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Meditations in an Emergency
I know it’s been blogged all over the place, but meditate on this, all who debate about expanding the audience for poetry: year-to-date sales of Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency have increased 218%, mostly due to the book’s appearance on the AMC TV show Mad Men, in which (m)ad man Don Draper buys what we now know is one of the last copies remaining in stock. What does this mean?
Well, there are some theories on the show’s blog, but the thread there has fizzled out. Does the book’s title poem, originally published in the November 1954 issue of Poetry, hold any clues for its appeal to a made-for-TV character and his many fans?
You be the judge! (“Destroy yourself, if you don’t know!”)
There’s prefabricated irony (upon irony) here, given the product placement in O’Hara’s own work – you know, “Having a Coke with You,” etc. But I can’t figure out if the tables have somehow been turned or not. Only a year and a half ago on Harriet, Jeffrey McDaniel talked about reading the book as a kind of rediscovery, and asked about the role of pop culture in American poetry. He said, “It seems like O’Hara does something similar to Andy Warhol (and his soup cans), but on a much smaller scale.” Has something Warhol-like been done to O’Hara? (Warhol himself began as a commercial illustrator whose work was featured in ads.)
An old friend of mine is in the advertising business, one of the most literary guys I’ve ever known, a philosophy major back in college. I may ask him. He’d probably just say, “What’s the big deal? Ad guys read and write books, too, you know; and sometimes they want to break out of the mold like the bohemians do.”
Meanwhile, the observant folks at New York magazine have scrutinized Draper’s bookshelf and noticed that “in bed with his wife, Mad Men‘s Don Draper reads The Best of Everything — Rona Jaffe’s 1958 chick-lit classic about women trying to make it in the office world. Before getting into bed with his Jewish client, he reads Leon Uris’s Exodus.” But that voiceover of Draper reading O’Hara’s “Mayakovsky” – that’s a whole ‘nother story. Does he even know what happened to Mayakovsky?
The only other thing I can bring to the table, turning or not, is a seemingly immortal composition by the poet Lew Welch (colleague of Philip Whalen and Gary Snyder at Reed College):
“Raid Kills Bugs Dead.”
In the TV show, at any rate, an arty-looking guy with wavy hair and cool-looking glasses is sitting in a New York cafe reading O’Hara’s book. When Draper asks him about it, the guy replies: “You probably wouldn’t like it,” a near-miss paraphrase of Marianne Moore’s “I, too, dislike it.”
Don, whatever else can be said about him, buys it anyway, and reads it in his office.