Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Personal Poem by Frank O'Hara

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Journal # 1 – Personal Poem by Frank O’Hara

On first reading, Frank O’Hara’s Personal Poem seems like an ordinary hour in a typical day of the author. Beneath the mundane imagery and seeming ordinariness, however, there is much more happening. I get the feeling that O’Hara, even though he expresses envy for the construction workers on the street—“If I ever get to be a construction worker” (11)—wouldn’t have been satisfied with that life at all. O’Hara, based on the references to the places he frequented and the friends he hung out with, was much more interested in intellectual and social pursuits.

O’Hara packs his lunchtime with references to places and faces that reveal his thoughts, opinions, and biases on a range of topics. He, along with artist pal Matsumi Kanemitsu and fellow poet LeRoi Jones, were highly influential in their day—so when he talks about “who wants to be a mover and/ shaker” (16-17) he is speaking from a position of authority. Considering also that the poem was written during the civil rights era (a fact highlighted by his mention of Miles Davis being clubbed outside BIRDLAND by a cop), O’Hara (who was white) clearly states his politics as well by singling out the Japanese-American Kanemitsu and the African-American Jones as two of his closest friends.

Later in the poem he admits (perhaps embarrassingly) that he feels that his intellectual pursuits are above the common problems of the day when he says that he and LeRoi won’t give the woman a nickel to help fight diseases because “we/ don’t like terrible diseases” (20-21). They then trod off to “eat some fish and some ale” (22) and gossip about their contemporaries (Lionel Trilling and Don Allen), and famous authors (Henry James and Herman Melville). He takes a jab at literary critic Trilling (who, presumably, wrote unfavorably about him) when they “decide” that they don’t like him—as if they are somehow impervious to criticism.

I like Personal Poem very much. Even though on the surface it seems like a simple poem about an hour in the author’s day, a deeper look reveals a glaring commentary on a volatile time in America’s history written by one of the most influential writers of the day.

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