by Frank O’Hara
The eager note on my door said “Call me,
call when you get in!” so I quickly threw
a few tangerines into my overnight bag,
straightened my eyelids and shoulders, and
headed straight for the door. It was autumn
by the time I got around the corner, oh all
unwilling to be either pertinent or bemused, but
the leaves were brighter than grass on the sidewalk!
Funny, I thought, that the lights are on this late
and the hall door open; still up at this hour, a
champion jai-alai player like himself? Oh fie!
for shame! What a host, so zealous! And he was
there in the hall, flat on a sheet of blood that
ran down the stairs. I did appreciate it. There are few
hosts who so thoroughly prepare to greet a guest
only casually invited, and that several months ago.
In the first section of “Conventions Of Wonder,” Pinsky takes to task the descriptive styles of Louise Bogan and Frank O’Hara. More specifically, the two poems, one from each, seem to do a flip-flop of typical modes of description, as Pinsky says, “both avoid the convention of words telling-about a physical reality…each deflects our feelings…away from wonder, and towards impatience.” Bogan’s poem “Simple Autumnal,” as her poems often do for me, strike as flat because of their method of putting themselves on a pedestal of sorts before attempting to reach back down to the reader, so to speak. O’Hara’s poem, to me, does a much better job accomplishing what Pinsky says both do, in a way that is accessible, purposeful, and poignant.
Sure, the emotion is less defined by words, as Bogan uses words like “sorrow,” but O’Hara puts himself on the page in other ways: with the action, with the speaker, with the voice. While Bogan’s undoubtedly has those elements, O’Hara’s uses are, for me, more aligned with an aesthetic of approachability and engagement. Where Pinsky claims that this poem “quarrels with our sense of how poetry treats experience,” I certainly agree, but I’ll also point to that quality as one of the major contributors for the engaging quality of the poem, as in much of O’Hara’s writing.
Such a trait, I might add, could be one of the reasons O’Hara continues in popularity with my generation of writers and poetry readers. As Pinksy does so well to point out, O’Hara uses phrases and specifics that “insist upon the unique, unpredictable character of experience…warning the reader that his generalities and expectations are likely to prove irrelevant to these irreducible particulars.” In this quote and in O’Hara’s poem, I see a point about my developing view of poetry that at once points at my extreme preference of O’Hara over Bogan and my deep affinity with indie/small press lit.
This element of broken expectations and approachability adds energy and emotional movement to O’Hara’s poem that I don’t find in Bogan’s. Additionally, my favorite pieces of indie literature ride on similar mechanisms. I’m reminded of Daniel Bailey’s Drunk Sonnet 14 because of it’s refusal to be anything expected or emotionally worded:
Drunk Sonnet 14
BY DANIEL BAILEY
IF ANYONE KNOWS WHAT IS GOING ON EVER THEN HEY
I AM HERE IT WOULD BE NICE TO TALK SOMETIME
INFOMERCIALS HAVE STARTED AND I KIND OF WANT TO DIE
I’M PRETTY SURE THIS ONE IS ACTUALLY FOR A MORGUE
OK SO ACTUALLY IT’S FOR THE BIBLE OR SOMETHING
SO IT’S A COMMERICAL FOR TRYING TO BE HAPPY OR SOMETHING
BUT I AM NOT HAPPY TONIGHT NO I AM NOT JUST HERE
IF HAPPINESS EVER WORKED THEN HOW—I DON’T KNOW
HAPPINESS IS A LIZARD IN THE SUNLIGHT GETTING WARM
AND THEN IN THE NIGHT BENEATH A ROCK EATING FLIES
AND SWALLLOWING THE MEAT OF THE TRASH OF THE DIRT
AH, SO TONIGHT IS A LITTLE DRUNK AND OK OK OK
THAT IS GOOD SO LET ME BE—THERE IS NO LOVE TONIGHT
GOD IS LIKE BONO—SOME DICKWAD NO ONE WILL EVER MEET OR LIKE
While it uses words like “happiness,” this poem takes that abstract word and other emotions and puts them onto the page, a page that steamrolls over itself. That third stanza is a great example of this. The poem starts with the speaker, the situation, the direct address of the openness. Then, boom, the turn in the third stanza pulls the poem, and more importantly the feeling, into description, but beyond that it busies its way through the image. The ending, for me, seems like a fuck-you to this whole discussion, going from “THERE IS NO LOVE TONIGHT” immediately to the last line, a seemingly unrelated commentary on both God and Bono. This last part is a good example of both this poem as a even more modern example of Pinsky’s thoughts on description going beyond wonder to impatience and the idea that my favorite kind of poems don’t hide behind their language but reach out for the reader and their true selves.