Tuesday, March 5, 2013

TCR Poem of the Month: "Poem [Lana Turner has collapsed!]" by Frank O'Hara

Frank O'Hara, c. 1965
(Photo by Richard O. Moore)
The Committee Room begins its TCR Poem of the Month feature with "Poem [Lana Turner has collapsed!]" by Frank O'Hara.

O'Hara was a leading figure in the New York School, a group of poets living in New York in the 1950s and 1960s who valued spontaneity and outward-looking personal expression over polished technique and tortured emotional confessions.

According to O'Hara biographer Brad Gooch in City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O'Hara, O'Hara was inspired by a tabloid newspaper headline when he wrote "Poem [Lana Turner has collapsed!]" on a snowy evening in February 1962 while riding the Staten Island Ferry. Thirty-five years old and a poet of rising reputation, O'Hara was on his way to a reading he was to give at Staten Island's Wagner College. At the reading, O'Hara shared the newly written poem with an appreciative audience. Scheduled to read for twenty minutes, O'Hara read for an hour, much to the annoyance of his co-presenter, the somewhat older and more eminent Robert Lowell, whose poetry epitomized the confessional style that O'Hara disdained. When Lowell finally began his set he announced he would be reading for only a few minutes and facetiously apologized for not having written a poem on the spot.

Frank O'Hara (second from right) and Robert Lowell
(left) at Wagner College, 1962 (Photo copyright
Archives Malanga)
"I am mainly preoccupied with the world as I experience it...It may be that poetry makes life's nebulous events tangible to me and restores their detail; or conversely, that poetry brings forth the intangible quality of incidents which are all too concrete and circumstantial," O'Hara wrote in a statement for the influential anthology The New American Poetry: 1945-1960 in 1960.

"O'Hara's New York was to joy what Thomas Mann's Venice was to morbidity," wrote Dan Chiasson in Slate in 2003. "It is easy these days to look at his style—rapid, colloquial, and open—and think that it was inevitable. Or to read his poems, so full of mere stuff—addresses, telephone numbers, train schedules, the names of bars and magazines, the names of his friends and lovers—and to think it looks easy...O'Hara's poetry orders us out of the parlor and into the world, the world that through his eyes seems perpetually new, tender, and quick."

O'Hara at Museum of Modern Art , NY, c. 1965
O'Hara worked at the Museum of Modern Art in New York beginning as a gift shop clerk and rising to curator. He wrote his poems, often left untitled, on his lunch break or at chance moments on napkins or whatever scrap of paper was at hand. "Poem [Lana Turner has collapsed!]" was included in Lunch Poems, a collection O'Hara's work published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights Publishers in 1964.

O'Hara's poems offer frequent references to paintings, dance, films, and popular culture. In "Personism: A Manifesto," published in 1959 in Yugen, a literary magazine edited by LeRoi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka), O'Hara wrote -- "Too many poets act like a middle-aged mother trying to get her kids to eat too much cooked meat, and potatoes with drippings (tears). I don't give a damn whether they eat or not. Forced feeding leads to excessive thinness (effete). Nobody should experience anything they don't need to, if they don't need poetry bully for them. I like the movies too. And after all, only Whitman and Crane and Williams, of the American poets, are better than the movies."

The Collected Poems of
Frank O'Hara, 1971
In 2008, William Logan of the New York Times wrote of O'Hara -- "As a poet he wrote so much — so wildly and unevenly much — it has been difficult to reach a just estimate of his wayward, influential talent...The style, though at times foolish and self-parodic, remains fresh fifty years later. However much these poems live in the world of Lowell’s 'tranquilized ’50s,' their giddiness in the face of despair, their animal pleasure in gossip, their false bravado, their frantic posturing and guilelessness and petty snobberies — and these were O’Hara’s virtues — give us as much of a life as poetry can."

O'Hara died at age forty in July 1966 after being struck by a vehicle on the beach in the dark of night on Fire Island, New York. According to biographer Gooch, a friend sent the message -- "Frank. We love you. Get up" -- referencing the Lana Turner poem, to the dying O'Hara in his hospital room.

The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara (1971), edited by Donald Allen, won the National Book Award for poetry and earned O'Hara greater fame after death than he had known in life.   

Lana Turner, 1965 (photo courtesy of
Blond beauty Lana Turner was in her early forties when O'Hara wrote about her collapse at a party in 1962. Her tenure as a top Hollywood star was mostly over but her celebrity remained. Turner's movie career began when she was a teenager in the late 1930s with small parts in films such as Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938) and essentially ended with her final starring role in a screen adaptation of Alexandre Bisson's play Madame X (1966). By far her most notable role was the femme fatale waitress at a California truck stop in the 1946 screen version of The Postman Always Rings Twice, James M. Cain's now classic 1934 crime novel. Her other films include adaptations of the bestselling novels Green Dolphin Street by Elizabeth Goudge, Peyton Place by Grace Metalious, and Cass Timberlane by Sinclair Lewis.

Turner, who was married and divorced eight times, was known for her tumultuous private life as much as for her acting. Her peak as tabloid press fodder came in 1958 when her boyfriend, the gangster Johnny Stompanato, was stabbed to death by her fourteen-year old daughter, Cheryl Crane, during a domestic dispute in Turner's Beverly Hills home. After legal proceedings which included Turner testifying as a witness before a courtroom packed with reporters, Crane was acquitted with a verdict of justifiable homicide.

Turner's autobiography, first edition, 1982
Turner's autobiography The Lady, the Legend, the Truth was released in 1982. In it she makes no mention of any interest in poetry. In her final years, Turner repudiated the impetuous behavior of her younger self and re-embraced her Roman Catholicism. She died of cancer in 1995 at age seventy-four  

To read "Poem [Lana Turner has collapsed!]" click here

To hear Frank O'Hara read "Poem [Lana Turner has collapsed!]" click here

Here's more information --

Frank O'Hara.org (selections of poems, audio, video, photos).

Frank O'Hara Papers in the Museum of Modern Art Archives.

Lana Turner: The Official Website.

Lana Turner's Last Interview (1994). Part 1 and Part 2. Falcon Crest Blog.

Becker, Daniel. "Frank O'Hara and Robert Lowell: Conversation and Confession, Action and Thought."  H_NGM_N, number 3, 2005.

Feldman, Alan. "Celebrating Frank O'Hara." Worcester County Poetry Association, 2009.

Ford, Mark. "Introduction to Frank O'Hara Selected Poems." Poetry Daily.

O'Hara, Frank. "What's with Modern Art?" Jacket Magazine. number 6. (A collection of short reviews O'Hara wrote for Art News, 1953-55).

The Committee Room.  Interesting Articles for Interested Readers.