Poet among the painters

A thread on Facebook wandered, as threads are wont to do, and was diverted for a while to the poet Frank O’Hara. I was sure that I’d written about him, and maybe I posted something on the newsgroup soc.motss years ago, but I haven’t been able to dredge that up. In any case, Arne Adolfsen wrote on Facebook about trying to track down a particular poem of O’Hara’s, with a flagrantly gay-sexy theme (O’Hara’s poems tended to concentrate on small events in his daily life, his wide network of friends and lovers, gay life in all its manifestations, and, most important, art; he worked at the Museum of Modern Art and later the Metropolitan Museum of Art). I was able to identify the poem (“Une Journée de Juillet” (1955)), and now have the text.

But first some background on O’Hara, and one of my favorite poems of his, “Having a Coke with You” (1960). Then back to July 1955.

(Memorial site for O’Hara here, Wikipedia entry here.)

O’Hara (1926-66, struck down by a dune buggy on the beach at Fire Island, of all things) was a writer, poet, and art critic, associated with the “New York School” of painters (largely abstract expressionists), but also poets, dancers, composers, and musicians, in the 1950s and 60s. The central poets were O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, and John Ashbery, with connections to the beat poets.

O’Hara dashed off poems at great speed, often during his lunch hours. The result was a few spectacular poems, many very good ones, but also a fair number of mediocre ones.

Some bibliography:

Berkson, Bill & Joe LeSueur (eds.). 1980. Homage to Frank O’Hara. Creative Arts Book Co.

Gooch, Brad.  1994. City poet: The life and times of Frank O’Hara. Perennial.

LeSueur, Joe. 2003. Digressions on some poems by Frank O’Hara. Farar, Straus and Giroux. [a memoir]

O’Hara, Frank (ed. by Donald Allen). 1971. The collected poems of Frank O’Hara. Knopf.

— (ed. by Mark Ford). 2008. Selected poems. Knopf. [“Une Journée” is in this collection, but not the earlier one]

Perelman, Bob. 1996. The marginalization of poetry: Language writing and literary history. Princeton Univ. Press. [ch. 9, pp. 156-65, “A false account of talking with Frank O’Hara and Roland Barthes in Philadelphia”, has a section on “Une Journée” that recapitulates the poem.]

Perloff, Marjorie. 1977. Frank O’Hara: Poet among painters. Univ. of Chicago Press.

On to “Having a Coke with You” (layout on the page different from O’Hara’s, because of the limitations of my software):

is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, Irún, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne

or being sick to my stomach on the Traversa de Gracia in Barcelona

partly because in your orange shirt you look like a better happier San Sebastian

partly because of my love for you, partly because of your love for yoghurt

partly because of the fluorescent orange tulips around the birches

partly because of the secrecy our smiles take on before people and statuary

it is hard to believe when I’m with you that there can be anything as still

as solemn as unpleasantly definitive as statuary when 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.

and the portrait show seems to have no faces in it at all, just paint

you suddenly wonder why in the world anyone ever did them

I look

at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world

except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally and anyway it’s in the Frick

which thank heavens you haven’t gone to yet so we can go together for the first time

and the fact that you move so beautifully more or less takes care of Futurism

just as at home I never think of the Nude Descending a Staircase or

at a rehearsal a single drawing of Leonardo or Michelangelo that used to wow me

and what good does all the research of the Impressionists do them

when they never got the right person to stand near the tree when the sun sank

or for that matter Marino Marini when he didn’t pick the rider as carefully

as the horse

it seems they were all cheated of some marvellous experience

which is not going to go wasted on me which is why I’m telling you about it

Some, but not all, of the art references here:

Rembrandt’s Polish Rider:

Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase:

Marino Marini’s Horse and Rider (one among a number of such sculptures):

Other poems I’d recommend: “The Day Lady Died”, “Homosexuality”, “Poem (Lana Turner has collapsed!)”, “Why I Am Not a Painter”, and (for the title alone) “You are Gorgeous and I’m Coming”.

On to “Une Journée de Juillet”, a very physical poem (if you’re squeamish about sex between men, you should bail out at this point):

My back is peeling and the tar
melts underfoot as I cross the street.
Sweaty foreheads wipe on my shirt
as I pass. The sun hits a building
and shines off onto my face. The sun
licks my feet through my moccasins
as I feel my way along the asphalt.
The sun beams on my buttocks
as I outdistance the crowd. For a
moment I enter the cavernous vault
and its deadish cold. I suck off
every man in the Manhattan Storage &
Warehouse Co. Then, refreshed, again
to the streets! to the generous sun
and the vigorous heat of the city.

Yes, a little hymn to the pleasures of gangsucking and to its restorative powers.

Here’s the recap in the “False Account” section of Perelman (p. 163):

[Barthes] “Here’s another one about the Manhattan Storage Warehouse: Une Journée de Juillet.” … [O’Hara] “Let’s see: it was hot, lots of sun, tar melting underfoot, sweat, I was walking through crowds. Okay, here: The sun beams on my buttocks as I outdistance the crowd. For a moment I enter the cavernous vault and its deadish cold.” … “That’s only the set-up. I suck off every man in the Manhattan Storage & Warehouse Co. Then, refreshed, again to the streets! to the generous sun and vigorous heat of the city – July 12, 1955.”

The Manhattan Storage & Warehouse Co.:

Two images of gangsucking — not WordPressable — on my XBlog, here. These are from gay porn (that is, from fantasy), but such things have long happened, and continue to happen, in the secret places of real-life gaysex.

Manhattan Storage played a role in O’Hara’s poem “A Step Away from Them” (1956), in the passage:

And one has eaten and one walks,
past the magazines with nudes
and the posters for BULLFIGHT and
the Manhattan Storage Warehouse,
which they’ll soon tear down. I
used to think they had the Armory
Show there.

Wikipedia on the Armory Show:

the Armory Show refers to the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art that was organized by the Association of American Painters and Sculptors. The exhibition ran in New York City’s 69th Regiment Armory, on Lexington Avenue between 25th and 26th Streets, from February 17 until March 15, and became an important event in the history of American art, introducing astonished New Yorkers, accustomed to realistic art, to modern art. The show served as a catalyst for American artists, who became more independent and created their own “artistic language”.

… Among the scandalously radical works of art, pride of place goes to Marcel Duchamp’s cubist/futurist style Nude Descending a Staircase, painted the year before, in which he expressed motion with successive superimposed images, as in motion pictures.

And Nude Descending brings us back to “Having a Coke”.

It hadn’t occurred to me to wonder about the title of “Une Journée”, but I should have. Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky immediately connected the title to — surprise! — a painting, and then searched it out: Paul Cézanne’s La journée de juillet.  (Note connection to the Impressionists in “Having a Coke”.) An extraordinarily enigmatic, even phantasmagoric, painting, and one of the most multiply titled paintings in history:

It’s known as, among other things:

L’aprèsmidi du dimanche  [Sunday Afternoon]
La journée de juillet [July Day]
Les pêcheurs [The Fishermen]
Scène fantastique [Fantastic Scene]

The Metropolitan Museum site says of it:

The Fishermen (Fantastic Scene)

This painting was shown at the third Impressionist exhibition, in 1877. It is thought that the man shown from the back in the lower left corner was originally meant to depict an artist, perhaps Cézanne himself. The imagery, a composite of scenes of leisure, derives from paintings by Manet and Monet from the 1860s. Underlying the Impressionist motifs are prototypes found in the work of Giorgione, Titian, and Veronese. Cézanne often included references to Venetian painting when he was working in his pastoral mode—a strain in his art that culminated in the late pictures of bathers.

Connecting this to O’Hara’s poem, you could see the figure on the lower left (or possibly the man facing the figures in the boat on the lower right) as representing O’Hara, the fishermen on the lower left as representing the men he fellates at Manhattan Storage, and the whole scene as representing Manhattan Storage as a locus of pleasure and leisure — strenuous relaxation — while ordinary life goes on only feet away, just as it did on the New York street outside Manhattan Storage.

Those suggestions might be stretching things, but I doubt that O’Hara picked the title just because the events the poem is based on happened in the month of July.

11 Responses to “Poet among the painters”

  1. Arne Adolfsen Says:


  2. Jack H Says:

    Great poem, completely different from Why I Am Not A Painter (my favorite for reasons I find competely inexplicable).

  3. rodii Says:

    I think the one beginning “Twin suns full of fur and noise” is of especial interest here.

  4. rodii Says:

    Yeesh, sorry to garble that–thought my memory was better.

  5. nbmandel Says:

    That Cezanne must have made a strong impression on O’Hara; it looks (from the exhibition history shown in the Met’s website) as though O’Hara most likely saw the painting when it was on display at the Met for six weeks in 1952. It was certainly not unknown (there are numerous citations in the References list), but it was in private hands till 2001. It’s not presently on view at the Met. If it were my collection I’d hang it next to a Manet, maybe the strange Rubens pastiche, “Fishing.”

    Thanks, too, for the great image of Manhattan Storage.

  6. Helen Frankenthaler « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] had been on my mind ever since I wrote about Frank O’Hara a few days ago. Glueck’s obituary hints at the connection: Her first major museum show, a […]

  7. Dude descending « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] (for the painting, see here). […]

  8. Yesterday’s anniversaries | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] my first male lover, who expanded my poetic tastes considerably. What a delight. See my posting here of 12/25/11, “Poet among the painters”, on O’Hara, his life, and his […]

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