Better Than The Movies: Whitman and O’Hara Both Wrote Poems, And Other Similarities

This is the first bit of my paper, as it stands. Much work is to be done, yet (including adding the citation for the Eberly article). But I thought it might be worthwhile to post these first few paragraphs.

Five days after Frank O’Hara’s death, Allen Ginsberg wrote an elegy to him, who he calls “The gaudy poet …, chattering Frank” whose bones are now “under squares of grass” (Ginsberg 3-10).  It is largely (in the tradition of elegies, to be sure) a sufficiently tender tribute put in competition with a living poet’s sense of superiority.  After all, what successes O’Hara—the “Curator of funny emotions” of Ginsberg’s “City Midnight Junk Strains” elegy—may have seen wither in comparison to Ginsberg himself, a towering and true Prophet in the tradition of Blake and especially of Whitman (Ginsberg 84).  And certainly O’Hara makes no bones of his lack of Bardic intent: “But how can you really care if anybody gets it, or gets what it means, or if it improves them,” he asks in his mock-manifesto, “Personism: A Manifesto,” “Improves them for what? For death? Why hurry them along?” (O’Hara 498).  Surely O’Hara’s is a kind of poetry in direct opposition to the kind of poetry represented by Whitman (and, by extension, Ginsberg), who “spring[s] from the pages into your arms,” who shouts “Remember my words … / I love you” (Whitman 611-612).

What are we to make of it, then, when O’Hara places Whitman among only three American poets who are “better than the movies” (the other two being Williams and Crane, arguably the two poets holding the biggest influence on his poetry) (O’Hara 498)? In truth, there is much of Whitman in O’Hara, but it’s made strange by O’Hara’s flippant nature and distrust of sincerity.  In an article pitting O’Hara and Whitman against each other, David Eberly points to the fact that O’Hara is “as likely to deprecate Whitman as to praise him” (??).  O’Hara’s “Ave Maria,” to take one of Eberly’s examples, pokes fun at Whitman’s emphatic patriotic songs, entreating the “Mothers of America” to “let your kids go to the movies!” (O’Hara 371).  The poem gradually raises the stakes, asserting first that, being “out of the house,” the kids “won’t know what you’re up to,” then that the movies are necessary for “the soul / that grows in darkness, embossed by silvery images,” and then that “they may even be grateful to you / for their first sexual experience” (O’Hara 371-372).  The last lines take this to a comic extreme: “so don’t blame me if you won’t take this advice / and the family breaks up / and your children grow old and blind in front of a TV set / seeing / movies you wouldn’t let them see when they were young” (O’Hara 372).

We see a similar progression of intensity in much of Whitman—take specifically “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” which begins in only seeing the “flood-tide” and the “clouds of the west” “face to face,” and makes its way gradually to commanding the river to “Flow on, … flow with the flood-tide, and ebb with the ebb-tide!” (Whitman 307-312).  If O’Hara is parodying Whitman here, he is doing so in a way that proves Whitman’s effectiveness and value.  O’Hara may trivialize the subject matter, but he uses Whitman’s rhetorical setup to create a poem that is at once tongue-in-cheek and imminently sincere.

And here’s a poem by O’Hara. I can almost make sense of the French. The German is hopeless. But it has Whitman’s name in the title.

A Whitman’s Birthday Broadcast With Static

Pas la jeunesse à moi,
ni delicacy, ich kann nicht, ich kann nicht, keines Vorsprechen!
Ugly on the patio, silly on the floor, unkempt,
dans la vieux parc je m’asseois, et je ne vois pas à droite ni à gauche.
Personne! mais des bruits, des vagues particulières, und ich have Kummer, es könnte ihm ein Schaden zustossen, lacht der Kundschafter.
And then someone comes along who’s sick and I say “Tiens, ça! c’est las de l’amour, c’est okay!” and fall.
Da, ich bin der Komponist, und ich bin komponiert.

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