In certain cases, when O'Hara worked very closely with a particular painter, the poem absorbed the spirit of the painting thoroughly enough to become independent. This is true, I think, of "On Seeing Larry Rivers' Washington Crossing The Delaware at the Museum of Modern Art." Rivers explains what he was trying to do in this particular painting in an interview with O'Hara forHorizon (1959):
... what could be dopier than a painting dedicated to a national cliché--Washington Crossing the Delaware. The last painting that dealt with George and the rebels is hanging in the Met and was painted by a coarse German nineteenth-century academician who really loved Napoleon more than anyone and thought crossing a river on a late December afternoon was just another excuse for a general to assume a heroic, slightly tragic pose.... What I saw in the crossing was quite different. I saw the moment as nerve-wracking and uncomfortable. I couldn't picture anyone getting into a chilly river around Christmas time with anything resembling hand-on-chest heroics.
"What was the reaction when George was shown?" O'Hara asks. "About the same reaction," Rivers replies, "as when the Dadaists introduced a toilet seat as a piece of sculpture in a Dada show in Zurich. Except that the public wasn't upset--the painters were. One painter, Gandy Brodie, who was quite forceful, called me a phony. In the bar where I can usually be found, a lot of painters laughed."
O'Hara himself, however, understood the Rivers painting perfectly. His poem, written in 1955, treats Washington's Crossing of the Delaware with similar irreverence and amused contempt:
Now that our hero has come back to us in his white pants and we know his nose trembling like a flag under fire, we see the calm cold river is supporting our forces, the beautiful history.
The next four stanzas continue to stress the absurdity of what O'Hara, like Rivers, presumably regards as a nonevent, the "crossing by water in winter to a shore / other than that the bridge reaches for." Here the silly rhyme underscores the bathos of what is meant by our "beautiful history" (note that the crossing takes place in a "misty glare"); and the poem ends with a satiric address to George, culminating in the pun on "general":
Don't shoot until, the white of freedom glinting on your gun barrel, you see the general fear.
Although O'Hara's poem is especially witty if read in conjunction with Rivers's painting, it can be read quite independently as a pastiche on a Major Event in American History, an ironic vision of the "Dear father of our country," with "his nose / trembling like a flag under fire."
O'Hara's poetic response to the painting of Larry Rivers, like his lyric celebrations of Grace Hartigan, suggests that he was really more at home with painting that retains at least some figuration than with pure abstraction.
From Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters. Copyright © 1977 by Marjorie Perloff.