Stride Magazine -



Why I Am Not A Painter and other poems by Frank O’Hara
(Carcanet Press. £4.95)

With a Collected and Selected already out there you might wonder why there is a need for this latest grouping of O’Hara’s work. I suppose it’s to introduce new readers who might baulk at thesheer weight of the Collected -­even the Selected is over 200 pages. So, a taster then, and a very attractive and reasonably priced one at that.

It may not be as portable as Lunch Poems
say, but it does contain a number of his most ‘popular’ poems from that book, the ones that many of the poetry reading public, if such a thing exists, will have seen and heard. So we get ‘A Step Away From Them’, ‘The Day Lady Died’, ‘Personal Poem’, ‘Poem (Lana Turner has collapsed)’ and ‘Steps’ among others, all of which are worth re-visiting.

I often go back to that first poem because the voice is idiosyncratic and it sounds so effortless, taking in the impressionistic and mundane detail of a stroll ‘among the hum-colored cabs’. But, of course, these breathless observations of lunchtime in New York tend to mask the more sombre question at the core of the poem, as O’Hara reflects on those three deaths, including Jackson Pollock’s, whose funeral was the day before the poem was written. This elegiac moment can easily be buried as the poet, having eaten, heads ‘back to work’ and life goes on. This unstoppable sense of movement and passage of time features throughout many of these poems.

Equally, in his elegy for Billie Holiday he approaches the subject in a circumspect manner, feeding the reader the quotidian aspects of his routine one Friday in the city, the poet ‘practically going to sleep with quandariness’. Almost incidentally, he sees ‘a NEW YORK POST with her face on it’, causing him to recall one night in the 5 SPOT. Holiday’s presence is literally a whisper and by the end of the poem everyone, including the reader, is holding their breath. He achieves a balance where her death is not diminished but is seen within the on-going flux of living.

These are the well-known poems and ought to tempt anyone who isn’t familiar with his work simply through their intimate, engaging tone and their openness. What else is there to tempt the new reader ? Well. There some of the shorter early pieces full of wit and charming exuberance, such as the self-explanatory ‘Autobiographia Literaria’ or his address to ‘The Critic’, :

         I cannot possibly think of you
         other than you are : the assassin

         of my orchards. You lurk there
         in the shadows, meting out

         conversation like Eve’s first
         confusion between penises and

         snakes. Oh be droll, be jolly
         and be temperate! Do not

          frighten me more than you
          have to! I must live forever.

The title poem is also an attractive example of his use of the context and times he lived through, mingling and collaborating with Abstract Expressionists and other artists during an extremely exciting period. It also finds him using his narrative style to meditate on the creative processes brought to bear in different art forms and how these may be mutually influential. Mike Goldberg’s painting ‘Sardines’ ­ which is also featured on the cover- acts as a prompt for O’Hara to write using the colour orange as a focus. There are no sardines in the Goldberg and no orange in O’Hara’s poem. No matter how serious any reflections on art and poetry may be he allows himself a brief laugh at his own expense, noting that his poem ‘is even in prose, I am real poet.’

If the painters who came within his circle inspired him then he often found film a further source of delight, giving rise to three memorable pieces ‘To The Film Industry In Crisis’, ‘Fantasy’ and ‘Ave Maria’. The latter being an exhortation to mothers of America to ‘let your kids go to the movies !’ It all sounds a vital part of growing up as he presents visits to the movies as important rites of passage, feeding the soul ‘that grows in darkness’ and offering the possibility of a first sexual experience. I’m not sure mothers of America would have agreed with all of it but he carries it off in that typically stylish, slightly naïf fashion.

However, lest it be thought that O’Hara is all surface glitter and light there are more challenging pieces, like the long poem ‘In Memory Of My Feelings’ where he explores a multiplicity of selves. As with most of his work it is exhilarating and continually in motion as he creates a constantly shifting perspective, from the calmer opening stanzas through the second section’s sense of loss tothe restless accrual of images within which lies an epitaph of sorts: ‘Grace / to be born and live as variously as possible’. It is a poem that sets out to celebrate abundance and endless possibility, something which his curtailed life was full of.

I’ve always enjoyed these poems and it is still a great pleasure to come back to them. They are life-enhancing and I’m sure that readers new or old will find much joy and cause for celebration in this work.

              ©Paul Donnelly 2003