Sunday, November 27, 2011

Frank O'Hara figures it out

The only thing wrong with  Frank O'Hara's The Collected Poems is that so many of them are virtually perfect as they are, as I think he had a number of styles he could muster up with ease to get across the energy and inspiration the city could provide. His was the nearest I've come across where a genuine bit of writerly discernment--that is, the writer as someone who arranges and chooses the words that best convey his ideas, or even the lack of them --that could make me think of someone talking to me, at length, at great speed, enthusing with a dozen splendid configurations of language about a subject that has given them great and subtle joy.  

The aftershock of reading his poems is that you feel as if you've been in an chat where you didn't mind at all the sleep you were missing, and still don't regret missing the morning after at the job when you cannot stop  yawning at customers , clients and bosses.This was writing of it's time, but the work survives far beyond their period and are read to the current day largely because few others have been able to write about a thrill or convey their idea of kicks, sadness and still collect a response on re-reading.

 I am not a painter, I am a poet.

Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,
for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
"Sit down and have a drink" he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. "You have SARDINES in it."
"Yes, it needed something there."
"Oh." I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. "Where's 
"Yes, it needed something there."
"Oh." I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. "Where's SARDINES?"
All that's left is just
letters, "It was too much," Mike says.
All that's left is just
letters, "It was too much," Mike says.
But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven't mentioned
orange yet. It's twelve poems, I call
it oranges. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike's painting, called SARDINES.

There is here the spirit of flow , a runneling rush of words that seem informal and unusually direct in their lack of meaning-disguising metaphors and other involved techniques, but what O'Hara here is working toward, with deliberation and a discriminating eye and ear, is the perception of the experience. He starts to explain why he is not a painter but rather a poet and winds up, in digression, recalling an incident with his painter friend Mike. It ends as if it were a conversation stopped before it reaches the final resonance--it is a conclusion deferred and all that remains of this recounting are the details that lead up to it, provocative clues to what might a larger epiphany might have contained. The insight, though, is that art is not so much about what you set out to accomplish, but what you actually wind up with after you've done scrambling your senses for the right brush stroke or fanciful allusion.  What some call casual and toned down I'd call a mastery of the informal voice. There are a great many writers who write in a manner meant to suggest a voice , a character, actually speaking words that form quick and fascinatingly original abstractions of everyday matters and erudite issues at hand with a spontaneity that intended to seem miraculous, but there is , I think, a trace of the studied, the practiced, the idealized in the stanzas that attempt to dazzle the reader with brilliance in a chatty subterfuge. The surprise they intend to furnish our  psychic domiciles with get stuck in their own pretension, like a couch too wide to fit through an apartment door too thin. O'Hara, though, gets the mixture right, the internalized form of the language, the easy access to construction, syntax,  and the naturally relaxed rhythm of someone finding the right words for the right things, said to the right person, the receptive audience that inspires the poet to further, more elevated articulation, exaggerations, exclamations and declamations. In fact, I often read O' Hara's poems just to have what I imagine to have been his reading voice--yes, Theatre of the Mind-- grace the often times sterile terrain of my own imagination with his lyrics that found excitement in buildings, maddeningly brilliant, paintings, his own emotional highs and lows; there is a manic pace to O'Hara's work, as if there is only a short time to get to the point, to make the connection between how he felt, what he saw, what he did, who he met, what happened after his best thinking led him astray, as if he was aware that jackhammers, telephones, arguing lovers in the next apartment, loud music from third floor windows, gunfire or the cacophony car horns and diesel engines might sound off and drown him out, destroy the moment of self-revelation with a world demanding attention. There was a need for speed, a rapidity of response to the faint germ of an idea or the perception that could reveal some interior truth or irony if meditated on just a bit.  O'Hara's gift to us was that he could , more often than not, make it all fit.

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