Archive for the ‘Frank O’Hara’ Category

The sixth annual Poem Elf Valentine’s Day Poem Blitz ran into some glitches this year, which is why it’s arriving so late. I knew it was going to be a few hours late because I’m on Hawaii time, but I didn’t expect (who does) to wake up on Valentine’s Day and discover my purse was stolen. I had to spend a few hours with the police and the credit card companies instead of on this post. I can’t complain because, well, Hawaii. Also because my son found my purse in the bushes up the street and the dumb kids who broke in only took my money and not my credit cards, license, favorite lipstick, or prescription sunglasses.

if you have to get your purse stolen, better here than in Michigan

if you have to get your purse stolen, better here than in Michigan


Anyway, the show must go on.


I’m without my own valentine this Valentine’s Day—he’s travelling in Asia–but his absence doesn’t dim my enthusiasm for my favorite holiday. Forget about chocolates and roses and candlelight—it’s a great day stripped of all that, a day to celebrate love in all its forms and manifestations. After all, what other holiday is dedicated to one single emotion?


Let’s start with a poem I’ve posted before (at my niece’s wedding). Fulvia Lupulo’s poem was just the thing to leave at a fancy hotel where couples go to canoodle and watch the sun set over the spectacular Hanalei Bay. This couple from Seattle was celebrating their third anniversary. Look how happy they are!


You don’t need to have a romantic partner to understand that being loved is transformational.



Honeymooners and babymooners (something I only recently heard of) are everywhere here in Hanalei, but I also see a lot of long-married couples. For them I taped “A Decade” by Amy Lowell (1874-1925) on a tree much older than that.


poem is on tree root

The ease of these older couples as they walk the beach or wade into the surf together is a delight to watch. Less red wine and honey and more morning bread.



Here’s one for brand-new Valentines, “Rondeau” by Leigh Hunt (1784-1859). I taped it to a park bench under a tree on the beach, just right for a first kiss.

poem is on bench back

poem is on bench back

Hunt’s poem is a sweet reminder of the thrill of that first contact.



Galentines is a thing these days, not a typo, a day (the day before Valentine’s Day, actually) to celebrate friendship. I’m changing it to Palentines so men are included, and so for all pals I left an excerpt from Shakespeare’s “To Me, Fair Friend” under a wooden statue of an old surfer in Hanalei Town. The surfer is making the shaka sign, a friendly greeting made popular by surfers and Hawaiians.



The gray-haired, wrinkle-chested surfers you meet around here truly are, in dress and demeanor, ageless. Boys by any measure of the spirit.



For those who find Valentines Day painful, I taped William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) “Down by the Salley Gardens” on a flowery phone booth right outside a lively bar where couples are busy coupling.


Yeats is the poster boy for unrequited love. He courted Maud Gonne for thirty years and it all came to this: But I was young and foolish, and now am full of tears.



For break-ups that are more bittersweet than heartbreaking, I present this Frank O’Hara poem (1926-1966), “Animals.” I wedged it in a display of Valentine animals of unknown species in the grocery store.


The older I get, the more I love this poem and these lines in particular:

when we were still first rate

and the day came fat with an apple in its mouth



For my own Valentine, who wakes up today on the opposite side of the Pacific, I taped “Tides” by Hugo Williams (b. 1942) to some twigs and stuck it in the sand at high tide.


For that is happiness: to wander alone

Surrounded by the same moon, whose tides remind us of ourselves



That’s it! Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone! Or Happy Day-After Valentine’s Day if that’s what it is by the time you read this!


And yes, Happy Valentine’s day even to the punks who stole my money—may you find the love that heals whatever ails you.



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poem is taped to bench

Autobiographia Literaria

by Frank O’Hara

When I was a child

I played by myself in a

corner of the schoolyard

all alone.

I hated dolls and I

hated games, animals were

not friendly and birds

flew away.

If anyone was looking

for me I hid behind a

tree and cried out “I am

an orphan.”

And here I am, the

center of all beauty!

writing these poems!


I’ve kept a copy of this poem for years now, as if it belonged to me, as if it were a well-loved fragment of a baby blanket or a page ripped from a youthful diary.  I too was an oddball (some would quibble with the past tense here), a loner child, a quiet girl who chose not to speak in fifth grade, a high schooler who sometimes ate alone in the locker room.  Don’t cue the violins—I’m as amused by my own history as O’Hara is by his.  But when I used to present this poem to seventh grade creative writing classes, I was always surprised that no one found it funny. O’Hara’s clowning around was lost on them.


Perhaps the class missed the poem’s humor because of the exclamation points.  Maybe the Twitter generation uses exclamation points so profligately that they don’t get it when a writer overuses them to amuse.  I avoid exclamation points so as not to come off as chirpy and vacuous. I avoid wearing string bikinis and baby doll dresses for the same reason.   But these days everyone wants to sound like a breathless teenage girl.  As a result, a message delivered without exclamation points sounds either unenthusiastic or sarcastic.


The exclamation marks in the poem’s final stanza do double duty: first, they announce that the poet, in a very un-poet-like fashion, doesn’t take himself too seriously.  In spite of the Latin title, the poem and poet are decidedly unpretentious. The exaggerated misery of his childhood is matched by the exaggerated success of his artistic life, and signal that an elfish mind is at play.


But even as the exclamation marks subvert the meaning of the words they punctuate–And here I am, the/center of all beauty!–they don’t steer the poem towards sarcasm.  O’Hara achieves a tone of genuine surprise at the outcome of his life.  The exclamation marks come off as sweet, not snarky. He may not really think he’s at the center of all beauty, but he sure seems happy.


Joking aside, O’Hara makes the more serious point that artists are by nature outsiders.  “Literaria Autobiographia” becomes a quick sketch of the creative temperament in childhood. Playgrounds can be classrooms for conformity:  those who flaunt rules for games and social rules for blending in and getting along risk being ostracized.  The poet cannot or will not conform.  I am an orphan, he cries out.  He belongs to no one but himself.  The poet also, in typical writer-ly fashion, hides from others while at the same time he calls out for their attention and love.


O’Hara by all accounts grew up to be a very sociable man, not at all like the boy behind the tree.  In his elegy for O’Hara, poet Allen Ginsburg described him as “chattering Frank.”  If it weren’t for the fact that O’Hara was run over by a dune buggy and killed at age 40, this poem is a perfect fit for the “It Gets Better” campaign.  The Cinderella arc of the poem and O’Hara’s openness about his homosexuality at a time when most gays were closeted, might make a youtube video to rival Tim Gunn’s.


Like other O’Hara poems, this one has a spontaneous, just-winging-it feel.  He didn’t like formalism.  “I don’t even like rhythm, assonance, all that stuff,” he wrote. “You just go on your nerve. If someone’s chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don’t turn around and shout, ‘Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep!'” Still, for a simulated improvisation, the poem is pretty darn tidy and neatly constructed, with four stanzas of four short lines each.


Born in Baltimore and raised in Massachusetts, O’Hara found his home in the artistic hive of Greenwich Village.  The list of his friends and associates amazes me and calls up an exciting world of cross-pollination. He roomed with Edward Gorey, worked for photographer Cecil Beaton, hung out with poets John Ashberry, Allen Ginsberg, LeRoi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka), and artists deKooning and Pollock.  O’Hara himself worked across disciplines:  he was an accomplished pianist and jazz lover as well as a poet, playwright, and art critic, earning a living as a curator at the Modern Museum of Art. (In its second season, the TV show Mad Men wisely chose O’Hara as a symbol of nonconforming bohemia, of creativity used in the service of art not commerce —in other words, a symbol of everything Don Draper is not.  Link here for Don Draper reading O’Hara’s “Mayakovsky.”)


Placing this poem in Detroit’s world-famous Heidelburg Project was not my first choice (I imagined leaving it at a therapist’s office), but the more I thought about it, the better the fit seemed. Artist Tyree Guyton began the Heidelburg Project in 1986 after coming home from the army and seeing what a bleak and dangerous wasteland his neighborhood had become.  He wanted to create a safe and beautiful environment that residents could feel proud of.

I loved these telephones


He started with polka dots, an inspired decision.  What better than polka dots to lighten a landscape?  Today the polka dots grow from the street to the houses; even the trees are dotted with clear colored discs that catch the sunlight.  All manner of discarded items—stuffed animals, typewriters, telephones—are used with wit and humor.  Each weather-beaten and frayed piece of the project reminds the viewer of Detroit’s deterioration and gives hope for Detroit’s transformation. The ugly duckling made beautiful.  Just the right place for  “Autobiographia Literaria.”


"Birth!" my daughter said when she saw this


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