My first exposure to Frank O’Hara’s poetry was on season two of Mad Men. Don Draper mails a book of poems to someone, and over the scene Jon Hamm’s smoky gravel recites a few lines from “Mayakovsky”:
Now I am quietly waiting for
the catastrophe of my personality to
seem beautiful again,
and interesting, and modern.
What gorgeous brooding was this? I looked up the book, drove to Barnes & Noble, and bought Meditations immediately. I skimmed it once and let it sit on my shelves for a decade. I didn’t understand O’Hara, but the book seemed too promising to discard. This year, I finally gave it the time it deserves. For me, the poems in this collection miss more than they hit. That’s why I gave it three stars. But. When the poems hit, they hit with haymakers. When he connects, O’Hara bangs a bell that resounds deep in the guts.
O’Hara was a musician, and he hung around with painters (the book is dedicated to his artist friend Jane Freilicher). He worked at MOMA. These other mediums definitely seemed to influence his work. Sometimes his poems feel like something at MOMA – they make you feel something that he wants you to feel, but you don’t know why. You just like it. For example, the rhythm of “Invincibility”, the way it feels when you say it out loud: “a terrestrial touchdown sigh/in the silence which is not yet formidable or ominous”. I read that poem out loud four times in a row yesterday because it made me feel like the smartest rapper alive. It felt like Saul Williams.
Personally, my favorite poems were the titular “Meditations in an Emergency”:
Each time my heart is broken it makes me feel more/adventurous (and how the same names keep recurring on that interminable list!), but one of these days there’ll be nothing left with which to venture forth.
Another favorite was “Sleeping on the Wing”, a quiet poem about life and death and self seemingly written from a plane (“Perhaps it is to avoid some great sadness…that one flies, soaring above the shoreless city/veering upward from the pavement as a pigeon does when a car honks or a door slams”).
I write as a hobby, and my writing often includes scenes with music because I love music. After reading this, I’ll try to incorporate music into my writing itself, as O’Hara can.