Frank O’Hara didn’t live long enough to write about middle age

"Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1953" by Larry Rivers
“Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1953” by Larry Rivers

Last week, as another birthday hurried past, I taught Frank O’Hara! It was the first time ever I chucked the Selected Poems at my students instead of relying on anthology standards! Many of the poems I assigned were the WRONG ONES but it was still exciting—the papaya juice, George Washington in his tight white pants, unpunctuated rushes climaxing in exclamation points! My undergrads were delighted, pissed off, and puzzled in aesthetically pleasing proportions.

We also read an essay by Wayne Koestenbaum, who is visiting later this term for our Shannon-Clark series of scholarly lectures. “‘Oh! kangaroos, sequins, chocolate sodas!’: Frank O’Hara’s Excitement” starts, as many works of literary criticism do, by getting personal, and proceeds rapidly through a range of great insights about poetic structure, allusion, tone, and the minutiae that add up to style. One passage in particular has been resonating in me:

“Excitement comes from being lazy and fun loving. O’Hara worked hard, but he also took it easy. His Collected Poems are a manifesto of the high aesthetic rewards that accrue from a life—albeit a tragically abbreviated life—of taking easiness as the gold standard. Like Warhol’s professed love of easy art (or art that was easy to make), O’Hara’s love of easeful production stood in ironic contrast to the uneasy intensity that electrifies his work and complicates its every emotional posture, threading melancholy and ambivalence and the threat of self-loss into the most apparently insouciant exclamations.”

In class, a surprising remark issued from my mouth: I said something about finding that paragraph provocative, given that our culture has virtually adopted busy-ness as a religion. Now, I’m normally pretty skeptical of phrases such as “our culture.” Who is included and excluded from the “our”? Yes, there’s a lot of media coverage on ever-expanding workweeks and the now-standard response of “Busy!” to the old-standard question, “How are you?” I’ve seen plenty of social-media vows not to talk about being busy anymore; I’ve even issued one myself (and broken it repeatedly). I’m not sure it’s a new phenomenon, though. Hard work has been core to the U.S. national myth for a long time. Think of Melville’s busy lawyer facing down Bartleby: clearly you can be smug about your own industry whether or not you wield a cell-phone.

It’s probably truer to quote Ginsberg’s “America”: “I am talking to myself again.” While I’ve been trying to construct a relationship towards work my whole life, the problem seems more acute now in the second half of my forties. For seventeen-plus years kids have been a helpful counterbalance to ambition, reminding me that from a certain highly valid perspective, my urgent deadlines are meaningless. I accomplished a lot in those decades, and did a ton of kid-cleaning-up-after and school-project-advising too, but there were inevitably big chunks of just hanging out. We tossed pebbles into streams, read chapter books aloud for the fifth time, made birthday cakes in honor of cats who would never deign to sniff them, consumed seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, walked toddlers around the mall until one or the other of us finally collapsed like Lana Turner.

My daughter just handed me a sweet handmade card, though, in which she pointed out that if her college applications go well, this may be the last September ever in which she’s present to celebrate my birthday. (I hugged her and she said, “See, even your birthday is all about me.” Funny kid. Works too hard.) My son is younger so I’m not exactly dangling over a precipice, not yet. Still, there’s less and less standing between me and potentially WORKING ALL THE TIME.

I’m more like that stupid lawyer than I am like Bartleby. Work satisfies me, as long as I get pleasant breathers. And while I don’t know about Frank O’Hara’s writing process, his brand of poetic ease is shockingly difficult to pull off. Good poems only flow readily when you put in a lot of hours reading, writing, talking, and thinking about art, and often not even then. Striving is not the enemy. I just can’t stay clear of the anxiety maelstrom work tends to generate, much less keep it all easy and fun-loving.

I do know it’s impossible to predict which hours are going to matter. You have to write the bad poem before the good one, so walking down dead ends isn’t wasted time. Professional generosities sometimes seem like diversion from vocations—putting in a stint as a department head, writing reviews—and sometimes they are, in fact, almost meaningless exercises that subtract painfully from leisure. Other times a former student expresses gratitude for some kindness you’ve totally forgotten and you realize, well, it cost me forty-five minutes, but maybe that recommendation letter was, in fact, a more transformative literary production than any single poem I’ve ever written.

Koestenbaum also provokes me by asserting, “The point of a poem, or an essay, is to pose questions, not to answer them.” How often have I told a student to explain why his observation matters? Or railed against a grant application in my overlarge reading pile for not stating the significance of the research project? Poems, too—a lot of contemporary poetry is frustrating because the author hasn’t done the work of thinking through her fragmented inspirations. It’s not that she should hand me The Answer on an iambic platter. It’s just that if she doesn’t know what she means, the poem probably doesn’t either, and therefore a smart reader can’t puzzle it out. Jigsaws with lots of missing pieces rightly end up mulched.

Yet here I am, raising an unanswerable question about the right way to work. Asking questions is fun; devising even provisional answers is head-breaking. Maybe that’s the proper retort to the problem. If it’s not paying the bills or saving someone or intrinsically fun, should I ever do it?

And ah, here’s where I’m too much like O’Hara for my own good, and at the same time, much dumber about excitement’s necessary lassitudes. It’s ALL fun, isn’t it, from a certain angle? Poems and people and even devising the winter course schedule! But doesn’t Melville’s excitable lawyer strike you as a few ticks less intelligent than his enervated scrivener? It takes introspection and nerve to realize that even when it’s sequins and chocolate soda, sometimes you just prefer not to.

PS: what my essay on “The Waste Land” repressed

eliot1bTo frame an argument in words always entails filtering signal from noise: you can’t include all the evidence, so you try to assemble the best evidence in the best order. Making arguments about contemporary poetry, though, may be a particularly messy enterprise. Just look at the Reading List posted by the September Poetry contributors. We’re all reading different books—I think the only poet who comes up twice is Mary Ruefle. Even voracious readers of poetry haunt different neighborhoods, and we’re often ignorant of what’s happening elsewhere, because the scene is so big and fragmented. So how can anyone make believable qualitative generalizations about the whole field?

My “Undead Eliot” essay in the same issue sticks out a microphone and records echoes of “The Waste Land” in contemporary verse. I had been collecting examples from books, magazines, and web sites for a couple of years—whenever I spotted an Eliot allusion I stuck a copy of the poem in a little pile on a high shelf. I shore such fragments against my ruin all the time, though sometimes I lose track of them before a writing project materializes. In this case, I ended up seeing a pattern in the debris: lots of the poems emphasize sound, voice, cadence. And I found time to pound out part of an essay in the summer of 2012, before I dropped the project, pressed for time. Then Don Share was named Poetry’s editor and I thought, hey, he might like this. (I’d heard a memorable presentation from him years ago about curating audio archives at the Harvard Vocarium.) So I finished a draft, submitted it in June 2013, and a few revisions and 15 months later, I’m singing about unreal cities to all you folks out there in radioland.

I encompass some aesthetic and regional diversity in the essay, but not much—there just isn’t room for more than a handful of examples. What I found myself considering, during the final weeks of back-and-forth about galleys, was what got left out and why. Several of the poems I cut from consideration, because they just weren’t as obsessed with sound as the others, happened to be authored by women. Most of the poets to whom I ended up giving extended attention happened to be authored by men.

So, is contemporary response to “The Waste Land” gendered? That’s hard to answer in the brief thinking-space I can give to blogging, as I perch on the precipice of fall term (classes start today). That question would be hard to answer, frankly, in a book-length argument pondered for years. “Women poets” is an unruly, diverse category, and hallelujah for that. But it may be that women are a little more prone, even when they respond affirmatively to Eliot’s poetic power, to take note, too, of Eliot’s misogyny and/or the poem’s focus on sexuality. There’s the disturbing section about Fresca, a woman poet whose literary productions are compared to passing “stool,” for example—that’s in the manuscript edition. The final version features a few scenes of men and women failing to communicate; the typist’s debased sex with the young man carbuncular; many references to how the rape of Philomel enables song-voice-poetry; and catty pub-talk about abortion. Tiresias stands conspicuously between genders and there are coded references to homosexuality in the Smyrna merchant passage and elsewhere. I hear Eliot’s love for Jean Verdenal resonating through the poem, and wonder if the secret he alludes to in the final section (“the awful daring of a moment’s surrender”) has to do with erotic attachment to the young man he knew in Paris and who died later in the Great War. The role of gender in the poem, and the history of its composition, has been key to its reception by many poets, including me.

By way of postscript, then, here are a couple of poems that didn’t fit my essay’s paradigm but that nevertheless testify about how Eliot sounds now. From “Her Nerves,” by Jeannine Hall Gailey, quoted by permission of the author:

You are afraid—not just of me,
but what I see and hear that you don’t—
the crusts of blood, slippery dirt-gorged voices.
You like it when I curse creatively,
hate it when the paper piles like excrement around me.

Fresca’s revenant presence in the above lines fits the logic of Gailey’s book Becoming the Villainess: to gain mature power, a heroine must become monstrous, and certainly powerful middle-aged women are not represented generously by modernist poets, male or female (think of those portraits of ladies, for starters). Like Eliot, too, Gailey is rewriting myth, with particular interest in Philomel. Gender scripts create a stifling catastrophe for several characters in Gailey’s collection as well as in “The Waste Land” itself.

After my essay was published, Daisy Fried sent me a link to one of her own Eliot-influenced poems, “Elegy.” Fried associates Eliot with a scene of schooling, but also with sexual adventure, and, ultimately, with loss. She even recasts Tiresias as “Transgendered Professor Y.” “Elegy” isn’t about what Eliot means to writers today; instead “The Waste Land” is sort of playing in the background, setting off weird harmonies between past and present. Of course we’re all still wasted by sex, grief, and all the great art we’ve inherited and can’t live up to. Inspired, too.

PPS: I talk about some of this stuff with the editors in a Poetry podcast, although how I ended up on a recording with John Ashbery remains a cosmic mystery to me. Also, thanks to Poetry Daily for featuring the essay this week and amplifying its range.