In an earlier post, we revealed that fellow poets James Schuyler and Elizabeth Bishop were joined in service for their country on the Key West Navy base in the summer of 1943. Schuyler, 19, was enrolled in Sonar School; Bishop, 32, volunteered in the optical shop until the chemicals made her sick. But this story of coincidence gets even better: Frank O’Hara was a Sonarman too.
O’Hara, who would become forever linked with Schuyler, John Ashbery, and Kenneth Koch under the banner of the “New York School” a decade later, arrived at Key West’s Fleet Sonar School in September of 1944, just 18 years old. A precociously talented pianist, O’Hara at first had hoped to fulfill his service commitment as a musician. When he learned that this would require a six-year commitment, however, O’Hara balked. “The training should improve my pitch,” he wrote wishfully to his parents of SONAR, a technology that emits pulses of sound to determine the location of an enemy target, “and teach me about the physics of sound and therefore music.”
O’Hara was disappointed by Key West, and not just for the lack of melody among the blips and beeps echoing back into his headset. German submarines were operating with near impunity off the Florida coast, sinking dozens of ships with torpedo attacks each month. Away from home for the first time, O’Hara tried to drink his way to solace, but it didn’t work. “I … realized in Key West that if you went without lunch and dinner and drank fifteen bottles of beer the world seemed a great deal worse than it had,” O’Hara later wrote. “Except for the sky being so near, the dewy stars and the sea, I loathed Key West. It’s only excuse for being there is that Wallace Stevens wrote a poem about it.”
So much for the love affair between O’Hara and Key West. Two months later, O’Hara was transferred to Norfolk, VA, which was even worse: “For Norfolk is a cold, cold city, the ass-hole of the universe.”