Yet another piece on Frank O’Hara and his relevance to today’s culture and poetry has just been published — this one by Tim Keane at the Brooklyn Rail. It’s a good, smart, substantial overview of O’Hara’s work and career, as well as an account of some of the recent signs that O’Hara’s “influence on both contemporary American poetry and on pop culture is greater than ever.” Keane notes that “evidence of this is everywhere,” before giving a good rundown on recent events, like the republication of Lunch Poems, the huge group reading of Lunch Poems at the Poetry Project at St. Marks, the unveiling of a new plaque on O’Hara’s East 9th St. apartment, and the upcoming O’Hara festival on Fire Island (“On July 12, The Fire Island Pines Arts Project, to be moderated by poet Adam Fitzgerald, has assembled yet another roster of distinguished guests to read from O’Hara’s works, including the prolific American novelist Edmund White and Pulitzer-Prize winning Irish poet Paul Muldoon”).
Along with some good general observations about O’Hara and a summary of his biography, Keane pushes back a bit on the notion bandied about lately that O’Hara’s poetry is prophetic of today’s culture of Twitter and Facebook: “Although we are up to our necks in torrents of information age ephemerae, and collating data in the service of social status and the literal ‘like,’ O’Hara’s poetic instants are the opposite of such indiscriminate documentation or point-and-click narcissistic absorption of the outside world. He’s busy in the next room cavorting with strangers and doesn’t care if you like his posts or unfriend him.”
The piece also provides a detailed description of the recent group reading of Lunch Poems at the Poetry Project:
Erica Hunt kicked off the session marvelously, breaking into song during the poem “Music” giving it an exhilarating gospel lift—“clasp me in your handkerchief like a tear, trumpet / of early afternoon! in the foggy autumn.” Sharon Mesmer deftly handled the relatively long prose/verse hybridity of “Alma,” perhaps the only poem ever to blend Arthur Rimbaud’s hallucinatory visions with the deadpan style of an encyclopedia article. Edwin Torres turned in the most histrionic reading of the evening, for “Image of the Buddha Preaching” which involved props like a FedEx box and a singing bowl for meditation. His stop-and-start performance played out brilliantly, like a scene from a Beckett play. Hettie Jones, former wife of the recently deceased Amiri Baraka (born Leroi Jones), took the occasion of “Personal Poem,” written by O’Hara the day after her 25th birthday, to speak eloquently about his unflagging encouragement of her fragile vocation as a writer. “Personal Poem,” typifies how his poems evade the safe-distancing of memory while delineating the affective power of one’s surroundings, so that a construction shed near the Seagrams Building thwarts him as vehemently as does the shocking news that, “Miles Davis was clubbed 12 / times last night outside BIRDLAND by a cop / a lady asks us for a nickel for a terrible / disease.” If poetry is news that stays news, it requires this kind of bloody precision to maintain its urgency. His poetry has a political dimension, too, in how its instantaneous precision sustains, rather than passes over, the trauma-inducing blows and impact of the indifferent American social machinery.
As the marathon reading with its polytonal voices showed so well, O’Hara’s poetry oscillates between states of inspired confusion and creative adaptation, with each poem unveiling a newer and always intrepid self. As poet Cedar Sigo puts it, there is in these restless cadences, “the expectation of being an entertainer [that] sometimes reminds [the reader] of drag. How liberated we feel in the grip of such queer diction. The performer has to move against the fact that it is impossible for the poem to contain all of New York’s energy.” Yet he tries to match and even outmatch the city’s energy. Take the poem “Steps,” read by former Umbra poet and Jimi Hendrix biographer David Henderson which features a persona who preempts the flattening effect of the city’s grind by getting high on its oddity the very second he walks out his door: “How funny you are today New York / like Ginger Rogers in Swingtime / and St. Bridget’s steeple leaning a little to the left / here I have just jumped out of a bed full of V-days, (I got tired of D-days).”
You can read the whole piece here.