Francis O'Hara

Francis Russell O'Hara


Frank at the Museum of Modern Art
Born: June 27, 1926
Died: July 24, 1966

Biography

Of all the poets of Worcester, Frank O’Hara was one of the most displaced. Born and raised in Grafton, he would end up spending the majority of his adult life in New York City. There he was considered to be a “New York Poet”, and sought out a life of popular culture.

It all started in Baltimore, Maryland, where he was born June 27, 1926. His family then moved to Grafton and he grew up in this small suburban town, which even today remains a close-knit community. His family had ties in nearby Worcester, with his father having attended the College of the Holy Cross and O’Hara himself attending St. Paul’s School and St. John’s Preparatory School in Worcester.

Grafton was the setting of the movie “Ah, Wilderness!” which was filmed there when O’Hara was eight. Hollywood had decided that Grafton was the perfect New England town in which to film its movie: with one exception. Grafton would need a bandstand on the town square to suit its needs, and since Grafton didn’t have one, Hollywood built one.

It was the exposure to this movie set which would later pull O’Hara into the world of pop culture. The glamour of the stars seemed all too real to him. O’Hara may have even volunteered to be an extra on the set of the movie.

After Hollywood had come and gone from Grafton, O’Hara concentrated his efforts on his first love: the piano. He had a passion for music of all types, though he loved contemporary best, and he studied piano from the time he was 15 through when he was 18 at the New England Conservatory in Boston.

But O’Hara was loyal to his country, too, and when World War II came, he was willing to serve. He joined the Navy and served as a sonarsman on the “USS Nicholas” in the South Pacific and Japan.

When he got back to the states after the war, he jumped right back into academia and became a student at Harvard University. He majored in music and continued to play the piano, also doing some composing. He dabbled in poetry; he especially appreciated the poets Rimbaud, Mallarme, Pasternak, and Mayakovsky; but the guiding force in his life was music.

All this would change when he met John Ashberry, another poet. Ashberry’s influence would eventually change O’Hara from a music major to an English major, and he began to publish his poetry in the Harvard Advocate. He received his degree in 1950, and sent himself off to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where he received his MFA one year later.

When he graduated from the University of Michigan in 1951, O’Hara wasted no time and by fall had settled himself into an apartment in New York City. He found a job working at the front desk of the Museum of Modern Art and began to write seriously. He published one of his first poems, “A City in Winter” in 1952 and started writing art reviews in ArtNews, where he received a reputation for being an excellent critic. Slowly but surely, O’Hara was carving his niche in New York and earning his place in the New York School of Poets, along with Ashberry, James Schuyler, and Kenneth Koch. His qualifications in music and writing from his learnings at Harvard would lead him to become curator at the museum.

“There is fire in O’Hara’s poems, a prophetic and spiritual fire, the very quality the wiseacre, Frank O’Hara, would consciously deny, but that’s the post of Emerson, Duncan, Olson, and the tradition, to trick the brain into writing beyond itself, as what the surrealists started to do back to us as their kind of contribution to ‘the new romanticism,’” says Professor Wayne-Daniel Berard of the Worcester County Poetry Association.

He continued to publish, releasing Meditations in an Emergency in 1956 and Lunch Poems in 1964. Lunch Poems was especially witty. Whereas many poets write about death and other sober things, O’Hara loved to write about the little things in life that amused him, that he wished others would find funny as well. Though it was not widely known, he also dabbled in comics to some degree.

His vibrant life was cut short in 1966, at the age of 40, when he was hit by a jeep on the beach on Fire Island, and tragically died of internal injuries.

Works

Photos

Quotes

O’Hara was a poet of lightness, who generally eschewed the political role, even of his acquaintances, the Beats, and sought to apply music theory, surrealist models, and the techniques of Abstract Expressionist painters in his work.
— Professor Trevor Code, WPI English Department
Reading O’Hara for the first time is like discovering for the first time that corn pops.
— Professor Wayne-Daniel Berard of the Worcester County Poetry Association