One of the best TV series of recent years, Succession, will be airing its much-awaited finale on Sunday night. As many of the show’s obsessive fans know, poetry has played a subtle but key role in Succession: for mysterious but tantalizing reasons, the last episode of each season has been titled with a phrase drawn from John Berryman’s poem “Dream Song 29,” one of the most famous and harrowing of his Dream Songs (“There sat down, once, a thing on Henry’s heart”). Thus, season 1’s closing episode was titled “Nobody is Ever Missing” and the finale will be titled “With Eyes Open.”
However, to my chagrin, I haven’t been aware of any clear tie between the show and the New York School of poetry, until now. In a Vulture interview the other day, the actress Juliana Canfield, who plays Jess, the loyal, long-suffering assistant to billionaire scion Kendall Roy (played by Jeremy Strong), was asked about what it’s like to work with Strong, who has become notorious (especially after a much-discussed New Yorker profile was published in 2021) for his extreme devotion to method acting and immersion in his character. When asked about the fact that Strong has given her actual “assignments” to undertake as part of the process of deepening both their characters, Canfield responded:
“Jeremy is such a prepared actor. He has read every book; he understands every financial term. The scripts are beautifully written, but he can riff on anything and be very in character. Sometimes, it was like he was letting me know what he might be riffing on in a scene so I would be able to respond. When he goes, “Jess, wait, what are the things again?” I have three really fresh answers I knew to look up right before we started rolling.
One time in the Adirondacks, he wanted to send Naomi a bouquet of flowers and a book of Frank O’Hara’s poetry. We were standing there getting ready to film, and he was talking about flowers. “What kind of flowers should I get for Naomi? I think peonies. Is there a florist where I can get peonies down there? And you know that poem by Frank O’Hara. What collection is that in?” Then we started rolling, and I was looking up Frank O’Hara collections I could send to New York. I was really doing that on my phone! And I like Frank O’Hara, so I was like, “Maybe you should send her this one.” And he was like [does a Jeremy Strong impression], “Oh, good idea. Good idea.” Without him, I would have been daffier or more hapless. Because of that exchange of information we had as the camera started to roll, I felt like a really good assistant.”
So there you have it. Strong — who has spoken at length about his literary interests and passions — imagined that his character Kendall (not unlike Connell in Normal People or Don Draper in Mad Men) might send a Frank O’Hara book to his girlfriend as a gift. The anecdote also indicates that both he and Canfield are fans of O’Hara in particular, which was fun to see.
Whether it seems believable that a real-life Kendall Roy would even know of Frank O’Hara or think to send a copy of Meditations in an Emergency or Love Poems (Tentative Title) to his lover is another story, but I enjoyed having this little glimpse of how Frank O’Hara figured into Strong’s and Canfield’s process.
Enjoy the finale!