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Living Variously : CITY POET: The Life and Times of Frank O'Hara, By Brad Gooch (Alfred A. Knopf: $30; 532 pp.)

June 27, 1993|Amy Gerstler | Amy Gerstler is a writer of fiction and poetry whose next book of poems, "Nerve Storm," will be published by Viking Penguin in November

It's not easy to find biographies of writers that describe the life and the writing equally well. "City Poet" provides an intelligent, balanced, readable account of a writer's life and milieu even as it illuminates Frank O'Hara's fabulous, unsung poetry. An accomplished poet and fiction writer himself, living and working in O'Hara's beloved Big Apple, Brad Gooch proves an able choice for this unique poet's biographer.

A poet, playwright and eventually a curator at New York City's Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), Frank O'Hara lived with intensity and died relatively young. At age 40, he was run over by a Jeep on the beach at Fire Island, and died three days later as a result of his injuries. "City Poet" begins at his end: graveside, at O'Hara's 1966 funeral. Opening the book with a description of this sad and colorful event is a canny, appropriate move. The funeral scene both whets readers' appetites to know what manner of man attracted much of the East Coast art and literary worlds as mourners, and prepares readers for that large, interesting cast of characters vigorously jockeying for position in O'Hara's prodigious, complex social life throughout the balance of the book.

The list of O'Hara's friends and acquaintances does indeed resemble a partial roll-call of the cultural movers and shakers of the time: John Ashbery, Virgil Thompson, Jackson Pollock, Edward Gorey, Ted Berrigan, Harold Brodkey, Robert Dash, Edwin Denby, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Guston, Alex and Ada Katz, Amiri Baraka, Kenneth Koch, Jasper Johns, Jack Kerouac, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, James Merrill, James Schuyler, Larry Rivers, Harold Rosenberg, Jack Smith and on and on. In serving up a chronology of O'Hara's rich, often chaotic personal life and his artistic development, "City Poet" also ends up painting an interesting picture of the New York art world and its mores in the 1950s and '60s.

Francis O'Hara was Irish Catholic on both sides, gay, an excellent swimmer, a flirt, a passionate friend, a champion of Abstract Expressionism, a big drinker and the product of both Catholic school and Harvard. He was also an avid movie fan, balletomane, a copious letter writer, a sucker for blondes, very musical and a world-class wit. Drafted into the Navy the second he graduated from high school in 1944, he was the kind of young man who could write home to his family, in a line that seems to hint slyly at some of the paradoxes in his own personality and situation at the time: "The sea was very rough and looked like silver lame." In college he penned a poem called "Dialogue for Man, Woman and Chorus of Frogs." The poet John Ciardi, one of O'Hara's professors, talks about O'Hara's "lovely sardonic sense of fun," and declares that his student was quickly writing "like a young Mozart." A devout New Yorker from the moment he arrived in the city, O'Hara was so beside himself with delight about the Matisse retrospective scheduled to open at MOMA that he wheedled himself a job there selling postcards, in order to spend as much time as possible in the exhibition, thus beginning a long relationship with that institution.

"City Poet" reads as if it was researched with the thoroughness of one of those archeological teams that examine every inch of their dig site with sifters. One gets the impression Gooch spent years interviewing anyone who'd had contact with his subject and was at all willing to talk. Not that O'Hara's colleagues, lovers, etc. emerge as a particularly shy group. Most seem to be of the "tell all" school of reminiscence, making for an involving read. The biographer also appears to have visited so many of the poet's haunts that readers quickly become convinced Gooch actually knows what the halls in O'Hara's elementary school smelled like.

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