Frank O’Hara’s Plaque

Frank O’Hara’s Plaque

By G. G. |

I am not an avid traveler by any means; my expeditions have been limited to adventures in movies, books and poetry. Frank O’Hara’s works are known for their diary-like quality, and through them you can explore New York. When I got on the train with my friend one Saturday our destination was 441 East 9th Street, the building where Frank O’Hara once lived. Walking past all the stores, buildings, and restaurants, the busy and bustling atmosphere of New York gave us energy. We were eager to reach our destination, but as we approached the street, the area was noticeably more run down than the streets before it. It was quieter too and as we approached the white building we saw the plaque. The store that used to be there was closed now. “For Rent” signs and New York property signs flanked the plaque. I was disappointed, having expected more after having seen a video on YouTube; we moved closer to read the plaque.

I’ll explain what the plaque doesn’t say. Frank O’Hara was born Francis Russell O’Hara in Baltimore, Maryland. His original passion was the piano but in college he eventually changed his major from music to writing, and he published work in the Harvard Advocate and met V. R. “Bunny” Lang and John Ashbery. In New York he met many artists in the abstract expressionism movement. Arguably one of O’Hara’s most famous art-world friends was none other than Jackson Pollock. He, John Ashbery, and Kenneth Koch became part of the avant-garde art scene. O’Hara died on July 24, 1966 in an accident on Fire Island, New York. He was run over by a dune buggy driven by a young man apparently on a date. He survived two days in the hospital before dying. After his death, more of his poems were published in volumes like The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, The Selected Poems of Frank O’Hara, and Poems Retrieved: 1950-1966

The plaque, unveiled on June 10, 2014, offers a small and simple summary of Frank O’Hara’s place as an American poet. O’Hara lived at 331 East Ninth Street from 1926 to 1963. One of his most famous works is a collection of poems called Lunch Poems. It was commissioned by Lawrence Monsanto Ferlinghetti, the same man who published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and who was the owner of the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco. The collection was actually published in 1964—when O’Hara was no longer living in the building where his plaque is—but most of his writing was of course done before then, dating back to 1953.

O’Hara’s poems are commonly described as diary-like because many of them have heavy descriptions of everyday sights and people in New York City. There’s landscapes, people he knew personally and did not, jazz, social events, phone calls and more in his works. He was known for writing his poems quickly; once when he arrived to read a poem at an event he told everyone he’d just written the poem he read on the ferry ride over. In fact, the sort of joke of the poems is that most of them were written during his lunch break from work. One of them actually ends with the narrator walking back to work! “A Step Away From Them,” “The Day Lady Died,” and “Personal Poem” are examples of poems that actually mention a lunch break. “A Step Away From Them” begins:

It’s my lunch hour, so I go
for a walk among the hum-colored
cabs. First, down the sidewalk
where laborers feed their dirty
glistening torsos sandwiches
and Coca-Cola, with yellow helmets

Most of his poems give off a feeling of “laid backness”—that seems to be the best way to describe it, and of speed, too. The events come at you rapid fire; it does not matter what just happened because there is another event coming, somewhere else to go, something else to do. It feels like life in New York, or maybe in general, sometimes it feels like there is no time to dwell on anything. In his poem “A Step away from Them” (my favorite), the transitions from getting a hamburger to seeing a woman with a poodle are just as fast as the transitions of his thoughts from his deceased friends to posters and magazines. Not even what you would expect to slow someone down matters, although in “The Day Lady Died” there is finally a momentary pause—“everyone and I stopped breathing”—but it comes at the end of the poem. This is no accident of course. O’Hara’s goal was to try to recreate in his poetry this sense of immediacy of life that I am trying to describe. O’Hara felt that poetry should be “between two persons instead of two pages.”

I am not the most interested in poetry. I lack the needed imagination and introspective ability to understand most of the poetry I have encountered in life, I suppose. Or maybe I’ve just never found the time needed to spend on this introspection. Either way, I connected with Frank O’Hara’s poems instantly. Many of his poems have humor—something I love—and they are easy to understand. These poems make learning about O’Hara interesting; a mention of a famous poet in another poem could mean nothing but in O’Hara’s poems the people mentioned are usually a part of his life in some way. The poems feel more personal to me and I love reading them. I am glad he has a plaque on his old building because although at first I was disappointed with the street and the building it was attached to, I realized it fit well. O’Hara is not the most famous poet; he isn’t the flashiest, or the most prestigious either. His work reflected life in New York, his life mostly, but in a real way. What’s more real than a not so special looking building on a regular not so sparkly-looking street in New York City? It is not something I would recommend people go out of their way to find; there is not much to see, and the streets surrounding this one are much more interesting. That said, if someone happens to be around the neighborhood and happens to be fan of O’Hara’s work, there is certainly no harm in stopping by. Come down, take a selfie with his plaque, maybe get “a glass of papaya juice / and [then go] back to work.”

Works Cited

Epstein, Andrew. “New Frank O’Hara Plaque Unveiled in New York”. 2 July 2014. Web.15 May 2016

Gooch, Brad. City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1993. Web. 15 May 2016.

Milstead, Claudia. American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 199. Web. 16 May 2016

Myers, Jack. Wojahn David. A Profile of Twentieth-Century American Poetry.Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1991. Web. 16 May 2016

O’Hara, Frank. “A Step Away from Them.” Lunch Poems. Web. 15 May 2016

Frank O’Hara. “Personism: A Manifesto,” Yugen #7, 1961 Web. 15 May 2016

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