Frank O’Hara and the other Don — DeLillo, not Draper

Don DeLillo

Don DeLillo

Frank O’Hara fans know all about the time Don Draper read some lines from the poem “Mayakovsky” on the television show Mad Men (thereby introducing O’Hara’s work to a much wider audience and legions of tweeters).  But apparently there’s another famous (and not fictional) Don who’s been reading some O’Hara: Don DeLillo.

Although they are revered as two of the most important and best-loved American authors of the past half century, DeLillo and O’Hara are not talked about in the same breath very often.  So it was with some surprise that I learned a couple weeks ago that a recent story by DeLillo bears a debt to O’Hara’s work.  The New Yorker recently “unlocked” a DeLillo’s story “Midnight in Dostoyevsky,” which appeared in 2009 in the magazine, and explained in a note that the piece “takes its name from a line in Frank O’Hara’s poem ‘Meditations in an Emergency’ (1954).”

The phrase appears in one of the more elusive passages in O’Hara’s great prose poem:

St. Serapion, I wrap myself in the robes of your whiteness which is like midnight in Dostoevsky. How am I to become a legend, my dear? I’ve tried love, but that hides you in the bosom of another and I am always springing forth from it like the lotus—the ecstasy of always bursting forth!

You can read a bit about why DeLillo might have been drawn to O’Hara’s poem here, in an excerpt from an essay on DeLillo by David Cowart (in Don DeLillo: Mao II, Underworld, Falling Man, edited by Stacey Olster).  Cowart writes

“The connection to O’Hara’s poem, which features witty analysis of homosexual identity and intimations of the martyrdom 1950s gays underwent daily at the hands of the straight world, suggests a current of unacknowledged homoerotic anxiety in the relationship between Robby, the evidently heterosexual narrator of DeLillo’s story, and the friend with whom he finds himself violently at odds in the end.  In the line that DeLillo appropriates for his title, O’Hara apostrophizes the obscure martyr in a Zurbaran painting … This painting, which hangs in the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum in Hartford, Connecticut, offers a remarkable picture of martyrdom: the saint is unconscious, in repose, the ropes around his wrists not immediately noticed by the viewer.  But the saint’s robe, of a startling whiteness, belies the violence to which he has been or will be subjected.  Like midnight, such whiteness makes seeing difficult; like Dostoyevsky’s midnight, the image cloaks a universe of existential, solitary suffering.”

Here is the painting O’Hara refers to in the poem:

Francisco de Zurbarán, The Martyrdom of Saint Serapion 1628, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut

The passage from Cowart’s essay is both an illuminating take on DeLillo’s allusion to the O’Hara poem, and an interesting gloss on some lines in O’Hara’s well-known “Meditations in an Emergency” that haven’t received much attention.

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