Meditations in an Emergency 
by Frank O’Hara.
Grove, 52 pp., £12.99, March, 978 1 61185 656 9
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‘Idon't care what Wystan says,’ Frank O’Hara wrote to Kenneth Koch. ‘I’d rather be dead than not have France around me like a rhinestone dog-collar.’ He was responding to Auden’s admonition on reading O’Hara’s and John Ashbery’s entries for the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1955: ‘I think you (and John, too, for that matter) must watch what is always the great danger with any “surrealistic” style, namely of confusing authentic non-logical relations which arouse wonder with accidental ones which arouse mere surprise and in the end fatigue.’

Such a fine taxonomy of poetic efficacy: chaste, courtly, Anglo-Saxon wonder versus erotic, confrontational, ‘mere’ surprise (a military term from Old French, it derives from the medieval Latin superprehendere, ‘to seize’). You might ask what an accidental non-logical relation looks like, as opposed to an authentic one, when you are hanging out in a painter’s studio. What if the steam of a porcelain tiger’s hot piss sounds like it’s whispering ‘Saint-Saëns’? What if Frank and Jane (Freilicher) are ‘paddling up and down the Essequibo/in our canoe of war-surplus gondola parts’? What if

‘I’d give a lempira or two
to have it all slapped onto a
canvas’ says Jane. ‘How like
lazy flamingos look the floating
weeds! and the infundibuliform
corolla on our right’s a harmless Charybdis!’

To surprise, to seize. A young style favours conquest – that may also be what the middle-aged Auden was protesting about. But there’s no doubt that O’Hara’s poetry, rather than wearing out its welcome, has continued to conquer audiences. He’s just about become a cliché: of the insouciantly out gay poet, the Manhattan art world insider and social butterfly slumming around in pop culture (‘if they don’t need poetry bully for them. I like the movies too’), whose iconic author photos, one of them a nude drawing by Larry Rivers, freeze him in a pose of brooding nobility, small and tough like Keats. (James Schuyler mourned: ‘even your lines have/a broken nose,’ a kind of translation of Leigh Hunt’s description of his doomed friend – ‘He had a face in which energy and sensibility were remarkably mixed up.’) ‘Frank’ has become shorthand for hipster sincerity: last year’s winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry was frank: sonnets by Diane Seuss, and the indie songwriter Greta Kline calls herself Frankie Cosmos. Don Draper reads from Meditations in an Emergency in the Season Two premiere of Mad Men; the book also provides the episode title for the season finale.

This book, or something very close to it, was the manuscript that Auden rejected for the Yale prize in 1955. It was published by Grove Press two years later, when O’Hara was just 31, but it wasn’t until Lunch Poems in 1964 that he really began to make a name for himself. Too late: a dune buggy lurched out of the night to catapult him across a Fire Island beach in July 1966, and over the following days, in a provincial medical clinic, his internal organs failed. (They were too damaged by his drinking to withstand the trauma.) Death turned O’Hara into the cynosure of the New York School of poets, that dazzling appellation that had at its core himself, Ashbery, Koch and Schuyler; orbiting them were their friends Barbara Guest, Harry Mathews, Fairfield and Anne Porter, and Edwin Denby. Their social circles overlapped with Abstract Expressionist and New York School painters, and tendrils extended out into the worlds of ballet (it was the Balanchine era), classical music and Broadway. Cedar Tavern regulars populate O’Hara’s work: De Kooning, Pollock, Freilicher (‘Jane’), Hartigan (‘Grace’), Mitchell (‘Joan’). Name-dropping was his thing. He wasn’t a poet to write about parents, siblings and a middle-class Irish-Catholic upbringing in Grafton, Massachusetts, or his military service in the Pacific during the Second World War. He wanted his art to reflect only the best of all worlds. He was a Romantic.

The reissue of Meditations in an Emergency returns us to a quintessential version of O’Hara, peeling away the thick rind of later developments: the cool flâneurism of the I-do-this-I-do-that poems imitated by successive generations of epigones; the archness that characterises his much anthologised mock manifesto ‘Personism’, which further hardens in his gabby, satirical late poems (‘I saw T.S. on the telly today. I find that he is one of the most intelligent writers of our “day”’).

The poems in Meditations in an Emergency were written in O’Hara’s twenties. Those ponderous titular nouns: are they pitted against each other? Do they cancel each other out? As abstractions, do they even mean anything? These aren’t really New York poems, not yet, even though a famous passage from the book now decorates, in wrought iron, a gate in Battery Park City: ‘One need never leave the confines of New York to get all the greenery one wishes – I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life.’

The take-no-prisoners pop aficionado side of O’Hara is what draws readers in, and the two most famous pieces from Meditations in an Emergency exemplify it: ‘To the Film Industry in Crisis’ and ‘For James Dean’. The former is a long-lined anthem, revelling in polysyllables, to ‘glorious Silver Screen, tragic Technicolor, amorous Cinemascope,/stretching Vistavision and startling Stereophonic Sound, with all/your heavenly dimensions and reverberations and iconoclasms!’, featuring ‘Mae West in a furry sled,/her bordello radiance and bland remarks, Rudolph Valentino of the moon,/ its crushing passions, and moon-like too, the gentle Norma Shearer’.

O’Hara claims, first, that the Gesamtkunstwerk of a Hollywood film supersedes all other arts; he also suggests that it’s an alternative Catholic Church (‘which is at best an over-solemn introduction to cosmic entertainment’). ‘The heavens operate on a star system,’ he winks. ‘It is a divine precedent/you perpetuate! Roll on, reels of celluloid, as the great earth rolls on!’ Little did he know that both the Catholic Church and the film industry would suffer diminishment from similar abuses of power. But that’s a discussion for another day and a later poem, ‘Ave Maria’: ‘Mothers of America/let your kids go to the movies! … they may even be grateful to you/for their first sexual experience/which only cost you a quarter/and didn’t upset the peaceful home.’

‘For James Dean’ caused some tongue-wagging when it was first published in Poetry. Joe LeSueur, O’Hara’s roommate (and sometime lover), reported in his memoir that one poet called it ‘necrophilia’, another scoffed at writing about ‘dead movie stars’. Even O’Hara’s close confidante, Violet (Bunny) Lang, said the poem was ‘too out … you’ll be sorry.’ He responded: ‘If one is going to start being embarrassed about one’s work I don’t know where it would stop, or rather it would stop.’ He doubled down, including in the title poem of Meditations in an Emergency the lines: ‘Now there is only one man I love to kiss when he is unshaven. Heterosexuality! you are inexorably approaching. (How discourage her?)’

It wasn’t so much the homoeroticism of ‘For James Dean’ that caused the kerfuffle, but the dignitas of an ‘Adonais’ conferred on a teen idol. (O’Hara even structures it as an apostrophe to the gods.) But surely it is only equal to the dignity conferred on ‘Grace’ and ‘Jane’ and ‘Violet’, ‘Janice’ and ‘Kenneth’? O’Hara dragoons his friends into madcap adventures alongside Mayakovsky, Rachmaninov, Polly Peachum and George Washington. They’re all mixing it in his imagination, with varying levels of decorum: ‘Yippee! she is shooting in the harbour! he is jumping/up to the maelstrom!’ ‘Such pimples! such hard-ons! such moody loves.’

He was a writer of birthday poems, Christmas and Easter poems. Childhood and adolescence are touchstones. Embarrassment – as O’Hara reminded Bunny (Bunny!) – is baked into it. It’s remarkable how much falling, and picking oneself up from a fall, happens in Meditations. From ‘Les Etiquettes jaunes’: ‘I picked up a leaf/today from the sidewalk./This seems childish.’ From ‘Aus einem April’:

Haven’t you ever fallen down at Christmas
and didn’t it move everyone who saw you?
isn’t that what the tree means? the pure pleasure
of making weep those whom you cannot move by your

‘Poem (to James Schuyler)’ is the apotheosis of this theme:

There I could never be a boy,
though I rode like a god when the horse reared.
At a cry from mother I fell to my knees!
there I fell, clumsy and sick and good

‘All things are tragic/when a mother watches!’ It is but a short skip, of course, from falling from a horse to falling in love. ‘Meditations in an Emergency’ clarifies not what the emergency is but what the response to it must be: ‘In times of crisis, we must all decide again and again whom we love.’

It’s the ‘again and again’ that contradicts, that exposes the dithering of this bateau ivre. For while he serenades his loves ardently, they really are all over the place: we have Polish rudder; Russian composers; a tsar (looking at a French painting); a Mexican guitar; someone ‘describing Greece’ or ‘travelling in Mexico, Italy and Australia’. We’re in Verona, in Birnam Wood, in a Restoration comedy, at MoMA.

So tempestuous, so zany, so heartfelt! You can just see Auden cringing at ‘they will welcome him/with open umbrellas, fig bars, handmade catapults!’ Or the riot of Fauvist colours in the Jane poems: ‘I muttered a red fandango’; ‘am I seduced by its ambient/mauve?’; ‘orange mountains, black taboos, dada!’ Are colours an accidental non-logical relation? Are nouns? Among the young poets at Harvard, lines were drawn between Auden and Yeats, and Stevens and Eliot, with O’Hara and Ashbery championing the underdogs Auden and Stevens. Yet it’s obvious that as much as O’Hara revered Auden, he’s really the princeling heir of Harmonium.

And not only Stevens. O’Hara dedicated Meditations in an Emergency to Jane Freilicher, who appears in the poems ‘A Terrestrial Cuckoo’, ‘Jane Awake’, ‘A Mexican Guitar’ and ‘Chez Jane’. The nods to Shelley’s Jane aren’t just literary; there’s something elementally Shelleyan about O’Hara in his reckless striving for speed and altitude, as in ‘Sleeping on the Wing’ or the ending of ‘Poem (There I could never be a boy)’:

for in the billowing air I was fleet and green
riding blackly through the ethereal night
towards men’s words which I gracefully understood,

and it was given to me
as the soul is given the hands
to hold the ribbons of life!
as miles streak by beneath the moon’s sharp hooves

and I have mastered the speed and strength
which is the armour of the world.

It was said that this blithe spirit would deliberately fling himself into the waves as thunderheads rolled in over Long Island; ‘Poem’ conjures the boy Shelley with his electrical experiments, and the man who perished at sea with a volume of Keats in his shirt.

There’s an undertow to Meditations in an Emergency, and it hides in plain sight at the outset before disappearing into jeux d’esprit. ‘To the Harbourmaster’ is a quiet, wistful, mysterious work – Ashbery read it at O’Hara’s memorial service. It’s the first poem, but printed verso, facing ‘Poem’ (‘The eager note on my door said “Call me”’). Both poems are about the insurmountable distance between ‘I wanted to be sure to reach you’ and ‘the waves which have kept me from reaching you’. Something stands between O’Hara and ‘you’ – the ‘eternal voices’, waves, weather, seasons. ‘It was autumn/by the time I got around the corner.’ The narrator who takes months to respond to his friend’s ‘Call me!’ finds him dead at the end of the poem. Why begin such a bright, brassy opus as Meditations in an Emergency in the minor key, the key of cafard? What – or who – is O’Hara late for?

Pursuing that question lands us, again, in the terrain of Romanticism. As urbane and contemporary as O’Hara may appear, this is really his defence against intrinsic fatalism and desperation, something which surfaces in ‘River’: ‘Whole days would go by, and later their years,/while I thought of nothing but its darkness/drifting like a bridge against the sky’; ‘sometimes in the sunlight my eyes,/walled in water, would glimpse the pathway/to the great sea. For it was there I was being borne.’ In ‘For Grace, after a Party’:

    You do not always know what I am feeling.
Last night in the warm spring air while I was
blazing my tirade against someone who doesn’t
              me, it was love for you that set me
           and isn’t it odd? for in rooms full of
strangers my most tender feelings
                                    writhe and
bear the fruit of screaming.

The campy satire of O’Hara’s ‘Personism’ is widely quoted:

You just go on your nerve … As for measure and other technical apparatus, that’s just common sense: if you’re going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you. There’s nothing metaphysical about it. Unless, of course, you flatter yourself into thinking that what you’re experiencing is ‘yearning’.

What’s less famous, though, and more revealing of O’Hara’s tenderness, is his essay written that same year, 1959: ‘About Zhivago and His Poems’. Nobody ever talks about it, embroiled as Dr Zhivago seems to be in Cold War controversy and the balalaika strings of ‘Lara’s Theme’. Zhivago is ‘one of the most original heroes in Western literature’. There are multiple lessons in it for poets who see themselves as mythological or political figureheads: ‘The poet must first be a person, his writings make him a poet, not his acting the role.’ This was Mayakovsky’s fatal error: ‘Like Strelnikov in the novel, he succumbed to a belief in the self-created rhetoric of his own dynamic function in society. That society needed him and benefited from this rhetoric is obvious.’

This principle even extends to the relation between the poet and his poems:

In the post-epilogue book of poems we find that Zhivago has not written the poems he wanted to, nor the poems we expected … In the course of creating the poems he has become not the mirror of the life we know, but the instrument of its perceptions, hitherto veiled. This is the major expression of a meaning which Pasternak has implied often in the novel proper. The human individual is the subject of historical events, not vice versa; he is the repository of life’s force.

‘Life’ is the key word here, as well as ‘conscience’: ‘To Pasternak the artist is the last repository of individual conscience, and in his terms conscience is individual perception of life.’ ‘The chair of poetry must remain empty, for poetry does not collaborate with society, but with life.’ This isn’t a ‘counter-revolutionary attitude based on an intellectual-aristocratic system’, he hastens to add. ‘The lesson comes from life.’

‘Life’: that means a series of non-logical relations, and the poem must acknowledge this reality or risk tendentiousness – while the poet risks becoming a martyr or cartoon. O’Hara ends the essay:

And if love lives at all in the cheap tempestuousness of our time, I think it can only be in the unrelenting honesty with which we face animate nature and inanimate things and the cruelty of our kind, and perceive and articulate and, like Zhivago, choose love above all else.

Life and love, that’s what O’Hara worried he was late for. In ‘Meditations in an Emergency’ he is explicit: ‘Why should I share you? Why don’t you get rid of someone else for a change?//I am the least difficult of men. All I want is boundless love.’ And then: ‘I am always looking away. Or again at something after it has given me up.’ In ‘Ode’ he scorns the idea that there may be justice in love: ‘To be equal? it’s the worst!’

O’Hara, who had renounced his bad-tempered alcoholic mother and parochial home town, never had a long-term partner. He reportedly gave up cruising in 1957, troubled by Chester Kallman’s louche example (and the toll it took on Auden). He had infatuations with his friends, both men and women, and slept with the men. Although he cast aspersions on ‘yearning’, O’Hara was a yearner – another fatal sign of Romanticism. By 1966, his friend Arnold Weinstein remembered, ‘each affair, each break-up, each disappointment in life was like a heart attack. Even though he understood it.’

O’Hara had reinvented himself in his twenties; maybe this, too, contributed to that sense of belatedness and distress in ‘To the Harbourmaster’. His repudiation wasn’t just to do with his troubled family: in fact, he had trained since childhood to be a concert pianist. O’Hara’s studies at the New England Conservatory in Boston were interrupted by navy service (he trained as a sonarman in Florida before his deployment to the Pacific); when he returned, he went to Harvard on the GI Bill, and switched to English.

‘I truly believe that Frank’s early desire and ambition to be a pianist remained with him throughout his life,’ Joe LeSueur wrote in his (ambivalent, sometimes barbed) memoir. ‘Not in any practical or realistic sense but as a dream or fantasy one stubbornly clings to, knowing all the while that what one longs for has always been out of reach, never obtainable.’ Instead, O’Hara’s musicianship migrated into the poems. The Russophilia evident in his Zhivago essay is rooted in his love of Russian composers: Tchaikovsky, Scriabin, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, above all Rachmaninov (he wrote a total of seven poems for Rachmaninov’s birthday). Schuyler, responding to some of the poems in Meditations in an Emergency, wrote jokingly to O’Hara: ‘You certainly gave away which is your heart – and homeland … when you called G. W. “Dear father of our country” and Rachmaninov “dearest father of all the Russias”. I think they had better replace all those pictures of Stalin with pictures of you.’

Music shaped not only the subject matter but the form of his poetry. Perhaps he mocks traditional craft in ‘Personism’ not because he didn’t practise his quatrains and sonnets (he wrote reams of them), but because his true formal training was in sonatas, concertos and symphonies, fantasies and divertimentos. How else to characterise his manic, comic poems except as scherzos or rondos? His odes are composed of runs and passages, not strophes. Even the name-dropping transcends itself because each name becomes a leitmotif: Jane is not a person but a theme. His vocal registers – brooding or manic, impetuous or swooning – are key signatures. In his best passages, we can’t anticipate how, or when, a sentence will end as it hopscotches over line breaks: improvisation, not fidelity, proved his chops. Could it be that the suicide in ‘Poem’, following ‘To the Harbourmaster’, is O’Hara’s musician self? There’s an ‘eager note’, a ‘hall’ with the lights on late, a ‘player’, a ‘flat’ and a ‘sheet’ – not of music, but of blood.

The apotheosis of O’Hara’s Romantic achievement are his ‘Odes’ (among which I would include ‘In Memory of My Feelings’), written in 1957 and 1958, after Meditations was assembled and sent to Grove. Nine of them were published in a limited edition by an art publisher in 1960, and it wasn’t until his Collected Poems came out in 1975 that they reached a wider audience. Meditations, however, presents O’Hara as a jaunty Harlequin, now joking, now serenading with a tear in the corner of his eye. When he says, quoting Dr Zhivago, ‘the root of beauty is audacity,’ you want to cry too; O’Hara knew what he was about, and it didn’t save him – even before that collision with the dune buggy, he had sunk into sardonicism and brittle jokes. Not to mention negronis.

Meditations ends with O’Hara coming to, as from a swoon:

Now I am quietly waiting for
the catastrophe of my personality
to seem beautiful again,
and interesting, and modern …
It may be the coldest day of
the year, what does he think of
that? I mean, what do I? And if I do,
perhaps I am myself again.

This double self: ‘he … I mean I’; ex-musician and poet; forger of the soul in New York’s combative vale of art-making – all this militates against his memeification. Memeification flattens his contradictions, casts him in a die – exactly what he objects to in the Zhivago essay. It ignores his contempt for commercialism (he vilified Warhol and Pop Art; he disdained contemporary poetry and preferred the verse of the past, and other languages). What would we do with him today if he were alive, dropping French and German into his poems, Zurbarán’s Saint Serapion, Endymion, Grieg, Pasternak?

Ashbery, on O’Hara’s death in 1966, wrote:

‘Too hip for the squares and too square for the hips’ is a category of oblivion which increasingly threatens any artist who dares to take his own way, regardless of mass public and journalistic approval. And how could it be otherwise in a supremely tribal civilisation like ours, where even artists feel compelled to band together in marauding packs, where the loyalty-oath mentality has pervaded outer Bohemia, and where Grove Press subway posters invite the lumpenproletariat to ‘join the Underground Generation’, as though this were as simple a matter as joining the Pepsi Generation, which it probably is.

Or as ‘Sleeping on the Wing’ would have it:

you must awake
and breathe your warmth in this beloved image
whether it’s dead or merely disappearing,
as space is disappearing and your singularity.

O Harlequin!

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