The New York Times recently ran a piece that highlighted the effect Mad Men has had on Frank O’Hara’s reputation. It claimed that, thanks to the television show, O’Hara has gone from being a “relatively obscure poet of the New York School” to a “much less obscure poet of the New York School, at least when it comes to sales.” The piece noted that sales of O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency “jumped more than tenfold” after Don Draper read aloud from the book in the show’s second season in 2008.
Although it was fun to see O’Hara included in this article, the statistic is quite misleading — while sales of Meditations in an Emergency certainly soared, the stat tells us nothing about the before-and-after sales of other widely-read books of O’Hara’s, like his Collected Poems or Lunch Poems. Furthermore, the idea that Mad Men somehow rescued O’Hara from obscurity is wildly exaggerated.
But once a seed like this gets planted in the culture, especially via the New York Times, it can be hard to stamp out. It can even spread and become increasingly exaggerated and distorted.
For example, check out this comment from a piece on Mad Men that ran yesterday in The Independent, by Tim Walker:
“Mad Men has a record of salvaging work from the bottom drawer of cultural history: poet Frank O’Hara was barely in print until Don read aloud from his collection Meditations in an Emergency. Sales boomed by 1,000 per cent.”
What? O’Hara was languishing in the “bottom drawer of cultural history” before Mad Men salvaged him!? His work was “barely in print” before 2008? This is utter nonsense.
I get it — Frank O’Hara was, and is still, not a household name for most people, especially those who are not very deeply knowledgeable about poetry. He’s not Robert Frost or T. S. Eliot. In fact, I’ve always felt that Matthew Weiner and the writers of Mad Men deserve credit for not simply having that hipster who Don encounters in the bar in Season 2 be deeply engrossed in Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, and Other Poems. Surely that would’ve been the obvious choice. Exposing Don (and the audience) to O’Hara’s poetry, instead, was a brave and inspired choice.
But c’mon: O’Hara was hardly a fringe figure, forgotten by cultural history, before 2008. For the past several decades, everyone (at least everyone with an interest in poetry) has agreed that O’Hara is one of the most important, influential, and best-loved poets to have emerged since World War II.
The poet and critic Tony Hoagland recently declared that “Frank O’Hara has had the most widespread, infiltrating impact on the style and voice of American poetry in the last thirty years.”
In 2008, pre-Mad Men, virtually all of O’Hara’s work was in print and readily available from major presses — the massive Collected Poems, Lunch Poems, Meditations in an Emergency, and so on — and his books were frequently included on college syllabi and on the shelves in most bookstores. His poems were included in every single major anthology devoted to twentieth-century poetry, or poetry in general.
In February 2008, a spiffy, brand-new collection of O’Hara’s Selected Poems, edited by Mark Ford, was published by a premier publisher, Knopf, to much acclaim and major review attention — before Don ever intoned those lines from O’Hara’s “Mayakovsky” in the summer of 2008. Over the past two decades, there has been a flood of critical books and essays on O’Hara, and major poets of all stripes routinely and loudly acknowledge his profound influence.
So can we stop with this misinformed and rather ludicrous idea that Mad Men salvaged an unknown poet, spurred a revival of interest in his work, or caused it to come back into print? That would be great.