The Cruelest Month: Reading Frank O’Hara

For National Poetry Month (and to celebrate Mad Men‘s return), editors Darryl and Jonathan discuss a poem by Frank O’Hara.

Darryl is not really into poetry, but he’s giving it a shot for Poetry Month this year. Jonathan is a former poet and a lifelong poetry fan. Together, they might not make a good crime-fighting duo, but they have decided to read a poem together, and talk about it. With the return of Mad Men this month, it seemed appropriate to pick something by Frank O’Hara.

Darryl: For us irregular poetry readers, it’s almost impossible now to think of Frank O’Hara without also thinking of Don Draper. In the season two closer of Mad Men, Draper reads the last little bit of “Mayakovsky” (so Google tells me) during the peak of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Or, in other words, O’Hara becomes the real-world, poetic counterpart to Don Draper: sufferer of inexpressible, modern (for the ’60s, anyway) crises that one must describe obliquely, if at all.

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”

Frank O’Hara

Totally abashed and smiling
I walk in
sit down and
face the frigidaire
it’s April
no May
it’s May
such little things have to be established in the morning
after the big things of night
do you want me to come? when
I think of all the things I’ve been thinking of
I feel insane
simply “life in Birmingham is hell”
simply “you will miss me
but that’s good”
when the tears of a whole generation are assembled
they will only fill a coffee cup
just because they evaporate
doesn’t mean life has heat
“this various dream of living”
I am alive with you
full of anxious pleasures and pleasurable anxiety
hardness and softness
listening while you talk and talking while you read
I read what you read
you do not read what I read
which is right, I am the one with the curiosity
you read for some mysterious reason
I read simply because I am a writer
the sun doesn’t necessarily set, sometimes is just
when you’re not here someone walks in
and says “hey,
there’s no dancer in that bed”
O the Polish summers! those drafts!
those black and white teeth!
you never come when you say you’ll come but on the
other hand you do come

Jonathan: Don Draper reveals himself as a wannabe aesthete with his bohemian floosie, art-house films, and Frank O’Hara poems. Advertisers like Draper do well to raid the fringes of the art world and sanitize it for the squares. The Mad Men reference to O’Hara came as a pleasant surprise after this O’Hara poem had already taken up residence in my brain for over a decade. I memorized the poem in 1994 because the poet Marvin Bell told me I ought to. Good advice. At first the poem seemed too personal and obscure in its detail. At one point I researched who the dancer of the poem was, but I’ve forgotten and frankly don’t care — the poem is mine now.

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?

Darryl: It’s funny that you say the poem is yours now. I felt the same way: I could relate to so much of the poem that the esoteric parts really didn’t matter. I’ve been in that same state of pre-decision limbo, where you really can’t muster the concentration to remember what month it is and have to sit there standing in front of a fridge. I can remember the last few times that I’ve had to end a relationship because one or the other of us was on the cusp of a decision that we knew we were going to make but that would mean the end for both of us.

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.


Jonathan: One thought: O’Hara was writing at the last time in American culture that poetry had anything like mass influence and popularity. American generations no longer have defining poets; they have defining cartoons. This is all for the best, right?

Darryl: Well, it’s probably safer to say that the preferred medium for intense emotional experience is no longer the printed poem. And this is a pretty fussy poem — without the exact same structure of line breaks and justifications, something is lost. Maybe YouTube videos or TED Talks are The New Poem?

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.

Jonathan: It’s true that we don’t get the news from TED Talks or poetry. But no one ever died for lack of what is found in a TED Talk. I’m thinking you said that just to rile me up — it worked. In fact a good definition of what a poem is would be “the complete opposite of a TED Talk.” A great (yet confounding) feature of much poetry is its ambiguity. Those TED talkers are cock-sure about their iDeas. It seems to me that the project of TED is to simplify the world through technology. The project of poetry, as much as there can be just one, may be to complexify the world through language. The thing about being honestly complex, as O’Hara might say, is that it can lead you into mysterious pleasures and pleasurable mystery.

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?

Darryl: I feel like I’m turning into that guy who says, “I don’t like dogs, but I like this dog here.” (For the record: I like most dogs.) But you’re right that my experience with poetry, almost entirely in school, has mostly been technical — we were tasked with marking metrical feet or evaluating the footnotes to “The Waste Land” or whatnot. When your only experience is strip-mining poetry for its technical aspects, you tend to approach them with as much relish as you approach an appliance manual.

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.

Jonathan: When you say that you “liked being eased into a subject and a poetic worldview,” I think it is time to take a long look in a truthful mirror and admit that you like poetry. Just say, “I, Darryl, am a poetry lover” ten times and T.S. Eliot will appear and roll up the cuffs of your trousers.

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.

Darryl: I guess I do have to face the evidence here. I’m certainly surprised that the O’Hara poem, all 200-some words of it, has managed to elicit nearly ten times that amount from us. I have no problem thinking about poetry. Or talking about it. Or analyzing it. So, okay, I admit: I like poetry. It’s liberating to do all this without the threat of a good or a bad grade — saying the “wrong” thing, or not saying enough right things — hovering in the background of all this.