A Journal of poetry and kindred prose

This Old Book

by Kathleen Flenniken
The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara
ed. Donald Allen
University of California Press, 1995

In Marjorie Perloff’s introduction to her new edition of Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters, she describes the growing cultural acceptance of Frank O’Hara since the 1970s as a major poet (and as a progenitor of both the New York and the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E Schools of poetry), and ties it to a growing and concurrent acceptance of gay culture. She also cautions against reading O’Hara exclusively in terms of a gay sensibility.

Perhaps it makes most sense to read O’Hara’s work as he directed us to, according to his witty, satirical, but also instructive essay, “Personism: A Manifesto,” a two page manual on how to read Frank O’Hara poems and how they get written. “Personism” is very like O’Hara’s poetry:  written seemingly on a napkin in a dash, campy sometimes, always witty, playful, shot through with references to friends and heroes and whatever he was reading this morning, apt to use love (the sublime as well as the earthy) as a metaphor wherever possible (or use whatever is at hand as a metaphor for love), but above all truthful. “Now, come on,” he says, dismissing an accusation that his poems are confused. “You just go on your nerve.”

In an early poem, “Poem (the eager note on my door said “call me,)” published in 1950 when he was still a student at Harvard, O’Hara uses the surreal expansion of time and a jaunty tone to invite the reader into an odd, dreamy adventure. Instead we are shocked to discover his friend in a pool of blood, dead from suicide. We discover we’ve been caught and trapped in the speaker’s mental replay of the event. “There are few/ hosts who so thoroughly prepare to greet a guest/ only casually invited, and that several months ago.” He ends the poem there, which sends us back to the beginning, just as he must replay the event, rolling back to the beginning and through again. But that last line plays with time: we are unsure if this tragedy occurred months ago, or if he received the eager note months ago, and he only just happened upon the body? Now as we reread the poem, the odd time shifts are sinister. “It was autumn by the time I got around the corner, oh all/ unwilling to be either pertinent or bemused….” and we understand the running-under-water feeling, the implied guilty conscience. But then that tone, which seemed jocular at first reading: “[S]till up at this hour, a/champion jai-alai player like himself? Oh fie!/ for shame! What a host, so zealous! And he was//there in the hall, flat on a sheet of blood that/ ran down the stairs. I did appreciate it.” Not jocular at all, but sarcastic, angry, the voice of someone who’s been the butt of a nasty joke. O’Hara indeed runs on his nerve—he let’s his unvarnished emotional response drive, and the resulting poem feels immediate and raw, layered and truthful.

He runs on nerve, yes, but O’Hara is a great technician. This can go unnoticed in light of his chatty style, his seat-of-the-pants creative leaps. But as O’Hara notes in “Personism”:  “As for measure and other technical apparatus, that’s just common sense: 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.” Well, sure, you might as well show it off. The poem, “Song” (1959), appeared in Lunch Poems:

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 off someone
is the character less bad. no. it improves constantly
you don’t refuse to breathe do you

The poem is unpunctuated except for the third and last stanza, which use periods to separate the two voices in the speaker’s conscience. More often than not, the periods substitute for question marks. Why? Why is punctuation otherwise (and notably) missing? It makes the first reading challenging, even confusing. All but the first word is lower case—to what effect? To great effect. This is a conversation inside the speaker’s head. O’Hara flattens the voice of the poem to a near monotone simply with punctuation. That monotone immediately launches the poem deep inside the conscience; it penetrates the emotional (and amplitudinous) firewall and lodges in the logical, questioning core of the conscience, where O’Hara himself warns us in “Personism,” “Pain always produces logic, which is very bad for you.” “You don’t refuse to breathe do you” the devil on one shoulder asks flatly, twice, in “Song,” and the reader smells the heartache. The monotone, ironically, creates for the reader a greater emotional impact.

“Personism,” O’Hara explains, “address[es] 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 towards the poem while preventing love from distracting him into feeling about the person.” He goes on to allude to the creation of the poem, “Personal Poem” (1959) without mentioning it by name. “Personal Poem” begins as a kind of laundry list of details that fill so many of his poems—it teems with New York City buildings (Seagrams), restaurants (Moriarity’s),construction workers, friends (here, LeRoi Jones, and memories of Mike Kanemitsu and references to Don Allen), musicians (Miles Davis), literary figures (Lionel Trilling, Henry James, Herman Melville), anxiety (cops clubbing Miles Davis), the repulsive (a panhandling woman with a “terrible disease”) that make up an average city day. Marjorie Perloff argues the poem is brimming with the anxiety of the city, and that is so. But the last few lines are without question the light source for the entire poem:

I wonder if one person out of the 8,000,000 is
thinking of me as I shake hands with LeRoi
and buy a strap for my wristwatch and go
back to work happy at the thought possibly so

As in “Poem (The eager note…)” the poem changes directions in the last few lines, and the whole poem must be reread in light of this discovery: the speaker is in love, probably newly in love, and love colors everything. It turns this poem into a letter of sorts—written for that lover, in order for the lover to know what the speaker knows and trace the speaker’s steps. And it demonstrates “Personism,” which O’Hara asserts, “puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style, and the poem is correspondingly gratified.” The poem gets sympathetic grease.

Frank O’Hara’s poems are autobiographical though not confessional (so says John Ashbery, in his introduction to The Collected Poems). He is, in fact, straightforward in his approach to subject matter--you might even say reliable. It seems logical then that we should take his word for how his poems might be read.

Kathleen Flenniken, a regular columnist for Umbrella, came to poetry late, after earning B.S. and M.S. degrees in Civil Engineering from Washington State University and University of Washington, and working eight years as an engineer and hydrologist, three on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. She started writing when she quit work to stay home with her children. Kathleen's poems have appeared in Poetry, The Iowa Review, The Southern Review, Mid-American Review, Farm Pulp, Prairie Schooner, and Poetry Daily. Her first collection of poems, Famous, won the 2005 Prairie Schooner Prize in Poetry and was released by University of Nebraska Press in August 2006. She was awarded a 2005 Literary Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. To read other poems and read more about Kathleen, please visit her website.