Those were intricate days
By Max Dunbar.
Selected Poems, Frank O’Hara (ed. Donald Allen) Carcanet, 2012
There is a moment, for the reader, when you come across someone who not only writes well but seems to speak to and for you. There are a few writers and poets who can do this. They reach inside you and touch a finger on your heart and they smile. I felt this about Anne Sexton. I feel this about Frank O’Hara. If I had to be exiled to some remote place and could take the works of only one poet, I would without hesitation pick O’Hara. I am sure there are better poets but he is the one I love the best, and if I ever learn to recite ‘Meditations in an Emergency’ from memory, I will die a happy man.
The reader coming to O’Hara for the first time is immediately assaulted by a series of freewheeling, almost insane imagery and associations. From ‘Easter’: ‘O the amusing audience to all words shivers before the flashing sword of the thighs of the Sun like a hangar the sun fries all mumbojumboes and the rivers scramble like lizards about the ankle until the ravishing pronunciamento of stone’ – it comes thick and rapid, I could open the Selected Poems at random and quote examples. It’s like the Beats but there’s not that sense of tortured screaming you associate with Ginsberg. Every word in every line thrums with a furious positive energy.
Raymond Carver has been said to write ‘K-Mart realism’. Frank O’Hara wrote K-Mart poetry. Our first-time casual reader will likely be bewildered by the profusion of pop-cultural references, snatches of old songs, overheard newscasts, names of streets, bars, venues – some world-famous and still standing, others that live on only in the anecdotes and memories of a few old drunks who once were young. O’Hara’s friend John Ashbery said that the poet would scribble the poems ‘at odd moments – in his office at the Museum of Modern Art, in the street at lunchtime or even in a room full of people – he would then put them away in drawers and cartons and half forget them.’
You can tell. A look through the index of titles and first lines – ‘Walking to Work’, ‘It is 12:10 in New York and I am wondering’, ‘Now when I walk around at lunchtime’- gives the impression of a wandering city man, ambling around, a coffee there, write something down, a beer there, a conversation, write something else. Product names, phone numbers and forgotten towns mingle with references to twentieth-century novels and O’Hara’s beloved poets and composers. A piano student, steeped in philosophy and literature, O’Hara wanted to be ‘at least as alive as the vulgar’.
This new Carcanet edition begins not with the standard academic intro but with a section of prose in which O’Hara outlined the movement of ‘Personism’. Perhaps the only literary manifesto that still deserves to be read after its author’s death, O’Hara criticises formalisation and technique (‘I don’t even like rhythm, assonance, all that stuff. You just go on your nerve’) and attacks didacticism in poetry: ‘Nobody should experience anything they don’t need to, if they don’t need poetry bully for them. I like the movies too. And after all, only Whitman and Crane and Williams, of the American poets, are better than the movies.’ One of his best works, ‘To the Film Industry in Crisis’, begins with a few playful lines on contemporary spoken word on criticism.
Not you, lean quarterlies and swarthy periodicals
with your studious incursions toward the pomposity of ants,
nor you, experimental theatre in which Emotive Fruition
is wedding Poetic Insight perpetually
Anyone who has attended an poetry open mic night sober will already be nodding in recognition.
The rest of the poem is a gorgeous rollicking tribute to the great Hollywood actors:
I hate to ventriloquise the dead, but O’Hara would surely appreciate that twenty-first century readers reach him through television. In an episode of hit historical series Mad Men, Don Draper picks up a copy of Meditations in an Emergency from a stranger in a bar. O’Hara’s themes of the city and identity, his stylistic combination of indistinctness and exactitude, appeal to the troubled adman. Don reads the book over a day and then posts it – to who, we don’t yet know – and inscribes the title page with a line from ‘Mayakovsky’: ‘Now I am waiting for the catastrophe of my personality to seem beautiful again, and interesting, and modern.’
O’Hara was nothing if not a modern man. Born in 1926 in Baltimore, he served in the US Navy during World War Two, then on to Harvard. He moved to New York and lived there for many years before his death, at just forty, from a bizarre accident (he was hit by a dune buggy on Fire Island and died of injuries sustained). In ‘Meditations on an Emergency’ he explicitly rejects the ideas of rural naturalism and authenticity that distorted the work of so many English writers and poets (and in a few cases produced disturbing volkisch assonances with a certain far right movement across the Channel) and proclaims his love of the city:
I have never clogged myself with the praises of pastoral life, nor with nostalgia for an innocent past of perverted acts in pastures. No. One need never leave the confines of New York to get all the greenery one wishes – I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life. It is more important to affirm the least sincere; the clouds get enough attention as it is and even they continue to pass. Do they know what they’re missing? Uh huh.
The poet’s chronic dropping of personal landmarks – Bergdorf’s, Dairy B & H Lunch, Brettschneider’s Funeral Home, Ann Arbor, Mayflower Shoppe, Park Avenue, Juliet’s Corner, the Five Spot, Greenwich Avenue, the Sagamore’s, the 42nd Street Library – serves to root him, and this fidelity to place, to the here and now, achieves a paradoxical kind of transcendence from everyday cares, irritations, and distractions. He knew there is more inspiration to be found in throwing yourself into the world than from standing apart from it, knew also that the choice is rarely ours to make. ‘Ah be with me always,’ O’Hara wrote, ‘spirit of noisy contemplation’. No other poet captures so well the texture of life. Because O’Hara was a man of his time, he was timeless. Because he was a creature of a moment, he endured.
There’s a moment where O’Hara’s attitude shades into self-satisfied Warholism: ‘Poetry is as useful as a machine!’ By and large, though, O’Hara was too much of a free spirit to stick to one aesthetic code, even one that he devised. As he said, he went by his instincts. He is conversational. He speaks to you. It is poetry as intimate conversation, a relationship between author and reader that transcends time, space, class, race. From the manifesto: ‘[Personism] does not have to do with personality or intimacy, far from it! But to give you a vague idea, one of its minimal aspects is to address itself to one person (other than the poet himself), thus evoking overtones of love without destroying love’s life-giving vulgarity, and sustaining the poet’s feelings toward the poem while preventing love from distracting him into feeling about the person.’
Reading the Selected Poems, I became aware of a depth and humanity I hadn’t fully appreciated on first reading. You can find poems, ‘To Jane; And In Imitation of Coleridge,’ ‘You’re Gorgeous and I’m Coming’ that are long dedications to particular intimates, and reflections on the fragility of existence. O’Hara understands love and friendship. He defends them with a fierce tenderness. A generous and gregarious man by all accounts, his love for his friends and his lover shines out from the page. He puts a finger on your heart and smiles.
From ‘Poem Read at Joan Mitchell’s’:
we peer into the future and see you happy and hope it is a sign that we
will be happy too, something to cling to, happiness
the least and best of human attainments
Reading O’Hara, I seem to see a shimmering pavement of a city somewhere, the silhouette of a man, sun warmth on the back of my neck, the air sharp and busy on my face, a sense that everything is just beginning, and anything is possible.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, March 21st, 2012.