All I Ever Wanted To Be Was Frank O’Hara

Joseph Campana
January 3, 2012
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I didn’t know enough, as a child, to want to be Frank O’Hara. Had I read those poems in my sleepy upstate New York hometown, I would have understood their urban electricity to be what was missing in life. When we’re lucky, hunger makes us keener.

What I think of lately, with more than a little envy, is Frank O’Hara’s visual genius. My hope in this blog is to figure a few things out about the collisions of poetry and the visual arts. These sisters arts have conflicted and colluded for more than a few millennia, so there’s much to explore. Poetry’s been part of my life for some time now. More recently, I’ve begin writing about the visual and other arts in Houston and elsewhere.

I am neither an art historian nor an art critic of any classic variety. Were I to be honest, I’d say I always thought myself least adept with respect to the visual arts. Also, when I hear vivid poetry or prose, images are not what language conjures for me. I find it impossible not to talk about poetry without recourse to the term “image,” which I find aggravating. And I find myself nodding off when people begin to wax enthusiastic about “the ekphrastic.” I also realize these failings are all, entirely, my own.

The title of this blog, then, isn’t so much punishment or penance or admission but rather an aspiration to understand something I find both appealing and inhibiting. Ekphrasis: the term for language as it pushes beyond its own borders into other media. So, poetry about visual sensation, visual art, vivid experience. For many the art of ekphrasis is the art of description, the most deceptively simple and practically difficult part of any writing. Definitions are equally hard, so here’s the Academy of American Poets entry on ekphrasis.

Let’s call Frank O’Hara–poet, art critic, and curator–my much-needed spiritual guide. And I was thinking of O’Hara especially on a recent trip to New York to see a new Nico Muhly opera, Dark Sisters. My partner Tedd and I wandered into MOMA an hour before closing and opted for a room full of Fluxus and a mad dash through a brutally crowded Willem de Kooning retrospective.

For me de Kooning has always impressed but never inspired great passion. The retrospective was instructive. De Kooning’s disturbingly twisted female forms get a great measure of attention, but I was struck by his men, especially “Seated Figure.”

Seated Figure (Classic Male)

Do I recall correctly that Frank O’Hara and his roommate and sometime lover Joe Le Seur, had a de Kooning on their wall? I think Tedd told me that, a painting with an orange couch, and I wondered if I had walked past it. Somehow all these figures began to jumble together in my head, and I was suddenly remembering a book I had bought but not yet cracked open: In Memory of My Feelings: A Selection of Poems by Frank O’Hara, which MOMA released after O’Hara’s untimely death. Each poem was accompanied by a piece of visual art, as the volume tells us, “decorated by the plastic artists with whom he was associated.”

Decorated? I squirm a little bit at the word. I suppose some pages do seem merely decorated, but de Kooning created a series of lithographs to honor the friend who had honored him with an ode. I’ll just say a few things about the first section.

It’s no surprise O’Hara begins in the city that sent coursing through him that irrepressible charge of sadness and vitality. But this is the half-seen city on the cusp of dawn: “Beyond the sunrise / where the black begins / an enormous city / is sending up its shutters.” So simple, these gestures, but so memorable. Is that more important than accuracy in moments of even O’Hara’s idiosyncratic description?

Like the city, dawn is thrilling and harrowing. As an insomniac I understand this in my own way. For those of us often-unprepared for day, there is a facelessness to dawn. If there is a companion, perhaps it isn’t so bad to face this “orange wind,” this time of day Homer loved. So O’Hara turns to the friend, I assume de Kooning: “I look to the flags / in your eyes as they go up.” Now he can journey “out into the mesmerized world / of inanimate voices like traffic / noises, hewing a clearing / in the crowded abyss of the West.”

Am I right to find this faceless quality in O’Hara or am I overwhelmed by the images of de Kooning, which depict a world of men in which everyone is an outline with an obscuring hat covering an absent face:

Now I recall, in a fit of O’Hara-inspired juxtaposition, that Michel Foucault once wrote, “I am no doubt not the only one who writes in order to have no face.” I wonder what it is I’m trying to face as I write this. De Kooning’s faceless men? The faceless men O’Hara desired? Or myself, up too late as dawn approaches?

It’s 4am already, and I wonder whose face I’m writing not to have.

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