Frank O’Hara on for Valentine’s Day

In honor of Valentine’s Day, there was a piece on CNN, of all places, by Kat Kinsman that listed “14 Ways to Say ‘I Love You.'”  The piece featured an assortment of  “famous words to love by” from a rather diverse set of people, ranging from the not-so-surprising (Pablo Neruda) to the unexpected (like Vincent Price, or the Smiths’ immortal lines “If a 10-ton truck / Kills the both of us / To die by your side / Well, the pleasure, the privilege is mine”).

It was a pleasant surprise to see that Kinsman included the lines above from Frank O’Hara’s “Poem (À la recherche de Gertrude Stein),” one of his many wonderful love poems.  (Personal disclosure: this poem is especially meaningful to me, because we chose an excerpt from it — though not these particular lines — to read at my own wedding years ago).

When the critic Brian Reed gathered a selection of “queer love poems” for a post on the Poetry Foundation’s website a few years ago, he included O’Hara’s poem and had this to say about it:

In mid-20th-century Manhattan, O’Hara (1926–1966) knew tout le monde when le monde was artsy, avant-garde, ambitious, and smart. Though he had many lovers, only one swept him off his feet: the dancer Vincent Warren. The lyrics written for Warren combine joy, spontaneity, innuendo, and vertigo. “Poem (À la recherche de Gertrude Stein)” is typical. The first two lines—“When I am feeling depressed and anxious sullen / all you have to do is take your clothes off”—serve as a sort of thesis statement that the quick-thinking, madly witty poet then variously explores and restates. He dispenses with punctuation, which permits him to rush headlong through sentences loosely stapled together by coordinating conjunctions (“and”); subordinating conjunctions (“when,” “where”); and participles (“making,” “creating,” “dividing”). He doesn’t seem to care about consistency as long as each individual statement is striking or moving or true. Without contradiction “your arms and legs” can be at one moment “an eternal circle” and at another “a golden pillar beside the Atlantic.” In the end, he cannot sustain the manic energy, and he doesn’t quite dare avow ever-after storybook love: “since once we are together we always will be in this life come what may.” We will always be what? “Together” is implied but unstated. Can a new couple ever be sure that their love will outlast the violence of first passion?

Just another reminder that a copy of O’Hara’s Collected Poems can come in handy for Valentine’s Day and other romantic events…

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