31 pages • 1 hour readFrank O'Hara
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“Ave Maria” is an experimental free verse poem by American New York School poet Frank O’Hara. It originally appeared in his 1964 collection “Lunch Poems,” and then later in the posthumous 1995 collection “The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara.” This poem showcases the adoration for cinema which infused so much of the poet’s work, and appeals to mothers across America to allow their children the joy of discovering cinema for themselves.
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Frank O’Hara was an influential American poet, art critic, and casual musician. He was considered a central figure in the “New York School” of poets and artists in the 1950s and ’60s, which included John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, James Schuyler, Kenneth Koch, and others.
O’Hara was born in 1926 in Baltimore and grew up in Grafton, Massachusetts. He studied piano rigorously in childhood and served in the US Navy for three years before returning home to study at Harvard University, where he shared a room with fellow writer and artist Edward Gorey. He developed a passion for visual art as well as music, which would lead him to his work with the Museum of Modern Art. In 1951 he moved to New York City, where he worked at the museum selling postcards at the front desk; he would later move through the ranks to become assistant curator of painting and sculpture. O’Hara had a wide array of friends and lovers in modern art circles, and his passion for visual art informed much of his written work.
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O’Hara’s poetry largely reflects contemporary life in New York. He published six volumes of poetry between the years of 1951 and 1964: A City Winter, and Other Poems, Oranges: 12 pastorals, Meditations in an Emergency, Second Avenue, Odes, and Lunch Poems. Several volumes were also published posthumously. His work is said to be of the “Personism” movement, which involves creating a relationship with the subject of the poem through the work. O’Hara took a dismissive, sometimes satirical approach to poetry and eschewed traditional form and technique. In 1959 he wrote an article, “Personism: A Manifesto,” which discussed his perspective on poetry form. His work also exhibits influences from abstract expressionism and surrealism. O’Hara died tragically in 1966 at age 40 after being struck by a vehicle on Fire Island off the coast of New York.
O’Hara, Frank. “Ave Maria.” 1964. Poetry Foundation.
The narrator speaks directly to the “Mothers of America” (Line 1) imploring them to let their children go to the cinema. If the children are gone, the parents can enjoy time alone together. While being outdoors is good for physical health, the soul flourishes better in a dark room illuminated by a silver screen. If the mothers allow their children the freedom of going to the cinema, the children won’t hate their parents when they’re older; they’ll be out living life, perhaps in some far-off place that they first experienced through a film.
They may remember those days fondly, knowing the freedom the mothers gave them allowed them to experience sex for the first time. They’re able to indulge their fantasies without upsetting the peace of the household. Through their time at the cinema the young people will enjoy candy and popcorn and maybe even leave part way through with a stranger who lives nearby. However, even if they don’t leave with someone they’ll still have a wonderful time watching movies. Either way, they’ll have been entertained instead of moping around the house building grudges against their mothers.
The speaker again implores the mothers to consider their advice; if they don’t, their families may dissolve and their grownup children will spend their lives in front of the television, watching films they couldn’t watch when they were children.