Biography of Frank O'Hara

Frank O’Hara, a member of the New York School of poets, is known for his plain language, "I do this, I do that," postmodern verse. A stable of the city’s art and literary circles, O’Hara is often referred to as “a poet among painters," a phrase first coined by critic Marjorie Perloff in 1977. Because of the influence of the NYC cultural scene, modern art, literature, and culture greatly informed O'Hara's work. Throughout his poetry, O'Hara drew upon his knowledge of visual art and literature, referencing poets, painters, and philosophers with acuity and ease. He explores topics ranging from fame and Hollywood glamour to love to sudden, unexpected death. His more well-known poems, such as “Having a Coke with You” (1960) and "The Day Lady Died" (1959) evoke the sensation of an experience just lived, in a voice that remains compellingly alive.

O’Hara was born in 1926 in Baltimore, Maryland, but he spent his childhood in Massachusetts. Growing up, O’Hara was certain he would become a concert pianist: however, after serving in World War II, O’Hara studied English at Harvard University following a short-lived music major. This switch corresponded with O’Hara’s decision to pursue writing over music: later, as he developed friendships with poets and artists like John Ashbery and Alex Katz, O’Hara’s work garnered attention from peers and critics alike. The publication of Lunch Poems in 1965, compiled with the help of poet Donald Allen, launched O’Hara’s work into the popular sphere.

O’Hara worked at the Museum of Modern Art for fifteen years. He began at the front desk in the Museum's lobby in 1951, but eventually achieved the rank of curator in 1955. Projects created under his direction include the traveling exhibition "The New American Painting," which featured Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, and "Robert Motherwell," which featured the artist's writing alongside his visual work. O'Hara was instrumental in developing these key exhibitions and others, which together demonstrated the enduring cultural relevance of Abstract Expression and Surrealism in postwar America. He also frequently contributed reviews to Artnews.

Setting—almost always the streets of New York City—and O'Hara's manner of describing his lived experience are the essential features of his work. In the introduction to O’Hara’s collected poems, John Ashbery wrote that O'Hara is "certainly a New York poet. The life of the city and of the millions of relationships that go to make it hum through his poetry; a scent of garbage, patchouli and carbon monoxide drifts across it, making it the lovely, corrupt, wholesome place New York is." Ashberry concludes by suggesting that "openness is the essence of O'Hara's poetry, and it is why he is increasingly read by increasing numbers of those who, in Kenneth Koch's phrase, are 'dying for the truth.'"

O’Hara’s work evokes an impression of the instantaneous, as if his verse were composed in hurry, to capture a moment before it slipped away. He frequently addresses the impact of celebrity culture, and explores moments in which the popular images and figures of stardom are juxtaposed with their human vulnerability. He is also interested in the distance between these figures and the wider public, and often uses tabloid headlines to add an element of sensationalism to his verse. In this sense, O'Hara's poetry is the perfect blend of high and low culture: the tone and voice is accessible, while his allusions to art, literature, and French culture express a cultivated character whose knowledge testifies to the love and passion that drives his work. He occasionally deploys a stream-of-consciousness technique, and sometimes his work can appear disorganized. His poetry, however, is always immediately recognizable as a result of his undeniable, inimical voice.

O’Hara died in 1966, as a result from injuries sustained in a car accident. Today, O'Hara is one of the most celebrated American poets of the past century. He was posthumously awarded the National Book Award for Poetry in 1972.


Study Guides on Works by Frank O'Hara

Frank O'Hara's "The Day Lady Died" is an elegy to the jazz singer Billie Holiday, who passed away on July 17th, 1959 from cirrhosis of the liver. Holiday was known for her contralto voice, and for her ability to improvise a song on the spot. Her...

The collective verse of Frank O’Hara is a definitive exhibition of concept that if you want to be a writer, the most important thing you can be doing at any given time is writing. Many of the poems that O’Hara set to paper were composed during...

Perhaps O'Hara's most celebrated poem, "Having A Coke With You" describes an afternoon spent in the park with a lover.

After returning from a trip to Spain in 1960, O'Hara wrote "Having A Coke With You" following an afternoon he spent with dancer...

According to a popular story, Frank O'Hara composed "Poem [Lana Turner has collapsed!]" on the Staten Island Ferry in 1962, en route to a reading with Robert Lowell at Wagner College. At the reading, O'Hara performed this poem, even though he had...