Often when reading poetry, we as the reader will look for a component of the poetry to immediately grasp onto: meaning, sound, elegance, or a specific feeling. We read the poem, analyzing in some kind of chronological order as the poem moves down the page. Given that any way to analyze poetry consistently and logically is a “hard” way, this method is probably the easiest “hard” way there is to analyze poetry. This linear way can be re-produced by more than one person; it allows us to (hesitantly) put poetry in the same bucket as science and give it a hypothesis, experiment and conclusion. But it also limits us in that, if a poet is doing something that cannot be captured when the poem is read in a linear fashion, the reader will miss it.
In the poetry of Frank O’Hara, no linear reader can come out of an analysis completely satisfied unless he gives up on the specific explanations after the first line. O’Hara, like every poet, has emotion that he tries to portray in his poetry. But his words do not live in the two-dimensional space of the page, or even the two-dimensional space of sensible thought, instead they live in a multi-dimensional space of the reeling mind. Helen Vendler, in her essay “Frank O’Hara: The Virtue of the Alterable,” has a good grasp on the intangibility of O’Hara. “Dismay followed by elation, comfort succeed by loneliness, anger giving way to a shrug, apathy followed by quickening-these are O’Hara’s dimensions and out of them he creates his poetic space.” So if you can imagine for a moment, the space of a page, or of rational thought-imagine as you make a decision, say for example you are choosing which roads to take to a friend’s house, and consider the forward, linear steps you take to decide. You have factors-traffic reports, time of day, number of stoplights-and you weigh their importance and make your decision. Now, imagine instead a time when you try to rationalize yourself, but it doesn’t do any good. In O’Hara’s essay “Personism: A Manifesto” he puts it best. “…suppose you’re in love and someone’s mistreating (mal aimé) you, you don’t say, ‘Hey, you can’t hurt me this way, I care!’ you just let all the different bodies fall where they may, and they always do may after a few months. But that’s not why you fell in love in the first place, just to hang onto life, so you have to take your chances and try to avoid being logical. Pain always produces logic, which is very bad for you.”
These kinds of non-linear-thought subjects are the ones O’Hara writes about. He puts life down on paper, sometimes in order, sometimes not. Sometimes events are linked in time, or sometimes they are linked in thought, or sometimes they are linked in subject matter. They are simply mirrors of a mind. The mind is where all the input from the world gets processed to cause us to be happy, depressed, or in the midst of a feeling that’s hard to wrap words around. And usually it’s that last one. Why else would people be spending so many years and so much energy trying to do so?
Helen Vendler quotes O’Hara in “The Virtue of the Alterable”: “It may be that poetry makes life’s nebulous events tangible to me and restores their detail; or, conversely, that poetry brings forth the intangible quality of incidents which are all too concrete and circumstantial. Or each on specific occasions, or both all the time.” This statement embodies to me the way O’Hara eludes most linear analyses. We look for general statements that we can conclude, given a poet or series of poems, and most readers would probably want to choose a non-contradicting combination of these things that O’Hara uses to describe the way his poetry works. In truth, though, there’s no reason that all four of these things can’t together be his reality. I don’t think O’Hara sets out to actually put his feelings into a perfectly expressive statement-he simply looks to offer us what’s on his mind as a sample of the way things affect him, a sample of the way life is reflected in him.
Perhaps part of the reason that O’Hara has less need for sense is that he doesn’t seem to believe in metaphysics, or good vs. bad, for that matter. In one of his poems called “Poem,” O’Hara asks us not to be afraid of hate. “Hate is only one of many responses / true, hurt and hate go hand in hand / but why be afraid of hate, it is only there.” This seems to be against any belief in the general concept of goodness in our world. O’Hara can pull this off because what drives him is not some desire for the great wordly questions (Why is there hunger? What is the meaning of life?) to be answered. Instead O’Hara is more interested in why people find it so important to be alive. “I often wish I had the strength to commit suicide, but on the other hand, if I had, I probably wouldn’t feel the need…. If life were merely a habit, I should commit suicide; but even now, more or less desperate, I cannot but think, ‘Something wonderful may happen.’ It is not optimism, it is a rejection of self-pity (I hope) which leaves a loophole for life…. I merely choose to remain living out of respect for possibility. And possibility is the great good.”
He even makes fun of suicide in such a way to make death into just another possibility; “I can’t even find a pond small enough / to drown in without being ostentatious.” In this way, and always in the multi-dimensional world of his mind, O’Hara tends to be very serious and comical at the same time, which is a reflection of how he sees life. He sees the contradictions, and instead of trying to explain them or “make-up” for them, he just wants to tell us about them. His poetry is not a stream-of-consciousness, but it is a derivative of it; as Vendler says “Our minds ramble on, why not our poems? … O’Hara believes in … all things with no beginnings and no endings, things we tune in on and then tune out of.”
O’Hara’s I-do-this-I-do-that poems, as he calls them, are a perfect example of this rambling. O’Hara practically just lists events. Vendler says, “The wish not to impute significance has rarely been stronger in lyric poetry. It happened, it went like this, it’s over.” O’Hara doesn’t assert a particular meaning, he just allows his mind to reveal itself with the details it remembers. In “The Day Lady Died,” O’Hara records some tedious activities, “I walk up the muggy street … and have a hamburger and a malted and buy / an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING …” By the end of the poem, though, O’Hara has stumbled upon a New York Post with Lady Day’s face and the headline that she has died. In the last stanza, his mind reveals exactly the way Lady’s death affects him, “I am … thinking of / leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT / while she whispered a song along the keyboard / to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing.” O’Hara relies on his mind to portray itself, and it does so with utmost elegance.
O’Hara’s essay called “Personism: A Manifesto,” I believe, fully embodies his attitude towards poetry and his mind. He speaks of abstraction in poetry and personal removal of the poet from the poem. He calls Personism “so totally opposed to this kind of abstract removal that it is verging on a true abstraction for the first time, really, in the history of poetry.” First of all, this is totally contradictory. How can something be opposed to abstract removal and therefore verge on true abstraction? Of course, this type of pure contradiction is a common occurring pattern in O’Hara’s writing and poetry. More importantly, though-is O’Hara really this immodest that he thinks he is causing something for the first time in the history of poetry? This is an extremely important question, in that it resembles one that a reader of O’Hara will ask himself in every poem-is this guy serious? The answer, almost every last time, is no, not at all-O’Hara takes himself seriously approximately zero times, no matter how serious the subject matter of his writing. Later in the essay he says about Personism, “In all modesty, I confess that it may be the death of literature as we know it. While I have certain regrets, I am still glad I got there before Alain Robbe-Grillet did.” Now we know he’s just dramatizing the whole idea, especially when we recall what he said in the beginning of the essay, “I’m not saying that I don’t have practically the most lofty ideas of anyone writing today, but what difference does that make? They’re just ideas.” Here O’Hara is giving us his more straight-forward and less sarcastic voice, and so we can trust that he doesn’t take his ideas even as seriously as we do. Almost always, though, instead of making fun of such seriousness straight out, O’Hara uses sarcasm, over-drama, and candor. These seems to be his favorite medium through which he can hold the two perpendicular dimensions of tragedy and comedy together in his poetry.
“I just heard that one of my fellow poets thinks that a poem of mine that can’t be got at one reading is because I was confused too. Now, come on.” O’Hara, not believing in the metaphysics of the poetry of his time, writes in “Personism,” “how can you really care if anybody gets it, or gets what it means, or if it improves them. Improves them for what? For death? Why hurry them along? Too many poets act like a middle-aged mother trying to get her kids to eat too much cooked meat, and potatoes with drippings (tears). I don’t give a damn whether they eat or not. Forced feeding leads to excessive thinness (effete). Nobody should experience anything they don’t need to, if they don’t like poetry bully for them. I like the movies too.”
O’Hara did love the movies. Many of his poems hold the cinema dear, as in “Ave Maria,” where he begs, “Mothers of America, / let your kids go to the movies!” and in “An Image of Leda” in which a slew of passionate contradictions shows O’Hara’s lust for the silver screen. At the same time, he knows that the movies are full of commercialism and bad taste, as he points out in “My Heart,” “I’d have the immediacy of a bad movie, / not just a sleeper, but also the big, / overproduced first-run kind. I want to be / at least as alive as the vulgar.” This quote also points out, though, that he’ll still have these movies. And so, like in everything, O’Hara has a dual mind, a fervor for the movies while at the same time finding them frivolous, perhaps sometimes even revolting. In one of his off-the-edge-dramatic poems is “To the Film Industry in Crisis,” O’Hara somehow makes fun of his own love while expressing it perfectly at the same time. The entire second stanza recollects actors and actresses one at a time in sweet detail, showing quite a loving memory. But the third stanza uses such glaring sarcasm that we must question O’Hara’s earlier tone; he says to his beloved actors, “may the money of the world glitteringly cover you / as you rest after a long day under the klieg lights with your faces / in packs for our edification … It is a divine precedent / you perpetuate! Roll on, reels of celluloid, as the great earth rolls on!”
O’Hara’s over-dramatization is the foremost consistent quirk of his writing. Very rarely does a poem not have an exclamation mark, and “oh!” and “ah!” pepper the poetry in passionate release. He often uses an exclamation mark to contradict an overly serious part of a poem. In Autobiographia Literaria, O’Hara sets himself up as an oh-so-sad and lonely young child. “When I was a child … animals were / not friendly and birds / flew away … I hid behind a / tree and cried out ‘I am / an orphan.’” Birds flew away? It’s like Disney or something. But he ends the poem with exclamations of happiness, “And here I am, the / center of all beauty! / writing these poems! / Imagine!” Again he is over-dramatic and self-indulgent, calling himself the center of all beauty. He always seems to over-do whatever state he wants us to believe he’s in. He uses tragic words like catastrophe: “Now I am quietly waiting for the catastrophe of my personality to seem beautiful again, and interesting, and modern,” but he just never uses them in a completely solemn context. Another example is in “A Poem in Envy of Cavalcanti,” he says “I am sick with desire” and speaks of how he wishes to be all by himself and therefore able to capture all his feeling into a stanza of poetry. You could write it off as angst until I give the context: “Oh! my heart, although it sounds better / in French, I must say in my native tongue / that I am sick with desire.” And so we know he’s not taking himself seriously, as usual.
O’Hara’s style works well for him in matters of love. His love poems are very tender, but he never misses a chance to take us away from a lovesick reality into a self-centered one. I think he realizes that people care about each other, but more than anything, they care about themselves. Any gushy love poem is aimed at another person, but mostly written for self-edification. O’Hara doesn’t gloss over that. It doesn’t keep him from being gushy at times-it just makes the gushiness not as teary-eyed and lovey-dovey; it makes it real. In “Having a Coke with You,” O’Hara talks about why having a coke with his lover is better than any number of things. In this line, O’Hara flirts with cheesiness, “I look / at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world / except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally and anyway it’s in the Frick / which thank heavens you haven’t gone to yet so we can go together the first time,” but once he is getting too close to over-doing it, he pulls away and reminds the reader that this is two real people in the real world.
O’Hara reminds me of Woody Allen. A lot of women don’t like Allen because, well, he’s a bastard. But the bastard part about Woody isn’t what I love about him—what I love about him is his vulnerability to honesty, at least within the art of his movies. When Woody says something about loving a woman but not being able to commit to her, liberal women who belong to NOW get up in arms. But Woody just wants every good looking woman to be in love with him, when at the same time he wants those women to not love any other man. He’s not saying this is the way things should be, and people who take offense to Woody Allen usually think this way. His point is more that he wants irrational things, like everyone else, really-including Frank O’Hara. For example, in “Meditations in an Emergency,” O’Hara asks his love, “Why should I share you? Why don’t you get rid of someone else for a change? / I am the least difficult of men. all I want is boundless love.” There is a contradiction in the way we, as humans, love others, and it’s hard to reconcile. In “Stardust Memories,” Woody’s character says the following:
“I’ve never been able to find the perfect woman. There’s always something wrong. And then I met Doris… Great personality. But for some reason, I’m just not turned on sexually by her … And then I met Rita… And I love going to bed with her. Though afterward I always wished that I was back with Doris. And then, I thought to myself, if only I could put Doris’s brain in Rita’s body. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? And I thought … What the hell, I’m a surgeon. . . So, I performed the operation and everything went perfectly. I switched their personalities … And I made Rita into a warm, wonderful, charming, sexy, sweet, giving, mature woman. And then I fell in love with Doris.”
O’Hara banters with this idea, too, in “Song.”
Is it dirty does it look dirty that’s what you think of in the city does it just seem dirty that’s what you think of in the city you don’t refuse to breathe do you someone comes along with a very bad character he seems attractive. is he really. yes. very he’s attractive as his character is bad. is it. yes that’s what you think of in the city run your finger along your no-moss mind that’s not a thought that’s soot and you take a lot of dirt of someone is the character less bad. no. it improves constantly you don’t refuse to breathe do you
Do you refuse to love someone if their character is bad, filthy? This someone is attractive, mind you. You don’t refuse to breathe, do you? Life for these two men can be full of contradiction and that’s completely acceptable-because that’s just the way it is. And as Vendler explains, “And why should we want to read it? Because what else is there to know except what has happened to people?”
O’Hara’s style allows him to pull off things that most poets cannot. Vendler speaks of the tone of “Blocks,” which is a poem about children becoming adolescents. And though he doesn’t try to avoid angst, O’Hara doesn’t kill the poem, as a matter of fact the angst only strengthens the poem. “he is throwing / up his arms in heavenly desperation, spacious Y of his / tumultuous love-nerves” This might typically trigger a reader’s gag reflex, but not this time; this line comes and goes so quickly that it’s main purpose seems to be to throw us back into their childhood as O’Hara flips back and then forward again, “their childhood was like so many oatmeal cookies. / I need you, you need me, yum, yum.” As Vendler puts it, no other adolescence poem will include both the persistence of the childish and the intrusion of the physical aspect of adolescence, “Such pimples! such hardons!” And so because O’Hara knows how to do over-drama well and effectively, he can take care of situations so angsty as adolescence quite eloquently.
O’Hara certainly didn’t care for poets who tried to pull this particular kind of metaphysical “angsty” emotion in the traditional way. Robert Lowell was one of those poets. In Marjorie Perloff’s “Frank O’Hara: A Poet Among Painters,” Perloff quotes O’Hara saying he felt Lowell had a “confessional manner” that let him “get away with things that are just plain bad but you’re supposed to be interested because he’s supposed to be so upset.” He says about Lowell’s “Skunk Hour,” “I don’t think that anyone has to get themselves to go and watch lovers in a parking lot necking in order to write a poem, and I don’t see why it’s admirable if they feel guilty about it. They should feel guilty. Why are they snooping?” O’Hara’s attitude toward Lowell is better understood when we realize he later said of “Skunk Hour,” “I really dislike dishonesty [more] than bad lines” and also what he said of measure and meter in “Personism,” “if you’re going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you. There’s nothing metaphysical about it. Unless, of course, you flatter yourself into thinking that what you’re experiencing is ‘yearning.’” Obviously he doesn’t really believe in some kinds of metaphysical transformations; O’Hara sees something very basically for what it is to us in this world, but in “Skunk Hour” Lowell relies on Biblical and metaphysical illusions and says things like “I myself am Hell.” To O’Hara, this is simply Lowell flattering himself. Helen Vendler says in “The Virtue of the alterable,” “O’Hara, in his fundamental prescinding from the metaphysical, believes neither in problems nor in solutions, nor even in the path from one to the other.” We can see the importance O’Hara places on always remaining truly humble both in “Mayakovsky:” “I’ll stare down / at my wounded beauty / which at best is only a talent / for poetry,” and in “Naphtha:” “how can you / you were made in the image of god / I was not / I was made in the image of a sissy truck-driver.”
“Personism, a movement which I recently founded and which nobody knows about … puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person … The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages.” When O’Hara wrote this, he probably did not realize how right he was-each of his poems can be personalized, and often we find that the poems are links directly between O’Hara and ourselves. If only because O’Hara is showing us how his mind works, we feel like we can understand him. “All of these poems are demonstrations—demonstrations of what mind is by what mind does, its remarkable double and triple tracks,” Vendler says. Because our minds work just as powerfully, O’Hara gives us a glimpse into our own minds, too.
Every poet, to be good, must be honest. There are many different ways to write, and a particular way of showing honesty is often the true beauty of a writer. We like to read any given writer’s work because we feel he or she can describe things that we perhaps couldn’t put into words before we read their work; the writer is able somehow describe something in a perfect way, in a way that seems raw and honest and new. O’Hara has an extremely unique way of being honest. He believes that most of what we think and feel is a kind of creation of our own minds… but it’s still our lives, and so what are we going to do but live it? From this serious nonsense, Frank O’Hara is born.
About the Author
Laura Balzano wrote this essay in December 1999 while a student at Rice University, and appears here courtesy of the author. Balzano is currently a graduate student at UCLA.