Poet Frank O’Hara left Grafton to pursue his dreams

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Poet Frank O’Hara left Grafton to pursue his dreams
Raised in Grafton, poet Frank O’Hara moved to New York City, where he thrived in the world of artists and writers.

GRAFTON – You can take the man out of Grafton, but you can’t take Grafton out of the man … or can you? One notable person who grew up in Grafton and ran for the big city to pursue his dreams was poet Frank O’Hara.

O’Hara was born on March 27, 1926 and his life would begin, as it would remain in youth, secretive. His mother and father, Katherine Broderick and Russell O’Hara, who were devout Catholics, had conceived him out of wedlock. Not only were the two unmarried, Katherine was eight years younger than Russell and he was also Katherine’s English teacher in Worcester. The couple, who were now expecting O’Hara, decided to leave the Worcester area and move to Maryland to avoid judgment. His parents also led him and others to believe that he was born in June, after the couple became married.

The family eventually left Maryland and moved to 12 North Street in Grafton to help with Russell’s family farms and businesses. Though Frank’s heart was in the arts, he was very helpful and devoted to his parents, doing what was expected of him for his family. He was very hands on with his younger siblings while his mother struggled with mental illness.
In his late teens he joined the U.S. Navy to serve in World War Ⅱ. The time he spent serving his country would pay off as he was able attend Harvard University on the GI Bill, where O’Hara began the study of music. Though he had a deep love for music, he would later change his study to English and earned an English degree by 1950. After Harvard he attended the University of Michigan until 1951 where he won the Hopwood Award and received his master’s degree in English.

Poet Frank O’Hara left Grafton to pursue his dreams
Poet Frank O’Hara lived in this house at 12 North Street in Grafton before leaving home to serve in World War II.

After completing his education O’Hara’s chance to start his new life in the big city arrived. He moved to New York and met his roommate and lover of 11 years, Joe LeSueur. O’Hara was far from the secretive life he left behind and expressed himself freely. His poetry reflects the absolute freedom he embraced.

O’Hara’s work is discussed and debated amongst educators, artists and writers to this day. There is certainly much to be speculated about O’Hara’s writing as his poetry and opinions became extremely blunt. This was possibly the result of a man who was finally allowed to let loose, dropping all of his cares and worries away and the expectations of his family.

While in New York, O’Hara thrived in the art world, as a reviewer for ARTnews and working at the front desk at the Museum of Modern Art. He was described as a “writer amongst artists.” By 1960 he had become the curator for the painting and sculpture exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. During his career in the art world he continued to write poetry on the fly. People would find him writing on his lunch breaks, walking down the street, or sitting in a crowded room full of chatter. An establishment he frequented was the Cedar Tavern, described as a “dive bar” where he enjoyed listening to the bickering and chatter of the local artists as he wrote.

O’Hara was living the dream as his true authentic self, working in the art world, writing poetry and even trying his hand at a short play (“Try! Try!”). After bailing on a “failed” novel, it is said that he had written about 100 poems which he scattered amongst his belongings, never to be read. Socially he was well-liked and respected by friends and peers. In the summer of 1959, he would meet the love of his life, Vincent Warren. The poem “Having a Coke With You” was written for Warren.

Life was good for O’Hara but tragedy struck in midlife. In the early morning hours of July 24, 1966, he was hit by a jeep while on the beach on Fire Island with his friends. The very next day, O’Hara died as a result of his injuries from the accident. He was only 40 years old at the time of his death.

Thanks to Joe Kuras and Jayne Wilson of the Grafton Historical Society, authors of “A Grafton Chronicle,” which provided some of the information for this column.

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