Frank O’Hara, 50 Years On: “The Wings of an Extraordinary Liberty”

O'Hara Tombstone 2

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.”

In previous years on this date, I have posted about how the New York Times covered O’Hara’s death and funeral (here) and about the host of elegies O’Hara’s friends wrote for him after he died (here).

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:

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
              "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.
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
        "Who are they?"
                                  Rising he said "Some
day you'll know. They're calling to you
too." Darkly he rose, and then I slept.
This entry was posted in Frank O'Hara, Poems, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.