These days, everybody everywhere (under fifty—“younger poets”) seems to allude knowingly to Frank O’Hara’s “Personism” and deploy with gusto the chatty irony, the pop sagesse, he pioneered. Inventing a new tone is no small thing, though grander projects beset us these days: book-length “projects,” lipograms, and variations on macaronics and “hybridity.” It’s like we’re stuck in the eighties. Which is about right, I mean rite: the pendulum swings back and forth, and our momentum always seems to be driven by reaction to reaction, rather than to life. I’m paraphrasing. Frank O’Hara said, “It’s a pretty depressing day, you must admit, when you feel you relate more importantly to poetry than to life.” It would be interesting at this point, while everyone is in love with “Personism” and its author, to look (briefly) at two rather more boring manifestos he wrote.* One is “Statement for The New American Poetry
” (1960) where he begins: “I am mainly preoccupied with the world as I experience it.” And the other is “Statement for Paterson Society” which ends “this will explain why I can’t really say anything definite for the Paterson Society for the time being.” In the first manifesto, he tries to explain, seriously, what he does when he writes poetry, and comes off with at least one sentence as good as any in “Personism”: “My formal ‘stance’ is found at the crossroads where what I know and can’t get meets what is left of that I know and can bear without hatred.” In the Paterson Society statement, he repudiates that first manifesto, writing:
It seems to me now . . . more mistaken, pompous, and quite untrue, as compared to [“Personism”]. But it is also, like [“Personism”], a diary of a particular day and the depressed mood of that day . . . and as such may perhaps have more general application to my poetry since I have been more often depressed than happy, as far as I can tally it up.
It’s “a hopeless conundrum,” he admits. He is happy and amusing; he is unhappy and serious; he tries a lot of different things; he is preoccupied with the world, with experience, with flux. No wonder then that he writes so much about weather, and not just any weather: wind and sea surfaces are his metier. Now he is clear and “accessible”; now he is fuzzy and (misused word) surreal. Instead of surreal, I think of this explanation he offered: “It may be that poetry makes life’s nebulous events tangible to me and restores their detail; or conversely, that poetry brings forth the intangible quality of incidents which are all too concrete and circumstantial. Or each on specific occasions, or both all the time.” If I’m cheating by building my own manifesto out of the bones of another’s, I apologize: my motto might be: Lord (Apollo), grant me courage to be new, serenity when I can’t be, and the wisdom to know when I can’t be. In other words, I too want poetry to be a response to the weather: the world’s, and the author’s own. I can’t really say anything more definite for the time being . . . except that I will not be writing any “book-length projects.”
*Found in Standing Still and Walking in New York
Originally Published: January 30, 2009