Meditations in an Emergency by Frank O'Hara
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I first learned to love poetry in college when I had a marvelous professor (whose voice I still hear when I read T.S. Eliot or W.B. Yeats). But since then I've fallen away from even my favorite poets, short of time and focus. Lyric poetry in particular takes time to read, reread, and savor. If books are like dishes of food, lyric poetry is like a particularly rich, dark chocolate truffle. You can't eat it all at once. "Truffle poems" are ones I've reread a dozens of times, poems that always surprise me. They are like going into a familiar room where all the furniture has been rearranged several inches to the left.
Frank O'Hara is too abstractly unfathomable to be a truffle poet, but there are moments where his use of language evokes a feeling beyond meaning. From "Invincibility":
Lepers nest on the surly cats of glistening delirium
What does that even mean? Darned if I know, but the play of words is fascinating and feels sharp, unnerving. I stopped and reread it over and over, trying to decide what quality attracted my eye back to it.
Probably my favorite poem in this collection was "Poem: There I could never be a boy", dedicated to James Schuyler. I suppose it appeals to me not only for its deft physical description of a "frightened black mare / who had leaped windily at the start of a leaf", but because I value poetry that gets at an insight like "All things are tragic / when a mother watches!" That idea reminded me strongly of W.B. Yeats's "Among School Children" when the elderly Yeats asks if his mother, seeing him as an old man, would have thought herself repaid for all her efforts:
What youthful mother, a shape upon her lap
Honey of generation had betrayed,
And that must sleep, shriek, struggle to escape
As recollection or the drug decide,
Would think her Son, did she but see that shape
With sixty or more winters on its head,
A compensation for the pang of his birth,
Or the uncertainty of his setting forth?
I also enjoyed O'Hara's "To the Film Industry in Crisis", where he celebrates his favorite actors with tongue firmly in cheek, theatrically doling out accolades. The rest of the poems are less accessible, but deserve rereading someday.
The one stanza in "Mayakovsky" that I think is a misstep is the one quoted in Mad Men:
Now I am quietly waiting for
the catastrophe of my personality
to seem beautiful again,
and interesting, and modern.
It's a bit too self-pitying, like something a moody teenager would write and relate to. (Sorry if you loved it.) For stark, lovely poems, try W.H. Auden, whose "Funeral Blues" speaks for everyone who's lost someone. You could also check out the avant garde New York School poets and painters.