That was my mindset when reading “St. Paul and All That” for the first time. And I think this poem works in a similar vein. Ostensibly, you meet the speaker in the aftermath of a Major Life Decision (“after the big things of night”), when he’s tootling around the kitchen and at the same time reviewing the implications of said Decision.
So you get a little taste of the specifics of the question and a really big dose of the existential tremor going through the poem. Not just with grandiose statements like “when the tears of a whole generation are assembled / they will only fill a coffee cup” or “I feel insane,” but also when O’Hara does a jump-cut to talking about why he reads vs. his lover (“you read for some mysterious reason / I read because I am a writer”) or when he describes his relationship as, paradoxically, “full of anxious pleasures and pleasurable anxiety.”
“St. Paul and All That”
I feel insane
Some of these lines just seem so right. And they seem right in a modern, honest, no-BS way. The poem establishes a point of contact with me personally and that I think is the key to “falling in love with poetry” or whatever. I know what it’s like when the night seems big and important and the morning small and trivial. When there are big and important things going on in the world but your concern is with who is in your bed.
I will always be grateful for the line “The sun doesn’t necessarily set, sometimes it just / disappears.” Things (romances, generations) don’t always end poetically. They just end.
As I have considered this poem over the years, it still seems a bit too obscure. Isn’t that one of your problems with poetry? The author is often writing about subjects only he/she has access to (“those black and white teeth!”) and that creates a distance between author and reader. Did that bother you here?
Maybe I didn’t see the tears of generations in coffee cups or want to address a Polish summer, but in the middle of emotional distress, I know how random things can take on outsize meanings. I broke up with someone the same week that Kelly Clarkson’s “Already Gone” hit the radio in 2009, and it’s still hard for me to hear that song. A similar thing ruined smoking for me, which in retrospect was probably okay.
So yeah, the way that the poem encapsulates a common feeling matters more than the fact that I can’t decipher a lot of it. Whereas with Emily Dickinson’s poem about the white heat, I just can’t get my head around that initial image. What is a white heat? I feel like it’s a thing that David Attenborough might explain while referring to male elephants.
At any rate, Grolier Poetry Bookshop in Cambridge, MA is still around, so I’m not ready to write a eulogy for the poetry form just yet.
I agree that Dickinson can be ruined, especially in high school, when we play a game of “guess what this is about” instead of just reading the damn poems. I remember, after reading about Dickinson’s “narrow fellow in the grass,” having to write an obscure poem about an animal that the rest of the class would then guess. Is the only pleasure to be found in Dickinson to guess what the hell she was writing about? I agree that as a pastime, this is pretty thin. However, reading a whole bunch of Dickinson without fretting over every single line can have a kind of cumulative power. Also, it’s not all souls in the white heat. Try this one. And when you are finished, try Langston Hughes covering the same territory in a different voice.
I have to say that you are being very kind to O’Hara. I thought you didn’t like poetry. What changed your mind?
I am trying not to let my prejudices about poetry taint individual poems. We’ll see if I can overcome it more generally. (Unrelated side note about TED: you would probably like Evgeny Morozov. And I didn’t say that just to get a rise out of you! I was just thinking of completely self-contained digital experiences that are easy to share.)
As for the O’Hara poem, I imagine it breathing like a musical phrase or a well-plotted novel, reaching a crescendo about three-quarters of the way through and then ending with a quiet denouement.
It starts at a very ordinary place with very plain diction and a playful line structure (I forget what the term is for that sort of thing). It gets more emotional and fragmentary, and the speaker starts to throw in lines spoken by other people and at other times, and ideas that don’t quite make sense to the reader. By the time we get to the last lines, the speaker is completely incoherent (verbally) but also perfectly, purely hysterical (emotionally). We’ve traded clarity of expression for clarity of emotion. And then he pulls it back in with another fairly plainspoken line, one that you’re not even sure is going to make sense until the very last phrase.
I guess I just liked being eased into a subject and a poetic worldview like that. It’s neatly structured.
I’m not sure why the school dissection of poetry did not kill the poetry for me as it seems to have for you. The problem is that we are expected to think about the form, meter, rhyme scheme — the prosody of the poem — before we ever get a chance to feel this way or that about poetry. It’s as if you were forced to read all of the blogs about Game of Thrones without ever watching the show. You would probably grow to hate Game of Thrones. It’s fun to dissect what we already love; it is difficult to fall in love with a dissected corpse.
In most composition textbooks a poetry section is usually thrown in there as a means of learning about metaphor and simile, etc. for the purpose of improving your business letters or something: “Stanley, imagine two roads in the woods. You are going to travel down the one marked ‘fired’.”
When I think about it, my love of poetry came from seeking it out on my own as a teenager. I’m not sure why or how this happened. In puberty, I discovered girls and Kenneth Rexroth’s translations of Chinese poets. My experience of poetry has never been exclusively in classrooms. (I am tempted to go into full crank mode and bemoan the loss of the used bookstores that fed my poetic curiosity with yellowed, 99-cent paperbacks.) When I taught poetry (for adults) I relied on this book (for kids) by Kenneth Koch which outlines a less didactic, more joyful approach to teaching poetry.