Frank O'Hara by Sophie Heawood
Illustration by Fernando Monroy
Sophie Heawood grew up in Yorkshire but has also lived in Barcelona, where she was a teenage au pair, Hong Kong, where she acted as an extra in Chinese soap operas, and Los Angeles, where she interviewed celebrities for British newspapers. Her journalism career began with pop music reviews for the Guardian and she eventually took over the lead column in The Guardian’s Weekend magazine as well as writing Milf Teeth for Vice. She is now writing a book about single motherhood called The Hungover Games for Penguin Random House.
I don’t know if it explains why I’ve never fallen in love or why I fall in love every single day, but there’s this poem that implanted itself in my brain when I was young, and until I reach the sort of love it describes I don’t think I’ll be satisfied.
It’s called ‘Steps’ and Frank O’Hara wrote it in New York in the 1960s, when he worked at the Museum of Modern Art with the bold new painters who would come to define the 20th century. A gay man in an exciting city at an exhilarating moment in history, Frank spent his evenings in the smoky jazz clubs where a similar revolution was happening in music, and at lunchtime, he would take a stroll and write about the Manhattan he saw burgeoning in front of his eyes. They were published in his book Lunch Poems, the slimmest, loveliest book that I own. (I’ve bought about eight extra copies in my life - every time you meet someone truly wonderful you end up giving another copy of Lunch Poems away.)
In one of those poems, Steps, O’Hara alludes to the lover he’s left in his bed that morning, then casually stops to mention his thoughts on Greta Garbo, the UN, the local deli, the traffic and the fatal stabbing of a gay couple who moved to the countryside “a day too soon”. And then he ends by saying:
oh god it’s wonderful
to get out of bed
and drink too much coffee
and smoke too many cigarettes
and love you so much
Boom, there you are, you’ve fallen in love with his love, with the man in his bed, with the intimacy and the vices and the fear and the thrill of it all. With the absolute cosiness of two lovers in a world that doesn’t quite make them safe; the gleeful abandon of it all. Don’t be fooled by the casual tone - he definitely knew danger.
If anyone’s life encapsulated the best and worst of the 20th century, it was Frank O’Hara’s. He was born in 1926, studied piano at the New England Conservatory in Boston, then went to the South Pacific and Japan in the navy during World War 2. His mother had been an alcoholic and his father was a strict Catholic; young Frank had joined the navy to escape it all. So he served on a destroyer and later wrote that he witnessed things there like a murdered mess cook, “his hands cut off, his testicles tucked neatly in his cheeks, his lips sewed shut.”
O’Hara came back from war, went to Harvard on a military college placement and got into art, as well as music and poetry. He then moved to an apartment in New York where he would become close friends with painters such as Jackson Pollock and Jasper Johns. He posed nude while working at MOMA. He drank too much. And the man he loved? It was the great love of his life, ballet dancer Vincent Warren, whom he also wrote about in Having A Coke With You. Strangely enough, Warren died in October 2017, just a few days before I wrote this.
Almost inevitably, O’Hara died much younger - it’s as if his story was too good to be true, and he had to meet a tragic fate. In July 1966 he was on holiday on Fire Island, that long strip of beach near the Hamptons where beautiful men come to show some skin and love each other. A beach buggy ran him over, and he died in hospital a few days later. But this is not how I prefer to remember him - I leave that up to a poem he wrote called Autobiographia Literaria:
When I was a child
I played by myself in a
corner of the schoolyard
I hated dolls and I
hated games, animals were
not friendly and birds
If anyone was looking
for me I hid behind a
tree and cried out "I am
And here I am, the
center of all beauty!
writing these poems!
As for his style of writing, Frank O’Hara once wrote that he didn’t believe in God, so he didn’t have to make “elaborately sounded structures,” and that he didn’t even like rhythm. “You just go on your nerve. If someone’s chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don’t turn around and shout “Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep!”
Personally, I’ve never known exactly what Mineola Prep is - a team, a school? - but I don’t care, those words always come to me when I’m on a writing deadline and the words just aren’t typing themselves fast enough. I imagine that knife chasing me down the street. “Give it up,” I mutter to myself, heart racing, “I was a track star for Mineola Prep!” And then I just type.
Fernando Monroy is a Mexican illustrator currently studying in México city. His work references pop culture, reflecting the work of photographers, designers and fashion. Out Magazine named him one of twenty young queer artists to watch.