What Poetry Can Mean

Frank O’Hara, in his 1959 raison d’écrit “Personism: A Manifesto” , describes writing a poem about a loved one. All of a sudden, he realized that “if [he] wanted to [he] could use the telephone instead of writing the poem.” In a vacuum and with the slightly misleading title of “Personism”, this statement might appear to mean that he is advocating a poetry that addresses itself directly to a person, much like a love letter. “It puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person. … The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages.”

But what O’Hara is actually describing is situating the poet back in his poems, instead of effecting an abstract removal of the poet (similar to a journalist’s disappearance from his prose). He gives the example of the choice between “nostalgia of the infinite” and “nostalgia for the infinite” in the construction of a poem. The abstract, objective choice is “nostalgia of the infinite”; the poet disappears. In “nostalgia for the infinite,” the poet reappears in the preposition, relating the poet to the phrase.

There is an important distinction here. O’Hara is not advocating a poetry of love letters; he is writing against the poetry of the absent poet. Verses should be fused with the energy and attitude of the poet and not left to fend for themselves.

All this is well and good. But O’Hara also negates this logic earlier in the manifesto. He writes, “I’m not saying that I don’t have practically the most lofty ideas of anyone writing today, but what difference does that make? they’re just ideas. The only good thing about it is that when I get lofty enough I’ve stopped thinking and that’s when refreshment arrives.” Although the reader must be awake enough to connect the manifesto at the end with the anti-manifesto that begins the piece (“You just go on your nerve”), O’Hara is slyly informative and elusive. He tells the reader at the beginning to take his position on the difference between “for” and “of” lightly, to not be too concerned with the difference.

What comes out of this clash of ideas, this non-manifesto, is the potential fun of poetry — albeit only if you like that sort of thing: “Nobody should experience anything they don’t need to, if they don’t need poetry bully for them, I like the movies too.” But if you are into poetry, the discussion over devices can be useful, but only in the same way, O’Hara explains, as a nice-fitting pair of pants will have a better chance of getting you laid than an awkward pair.

So if you are into this sort of thing, the words of Murasaki Shikibu, in her “The Tale of Genji” from a millennium ago, may be important today — it is surely a integral part of this blog. “It was unthinkable that a poem should get no reply,” she wrote. One of the worst breaches of etiquette is for someone to say to you, “I love you,” and you say nothing. If the poet is back in the his work, how can you read a poem and not respond?

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One response to “What Poetry Can Mean

  1. Pingback: Personality and the Poet « No Record Press: The Blog

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