or may not have been reciprocated.  (Critics have begun to unpack O’Hara’s complicated attitudes about race, including the sexual fantasies about black male sexuality that frequently enter his work, which undoubtedly shape his friendship with Baraka).  Gooch relates that “O’Hara’s relationship with Jones was always a matter of conjecture to those around them and O’Hara did little to allay the confusion.”  He goes on to quote Kenneth Koch’s recollection of O’Hara’s initial excitement upon meeting Baraka:

He said he’d met this marvelous young poet who was black and good-looking and very interesting.  ‘And not only that,’ he said, ‘he’s gay’…. I don’t know whether LeRoi yielded to Frank’s almost irresistible charms or not… So I assumed that LeRoi was gay for a while, but that’s before I got to know him.  I don’t know whether Frank was serious or not.  Maybe he was just optimistic.  (337)

At the very least, we can assume that the relationship between O’Hara and Baraka was flirtatious and intense, and that O’Hara – who was both notoriously attracted to black men and had a knack for falling for his ostensibly straight friends – probably propositioned Baraka.  Baraka’s own sexuality seems to have been rather fluid at this point;  as we will see, he filled his writings with oblique allusions to his own bisexual experimentation and homoerotic desires.  Gooch mentions that Diane di Prima, who was sleeping with the married Baraka, “was also privy to signs of the light flirting [between Baraka and O’Hara] that went on at the time.  According to di Prima, ‘When Roi and I were in the thick of our affair, I said to him, ‘Let’s run away together to Mexico.’ He said, ‘You’re the second person who asked me to do that this week.’ I said, ‘Who was the other one?’ He said, ‘Frank’” (Gooch 370).  In LeSueur’s memoir, we find yet another clue: he relates that Baraka would frequently drop by the apartment LeSueur shared with O’Hara, “sometimes staying over and sharing Frank’s bed, while I, the very soul of discretion, was in my own bed, minding my own business, never asking questions, never saying a word to anyone about what I thought might be going on, Roi being a married man, a father, a stud, a sexist, a heterosexual!” (246).

For whatever mixture of reasons, O’Hara took a keen interest in the young, energetic Baraka (whom he described in a letter to Ashbery not long after meeting him as “editor of Yugen and a saint”), and became an avid and vocal advocate of his work, at the same time that Baraka was printing O’Hara’s poems in his own publishing ventures (29 October 1959).  In 1961, he told Vincent Warren about a reading they had given together, informing him that “Roi has now completed his The System of Dante’s Hell (he read parts of the last ‘canto’) and I think it is one of the best and most important works of our time” (17 July 1961).  In an open letter O’Hara wrote to defend Baraka after he had been arrested on obscenity charges for publishing an excerpt of The System of Dante’s Hell (a play) and parts of William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, O’Hara wrote that “Mr. Jones’s play I found powerful and moving.  Part of a longer and not-yet published work, it is a strong indictment of moral turpitude.  This work as a whole, The System of Dante’s Hell, is to my mind a major contribution to recent literature, certainly the finest piece of American prose since Kerouac’s first publications.  I was therefore grateful for the publication of even this excerpt” (16 October 1961).

In 1964, O’Hara reported to Larry Rivers that “Roi has also had a resounding triumph at the Cherry Lane … with a one-act play called Dutchman.  It’s a thrilling play…. Roi also had an almost full page on him in Newsweek.  Isn’t that heaven?”  (18 April 1964).  When Dutchman became a succès du scandale in 1964, and was hotly debated by the intelligentsia and roundly criticized by Philip Roth, O’Hara wrote a forceful defense of the play in a letter to The New York Review of Books.  Countering Roth’s preference for Edward Albee’s Zoo Story over Dutchman, O’Hara argues that Albee’s play has “a ridiculous denouement and puts in question all that went before;  Dutchman grows in power, concentration and meaning through every word and gesture” (qtd. in Gooch 427).  Typically unwilling to see the play as a simple diatribe about racial hatred, O’Hara writes that his friend’s play offers “a larger, and more final, vision of American life which relates as closely to thirty-eight mute witnesses to murder in New York City as it does to brutalities in Florida and Mississippi.  This is all rendered in action and its wide application cannot be denied” (qtd. in Gooch 427).

In another letter to Rivers, O’Hara mentions playing the role of sounding board for (or even collaborator with) Baraka as he worked on his play The Toilet: “I have to get myself down to the 5 Spot where I am going to meet LeRoi and get the manuscript of his new play which he is giving me to read because his square agent wants him to make some changes which will render it less ‘out.’  He is certainly asking the right person to read it, for as you know I would never ask him to put it back ‘in’” (7 April 1963).

Not only did O’Hara vet, champion, and influence Baraka’s work, but he was influenced by Baraka in turn, finding poetic inspiration in his friend’s presence and example.  It is worth stressing the pivotal, almost collaborative, role Baraka plays in the genesis of O’Hara’s most important statement of poetics, “Personism,” the mock manifesto which announces the arrival of O’Hara’s own “movement.” Reflecting on this manifesto in a later statement, O’Hara indicates that without Baraka the piece would presumably not exist: “It was, as a matter of fact, intended for Don Allen’s [New American Poetry] anthology, and I was encouraged to write it because LeRoi told me at lunch that he had written a statement for the anthology” (CP 510-11).  As Baraka remembers it, this new “movement” was born out of their insouciant, spontaneous conversation, and, despite its lightheartedness, it seems to have had its roots in aesthetic soil they both shared: “We went to lunch and said ‘Let’s think of a movement.’ ‘What movement?’ ‘Personism.’  It was Frank’s movement.  He thought it up.  What was good for me was that it meant that you could say exactly what was on your mind and you could say it in a kind of conversational tone rather than some haughty public tone for public consumption” (Gooch 338).

At the very crux of the manifesto itself, O’Hara relates this curious moment of inception: “It was founded one day by me after lunch with LeRoi Jones on August 27, 1959, a day in which I was in love with someone (not Roi, by the way, a blond).  I went back to work and wrote a poem for this person.  While I was writing it I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born… It puts the poet squarely between the poet and the person” (CP 499).  If one of the raison d’êtres of O’Hara’s poetics, as he lays out here with half-seriousness, is the idea of poetry as an intersubjective, communicative act, it is interesting to note that while the inaugural “Personist” poem he wrote that day, “Personal Poem,” is in some ways a love poem (for Vincent Warren), it remains largely about the dialogic exchange carried on by O’Hara and Baraka over lunch (“LeRoi comes in / and tells me Miles Davis was clubbed 12 / times last night … we go eat some fish and some ale it’s / cool but crowded we don’t like Lionel Trilling / we decide, we like Don Allen we don’t like / Henry James so much we like Herman Melville” (CP 335-336).  As Michael Magee notes, “The poem itself recounts the conversation between O’Hara and Baraka, so it is some sense already ‘between’ them as much as it is ‘between’ O’Hara and Warren” (“Tribes” 698).  With Baraka as its inspiration, O’Hara’s poem captures the sense of friendship as conduit and exchange, where “we” align our tastes and judgments within a network or cultural field of literary affiliations and cultural forces (for example, jointly deciding that Don Allen trumps Trilling).

For all its sense of camaraderie, the encounter and the sense of unity it fosters is depicted as momentary, fleeting, and shadowed by trouble.  First, as a tableau of interracial communication, the racially-charged beating of Miles Davis – sparked by his rapprochement with a white woman – lingers ominously in the background of this “integrated” poets’ lunch. (At the same time, it is notable that what touched off the disturbing incident in which Davis was beaten was the musician’s daring to cross the racial divide in 1950s America, just as O’Hara and Baraka do in this poem).  Second, the poem breaks off with a departure and return to solitude: “I wonder if one person out of 8,000,000 is / thinking of me as I shake hands with LeRoi / and buy a strap for my wristwatch and go / back to work happy at the thought possibly so” (CP 336).

Perhaps O’Hara’s friendship with Baraka had something to do with his effort, in “Personism,” to account for his poetics as a kinetic, improvised art form founded on both friendship and its distances (“It does not have to do with personality or intimacy, far from it!”).  Magee makes a forceful case that Baraka is extremely important to “Personism” and to O’Hara’s poetry in general, pointing out that not only did “Personal Poem” and “Personism” first appear in Baraka’s Yugen, but that his conversations with Baraka (and especially the latter’s belief in “jazz as a form of democratic symbolic action”) inspired O’Hara’s interest “in the politics of poetic form and the possibilities of collective improvisation” (697).

For O’Hara and his vision of friendship, Baraka in some ways embodies both the inspiring possibilities of person-to-person communication (“the only truth is face to face,” he puts it in his greatest poem about interracial concord, “Ode: Salute to the French Negro Poets”) and its limitations.

… As intertexts in each other’s writings, as friends deeply intertwined with one another’s lives and poems, O’Hara and Baraka exemplify the way friendship and poetry criss-cross in postwar American poetry.  Baraka’s writings find him articulating again and again the severe ambivalence and confusion he feels about the friendships he had fostered with a circle of brilliant, ambitious, creative white friends at a moment when everything in his life and times seemed to be spinning wildly out of control.


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