On March 27, 1926, Frank (Francis Russell) O’Hara was born in Baltimore, Maryland. He grew up in Massachusetts, and later studied piano at the New England Conservatory in Boston from 1941 to 1944. O’Hara then served in the South Pacific and Japan as a sonarman on the destroyer USS Nicholas during World War II.
Following the war, O’Hara studied at Harvard College, where he majored in music and worked on compositions and was deeply influenced by contemporary music, his first love, as well as visual art. He also wrote poetry at that time and read the work of Arthur Rimbaud, Stéphane Mallarmé, Boris Pasternak, and Vladimir Mayakovsky.
While at Harvard, O’Hara met John Ashbery and soon began publishing poems in the Harvard Advocate. Despite his love for music, O’Hara changed his major and left Harvard in 1950 with a degree in English. He then attended graduate school at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and received his MA in 1951. That autumn, O’Hara moved into an apartment in New York. He was soon employed at the front desk of the Museum of Modern Art and began to write seriously.
O’Hara’s early work was considered both provocative and provoking. In 1952, his first volume of poetry, A City in Winter, attracted favorable attention; his essays on painting and sculpture and his reviews forArtNews were considered brilliant. O’Hara became one of the most distinguished members of the New York School of poets, which also included Ashbery, James Schuyler, and Kenneth Koch.
O’Hara’s association with the painters Larry Rivers, Jackson Pollock, and Jasper Johns, also leaders of the New York School, became a source of inspiration for his highly original poetry. He attempted to produce with words the effects these artists had created on canvas. In certain instances, he collaborated with the painters to make “poem-paintings,” paintings with word texts.
O’Hara’s most original volumes of verse, Meditations in an Emergency(1956) and Lunch Poems (1964), are impromptu lyrics, a jumble of witty talk, journalistic parodies, and surrealist imagery.
O’Hara continued working at the Museum of Modern Art throughout his life, curating exhibitions and writing introductions and catalogs for exhibits and tours. In 1966, while vacationing on Fire Island, Frank O’Hara was killed in a sand buggy accident. He was forty years old.
Frank O’Hara brought a refreshing new casualness and spontaneity to poetry, making deliriously funny and surprisingly moving verse out of everyday activities recounted in conversational tones. (What he called his “I do this I do that” poems often featured glimpses of his adored New York City or anecdotes about friends—most of whom were themselves poets or painters.)