The subject O'Hara was fascinated with that fall was the death of James Dean, aged twenty-four, on September 30, 1955, in a crash in his Porsche Spyder near Paso Robles on his way to Salinas for a race. O'Hara responded by writing a number of elegies from October through the following April. "For James Dean," written the Wednesday after the crash, shows the influence of classical elegies, which the movie star's death had inspired O'Hara to read, including Milton's "Lycidas," Tennyson's "In Memoriam," and Shelley's "Mourn not for Adonais":
For a young actor I am begging
peace, gods. Alone
in the empty streets of New York
I am its dirty feet and head
and he is dead.
The next day he wrote an elegy--later included as "Obit Dean, September 30, 1955" in "Four Little Elegies"--modeled on the format of Dean's newspaper obituary that simultaneously parodied a classical invocation to a goddess--in this case Carole Lombard: "This is / James Dean, Carole Lombard. I hope / you will be good to him up there."
The following weekend O'Hara accompanied Morris Golde, John Button, and Button's lover, the pianist Alvin Novak, to Golde's simple beach-washed angular wooden home atop a dunish hill on Water Island, a secluded community on Fire Island reachable only by motorboat or beach taxi. There O'Hara plunged more deeply into a poetry of grief and anxiety about death that he hung mostly on Dean's lyrically tragic demise. One afternoon he wrote a poem in the sand that he claimed to later remember and write down verbatim:
made in USA
eager to be everything
Do we know what
excellence is? it's
all in this world
not to be executed
On Tuesday before leaving he wrote a fuller poem in quatrains, "Thinking of James Dean," which alluded to the poem in the sand ("A leaving word in the sand, odor of tides: his name") as well as broadening out the more general awareness of temporality that seemed to be driving these poems:
To reach the depths and rise, only in the sea;
the abysses of life, incessantly plunging not to rise to a face
of heat and joy again;
In the last of these elegies, written the following April, he turned into a stanza of poetry a bit of fanzine gossip gleaned from Joe LeSueur in Los Angeles--"There is an appalling story making the rounds on the West Coast now--Jimmy is not really dead but in the booby hatch, his face ruined beyond repair. Warner's, it seemed (àla Big Knife), thought it better to have him dead":
Your name is fading from all but a few marquees, the big red
calling-card of your own death. And there's a rumor that you live
hideously maimed and hidden by a conscientious studio.
O'Hara's fixation on, and identification with, Dean had begun gaining momentum while Dean was still alive. After seeing East of Eden in July, in which Dean plays a character as rebellious as the tender hoodlum he played in Rebel Without a Cause released later that year, O'Hara argued with Ashbery over the film's excellence. In the course of their discussion O'Hara came to realize that Dean's Cain character struck chords with his identity within his own family. Writing to Fairfield Porter, O'Hara explained, "John didn't like it and in telling me about it, it was so strange, because the main character, a sort of naughty boy wondering why he's different, I felt very illuminating and even that eerie feeling that I was being exposed to an intimate, scarcely-remembered level, whereas John identified with his brother, who is treated less fully though equally sympathetically, and didn't like the role he was put in. My own brother was not at all like John or Aaron in the movie, but the relationships and the things said were very close, especially in the father relationship. The movie takes place in California 1917 but the diction I remember in Massachusetts in 1938 was amazingly similar."
O'Hara took this analogy further in the same letter to Porter as he tried to find explanations for what he felt to be the difference between his poetry and Ashbery's, a question raised in part by the Yale Younger Poets prize. "I think one of the things about East of Eden is that I am very materialistic and John is very spiritual, in our work especially," O'Hara wrote, casting himself with reverse vanity as the James Dean of poetry "John's work is full of dreams and a kind of moral excellence and kind sentiments. Mine is full of objects for their own sake, spleen and ironically intimate observation which may be truthfulness (in the lyrical sense) but is more likely to be egotistical cynicism masquerading as honesty. I'm sorry if you're bored by this, but sometimes I think that writing a poem is such a moral crisis I get completely sick of the whole situation. Where Kenneth and Jimmy produce art, for instance, I often feel I just produce the by-product of exhibitionism. Well, chacun à son mauvais goût!"
When "For James Dean" was published in Poetry with its title advertised on the front cover the following March, a small controversy ensued. Paul Goodman complained that James Dean wasn't a suitable subject for poetry, Bunny Lang agreed, calling the poem "too out" for publication. A letter printed in Life magazine pointed out that the appearance of the poem proved "The James Dean necrophflia has penetrated even the upper levels of culture." "I was as much against his being sentimental about me as I was about his being sentimental about other people," says Kenneth Koch of his feeling at the time about the James Dean poems. "Did the world really hate James Dean because he was good-looking and energetic? I don't know. It seems exaggerated." Even O'Hara confessed in a letter to the composer Ben Weber (whose setting of the second stanza of O'Hara's "Poem" [Here we are again] was published in Folder 4 in 1956) that he felt his James Dean poems were "awfully sentimental."
However, many others were thrilled by the poem and its feel of newness and contemporaneity." Bravissimo for James Dean in Poetry," wrote Ned Rorem. Even more pleasing was LeSueur's postcard from California announcing that "James Dean on ouija says he likes poems." Despite the mixed reactions, the James Dean poems were an important marker in the development of O'Hara's poetry. They introduced a Pop element into poetry that had so far only been hinted at in the artworld through the works of Rivers and Rauschenberg. More personally they allowed O'Hara, whose poetry was no longer inspired by Rivers, to express the sort of frustrated love that seemed to keep him particularly inspired. Dean became for him a screen actor version of the tragic lyric figure personified in literary history by Romantic poets who died young such as Keats and Shelley. The result was a deepening of O'Hara's poetic subject matter to take on the twin themes of love and death with a sentimental directness that set his work apart in style from that of Ashbery, Koch, and Schuyler.