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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Number 10: Frank O'Hara "Today"


Oh! kangaroos, sequins, chocolate sodas!

You really are beautiful! Pearls,

harmonicas, jujubes, aspirins! all

the stuff they’ve always talked about

still makes a poem a surprise!

These things are with us every day

even on beachheads and biers. They

do have meaning. They’re strong as rocks.

--Frank O'Hara

Hap Notes: Doesn't this poem make you want to run around shouting "Frogs! Rhinestones! Cherry soda! Banjos! Licorice! O Bicycles, peaches and glitter glue!" Okay, maybe it's just me that wants to do that. I'm not quite sure why O'Hara (1926-1966) picked these things but I have a few speculations.

O'Hara's writing style, as casual as it often seems, is easy to imitate but hard to equal. While he wrote personal poems, often chronicling his days, his life, his lovers, his friends, they rarely feel so personal that you can't be a part of them as you read. Sometimes reading his poetry is like talking to him on the phone, other times it's like evesdropping as he talks in his sleep or mutters to himself. I have to admit that I did not like O'Hara's poetry when I first read it, but I have fallen hopelessly in love with it as the years pass.

I am forced to (already!) take something back that I said earlier in reference to Kenneth Koch; in O'Hara's case it actually does mean something when one says that his poetry is much like abstract expressionism is in painting. Since O'Hara knew so many painters (and wrote poems about them) in his job as a writer for Art News and as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, he comes by it naturally.

This list of stuff in the poem, which first may strike you as refreshingly strange and arbitrary, is well selected. Not only does O'Hara make us appreciate these separate things in a new way by linking them up but he plays on our connotations of the words when we see them. What was the kangaroo in your mind's eye like? Were your pearls on a strand or loose? Plastic harmonica or metal? Separate white aspirin or in a bottle? He's letting the words and you do a bit of the work.

I often imagine O'Hara paging through a magazine or walking down a busy street in New York and picking these items out of ads, from book covers, articles or store windows. He's almost writing an advertisement for the words. Words that follow us to military actions (beach heads) and funerals (biers- a bier is a stand for a coffin.)

We've already illustrated how the words have meaning- think of what you saw when you read them. They really are strong as rocks- your vision of what they are is hard to change, and the phrase is almost an advertising slogan for words. "Nouns, use them all you want- they're strong as rocks! On sale now!" We appreciate that words mean something one at a time or in a list, "hard" words or easy ones, simple things and complex. And don't forget the title- Today!

I wasn't going to use this poem right away but, once I selected it, the darn thing just jumps around like trapped grasshopper until you let it out of the box. So I had to free it early.

Here's a good quote by O'Hara: "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."

You can find more of his poetry here (although we'll see him again in the course of a year):

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