When I was a young and foolish freshman, I was in a FWIS entitled “Writing Everyday Life.” We were assigned to read a book of poems that I’d never heard of before by a guy who, frankly, I’d never heard of before. Though I started out hopeful, I soon grew aggravated by the loose structure of the poems. I tried and failed to find meaning in the name-dropping and the place-dropping, which read less like poetry and more like a pointless chronicle of a person’s day. “I went here. I did this.” Nothing else.
I hated the poems. I wanted to cause harm to the publication that had caused me so much aggravation. Like a medieval torturer specialized in finding new and unique ways to induce pain, I plunged the book into a sink full of water, as if to dissolve the very words off the paper, and then for good measure I threw it in the microwave.
As an aside, I do not recommend doing this. Microwaved glue is not a pleasant scent.
The book I so savagely attacked was Lunch Poems. The poet was Frank O’Hara.
I’ve thought a lot about that book since. I no longer have it – when I could not get the scent of burned glue off the pages, I decided to throw it out entirely, and at the time I did not consider it a loss. But as my knowledge increased a little and my patience for things I do not understand increased a bit more, I began to wonder if I was simply taking the wrong approach to the poetry on the page.
I have since learned, from Edward Hirsch’s A Poet’s Glossary, that O’Hara and the other poets that made up the New York School of poetry often used the city as subject matter. They “valued spontaneity and movement, impulse, accident and coincidence.” O’Hara himself literally referred to his own poems as “I-do-this-I-do-that” poems. By looking for allegory and allusion, by searching for symbolism in the place names and concrete details, I was perhaps missing the entire point of the poetry, which was simply to convey everyday life.
One day in my FWIS, we watched a video that, even at the peak of my hatred of his poetry, made me respect and admire O’Hara as a writer willing to abandon all control over the details his poems contained. In the video, O’Hara is sitting at a typewriter, tapping out his latest project as he talks to the interviewer behind the camera and another man, Alfred Leslie, off frame. The phone rings, and O’Hara picks it up. We hear only his side of the telephone conversation as he asks his friend “How are you? You have an upset stomach?” still typing away at his machine. He talks for a time, explains to his friend on the other end of the line the peculiar situation of simultaneously talking on the phone and writing and being interviewed “for educational purposes.” He jokes around. He stops typing, falling still at something the man says. “Flash and bolt, what does that mean? Flashing bolt, you mean?” He recommences typing. “Good. Flashing bolt, good, good.” He takes his hands off the keyboard to look at what he’s written. “A flashing bolt. Is that art, or, what is it? I just laid it onto the paper.”
Now, when I imagine O’Hara writing Lunch Poems, I don’t imagine him perusing a thesaurus, trying to find the perfect word that conveys the perfect emotion. I imagine him walking down the street, taking detailed, specific mental notes of the things that he sees. Making art out of that, out of the everyday.
I have lately revisited O’Hara for the first time since freshman year, and the experience I had was much more profitable – and much less violent – than my last interaction with his poetry. In recently reading “The Day Lady Died” for class, I was able to appreciate the detailed account of his movement throughout the city and his mundane actions not as a pointless digression from the subject of the elegy, Billie Holiday, but as O’Hara’s account of a day in which Holiday’s death – and her life – lingers behind every detail and every interaction, though she only literally occupies three lines of the poem. And I recognized that O’Hara’s name-dropping and place-dropping had its own sort of unique purpose – to contrast with the one thing, the one person too sacred to name. Like someone looking at the sun out of the corner of his eye for fear that direct exposure will blind him, O’Hara talks around Holiday; yet, she remains nonetheless an omnipresent, all-pervasive part of the poem. Her central presence is striking, considering that she is kept on the periphery of the poem until the very end.
I’d be willing to bet that no matter how much you disliked a piece of writing, you’ve never dissolved it in water and thrown it in a microwave. But maybe you’ve felt as confused and aggravated by a piece of literature as freshman Indigo felt about O’Hara. Before you take your anger out on the book, a word of advice: learn a bit about the literature before you sink the knife; learn a bit about its author. Though art may at first appear pointless, it can take on profound meaning and depth once you take the time to learn its background; if you don’t believe me, look up the back story to Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ museum installation that consists of 175 pounds of hard candy piled in a corner of the room. You would never guess it at first glance, but this is one of the most moving art installations I’ve ever heard of (http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/152961). For me, O’Hara’s poems function the same way. When I went in looking for something specific, some adherence to some convention, I was aggravated when I found nothing; but in turning my back, I failed to see something interesting, something uniquely moving, that I was never expecting to see.
Written by Indigo V.
April is the cruelest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/ Memory and desire, stirring/ Dull roots with spring rain.
-T. S. Eliot
R2: The Rice Review
Rice University's undergraduate literary magazine. Here you can find event updates, monthly writing contest winners, and opinions by the R2 staff on what's new, interesting, or subject to discussion in the literary and arts world.