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O'Hara, Frank (1926-1966)  

The influential poet Frank O'Hara wrote works informed by both modern art and the world of urban gay male culture.

O'Hara was born in Baltimore on June 27, 1926. In 1927, his family moved to Grafton, Massachusetts, and O'Hara was educated in private schools until 1944. He served a two-year tour of duty in the Navy before beginning college at Harvard as a music major. He eventually changed his major to English and graduated with a B.A. in 1950; he completed an M.A. from the University of Michigan in 1951.

O'Hara began writing in earnest while at Michigan; he won the university's Hopwood Award in Creative Writing and wrote two plays, Try! Try! and Change Your Bedding that were mounted at the Poet's Theatre in Cambridge.

On graduation, O'Hara assumed a position at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York. He left for a two-year period in 1953 to 1955 to assume an associate editorship of Art News and then returned to MOMA as a special assistant to the International Program. In 1960, he was promoted to curator of paintings and sculptures.

O'Hara's career as a poet is intricately interwoven with his life in the art world; indeed, O'Hara is often thought of as one of the major art critics of the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1959, he published a study of Jackson Pollock for George Braziller's Great American Artists Series, which is frequently considered to be the canonical study of Pollock. O'Hara also published studies of contemporary Spanish art, Robert Motherwell, David Smith, and Nakian.

The influence of art is everywhere in O'Hara's writings. His first major volume of poetry, A City Winter and Other Poems (1952), was published by the Tibor de Nagy Gallery. Its poems demonstrate a preoccupation with surrealism and with dadaist collage and montage techniques.

Two of O'Hara's texts specifically work as collaboration with artists: Stones (1958) is a series of lithographs by Larry Rivers combined with poems by O'Hara; Odes (1960) was illustrated by serigraphs by Mike Goldberg.

O'Hara also participated in the growing avant-garde film culture of New York, and coproduced two experimental films with Al Leslie, The Last Clean Shirt (1963) and Philosophy in the Bedroom (1965).

One of O'Hara's most important poetic innovations was an allegiance to popular culture. Although his poems are structured by the elite concerns of art, his subjects and images are frequently drawn from the world of urban gay male culture.

"The Day Lady Died," one of O'Hara's most famous poems, tells of the moment he heard that Billie Holiday had passed away. The title itself puns on Holiday's popular nickname, Lady Day. "Biotherm (For Bill Berkson)," one of the major collage poems of O'Hara, combines, among other things, images of Fire Island, classic Hollywood cinema, and restaurant menus. Biotherm itself was the brand name of a popular sunscreen.

O'Hara died on July 25, 1966, when he was struck by a dune buggy on Fire Island. His death was untimely, but his influence on gay poetry is undeniable. Among the poets who acknowledge a direct debt to O'Hara's stylistic innovations are John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Ned Rorem, Robert Duncan, and Allen Ginsberg.

Gregory W. Bredbeck


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Altieri, Charles. "The Significance of Frank O'Hara." Iowa Review, 4 (Winter 1973): 90-104.

Berkson, Bill and Joe LeSueuer, eds. Homage to Frank O'Hara. Bolinas, Calif.: Big Sky, 1988.

Bredbeck, Gregory W. "B/O -- Barthes's Text/O'Hara's Trick." PMLA 108 (1993): 268-282.

Elledge, Jim, ed. Frank O'Hara: To Be True to a City. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990.

Holahan, Susan. "Frank O'Hara's Poetry." American Poetry Since 1960: Some Critical Perspectives. Robert B. Shaw, ed. Cheadle Hulme: Carcanet Press, 1973. 109-122.

Perloff, Marjorie. Frank O'Hara: Poet Among Painters. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1977.


    Citation Information
    Author: Bredbeck, Gregory W.  
    Entry Title: O'Hara, Frank  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated July 18, 2005  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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