Frank O'Hara — Rainbow Warrior

by Elmer G. Wiens

In "Personism: A Manifesto" Frank O'Hara states that he locates "the poem squarely between the poet and the person" he addresses in the poem, having it "between two persons instead of two pages" (Ford 247-48). By implication, the parts (objects) of the poem in relation to other parts, including any or no connections among them, are similarly located between the poet and the addressed person. An uninitiated reader of the poem, wanting to assimilate the poem's juxtaposed lines and phrases, tries to impute an association among them. Can he layer one object on another? Can he add the sense of two objects? Does one object negate another? What sense impression is left after performing an appropriate operation between the objects? Unconnected, these juxtaposed objects stymie the unversed reader, frustrate his understanding of their contiguity, and repel and propel him along and deeper into the poem. The poem becomes a force field of propelling vectors, carrying the reader's attention and experience through the poem, replicating a surface take on O'Hara's attention and experience of the things, events, ideas, and people he relates to the poem's addressee. Breathing through the musicality of the lines, the reader is carried by the poem's momentum to its end, and is disconnected from the implicit presence of the addressee, the poem, and O'Hara.

The way in which O'Hara arranges cluster of phrases and lines in many of his poems reflects his collaboration with New York artists, particularly with his friends Larry Rivers and Willem de Kooning. In the painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware, Rivers juxtaposes people and fragments of scenes-snippets of moments that capture the gestalt of the beginning of America as an independent nation. O'Hara's poem, "Ode to Willem de Kooning" (126-28), mirrors Rivers' visual presentation and theme. In the spatial arrangement of Part 1, O'Hara draws on the way Rivers put together his images. Part 2 of the poem, superimposed on Part 1, stands in for George Washington. Part 3 totalizes the juxtaposed and superimposed images of Parts 1 and 2, resolving the contradictions of Athenian democracy, imitating Washington's emergence to create a democratic republic from seemingly disparate parts. The painting and the poem share the theme of the recurring need for new beginnings. O'Hara says, "Dawn must recur / to blot out the stars and the terrible systems / of belief." O'Hara's reference to de Kooning's Woman, 1 paintings in the poem's last lines, '"maybe they're wounds, but maybe they're rubies" / each painful as the sun,' might refer to the bloodshed that often seems necessary for new beginnings to obtain, like the patches of red paint in Rivers' painting. Furthermore, O'Hara might be thinking that de Kooning's bizarre, abstract combination of women through the ages is comparable to our often negative judgments about the possibility of free, democratic societies.

A reader can increase the poem's intensity by decreasing the distance at which he experiences it. O'Hara's poetry contains references to many persons, places and objects, like paintings. One can read the poem without knowing much about whom or what O'Hara writes and still obtain a general sense of the poem. The poems are about O'Hara himself, presenting himself, his friends, and environs of the City of New York in a campy yet lyrical style. With some research into O'Hara's coterie of friends — artists, singers, musicians, dancers, actors, and writers from the New York art scene of the 1950's and early 1960's — one can obtain a more intimate feeling for the poem. O'Hara's poem can be read as a hypertext web page, with links to New York locales, paintings, biographies, prose and poetry, and You Tube performances. Googling the entries in O'Hara's poem, a reader begins to feel that he too is O'Hara's friend, privileged and present at an O'Hara reading of the poem. Since this research may raise as many questions as it answers, the reader might be left lingering on the fringe of the in-group, acquiring an incomplete understanding of the poem. Moreover, one's experience reading the poem can differ significantly from that which O'Hara had meant the poem's addressee to experience depending on how one construes his allusions. But being a member of a special group is part of the fun of being campy.

In the poem, "Having a Coke with You" (194), Frank O'Hara expresses his feelings of love to Vincent Warren. O'Hara says, "I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world / except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally." Rembrandt's painting depicts a young man equipped with a bow and a quiver of arrows, side-sword, and rapier riding a spirited horse. Is O'Hara likening a photograph of Warren dancing with the image of the rider and horse cantering through an evening landscape? Is O'Hara comparing Warren's face to the beautiful Dutch-Polish facial features that a close-up of the rider reveals? When O'Hara says, "I never think of the Nude Descending a Staircase or / at a rehearsal a single drawing of Leonardo or Michelangelo," is he commenting negatively on Warren's movements as a ballet dancer, with its calculated physicality and artificial naturalness? Does he imply that the rivalry between ballet dancers rehearsing, or in performance, excites him so much that he forgets the effaced battle scenes that Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti painted in competition with each other? Or does he imply that Warren's move from New York to Montreal has eroded his potential as a ballet dancer, downgrading his art in the way Giorgio Vasari obscured da Vinci's The Battle of Anghiari on the wall of the Council Hall of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence? In spite of how much O'Hara enjoys his relationship with Warren, O'Hara feels "cheated of some marvelous experience," "which is why he is telling you about it." In the end, my italicised you is Vincent Warren, the poem's addressee. In the meantime, the reader as you experiences voyeuristically the affection the poem reveals between O'Hara and Warren, as O'Hara reaches to connect with the reader.

These allusions to painters invite one to compare the relationships O'Hara had with Warren and Larry Rivers. One the one hand, O'Hara emphasizes Warren's physical allure in the poems Mark Ford includes from Love Poems, O'Hara's "delicate and caressing poems" ("Avenue A" 189), forty poems that delineate their affair. Warren will "never know how beautiful" he is, and O'Hara would commit an "uninteresting suicide" for "six seconds of" his "beautiful face" ("Hôtel Transylvanie" 183-84). The last poem cycles through a range of emotions. Will they win or will they lose at the game of love? O'Hara "must win or die." Is the ironic contrast between their loving and not loving just pretending? Can their "hurting and being hurt" force the love they want to appear? Their love could not be forced, since this cycle of O'Hara's poetry ends in the summer of 1961.

On the other hand, O'Hara's relationship with Rivers was physical and intellectual. They remained friends after their break-up as lovers, corresponded and seeing each other regularly until O'Hara's untimely death. Essentially, they were collaborators, influencing each other's paintings and poetry. Early examples from 1954 are Frank O'Hara Nude with Boots and "Mayakovsky" (71-72), their beautiful, narcissistic obsessions with the male body persisting in their later paintings and poetry. O'Hara's reference to the Polish Rider, may have inspired River's pop art renditions of this painting, and his 1962-63 pop art versions of Rembrandt's Syndics of the Drapers Guild found on boxes of Dutch Masters cigars.

Rivers has been referred to as a writer in a painter's body. O'Hara and Rivers would have been familiar with Samuel Beckett's poem, "Cascando" (41-42), published in Poems in English. Beckett's cyclical lines, "saying again there is a last / even of last times / last times of begging / last times of loving / of knowing not knowing pretending / a last even of last times of saying" capture some essence of their relationship. River's paintings and O'Hara's poems were squarely between them. The thought of last times, or more generally the last of anything, emerges throughout River's career (David Joel Email). Famously, his paintings from 1959, The Last Landscape and The Last Civil War Veteran, were revisited in subsequent last paintings. Similarly, in "Mayakovski," O'Hara leaps from the window ledge, and then must quietly wait "for the catastrophe of my personality to seem beautiful again." In "Hôtel Transylvanie," O'Hara, losing at the game of love, must die to have "revenge on the black bitch of my nature," so that he too can "drift downstream to another body of inimical attractions."

The ironic contrast of knowing and not knowing Frank O'Hara continued in Larry River's work after O'Hara's death. In 1977 he began his Rainbow Rembrandt paintings, versions of Rembrandt's Polish Rider owned by the Frick Collection. The rainbow adorned rider reminds one of the gay pride flag that became the symbol of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) social movements. Perhaps River's painting is a tribute to O'Hara's poetry, his Personism that continues to fight back against oppressive heteronormative prejudices in American culture.

Works Cited and Consulted

Altieri, Charles. "The Significance of Frank O'Hara." The Iowa Review. 4.1 (1973): 90-104.

Beckett, Samuel. Poems in English. London: Calder 1961

Breslin, James. "The Contradictions of Frank O'Hara." The American Poetry Review. 12.6 (1983): 7-16.

Da Vinci, Leonardo. The Battle of Anghiari. 1505. Lost.

De Kooning, Willem. Woman, 1. 1950-52. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Joel, David. The Larry Rivers Foundation. Email to Elmer G. Wiens. 11 Feb. 2013.

O'Hara, Frank. Love Poems (tentative title). New York: Tibor de Nagy, 1965.

  -   -   -. Selected Poems. Ed. Mark Ford. New York: Knopf, 2011.

Perloff, Marjorie. Frank O'Hara: Poet Among Painters. New York: George Braziller, 1977.

Rivers, Larry. Washington Crossing the Delaware. 1953. Larry Rivers Foundation, New York.

  -   -   -. Frank O'Hara Nude with Boots. 1954. Larry Rivers Foundation, New York.

  -   -   -. Rainbow Rembrandt. 1977. Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC.

  -   -   -. The Last Civil War Veteran. 1979-80. Doubletake Gallery, Burnsville, Minn.

  -   -   -. The Last Landscape. Private Collection, Oregon.

Van Rijn, Rembrandt. The Polish Rider. 1665. The Frick Collection, New York.

  -   -   -. Syndics of the Drapers Guild. 1662. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

© Elmer Wiens


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