Frank O'Hara's Method

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‘I don’t even like rhythm, assonance, all that stuff. You just go on your nerve.’ – Frank O’Hara (1959)

One can’t be sure how far back we need to recede to enter the realm of the ‘traditional’, nor precisely how we would recognise it when we arrived there. Nevertheless, I see ‘tradition’ as broadly framed by the rules of the past; norms which its adherents feel compelled – or indeed willing – to follow. And yet, when W. C. Williams argued ‘I have never been one to write by rules, even by my own rules’[1], a great challenge to poetry’s skeletal essence, as a link to the past, was challenged. Does the postmodern poem care about the past? More importantly, was Frank O’Hara, as a torchbearer of the postmodern poetic, a loyal student of the past? Or was he a reckless practitioner of the ‘“I do this, I do that” aesthetic’[2]? This essay posits that O’Hara did not reject traditional measure, for ‘what differentiates the poet from other writers is the focus on mode’[3] and O’Hara was no exception in that he did not transcend traditional form. True, O’Hara argued that ‘you just go on your nerve’, however, as W.S. Merwin points out, O’Hara’s point of difference as a poet meant ‘...you don’t just go on that [nerve]. There had to be the talent. And it had to be his [O’Hara’s] own’[4]. Accordingly, O’Hara felt compelled to acquiesce; ‘measure and other technical apparatus, that's just common sense’[5]. Thus, the appearance of rhythm, isochrony, assonance, alliteration and the cacophonous echo of O’Hara’s poetic influences should come as no surprise. And through Charles Olson’s assertion that ‘form is never more than an extension of content’[6], I argue that the ‘nerve’ which was O’Hara’s fire – his very being – necessarily generated a poetic measure that accommodated a masterful fusion of both traditional and postmodern traits.

Rhythm

At first, O’Hara’s Personal Poem from his collection Lunch Poems seems to be a piece that ostensibly rebels against its ‘own rules’. In briefly analysing part of it, we might assess how seriously to take O’Hara’s purported poetic nonchalance, its ‘recreation of everyday experience...a source of annoyance for partisans of every stripe’[7]. We might then strike at the heart of O’Hara’s confession: ‘I don’t think my experiences are clarified or made beautiful for myself or anyone else, they are just there in whatever form I can find them.’[8]

Personal Poem begins:

Now when I walk around at lunchtime
I have only two charms in my pocket
an old Roman coin Mike Kanemitsu gave me
and a bolt-head that broke off a packing case
when I was in Madrid the others never
brought me too much luck though they did
help keep me in New York against coercion
but now I'm happy for a time and interested [9] (1953)

Let us examine rhythm. Rhythm is, above all, the ‘patterning of energy, of tensions and release, movement and countermovement that we both perceive and produce...in our own brains and muscles’[10]. In poetry, it is a semantic and aesthetic catalyst for a bio-chemical oscillation of the mind. Proponents of isochronism, the ‘rhythmic organisation of speech into equal intervals’[11], likely identifies a characteristic of O’Hara’s postmodern measure as being closely related to the rhythm of speech. The tone groups (i.e. the words comprising a single breath or utterance), seem to deliberately or inadvertently create a spoken rhythm:

Now when I walk around at lunchtime
(breath)
I have only two charms in my pocket
(breath)

an old Roman coin Mike Kanemitsu gave me
(breath)
and a bolt-head that broke off a packing case

The apparent isochrony evokes a sense of being spoken to by O’Hara, seemingly ‘address[ing] itself to one person’[12]. Its natural spoken rhythm is...
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