March 27, 2014
In memory of Ned O’Gorman
by Claire Kelley
Ned O’Gorman, poet, author, and educator died earlier this month at the age of 84. He was the author of a memoir, The Other Side of Loneliness, a few books on education, and many books of poetry. One of them, The Night of the Hammer, won the Lamont Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets in 1958.
I met Ned in 2012 because he was the friend of a community of Jesuit priests I know on Thompson Street in Manhattan. He had considered being a priest or a monk at points in his life, but he became a passionate teacher of young children instead. When I told him I worked at Melville House, Ned sent me a series of unpublished poems he had written over the last decade on the Italian island of Torcello near Venice where he spent time every year.
In a 1967 New Yorker Talk of the Town profile of O’Gorman from 1967, the founder of the Children’s Storefront school in Harlem is described as “a tall, thin, thirty-six-year-old poet, wearing horn-rimmed glasses, a brown turtleneck sweater, a scarf, torn blue jeans, and blue sneakers.” At that time, he had just started his makeshift school for neighborhood children in Harlem by asking for donations of books, toys, food, clothing, and money from his famous artist and musician friends, and leaning on his myriad connections with authors and publishers from his four year stint as the literary editor of the Catholic magazine Jubilee.
His classroom in 1967 was decorated with sculptures given to him by Robert Lowell, prints of Rembrandt, Rousseau, Piero della Francesca, a Kierkegaard quote, as well as a Ned O’Gorman original: “The secret is to risk disaster, hope for triumph, and describe the forms of the incarnation.”
Ned loved the children he mentored over the past 50 years with great enthusiasm. His New York Times obituary says that “He hugged every child at the beginning of the day. If one failed to appear, he sent a car for him.”
It was always fun to ask Ned questions about what he was most passionate about at the moment, whether it be music, a recent trip, a person he admired, or a book he loved. “I’m reading Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf right now and it’s just wonderful!” he’d tell me. But sometimes, he would be just as frank confessing that he felt down. “Sometimes I just cry” I heard him say once.
His memoir, personal writing, and poems gave me some insight into what he might be feeling, since they explore forbidden love affairs with men and his spiritual questioning. A 2002 New York Times article mentions that his partner, Jorge Guillermo, who helped him raise a child from the Harlem school, left O’Gorman to marry Princess Christina of the Netherlands. But I never had enough courage to ask him about that directly.
The last time I saw Ned was last December. He told me he had just spent a lovely evening with a group of friends who would meet occasionally and practice the time-honored art of conversation. “It’s really quite an art form,” he explained. He said his leg was hurting, and that he cancelled his annual trip to Torcello. His death a few weeks ago came as a shock to me — he was so alive, and filled with feeling everytime I saw him.
It Was the Part that Flowed Back
It was the part that flowed
back that stopped him, the
hind tied to the stake,
head alert to the teeth
of the shadows, the spy
of the belly, the covered
lids, the light cowering
on the nostrils, sniff of
marrow, veins stuffed. His
jaw delved deep into the
surface of the skin
splayed out in colors
of silks iridescent. The
leash taught, a premonition
of fracture. I awaited trouble.
It was time for another music.
A flung-down tone, cut modalities,
a salted cadence, parched harmonies,
sirens over hammers of soil. I
heard your footfall. The brick wall
was on fire with the setting sun.
You might turn and look this way
where I thought I stood. But you
did not. It was not yet time for another music.
Claire Kelley is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House.