St Marks Church in NYC
Photo Courtesy of Taylor Schott.

I once had a professor who began a class by asking if we could name five poets — the caveat being that they had to be living — and none of us could do it. I could only cough up Louise Glück and Mary Oliver, both Pulitzer Prize winners; I looked them up afterward to check and found that I was wrong about Mary Oliver, she had died a year prior. And I hadn’t even thought to name Rupi Kaur, a lapse that speaks more to my incredibly mixed feelings about her contributions to poetry than to my recall abilities. 

And yet I called myself an admirer of the arts? I was flooded with guilt and made a mental note to read more living poets, although I always felt that there was so much more romance involved in reading the dead ones: Emily Dickinson, Arthur Rimbaud, Walt Whitman, Sara Teasdale, W.B. Yeats, Pierre Reverdy, William Carlos Williams, Frank O’Hara — the less recently dead to the more recently dead, respectively.

In the months that followed, I burrowed into the internal promise, combing through library catalogs and hunting for “The Collected Works of” in the bookstores scattered throughout Ann Arbor. Probing one afternoon through a nearly-toppling pile of paperbacks in the Dawn Treader Bookshop, I carefully withdrew an intriguingly designed, fraying copy of “Lunch Poems” by Frank O’Hara — the playfully contrasted blue and orange cover had caught my attention, and I had heard of O’Hara, but had yet to read him in any dedicated, sustained fashion. O’Hara was dead, I knew, and buying the book would contradict my mission to read living poets — but the first few poems of his that I leafed through while crouching on the floor were witty, and I had never promised to only buy the living poets — so I folded and made my way to the register, “Lunch Poems” tucked protectively under my arm. 

I breezed through “Lunch Poems” in one sitting and, neglecting my Literati-bought copies of Tracy K. Smith and Ada Limón’s poetry in its wake, instantly bought more of O’Hara’s: “Meditations in an Emergency,” “The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara” and “The Selected Poems of Frank O’Hara,” alongside Brad Gooch’s acclaimed (but also “gossipy,” according to other biographers) biography, “City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara.” 

Flitting back and forth from poem to biography to memoir to audio recording, I gathered that O’Hara, with a personality nearly as large as his body of work, had captivated the artistic community of 1950s New York and served, many biographers and friends say, as its veritable center. I found, too, that he had graduated from the University of Michigan with a Master’s in English after attending Harvard on the G.I. Bill, winning a Hopwood Award in the process. 

For those unfamiliar with the University of Michigan’s literary prowess, O’Hara’s decision to attend a university in the Midwest might seem an odd choice. With all the cultural and artistic access afforded to one living on the East Coast, with schools in much larger cities and with appreciably more connections, why move to Ann Arbor? But the University has no shortage of dynamic and influential literati: playwright Arthur Miller (“Death of a Salesman,” “The Crucible”), novelist Betty Smith (“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” an early favorite of mine) and Robert Frost, the only poet to ever receive four Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry. It’s clear, then, that the University has long been a magnet for literary greats. Others, like the poet Dan Chiasson, refer to Ann Arbor more sardonically as “a distant planet settled for the manufacture of master’s degrees.” 

While at the University, O’Hara wrote and then scrapped an entire novel, penning a new series of poems along with two plays, which won him the Hopwood Award for Poetry. (The Hopwood writing contest is the largest and most well-known writing competition at the University, with categories in playwriting, poetry, novels and short stories). “If you write ninety poems in the course of a few months,” notes Chiasson for the New Yorker, “you probably mean something different by the word ‘poem’ from what most people mean.”

Indeed, O’Hara’s poems seem to deflect every poetic instinct — they seldom have a rhyme scheme, nor are they formally metered. He employs line breaks strategically, like taking breaths while lap swimming, pausing to breathe before plunging back into the proverbial water. This is not to say that his poems are as predictable as stroke-breath-stroke, in fact sometimes they’re anything but. Take a look at his jaunty, somewhat jolting depiction in “A Step Away From Them” of midday in Manhattan: 

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   

on. They protect them from falling   

bricks, I guess. 

In “Personism: A Manifesto,” O’Hara elaborates on his poetic tendencies: “I don’t even like rhythm, assonance, all that stuff. You just have to go on your nerve. If someone’s chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don’t turn around and shout ‘Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep.’” 

Once O’Hara graduated from the University of Michigan, he made haste to decamp. He celebrates in “Song:”

I’m going to New York!

(what a lark! what a song!) …

I’m going to New York!

(quel voyage! jamais plus!)

far from Ypsilanti and Flint!

Once O’Hara arrived in New York, he was immediately encircled by a broad array of artists, not just poets. The New York School, consisting of big art-world names like Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, as well as poetic contemporaries like John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Barbara Guest and now — O’Hara himself, operated as a community bent on artistic brilliance. 

Navigating the overlap between the school’s artists and the school’s poets felt like a detective exercise in decoding sex, drugs and art — sifting through biographies and academic biographies and poems and manifestos and memoirs, I sought all that I could learn about the group that O’Hara had so swiftly infiltrated. 

I consulted O’Hara’s poems first (“Why I Am Not a Painter,” “Christmas Card to Grace Hartigan,” “On Seeing Larry Rivers’ Washington Crossing the Delaware at the Museum of Modern Art”) and then explored painters who painted portraits of poets (“O’Hara Nude With Boots” by Larry Rivers, “Frank O’Hara” by Grace Hartigan, “Frank O’Hara” by Alex Katz, “Frank O’Hara” by Elaine de Kooning). There has never been a poet as painted as O’Hara, nor a painter as poetically chronicled as Larry Rivers, I’ve come to believe. 

As I mapped out the connections, I could almost smell the mingling of turpentine with cigarette smoke, hear the heated arguments overlapping in the bars they frequented and in their shoddy Eighth and Ninth Street studio lofts. I could imagine O’Hara’s signature aquiline nose, twice-broken from scraps in the schoolyard, tickled by a bobbing cigarette as he regards the newest paintings of his contemporaries, egged on to read a poem he had stuffed hastily in his pocket. When listening to O’Hara read his own poetry, you can catch the idiosyncratic “h’s” that precede his “whys” and “wheres” so that they become more like “hwhys” and “hwheres.”

New York has long been lauded as the art capital of the world, and while there is probably too little scholarship and journalism dedicated to debating and defining this claim, the fact remains that to Frank O’Hara, a child of rural Massachusetts, “The City” was New York. 

So much of O’Hara’s poetry is inextricably tied to New York that to pull the two apart (the city, his poems) nearly strips them of all their signposting qualities, a technique that when married with his distinctive descriptions is often dubbed his “I do this I do that” style of composing. While reading any given O’Hara poem, you can virtually always depend on an itemization of his surroundings — “Rhapsody” is perhaps most representative of this technique. In it, O’Hara rattles off sections of New York grouped with his experiences of them: 515 Madison Avenue, the “door to heaven,” St. Mark’s Place, for “lying in a hammock and sorting my poems,” and the Empire State Building, a “sight of Manahatta.”

Out of curiosity (but also to confirm my claim), I counted how many times the words “New York” appear in Mark Ford’s edition of O’Hara’s “Collected Works:” 27. Also worth noting, 20 of his poems are titled “Poem.” Frank O’Hara, ever the blunt comic. 

Also at the forefront of the queer community in New York, O’Hara and his closest friends within the school, John Ashbery and James Schuyler, were openly gay. Writes Ada Calhoun for the New York Times: “When he died, O’Hara was already a key figure in American poetry and, as an unabashedly out man in 1950s America, a transformative figure in gay cultural history.” We can see, with delight, O’Hara embracing his identity in his poem titled “Homosexuality:” “It’s wonderful to admire oneself / with complete candor.”

By far one of his most popular poems and a personal favorite of mine, “Having a Coke With You” is, primarily, a love poem — not just for Vincent Warren, to whom the composition is dedicated, but also for New York, for art and for narrative. The poem is both tender and playful, bouncing between references and observations with a command of language so devious that you begin to wonder where you might acquire a flair like his. 

Committing the poem to memory was incidental, or at least it began that way. I’d read it so often — on slow nights when I didn’t feel like doing schoolwork, perched on park benches and braving too-early mornings on the bus — that the reverberations of fluorescent orange tulips and the declarative stamp of I look at you / and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world began to take up residence in my head. Not that I minded, of course. 

I still can’t determine if the exercise my professor forced on us that day was a commentary on my generation’s lack of poetic interests or a nod to the quiet world of poetry itself, and I still feel guilty for not having had the answers. But I can say now that knowledge of poetry isn’t a contest or an opportunity to show off (even if so very many people continue to treat it as such). Knowing just one poet intimately is far better, I’ll assert, than knowing five, 10 or 20 superficially. And I’m no longer in the business of making perfunctory promises to myself — especially when I know I’d rather buy the frayed book with a witty disposition instead. 

Statement Deputy Editor Taylor Schott can be reached at