I’m re-reading Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency for a class and I’m wondering how important of a poet he is. It’s hard to imagine poets like Amy Gerstler, Elain Equi, David Trinidad, and many others without O’Hara coming first. It seems like he ripped something open in terms of content by writing poems that celebrate pop culture and movies (and also dismiss the stuffiness of the poetry world). Look at the opening lines of To The Film Industry In Crisis.

Not you, lean quarterlies and swarthy periodicals
with your studious incursion to the pomposity of ants,
nor you, experimental theatre in which Emotive Fruition
is wedding Poetic Insight perpetually, nor you
promenading Grand Opera, obvious as an ear (though you
are close to my heart), but you Motion Picture Industry,
it’s you I love.
In the first line, he’s referring to (and addressing) literary magazines. He creates an interesting tension by using descriptive adjectives often more associated with human beings. Lean could go either way, it makes sense describing a magazine or a human, but swarthy is a word that has sexual connotations and creates a spark of juxtaposition when placed next to periodicals, injecting an almost comedic element to the opening. The second line is more directly comedic—the three polysyllabic words all building up to the one-syllable ants, like a balloon being popped. The fact that ants are physically miniscule creatures adds to the comedy of the line. For instance, elephants would not be as an effective.
The concept of the poem’s first stanza is that the speaker is addressing four possible (artistic) suitors: poetry, experimental theatre, opera, and movies. The speaker chooses cinema. Opera seems to get a kiss on the cheek as it is rejected. The playful parenthetical phrase functions like a whisper in the ear, like those words are only to be heard by the opera suitor, and of course the reader. The poetry world seems to come in last, rejected without even a handshake. I wonder if as an outsider, who had a very full life outside the poetry world, that O’Hara felt liberated to poke fun at what he saw as the stuffy seriousness of the mainstream American poetry world in the 50’s—(back when W.S. Merwin was still making doilies).
Does anyone know what role pop culture played, if any, in American poetry before Frank O’Hara came along? It seems like O’Hara does something similar to Andy Warhol (and his soup cans), but on a much smaller scale.
O’Hara is not merely a jester. (Or a Lunch poet.) Some of his best poems have nothing to do with pop culture. For instance, Les Etiquettes Jaunes:
I picked up a leaf
today from the sidewalk.
This seems childish.
Leaf! you are so big!
How can you change your
color, then just fall!
As if there were no
such thing as integrity!
You are too relaxed
to answer me. I am too
frightened to insist.
Leaf! don’t be neurotic
like the small chameleon.
I love how O’Hara addresses objects as if they were human, projecting emotions onto them. It’s as if the leaf has betrayed him somehow. Even though O’Hara’s tongue is firmly in cheek, (some might argue that in third line he sticks his tongue out and wiggles it at the reader), to address a leaf so playfully and sincerely requires a vivid imagination and a degree of innocence, (which is perhaps the recipe for his potent whimsy). The final image is striking—the leaf is negatively compared to a chameleon, a lizard that can change its color for strategic reasons. We get the sense that O’Hara is also addressing a lover or friend as he addresses the leaf.
It’s refreshing to read Meditations in an Emergency again. A few years ago, I made the mistake of assigning The Collected Poems to a class. It’s over 500 pages long. O’Hara is way better in small doses. If his poems were food, they’d be amuse-bouches.

Originally Published: April 1st, 2007

Jeffrey McDaniel is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Chapel of Inadvertent Joy (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013). Other books include The Endarkenment (Pittsburgh, 2008), The Splinter Factory (Manic D, 2002), The Forgiveness Parade (Manic D Press, 1998), and Alibi School (Manic D, 1995). His poems have...

  1. April 1, 2007
     Donald Illich

    I think Kenneth Fearing was a forerunner of poetry's interest in media, movies, etc. He's very good, almost rock and roll in some places, kind of noir-ish. Also, there is Weldon Kees, who is very depressing but also engages pop culture, like movies, in his work.

  2. April 2, 2007
     Lisa Hunter

    I think writers have long used popular culture references, but since it's not OUR pop culture, the once-popular references are now footnote annotations.

  3. April 4, 2007

    Hi Donald,
    I've read a little of Weldon Kees. His story and disappearance certainly is a fascinating one. I haven't read Kenneth Fearing. Thanks for the tip.
    Hi Lisa,
    You may be write about that, but with O'Hara he writes about pop culture in such a talky voice. I wonder who his precursors for that were.
    I'd also be interested in hearing the names of a few poets who blatantly wrote about pop culture before say 1940. Donald mentioned Kees and Fearing. Are there others?
    Maybe Catullus.