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.

Originally Published: August 12th, 2008

Don Share became the editor of Poetry in 2013. His books of poetry are Wishbone (2012), Squandermania (2007), and Union (2013, 2002). He is the co-editor of The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine (2012), and editor of Bunting's Persia (2012) and a critical edition of Basil Bunting's poems (2016). He...

  1. August 12, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    When I watched the episode, my response was to roll my eyes at yet another gratuitous chronological marker. Look, the kids aren't wearing seat belts! Hey, she's drinking & smoking while pregnant! Oh my, the men are treating the secretaries like lunchmeat! Someone has used his mouth to form the words "Irving Stone"! Then: how likely is it Don would be drinking in a bar where the sort of people who read O'Hara hang out?
    Anyway, I think the increase in sales (& how much of an increase in actual copies does that translate to, anyway? 218% of what?) indicates only that some people who like something might buy things that prove to be of interest to people in the thing they like. I'm never sure why it's exciting that MORE PEOPLE MIGHT BE READING POETRY!!!

  2. August 12, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    P.S. Not meant as a dis, Don. Just legitimately wondering.

  3. August 12, 2008
     Aaron Fagan

    I have to agree. What does this percentage mean? Same goes for the Kay-Ryan-selling-out-at-Amazon announcements. One wonders how many were in stock to begin with? With all of that said one also wonders what it means to be on the Foundation's bestseller list. How many copies are we talking about? I just think it is interesting that none of this stuff ever gets communicated in cold hard numbers. (Feels akin to counting hamburger assembly as part of a manufacturing percentage of job increases.) I think it would be a great service for poets to be humbled by the figures (however large or small they may be).

  4. August 12, 2008
     Don Share

    Hey, we're asking the same question - except that I worry more about the increasing number of people watching TV (it's that dangerous representation thing of Socrates') than I do about more people possibly reading poetry. Not meant as a dis, either, natch!

  5. August 12, 2008
     Marty Elwell

    Regardless of the motives for placing O'Hara on the show, I think it's great that a book of poetry was the chosen prop. To those who got the reference to O'Hara, great! To those who looked up O'Hara after seeing the show, even better!
    I wonder:
    Who are the sort of people who read O'Hara? I read O'Hara, and I've been to a lot of bars with those who do and don't read O'Hara. I'm not trying to be argumentative. I'm just curious about the on-line (and sometimes off-line) stereotype that readers and writers of poetry are all bohemian academics. This seems to cast the rest of the world in a one-dimensional light that is often inaccurate.

  6. August 13, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    It isn't a matter of "getting the reference" -- dude was holding a book that said "Frank O'Hara" on the cover. Also, I think you mean "two-dimensional," & my point wasn't about bohemians (never use the word), it was about the relative obscurity of Frank O'Hara in 1960.
    Don, if they like television, bully for them, no? My own imaginative life would be poorer without (please mentally supply italics) The Wire, Battlestar Galactica, Deadwood, The Sopranos, Firefly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lost, Arrested Development, 24 (right wing porn!), &c., &c. Plus, I actually do care whether people are watching my favorite shows, since they tend to be canceled otherwise.

  7. August 13, 2008
     Don Share

    Michael, if more people want to read poetry (or maybe just buy poetry books because they see them on TV or hear about them on the radio), bully for them, too - no?? I'm no po-populist, myself, but come on: one sends poems to The New Yorker and tries to get books of poems published not so that some quantifiably low number of people will see these things, I take it - but to be read. If the more is not the merrier, than we have some explaining to do.
    Anyway, the point of my post here was about something rather different, and that was to raise questions about the subsuming of O'Hara's work into popular culture. Is it one thing if folks like me adore it, and another if people discover it because of some kind of media magnetism? My instinct is to say that these things are distinct - but why?
    Maybe the real subject of all this is whether we're not just being snobs about poetry, as Marty implies in his comment. He shows that asking what "sort" of people read O'Hara is, and probably ought to be, unanswerable.

  8. August 13, 2008
     Aaron Fagan

    Not so much snobs, but naive and unrealistic. I can say for myself that the outside world never breaks through into the universe I carry within. In that sense I must be terribly American: self-centered to the extreme.
    Are we overlooking that Mad Men is about advertising? Advertising 101: Anything on TV equals sales$$$$ and that includes poetry .... "regardless of where, by whom, or under what theory of art it is written"
    Strip away arguments of obscurity and aesthetics (America is famous for selling its milk to cows) and my money would be on the idea of a lack of faith and investment in poetry's distribution and the other practical economic aspects of that apparatus, including TV. The Foundation seems uniquely fitted to pursue this solution rather than ask on its blog if "we're not just being snobs."
    I have mentioned it once before ... my bet is that if you were to look at the historical curve of print technology and its costs (now getting less and less expensive, but with soaring costs and competition of distribution) and how much was invested in which genre, you would see that much more had to be invested in novels or prose volumes in advertising dollars to compensate for the physical fact of the thing: more words meant more editing which was a much more rigorous and time-consuming process (costly), more words means more ink and more paper (costly). That just scratches the surface. Unless publishers invested in readers' clubs, approached schools, pushing the more costly books to newspapers for review and wider distribution, they would surely collapse. Have you ever seen the old sample books that door-to-door book salesmen would carry? They would get a bigger commission for a bigger book with better paper and a better binding. These are all good business decisions, but it has been at the expense of poetry. I firmly believe this, and your own research supports this: that people read and enjoy poetry. Then why is that not more deeply reflected in the culture or in sales? Availability is the answer. And the recent storm of sales for Kay Ryan and O'Hara support this concept.
    It would seem publishers used educational institutions as a clearing house. The obscurity everyone complains about in poetry is the caboose, when we should be looking at in the engine driving this thing that killed poetry a long before any of this.
    The number one solution to giving poetry "a vigorous presence" is through unraveling these kinds of concrete business decisions of the past, not spinning theoretical webs and manifestos. None of this happens or happened in a vacuum. And neither can the solution.

  9. August 13, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    Don -- Yes, of course bully for them! (& I was paraphrasing O'Hara there.) Just saying that underlying appeals for poetry populism, it seems to me, is an assumption that poetry is good for people. I want as many people as possible to read my poems, of course, but not because people should read more poetry. I recognize that's not what your post is about, but as the New York article you link to has it, "Clearly, Mad Men isn't just nostalgic for the days when men tossed back Scotch – but for the days when they tossed back Scotch and read books too!"
    Anyway, I really think it doesn't matter why someone discovers a love for poetry. I assume many (most?) of the people who buy the O'Hara won't read all of it, & will install it on the bookshelf, forgotten. But what if one of these people who buy it because of media magnetism is inspired by it to devote his/her life to poetry & ends up in The New Yorker? That's what happened to me. I was fifteen or sixteen & I've forgotten what show or movie it was, but one of the characters began to utter something beautiful in response to something another character said. There was a pause, & the guy said, "Yeats." I went out the next day & stole Yeats's complete poems from the Cheyenne Mountain High School library (I'm not sorry!) & immediately memorized "The Song of the Happy Shepherd" (I started at the beginning in those days).
    I don't think those two paragraphs contradict each other, for all sorts of reasons. Except that you're absolutely right about the "sort" of people who care about poetry. As I was typing this, the radio informed me that tens of thousands of Palestinians attended Darwish's funeral. I'd be lying if I said this didn't cheer me.

  10. August 13, 2008

    As the oft-quoted Walter Benjamin said, "today there is hardly a gainfully employed [person] who could not, in principle, find an opportunity to publish somewhere or other comments on his work, grievances, documentary reports, or that sort of thing. Thus, the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character. The difference becomes merely functional; it may vary from case to case. At any moment the reader is ready to turn into a writer."

  11. August 13, 2008
     Don Share

    Ah, the W.B.! Well, Benjamin in the very essay you got that from also quotes Georges Duhamel: "I can no longer think what I want to think. My thoughts have been replaced by moving images."
    And then B. says, commenting on the "ancient lament that the masses seek distraction whereas art demands concentration from the spectator," that "a man who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it... In contrast, the distracted mass absorbs the work of art."
    Up to about 218%, I estimate.

  12. August 13, 2008
     Michael Gushue

    Oddly enough, "who are the sort of people who read O'Hara?" sounds like a great ad campaign to me, in a sort of a "Got O'Hara?" way. Famous athlete in locker room with Lunch Poems, big movie director on set in director's chair reading the Selected, famous scientist in lab coat with Collected Poems of F O'H on the lab table next to bunsen burner (do they still have bunsen burners?), and so on. Wasn't there an ad a long time ago that was something like "What kind of man reads GQ?"

  13. August 14, 2008
     Ms Baroque

    Hey, you just like him because he has the same name as you!
    We're a little behind over here - series one only just finished a few months ago, we'll probably get this in the late winter. Even then, it was on so late - 11.45 on a Sunday! - I gave up and just waited for the DVD to come out.
    I can't really understand why people are getting so het up about this. When I hear about it it made me laugh. It's so - so - perfect... and yes, so slightly wrong, as I don't think Frank was the household name in 1962 that he is now. (& even then I think "household name" is pushing it.)
    Remember what that piece of sentimentalist crap, Four Weddings and a Funeral, did for Auden. I think they even issued a tiny little Selected Auden with a Four Weddings cover!
    So there are two things here. One is the perfect thing: as in, O'Hara and his product placement, O'Hara the pop culture poet, a perfect marker for a show like Mad Men, which is ABOUT pop-ness, in a way. It's about the meta aspects of our lives, anyway. Personally, while it is indubitably beautiful-looking and hideously watchable, I find it crass.
    But, and it's a big but, Don Draper is a great character. That guy is keeping the thing going, he's giving by far the best performance, he has the authority. And the character is having a crisis. We know he has hidden yearnings. We know he's tormented. We know he lives in New York. So why the hell wouldn't he read O'Hara? Even today, people turn to poetry in times of stress. That's why adolescents like it.
    And the second thing is. Mad Men is so aggressively art-directed as to virtually BE an ad. An ad for itself, as a genu-ine purveyor of the past, maybe? But in its attention to visual detail - I swear that not only is it shot like a series of stills, but several of those stills are magazine spreads - in its staggering attention to these physical details, it has got some things wrong. And its choice of O'Hara may be one of them.
    We'll see. (Of course, I haven't seen the new ones yet!)
    I've been really taken up by Mad Men, in fact, have been meaning to do a big fat blog post. I'll try and do that this week. I had a very interesting conversation with my mother about it, who was actually in that world at the time. But she doesn't have cable.

  14. August 14, 2008
     unreliable narrator

    Cable: I, too, can't afford it....

  15. August 15, 2008
     Don Share

    Truth in advertising: I don't have cable, either, and haven't seen Mad Men outside of the YouTube clip linked above. (But I know my Frank O'Hara, and used to own an Olivetti typewriter.)

  16. August 15, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    You grown-ups with yr obsolete technologies. Who has cable anymore? You can watch Mad Men on this very machine you're a-ganderin' -- surfthechannel.com (quasi-illegal) or iTunes (legal).

  17. August 17, 2008
     unreliable narrator

    Holy moly, I am such the culturally belated grownup. Still with the DSL...and would you believe I even use an ANSWERING MACHINE?! How 1990s is *that*? Thanks for the tip Sr. Robbins!

  18. August 17, 2008

    Answering machine? You mean you still have a land line?