Thursday, January 1, 2015

Completed: Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O'Hara

Dear Jenny,

Get ready for a long one here. I've got some personal history about Frank O'Hara to share with you before I even get to the book.

(Yes, this is the actual book from my childhood...)
I'm sure you remember this book that I had when we were kids called Talking to The Sun.  (Side note -- I am looking through this book right now and it is really awesome. There is some fantastic art in here and they do a great job of including explanatory footnotes throughout the text to help with learning without making it a drag!) It was a
collection of poems (as I recall, you may have even used it in your classroom one time?) and the title is from a Frank O'Hara poem called "A True Account of Talking to The Sun at Fire Island."

There are five O'Hara poems in that book and they were always among my favorites. For instance, this one:
Did you see me walking by the Buick Repairs?
I was thinking of you
having a Coke in the heat it was your face
I saw on the movie magazine, no it was Fabian's
I was thinking of you
and down at the railroad tracks where the station
has mysteriously disappeared
I was thinking of you
as the bus pulled away in the twilight
I was thinking of you
and right now
As a kid, I remember being enthralled by the fact that the words "Buick" and "Coke" were used in a poem! What poetry is this? The cool stuff!

(Yes, actual book from high school.)
Flash forward to high school and the anthology we used there was called Sleeping on the Wing, the name of which is also taken from the name of a Frank O'Hara poem. (Same authors of both books...) And that is how the two biggest early poetic influences on my life both took their names from Frank O'Hara poems. And I liked those poems!

Knowing that Frank O'Hara had been kind of a "thing" for me, I saw this book at City Lights in 2003 and bought it -- on my 2nd date with Bill (!) So, you know, just one more way that Frank O'Hara is playing a part in my life. (Also, that means that this book has been on my TBR shelf for 11 years!)

All this to say... I like me some Frank O'Hara.

And, for the most part, I really enjoyed this book. It's written by his long-time roommate (and sometimes romantic liaison, but he doesn't focus very much on that, even though he was clearly in love with Frank for, basically, the entire time he knew him... at least, based on the tone of this book), Joe LeSueur, who was also a writer.

Took this in May 2014. Margarita looks good, doesn't it?
Each chapter title the title of a poem, includes the poem itself, and then LeSueur's "digressions" about what was going on at the time of the writing of the poem, including all kinds of details about what was going on in their lives, where they lived, people they knew, art they had, hilarious antics they got up to, etc. I loved the feeling of being a "part of" these artists' lives in New York City in the 50s and 60s.

However... at times, Joe probably needed a little reigning in. This book was published posthumously and I wonder if the editors didn't want to take any liberties with the text without his approval. Even with its lengthy title, that still didn't sum up how rambling the "digressions" could be. A better name for this book might have been: "Extensive Ramblings on Many, Many Poems by Frank O'Hara."

Having said that, sometimes the conversational tone is downright hilarious. He did a lot of stream-of-consciousness writing, including phrases like, "I draw a blank; I wish someone would enlighten me." [52] -- it's almost as though he truly did just sit down and pour his thoughts out as they occured to him. It's mostly good, but I did slog through it a bit in the middle when it go so, so overly detailed with the stories.

As I write this, I am flipping through and looking at passages I marked and this just jumped out at me: O'Hara was known to stay up all night writing. When he was asked if he ever got tired, he said, "If I had my way, I'd got on and on and on and never go to sleep." [xv] Me, too!

And here's a poem I jotted down in this draft post when I finished this book (yes, back in August!)
Autobiographia Literaria

When I was a child
I played by myself in a
corner of the schoolyard
all alone.

I hated dolls and I
hated games, animals were
not friendly and birds
flew away.

If anyone was looking
for me I hid behind a
tree and cried out "I am
an orphan."

And here I am, the
center of all beauty!
writing these poems!
All I wrote after that was: "Poor dear." Indeed.

I could probably write a lot more about this book, but I'm going to wrap this up. Overall, I enjoyed it -- I learned a lot about Frank O'Hara (at least, as seen through the eyes of one of his closest friends...) and that was great. I also enjoyed reading these poems and getting more information on them -- it was a pleasantly intimate way to explore this poetry.

Finally, if you are interested in reading some Frank O'Hara poetry yourself, check out Good stuff!



  1. I will share my own Frank O'Hara story with you---but not until I confirm that I did indeed buy a copy of Talking to the Sun, which I've used in my classroom AND that I also swiped a copy of Sleeping on the Wing from our high school English classroom. The things we'll do for poetry!

    Here's my story. I took an awesome poetry writing class in college, with my most favorite English professor, Eli Goldblatt. And we read the poem "The Day Lady Died" and I remember we were all really struggling with it. Here's a link:

    Anyways, Eli read it to us, and it was this big hurry, the cadence of the poem was the rushed hustle and bustle of the city, and when you read it like that, the ending of the last line "and everyone and I stopped breathing" is this abrupt moment, everything stops. It was just brilliant teaching of a brilliant poem. I do not think I will ever forget what the silence in that room felt like. It was GREAT.

  2. That sounds like a great experience. Poetry read aloud *well* is awesome. (And read poorly is unbearable...)

    Also, that poem is in this book. :) If you're interested in more info on it, check out the book here on Google books -- Click that link and search for "The Day Lady Died" to read the chapter all about it (it's a good one -- you'll get the feel for the whole book by reading that. :)

  3. Correction: Try just searching for "lady died" -- for some reason, that gets you there while the other string doesn't. (Oh, the mysteries of Search...)

  4. I do not have a life where I have to think like this: "The usual precaution of bringing a thermos of martinis to the station."

    I read what I could before the omitted pages. Next time I'm at your house, I'll read the end of the chapter.