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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this review to editor@pnreview.co.uk

This review is taken from PN Review 192, Volume 36 Number 4, March - April 2010.

WILLIAM W. WRIGHT Fear and Humour in Frank O’Hara’s Cold War Poetry

On 12 October 1960, Nikita Khrushchev bangs his shoe on a desk at the United Nations in New York City. The New York Times reports that Khrushchev was ‘infuriated’ by claims that the Soviet Union had swallowed up Eastern Europe, though they added that he and Andrei Gromyko were exchanging ‘smiles and winks’. The Times goes on to state that ‘a standard Communist tactic, whenever the Communists believe they cannot win in a court of law, is to destroy the prestige and sanctity of the court’.1 Khrushchev’s granddaughter, Nina Khrushcheva, offers a different reading of the event. As she puts it in a Los Angeles Times essay from 2000: ‘The shoe incident became a real symbol of the Cold War, probably the only war in which fear and humor peacefully coexisted.’2 In this essay I make the case that O’Hara, like Khrushchev, provides a kind of cold war comfort in joining the horrifying reality of potential annihilation with the humour of experience that he presents in the book Lunch Poems,, from 1964.3 In that book, O’Hara provides a charmed catalogue of the city he loves so and that could disappear in an instant, along with an affectionate invitation to see these political moments as on par with the off-hand, the immediate, and the effervescent.

This connection of Nikita Khrushchev and Frank O’Hara is, of course, a stretch. O’Hara is the New York sophisticate, Khrushchev the Soviet bumpkin, but we can see similarities, particularly in the partnership of immediacy and strategy that mark a theatrical approach to conditions and desires. Marjorie Perloff has called O’Hara a poet among painters. Like Khrushchev, he is also an actor among poets, a comedian in emergencies, exposing, exploding, and loving the conventions and conflations of life in a modern and threatened city. Perloff also argues that O’Hara is a poet concerned with the ‘present in all its chaotic splendor’.4 Khrushchev’s shoe turns the conventional occasion of a diplomatic meeting into a chaotic spectacle of humour and fear. O’Hara’s poems do similar work.

The fear in Lunch Poems5 is easy to catalogue. Much of it is the personal fear that lovers and artists feel. Here are a few examples: ‘when you are not here someone walks in / and says “hey, / there’s no dancer in that bed”’ (p. 63). ‘Close to the fear of war and the stars which have / disappeared’ (p. 1). More specifically the fear is of annihilation, the loss of place and self. In the poem ‘Three Airs’, the speaker puns on the title and wishes himself away from both city and body. The poem ends with,

but to be part of the treetops and the blueness, invisible,
the iridescent darknesses beyond,
                                                      silent, listening to
the air becoming no air becoming air again.
                                                                                 (p. 21)

Near the end of ‘For the Chinese New Year & for Bill Berkson’, the speaker claims that ‘I have often tried to say goodbye to strange fantoms I / read about in newspapers and have / always succeeded’ (p. 75) and then goes on to

catalogue what can pass or cease. In ‘How to Get There’, which was written in October 1960, the speaker is afraid of ‘lies’, ‘the ringing of telephone bells’, ‘the sound of troika bells rushing past suffering’, ‘police cordons for lying political dignitaries ringing too’, and isolation and loss of self. The poem ends:

                         never to be alone again
                                         never to be loved
sailing through space didn’t I have you once for my self?
                                               West Side?
          for a couple of hours, but I am not that person.
                                                                               (pp. 44-6)

The fear in Lunch Poems is also of the loss of a consistent self or perhaps a fear of the cowardice in the face of multiple selves. Many of the poems end in O’Hara’s waggish half faith in what we’ll call the theatrical or performative agent. ‘St. Paul and All That’ ends, ‘you never come when you say you’ll come but on the / other hand you do come’ (p. 63). ‘Adieu to Norman, Bon Jour to Joan and Jean-Paul’ ends with some wishful thinking that the world and we who people it will somehow continue:

and surely we shall not continue to be unhappy
we shall be happy
but we shall continue to be ourselves everything
                                                      continues to be possible
                                                                                  (p. 36)

The emphasis here is on enacting belief, even while recognising that belief is a guise and a performance.

The humour in Lunch Poems is often a strategic and contingent response to fears. Sometimes it’s the gallows humour of acceptance in a world almost at war, in a city almost too frantic, with a self that struggles in relation to others. In the poem ‘Song’, O’Hara makes light of the dirty city and the need to continue. Sometimes it is the incantatory humour of hope, particularly in the efficacy of signs. The first stanza of ‘Personal Poem’ celebrates the luck charms that ‘help keep me in New York against coercion / but now I’m happy for a time and interested’ (p. 32). Attention to the charms has made the magic possible, keeping O’Hara in New York and New York on the earth. Sometimes it is the celebratory humour of chance. The second of O’Hara’s ‘Five Poems’ reads:

an invitation to lunch
HOW DO YOU LIKE THAT?
when I only have 16 cents and 2
packages of yoghurt there’s a lesson in that isn’t there
like in Chinese poetry when a leaf falls?
hold off on the yoghurt till the very
last, when everything may improve
                                                                             (p. 49)


Poetry, both Chinese and New York, enacts the lucky chance.

Immediacy and juxtaposition are both a sensibility and a strategy in O’Hara’s poetry, and he argues for them fiercely and ridiculously in the facetious manifesto ‘Personism’. Here are two quotations to illustrate:

You just go on your nerve. If someone’s chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don’t turn around and shout, ‘Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep.’

[and]

[Personism] puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style, and the poem is correspondingly gratified. The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages.6

I want to look more closely at this joining of fear and humour by examining two pairs of poems from O’Hara’s book. The first two poems are about steps. The second two, both entitled ‘Poem’, are about celebrities. In ‘A Step Away from Them’, O’Hara presents lunch as elegy in a do this/do that poem that documents his noontime walk to Times Square and back. At 12:40 ‘Everything / suddenly honks’ and the speaker shifts into a reverie on an Italian actress, his dead friends and artists, and the impermanence of life. The poem then shifts to the third person and celebrates the mundane and the temporary. In ‘Steps’, O’Hara presents an observational poem as love-letter to the city. It begins ‘How funny you are today New York’, and explains away problems as just evidence of desire:

even the traffic halt so thick is a way
for people to rub up against each other (ll. 9-10)

The poem’s surrealistic and camp moments leaven the otherwise sentimental claims.

Where the poem ‘A Step Away from Them’ recognises and even celebrates the distances between the quick and the dead, ‘Steps’ seeks to both establish and invent the connections between objects, strangers, and lovers.

The two celebrity poems make a similar distinction and connection between the speaker and others, in this case, Khrushchev and Lana Turner. The Turner poem, which begins with the headline that will be quoted in caps eleven lines later, ‘Lana Turner has collapsed!’, moves through a disagreement over the weather between the speaker and the friend or lover he is hurrying to meet, contrasts New York, where one might be expected to fall on the ice, with Cali fornia, where one wouldn’t, compares the speaker’s actions to Turner’s, and then creates a chorus of concerned agents in the concluding line: ‘oh Lana Turner we love you get up’. The fear here is facetious and the humour is aggressive. The speaker’s concern on first seeing the headline is more with how the traffic and snow might cause his collapse than with sympathy for Turner. And yet the tone is affectionate and the effect is one of comfort to the speaker who can confess his own ‘disgraceful’ behaviour, to the impatient friend/ lover who will receive an explanation for the speaker’s tardiness, and to the more universal ‘we’ who are invited to share the speaker’s earnest and humorous fear and concern.

The Khrushchev poem is more of a love letter to the city of New York, but it shares a similar organisation, moving from the direct first line, ‘Khrushchev is coming on the right day!’ to a discussion of the weather, to a contrast between subject and speaker, and finally to a conclusion that evokes connection and community. What makes this day auspicious for the speaker is both the lovely weather that shows the city in its best light and the presence, at least in the mind of the speaker, of politesse, which the speaker admits that the United States does not usually have. What fear the speaker might have that Khrushchev will be offended has blown away in the wind, and instead the speaker hopes that Khrushchev will see in New York’s September light some of the joy that the speaker finds. The poem concludes:

as the train bears Khrushchev on to Pennsylvania Station
           and the light seems to be eternal
and joy seems to be inexorable
I am foolish enough always to find it in wind (p. 29)

The ‘it’ in that last line seems to refer to the condition of light and joy, a comfort to our cold-war fears of impermanence and annihilation, but it could as easily be the comic necktie that blows up the street in the previous lines. This is a regular feature of O’Hara’s poetry, where ambiguity serves to join fear and humour together.

I want to conclude with a discussion of that connection by returning to O’Hara’s manifesto, specifically his claim that personism ‘puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style’. O’Hara is banging his shoe on the desk, here, but he is also making a case for the present and temporary effects and uses of poetry in a fragile, frightening, and hilarious world. O’Hara saves his metaphors for his prose, and the metaphor here is sex. ‘Lucky Pierre’ is slang for the middle participant in a sex threesome. The first agent is the writer, the second the poem, but the third can be the reader, the subject of the poem, or any of the many dropped names and later readers. The act of a poem joins the three agents together in a temporary, ridiculous, and sublime moment of intimacy. In a comment on the Khrushchev poem, Lytle Shaw says, ‘what is at stake in the poem’s self-consciously impossible personalisation of politics is not the competition of ideologies but a subject’s contingent experience of Manhattan’.7 I am no expert on sex, but it is indeed a contingent act involving chance, discovery, and presence. In reading the poem, we don’t discover information or competing ideologies but rather we experience action. In this way, O’Hara’s poems are something like the action painting he championed and something like what other readers have found in his work: what Marjorie Perloff calls O’Hara’s ‘aesthetic of presence rather than transcendence’,8 what Brian Glavey sees as ‘the poet standing still and walking in New York’,9 and what Michael Magee has called, quoting from Paul Goodman, ‘the ‘attractive and repulsive tampering of the artist and the audience with each other’,10 and what we might call the fierce and tenuous present.

The Cold War is also a series of contingent acts and reactions, and our responses to it engage us in the tenuous present of fear and humour. O’Hara’s poems are theatrical in their focus on that contemplation as a present action. In a statement on his publication in Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry, O’Hara says this:

It may be that poetry makes life’s nebulous events tangible to me and restores their detail; or conversely, that poetry brings forth the intangible quality of incidents which are all too concrete and circumstantial. Or each on specific occasions, or both all the time.11

O’Hara is not only being coy here but capturing the effect and process of his poems in their concentration on the immediate, the effervescent, and the contingent. Both all the time is as good a place to stop as any. O’Hara’s poems play the part of Lucky Pierre in the negotiation between fear and humour, and surrealism and sentimentality, in an optimistic and fatalistic cold-war America. As readers of those poems in a Cold War context, we play the part of Lucky Pierre between Khrushchev’s theatrical brinksmanship and O’Hara’s strategic frivolity.

Notes

  1. ‘Khrushchev Bangs His Shoe on Desk’, The New York Times, 13 October 1960, p. 14.

  2. Nina Khrushcheva, ‘A Watch, a Shoe and a Cold War Tale’, Los Angeles Times, 7 September 2000, p. 11.

  3. Lunch Poems was published in 1964 and has poems dated from 1953 to 1964.

  4. Marjorie Perloff, Frank O’Hara: Poet among Painters (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998 [1977]), p. 21.

  5. All quotations are from Frank O’Hara, Lunch Poems (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1964). Subsequent quotations will be cited in parentheses.

  6. ‘Personism’, from The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995 [1971]), pp. 498-99.

  7. Lytle Shaw, Frank O’Hara: The Poetics of Coterie (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2006), p. 25.

  8. Perloff, Frank O’Hara: Poet among Painters, p. 24.

  9. Brian Glavey, ‘Frank O’Hara Nude with Boots: Queer Ekphrasis and the Statuesque Poet’, American Literature 79.4 (December 2007), p. 788.

  10. Paul Goodman, ‘Advanced Guard Writing’, quoted in Michael Magee, ‘Tribes of New York: Frank O’Hara, Amiri Baraka, and the Poetics of the Five Spot’, Contemporary Literature 62.4 (2001), p. 699.

  11. Frank O’Hara, The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, p. 500.


This review is taken from PN Review 192, Volume 36 Number 4, March - April 2010.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this review to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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