Don Allen, Grey Fox, and Poems Retrieved by Frank O’Hara

By Katherine Duckworth

poemsretrievedWhen Edwin Denby said about influential editor Don Allen, “When will he have the complete poems of Frank O’Hara?” he was hoping to see two volumes of previously uncollected work joined with the original Collected Poems (a collection first edited by Allen in 1971 after O’Hara’s death in 1966). In the words of Allen, “Frank O’Hara was never very sanguine about publishing his poems,” and so many of his works remained yellowing in the homes of friends whom he held correspondences with for years. Denby’s wish did come true when Poems Retrieved was released on Allen’s Grey Fox imprint, though it is noted that new O’Hara poems could potentially appear at any time. Poems Retrieved serves as a present representation of that completion. This collection was republished and reformatted from City Lights in 2013, with a new intro by O’Hara’s friend and poet Bill Berkson.

Though most noted for his extensive and influential collection of innovative Post-War American poets, The New American Poetry 1945-1960, Allen was also the founder of two significant presses in the late 1960’s called Grey Fox Press and the Four Seasons Foundation. The two literary presses published not only O’Hara, but also Gary Snyder, Richard Brautigan, Jack Kerouac, Jack Spicer, and Robert Creeley among others. City Lights distributed these publications starting in the late 1960’s on to when Allen was considering retirement, and then offered to acquire the backlists. Significant works from these presses are still on the shelves today at City Lights.

Poems Retrieved includes a note from Allen outlining the tediousness of the editorial process. He knew Frank’s tendencies and Allen had doubts as to which works would have been approved. O’Hara hardly bothered to retain copies of his work. Using poems previously published in magazines, smaller collections, and correspondences, Allen was able to easily combine a body of work for The Collected Poems, but Poems Retrieved proved to be a bit more difficult. He notes,

“But there remained many poems of which I had never heard, or doubted that he would have published without revising, ones that seemed too similar to other poems of the same period or were too fragmentary. In the course of restudying the manuscripts and collecting his correspondence, however, I came to realize that O’Hara at one time or another would most likely have published all of his poems, and that the present volume was the logical and necessary completion of their publication.”

The fragmentation and repetition only add to the success of O’Hara’s prolific work. He is a man who saw little separation between poetry and life, and whose voice and vision remains among the most prominent of the last century. Discovery of his work by new readers continues to bridge the gaps between visual art, dance, and poetry providing inspiration to the emerging population of creative and academic minds alike. The introduction to our new edition from 2013, written by poet and art critic Bill Berkson, notes that

“The breadth of what Frank O’Hara took to be poetry is reflected in the many kinds of poems he wrote. The quick release from riveted (and riveting) attentiveness to direct response being his mission and métier, the rate of response, as well as the wide net cast by his attentions throughout, is extraordinary, as if the world would stop without his continually remarking on its activities.”

collectedonO’Hara grew up in Grafton, Massachusetts–a suburb of Worcester and originally aspired to be a concert pianist. He rode the train into Boston to take classes at the New England Conservatory on Saturdays and on Sundays stayed in his room to catch the symphony programs on the radio. He served in the South Pacific on board the destroyer USS Nicholas during WWII. He eventually landed in New York where he started as an information desk clerk at the Museum of Modern Art, and ended up the associate curator by 1965. It was here, in his office at the MOMA, in the streets, at parties (or, most famously, on his lunch break) that O’Hara surprised even his closest friends with the extensive volume of writings he was able to complete—and the amount of subjects he was able to cover. One might wonder what was left unworthy of O’Hara’s attention. Perhaps that is the mark of his brilliance.

My country, leafy and blue with infinite breaths,
somehow I shall escape into history, the valor of a heart
shall not refuse that punishment, I would burn
all characteristics, all intimacies, from a forehead
already too lofty; scoop out the golden plains, not
to feed the multitudes but to create vast sea beds
of the future, into which all monuments eventually must
relinquish their monuments, their thoughts of air.
Then, facing total blackness, I am at last my self.

Frank O’Hara’s widely acclaimed collection Lunch Poems is number nineteen in the City Lights Pocket Poet Series and was recently restored to its original format and re-released in hardcover in celebration of its 50th anniversary. It includes never-before-seen facsimiles of correspondences with Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Poems Retrieved is available online and on our shelves containing over 200 poems spanning over the course of sixteen years.

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