On Frank O’Hara’s “To the Harbormaster” and Larry Rivers

Larry Rivers and Frank O’Hara, working on “Stones”

The Paris Review posted this 2011 piece by Olivia Cole again today: it’s a brief look at the relationship between Frank O’Hara and Larry Rivers, and the beautiful poem “To the Harbormaster” that O’Hara wrote about Rivers.  It begins:

Lately I’ve been thinking about Frank O’Hara and his sometimes terrible taste in men. I can’t help but see the painter Larry Rivers as a thoroughly undeserving recipient for one of my favorite poems, O’Hara’s “To the Harbormaster.” The pair’s messy entanglement started (inevitably) at a party, with a drunken kiss and grope behind a curtain. The two were hidden, but O’Hara was wearing his trademark white tennis shoes, and the two pairs of shoes, his and Rivers’s, were in full view of the heaving room. O’Hara’s letters to Rivers maintain that he could take him or leave him, but, like those trainers peeping out from underneath the curtain, the poems rather give the game away.

Cole then turns to the poem:

In “To the Harbormaster” O’Hara’s optimism becomes carefully crafted romantic delusion. He recasts the relationship with Rivers, presenting himself as the unreliable lover: “I am always tying up / and then deciding to depart,” he writes. The doubts and hesitations are presented as his own: “Though my ship was on the way it got caught,” he says, before breaking the line and offering, rather unimaginatively, “in some moorings.” (It’s a kind of a watery equivalent of the dog ate my homework.) I love that the feelings spill into just over a sonnet. In what would be the sestet, O’Hara somehow seems to accept that his imagination has run away with him. The final lines are both a declaration and an acknowledgement of the truth: “I trust the sanity of my vessel” and “if it sinks,” it may well be in answer to reason: “the waves which have kept me from reaching you.”

You can read the rest, including the poem itself, here.


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