Poems Retrieved by Frank O’Hara. City Lights Books. $18.95, 254pp.
There are several reasons why particular poems by a major American figure would linger in uncollected limbo for decades. In Poems Retrieved, a reissued Frank O’Hara collection edited by Don Allen, a wider audience is seeing the light of these works some 47 years post mortem.
Perhaps the poetry in question doesn’t fit a critically approved œuvre made up, book by book, of discrete projects. While Lunch Poems is a diverse collection, a villanelle, say, would seem jarringly out of place there. Not one but two sestinas, “Southern Villages” and “Green Worlds,” apparently written in a burst of perversity in the Hudson Valley area, are included in Poems Retrieved.
Or certain poems resist a writer’s hagiography. The authorship of Auden’s nasty-erotic “Platonic Blow” is contested for a reason. Similarly, the lengthy eclogues or found-verse collages that appear in Poems Retrieved would have been eschewed from a collected tome. So too might the myriads of ekphrastic pieces, the poem entirely in French, the topical satires of O’Hara’s contemporaries, such as John Ciardi, Robert Lowell, and Richard Eberhart, and the later, half-baked but still-delicious fragments have been left out of more “official” editions.
The verse may be considered too personal. While it’s hard to imagine a TMI chord ringing throughout O’Hara’s work, not every poem is written for an audience, either general or scholarly—a happy reality that often maintains freshness and authenticity in contemporary poetry. Today, countless poems are bandied about on Facebook walls or in e-mail bodies, most likely never to resurface among the pristine pages of print copy. “Poem About Jane,” a four-line revenge fantasy on behalf of O’Hara’s beloved compatriot Jane Freilicher, may fall into that camp:
“You have no idea! you can’t know how she has
provoked me while you were away!” he cries! but
“Uh huh, you apparently have forgotten how I
love her” I mutter as I stab him.
Lastly, b-sides may be just that—not the most moving, masterful or musical. They may be practice runs. They may be as unglamorous and utilitarian as a knife sharpener. They may be juvenilia—indeed, many of the poems in this volume were included in O’Hara’s thesis work as an MFA student at the University of Michigan in the early 1950s. Lamentably, O’Hara died only a decade and a half after leaving graduate school, at the comparatively young age of 40. As such, the poems in this collection take on greater importance as historical testaments to an exquisite imagination cut short.
A random selection from Poems Retrieved will contain all the highs and lows of the possibilities outlined above and, luckily for readers, work that is better, that is more quintessentially O’Hara’s. His poetry is notoriously obsessed with naming, addressing, and emphasizing bonhomie. The poems in this volume are vibrant artifacts of the man and his mind, refining, re-shining, and celebrating his singular observations.
Even O’Hara’s most serious early poems belie the cheeky New York flâneur yet to come. “Entombment,” a studious Matthew Arnold impression, begins, as it would, with:
The wind is cold and echoes a banshee
off the red wall the peers into cemeteries.
And the yellow hearses arrive, laden
with nails and pikestaffs for decoration
of the alabaster bier into which your
rivulets of tears still eat their seams.
It ends, two quatrains later, with talk of funereal gargoyles and the prediction that “their cocks will drop off,” and so “they cry.” This poem is most valuable as a demonstration of O’Hara strengths—arresting detail and a pathological inability to stay sullen. Why focus on death, when life is so much more amusing?
Early in the collection, there is a rather lackluster sonnet entitled “In Gratitude to Masters,” dedicated to Harvard English Professor Roy Cowden. But of course, in his best-loved work, O’Hara alludes to other personalities, at once less illustrious and more notorious—pop culture icons. And in these poems the tone is casual, personal, even euphoric. Yet scattered throughout the book are still other, uncharacteristically moody poems—a valuable indication to any practicing writer of the ongoing formulation of voice so consequential to New York School scriveners.
As Poems Retrieved proceeds chronologically, O’Hara makes his momentous move to New York, and his unique surrealist tendencies find meaning—directed toward praise, or at least toward a reckless engagement with love and life, as in “Song:”
I’m going to New York!
(what a lark! what a song!)
where the tough Rocky’s eaves
hit the sea. Where th’ Acro-
polis is functional, the trains
that run and shout! the books
that have trousers and sleeves!
Or, as in “A Sunday Supplement:”
We loved our bodies,
and pistachio frappés,
it’s all in our heart and dirtied there
without a bath of
tears or war,
with the help of
the Zeit and of the
Geist on the western divan in the bare
never have so many
been so happy with so
little. We loved the bright first pot.
These two poems, dating from 1951 and 1952 respectively, catch a glimmer of the luster that radiates from O’Hara’s major works. If the bulk of Poems Retrieved is not as positive as these examples, at least the verbal construction in the better selections is animated, particularly in the sense of this word’s Latin roots—animare, “to endow with a certain temperament;” “to make spirited.” And a certain, spirited pacing is evident throughout the book, bucked against by wilder, unrestrained experiments in Romanticism and other odd poems—as far as O’Hara poems go—that maintain perfect rhyme schemes, and a great diversity of linear and stanzaic forms.
Poems Retrieved is considered a companion book to editor Don Allen’s earlier effort, O’Hara’s official, posthumous Collected Poems. As such, readers are privileged to see how his voice develops and when he hits his stride. In “The Air and Sex of Early Day,” O’Hara begins with a characteristic bang, right in media res:
Your breath wakes me like a bolt from the blue
the gingko is suddenly cautious
its rising leaves become unanimous
and I, dear, am setting my sail for you.
Although it’s not quite lunchtime, this early poem illustrates, with immediacy, the topics central to O’Hara’s literary concerns—play, minute quotidian detail, and of course, amor. Through conscientious sourcing, Poems Retrieved makes clear just how prolific O’Hara was, with a work ethic that often resulted in several poems per day. Again, because of the necessary unorthodoxy required for such stamina, some of this verse might have been deemed unfit for the earlier collections. These poems are a step away, further into play, into the realm of Carrollian nonsense, as in “What Sledgehammer? or / W.C. Williams’s Been Attacked:”
In the University pistols were not shot off
because they aren’t “clean precise expression.” Ho
ho ho, kra, chuh, chuh, tssk tssk tssk tereu. They
stole barrels of rice powder (yeastfully ruched), white
like angels’ balls, the ever-chucked and careless Fs.
Here the academy is mocked for what one would today consider “workshop language.” And the canon, in the guise of Philomel’s flitting interlude from Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” disintegrates into onomatopoeia. So rudely forc’d, indeed. The title itself is dedicated to another major modernist, though of a markedly different stripe. In Autobiography, William Carlos Williams complains that “Eliot returned us to the classroom just at the moment when I felt we were on a point to escape to matters much closer to the essence of a new art form itself—rooted in the locality which should give it fruit.” Despite, or perhaps because of, O’Hara’s classical education, he was also concerned with the “fruit” of the matter—love, love in all its wild expressions. In “Chez William Kramps,” O’Hara writes:
Well, not being a hip-slinger, I don’t need you, truss,
but I love you all the same, that is the same as I love
toothbrushes and jockstraps and inkwells and typography.
What I really love is people, and I don’t much care whom
except for a few favorites who fit, which you understand.
This is O’Hara in his stride. Three years after the publication of Meditations in an Emergency and four years before Lunch Poems, this poem shines with signature intelligence and joie de vivre. For moments like this one, Poems Retrieved is a welcome edition to any reader’s bookshelves—be she a casual peruser or a credentialed O’Hara scholar.
Erika Jo Brown is from New York, where she founded Stretching Panties literary magazine. A recent graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, her work can be found at H_NGM_N, Spork online and Forklift, Ohio. Her chapbook, What a Lark!, was published by Further Adventures Press
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