Thursday, July 14, 2011

Aimless Reading: The O's, Part 4.5 (Frank O'Hara)

O'Hara, Frank
The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara

Purchased at St. Mark's Books, probably in late 1995 or 1996. This is one of the more well-thumbed books in my library. I've read the poem, "In Memory of My Feelings" so many times that the book opens right to that poem. It isn't in the best shape any more. The cover is creased and dog-eared and the glossy coating is starting to peel away.

I remember spending several months reading through this book after I bought it. I think I've described before on this blog how O'Hara became an obsession for me, how I'd wander around the East side of Manhattan looking for the various apartment buildings in which he lived or trying to find spots represented in his poems.

I went to the Cedar Tavern. That was kind of depressing. I read all about the poets and painters hanging out there, drinking, brawling, smoking, talking all night long, and then walked in to find it was just another place where NYU students and faculty went to drink. It confirmed that feeling I always had that everything interesting about New York had already happened and that the city I lived in was just rehearsing the forms of its past glories.

Anyhow, this book is kind of overwhelming because of the sheer number of poems O'Hara wrote. It's really easy to find a poem you like and then read ten more pages and forget which poem it was or what it said. O'Hara is certainly a poet with a "greatest hits" selection, so it becomes over time more interesting to find the poems that people don't talk about as much.

For instance, I always liked this early one, titled, naturally, "Poem." I don't think I knew what a chestnut tree looked like when I first read it, so I always assumed that the "pyramids" referred to the shape of the tree and not to the shape of the flowers when the tree is blossoming. I guess I was thinking of an evergreen of some kind. We had a hundred-year old horse chestnut in front of our house Black Rock, which was where I learned about these pyramids.

I remember the chestnuts falling on the roof of our house, one after another, all night long, hitting it with hard thuds that woke us in the middle of the night. We often feared they were burglars trying to break into our house.

I think when I first read the poem, I was most attracted to the line about stamps, baseball scores, abnormal psychology. I had been sober for a few years at the time and was very attuned to my own escapist tendencies and very judgmental of these tendencies in others (and also to the human tendency towards escapism in general). At the time I read it as smugly ironic, but now I am not so sure. I mean, where would we be without these symbols of regularity to give a kind of stability to our lives? All might be in fact lost.

And then that next line, "I could tell you too much..." That one really knocked me out at the time. I guess it was that sense of shared despair and loneliness between the speaker and interlocutor. But I think it was also the construction of that relationship. The I/you or I/they construction is the basis of almost all pop song lyrics, especially those geared toward teens.

Having been weened on such, this construction probably seemed very familiar to me. It also places the speaker in a kind of romanticized control over the interlocutor. Or at least in a position of superiority - as in, I am protecting you from knowledge that will destroy us both. I possess it, but as long as I retain it, it will only harm me, the martyr, and not you. I think when I was younger this seemed to me more heroic than narcissistic. I am less sure now. I still like the line a lot, because it does suggest a kind of society of the despairing and lonely capable of sharing its despair without speaking it aloud.

Reading the line "It is a terrible thing to feel..." makes me realize who much I learned and borrowed from O'Hara about line breaks. He has a great ability to break a line at what appears to be the end of an independent clause or a complete statement, only to modify its meaning after the enjambment. I've always liked the way this particular line could be read three different ways.

1. It is a terrible thing to feel.
2. It is a terrible thing to feel, like a picnicker who has forgotten his lunch.
3. It is a terrible thing to feel like a picnicker who has forgotten his lunch.

For some reason this line always makes me think of Bob Dylan.

I am sure the theological turn at the center of the poem is what fixed my interest in it. I mean the existential declaration that we must care for our own burning tree in the absence of a god to take care of it for us. I was at the time much closer to the church, having spent eight years in catholic high school and college and another at a mission in Ecuador. These questions have always been dear to my heart, despite my own atheism.

I don't ever stop thinking about that burning tree.

I've always wondered about the equivalence between a gold mine, a dirty child and fatal abscess. What duty might we have to a gold mine we step into accidentally? And how equate that with a duty to a dirty child or the need to tend to a potentially fatal physical ailment. Nonetheless, the three of them echo powerfully at the end of the poem, forcing me to ask myself that question again.

What is my duty to that chestnut going up in flames?

Hmm...might this be an eco poem?

from The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara


If I knew why the chestnut tree
seems about to flame or die, its pyramids

aquiver, would I tell you? Perhaps not.
We must keep interested in foreign stamps,

railway schedules, baseball scores, and
abnormal psychology, or all is lost. I

could tell you too much for either of us
to bear, and I suppose you might answer

in kind. It is a terrible thing to feel
like a picnicker who has forgotten his lunch.

And everything will take care of itself,
it got along without us before. But god

did it al then! And now it's our tree
going up in flames, still blossoming, as if

it had nothing better to do! Don't we have
a duty to it, as if it were a gold mine

we fell into climbing desert mountains,
or a dirty child, or a fatal abscess.

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