Frank O’Hara, Collected Poems
(Berkeley, Cal.: University of California Press, 1995)
Close Readings and annotations of every poem in the collection September 1997 in preparation for In the Process of Poetry: The New York School and the Avant-Garde (Bucknell UP, 2001)
Frank O’Hara “Ode on Causality”, 302-3
· originally an ode of Jackson Pollock, the relation of Pollock’s aesthetic practice to causality rather than to symbolism is key here, naturally the all-over drip technique Pollock pioneered was essentially a casual form if causal is to be conceived of as a concatenated ongoing process, the postmodern teleology without telos, but also if it is to be thought of in metonymical terms as a practice based on contiguity and causal links which is essentially the aesthetics of Personism in general, of closeness and attention. The poem was originally entitled “”Elegy on Causality (in the Five Spot Cafe)” which links it up with “The Day Lady...”, and also suggests that the final causality is death through death relates in a highly problematic manner as it is essentially the removal of the metonymic link between subjects which is the basis of the process of desire which is the over-looked importance of the Gaze and the hand-eye metonym.
· section 1: deals in the way the text is marked with the conception of line by line causality undermined by each line being a stanza and yet emphasised by the use of capitalisation and the sequential moments between each line which are of varying force. The neurotic coherence is the source of all subject coherence that is subjectivised coherence based on the narcissistic selfishness of desire, but it also relates directly to the process of seeing a Pollock, of the sense that it does all make sense but that the sense it makes itself does not, make sense that is but also simply does not. The veining is a complex tropic node as its refers to the issues of sculpture, the permanency of marble, Pollock’s veiny painting, the circulatory system of the body/poem, the penis when erect, systematic metaphors in general, the lines of the poem, blood and death.
· the homiletic fourth line is itself a kind of closed causal system whose originator if Lautréamont, and is picked up later on in the poem when he says, “not much to be less, not much to be more”, the grass as always if Whitman, followed later by the red truck of Williams.
· section 2: moves more directly into the aleatory zone with the story of Maude, Pollock’s child, denying the basic metonymy of the grave, which is dealt with I the third stanza here, thus Pollock’s causal presence which should be topographically reproduced in the allegory of the grave being down there, his fall, is denied in favour of metaphors of conflagration which allow him to live on the symbolism opted for by Maude, ““he isn’t under there, he’s out in the woods” beyond”. The wagon is an interesting coincidence as it relates to metaphor in Ashbery and his use of van, and the hand in hand which is the basic proposition of metonymy, is here stressed before the symbolic, metaphoric is resorted to.
· the second stanza directly links up the child’s ignorance of the allegorical truth of mortality, cf. Benjamin, with O'Hara’s desire to emulate the father’s lines which here are sexualised by the swelling of the snake, and of course intertextualised. The final exhortation not to watch over (metaphoric topography of height) but to read, metonymic process is key also.
· the third stanza calls for the death beyond the transition from the metaphoric to the metonymic, but wasn’t being-in-death always ultimately a metonymic relation which would make mourning the process of the transference of tropic investment from the metonym to the metaphor i.e. to get carried away literally on the part of the lost-beloved. the hand-eye still predominates with the hand being the earthy, sexualised process of desire and the eye the more ethereal and air bound aspect of the Gaze. The final image of the face as a changing map is followed by a neo-Kantian sense of the necessity therefore to be brought in the mathematical realm of allegorical death at all, but to be retained as kings are in the symbolic realm.
· section 3-4: leaves the interesting realm of the grave itself and moves into a literary/mythological realm of Romance etc. The consideration of the lay and its relation to getting laid is cute, as is the description of this process, “romanticized, elaborated, fucked, sung, put to “rest””, being the basic process of desire as such, this would make a good section heading I think or even of the whole piece. The spleen is Baudelaire but “love’s love’s near” adds the homiletic into the discourse of proximity crucial to the operations of desire.
· section 5: the poise of the first line is the poise of being, of causality of death and so on, it is the strict economy of desire I guess, but also ties into the homiletic. Its drop down partner also falls into this economy of homily and summary, this time being summary which dominates this section of cyclical, clichéd causality. This is the causality of city living which is the new pastoral realm of allegory, note here again the pastoral city-scape seems key, thus “standing still and walking in new york” is the movement of the allegorical topography of the city, then we are taken to walk in the forest which is the mythical, pre-pastoral realm of the symbolic dead.
· the final images are a mixing of the sexuality of previous sections, with the sculpture and the sense of Pollock’s death into beyond-ness.
· this is a key poem for addressing all the issues of O'Hara’s imagery and his favouring of metonymy over metaphor and so on re: Smith.
Frank O’Hara “Ode to the French Negro Poets”, 305
· this is a companion piece to the stuff on Ashbery and “Europe”, the poem begins with a sense of Whitman’s influence reaching over the water to Europe, which following from the spatial issues of “Ode on Causality” extends the basic articulating gap beyond in geographical terms, there are many aspects of Ashbery’s aesthetic here with the climate issue and the stress of the western.
· the poem then goes on to deal in a direct fashion, the issues of homosexuality in America at the time which Ashbery only hints at. The central section is in tune with “Homosexuality”.
· it is final stanza is again a key trope in that it equates Personism with homosexuality, this line is a key description of Personism and again would from a good opening quote.
Frank O’Hara “The “Unfinished””
· again an elegy, the initial concept of the unfinished is the unfinished relationship and life of Bunny Lang, but the poem is in no ostensible way about her but is about current relationships and their coming to an end but never quite, it raises the question as to what is finished in relationship terms so that the poem ends with the “PUT TO GETHER”, not only asking the reader to put the different parts of the poem back together, but also stressing the separation inherent in togetherness.
· the poem deals with the comparison of disaster and the personal, of the unfinished nature of the past, of not finishing art as a form of accomplishment, of the unfinished nature of day to day urban existence and the role of friends such as Ashes in finishing things off for us, of textual unfinishedness with the self-conscious digression whose intertextual reference to “Oranges” suggests no work is ever finished.
· the conclusion ends with the hunted, often missed Gregory (a continually present absence) being caught up with at last only to be lost again though by coincidence, oranges, a suggestion of connection is allowed for.
· this is key in a sense that it is itself unfinished in its consideration of not finished, and the lack of finish in all its conceptions is a key aspect to New York School poetics, especially in aleatory poetry for the “I do this” can have no ends as a poetic except the poet’s death which is the natural and dangerous conclusion of all action art of this period which further stresses the import then of Pollock’s timely/untimely death.
Frank O’Hara “Rhapsody”, 325-6
· see the critics for the racial elements of the poem, of interest in terms of tropic coherence is the way in which he is using a quality of his immediate surroundings, the city, as jumping off point thus the contiguity of the cityscape is source of trope here with the use of height, streets, elevator cables, needles, racial mix. The you here is both superfluous and essential as without the beloved the city lacks its essential topographic power thus here the “you” is significant merely because it has spent little or no time on Madison Ave..
· the up and down stuff is increasingly clichéd, is this the limits of my or generally a tropic reading?
· the final couplet is useful both to his sense of historical possession, against his will, and also because of his sense of predestination which turned out to be true after all.
Frank O’Hara “Adieu to Norman, Bon Jour to Joan and Jean-Paul”, 328-9
· the provenance of this poem will fit in generally with the section on process for which O'Hara is very useful as there is a large amount of material pertaining to that. Thus the opening has a powerful immediacy by bringing the reader into the very centre of compositional risk that is will this be at all. This is something no one ever talks about so I need to raise this stridently as one of the charges of aleatory poetry in general which is the risk of the throw of the dice.
· note the title, the articulation of bonjour matches the doubleness of the two people being greeted and the hyphenation of Jean-Paul, remember this propensity towards monosyllables is a feature of his earlier work also.
· the discourse on continuing is key, again a good section heading, notes again the titular proscription here which suggests itself the continuation of greetings and farewells, and that the earlier line about making a distinction matches the way he has made distinctions syllabically.
· the conclusion on Reverdy’s yes should be a conclusion as yes: yes always is, and here he concedes the beauty of it but his lack of belief has the last word and the process is arrested only artificially then.
Frank O’Hara “Joe’s Jacket”, 329
· a more traditional synecdoche, here he takes the jacket as standing in for Joe, thus the jacket is not symbolic as there is little except that jackets envelop, to suggests a thought link.
· the poem begins in that strange French tense en train de, the poem is a continuous journey and series of meetings through which the poet’s sorrow is always offput by various strategies, conversation, drink, art, talking with Joe and finally the jacket.
· the conclusion deals with the role of symbol and his dislike of it, symbol here being perhaps the jacket which protects the self against its own plenitudes, he hates it but it helps him to survive also, the last line is wonderfully enigmatic but can easily be tied into the process of desire which is not one of needs or wants.
Frank O’Hara “Naphtha”, 337-8
· the poem should again fit in with the transatlantic tendencies of the poets which has a number of important resonances:
-recalls Ashbery exile
-relates to homosexuality
-obvious resonances with avant-garde in general
-resituates New York as kind of the new European capital
· the opening image here then of the central futurist symbol, the Eiffel tower, and that other key symbol of avant-garde modernity, war or in this case militarism, then is transposed into the American equivalent which is the role of the aboriginal peoples of the States and the immigrants, between these two fits the milieu of O'Hara which he concedes contributes little much really.
Frank O’Hara “Poem (Krushchev is Coming on the Right Day!)”, 340
· in a sense a companion piece to “Naphtha”, here the arrival of Krushchev is the metonymic possibility of post-war mixing of nations and continents in this fashion, note the reference to Sweden, Puerto Rico, various foreign names. Yet, like “Naphtha” it is also a poem in celebrations of New York as the ultimate European city that is a city in the European vein of Symbolist and Surrealist conceptions of its role a location of absolute possibility of encounters with the real.
· the city then is increasingly a vital trope here of the place where the poet can be, exist, of the new urban pastoral.
Frank O’Hara “Variations on the “Tree of Heaven””
· based on a painting this piece is a basic allegory for all the issues I am trying to convey here.
· the self-enunciation of the artist in Albers scratching of an “A” on his work.
· the lack of context for being revealed by light, the gaze, of the sun
· the association of the city with the pastoral world
· ascension associated with the process of being with the beloved
Frank O’Hara “Hôtel Transylvanie”, 350-1
· originally an ode, the interaction with love, the game and death is interesting as the game recalls the throw of the dice of course and the concept of winning is added into this as one cannot win or lose at desire or rather on must do both in the case here of separation for if the poet wins then the rue nature of desire which is to know the other by knowing one does not know them, will be denied the poet, yet is he loses he dies but the advantage is then that the beloved will at this point either truly love him in which case he becomes the other as he himself is the lost beloved, or the other gets consoled by another in which case the other will never have been truly loved by O'Hara himself.
· into this confusing, because desire knows no resolution, discourse the hotel features both as anonymous locale for love, which is a highly Ashbery concept, the place of the vampirism of love and of the poet in relation to others who continue to feed on the poet knowing he is dead already, and finally the traditional locale of suicide for love. This makes it a triplex trope.
· note here the explicit use of terms live, the other, accident, breath, the sublime, wanting, substitute.
Frank O’Hara “Present”, 352-3
· again, topography is key, here loves has come out of the closeted spaces of the hotel and into the cityscape of New York in winter. Here, the poem opens then in a particular allegorical landscape of valleys, stranded gaps, the symbols of networks, communication but also distance for just as the neon highlights the dark, so communication highlights distance. Note here the double use of new, neon in daylight in “A Step Away”, and neon in darkness here.
· the central discourse is a wonderful reconsideration of the poet as exterior and the lover as other in relation to the city as the place for encounters with the real for here the real turns out to be a presage to the automaton of an already arranged later meeting thus instead of finding the tuché through the automaton here it is the automatic aspect of the real which is considered. Again we have networks, Union Square, searchlights in the sky, muddy footprints.
· the city then does not push each other away and so is the natural habitat of lovers for it facilitates the chance encounter from which love is created.
· the use of the snow flake here is beautiful and simple, is being a basic trope of Personism as that which is conveyed across the gap.
· thus there is a dynamic created between the heavenly forces of the poem which seem to be eternal but incredibly distant and ancient, and the urban forces which create networks for communication.
Frank O’Hara “Ode to Tanaquil Leclerq”, 363-4
· the poem is useful for its articulation in quatradic feet of the process of the metonymical association of desire with the hand/eye. The poem opens then with a discourse on staring on “your wide eyes / stare” immediately relating the power of the stare to that of childhood lost, then the next line drops through a kind of reconstitution of the body synechdochically, reforming the body categorically through the aspects only that matter, the eyes begin metaphorically as sunsets, presumably they are closing, then we drop down in a semi-eroticised fashion, through the knees, wrists to two minds.
· what follows is a central trop of two hearts bound together which recalls ancient Greece partially because of reference to the city state and dialogues, and perhaps partly because it is a homosexual love.
· into this tropic generator is then introduced the Mallarméan trope of the wing, cf. “Sleeping on the Wing”, and the eye as a window only metonymically because it “gives” out onto something.
· the final image is of breathing as being, thus the whole gamut of the tropic activity in the poem relates to central allegory of desire.
Frank O’Hara “Ballad”, 367-368
· a discourse on that-ness, the that is of course the enunciated I/it in that within the distancing gaze of the other that is what we become, that or they, the one over there, it is also part of the vocabulary of metonymy “in that”, and also of parataxis.
· the poem then moves directly into the realm of love lost, again the articulation allowed for by that, “why it is that” and also the self become that: “that makes you a that too”.
· the trope of self as air that could be breathed is essentially the predicament of the breath/expressive poet who places him or her, through inevitably it is a patriarchal position, in a superposition wherein they are able to “hear” themselves.
· the whole final section seems worthy of quoting full containing as it does the self as other, the role of getting to know one another in making oneself other, the transplanting of the palm, again the hand, which is also a transplantation of the issues in metaphoric fashion, the idea of love as tampering and its relation to childhood.
the conclusion is one of hope in that the ferry like the self can change its total identity to get somewhere if it wants to, and that the middle portion of loving if you like which is its presentness, is perfect.
Frank O’Hara “For the Chinese New Year & for Bill Berkson”, 389-393
· the title leads into the questions and problems the poem raises for Chinese New Year is a completely different conception of time to our own, it also raises issues of futurity and this of course will always relate to the past, which the poem does. Finally the initials of New Year are equal to New York and in this sense New York is the New Year of culture and yet when the poem was written America was in Korea and the poem is full of hatred towards war and the demands of the state. All this is situated within an ongoing catalogue of New York up-town life mixed with down-town I guess, and the continuous metonymical motifs of the face, occasional references to breathing also.
· the stanzas are all five lines, of varying length, and the piece is divided into three sections though I am not sure they are semantically divided in this manner.
1. the narrative of the face which is paternal I think, “Daddy”, literally his father but also the state
2. directly relates to America at that time, and is essentially a critique
3. a synthesis of the political and temporal issues, combined with a discourse on self and depth of or lack of it.
· section 1: the role of the face within the agencies of desire is now clear to me and the reference of the face to the sun and also to those in the background of the metropolis becoming Daddy later on is all fairly easy to ascertain. It is distributed throughout along with endless reference to different time zones and processes. Two useful tropes here are the hurricane whose still centre becomes the eye of the needle for the rich man which is of course a critique of power and possessions, and also the smile at which we do not stare back, which is repeated here twice. This floating head behind the city then is a force of enigma and yet utterly familiar also.
· section 2: the opening two lines sound like a typical New York parade which of course there would be on Chinese New Year, here however reduced to the rational lines of the New York grid system and the schmaltz of American showbusiness.
· stanza 2: pretty famous, daddy is referred to for the first time and represents the drama of patricide Derrida deals with in detail in Plato’s Pharmacy. A pretty good stanza for his relation to their status as the neo-avant-garde.
· stanza 4; the use of language here as merely papier mache, reference to forgery also in the poem, is a significant refection of writing in favour of speech which predominates in O'Hara through the metonymic trope of breathing, it then becomes transposed into a form of clothing which ties in nicely with “Joe’s Jacket”.
· section 3: opens with a pan-nationality common in his work and an aspect of his interest in Mayakovsky especially.
· stanza 3: this is becoming a kind of a relaxed “HOWL” as here he is talking directly about the beat generation I would say and the burgeoning alternative cultures relating directly to the war.
· stanza 5-8: here the poetic self is attempting integration into current American society, it ends with w rejection of self as depth and is a key phrase re: scrutiny of experience for this is essentially what the subjective poet should do but here he debunks it by removing his heart from his sleeve and instead placing soup there.
· the poem’s conclusion is also famous, rejecting the rationality and certainty on feels with the movement from year to year, he rejects this historical paradigm which he correctly ties into the idea of rationality generally, the final line is ambiguous for the rejection of history is equal to a liberation into the present and yet it also means a loss of the past and the insecurity of not knowing.
· the poem then is highly political in the way that Ashbery also is political that is in a cultural materialist way of dealing with the poetic subject as the place where the subject comes to know what politics, history and nationhood are in such a way that they are not just known, understood and accepted but where they are transformed by being within poetic process itself thus here time (New Year) becomes place (New York) becomes nation (America) becomes self. In this way the self does not help us to understand context nor context place the self but the self and context are placed in a deconstructive relationship which the event of poetic language is here mediating.
Frank O’Hara “Essay on Style”, 393-4
· a sister piece to why I am not a painter the poem deals with several aspects of the New York School style but in no explicit way rather the process of writing ties in the process of writing about writing and yet also not and knowing that this is also part of it.
· the poem starts just as why I am not a painter talks all about writing, here about painting, there is confusion here to who is doing what and indeed what they are doing are they merely house painting or are they really painting and is there a difference, I am presuming Bill to be Berkson, not de Kooning.
· the interruption of the mother here is also the means by which the aleatory is allowed to interrupt the process of creativity and may or may not change it subsequently, see Ashbery and the issue of music and telephones.
· the irony of the now/reflection on/reflection of self is clever, but also the issue of creation here is contextualised but in a coterie not in the world generally, this essentially avant-garde way of operation is then followed by a mock avant-garde asceticism as he tries to expunge from the language logical connectives etc.
· this is followed by the quest for the subject within the systematic process of syntax being considered here: “where do you think I’ve / got to?”, which is then illustrated by Ed Dorn not showing up for his party just as Bill shows up syntactically in the wrong part of the line this allowing the line to begin with a comma.
· the comic movement of lettrism, of the typewriter as intimate organ is however very similar to the conception of Lunch Poems generally and the poem ends with the removal of other words from the language by the use of citations and the final conclusion which returns the poet to his kitchen in a trope of the essential loneliness of poetic creation.
Frank O’Hara “Biotherm (for Bill Berkson)”, 436-448
· this is preceded by a number of love lyrics to Vincent Warren and a number with or for Berkson, these pieces are remarkable only in sections, containing numerous snapshots of the city and the general association of the state of love and love lost with the city-scape, for their increased use of taxonomy but in a rather undeveloped way, and in the variety of design features which may be worth looking at, these are generally the poems from 406-436, so about thirty pages.
· the poem begins with reference to the substance and it is later reference again and finally ends with the sea as symbol which is quite common so it is unclear what Biotherm is in terms of significance because whilst it is life affirming stuff and the most life giving substance there is as it supports the sea here the sea is not however symbolic and the traditional symbols have been abandoned so that I would say there is not a single symbol in this poem except perhaps the final image of the ego-ridden sea from which the Biotherm comes. Here the white of the lotion becomes the symbolic light which never goes out with the sea and the skin becoming synonymous though this is not symbolic nor metaphoric as the skin literally is part of the sea as it has absorbed.
· there are a number of sustained techniques in the poem:
-numbers: which are both numbers literally, the numbers of poetry, mathematical sublime and the numbers of small groupings, but rarely symbolic of rationality or commerce
-noise: there is a great deal of sonic involution and just words as noises which ties into the next technique
-repetition: both sonic and in terms of grouping and generally it is not just the repetition of words or concepts but often the whole phrase is repeated in a slightly different configuration which is of course the luxury of this kind of open form I guess
-taxonomy: is really used well used here as it comes in a variety that is both unusual and yet very natural such a lists of favourite things, or of dinner menus this of course refers to the musicality that the above three aspects confirm
-discourse: the poem is a wide mix of discourse as is Ashbery’s later work but this predates Ashbery quite considerably however it is not overheard disc or the speech of the tribe but the poet, of interest for example is the actaul European languages and the mock versions
-design: following on from the previous thirty or so pages this poem is dominated by design features which seem aleatory but move from lyric all the way out to prose with equal eases.
-pop: he actually uses the word in a pop environment but refers rather to father but here we have numerous pop figures and in a sense Biotherm itself is like and uptown pop Brillo Pad or whatever, this leads onto the next point
-proper names: a proliferation sometimes in list format other times just generally the coterie/milieu effect I have noted elsewhere
-monosyllabic: actually from his earliest poetry here is used often simply to make measures out of colloquial speech
-gaps: apart from the design see especially 445-7 and the games he plays here
· the poem then sustains only in the action of using the Biotherm, there is and this is a relief, little to do with the discourse of desire or subjectivity at all and it is neither and I do this poem though this is a feature and the final page has this as do the previous couple of pages deal with his problem with the past and his love of futurity, but essentially the poem remains open with no desire to sustain motifs in any way except in the general law of “I am guarding it from mess and measure”.
· of interest is the mode in which is was constructed, see footnote, and the final synaesthesic image of the body/sea which is very O'Hara but this kind of erotic and somatic synaesthesia is really missing from the poem which is akin to say “Second Avenue” but totally accessible, open and colloquial. Really a great poem.