Book Review

Why I Am Not a Painter and Other Poems by Frank O'Hara

Why I Am Not a Painter and Other Poems by Frank O'Hara

Mark Ford's useful introduction to his selection of a poet I've always thought of as a "nearly Beat" (which is no sort of description at all really is it!? I suppose it is because of his being published by City Lights: his most famous Lunch Poems came out in 1964) describes O'Hara's often hastily penned work as "immediate, nervously alert, mercurial". This gets O'Hara down pretty well. Ford echoes the poet John Ashberry in half-admitting that the power of O'Hara's arguably sometimes quite slight work (what Ashberry called an "unrevised work-in-progress") tends to arise cumulatively. This is neither the serious (and often quite dry) poetry so beloved by the American New Critics and nor was O'Hara, against what I thought, actually really fully part of the Ginsberg crowd. If any collective could be said to contain O'Hara it was the so-called New York School (a term coined by gallery owner John Bernard Myers - we'll be reviewing Mark Ford's anthology The New York Poets very soon.)

Although lighter in weight than some might find palatable, O'Hara himself saw his work as part of a valid artistic tradition against the mainstream. Ford quotes, "I dress in oil cloth and read music / by Guillaume Apollinaire's clay candelabra" and we sense that O'Hara is doing a lot more than simply name-dropping. Other artists - especially visual artists as the title poem shows - were an important source of inspiration for O'Hara. Again, to follow Ford, the poem vividly dramatises "O'Hara's belief that all artists develop by experiencing art forms other than their own." And it is obvious that for O'Hara the Abstract Expressionists (including a personal favourite of mine Helen Frankenthaler) served as example and inspiration: Memorial Day 1950, paean as it is to many greats (including Gertrude Stein, Max Ernst, Paul Klee, Boris Pasternak) starts by reminding us that art - and inspiration via art - is not separable from the real: "Picasso made me tough and quick" he says, "and the world." And the world, the real, is never far away in these poems. Poetry says O'Hara, "is as useful as a machine!"

Manhattan looms. O'Hara's poems are often hymns to the New York he loved. His erotically charged work (from 1959's Personism, A Manifesto: "only Whitman and Crane and Wiliams, of the American poets are better than the movies") celebrate the freedoms that only such a cosmopolitan city can allow and bestow. Ford's Carcanet collection - the only portable O'Hara - starts, as it should, with Autobiographia Literaria,

           And here I am, the
           center of all beauty!
           writing these poems!

The final, single "Imagine!" seems like a plea - we are being exhorted to actually think! There feels like there is an invisible ellipsis telling us both to imagine what words we could write or what words O'Hara did indeed write - and tempting us to look further at the poems within. And by looking we validate: O'Hara is no longer the child

           in a
           corner of the schoolyard
           all alone

He is a real poet. Imagine! And the sense that he wants us to accompany him in his solipsism - or in his journey away from it - has a powerful and charged homoerotic undercurrent. Recommended.


-- Reviewed by Mark Thwaite on 30/08/2004

Further Information
ISBN-10: 1857546881
ISBN-13: 97818575468810
Publisher: Carcanet Press
Publication Date: 28/04/2003
Binding: Paperback
Number of pages: 96

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