The life of a poet: Frank O'Hara's messy brilliance

August 15, 1993|By Stephen Margulies

CITY POET: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF FRANK O'HARA. Brad Gooch. Knopf.

532 pages. $30. Let's face the facts: It all started in the 1950s -- the madness and the glory and the folly that followed World War II. America's cultural revolution may have become popular in the '60s and virtually institutionalized in the '70s and '80s, but the heroic necessary mess began in the '50s, when personal revolt really did require courage and imagination.

Recently, the 1950s have been an object of cult nostalgia, mostly based on the idea that America was then at the peak of both prosperity and innocence (what a combination!). We could own huge polluting automobiles, smoke huge quantities of carcinogens while deploring drug addicts, own a ticky-tacky house in one of the new instant communities, and we could all love and protect silly but loyal Lucy. Somehow, our belief that America stood for freedom was not contradicted by McCarthyism and segregation.

But at the same time, freedom really was being fought for in America -- not by Joe McCarthy but by a small band of frighteningly talented artists, scientists, musicians and writers representing both "serious" and popular culture. Early Elvis was a part of that and so was James Dean, as well as Charlie Parker and other jazz greats, Jackson Pollack, Jack Kerouac, Jonas Salk, Allen Ginsberg and young novelists like Norman Mailer who have since become mandarins. In a sense, even "The Honeymooners" was a part of it, because it gave us the bittersweet taste of a dab of truth.

And, of course, there were a handful of the more daring films, like those of Dean. The very "innocence" of America encouraged the publicizing of the rebels -- with magazines like Life and Time giving censorious but eager coverage to each new outrage. The Beats, for example, were excellent manipulators of the media, but even a difficult new poet like John Berryman got a spread in Life.

The name Frank O'Hara may not be a household word, but like other veterans of World War II, he did much to establish new beachheads of cultural freedom in this country, after experiencing the bloodier beachheads of Europe. Growing up in a middle-class, Irish-Catholic family in a small town in Massachusetts, O'Hara used to boast -- when he was in his teens -- that his family was just like that of Blondie and Dagwood. Brad Gooch's "City Poet:The Life and Times of Frank O'Hara makes it clear how far O'Hara eventually veered from the Blondie-and-Dagwood ideal of America -- both for better and for worse.

O'Hara's greatness (and, despite bad flaws, he was a great man) came about because he had a great heart, and that heart became the heart of the New York artistic and literary world in the '50s and '60s. He was born in Baltimore, although his family left the city that John Waters calls "the beehive hairdo capital of the world" in the poet's early infancy. If O'Hara were alive, he'd quite possibly hold that John Waters validates Baltimore! (O'Hara resembles Waters in some ways). But as it is, O'Hara simply says, with whimsical condescension, that "in Baltimore, you think of hats and shoes . . ."

Mr. Gooch's useful and gossipy biography is fairly typical of recent biographies in that it combines anecdotes worthy of the spiciest tabloids with much marginally relevant scholarship. Many a humble detail about O'Hara's life is roused out of its hole and hunted down. And while the polymorphous-perverse style of O'Hara's brilliantly messy life is scrupulously recorded (helped by the brave candor of surviving friends and relatives), the much more intense and enduring brilliance of his mind is only touched upon.

The poets, dancers and painters who were enlightened and renewed by him were interested in far more than his ultimately very fragile body. But Mr. Gooch is not a self-indulgently nasty revisionist. He admires the difficult but loving character of O'Hara and suggests that his weirdly accidental death in 1966 may have prevented him from outgrowing alcoholism and promiscuity. Being run over at the age of 40 by a beach buggy on Fire Island may not after all be a transcendently romantic end. In O'Hara's words, it may not after all have been "in answer to the reasoning of the eternal voices."

Although mostly dressed in academic tweed, Mr. Gooch does occasionally sport the floppy yellow silk tie of art. He bravely and movingly begins his biography with O'Hara's extraordinary funeral, which really gets to the heart of the matter -- 'Hara's heart.

O'Hara had been one of the inventors of the joyously casual New York School of Poetry. He had been a fabulously effective curator at the Museum of Modern Art. He was a silver shivering sliver of a bridge between low life and high life, pop culture and serious culture, Uptown and Downtown, poetry and painting, dance and music and theater, black people and white, beauty and social conscience, Beatniks and balletomanes.

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