The list of poets who are well-known enough to appear in a question on a television trivia game show is relatively short. Games like Jeopardy! frequently feature questions about old standbys like Homer, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron, Pound, Yeats, Hughes, Ginsberg, or Plath, but it would be pretty rare to come across a question about a Mina Loy or a Robert Creeley.
So I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised to see that Frank O’Hara’s name popped up on Jeopardy! a few days ago. O’Hara appeared in the category “American Poetry,” alongside clues about Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, and Robert Hayden’s “Middle Passage.” If you’re someone like me, who takes an (obsessive?) interest in tracking O’Hara’s reputation and ever-increasing influence and ubiquity, this seems like a significant little moment in his journey to mainstream recognizability.
The clue read:
Not only was it surprising to see a question about O’Hara, but also to watch the current reigning champ — the much buzzed-about, seemingly unstoppable James Holzhauer — come up with the wrong name. “Who is Ella Fitzgerald?” Holzhauer said. Another contestant quickly buzzed in correctly with “Who is Billie Holiday?” This was especially notable because Holzhauer — who already, after 12 victories, holds the record for the four highest-scoring games in the show’s history, and is in second place for all-time winnings after the famous Ken Jennings (whose run was 74 victories) — almost never buzzes in with the wrong answer (he is averaging just 1.2 wrong answers per game) Holzhauer has quickly become one of the best players to ever play the game, so I definitely am not holding this little slip-up against him.
I was expecting to be able to declare that this was the very first time Frank O’Hara has appeared in a Jeopardy! clue. But — thanks to this fan-created archive of previous games — I just learned this is actually the second time. It is, however, his first appearance in 32 years. Way back in 1987, the show featured O’Hara in a clue, about the same poem no less, and then not again since: “Frank O’Hara’s ‘The Day Lady Died’ is a tribute to this black singer.”
So do any other poets of the New York School qualify as Jeopardy!-famous, in the company of the usual suspects like Wordsworth, Whitman, Dickinson, and Eliot? Well, it turns out John Ashbery’s name has appeared in Jeopardy! too, also on only two occasions. First, in 1998, with this clue: “This ‘X-Files’ star has expressed his admiration for the complex modern poetry of John Ashbery.”
(Answer? “Who is David Duchovny?,” who, by the way, studied literature in graduate school at Yale).
And second, in 2004, in the category “First Names the Same,” in the clue “Ashbery, Davidson, Cheever.”
According to the records, so far Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, Barbara Guest, Alice Notley, Bernadette Mayer, and Ted Berrigan have yet to appear in a Jeopardy! clue, but I’m keeping an eye on it.