Frank O'Hara was not your stereotypical poet (if there is such a thing). Sure, some poets write by candlelight late into the night. And sure, some poets work on a sonnet for years and years, perfecting every syllable, every word, every rhyme. Some poets agonize over imagery and symbolism, over every little metaphor and simile. Frank O'Hara was not one of those poets.
O'Hara wrote "Poem [Lana Turner has collapsed!]" while riding the Staten Island Ferry on his way to a poetry reading. Just hours after writing the poem, he performed it in front of an audience at Wagner College. The audience went wild.
Frank O'Hara's poems are filled with the stuff of everyday 1950s and '60s life: newspapers, cans of Coke, phone conversations, and, of course, celebrities. O'Hara was a little obsessed with movies and celebrity culture. He famously said that only three American poets (Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, and William Carlos Williams) were better than going to the movies (source). And the guy just loved a good celebrity scandal.
In "Poem," O'Hara writes about the collapse of Lana Turner, who was a big-deal movie star back in the day. She was a glamorous platinum blonde actress who starred in some of the biggest movies of her time (including The Postman Always Rings Twice and Imitation of Life). She was also famous for her tumultuous personal life: she was married eight times to seven men (that's right, she married one of them twice).
O'Hara's "Poem" may seem, well, a little strange to you, especially if you're used to reading serious poems about stuff like love, death, and the moon. O'Hara was part of the New York School of Poetry, and he and his fellow poets were known for writing playful and seemingly lighthearted poems about everyday life in the city. And what's more seemingly lighthearted than some good celebrity gossip?
Do you linger over tabloids at the supermarket checkout counter? Do you read People magazine at the doctor's office? Do you check in with perezhilton.com or TMZ more than you'd care to admit? If so, this is the poem for you.
Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears were not the first celebrities to suffer public embarrassment. Lana Turner was one of the godmothers of the Hollywood scandal. And O'Hara's "Poem" is not even just about Lana Turner per se. It's about living in a world where we're all a little obsessed by what the rich, famous, and beautiful are up to in Hollywood.
It's a strange world we live in. Even though most of us have never met the Lindsays and Britneys and Lanas, we know what's happening in their relationships, we know about their struggles with addiction and mental health issues – we even know where they like to go for their morning coffee. "Poem" is about what it's like to have this kind of intimate knowledge of a beautiful stranger, decades before Perez Hilton or the Internet hit the scene.
This is Frank's official site.
The Academy of American Poets
A good, basic bio of O'Hara.
The New York Times
Here's what the paper of record had to say about a new selection of O'Hara's poetry.
Watch O'Hara Read
Here's O'Hara reading his poem "Having a Coke With You" in 1966. You'll never look at a can of Coke the same way again.
Check out a clip from an old movie Lana Turner starred in.
Don Reads Frank
Don Draper reads O'Hara's poem "Mayakovsky" in an episode of Mad Men.
Listen to O'Hara Read
Here's an audio clip of O'Hara reading "Poem [Lana Turner has collapsed!]." Listen for the audience laughter at the end.
Tell us what you're thinking, Frank.
O'Hara with his good friend and fellow New York School poet John Ashbery.
If you want just a taste of O'Hara's other work, this is the book to start with.
The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara
If you're really digging O'Hara, check out his Collected Poems.
Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O'Hara
This book is written by Joe LeSueur, O'Hara's sometimes boyfriend and always friend. It provides great context (and more than a little gossip) about O'Hara's poetry.