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.

Elegy for a community reading series

Local honey

It is 5:31 in Lexington a Monday
after magnolia and before honeysuckle
the second week of Spring Term’s sugar drip
and I am driving the hospital road to Kroger
in my dogwood-dirty Hyundai with green dents
to pick up strawberries, lemonade, pre-sliced
cheese and wine with screw-tops because I
have finally learned to make hard things easier

By 6:03 I refrigerate the chardonnay, cheap
but not so sweet I won’t drink the last splash later
murmuring waste not, and I am chewing salad
with the kids, checking in about shin splints
and the Latin quiz while trying not to worry
did I remind the students and hell I forgot the signup
sheet because this will be the last open mic ever
at Studio Eleven and I could just savor
it for once in my hypoglycemic life
soon
I am at the gallery but sending Chris back
for Mattie’s jar of bee-stuff left on the sideboard
and surprise, Agnes Carbrey’s all over the walls
her dark-haired woman swimmers submerged
in and fragmented by rippled blue and feeling
as I will again the joy of summer weightlessness

When everyone sits I say something ridiculous
because I am underwater and cannot hear myself
Patrick eyes me through a long lens and Deborah
is plotting something, while behind the front-row
cadets dressed in spotless whites there’s Ted
cradling daisy-new pages and an old ration book

Finally I emerge dizzy into the first story
Sharon teaching in the prison where Mr. Vasquez
fell and the people meant to save him didn’t—
Sharon can’t revive him but gathers us anyway
in her cinderblock classroom, tables cleared
for a gurney and we witness its absence with her

in the rain outside redbuds carry candles
in the rain inside each swimmer listens for
the thump of the world, her own blood buzzing

4/29/14

cardLong day of teaching and conferencing here, but I just wanted to post a thank-you to everyone who made this three-year reading series such a success. Arthur C. Glasgow funded a reading series at Washington and Lee in 1962 and it still helps us pay honoraria and put out cookies. Dabney S. Lancaster Community College and the writing group SubTerra have also given the series significant support. Certain individuals have given us welcome help too, especially writer, photographer, filmmaker, and soon-to-be-retiring VMI professor Gordon Ball. Vicki Goodheart’s Studio Eleven Gallery has been an auspiciously beautiful space. Readers from Luisa Igloria to Kevin McFadden to my dear colleague Deborah Miranda, organizer of cards and gifts, have brought so much electricity to the space. Most of all, though, I’m grateful to collaborator Mattie Quesenberry Smith, because running this series was a downright crazy thing for both of us to do, and her particular kind of craziness is rare, lovely, and hard to come by. Oh, and apologies to my man Frank O’Hara, whose “The Day Lady Died” I keep abusing in poetic imitations–but whenever I want to write a goodbye that’s heartfelt yet not too sentimental, the voice in my ear is his.

 

Lunch Poem

It is 10:21 in Wellington a Thursday

last day on Fulbright’s payroll, ticket

to fly out on Saturday the 8:30 to Auckland that is if

Air New Zealand will bully past the ash

plume, volcanoes the only smokers in my poems.

In Moore Wilson’s I buy horopito for Atin and Tinni

and spend my last token in Unity on Jenny Bornholdt’s

The Rocky Shore, deciding that I want to write

about poetic conversations maybe instead of having them.

 

I stroll through a cloud on Kelburn Parade

and get out of the spit and wind into Murphy

where I can count tuatara for the second to last time

as Harry taught me, but red heat-lamps warm

blank rocks, the reptiles are hiding, it’s June

in a southerly for Chrissake. Bad omen.

 

Anna’s Thicket, advance copy’s woven shade,

is light in my pocket, most of it second-person

and italic gesticulation, that’s what I like about it,

that and the bits about sad teenagers and feeling

middle-of-the-wood (we’re older than Frank O’Hara

ever got) and her in-the-know references to evade

Americans though I could level a few guesses—

dedications, that’s another post, because this blog

does have a northern hemisphere future, probably after

two weeks in Hawai’i baking the creases

out of my forehead from packing selling cars and

 

saying goodbye to too many people, who goes

with Fergus now not me, no more flat white with Annemarie,

Bernadette’s in Australia I hear, Lex Luthor alias

Jonathan retreats to his icy lair on Mount Victoria,

no more books to trade with Rob or information

with Alice soon to be shrunk hehe to her cackle on FB,

still breathing, Frank, and listening, but for love

of you and some others, omitting terminal punctuation

Poems including history

I asked Robert Sullivan at a recent reading about the role of history in his poems. He replied, “I’m making a genre argument that historians are, like poets, imaginative writers; that poetry is also well equipped for these conversations; and that the historical can also be personal.” (I suspect those semicolons are all mine, but I’ll save my comments on orality for another day.) I admire his point—accounts of the past are never neutral and there’s no reason they need to be prose. The “poem containing history,” though (Ezra Pound’s phrase), is usually epic or long poetry. The brevity of lyric requires different modes of argument. Even in a lyric sequence with narrative elements, any tale is full of skips, blanks, recursions; metaphor and music have their own logic and can’t always accommodate names, dates, and other factual details.

So how can a lyric poem contain history? When in “Indian Cartography” Deborah Miranda remaps California, she embeds a narrative of colonization in her list of place names: “Tuolomne, / Salinas, Los Angeles, Paso Robles, / Ventura, Santa Barbara, Saticoy, / Tehachapi.” The displacement suffered by her family is the very ground of the poem, the landscape she assumes, and her poem constitutes an imaginative return to those waters, that earth. Words themselves, their textures and etymologies, widen a poem’s field. That’s also true in “The Day Lady Died” by Frank O’Hara, with its train times and brand names. The speaker grabs “an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets / in Ghana are doing these days” and suddenly race is in the poem, many lines before Billie Holiday sings. Think even of Emily Dickinson’s “Publication – is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man –.” The first word sends you in one direction, chasing after the agoraphobic belle of Amherst, but this is a politically astute New Englander writing in the middle of the nineteenth century. After images of auctions and whiteness, she concludes her four quatrains with the ringing imperative: “reduce no Human Spirit / To Disgrace of Price –.” Of course she’s thinking about abolition. It’s tricky; I say she’s condemning slavery but you could also accuse her of using that vast, terrible trauma as a metaphor for her own situation. That’s one risk of opening a newspaper inside your stanzas. Your poem can gain power, or the world can shrink absurdly.

There are stories inside words themselves, but collage and direct quotation are also important strategies; visual elements such as typefaces, margins, and gaps can signal temporal and spatial shifts; titles, dedications, and notes can carry some of the burden of context. Within the lines, verb tenses and pronouns also involve highly-charged decisions. The poet is always in the poem somewhere, but how far inside the frame does she stand? In one of Robert Sullivan’s sequences about Captain Cook, “For the Ocean of Kiwa” in the book Voice Carried My Family, he represents the Polynesian members of Cook’s various crews, beginning well inside the frame. Addressing one of those men, Mai, Sullivan protests, “I just can’t take the middle of your throat. / Who would I pay for the privilege?” (28). Nevertheless, he keeps stepping back, out of the picture. That anxious “I” appears only once in the following poem, and by the next, the first person pronouns belong to those Polynesian crew members, speaking in the present tense.

When fictionalizing a real person’s voice in a poem, I think it’s best to acknowledge the transgression as Sullivan does. However, when I brought up that issue on Wom-po, The Discussion of Women’s Poetry List, a couple of writers, Eve Rifkah and Pat Valdata, explained why they disagreed. Valdata wrote, “if you have no personal connection to the people involved then it seems self-serving to make the poem about your own life and your own issues” (Fri, 18 Mar 2011 16:40:26). Many problems unfold from our contrasting views: what stories does a person own? Are there tales a privileged European-American like me should never presume to tell? Is there an extra burden on poetry as a genre (as opposed to, say, historical fiction)—is it inevitably personal? And anyone writing history as lyric has to decide what her goals are, what kind of experience she wants her readers and listeners to have. A poem engaging the past can provoke, evoke, give answers, or leave disturbing questions hanging in the silence.

Addressing history in a poem is one way of constructing a community. The affiliation is through time rather than, or as well as, across space. Some might say that cross-temporal community can’t exist because one side of the conversation is always already over. I talk to dead poets all the time, though, and their poems are complex enough to present new answers. And I recently heard a similar point made by digital archivists who are trying to change the ownership of history by making original documents available online—letters, maps, early printed texts, often in nineteenth-century Maori. One of them said at the end of his presentation, almost as an aside, that he often felt guided by the tupuna; his ancestors collaborate in the project. Some documents pop up just as you need them; others hide, or the computer breaks down. “You know they want you to tell the story,” he said, smiling, “because they allow you to.”