Lately I’ve been thinking about Frank O’Hara and his sometimes terrible taste in men. I can’t help but see the painter Larry Rivers as a thoroughly undeserving recipient for one of my favorite poems, O’Hara’s “To the Harbormaster.” The pair’s messy entanglement started (inevitably) at a party, with a drunken kiss and grope behind a curtain. The two were hidden, but O’Hara was wearing his trademark white tennis shoes, and the two pairs of shoes, his and Rivers’s, were in full view of the heaving room. O’Hara’s letters to Rivers maintain that he could take him or leave him, but, like those trainers peeping out from underneath the curtain, the poems rather give the game away.
Rivers’s involvement with O’Hara was against his better judgement, and in his autobiography he claims never to have had full sex with a man, a fact that partly explains the poem’s fixation with impossibility and insurmountable distance. O’Hara was a far more emotionally demanding lover than any of Rivers’s girlfriends. (As Rivers wrote of his relationships with women at the time: Q: “Sure, you like sex with me, Larry. But what are your intentions?” A: “To continue fucking you at the lowest possible price.”) I find O’Hara’s hopefulness one of the most comical and touching aspects of his love poems. O’Hara was a glass-half-full revisionist of reality. He could make a virtue of anything, even a row (“That’s not a cross look, it’s a sign of life”) or of being left alone (“You never come when you say you’ll come but on the other hand you do come”).
In “To the Harbormaster” O’Hara’s optimism becomes carefully crafted romantic delusion. He recasts the relationship with Rivers, presenting himself as the unreliable lover: “I am always tying up / and then deciding to depart,” he writes. The doubts and hesitations are presented as his own: “Though my ship was on the way it got caught,” he says, before breaking the line and offering, rather unimaginatively, “in some moorings.” (It’s a kind of a watery equivalent of the dog ate my homework.) I love that the feelings spill into just over a sonnet. In what would be the sestet, O’Hara somehow seems to accept that his imagination has run away with him. The final lines are both a declaration and an acknowledgement of the truth: “I trust the sanity of my vessel” and “if it sinks,” it may well be in answer to reason: “the waves which have kept me from reaching you.”
On the page (if not in bed), Rivers was a gift to the poet. In a letter to his unsuitable love object, O’Hara makes the connection plain:
I was listening to a Chopin Nocturne when I woke up and suddenly felt so unalterably great just by the contact with it that I swear that I must have thought I was Homer at the edge of the sea, and suddenly thought of how words in one’s head boom and crash like the sea and do, corny as it sounds, keep ebbing before one “gets” them. The most one can seize is merely a splinter of some magnificent edifice one had just apprehended like that famous submerged cathedral. Someone who didn’t like me could say, “Sure all you have to do is show him Larry Rivers or the sea and out comes a poem.”
Where would poets and readers be without some badly behaved lovers?
I wanted to be sure to reach you;
though my ship was on the way it got caught
in some moorings. I am always tying up
and then deciding to depart. In storms and
at sunset, with the metallic coils of the tide
around my fathomless arms, I am unable
to understand the forms of my vanity
or I am hard alee with my Polish rudder
in my hand and the sun sinking. To
you I offer my hull and the tattered cordage
of my will. The terrible channels where
the wind drives me against the brown lips
of the reeds are not all behind me. Yet
I trust the sanity of my vessel; and
if it sinks, it may well be in answer
to the reasoning of the eternal voices,
the waves which have kept me from reaching you.
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