What Jack Kerouac said to Frank O’Hara
The last couple of weeks, I’ve been re-reading Jack Kerouac’s Desolation Angels. When I was a teenager, I read a lot of Kerouac and kind of fell in love with the idea of freedom and movement, jazz and friendship that his books described. Consequently I grew up with the idea of the Beat Generation being this mighty art form of expression and culture which has gone on to inform the literary movements of the present day.
Naturally, this idea was just the romantic side of me attaching importance to something I really liked. Because when I was a teenager, I wasn’t into sports or football or anything like that. The big names of literature were the equivalent of major league football teams. I didn’t care about Liverpool FC, or Real Madrid, or Bjorn Borg. For me, the big names were Kafka, Camus, Dorothy Parker, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And of course, Jack Kerouac.
As I grew older I had to get a job, and real life kind of intervened, and this meant that I didn’t read, or dream, quite so much. Around the year 2000 I decided to study with the Open University, and this led me to the poetry of Frank O’Hara.
I hated poetry. I always enjoyed English Literature at school, but I hated poetry. It left me cold every single time, from what’s his name with his bog bodies, to Byron going on and on about how much he liked Napoleon. Wordsworth was just a pain in the arse. Poetry never spoke to me the way that prose did, and most poems seemed to be a puzzle that had to be solved, but never would be solved, or at least, never by me. Some of the words were pretty, but really, who had the time?
I was very excited when I learned that one week, we’d be studying Allen Ginsberg. A-ha! Wasn’t Ginsberg a friend of Kerouac and William Burroughs? Sure, he was just a boring poet, but wouldn’t he be saying something as exciting as the saintly Jack?
And sure, the beginning of Howl was great, but then it just became words again. And my mind started to drift. And I’d re-read lines. And the text would say, ‘Look how exciting this next verse is!’, and I’d read it and think, ‘What?’ The whole week was very disappointing.
The next week we were due to study Frank O’Hara, and I thought, oh jeez, not another bloody poet. But perhaps this defeatist frame of mind was just the ring thing at the time, and it has probably changed the entire course of my life. Expected to be bored arseless, I was instead completely captivated by this slightly camp fresh new voice writing poems about drinking cola, eating hamburgers, calling up friends of the phone and watching B-movies. And of course, sexual acts in train station toilets. Frank O’Hara, I said, where have you been all my life?!
If you’re reading this, then you’ll probably know all about Frank, and how he was a member of the New York school of poetry in the 1950s, allied to the abstract expressionists and employed by the Museum of Modern Art. I liked New York, and I liked abstract expressionism, and I’d been to MoMA several times. More than that, Frank seemed to be talking just to me. Sure, everyone who reads his poems probably thinks the same thing, but I sensed in his voice the sort of personality that I could easily become friends with. Who needs those Beat Poets with their beards and their sandals and their grimy treks across the continent when this urbane, funny, whimsical precursor to Warhol, who hung around cafeterias and galleries and burger bars, (and station toilets), existed and elicited more or less the same artistic response from the reader?
It’s been 22 years since I discovered O’Hara and I’ve read almost every textbook, biography and anthology you can think of. Because O’Hara showed me that poetry can be about anything which you want it to be about. There doesn’t have to be something metaphysical or metaphorical about it. Sometimes a poem about eating a sandwich at lunchtime can just be about eating a sandwich at lunchtime. And it can be funny! Who else could end a poem with the words, ‘Lana Turner we love you, get up!’, the poem in question being ‘Lana Turner Has Collapsed’.
When I first started performing and writing performance poetry fourteen years ago, O’Hara was my reference point. He helped me find my own poetry voice. This would be before I was introduced to the work of people like Ivor Cutler or Salena Godden. It’s probably fair to say that if I hadn’t read O’Hara, then I’d never have taken up spoken word.
There are literary stories which I love. These are usually about writers meeting, and some of these may be so mythological as to not actually have happened at all. One of my favourite stories involves a cab ride shared after a Parisian party by those two giants of the literary scene, James Joyce and Marcel Proust. And apparently, they sat side by side in the cab, completely silent the entire journey, and when they arrived at the first dropping off place, Joyce said, ‘Evening’, and that was it.
But there’s another literary meeting of world which I enjoy, and this involves Jack Kerouac and Frank O’Hara. Representatives of the two different schools of poetry, the Beat Generation and the New York School, they apparently did not get along.
Now this was a shame. It’s like discovering that two of your uncles don’t like each other. I tried to stay neutral in this battle from seventy years ago, but while I liked Kerouac, and while Kerouac was a big part of my formative years, I decided very much to put everything behind Team O’Hara.
It’s not quite clear how this enmity existed. There have been some who have accused Kerouac of homophobia, though a lot of his friends, and a lot of the content of his work have been concerned with homosexuality and very non-judgementally so for a time that was significantly more conservative in these matters. There have even been some who suggest that Kerouac was simply jealous that Frank could be so open about his sexuality. Others suggest that Kerouac’s antagonism towards O’Hara was because his friend, Gregory Corso, was a big fan of O’Hara’s oeuvre, which made Jack jealous, and Ginsberg was also an admirer.
Whatever the cause, word has it that at a poetry reading in New York, while O’Hara was reading some of his poems, Kerouac is supposed to have shouted, ‘You’re ruining American poetry!’ To which O’Hara is said to have responded, to much laughter, ‘That’s more than you’ve ever done!’
I’d love this story to be true. Especially as Kerouac is later meant to have apologised a few months later, by visiting O’Hara’s flat, saying nothing, but typing out an apology on his typewriter. Something along the lines of, ‘Sorry for what I said that time’.
How I would love to have been there. I can imagine Frank afterwards, probably at a party, bitching about Kerouac. He would probably have found it hilarious.