Frank O’Hara died 50 years ago today, on July 25, 1966, after being struck by a dune buggy on Fire Island. The Poetry Foundation has published a piece of mine that traces the rather remarkable arc of O’Hara’s posthumous reputation. Though it may seem surprising now, when he died, O’Hara was better known as a museum curator and artworld figure. Today, he is one of the best-loved and influential poets of the 20th century, one of who feels “ubiquitous as weather,” in both poetry and pop culture. In an early poem, O’Hara said “I must live forever,” and in the piece, I talk about how delighted O’Hara would be to find that his own work has lived on, just as he’d wished. At the end of one poem, O’Hara imagined a heroic poet figure who would inspire and even liberate those who’ve come in his wake, using an image that resonates with the kind of afterlife he and his work have had: “and one alone will speak of being / born in pain / and he will be the wings of an extraordinary liberty.”
Today, I thought it’d be fitting to post a poem O’Hara wrote in 1958, “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island,” which offers an uncanny premonition of his own tragic end, that would occur on Fire Island eight years later:
A TRUE ACCOUNT OF TALKING TO THE SUN AT FIRE ISLAND The Sun woke me this morning loud and clear, saying "Hey! I've been trying to wake you up for fifteen minutes. Don't be so rude, you are only the second poet I've ever chosen to speak to personally so why aren't you more attentive? If I could burn you through the window I would to wake you up. I can't hang around here all day." "Sorry, Sun, I stayed up late last night talking to Hal." "When I woke up Mayakovsky he was a lot more prompt" the Sun said petulantly. "Most people are up already waiting to see if I'm going to put in an appearance." I tried to apologize "I missed you yesterday." "That's better" he said. "I didn't know you'd come out." "You may be wondering why I've come so close?" "Yes" I said beginning to feel hot wondering if maybe he wasn't burning me anyway. "Frankly I wanted to tell you I like your poetry. I see a lot on my rounds and you're okay. You may not be the greatest thing on earth, but you're different. Now, I've heard some say you're crazy, they being excessively calm themselves to my mind, and other crazy poets think that you're a boring reactionary. Not me. Just keep on like I do and pay no attention. You'll find that people always will complain about the atmosphere, either too hot or too cold too bright or too dark, days too short or too long. If you don't appear at all one day they think you're lazy or dead. Just keep right on, I like it. And don't worry about your lineage poetic or natural. The Sun shines on the jungle, you know, on the tundra the sea, the ghetto. Wherever you were I knew it and saw you moving. I was waiting for you to get to work. And now that you are making your own days, so to speak, even if no one reads you but me you won't be depressed. Not everyone can look up, even at me. It hurts their eyes." "Oh Sun, I'm so grateful to you!" "Thanks and remember I'm watching. It's easier for me to speak to you out here. I don't have to slide down between buildings to get your ear. I know you love Manhattan, but you ought to look up more often. And always embrace things, people earth sky stars, as I do, freely and with the appropriate sense of space. That is your inclination, known in the heavens and you should follow it to hell, if necessary, which I doubt. Maybe we'll speak again in Africa, of which I too am specially fond. Go back to sleep now Frank, and I may leave a tiny poem in that brain of yours as my farewell." "Sun, don't go!" I was awake at last. "No, go I must, they're calling me." "Who are they?" Rising he said "Some day you'll know. They're calling to you too." Darkly he rose, and then I slept.