Contemporary Poetry Review

As Reviewed By:
James Rother

Frank O'Hara's Meditations in an Emergency (1957): A Retrospective Essay


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Click here to recive news and leave comments for CPR.Frank O'Hara was one of those murkily evanescent figures who emerged in the heat of the Beat movement without really having much to do with its screed beyond gaily acknowledging Walt Whitman as Father Figure-pro tem and Pop Art as inseminating whirl of that extempore vortex not yet known as the New York School, to whose madcap legion of word-nuts he only loosely belonged. Frankly anarchic in subject matter, dizzily erotic in object matter, and anarchically erotic in its unabashed cruising of the reader, his verse turned traditional-minded reviewers off just as it was turning on devotees of what the Beats were calling "bop prosody." But unlike the schmerzy welt-mongering of a Ginsberg or Kerouac, O'Hara's public valentines addressed to his hunk of the moment were always upbeat and charming in a girlishly breathless sort of way. The year his Meditations appeared, 1957, its publisher, Grove Press (then headed by Barney Rosset) was rapidly transforming the tastes of the first post-G.I. Bill wave of state-subsidized undergraduates into the largest captive audience ever assembled for serious writing anywhere. The exuberantly candid urbanity of O'Hara's poetry troweled, not Howled , its wares, and though this was considered a plus in some quarters it was not always clear just what those wares consisted of. Take, for instance, "The Film Industry in Crisis," which rattles its low length along like a Chinese noisemaker proclaiming the New Year against all wills and sundries:

Not you, lean quarterlies and swarthy periodicals
With your studious incursions toward the pomposity of ants,
Nor you, experimental theatre in which Emotive Fruition
Is wedding Poetic Insight perpetually, not you,
Promenading Grand Opera, obvious as an ear (though you
Are close to my heart), but you Motion Picture Industry,
It's you I love!

         The strobe-lights of emphasis, falling archly between two very dissimilar Hardys-- Thomas and Andy-- make the dance space activated by these lines a threshing floor on which chaffs and pulps are of the essence, not kernels and pips. A paean honoring the film industry? And almost a decade before the likes of Pauline Kael in The New Yorker began not only to dissociate trash from its populist garden variety, the movies, but to celebrate their togetherness as a marriage made in heaven? What in heaven's name was going on here? No question but that O'Hara is giving rein to a confessional artlessness unknown since the Tertiary Period's great untrapping of invertebrates when, it is said, chutzpah first shook itself loose from candor. But to what ends? And how, given the contemporary Pop culture-bashing imperatives being laid down by other-coastal loudmouths sounding like, and even on occasion capable of being, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, were those ends-- even assuming one could know them-- to be means-tested?
     It's hard for a reader mired in today's post-PoMo culture to grasp such questions, let alone exhibit the appropriate degree of excitement when they are broached. The Tertiary Period's Great Untrapping, you'd better believe. Sometimes it seems we might have to go back at least that far to find critics willing to tackle such questions.
              Anyway, let's pretend for purposes of this retrospective that they are not only broachable but worth raising; that the unsheathed paradox buried to the hilt in the title, Meditations in an Emergency, cuts to the quick discernible in much 20th Century writing, from the Dadaists all the way to the neo-Surrealists of O'Hara's own school.
              To ask them, then, involves necessarily that we conduct a prior interrogation of poetic roles and preoccupations-- indeed, of the whole megilla of tin cans that has rattled behind Romanticism's triumphal car ever since Schiller, Coleridge, and company first seized upon what Keats later immortalized as "the Egotistical Sublime." These tend to boil down to the following: What is the appropriate manner in which a poet should address us? Should the poet strive primarily to teach us or entertain us? Is he or she a totemic figure, a prophetic figure, or a figural figure who gives us archetypes to chew on, genotypes to chew over, and if we have poetic inclinations ourselves, "strong poets" to anxiously influence us? O'Hara and his New York School cohorts answered these questions by improvising their way around them in their poetry, or more accurately, poeticizing as though the purview of these problems extended no further than the lairs of the great archetypalizers, such as T.S. Eliot and his pedagogical epigone, Northrop Frye (whose monumental Anatomy of Criticism appeared the same year as O'Hara's Meditations). After all, how Ciceronian can a poet's aims be when his now is centered on

. . . quietly waiting for
the catastrophe of my personality
to seem beautiful again,
and interesting, and modern. . . ?

         The personalities of Yeats, Auden, Thomas, and Roethke were unremittingly catastrophic, but they never came out and admitted it in their poems. Their catastrophes were nominal and distinctly Other-- Maud Gonne, my Papa's waltz, Chester Kallman, the curse of anything Welsh-- just follow the capitals and you find the hottest and most strikeworthy iron laying waste to the Good Life in each of the above. Whereas O'Hara's ugly duckling of a self, though certainly star-crossed, constellates no wild swans at Coole, or anywhere else for that matter. It can only parade itself in all its abject ecstasy whenever admitting and coming out come to pretty much the same thing:

Now there is only one man I love to kiss when he is
Unshaven. Heterosexuality! You are inexorably approaching.
(How discourage her?)

         Here, too, it's hard for the contemporary reader to recognize that s/he is in the presence of not just a literary act but one with profound political and lifestyle implications. Stonewall was nearly a decade off when O'Hara chose to trumpet his gayness in this series of "meditations" that were themselves part of the "emergency" he adverts to in his title. O'Hara lived, wrote, and yes, flaunted his queerness at a time when Camp was ceasing to dominate as the means by which homosexuals addressed themselves to their own kind (while playfully "putting on" the heterosexual world that both preyed upon them and pinkly triangulated their difference with things evilly Jewish and sexually depraved), but not yet a time when the closet and its paranoias could be finally abandoned as de trop. The late '50s built up social pressure for change like a head of steam and O'Hara rode its power like the urban cowboy of movie fame rode his mechanical bull: in a relatively remote place and for a small circle of friends, at least in the beginning. Rather than trying to dragoon literature into a confrontation with the forces of gender persecution (as say, in the manner of the English writer Ronald Firbank), O'Hara liberated the idiom of verse (not, it should be noted, of poetry) into a genderless limbo in which even the drag queen can wax "poetical" without risking more ridicule than s/he can handle, as, for example, in "For Grace, After a Party":

You do not always know what I am feeling.
Last night in the warm spring air while I was
blazing my tirade against someone who doesn't
     me, it was love for you that set me
     and isn't it odd? for in rooms full of
strangers my most tender feelings
                                                 writhe and
bear the fruit of screaming. . . .

         Things are unassailably weightless where talk-- intimate talk-- is more assured of an abundant flow than the milk of human kindness. Thus, despite the knocks and disappointments of a world in which incitements to love bloom as wildly as forget-me-nots, perhaps the most telling-- and titular-- image of this poet 's life is "Sleeping on the Wing":

Perhaps it is to avoid some great sadness,
as in a Restoration tragedy the hero cries "Sleep!
O for a long sound sleep and so forget it!"
that one flies, soaring above the shoreless city,
veering upward from the pavement as a pigeon
does when a car honks or a door slams, the door
of dreams, life perpetuated in parti-colored loves
and beautiful lies all in different languages.

         Providing just enough ballast for such weightlessness is O'Hara's loosely tailored five-stress line, with its casually flared alliteration, adopted more, one would think, for show than for blow. "The world," he announces in the same poem, "is an iceberg, so much is invisible!" Why shouldn't poetry at least take its cue from the iceberg and parade the little that is visible of that bottom-heavy world as toplessly as possible?
              As John Gruen's memoir of the New York scene in the '50s The Party's Over Now (1972) reveals, the muse who hovered lightly but affectingly over many of its poets and artists was Jane Freilicher, and next to O'Hara's beloved Manhattan itself, hers is by far the most prominent presence in Meditations. "Chez Jane," in fact, promotes her presidency from one of a friendly salon hostess to an auspicer of tigers, a "spirit of noisy / contemplation in the studio, the Garden / of Zoos, the eternally fixed afternoons!" Like life in a big city she is unpredictable, mercurial, and on occasion even palpably Medean. In "Jane Awake," one of O 'Hara's few poems disposed in four-line stanzas, her quiescence in sleep at the beginning of the poem seems almost prodigious, like a six-hour sunset flattened to a wispy pastel. But "the opals hiding in your lids / as you sleep "mask a subliminality that is "riotous, black"; and just before sunrise, when the cock-and-bull crowings of surrealism fade with the margins of the night,

       . . .you roar with
your eyes shut, unsmiling,

your volcanic flesh hides
     everything from the watchman,
and the tendrils of dreams
     strangle policemen running by

too slowly to escape you . . .

         Volcanic Jane's flesh may be, but it is not too molten to constrain the poet stunned by its vibrancy into a step-down domesticity mirrored by a Nude-Descending-a-Staircase clattering of baldly echoing rhymes:

     . . .Only by chance tripping on stairs
do you repeat the dance, and
     then, in the perfect variety of

subdued, impeccably disguised,
     white black pink blue saffron
and golden ambiance, do we find
     the nightly savage, in a trance. (Italics mine.)

         For those who might not be familiar with the name Jane Freilicher, O'Hara's doyenne was an action painter prominent (more socially than artistically) in the abstract-expressionist movement then dominated by Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Franz Kline, all of whom were of their mutual acquaintance. Abstract expressionism was very much a part of the New York scene during the mid-'50s, and the hype surrounding its central figures (aided and abetted by ambivalent media sources such as Time Magazine) quickly spread to other forms beyond the visual arts. Some of the careening colorism associated with the canvases of Pollock and de Kooning is suggested in the poem "A Terrestrial Cuckoo," in whose toils of grace, albeit primitivistic, Jane, side by side with the poet, is caught up:

What a hot day it is! for
Jane and me above the scorch
of sun on jungle waters to be
paddling up and down the Essequibo
in our canoe of war-surplus gondola parts.

         Their milieu as limned by the poem is a torrid one out of a Cornel Wilde movie shot on location on the Amazon River, but mostly its mise-en-scenario is saturated with various oddments of American material culture, right out of (if it had existed then) a Land's End catalog:

. . .Our intuitive craft
our striped T shirts and shorts
cry out to vines that are feasting
on flies to make straight the way
of tropical art. "I'd give a lempira or two

to have it all slapped onto a
canvas" says Jane. . . .

         But just when you think the O'Hara persona has given up all his mysteries, has allowed himself to be tented to the quick, a vocalic quirk, a catch in a particular poem's full-throated ease gives the show away that there really is no show to give away. To put it as candidly as this poet is wont to put such things himself, at the show of Poetry where eloquence is showiness and Truth is show-and-tell, O'Hara is decidedly a no-show. There are subtle reserves of angst-dissolving moxy in Meditations in an Emergency that undercut and overreach the flow of minutiae sent up routinely by those gushers anyone who writes about O'Hara adverts to-- the movies, trade gossip, the mundanities of the sublime, and New York City as hub, rim, and shaft of the best wheel alignment ever granted by fortune to an antsily indiscreet poet on the move and on the make.
              These are large and even heady preoccupations, even for an urban love-child of Beatdom and Black Mountaineering; and while there can be no doubt that without them his verse would lack the élan that gives it its snap and crackle as Pop, their weaving to and fro within his writing can appear as vertiginous and topsy turvy as an Escher sketch done in neon. But just as Eliot's "Prufrock" was occasioned by more than a need to unravel a knot of discombobulations, the cumulative effect of O'Hara's mash notes to "the universe that shagged me" proves greater than a surface weighed down by other surfaces might suggest. For it's not reducibility to a surface glitter that is important here. It is the kind of surface that an O'Hara poem reduces to, cleared by a default setting of style allowing simultaneously for greased bannister delivery of stand-up lines and a Buster Keaton-esque poise amid incomings (whose indefatigability is nothing short of dazzling and whose déraison dêatre the collection 's title poem flares to a paradox), that we are being directed to focus on. And here is another paradox from this bonecrusher of asperities, this facilitator of espouse abuse: "It is easy to be beautiful, it is difficult to appear so." Which is not all that brackishly Wildean from a writer able, as in the following (also from the title poem), to flip the tie of the Symboliste Archon as though he were sautéing crêpes: "St. Serapion, I wrap myself in the robes of your / whiteness which is like midnight in Dostoevsky. . . ." Is there an apostrophe in all Ginsberouac that resonates more purely to the Mallarmean tuning fork than this campy salute to hieraticisms past?
              Probably not, and that's probably one reason why O'Hara's daimon of higher vagrancy appears to range all over the lot in these early poems, as austerely controlled as some of them are. And fronting for this Tourette's syndromatist is a curious (if somewhat fearful) Bloomian ephebe who likes to try forbidden things on when another fledgling narcissist isn't hogging the mirror.
              Thus, to enter the spirit of Meditations, to sense the power of that daimon from within, it is essential to see that its poems are really about frolicking in the emperor's old clothes-- which, when you come right down to it, are not all that different from his new clothes, except that you have to pretend a lot harder they're not hopelessly dated and ridiculous. As I suggested earlier on, O'Hara's not infrequent substituting of swish for panache in these pieces is not so much a behaving as though gay liberation had already occurred, as a flouting of straight society's insistence that gayness be kept out of sight.
              For more millennia than can readily be calculated, the homosexual world has bustled round the crux that outrageous displays could transcend their own clownishness by being made to assume the function of incense burned at an austere rite consecrating singularity and suffering. Whereas O'Hara's good gay beau-idéal-poet Walt Whitman went out of his way to counterbalance every allusion to man-love with one in praise of women so as not to arouse suspicion among bean-counters of probity, he himself refuses to be bound by anything like those restrictions and injunctions. Though he is bound by certain distinctly modern strictures undreamt of by the singer of bodies electric, for whom imported goods like the Jocasta of Greek mythology occasioned nothing but stiff American tariffs:

All things are tragic
when a mother watches!
and she wishes upon herself
the random fears of a scarlet soul, as it breathes in and out...

         This brief extract from "Poem" reminds us that the pre-Stonewall gay writer clung to Freud and the mother-loathing ethos of "forget nothing, forgive less" (born of Oedipal constriction by Caesarian section) the way the post-Stonewall one more often than not totemizes with a single thrust of credulity the AIDS quilt and bathhouse promiscuity. We could ignore this obsessive quirk in O'Hara 's poetic universe but, as in the poem "Mayakovsky," it keeps coming back to haunt him, and therefore us as well:

My heart's aflutter!
I am standing in the bath tub
crying. Mother, mother
who am I?. . .

         But all that's neither here nor there when it's the O'Hara of the mid-'50s and his world that are being held up to view. Or at least, the fort and the da of this particular push-and-pull, which were by then inextricably superimposed on one another, like one animal having mounted another, have by now lost all claim to the foreground and should be left to the poet's psychobiographers. Enough to record, after 40 years-- the testing time for wilderness wanderers-- that Meditations in an Emergency has more than just survived its stint at being out there as a "gay classic." It has been absorbed into the soul's repertoire that in America transcends covers and the Kilroy-was-here transiency of dust to which nearly all books succumb. If American poetry is in crisis, you'd never know it from reading this O'Hara fever chart. Rest easy: No emergency here to meditate upon.

Editor's Note: When this essay first appeared, John Gruen was mistakenly identified as the husband of Jane Freilicher, rather than Jane Wilson. The Contemporary Poetry Review joins the essay's author, James Rother, in deeply regretting the inconvenience this error has caused all those concerned.

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