Francis O’Hara, War Poet

Document Type


Publication Date

Winter 2013





Publication Title

Contemporary Literature


Frank O’Hara is a touchstone poet of the post–World War II period. We know him as an exemplary New York poet, cold war poet, queer poet, and postmodern poet. We love O’Hara, too: he’s chatty and arty, casual and funny, eminently quotable. Francis O’Hara, however, was also—even first—a war poet. In 1951, this young writer won the prestigious Hopwood Award at the University of Michigan for a manuscript titled “A Byzantine Place: 50 Poems and a Noh Play.” This still unpublished first book manuscript is deeply informed by war, and informed by war in some surprising ways. While some of the poems in “A Byzantine Place” draw from O’Hara’s service in World War II or take the war as their topic, I argue that O’Hara’s early status as a war poet inheres less powerfully in biography or topicality than it does in the charged silences, unplanned sounds, suspenseful quiets, and acts of listening that suffuse “A Byzantine Place.” Paradoxically, O’Hara’s midcentury poems figure war, a most cacophonous state, through immersion in sudden pauses, hushed “nows,” and eerie stills. I group this collection of formal and thematic effects under the term “sonic suspension,” and it is in that sound world of hushes and pauses that I ultimately locate O’Hara’s poetics of war.


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