Saturday, 30 September 2017

Frank O Hara: Keeping and Stopping Time

by Fenella Johnson



Frank O Hara (Wiki Commons)
It would be very overambitious of me to stand here and talk about all of American twentieth century poetry - to talk about poets like Frost, Plath, Ezra Pound, Robert Lowell and their contemporaries would take much longer time and knowledge then I have, but I did want to touch very briefly on the fact that American poets wrote prolifically and radically during the twentieth century. They did so to build on upon and reject the legacy of Romanticism, but also to grapple with "how to make new”, as Pound declared the modern poet must, poetic forms, that is how to write original, authentic American poetry.

Naturally, this led to a lot of experimentation, which I'm going to simplify and say it was fueled by two groups-one group that wanted to push the boundaries of poetry and language-the Imagists and the so-called Beat Generation-and the other that wanted to push the boundaries of who wrote poetry-the Black Arts Movement, Harlem and Chicago Schools of Renaissance and women writers, who wanted to explore and celebrate suppressed voices and cultures.

Modernist and Experimental American twentieth century poetry is often characterized by and often associated with use of the typewriter-it wasn't that they were the first poets ever to use typewriters, but that they were the first to use modern technology to challenge the barriers of what we would consider to be poetry. In the nineteen twenties, the so called-Imagists were the first to take advantage of its power to control the exact spacing and shape of every line, and thus to make a poem's visual appearance as important as its musical rhythms-in short to rebel against the inherited forms that had become the narrative of poetry at the start of the twentieth century. What looks like a thin trickle of letters becomes, to a reader who has learned the tricks, is a picture in print"-a rain drop, or a flower. It means that their most characteristic poems do not lend themselves to being read out loud; they are so embedded in print that to voice them is to sacrifice their radicalness,their so-called visual integrity. E.E Cummings-the man at the forefront of this literary movement- called his poems "inaudible." In the wake of this modernism, American poets continued to experiment with new techniques and themes while the impact of the Depression and WW2, and the continuing political struggle of the African Americans challenged the fabric of this literature, and of society.

Frank O Hara, who I want to talk about today, is not an immediately recognizable figure of American twentieth century poetry: he came after the movement of Imagism and Modernism, although many of his poems echoed the style-but he was a dynamic leader of the "New York School" of poets, whose poetry was engaged with the worlds of music, dance, and painting. His poetry is radical in the sense that he was a writer of the occasional: he responded constantly to events, to people around him. He was born in Baltimore, he then moved to Massachusetts, and served in World War Two, after which he went to Harvard, and among with writing poetry had what I think is a very enviable job (he was a curator for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where he basically spent his time just hanging out in the art world). He has in poetry two opposed wishes—to keep time and to stop time—which share a source: both are methods for banishing “the mounting panic” of boredom, which O’Hara linked with his childhood. The experiences that O’Hara had as a child and as a young man seemed to him anything but fictional: his father dying while he was at Harvard, his mother descending into an alcoholic spiral, his own sexual and artistic awakening stranding him without a past to which he could comfortably return. You can see O’Hara’s entire oeuvre as an attempt, therefore, to remake identity on terms more durable than the ones to which he had been consigned. His poems, so full of names and places and events, are exquisite ledgers for the tallying of reality.


His relative fame comes in part because of his dying very young, at 40, the prominence and loyalty of his friends, the renown of his own personality, and above all, the poetry itself. This poetry was lyrical and personable, and he explored this concept of the poem as the chronicle of the creative act that produces it. I think this is most highlighted in his lunch poems, which are about going for lunch, in particular A Step Away From Them" from 1956, which begins:" It's my lunch hour, so I go for a walk among the hum-colored cabs/straight against the light I cross”-in short the poem is being made up as it goes along, by the poet who is simply recollecting what they are observing. The poet Adam Fitzgerald remarks that O Hara’s “poems have the immediacy of a consciousness formed by the internet: fragmentation, collage, name-dropping, checking in, quotations, gossip, scandal, click bait and trends, witticisms and gushy rants. Call him a prophet of the internet. “I don’t know whether I agree with this interpretation: O’Hara’s poetry does have many qualities suited to the modern age: it holds the reader in a direct moment -a celebration of the individual, celebration of an event that happened on a day, a poem that serves as a apology or a phone call, or a tweet, but it might simply just be this: people like good writing.

I want to end by reading my favorite O Hara poem. It’s called For Grace After A Party, and it's basically O Hara apologizing to a friend about getting too drunk at a party and starting an argument. And it begins in a sort of petulant, passive-aggressive mood but also sets a mood of casual seriousness that sets the stage for deeper disclosures, a more personal revelation. It's a love poem, but a disarmingly realistic one. There's this familiarity--smoking in bed, someone making scrambled eggs in the same old way, the arrival of warm spring days--which allows the poet the permission to address the intensity of his feelings--which he's earned with the unassuming way in which he broaches the topic. Those feelings may seem a little over the top, but there's almost always enough routine detail to balance them. In his love poems, especially in this one, there is a kind of pretense, a nod to the need for a poet to talk openly about a private passion, in a way that anyone could share or appreciate second-hand. The gist of a poem like For Grace is that the poet either cannot contain his affection, or his distress, or his impatience, and uses the poem as a vehicle to express that. The love poem is a performance of a love poem, which allows it to say something about love as cultural experience, as well as an utterly personal emotion:

You do not always know what I am feeling.
Last night in the warm spring air while I was
blazing my tirade against someone who doesn't
interest me, it was love for you that set me
afire,
and isn't it odd? for in rooms full of
strangers my most tender feelings writhe and
bear the fruit of screaming. Put out your hand,
isn't there an ashtray, suddenly, there? beside
the bed? And someone you love enters the room
and says wouldn't you like the eggs a little different today?

And when they arrive they are just plain scrambled eggs and the warm weather is holding


(this article was originally written as a Literary Society presentation)

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