Karen Solie writes about a major inspiration
I was working toward my undergraduate degree in English at the University of Lethbridge when I first read Frank O’Hara. Lethbridge is a small city in southern Alberta. When I lived there 20 years ago it was a bible-belt town, largely white, its industry based in feedlots and packing plants, oil and gas, farm machinery dealerships, automotive and big box retail. I don’t imagine much has changed.
But during my tenure an art and music scene also thrived, and my social circle included artists of many stripes, some of whom were beginning to write. I was taking tentative stabs at it myself, and had just started reading poetry. Much of it was due to the modern poetry course in which I had enroled. The professor, who wrote poems himself, would read aloud work by Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Auden, Stevens, Plath, cummings, look out at us over his bifocals and put forth a question that was, for him and perhaps two or three of us, rhetorical: “Well? Don’t you wish you could do that”? Indeed. The possibility seemed likely as telekinesis.
Outside of coursework, however, my friends and I were also reading Canadians such as Al Purdy, P K Page, Patrick Lane, Alden Nowlan, Gwendolyn McEwan, Milton Acorn, Lorna Crozier, and recognizing ourselves in their poems. Elements of a Canadian syntax and vernacular, some of our landscapes, our histories, our crappy jobs, our drinking habits. Even though we were all southern prairie kids, and some of these Canadians were from the mythical realms of central and eastern Canada, we could extrapolate. And because we identified with these poems, they felt of a different order somehow than the sophisticated, high cultural, universally acknowledged and thus significant poems I was reading in school. When Frank O’Hara’s Selected Poems fell into my hands, it helped to simultaneously broaden and sharpen my recognition of what poetry is, and of how one might go about writing it. He is among the poets who inspired my first efforts, and now that I’ve begun to do quite a bit of teaching, one of those who influences how I discuss the possibilities of a poem with my students.
I was a farm kid. I grew up in southwest Saskatchewan. Prairie dryland farming country. My parents, brother and sister-in-law still farm the homestead my Dad’s parents made when they emigrated from Norway. The nearest city, Medicine Hat, is an hour’s drive west, over the Alberta border. Its population is about 57,000. The nearest Saskatchewan city, Swift Current, is two hours southeast and home to roughly a quarter of that. I went to school in a village of 150 people. There were eight of us in my high school graduating class.
For me, what Frank O’Hara represented initially was the cosmopolitan. That he was gay was not nearly as exotic as that he’d lived in New York City. I knew gay and lesbian people in Lethbridge. I knew people who wrote. But I didn’t know anyone who’d ever lived in New York City. As I learned more about the work of some of O’Hara’s friends and associates – Edward Gorey, Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns, and the writers of the so-called New York School of poetry: John Ashbery, James Schuyler, Barbara Guest, Kenneth Koch (Ashbery has written that the New York School designation “isn’t helpful”1) – I felt myself, via the weird time travel art offers, in the presence of something new, young, modern even after 25 years. O’Hara’s poems were startlingly immediate. Whether anxious, celebratory, elegiac, or all three at once, as in A Step Away From Them, they were something that happened to you, not an account of something happening to someone else:
Neon in daylight is a
great pleasure, as Edwin Denby would
write, as are light bulbs in daylight.
I stop for a cheeseburger at JULIET’S
CORNER. Giulietta Masina, wife of
Federico Fellini, e bell ‘attrice.
And chocolate malted. A lady in
foxes on such a day puts her poodle
in a cab.
There are several Puerto
Ricans on the avenue today, which
makes it beautiful and warm. First
Bunny died, then John Latouche,
then Jackson Pollack. But is the
earth as full as life was full, of them?
There was a fair bit of romance in my initial encounter with O’Hara’s work. But as happens when one’s reading life tips over into a writing life, the effect the poems had on me was accompanied by thinking about what he was doing, how he was doing it, and then, inevitably, whether I could do something like that too, something that good.
And it was rather mystifying. What was O’Hara doing? His poems are conversational, they wander, are colloquial, mapped in asides and expressions and idiosyncratic flourishes. His cosmopolitanism is in fact very local, personal, filled with names of friends, neighbourhood places, the trivia of an individual routine. “The life of the city and of the millions of relationships that go to make it up hums through his poetry; a scent of garbage, patchouli and carbon monoxide drifts across it,” writes Ashbery in his introduction to the Collected Poems.2 He points out also that the work is “almost exclusively autobiographical.” Why were these poems – written by an artist in New York City in the 1950s and 60s, a gay man, an intellectual, someone who died accidentally at 40 in July 1966, the year and month I was born – speaking directly to me, to my experience? That he subsisted, as I did in those days, almost entirely on coffee, cigarettes, and cocktails didn’t seem terribly substantial common ground. Nevertheless, in the poem Steps, for example, I was not only with him in the poem’s final stanza:
oh god it’s wonderful
to get out of bed
and drink too much coffee
and smoke too many cigarettes
and love you so much
I was with him here:
where’s Lana Turner
she’s out eating
and Garbo’s backstage at the Met
everyone’s taking their coat off
so they can show a rib-cage to the rib-watchers
and the park’s full of dancers with their tights and shoes
in little bags
who are often mistaken for worker-outers at the West Side Y
the Pittsburgh Pirates shout because they won
and in a sense we’re all winning
And I came to realize that the power of detail does not lie solely in what the particular details are, but also in that they are details. They spoke to my experience of the particular, how it triggers and resonates, shines with the significance of a moment. I suspected I could write my own. That they might act likewise. That, however mundane, pedestrian, provincial, hickish they seemed to me, the highways and farm machinery and gravel roads and coyotes that populated my landscape could be made to signify, and sing. Not that I could do it, necessarily, but that it could be done.
Majorie Perloff characterizes this alchemy by way of Fred Orton’s formulation of the metonymic processes of reduction, expansion and association: “(Metonymy) represents not the object or thing or event or feeling which is its referent but that which is tied to it by contingent or associative transfers of meaning.”3 Or, as O’Hara said, “You just go on your nerve.”4 Nerve in the sense of the courage to persist, the steeling oneself, the gaze, but also the nervous energy that keeps the eye moving, and the mind. That attends to the physical detail of the world, and to the subtle movements of thinking and feeling. Perloff has called O’Hara’s “special signature,” his “aesthetic of attention.”5 It’s a philosophy that animates my writing life.
O’Hara’s poems and their “aesthetic of attention” were among those that made me think about what landscape means. Landscape figures largely in many of my poems, some of which are written out of the landscape of rural Saskatchewan, some from the cities in which I’ve lived, and some on the roads
in between. There has been, and still is, I think, an idea in Canadian writing that landscape is what goes on outside the cities. In wilderness, preferably, but in any case someplace rural. That corresponds to a notion of the “natural” world. But cities also constitute landscapes. In their histories, physical and cultural characters and landmarks, the routines of their work, they shape identities. Experiences and identities no more or less “authentic” than those lived by country people. The city, like the country, is to the people whose histories are rooted there
the site of triumph, trauma, variants of nostalgia – the elementary pharmakon, both cure and poison.
As attention is the cure and the poison. As, arguably, writing is. This is from Meditations In An Emergency
I am the least difficult of men. All I want is
Even trees understand me! Good heavens, I lie
under them, too, don’t I? I’m just like a pile of
However, I have never clogged myself with the
praises of pastoral life, not with nostalgia for an
innocent past of perverted acts in pastures. No.
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. It is
more important to affirm the least sincere; the
clouds get enough attention as it is and even they
continue to pass. Do they know what they’re
missing? Uh huh.
My eyes are vague blue, like the sky, and change
all the time; they are indiscriminate but fleeting,
entirely specific and disloyal, so that no one
trusts me. I am always looking away. Or again
at something after it has given me up.
It makes me restless and that makes me unhappy,
but I cannot keep them still. If only I had grey, green,
black, brown, yellow eyes; I would stay at home
and do something. It’s not that I’m curious. On
the contrary, I am bored but it’s my duty to be
attentive, I am needed by things as the sky must
be above the earth. And lately, so great has their
anxiety become, I can spare myself little sleep.
O’Hara’s lines reflect, as good poems’ do, not only what is thought, but how. They enact a mode of thinking and a writing that feels spontaneous. That generates, in Perloff ’s words his “casual, improvisatory, nonmetrical, and generally nonstanzaic ‘I do this, I do that’ pieces, pieces that hardly seemed to qualify as poems at all.”6 I don’t know that they appear as casual, improvisatory, nonmetrical, and generally nonstanzaic now as they once did. It’s like trying to write a great Hank Williams song. Three chords, a few simple declarations, verse chorus verse chorus chorus. How hard could it be? Now, try to do it.
O’Hara’s best poems marry a remarkable ear, one that seems instinctual, with a fine performer’s control and an eclectic formal intuition. As I blundered around inside the question of what poetry even is, I read in O’Hara’s poems that there was no one prescribed way to do anything. No line length that would reliably convey anxiety, no stanza structure and arrangement designated for tenderness, no syntax of mourning. Sometimes, as in a line from Joe’s Jacket, the poems are “the feeling of life and incident pouring over the sleeping city.” Sometimes they are the eye turned inward, contemplative, a wry humour and vulnerability in their phrasings. As in the first lines of In Memory of My Feelings:
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,
so many pistols I have borrowed to protect myselves
from creatures who too readily recognize my weapons.
and have murder in their heart!
There is no sure-fire way to create a poem that happens on the page, only infinite selves, weapons, creatures, stars, numerals. Infinite poisons and cures. Not, however, infinite years.
This continues to mystify me, as much as it causes my students to curse me when I tell them it’s the case. All I can offer is that paying attention to detail also means attending to the turns your unique brain takes, the idiosyncratic hairpin associations, those individual, cultural, situational quirks of syntax and observation. It’s where, as in O’Hara’s work, some of the most perversely accurate, joyfully and terrifyingly immediate detail emerges, the most revelatory of mood and implication. It’s where the nerve is. It’s where the risk is. Like the last line of Meditations
in an Emergency: “Turning, I spit in the lock and the knob turns.” Or in Essay on Style: “where do you think I’ve / got to? the spectacle of a grown man / decorating / a Christmas tree disgusts me that’s / where.” Or from Steps: all I want is a room up there / and you in it / and even the traffic halt so thick is a way / for people to rub up against each other / and when their surgical appliances lock / they stay together / for the rest of the day (what a day).” Without risk, there is no art. In fact, there’s not really much of anything.
Mark Ford writes in his introduction to the Selected Poems that “O’Hara disliked and distrusted theories of poetry but was in no way naive about his own procedures, which result, in his best work, in a style of writing that somehow manages to fuse immediacy and excitement with a glamorous hyper- sophistication and extreme self-consciousness.”7 (Clearly, you can’t write a line like “a lady in / foxes on such a day puts her poodle / in a cab” withoutknowing what you’re doing.) As Ashbery notes, though the poems are autobiographical, “there is little that is confessional” about them.8 O’Hara, he says, “does not linger over aspects of himself hoping that his self-absorption will make them seem exemplary.” The strange distance that must be opened between the poet and the poem is difficult to achieve. It is risky in this sense. And also in this one: although this distance is necessary to creating a first-hand experience for the reader, all the loneliness of our separateness is inside it.
Recalling how wondrous it seemed that I identified so strongly with O’Hara’s poems, it’s this paradox I think of. The poems’ boundless interest in others is extended to the self, yet this self-interest is undercut with a suspicion of what the self thinks it knows, and is. He writes with a compassion articulated in the tension between the solitary and the social, and this is one of the reasons I look to him still. I envy readers and writers to whom the poems are happening for the first time. They are among those that helped to seed in me the first inklings of a question that Ashbery poses: “can art do this? Is this really happening?”9 A question that echoes through the halls of O’Hara’s poems. As a writer, once one hears it, it only grows more insistent. As does the realization that the only answer is to summon the nerve to pose the question again and again.
1. Included in John Ashbery: Selected Prose. Eugene Richie, ed. University of Michigan Press, 2004. p.133
3. Orton is discussing the painting technique of Jasper Johns. Perloff quotes him in a good analogy to O’Hara’s writing in her “Introduction” to Frank O’Hara: Poet among Painters. U of Chicago Press, 1997. It is available online at http://epc.buffalo. edu/authors/perloff/ohara.html
4. “Personism: A Manifesto.” The Selected Poems of Frank O’Hara. Donald Allen, ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1974. p.xiii.
5. “Introduction.” Frank O’Hara: Poet among Painters.
7. “Introduction.” Frank O’Hara: Selected Poems. New York: Knopf,2008. pp.xi–xviii.
8. Selected Prose, 133.
9. “Writers and Issues: Frank O’Hara’s Question.” Selected Prose, 83.