Friday, July 29, 2016

Frank O'Hara in action at NYC's Museum of Modern Art

I was 12 years old and my mother, stepfather and I had chosen that summer to leave Chicago, at least for a short while, for our big family trip to New York City to see the World’s Fair and all the major sights Manhattan Island had to offer.  None of us had ever been there before, and none of our summer vacations had had its destination as a big city.  

Near the end of our trip, my parents and I were exhausted after a morning of walking for miles and sightseeing in New York City. I was awestruck by New York.  There was more of everything in New York than in Chicago, and the abundance seemed more thought out, more polished, more avant-garde, more talented, more new, and more old.

After much of a day of sight-seeing in Manhattan, we wandered into the Museum of Modern Art like cow-town bumpkins, amazed, tired, and upon entry coming to a revelation that we couldn’t take one more step.  But we had already paid our admission and weren’t about to turn around and go back to our hotel.

What I had expected to see was art. Who I didn't expect to see was Frank O'Hara, the poet, himself. He was one of the art curators at the time at the museum. That was what his obituary said a year later. Yes, that he was a museum curator, the New York Times stated, "but also a poet."

But wait, I was only 12 years old at the time. I didn't know anything about poets or poetry back then. And certainly didn't know who Frank O'Hara was. 

It went like this. My parents and I decided to take a breather and sit in the atrium which led to the sculpture garden.  The sculpture garden had just been redesigned the year before, the brochure read. A long bench was where we parked ourselves faced the window looking out to the sculpture garden. When we turned the other way inward toward the building, we faced a large hallway with a group of workers and museum people talking and maneuvering crated paintings into another room.  

Too exhausted to converse and undistracted by anything else to do, we sat and just absorbed what unfolded before us as if watching a movie. Like someone on a fast, having visions, I watched and remembered with a great intensity. A slim man with a receding hairline was energized over all the commotion of mounting what seemed to be a new exhibit. He paced briskly into other rooms and back out again, stage left and stage right, making lively comments to his fellow workers great and small about the paintings, pointing to one crate and another, turning to someone else to make a remark, then laughing so loudly his melodic voice almost echoed in the halls.  

He didn’t lift a finger, and though directive, was not dictatorial, and seemed to treat the whole episode as if at a party, or a friendly spider excitedly weaving a web around and around where only he could move freely up and down the strands to wherever he wished. It seemed like this man never rested, and did not need to rest. You could almost tell he was always like this. This was him, he loved what was going on, and although he seemed to want to attract a lot of attention to himself, it's as if he did so to invite you in to love what was going on, too, if you wanted. Were the crated items possibly for the forthcoming Robert Motherwell retrospective?

I knew about sex, but knew nothing about homosexuals. I really was naive about it.  I didn’t, at that point, know such a thing existed.  As we continued to watch, my mother grew irritated.

"That guy is too much," she moaned. She seemed disgusted. I couldn’t understand what he had done to offend her.  He wasn’t talking nasty, or wasn’t slobbering around like a drunk, which were two other public behaviors which offended my mother.  She is a person who can’t stand when a person puts on airs. It seemed as if the man’s vocal, though light bravura got to her.
"I wish he’d just go away," she said. "Get lost," she said softly, "or we’ll get lost." To me, he was just being enthusiastic. In fact, his energy seemed to energize the fatigue I was feeling, and his enthusiasm over the paintings somewhat primed me to discover for myself when we’d go upstairs to see the galleries what he found so compelling between four stretcher strips. 

Years later, as I began to make my own way through the world as a poet, I read Frank O'Hara's poetry and as well as his biography City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O'Hara, learning then of his work as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art. Wasn't he the energetic man I had witnessed during my visit to New York City as a seventh grader? Although I knew nothing of his poetry, or anything about poetry at that age, wasn't I inspired by him, at least back then, by his enthusiasm, so precious especially in light of it being his last year of life, not knowing that an accidental death lay before him that next summer. 

Why were my parents and I led to the museum that day? Only to spend an hour of our time sitting on a bench? I think it was a personal blessing for me to see a great poet, Frank O'Hara, in action, not reciting poetry, but celebrating life itself.

I mention Frank O'Hara in my new nonfiction reference/memoir/how-to/creativity guide Frugal Poets' Guide to Life: How to Live a Poetic Life, Even If You Aren't a Poet, and how City Lights Pocket Poet Series published O'Hara's Lunch Poems.