BOOK: Meditations in an Emergency, Frank O'Hara

“Now I am quietly waiting for the catastrophe of my personality to seem beautiful again, and interesting, and modern.”

With the casual mention of the name, Frank O’Hara, in recent BBC TV series NORMAL PEOPLE, it seemed appropriate to review one of my favourite poet’s collections: Meditations in an Emergency.

Employed as a curator for the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), O’Hara was an important figure in the New York art world until his tragic death at the age of 40. O’Hara was not only famed in art circles, however. A story tells of an inebriated Jack Kerouac at a poetry reading, hurling homophobic insults at O’Hara. When Kerouac shouted: ‘You’re ruining American poetry O’Hara,’ the quick-witted O’Hara shot back: ‘That’s more than you ever did for it Kerouac!’

This collection of 30 poems was published in 1957. There’s a mix of styles in there: some free verse, some prose poems (and some styles I’m not cultured enough to know the name of). Mostly autobiographical with influences of symbolism and abstract expressionism, the poems in this collection talk of life in New York City, of love, of daily life and friendship and Art. Some highlights of the collection are Mayakovsky, For James Dean and Meditations in an Emergency.

The poet that emerges from them is one of intense tenderness writing so casually, and sensitively. For me; a weird sense of sadness permeates through all of them, a feeling of acute emotional awareness coupled with a talent for observation.

O’Hara chronicles life in New York. His poems tell stories, funny anecdotes, or even quote straight from conversations. They read as the blog of a young man in New York; - rather than insights into his psyche or tales from his past. This can be seen in Poem [“The eager note on my door said, ‘Call me,’”] which has the content of a short story:

"The eager note on my door said “Call me,

call when you get in!” so I quickly threw

a few tangerines into my overnight bag,

straightened my eyelids and shoulders,"

This makes sense however - when put alongside O’Hara personality: a man of immense sociability and charisma, with many friends and just as many lovers, warm, kind and approachable, intimate with painters, poets and musicians alike. O’Hara must have had too many a tale to tell being at the centre of the NY art world in the 60s.

Constant references to classical music pervade his work: Tcherepnin in ‘Romanze, or the Music Students,’ Prokokieff in ‘Radio,’ and the namesake of ‘On Rachmaninoff’s Birthday,’ reveal O’Hara’s background in piano playing. He often impressed new acquaintances by impulsively playing vast sections of Rachmaninoff.

His sentences often contain an ‘I’.’ In fact, his poems are often centred around this character of the ‘I’, with descriptions of a quite sweet and poignant nature. Take these lines from ‘To the Harbormaster’ as an example – ‘I wanted to be sure to reach you;/ though my ship was on the way it got caught/ in some moorings. I am always tying up/ and then deciding to depart.’

Poetry for O’Hara was an act of inspiration; to be done in the moment. He was a poet by nature, not nurture. He didn’t sit at his desk, slowly working at his craft. Instead poetry was an act of spontaneous creation, influenced by his friendship with the abstract expressionists. Poet John Ashbery claims O’Hara was “Dashing the poems off at odd moments – in his office at the Museum of Modern Art, in the street at lunchtime or even in a room full of people – he would then put them away in drawers and cartons and half forget them."

But perhaps this work style wasn’t taken from the abstract expressionists after all. Spontaneous, inspired and passionate are words that describe O’Hara just as much as they do his poetry. A life of love, laughter and adventure, O’Hara personality shines through in these poems. A definite must-read and a fantastic journey into a world of Art, love and New York City.

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