See That It Lasts More Than A Lifetime: Frank O’Hara and “Joe’s Jacket”
A talk for the Worcester Country Poetry Association at the Worcester Art Museum, November 19, 2009
Oh be droll, be jolly and be temperate! Do not frighten me more than you have to! I must live forever.
That’s from an early O’Hara poem called “The Critic” (1951). Recently, at the Dodge Poetry Festival, I had the opportunity to pose a question to a stage full of poets laureate: I asked them, What are your thoughts about immortality? So that they wouldn’t think me some religious nutcase, I explained that I was thinking, for example, of Horace saying that he knew his poetry would live on, because he’d been the first to bring Greek meters into Latin. Well, the answers were bewilderingly disappointing. The poets all claimed they were writing for living audiences. “I don’t believe there will be a posterity,” Maxine Kumin said gloomily. Personally, I couldn’t see how anyone would care to write poetry if he or she didn’t think of including both the poets of the past, and, as well, generations unborn.
When O’Hara, wrote a review of Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago, he gave us a clue––one of many, I think––that his mind was always on the relationship of poetry and immortality. As you recall, the novel ends with Zhivago’s poems being read years after his death by men who knew him, and felt that he had given them the poems to describe the city in which they now lived: “They were . . . enveloped by the unheard music of happiness that flowed all about them and into the distance. And the book they held seemed to confirm and encourage their feeling.”
Years ago, when I first wrote about O’Hara in a book that later became the Twayne United States Authors study on O’Hara, I felt I needed to make an argument for his lasting importance. Robert Lowell––there’d been a volume in this series on him for years––was then the great, serious poet of the day. O’Hara was, in a way, his antithesis, though I loved both of them. Both had a way of weaving their life experience into poems that would ring true long after the specific occasions had passed. I thought this was similar to the way Catullus can complain about his beloved Lesbia, and address his poet friends, and grieve for his brother, and pull us into his world of 2,000 years ago. As you may know, O’Hara gave a reading with Lowell on Statin Island and wrote a little poem on the subway on the way:
Lana Turner has collapsed! I was trotting along and suddenly it started raining and snowing and you said it was hailing but hailing hits you on the head hard so it was really snowing and raining and I was in such a hurry to meet you but the traffic was acting exactly like the sky and suddenly I see a headline LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED! there is no snow in Hollywood there is no rain in California I have been to lots of parties and acted perfectly disgraceful but I never actually collapsed oh Lana Turner we love you get up.
Lowell sniffed that he hadn’t written a poem on the way here, implying that poetry required a long process of thought and revision––the opposite of O’Hara’s spur of the moment compositional practice. And I think for a long while, maybe to some extent even now, O’Hara’s ability to quickly write a poem, revising it very very little if at all, along with his desire to include the incidental details of his times and his milieu, meant that he was rebuking poetry for aspiring to escape the quotidian into timelessness. But, of course, paradoxically––and here we’re dealing with the mystery of his genius––he did the exact opposite. “The Day Lady Died,” O’Hara’s well-known elegy to Billie Holiday, is going to live on precisely because O’Hara prepares us for the timeless moment of “leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT” and listening to her by including many of the incidental details of his lunch hour, including even the name of his bank teller, Stillwagon, first name Linda he once heard.
Nearly forty years after I began my project, I would argue that O’Hara has very possibly eclipsed Lowell, at least as someone who matters to younger poets. But more than that, I think he is beginning to demonstrate that he, just as Zhivago did, has helped create the art for which an occasion has yet to exist.
Case in point: The second season of Mad Men! Don Draper (self-created, and self-named) protagonist, a suit from Madison Avenue, is drinking in a Greenwich Village bar, and four seats down there’s a guy reading a slim volume of poems. And it’s not Lowell’s but, lo, it’s Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency! and later in the episode Don has purchased the book, and is reading it in his study. Jon Hamm, the actor who plays Draper, does an understated and yet expressive voice-over reading of the enigmatic little poem that concludes the book:
Now I am quietly waiting for the catastrophe of my personality to seem beautiful again, and interesting and modern. The country is grey and brown and white in trees, snows and skies of laughter always diminishing, less funny not just darker, not just grey. It may be the coldest day of the year, what does he think of that? I mean, what do I? And if I do, perhaps I am myself again.
Now this reflects a mystifyingly revealing light on Draper, a person whose identity seems to come into and out of existence in a fascinating flux. It gives a depth to this character that film alone could never give. I think this is one pretty good instance of immortality––a poet writing words for occasions that haven’t yet arisen––and especially wonderful for a poet like O’Hara who, in fact, wrote so many occasional poems, often for his friends.
The poem I’ve chosen to highlight today is somewhat less known than the Lana Turner poem or “The Day Lady Died”–– it’s a longer poem, “Joe’s Jacket,” in a way a kind of super-sized example of what O’Hara once called his “I do this I do that” poems.
It was written on August 10, 1959––and, by the way, we know this because O’Hara precisely dated most of his poems, and, as I’ve implied, they were almost all of them written quickly and left just as they were. Though he wrote many poems to his friends, and, as he famously said in “Personism”, he wanted the poem to be “between two persons instead of two pages,” in general, O’Hara seemed to have a casual disregard for contemporary audiences. Don Allen had to collect his poems to publish them in books, and many poems stayed in the drawer till after his death. I think O’Hara’s diffidence came from his complete confidence in his own genius, and, more broadly, a confidence that poetry––if it really is poetry––has to outlast its own time. As Catullus says in giving his poems to his friend Cornelius: “So here’s the book, for whatever it’s worth/ I want you to have it. And please, goddess,/ see that it lasts for more than a lifetime.”
Anyway . . . August 10, 1959, the day after the weekend that O’Hara began his affair with the handsome young dancer, Vincent Warren, his very own Lesbia I suppose––the attractive and troublesome lover who inspired some of his best poems. . . .
I think meteorologists have a good term to describe the way the poet opens up his inner landscape to us here, “a complex sky”––that is, one in which all kinds of clouds are present at once, puffy cumulus and wispy cirrus, and, above them stratocumulus and whatever. So too, O’Hara interweaves all kinds of language in this poem: chatty diary-like narrative, raw confession, campy irony, and, most important, a kind of lyrical intellectual music as well. If the poem is somewhat long, it is because this is a pivotal moment in O’Hara’s life, as he seems to know. He’s about to die and be born, I guess, as he implies by mentioning that he was reading D. H. Lawrence’s “The Ship of Death”, a poem about death, true enough, but ultimately about reincarnation:
Oh build your ship of death. Oh build it! for you will need it. For the voyage of oblivion awaits you.
“Of” not “to.”
Joe’s jacket is the seersucker jacket O’Hara like to borrow from his roommate, Joe LeSueur. The Barbizonian kiddy days refers to the 19th century school of painting, which included painters of rural scenes like Millet, and, I guess, refers to the reason we’re here today at the Worcester Art Museum––O’Hara’s origins in central Massachusetts, specifically rural Grafton Massachusetts. Jap is the painter Jasper Johns, Kenneth is, of course, “excitement prone” Kenneth Koch, Ashes is John Ashbery––well, it’s a distinguished cast. But what matters, I think, is how completely O’Hara is able to portray the complexity of his own mind at this particular moment.
Joe’s Jacket Entraining to Southampton in the parlor car with Jap and Vincent, I see life as a penetrable landscape lit from above like it was in my Barbizonian kiddy days when automobiles were owned by the same people for years and the Alfa Romeo was only a rumor under the leaves beside the viaduct and I pretending to be adult felt the blue within me and light up there no central figure me, I was some sort of cloud or a gust of wind at the station a crowd of drunken fishermen on a picnic Kenneth is hard to find but we find, through all the singing, Kenneth smiling it is off to Janice’s bluefish and the incessant talk of affection expressed as excitability and spleen to be recent and strong and not unbearably right in attitude, full of confidences now I will say it, thank god, I knew you would an enormous party mesmerizing comers in the disgathering light and dancing miniature-endless, like a pivot I drink to smother my sensitivity for a while so I won’t stare away I drink to kill the fear of boredom, the mounting panic of it I drink to reduce my seriousness so a certain spurious charm can appear and win its flickering little victory over noise I drink to die a little and increase the contrast of this questionable moment and then I am going home, purged of everything except anxiety and self-distrust now I will say it, thank god, I knew you would and the rain has commenced its delicate lament over the orchards an enormous window morning and the wind, the beautiful desperation of a tree fighting off strangulation, and my bed has an ugly calm I reach to the D. H. Lawrence on the floor and read “The Ship of Death” I lie back again and begin slowly to drift and then to sink a somnolent envy of inertia makes me rise naked and go to the window where the car horn mysteriously starts to honk, no one is there and Kenneth comes out and stops it in the soft green lightless stare and we are soon in the Paris of Kenneth’s libretto, I did not drift away I did not die I am there with Haussmann and the rue de Rivoli and the spirits of beauty, art and progress, pertinent and mobile in their worldly way, and musical and strange the sun comes out returning by car the forceful histories of myself and Vincent loom like the city hour after hour closer and closer to the future I am here and the night is heavy through not warm, Joe is still up and we talk only of the immediate present and its indiscriminately hitched-to past the feeling of life and incident pouring over the sleeping city which seems to be bathed in an unobtrusive light which lends things coherence and an absolute, for just that time as four o’clock goes by and soon I am rising for the less than average day, I have coffee I prepare calmly to face almost everything that will come up I am calm but not as my bed was calm as it softly declined to become a ship I borrow Joe’s seersucker jacket though he is still asleep I start out when I last borrowed it I was leaving there is was on my Spanish plaza back and hid my shoulders from San Marco’s pigeons was jostled on the Kurfurstendamm and sat opposite Ashes in an enormous leather chair in the Continental it is all enormity and life it has protected me and kept me here on many occasions as a symbol does with the heart is full and risks no speech a precaution I loathe as the pheasant loathes the season and is preserved it will not be need, it will be just what it is and just what happens.
This poem illustrates for me what I think many readers will find in the future: that O’Hara’s “deep gossip” as Allen Ginsberg called it, is about as deep as it gets. Though it acknowledges the flow of events at this important juncture, it also generates a music for all of us, and for those who will live after, dwellers in O’Hara’s beloved city, for example, awake far into the early morning, when their lives descend on them with a weight of feeling that’s otherwise indescribable: “the feeling of life and incident pouring over the sleeping city/ which seems to be bathed in an unobtrusive light which lends things/ coherence and an absolute, for just that time as four o’clock goes by.”
What I wish for younger American poets now is that they draw courage from O’Hara’s ability to weave references to feeling with lyrical expansiveness and ironic playfulness. At a time when the poetry of John Ashbery, in which the self is suppressed, or, at the very least, pretty thoroughly camouflaged, seems to have set the fashion, it’s my hope that the poetry of O’Hara will show the way for poets to avoid leaden, self-absorbed confession, enjoy self-irony, but still find a way to render the complexity of their full minds and hearts. As O’Hara wrote in his poem for the painter Robert Rauchenberg:
can heaven mean up, down, or sidewise who knows what is happening to him, what has happened and is here, a paper rubbed against the heart and still too moist to be framed.