Letter of Recommendation

The Poet Who Taught Me to Be in Love With the World

Frank O’Hara’s greatest legacy might be his secular faith — in other people, and in everything around us.

Credit...Photo illustration by Geoff Kim

One day, while walking with my husband and 15-year-old son from the subway to the Central Park Zoo, we passed the William Tecumseh Sherman statue on the park’s southeast corner. As one might say a prayer upon passing a church, I recited the opening of Frank O’Hara’s 1954 poem “Music”:

If I rest for a moment near The Equestrian
pausing for a liver sausage sandwich in the Mayflower Shoppe,
that angel seems to be leading the horse into Bergdorf’s

Growing up in the 1980s in a bohemian East Village family, I knew, as if by osmosis, about the cohort of 1950s and ’60s painters and poets known as the New York School. O’Hara was the one I loved. In the photos and footage of him that I saw, O’Hara looked soft and hard at the same time: part boxer, part librarian, with his crooked nose, wide smile and light blue eyes. His 1964 book, “Lunch Poems,” was the closest thing we had to a family Bible.

As a young poet, my father met O’Hara, 16 years his senior, at a few parties. At the last, O’Hara inscribed a catalog to him at a Museum of Modern Art opening: “with palship from Frank.” A month later, on July 25, 1966, O’Hara was hit by a dune buggy in the middle of the night on Fire Island. In an obituary published in The Village Voice, my father wrote: “Everything about O’Hara is easy to demonstrate and exceedingly difficult to ‘understand.’ And the aura of the legendary, never far from him while he lived, now seems about to engulf the memory of all he was and did.”

When he died, O’Hara was already a key figure in American poetry and, as an unabashedly out man in 1950s America, a transformative figure in gay cultural history. For the past several decades, he has been the lens through which many people, myself included, see New York City. The poet Ron Padgett calls O’Hara’s “a voice that often reminded me of bourbon and smoke, nightclubs, a phone call that changes your life, and warmth.” His poems always sounded to me like the city feels at its best — cosmopolitan, wry, romantic, full of potential, gimlet-eyed without being mean. In reaction to a New York Post headline after the actress Lana Turner collapsed from exhaustion, he wrote:

I have been to lots of parties
and acted perfectly disgraceful
but I never actually collapsed
oh Lana Turner we love you get up

O’Hara’s poems have an intoxicating swagger. Even whipsawed by snow, by city traffic, by volatile love affairs, he displays a deep delightedness. Getting his heart broken only makes him more adventurous; he’s just happy he can be the first person to take you to the Frick; he’s grateful he gets to “drink too much coffee and smoke too many cigarettes and love you so much.”

Today I live with my family in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, just another “pleasant stranger whose apartment is in the Heaven on Earth Bldg near the Williamsburg Bridge.” When I’m walking through the city in the late afternoon, I think, “right in front of it in the warm New York 4 o’clock light we are drifting back and forth between each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles.”

My friends who teach writing to college students tell me that O’Hara is a perennial favorite. He’s just so funny. He flirted with his friends, with his lovers, with his readers. It was more than a lifestyle, his flirting; it was a calling. As a writer, I learned from him about how far it goes with an audience, being game and curious. O’Hara loved people well. The poet Barbara Guest said that he had “that quality of a ’30s or ’40s movie: It’s only you and the moonlight, you know?”

This points to what, for me, is O’Hara’s true legacy: his secular religiosity. He had tremendous belief in the value of one person honestly encountering another (“the only truth is face to face, the poem whose words become your mouth”) and faith in the world to provide for us. “And I am out on a limb,” he wrote, “and it is the arm of God.” He loved the world so much that seeing it through his eyes made me love the world, too.

And he made me feel safe there. In the agnostic household of my childhood, that O’Hara line was gospel. My parents often said that most choices could be boiled down to security or freedom, and that it was always better to choose freedom. Whatever felt precarious might, as it turned out, be the safest thing in the world. In “To the Harbormaster,” O’Hara wrote, “I trust the sanity of my vessel” — an amor fati confidence that might be necessary for anyone with pretensions to being a writer.

My whole life, I’ve made choices that seemed, surely, unwise. I haven’t held a job with benefits in 12 years. I married a performance artist. I had a baby with no child care plan in place. But now, here we are, on a Saturday, walking through Central Park, surrounded by breathing trees and beckoning statues, and I am telling my son there is no greater security than being out on the right limb, with the right voice in your head.

Ada Calhoun is a writer whose latest book is “Also a Poet: Frank O’Hara, My Father, and Me” (Grove Press, 2022).

Source photograph by Fred W. McDarrah/MUUS Collection via Getty Images.