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Delve Seminar Summaries: Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler & the Poetics of Intimacy

[by Alexei Bien]


Seminar #1 – O’Hara

We began the seminar by introducing ourselves and saying why we were interested in delving into Frank O’Hara and James Schuyler. Afterwards, our guide and poet, John Brehm, introduced us to Frank O’Hara. O’Hara, we learned, was famous for tossing off a poem at a moment’s notice. He didn’t labor over his poems, and they mostly came out as final drafts. O’Hara’s personality, Brehm said, is central to his poems. The poems are his personal life. Brehm read a bit from O’Hara’s Digressions on Some Poems, observing that whatever happened around O’Hara became part of his work. Digressions did not impede O’Hara, but rather spurred him on. O’Hara had a cavalier attitude about the career of being a poet. He was reticent about publishing his poetry. In fact, his editor would go through his dresser drawers looking for poems to publish.

O’Hara worked at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. He began by selling postcards, but worked his way up to associate curator. In the beginning, he had unlimited time to make his poetry, but eventually his day job became quite demanding. Along with his position at the museum, he was friends with many important artists. New York City of the 1950s was an extraordinary time of ferment and creative cross-fertilization, and O’Hara was at the center of it.

We turned to “Personism: A Mock Manifesto,” observing that there’s an intimacy in the essay that’s very engaging, as if O’Hara is letting us in on the joke. Helen Vendler said of O’Hara: “The wish not to impute significance has never been stronger in lyric poetry.” The question, then, after learning about what O’Hara doesn’t value and doesn’t do in his poetry—i.e. “elaborately-sounded structures”—is what does he do? Voice, personality, and personal presence are some of the elements of his poetry that replace the usual devices.

We compared O’Hara’s “Autobiographia Literaria” and Richard Wilbur’s “Boy at the Window.” Wilbur’s poem is alliterative, adheres to a rhyme scheme, and is in firm iambic pentameter. O’Hara’s poem mocks poetry with its title, gives us first-person free verse and a tone of faux-naïveté. For all its craftsmanship, “Boy at the Window” does not make us feel as much as O’Hara’s final exclamation-point-capped stanza: “And here I am, the/center of all beauty!/writing these poems!/Imagine!”

In “My Heart” we applauded the brilliant syntactic delay of “and my heart— / you can’t plan on the heart.” We also noted the influence of Walt Whitman.

After exploring “Radio,” we finished with “The Day Lady Died,” noticing the pattern of prosaic details together with the unknown or irregular (he knows the train tables, but not who will feed him; he knows Miss Stillwagon’s first name, but it’s the first time she’s ever not looked up his balance). This was a very ordinary day until O’Hara’s world was pulled out from under him. We decided that this was an innovative elegy in that it’s not really about Billy Holiday until we come to her face on the cover of a magazine towards the end. Why all the details, we wondered, and answered: the way things get lit up after trauma and imprinted on our memories. Finally, “The Day Lady Died” illustrates how O’Hara’s manner of dashing off poems (he wrote this one the same day she died) preserves the emotional immediacy of the event.


Seminar #2 O’Hara

For those wanting additional reading about Frank O’Hara and the abstract expressionist art scene, Brehm suggested Frank O’Hara: Poet among Painters by Marjorie Perloff.

Brehm began by quoting a Wordstock poet who said, “A poem is a sanctuary.” Meeting the evening after the election, John reminded us that O’Hara was an apolitical poet, and suggested we strive for that kind of sanctuary—the feeling of being immersed in a poem instead of everything else.

John briefly drew our attention to the relationship between abstract expressionist art and O’Hara’s work. Everyone in that world was trying to do something new, to carve out a new aesthetic, one in which we saw, by and large, the disappearance of the subject. Similarly, in O’Hara’s work, there’s often no real subject. The abstract expressionists used an “all-over” style: no foreground, no background, no center. So, too, in O’Hara’s poetry. It’s an exceptionally tough feat for a writer, since words signify while paint does not. But take “Personal Poem” for instance. O’Hara’s just bringing things into the poem because they’re part of his experience. Furthermore, his choices don’t have a design on the reader (even when there is a subject). His immediacy has a Zen aesthetic—to see what’s there, the “thisness” of the moment.

We looked closely at “Personal Poem,” noting how it’s refreshing to literally pass judgment on literary giants. Again we see that faux-naïveté, O’Hara’s childlike joy. We also observed that the poem’s lack of punctuation gives it its energy, its “ongoingness.” As with a painter dashing paint onto the canvas, the run-on sentences communicate the speed and the movement and the non-hierarchical order of the subject matter.

We noted that in the opening of “Steps,” it’s extraordinary to compare an entire city to an actress in a particular movie: “How funny you are today New York/like Ginger Rogers in Swingtime”. Another thing that makes O’Hara refreshing is that he tosses off similes one after the next, never sticking with one for too long.

We watched a video of O’Hara himself reading “Having a Coke with You,” and agreed that his fast, brassy voice works for the poem mostly because his voice is very unaffected. In “Having a Coke with You,” we see that when O’Hara gets too lofty (all the beautiful places I’ve traveled; all the portraits in the world), he immediately brings things down to earth (getting sick on the Travesera de Gracia; the exception of the Polish Rider). In the “still, solemn, and unpleasantly definitive” statuary, we have the opposite of O’Hara’s aesthetic. O’Hara is never trying to capture something and make a monument of it.

We looked at “Why I Am Not a Painter” and finished with “A Step away from Them,” in which we get a wonderful reflective quality without O’Hara actually reflecting much. We all appreciated the essential “New Yorkness” of images like “A lady in/ foxes on such a day puts her poodle/ in a cab.”


Seminar #3 O’Hara

Irresistible is a word that comes to mind when we talk about O’Hara’s poetry. He invites the reader into his life. He’s winning, he’s charming; it feels like you’d like to hang out with him.

We focused on “A True Account of Talking to the Sun on Fire Island,” whose title and conceit riff on Mayakovsky’s “An Extraordinary Adventure Which Befell Vladimir Mayakovsky in a Summer Cottage.” O’Hara’s poem is an interesting take on the mock-pastoral, and one in which O’Hara gives himself quite the pep talk. O’Hara’s advice for himself: just keep on going (like the sun). We all enjoyed how the sun chooses to say, “You’re okay,” instead of “You’re terrific!” We noted that it isn’t as straightforward as the sun waking up O’Hara the once; rather, O’Hara is in and out of sleep a number of times throughout the poem, creating the kind of ambiguousness in which the final line’s paradox, “Darkly he rose,” can comfortably exist. We wondered if the sun’s reply “Some/day you’ll know” didn’t make the poem a little about life and death as seen in the cycle of the sun’s rising and falling. The poem feels prescient, as if O’Hara knew that he was burning the candle at both ends and wouldn’t be around for too much longer. In fact, just the day before he wrote “A True Account,” he actually saved a boy from drowning.

Next, we looked at “Poem” on page 181 of Selected Poems. It’s quite striking when O’Hara drops into a mode of tender intimacy—almost the transcendental—after so many lighthearted poems. We felt that O’Hara was putting a large burden on the lover he addresses and comes off as quite possessive, infatuated rather than in love. It’s interesting that in this poem O’Hara claims that “incident and accidental relationships” are intrusions that have nothing to do with his life. Do we believe him? From what we’ve read, incident and accidental relationships seem to have a foremost place in his life and creative process. Yet, one gets the sense that O’Hara’s mind (and limbs) never slowed down. It must have been a torment. This poem seems to welcome the release of that constant stream of reasoning and associating.

We finished with “Metaphysical Poem,” “Ave Maria,” and finally “Poem” (Lana Turner), which O’Hara wrote on a ferry to a poetry reading with Robert Lowell. The knock on O’Hara is that he’s too light. But frequently there’s an undercurrent that’s deeper. Regardless, immersing us in the flow and flux of life is hugely entertaining. And his humor! To make people respond with laughter is important. Playfulness is a high aesthetic value. O’Hara managed to expand the audience for poetry and expand what poetry could do.


Seminar #4 Schuyler

As we left one poet for another, John began by asking us how it was to transition from O’Hara to Schuyler. Schuyler, we agreed, was a much quieter poet who also wrote about quotidian things. Schuyler has a relaxed intensity. He rarely references celebrities and artists, which O’Hara does constantly. We reflected that it’s easy to be at home in Schuyler’s work the way he captures the essence of mood, of landscape so beautifully. In some respects, they are like city cat and country cat. Or, O’Hara has his “I do this, I do that” poems and Schuyler has his “I see this, I see that.”

John offered that Schuyler is as concerned with light, detail, color, and texture as a painter. His poems are not simplistic celebrations of nature; they are subtle and sophisticated. Schuyler was mentally ill, and the poems could ground him. The poems celebrate the pure pleasure of simply looking. Schuyler did not see the natural world as symbolic, but rather as the thing itself. He would never make stuff up. He was fastidious to what he saw. Schuyler composed most of his poems looking out of a window. On the subject of artistic license, he quipped that he once took the liberty of looking out of two windows.

The first poem we tackled was “To Frank O’Hara,” an elegy and tribute in which Schuyler was able to draw upon his close friendship with the late poet. There is a dazzle and energy in the poem reminiscent of O’Hara’s own style. We particularly liked the simile: “How you charmed, fumed,/blew smoke from your nostrils/like a race horse that/just won the race/steaming, eager to run/only you used words.” We appreciated how Schuyler corrected himself, “How you scared/us, no, dazzled us swimming/in an electric storm,” as if O’Hara himself were as difficult to pin down as a bolt of lightning. We enjoyed the memory of reading a quote from the actress Sophie Tucker that ends the poem so unexpectedly. One could say it is an insignificant memory, but it carries so much emotional weight.

Next, we read “Verge,” which perfectly captures the subtle music in Schuyler’s work. We picked out the sonically satisfying passage, “Back/of the trees/are other trees/where deer stoop/and step and/the independent skunk/securely waddles./An unseen/something stirs/and says: No/snow yet but/it will snow.” We addressed the skinny shape of Schuyler’s poetry, and John made the apt simile: “It’s like going down wet stairs with bad shoes.” The constant enjambment requires us to slow for balance, to be as alert of the transition between lines as Schuyler is to weather and nature and the constant changes therein.

In “The Bluet,” we were impressed by the simile “the air crisp as a/Carr’s table water/biscuit and smelt of/cider.” As with describing the autumn leaves as “oriental rug colors,” the similes are striking and effective because they are in the reverse order of what we’d expect. Ordinarily, one would describe a rug as having the colors of fall leaves or a Carr’s table water biscuit as being as crisp as the fall air.

“So Good” further demonstrates Schuyler’s facility with surprising metaphors. “March is here/like a granny/a child doesn’t/like to kiss.” This sentiment takes a dark turn when we find out that the boy of this poem is asked to kiss his dead grandmother in the casket. But, that development fits beautifully with the start of the poem: “Sing to me/weather about/one bird/peck, pecking/on bleached/winter grass.”

The central image in the “The Day” are the small white moths fluttering among the wintry trees, “beautiful/there in the woods/frantic with life.” The poem is mostly in the present, but everything about the moths is in the past. Given the fragility of their existence so late into winter, we can assume that by the time of the poem’s composition, the moths are long gone. But gone they’re not. They’re suspended forever in the lines of the poem, frantic with life. Schuyler captures the power and beauty of transience and impermanence like no other poet.

One striking moment in the poem is when Schuyler asks of the moths, “Had/they laid their/eggs, and fluttered/in the then still/woods, aware of the coming wind,/the storm, their/end?” We can almost imagine that he’s wondering about the short and frantic life of bright souls like Frank O’Hara.  


Seminar #5 Schuyler

In this, our fifth seminar on O’Hara, Schuyler, and the Poetics of Intimacy, we looked at four more Schuyler poems. “The Walk” gave us a showcase of incredible internal rhyming to appreciate: “The ferns/the frost/has killed and/curled”; “a frayed/ sun in sun-/light that/lights up the/empurpled/blackberry/leaves.” Such rhyming follows the staggered rhythm of walking and captures the moment in an awed way.

We noted an emphasis on the randomness of what survives and on impermanence. Here, we paused to reflect on our poets. We agreed that both poets are spontaneous and un-worked over. We agreed that self-questioning comes up much more in Schuyler than O’Hara. And, in some respects, we found that O’Hara’s poems flow in a life, life, life, little bit of death manner, whereas Schuyler’s come across in a death, death, death, little bit of life way. One reason might be that Long Island and Vermont are much different settings than midtown Manhattan. In the latter, the hustle and bustle of life is front and center and death comes as a shock, whereas out in nature, life and death are much more equal partners.  

“Korean Mums”—we observed that the title flows directly into the body of the poem as if it were the opening words and wondered whether Schuyler was a pioneer in doing that. We appreciated the skill in which Schuyler related the death of the owl. Chronologically, we are given the event in reverse—first we are told of the death and then Schuyler recalls seeing the owl during dinner. But in terms of poetic impact, the timeline is just right. The image of an Airedale snapping the owl’s neck is trumped by the vision of “the owl, huge in the dusk,/circling the field/on owl-silent wings” and the resonant “all I really see is that/owl, its bulk troubling/the twilight.” The structure also conforms to Schuyler’s habit of ending his poems with life, if only in memory.

In “June 30, 1974” we loved the decidedly mundane ending: “I/think I’ll make more toast.” That casual impulse speaks to such a leisurely morning that we can’t help but be charmed. The poem describes all the little humdrum details that fill Schuyler’s soul with tranquil joy. Thus, we decided that Schuyler is the poet of mindfulness. “Why that/dinner table is/this breakfast table” is an observation that nicely sums up Schuyler’s scope—discontinuity, change, regeneration.

In “Dining Out with Doug and Frank,” we laughed at how Schuyler gives us a series of digressions and parentheticals within still more digressions. There is verisimilitude in that this accurately represents the way the mind works and how we talk to one another. We had a collective chuckle at the ending: “Oh. Doug and Frank. One is light,/ the other dark./Doug is the tall one.” Such an anti-ending and anti-closure shows us that Schuyler was rightfully placed with O’Hara in the camp of writers who sought the freedom of not writing based on accepted norms.


Seminar #6 Schuyler

In our final session, we focused mainly on the long, Whitman-like “Hymn to Life” and the Payne Whitney poems, which Schuyler wrote while inside the eponymous psychiatric clinic.

“Hymn to Life” immediately pulls you in with the first line’s quiet, nuanced, and striking personification, “The wind rests its cheek upon the ground and feels the cool damp/And lifts its head with twigs and small dead blades of grass/Pressed into it as you might at the beach rise up and brush away/The sand.” In just a few lines we progress to “a scream so rending that to hear it is to be/Never again the same. ‘Why, this is hell.’” Thus, Schuyler sets us up for a hymn to life that promises to cover the highs and lows, the good and bad and everything in between.

We went through the poem selecting some of our favorite spots, like the room being lit from the inside like a yellow jelly bean or the ocean rattling with catarrh and asking for its nose to be wiped. Like O’Hara’s “we are drifting back and forth/between each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles,” Schuyler gets away with wild metaphors and similes because he doesn’t stick with them long enough for them to feel forced.

For many of us, the long poem got better on the second read, when we could sink into it a little more comfortably and enjoy the language.

We read all of the Payne Whitney poems aloud, noticing their stripped-awayness and that Schuyler doesn’t make too much of being in an asylum. We dwelled on the last of the selection, “What”, a poem that feels quietly redemptive. Early in the poem, Schuyler laments “Oh, for someone/to/talk small talk with./Even a dog would do.” The poem’s final section follows, “The daffodils, the heather/and the freesias all/speak to me, I speak/back, like St Francis/and the wolf of Gubbio.” On the surface, Schuyler has found his someone to talk small talk with: the flowers. We can also read this as an affirmation that he is still strongly in communion with the source and the inspiration for much of his poetry: the natural world.

But what of the wolf of Gubbio? As the legend goes, the wolf was terrorizing the citizens of the Umbrian city until St. Francis went and chastened it, whereupon it lay docilely at his feet. One could say that the wolf represents madness. If the flowers Schuyler speaks to are the St. Francis of the conversation, then we could say, again, that by being spoken to by them, Schuyler finds hope for keeping his madness at bay. After three classes of reading his poetry, if ever there is a poet for whom nature is a bulwark against insanity—a grounding, healing, and rejuvenating force—it is James Schuyler.

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