“Meditations in an Emergency” by Frank O’Hara



This slim volume contains 30 poems, short to medium in length. Thirteen are one-pagers, twelve are two pages, five are three.

Some of the poems in MEDITATIONS IN AN EMERGENCY are opaque. An exuberant talker, O’Hara on occasion goes on auto-pilot erudition spills, and when this is applied to a subject of limited interest the result can be a poem that may not speak to most readers, especially those of us not thoroughly tutored.

Yet I think I am like most of his readers who forgive him this, knowing that with the next poem or the one after the next he will return to his naturally communicative, pleasure-giving mode.

What the American poet and critic Kenneth Rexroth once noted about O’Hara is right on the money: Each of the poems has the air of a “fresh start.” When encountering the best of them it is as if your eyes, long occluded, open suddenly onto the world.

This being O’Hara, there are newly-coined and revived words and phrases (cupiditously; buttered bees); thoughts of suicide, express and implied, and premonitions of violence; paeans to pop culture icons (“For James Dean”); a campy fandom of Hollywood (“To the Film Industry in Crisis”); tossed off witticisms (“It is easy to be beautiful; it is difficult to appear so”); a devotion to New York (“I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life”); and, finally, intimate love poems that draw us near.

He has an original voice, and yet I enjoy the occasions when he behaves as other poets, like Ginsberg or the Romantics, or even Shakespeare, who I swear I hear in the poem “Radio.” It begins:

Why do you play such dreary music

on Saturday afternoon, when tired

mortally tired I long for a little

reminder of immortal energy?

This shares the questioning voice found in Shakespeare’s sonnets (the constant Why? Who? What?) as well as the author’s expression of mock petulance — disappointment turning into complaint turning into self-pity — such as in Sonnet 34:

Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day

And make me travel forth without my cloak

To let base clouds o’ertake me in my way?

For some reason I like to read O’Hara’s poetry while standing, or walking around a room.


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