Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O'Hara A Memoir

Joe LeSueur

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Trade Paperback

336 Pages



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Joe LeSueur lived with the masterful New York School poet Frank O'Hara from 1955 until 1965, the years when O'Hara wrote his greatest poems, including "To the Film Industry in Crisis," "In Memory of My Feelings," "Having a Coke with You," and the famous Lunch Poems—so called because O'Hara wrote them during his lunch break at the Museum of Modern Art, where he worked as a curator.

Indeed, O'Hara was at the center of the mid-twentieth-century New York art world; the artists he championed include Jackson Pollock, Joseph Cornell, Grace Hartigan, Jane Freilicher, Joan Mitchell, and Robert Rauschenberg. And although the flowering of O'Hara's talent was cut short by a fatal car accident in 1966, he did produce some of the most exuberant, truly celebratory lyrics of modern verse. He was also America's greatest poet of city life since Whitman.

Alternating between O'Hara's poems and LeSueur's memory of the circumstances that inspired them, Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O'Hara is a literary commentary like no other—an affectionate, no-holds-barred memoir of O'Hara and the New York that animated his work: friends, lovers, movies, paintings, streets, apartments, music, parties, and pickups. LeSueur's engaging volume, which includes many of O'Hara's best-loved poems, is the most intimate, true-to-life portrait we will ever have of this quintessential American figure and his now legendary times.


Praise for Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O'Hara

"[A] chatty, catty, and candid memoir . . . A remarkable insider's history of the New York art scene in the '50s and '60s [that includes] vivid portraits of many of its major players."—Barbara Fisher, The Boston Globe

"Poignant [and] funny LeSueur confirms what devoted readers of this poetry already knew: the earth is not as full as life was full of Frank O'Hara."—Langdon Hammer, The New York Times Book Review

"[A] relaxed, meandering, and tender memoir . . . What LeSueur does best is create a mood. In chapter after chapter, with bursts of recollection and flashes of bitchy wit, he not only evokes the noise of O'Hara's quotidian and accidental world but also conveys the extent to which O'Hara's poems were immersed in it. When O'Hara died after being hit by a jeep on Fire Island in 1966, several of his painter friends mourned his passing by creating works that mythologized him as an artist victimized by a brutal society. LeSueur's portrait of O'Hara doesn't suffer from such bombast. With their keen sense of the ephemeral, their dislike of didacticism, and their alluring mix of vulnerability and charm, his digressions are fitting tributes to O'Hara's ebullient poems."—John Palattella, The Nation

"Allen Ginsberg complimented Frank O'Hara on his 'common ear for our deep song.' Joe LeSueur, who lived with O'Hara for ten years, has a gifted ear of his own as well as the rare ability to make the gossip of decades past seem new and newly worth hearing. LeSueur shrewdly organizes his memories in the form of commentary on selected O'Hara poems, an admirable conceit that makes Digressions a must-read for fans of this central figure of the New York School."—David Lehman, author of The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets

"[A] meandering, poignant, funny memoir . . . LeSueur's method is to page through O'Hara's poems in the order of their composition and then stop and quote whenever some lines prompt reflections or an anecdote. The result is an annotated edition of the work . . . [LeSueur's] method works, more often than not, because O'Hara's poetry depended on daily life for its subject matter."—Langdon Hammer, The New York Times

"No one could bring more intimate knowledge to the reading of O'Hara than Joe LeSueur. Beginning each chapter with lines from poems written during their relationship, he focuses on images and references that ignite the vivid personal memories he calls his 'digressions,' the initial digression leading to the next and the next, like a series of small doors flying open until the reader has walked with him through an entire house."—Joyce Johnson, The Washington Post

"Essential reading . . . Our most intimate portrait yet of O'Hara, and a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes of his beguiling poems."—J. D. McClatchy, Out

"The life and mostly wild times of a great American poet, from the man who lived with him from 1955 to 1965."—Library Journal

"This haphazard, winning memoir is, as its title suggests, less a cohesive account of a life than a snapshot-series of a way of living. What's notable, of course, is how modern that way of living still looks . . . O'Hara and the New York School essentially invented our cultural idea of literary New York City as a place of campy wit and strong feeling, of banter and inventive art executed at high speed. No one may have embodied this paradox of intensity and play, of irony and belief, more fully than O'Hara . . . [This book is] full of intimate glimpses of the sort that no biographer can reproduce . . . [Although they lived together for nearly ten years,] LeSueur witnessed O'Hara's work from a distance, but he writes simply and accurately about O'Hara's taste and wit . . . This is the kind of partial, personal, strange document no other writer could replicate; [LeSueur has written] a love letter to the memory of the privilege of his unique arrangement with O'Hara. Though the two ultimately grew apart together—LeSueur moved out in 1965, shortly before Frank's death—[the author] is never less than elegant in his appreciation of O'Hara."—Meghan O'Rourke, Bookforum

"LeSueur shared four New York apartments (and dozens of famous friends) with the poet Frank O'Hara during the last 10 years of the poet's life. Because O'Hara moved in the now-legendary New York art world of the 1950s, and because his poems constantly bring up friends, acquaintances, lovers, and social events, O'Hara's readers usually welcome knowledge of his life and times. Admirers, disciples, and critics of the charismatic and increasingly influential O'Hara will thus line up to read this informative and surprisingly readable memoir from the screenwriter and editor LeSueur, who completed the volume just before his own death in 2001. LeSueur's memoir offers plenty of firsthand knowledge—both facts and anecdotes—nobody else has put in print; it does so, moreover, in an entertaining format, organized (after an autobiographical preface) in 40 short (three to 10 pages) bursts of storytelling, each pegged to a particular O'Hara poem or part thereof. This unusual format arranges LeSueur's copious anecdotes into assimilable chunks, and links facts about the life to the poems they best explain. Readers can learn, among many other tidbits, when (and why) O'Hara stopped 'making out with strangers,' how he came to write his famed Billie Holiday elegy, and how he rescued a drowning boy off Fire Island. LeSueur tells memorable stories not just about O'Hara, but about almost all the eminent poets, composers, and painters of '50s New York—Ashbery, Auden, Koch, Schuyler; Rauschenberg, Johns, Kline; Morton Feldman ("Morty"), and Gian Carlo Menotti—whose lives intersected with his own. Sometimes chatty, sometimes incisive, and sometimes not so sweet, this book should supplant Brad Gooch's O'Hara bio City Poet (widely seen as a clip job) as info-hungry readers' first stop."—Publishers Weekly

"[An] engaging memoir, completed just before the author's death in 2001, of his ten years with poet O'Hara. They met in 1951 and began living together in 1955 in one of those committed-but-not-quite relationships that were common among gay men at the time: 'Frank would be made to feel he was more important to me than anyone in my life . . . while I would continue to have my sexual freedom.' LeSueur was a native Californian, survivor of stints as a soldier, an elementary-school teacher, and a 'kept boy' who found with O'Hara (1926-66), slightly older and far more sophisticated, with his day job at the Museum of Modern Art and his Abstract Expressionist buddies, the glamorous New York life he had always dreamed of. Together they drank hard, saw a lot of movies, attended classical concerts and the ballet, and hung out with an amazing roster of the city's brightest talents. John Ashbery, Willem de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Edwin Denby, Robert Motherwell, Ned Rorem, Kenneth Koch, Fairfield Porter, and Tennessee Williams are just a sampling of the famous names lightly dropped in LeSueur's appealing text, which takes what little organization it has from the O'Hara poems that head each chapter. (Not the least of the pleasures here is the opportunity to rediscover the witty, vigorously colloquial verse of one of the urban experiences's most enticing bards.) Sometimes LeSueur recalls how or where a poem was written—generally with extreme nonchalance in the midst of the hubbub O'Hara loved—sometimes it prompts more loosely connected reminiscences of a period in their lives or a friendship. The very casual structure [of this book is] always rescued by the charm of LeSueur's voice, which also brilliantly recaptures a bygone age in homosexual culture when gay men could be out of the closet, even swishy and campy, but only among their bohemian intimates, gay or straight. Deliciously gossipy, sometimes catty, yet never mean-spirited: a delightful snapshot of bohemian New York in the mid-20th century."—Kirkus Reviews

Reviews from Goodreads



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Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O'Hara
WHO I AM AND WHERE I AM COMING FROMAccording to "Four Apartments," Frank and I met on New Year's Eve 1951 at a party John Ashbery gave in his Greenwich Village apartment. Not so, it turns out, and it was John who set me straight--John, who has always been known for his infallible memory and for never being wrong about anything. But I had a more compelling reason for accepting his account of how Frank and I met. For when, in the spring of 1969 not long after my memoir appeared in The World, he sidled up to me at a party downtown and asserted in that cool,
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  • Joe LeSueur

  • Joe LeSueur was a decorated soldier when he moved to New York in 1949 at the age of twenty-five. He held jobs as an editor, a critic, and a screenwriter. He died in 2001 in East Hampton, Long Island.