A Life as a Work in Progress Poet Frank O'hara's `Unrevised' Career Left Legacy of Innovation

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CITY POET The Life and Times of Frank O'Hara By Brad Gooch 532 pages, Knopf, $30

IN "poem (Hate is only one of many reponses)," a mock panegyric of truisms inverted and strung together, Frank O'Hara wrote that "An ounce of prevention's enough to poison the heart." It is a characteristic twist, at once light-hearted and sharp.

At the time of his sudden death on Fire Island in 1966, O'Hara, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, was a poet of gathering renown. Donald Allen's 1960 anthology, "New American Poetry," had redrawn the map of American poetry for a new generation, moving away from the formalists and confessionals of the previous decade toward a jazz-and-pop-culture-influenced poetry of experiment for which the compass points were the Black Mountain group, the San Francisco Renaissance, the Beats and O'Hara's own New York School.

Just how distant these poets were from the careful measures and intricate ironies of Allan Tate and John Crowe Ransom can be seen in O'Hara's flip attempt at a thumbnail poetics: "You just go on your nerve," he declared. "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.' "

In the early 1950s, O'Hara sat on a panel discussing "The Image in Poetry and Painting." As his biographer writes, "O'Hara used this opportunity to trace the tradition of contemporary poetry, from Pound, whom he called `the father of modern poets,' through Auden, Stevens, Crane and early Dylan Thomas, though he blamed the later Thomas for peddling `an image of the poet as a storm-battered heather-kicking bard from the wilds.' The villain in his talk was T.S. Eliot for his `deadening and obscuring and precious effect' . . . . That evening O'Hara arrived at a vision of poetry that sounded remarkably like . . . abstract painting . . . `Poetry which liberates certain forces in language permits them to emerge upon the void of silence, not poetry which seeks merely to express most effectively or most beautifully or most musically some preconceived idea or perception.' "

If his description, 40 years on, seems quaint, his canon unsurprising, the division in American letters between the tradition of Pound and the tradition of Eliot remains, however etiolated, however lifeless. …