One of the great things about being a feral poet–one that wouldn’t know M, F, or A if he fell over them–is discovering poets that everyone else in the poetry world (hint: it’s precious small) has known forever. This week I met Frank O’Hara for the first time via his seminal work, Lunch Poems.
When I reviewed the book, I said I read the poems through the hair of my eyebrows. By that I meant I was frowning, not so much in disapproval as in wonder, at what I was reading. This guy was joyfully off the New York wall. Other people told me, with a bit of ennui built over time, “Oh, yes. He’s of the wonderful New York School.” Me, I missed the boat (not to mention the school), growing up in Connecticut, a few precincts over.
Anyway, here’s the first thing that hit me this week–the first poem in O’Hara’s collection of Manhattan lunches, written in 1953 before I was me:
“Music” by Frank O’Hara
If I rest for a moment near The Equestrian
pausing for a liver sausage sandwich in the Mayflower Shoppe,
that angel seems to be leading the horse into Bergdorf’s
and I am naked as a table cloth, my nerves humming.
Close to the fear of war and the stars which have disappeared.
I have in my hands only 35c, it’s so meaningless to eat!
and gusts of water spray over the basins of leaves
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.
It’s like a locomotive on the march, the season
of distress and clarity
and my door is open to the evenings of midwinter’s
lightly falling snow over the newspapers.
Clasp me in your handkerchief like a tear, trumpet
of early afternoon! in the foggy autumn.
As they’re putting up the Christmas trees on Park Avenue
I shall see my daydreams walking by with dogs in blankets,
put to some use before all those coloured lights come on!
But no more fountains and no more rain,
and the stores stay open terribly late.
Doing a bit of research on O’Hara, I see he died a bizarre death but a few years after the publication of this book, getting hit by a beach taxi (whatever that is) on Fire Island and dying at the tender age of 40. Granted, not as bad as Keats dying at 25, but still a loss, considering what fun might remain in the non sequiturs-to-be that was his poetry.
In case you missed it, here’s the New York Times tribute to Lunch Poems on its 50th birthday. Meanwhile, I’ll do some rereading and un-frowning. When it comes to poetry, there’s nothing quite like “What the–?” rereading to smooth the brow.
No Comments ““I Am Naked as a Table Cloth””
Ken, so that’s one good thing to say about MFA programs; they just might introduce you to a truly seminal poet you’ve never heard of. O’Hara has been a heavy influence on almost every MFA and contemporary poet I’ve read. Here’s my O’Hara inspired poem:
LAND OF THE PHARAOHS
I like being called “brother”
by black men. I like walking past
Land of the Pharaohs
& being invited in by the brothers
to bless them with a poem.
“Brothers,” I say, “brothers,
please, no keyboards, no congas,
let me lay something white & uptight
on you brothers.” I recite my poem
about Martians & Geiger counters,
its conclusion an ironic invitation
to Jesus to drop by some morning
for coffee. They hate it.
The brothers hate it
but they’re polite, not like Kerouac
at the Living Theater,
heckling Frank O’Hara
or the Academy Awards audience
mocking poor Sally Fields
when she said “You
like me! You really do
like me!” The brothers forgive me
as they’d forgive a flying nun
who alighted among them
& roosted, preening, while a brother
recited his hip-hop poem called
“Kill the White Muthafuckers.”
Just to clarify, I am not in an MFA program. Just a MBK (Ministered By Ken) one, wherein I see what other poetry-types are reading and then check it out. And thanks for the Sally Fields poem. Long time no Flying Nun!
I love your blogs, perhaps because I’m a feral poet, too. However, we’re both only half feral since we did major in English. My curriculum favored dead writers, though, which also left out many women authors, and I focused on novels and plays. I’m going to see if my library has this collection by O’Hara.
Guilty as charged on the English major thing, though I didn’t get a lot of poetry (took one course specifically for poetry, though). Mostly novels. Man, did I read novels in college. Whew!
I have tried to find your email address on the internet and failed. I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed your poem Hemingway Fishing in a past issue of Grays Sporting Journal. It seemed so right on. Yes an old man is slow to respond at times but compliments are compliments, so here is mine.
Thanks so much for reaching out, Stanley. My e-mail address is found in the ABOUT section of this website, but I’ll print it here: email@example.com.
I take it you are a fan of Hemingway’s as well? I like writing about writers and have written poems about James Wright and Leo Tolstoy as well. Anyway, I’m glad you enjoyed the poem in Gray’s (one fine magazine!) and thank you for the kind words.
How Do I Know?
A good poet will change me in a good way.
A bad poet usually just makes me older.
Is O’Hara a “good poet” who makes you younger, then?
Nothing can prevent us from getting older but that is also a metaphor for the need to economize.