Frank O’Hara’s Method

9 September 2016

Does the postmodern poem care about the past? More importantly, was Frank O’Hara, as a torchbearer of the postmodern poetic, a loyal student of the past? Or was he a reckless practitioner of the ‘“I do this, I do that” aesthetic’[2]? This essay posits that O’Hara did not reject traditional measure, for ‘what differentiates the poet from other writers is the focus on mode’[3] and O’Hara was no exception in that he did not transcend traditional form. True, O’Hara argued that ‘you just go on your nerve’, however, as W. S. Merwin points out, O’Hara’s point of difference as a poet meant ‘… you don’t just go on that [nerve].

There had to be the talent. And it had to be his [O’Hara’s] own’[4]. Accordingly, O’Hara felt compelled to acquiesce; ‘measure and other technical apparatus, that’s just common sense’[5]. Thus, the appearance of rhythm, isochrony, assonance, alliteration and the cacophonous echo of O’Hara’s poetic influences should come as no surprise. And through Charles Olson’s assertion that ‘form is never more than an extension of content’[6], I argue that the ‘nerve’ which was O’Hara’s fire – his very being – necessarily generated a poetic measure that accommodated a masterful fusion of both traditional and postmodern traits.

Frank O’Hara’s Method Essay Example

Rhythm At first, O’Hara’s Personal Poem from his collection Lunch Poems seems to be a piece that ostensibly rebels against its ‘own rules’. In briefly analysing part of it, we might assess how seriously to take O’Hara’s purported poetic nonchalance, its ‘recreation of everyday experience… a source of annoyance for partisans of every stripe’[7]. We might then strike at the heart of O’Hara’s confession: ‘I don’t think my experiences are clarified or made beautiful for myself or anyone else, they are just there in whatever form I can find them. ’[8]

Personal Poem begins: Now when I walk around at lunchtime I have only two charms in my pocket an old Roman coin Mike Kanemitsu gave me and a bolt-head that broke off a packing case when I was in Madrid the others never brought me too much luck though they did help keep me in New York against coercion but now I’m happy for a time and interested [9] (1953) Let us examine rhythm. Rhythm is, above all, the ‘patterning of energy, of tensions and release, movement and countermovement that we both perceive and produce… in our own brains and muscles’[10].

In poetry, it is a semantic and aesthetic catalyst for a bio-chemical oscillation of the mind. Proponents of isochronism, the ‘rhythmic organisation of speech into equal intervals’[11], likely identifies a characteristic of O’Hara’s postmodern measure as being closely related to the rhythm of speech. The tone groups (i. e. the words comprising a single breath or utterance), seem to deliberately or inadvertently create a spoken rhythm: Now when I walk around at lunchtime (breath) I have only two charms in my pocket (breath) an old Roman coin Mike Kanemitsu gave me (breath) nd a bolt-head that broke off a packing case The apparent isochrony evokes a sense of being spoken to by O’Hara, seemingly ‘address[ing] itself to one person’[12]. Its natural spoken rhythm is established with each line- break, thus becoming and ‘important element of the reader’s experience’[13]. Whilst the syllable count of each line is not consistent, nor a rhythm regular enough to generate meter, there is an undeniable rhythm formed in the measure of this stanza; the inevitable breath-phrasing of a ‘practitioner of the impulsive’[14]. From Rhythm to Simultaneity

Further, it is O’Hara’s ‘nerve’ which we find splayed out in terms described by Charles Olson’s ‘open’ field of poetry. With the rhythmic momentum of the second stanza, the pace kept moving by regular use of ‘and’, we can almost hear Olson barking down O’Hara’s neck as he writes: ‘keep it moving as fast as you can, citizen… always one perception must must must (sic) MOVE, INSTANTER, ON ANOTHER! ”[15] Thus the second stanza: I walk through the luminous humidity passing the House of Seagram with its wet and its loungers and the construction to the left that closed the sidewalk if I ever get to be a construction worker

I’d like to have a silver hat please and get… The absence of punctuation and seemingly endless enjambment shows a commitment to the Surrealist tradition which Sellin calls ‘the cubist-surrealist esthetic [of] simultaneity’[16]. O’Hara’s spasmodic ‘nerve’ is palpably influenced by surrealist masters as Breton, Reverdy et al[17]. This is a prosody that openly embraces ‘syntactic ambiguity’[18] creating poetry of ‘great speed, openness, flexibility, and defiance of expectation’[19]. And albeit achieved not through a ‘traditional measure’ it is nevertheless drawn from tradition. More than that, Personal Poem, as with any other first-person poems of O’Hara, undoubtedly follows the thematic and stylistic lead of a modernist predecessor; ‘the first writer that… chose to speak personally… Vladimir Mayakovsky’[20]. In Lunch Poems we find the ‘rhetoric of pretending to have no rhetoric’[21] and can with confidence argue that O’Hara knows his tradition. Strange Semantic: Elegy of Alliteration A glance at a fragment of O’Hara’s Second Avenue poem, a ‘postmodern elegy’[22] as David Dick puts it, will further clarify the degree to which we should temper O’Hara’s supposed war on the ‘propagandists for technique’[23].

This ‘high energy-construct… energy discharge’[24] surely displays what Charles Olson meant when he said: ‘form is never more than an extension of content. ’[25] What spanking opossums of sneaks are caressing the routes! and of the pulse-racked tremors attached to my viciousness I can only enumerate the somber instances of wetness. (“SA” 54-56) Despite possessing a severe poverty of semantic sense or fixed connotation, O’Hara’s use of traditional alliteration and assonance work tirelessly to convey meaning: panking opossums of sneaks are caressing the routes … somber instances of wetness They encourage through persistent and unrelenting hissing – almost jittering – a feeling of utter despair. And the jarring syllable stresses of pulse-racked tremors is a powerful modal tool for conveying the urge of pulsation and tremor. These traditional prosodic devices are re-framed by O’Hara to champion the postmodern aesthetics of transience, uncertainty, spontaneity and simultaneity; the use of tradition to break free from itself. And as

Dick rightly points out, Second Avenue ‘articulates a distaste, and sense of undesirable duty, toward the tradition of “legendary elegies”[emphasis own]’[26]. In the vein of Rilke’s Duino Elegies, it cannot but bow to the poetic diction that characterized his modernist forbearer: And must I express the science of legendary elegies consummate on the Clarissas of puma and gnu and wildebeest? ” (“SA” 73-74) Obliging to tradition, O’Hara’s dons his ‘tight pants’[27] and crafts in these two lines an exceptionally poised diction. As Dick describes it: Second Avenue” is a poem that is best read in terms of the European modernist tradition… Though it may not have a distinct narrative structure, the insistent presence of its influences and voices provide it with a unifying theme: the simultaneous celebration and parody of major poems written by the European modernists”. Couple Second Poem with a surprising line from Music. It leaps from the page then recedes like a playful child playing ‘tag’, almost jolting us like a ghost which we believe a mere dream. Then we begin to understand how ‘seriously’ to take O’Hara’s retort from the Personism Manifesto: nd gusts of water spray over the basins of leave like the hammers of a glass pianoforte. If I seem to you to have lavender lips under the leaves of the world, I must tighten my belt. [28] (1953) Whilst O’Hara’s idiosyncratic quirkiness, playfulness, ephemeral imagery and juxtaposition is ubiquitous, a simultaneous traditional diction of alliteration and assonance is worked masterfully like interlocking waves from the past. Oscillation: Past and Present Finally, it would be irresponsible to ignore one particular poem, unbridled and catapulting towards a combination of traditional and loose forms.

In Memory of My Feelings (written in 1956) is, as Marjorie Perloff suggests, an ‘extremely “open” lyric sequence that nevertheless never gives way to formlessness, never “panics”’[29]. It opens with even line lengths, a lyrical quality and a still, mirage-like balance that cannot resist a ‘familiar romantic topos’[30] of past poetic eras: My quietness has a man in it, he is transparent and he carries me quietly, like a gondola, through the streets. He has several likenesses, like stars and years, like numerals. My quietness has a number of naked selves, o many pistols I have borrowed to protect myselves  from creatures who too readily recognize my weapons  and have murder in their heart! … As in interesting juxtaposition exercise, one might say that these verses are unrecognizable beside the ‘…immediacy, excitement, and sense of presence’[31] of this stanza from Five Poems (1960): an invitation to lunch HOW DO YOU LIKE THAT? when I only have 16 cents and 2 packages of yoghurt there’s a lesson in that, isn’t there like in Chinese Poetry when a leaf falls? [32]

And then in returning to In Memory, we likewise identify a hodge-podge of versified language; almost a scribbled thought lacking any deliberate measure. And yet, Perloff comes vociferously to O’Hara’s defence in asserting that ‘O’Hara’s reputation as a causal improvisator, unschooled doodler, could hardly miss the mark more completely’[33]. O’Hara quite deliberately hoped to employ ‘a kind of automatic writing to match the epic scale and grandeur built up by accident and subconscious connections in abstract expressionist painting, aleatory music, and French surrealist cata-logue poems’[34].

Observe the contrast. At first, we need go no further than the musicality of In Memory to ascertain O’Hara’s influence from, and challenge to, traditional measure. The contrasting metaphors of like a gondola, … like stars and years, like numerals. … are neatly layered beside one another evoking Symbolist tones and forms of mysticism and otherworldliness. Then the poem oscillates, between a traditional poetic awareness and the following free-verse, possessed by uncertain lineation, surprise and single-word lines:

I am underneath its leaves as the hunter crackles and pants  and bursts, as the barrage balloon drifts behind a cloud  and animal death whips out its flashlight, whistling and slipping the glove off the trigger hand. The serpent’s eyes  redden at sight of those thorny fingernails, he is so smooth! And yet still, O’Hara once wrote to Bill Berkson that ‘there is as much freedom in the composition of music as there is in a prison recreation yard’[35] which Perloff suggests O’Hara must have felt to some degree regarding poetry too.

Do we therefore fail to find a consistent approach from O’Hara towards traditional prosody? Ultimately, O’Hara’s Personism Manifesto that publicized O’Hara’s guiding ‘nerve’, was a satirical take on the poetic manifestos that seemed a rite of passage for every poetic movement that preceded his own. The brazen nonchalance we therefore find in this essay title may have swept up some unintended (and misguided) conclusions among critics that O’Hara had rejected traditional prosody. As we can see from a brief examination above, that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

O’Hara’s Prosody: A Human Measure Despite my assertions that O’Hara was highly attuned to poetic tradition, in an important way we should nevertheless take heed to O’Hara’s words in rejecting certain confines of the past. As David Herd aptly puts it: He (O’Hara) is composing as he steps; the step…is the measure of his composition. And…as he steps he becomes acquainted with the environment that form(s) the fabric of his poem… What O’Hara establishes is a human measure, a prosody of cognition which finds its metric in (his own) human form. [36]

Ultimately, O’Hara’s poetic form straddles the line between traditional aesthetics and the movement of the day – his day. Elain Equie describes it by saying that ‘art is not so easily democratized… But if there is a way to be both an aesthete and a populist, Frank O’Hara found it’[37]. O’Hara was a unique poetic composer who, whilst acutely aware of the historical foundations upon which he stood, was still able to write about a ‘liver sausage sandwich’[38] and mean nothing more than that. Bibliography A Tribute to Frank O’Hara, published in Crossroads, Spring 2000

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