Vincent Warren, love of Frank O’Hara’s life, passes away at 79

Sad news for readers of Frank O’Hara: Vincent Warren, the ballet dancer who has often been described as the true love of O’Hara’s life, passed away on October 25 at the age of 79, some 50 years after O’Hara himself.  In the years after his intense, early relationship with O’Hara, Warren settled in Canada and became a celebrated dancer and dance historian.  Although his death has been covered in the Canadian press and in dance circles, I haven’t seen any notice of it in the world of American poetry or among Frank O’Hara fans.

As the obituary in The Globe and Mail puts it:

“He was a gifted dancer with a gripping stage presence, a stunningly beautiful young man who drew comparisons to Rudolf Nureyev. He danced for Igor Stravinsky, had a love affair with the American poet Frank O’Hara and played the title role in the landmark rock ballet of The Who’s Tommy.”

If you’ve ever read O’Hara’s “Having a Coke With You” and wondered about the person lucky enough to be the recipient of such a tender, funny, and beautiful love poem, it was Vincent Warren, the handsome young ballet dancer Frank O’Hara fell in love with in 1959.

As soon as they met that summer, when O’Hara was 33 and Warren was 20, the dancer began appearing in O’Hara’s poetry.  He quickly became the subject of some of the best love poems I know of, including “Poem (A la Recherche d’Gertrude Stein,) “Les Luths,” “Poem (So many echoes in my head),” and, of course, “Having a Coke With You,” which refers to Warren’s grace as a dancer in the line “the fact that you move so beautifully more or less takes care of Futurism.” And then there’s “Steps,” with its Twitter-beloved closing lines that are also an ode to Vincent Warren: “oh god it’s wonderful / to get out of bed / / and drink too much coffee / and smoke too many cigarettes / and love you so much.”

Although Warren is their subject, many of these poems do not mention O’Hara’s lover by name, thanks to Warren’s fear that his mother would read them and discover he was secretly gay.  This is the reason behind O’Hara’s decision to playfully encode Warren’s name down the left-hand side of the acrostic “You are Gorgeous and I’m Coming.”  There is a long list of such poems to Warren, many collected in the volume Love Poems (Tentative Title), which was published in 1965.

Many commentators feel O’Hara’s love affair with Warren helped trigger what is often considered the pinnacle of O’Hara’s achievement — the annus mirabilis of 1959.  O’Hara’s friend/lover and roommate Joe LeSueur makes this case in his book Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara, noting that “the deluge began immediately after” the O’Hara and Warren met.  “Take a look at the Collected Poems, pages 329-406, and my case is made, for these marvelous poems testify to what finally came together for Frank, what he at long last experienced, love and the reciprocation of love — physical, sexual, romantic love, fully and deeply realized… They are among Frank’s finest works, and the poems I find most moving.”

Warren’s obituary in The Globe and Mail discusses the importance of O’Hara to the dancer’s life, as it notes that during his time in New York, Warren “met Mr. O’Hara, leading poet of the postwar New York School and the love of his life. Mr. Warren served as Mr. O’Hara’s muse, inspiring his poems, while in turn Mr. O’Hara introduced him to his circle of artist friends, including Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock… Although a striking dancer, Mr. Warren admitted he often coasted on his good looks and Met credentials. That changed in 1966, when Mr. O’Hara was killed in a jeep accident on New York’s Fire Island. His lover’s death devastated him, but it was also the turning point that pushed him to become a serious artist.”

Rest in peace, Vincent Warren.  Here is the conclusion to O’Hara’s poem “Les Luths,” written for Warren in 1959:

and I am feeling particularly testy at being separated from
the one I love by the most dreary of practical exigencies money
when I want only to lean on my elbow and stare into space feeling
the one warm beautiful thing in the world breathing upon my right rib

what are lutes they make ugly twangs and rest on knees in cafés
I want to hear only your light voice running on about Florida
as we pass the changing traffic light and buy grapes for wherever
we will end up praising the mattressless sleigh-bed and the
Mexican egg and the clock that will not make me know
how to leave you

And here is “Poem (A la recherche d’ Gertrude Stein),” also written for Warren in 1959, (and which my wife and I liked so much that we read it our wedding many years ago):

When I am feeling depressed and anxious and sullen
all you have to do is take your clothes off
and all is wiped away revealing life’s tenderness
that we are flesh and breathe and are near us
as you are really as you are I become as I
really am alive and knowing vaguely what is
and what is important to me above the intrusions
of incident and accidental relationships
which have nothing to do with my life

when I am in your presence I feel life is strong
and will defeat all its enemies and all of mine
and all of yours and yours in you and mine in me
sick logic and feeble reasoning are cured
by the perfect symmetry of your arms and legs
spread out making an eternal circle together
creating a golden pillar beside the Atlantic
the faint line of hair dividing your torso
gives my mind rest and emotions their release
into the infinite air where since once we are
together we always will be in this life come what may

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Vincent Warren (c. 1960)

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This entry was posted in Frank O'Hara, In Memoriam, Jackson Pollock, Vincent Warren, Willem de Kooning. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Vincent Warren, love of Frank O’Hara’s life, passes away at 79

  1. j says:

    Your link to “Steps” has a typo, which breaks the link: the URL is just pasted twice.

    Thank you for this post.

  2. Eugene O'Brien says:

    I’m en route to Vincent’s memorial service in Montréal (tomorrow). O’Hara’s poems to Vincent are truly wonderful — but here’s the final five lines of a poem by Vincent to Frank, returning the favor (Vincent said this was his “one and only poem” when he published it in Panjandrum in 1973):

    As I walk home alone (because you love me / I pass a group of deaf people / who don’t hear me — they laugh / at a joke told in sign language / and silently I love you

    — Vincent Warren, 1960

    • Thanks very much for your comment. I had no idea Vincent had published any poetry, let alone a poem to Frank O’Hara — this is wonderful. Thanks for letting me know about it. I hope the memorial service went very well, and my condolences to you and all who knew Vincent Warren.

    • Also, I’ve heard of that issue of Panjandrum but don’t think I’ve ever seen it and didn’t realize it featured a poem by Warren…

      • Eugene O'Brien says:

        Vincent’s poem was part of the brief essay he wrote for Panjandrum recounting his and Frank’s time together. I believe the essay & poem were reprinted in “Homage to Frank O’Hara” (edited by Bill Berkson), which I think is still in print.

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  4. Of course. You’re correct — it’s right there in “Homage to Frank O’Hara” (pp 75-77). I’d forgotten. It’s great to see Vincent’s memorial for Frank and his poem.

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