CITY POET by Brad Gooch


The Life and Times of Frank O'Hara
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 The first biography of one of American poetry's finest lyricists--whose literary grace and authority, musical sense, and headlong (often foolish) way with life bears remarkable resemblance to the much differently circumstanced Boris Pasternak's. Gooch (Scary Kisses, 1988) follows O'Hara from his Massachusetts Catholic boyhood (son of an alcoholic mother who'd be a cafard to O'Hara all his life) to Harvard (where he was part of the remarkable postwar literary generation that included Creeley, Brodkey, Donald Hall, Ashbery, Koch, Edward Gorey, and more) and then to New York. There, O'Hara not only was (with Ashbery and Koch) the coagulator of the New York School style of poetry, but his art criticism became seminal to the first- and second-generation Abstract Expressionist painters and sculptors of the 50's, a position that elided with ever higher curatorial positions he held at the MOMA until his tragic death at 40, hit by a dune buggy on Fire Island in the dead of night. O'Hara's friendships--homo- and heterosexual--were the very weft of his life: Around him much of the best of midcentury New York art revolved, played, feuded, splintered. Gooch misses none of these social complications, but no scale seems to have weighed the testimonies relatively, and this gives the book a passive and flattened feel: Interviewees come off as talking-head opinion- spouters, all--and none--equally to the point. The paucity of literary appreciation here, of critical eye, is the real disappointment. O'Hara's remarkable poetry is quoted, dated, summarized--but never quite appreciated for its unusual achievements. Literary queen bee--that's what O'Hara comes off as here (which, granted, at his worst he sometimes took himself to be only as well), not the prince of poetry he would more enduringly become. (Fifty-five photographs--not seen)

Pub Date: June 8th, 1993
ISBN: 0-394-57118-5
Page count: 544pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 1993


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