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The Best American Poetry 2009by David Wagoner
What is a poet? In his "Defense of Poetry," Shelley writes, "A poet is a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not whence or why." The solitude and sweet darkness, the emphasis on the unseen, the nightingale as the image of the poet, the listeners entranced but bewildered: how romantic this formulation is — and how well it fits its author. Matthew Arnold alters the metaphor but retains something of its tone when he calls Shelley "a beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain." Kierkegaard in Either/Or goes further than either Shelley or Arnold in accentuating the negative. In a passage I've long admired, Kierkegaard identifies the poet as one whose heart is full of anguish but whose lips transform all sighs and groans into beautiful music. Kierkegaard likens the fate of this "unhappy" individual to the cruel and unusual punishment meted out by the tyrant Phalaris, whose unfortunate victims, "slowly roasted by a gentle fire" in a huge copper bull, let out shrieks that turn into sweet melodies by the time they reach the tyrant's ears. The success of the poet, then, corresponds to the amount of agony endured. Readers clamor for more, for they are aware only of the music and not of the suffering that went into it. The critics, too, stand ready to applaud — if, that is, the poet's work meets the requirements of the immutable "laws of aesthetics." And here Kierkegaard's parable acquires an extra layer of irony, the better to convey his contempt for critics. "Why, to be sure," he writes, "a critic resembles a poet as one pea another, the only difference being that he has no anguish in his heart and no music on his lips." And therefore, Kierkegaard concludes with a flourish, sooner would he be a swineherd understood by the swine than a poet misunderstood by men.
Kierkegaard's argument proceeds by the logic of his similes — the sweet music, the barbaric torture, the prosaic peas in the pod, the swineherd as an honorable profession — and the abrupt tonal shift at the end from sarcasm to defiance. If, as Wallace Stevens asserted, "poetry is almost incredibly one of the effects of analogy," here is a gorgeous example. The passage has the virtue, moreover, of raising questions about the occupational hazards that poets face and about their relation to a world of readers and reviewers.
In one way, at least, Kierkegaard's parable is untrue to the experience of American poets, who rarely have to fend off legions of avid admirers. But the notion that the job of the critic is to find fault with the poetry — that the aims of criticism and of poetry are opposed — is still with us or, rather, has returned after a hiatus. It was once erroneously thought that devastating reviews caused John Keats's untimely death in his twenty-sixth year. Lord Byron in Don Juan had Keats and his reviewers in mind when he wrote, "Tis strange the mind, that very fiery particle, / Should let itself be snuff'd out by an article." In reality, however, it was not criticism but consumption that cut short Keats's life.1 Many of us delight in Oscar Wilde's witty paradoxes that blur the identities of artist and critic.2 The critical essays of T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden are continuous with their poems and teach us that criticism is a matter not of enforcing the "laws of aesthetics" or meting out sentences as a judge might pronounce them in court. Rather, the poet as critic engages with works of literature and enriches our understanding and enjoyment of them. Yet today more than a few commentators seem intent on punishing the authors they review. It has grown into a phenomenon. In the March 2009 issue of Poetry, the critic Jason Guriel defends "negativity" as "the poetry reviewer's natural posture, the default position she assumes before scanning a single line." The title of Guriel's piece sums it up: "Going Negative."
The romantic image of the poet as a vulnerable personage in a hostile universe has not gone out of currency. The poet is doomed to go unrecognized and to pay dearly for his music-making powers. The gift of poetry comes not as an unalloyed blessing but as the incidental virtue of a defect or as compensation for a loss, an injury, an ailment, a deficiency. Edmund Wilson coined the phrase that readily comes to mind for this dynamic of compensatory balance: "the wound and the bow." Before it served Wilson as the title of a collection of his essays (1941), the phrase headed his study of the myth of Philoctetes, which the critic took as paradigmatic of the artist's situation. Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles treated the myth in plays; the Philoctetes of Sophocles survives. The hero, who excels even Odysseus at archery, possesses the invincible bow that once belonged to Hercules. Philoctetes joins the Greeks in their assault on Troy but is bitten by a poisonous snake, and the suppurating wound emits so foul an odor that his comrades-in-arms abandon him on the island of Lemnos. There he is stranded for ten miserable years. But when a Trojan prophet is forced to reveal that the Greeks will fail to conquer Troy without the unerring bow of Philoctetes, a platoon is dispatched to reenlist the archer — who is understandably reluctant to return to the fray — and to recover his arms by any means necessary. In Sophocles, Philoctetes is cured at Troy. He goes on to kill Paris, the Trojan prince whose abduction of Helen precipitated the epic conflict, and he becomes one of the heroes of the Greek victory. One lesson, according to Wilson, is that "genius and disease, like strength and mutilation, may be inextricably bound up together." In the most speculative and provocative sentence in the essay, Wilson ventures that "somewhere even in the fortunate Sophocles there had been a sick and raving Philoctetes."
W. H. Auden's early prose poem, "Letter to a Wound" (1931), is a powerful modern statement of the theme: "You are so quiet these days that I get quite nervous, remove the dressing. I am safe, you are still there." Addressing the wound as "you" is not merely a grammatical convenience but the vehicle of a linguistic transformation; the ailment becomes an active, willful muse and companion — albeit one whose traits include "insane jealousy," "bad manners," and a "passion for spoiling things." The letter writer has learned to live with his incurable condition as with a secret partner, an illicit lover. They have even gone through a "honeymoon stage" together. "Thanks to you," Auden writes, "I have come to see a profound significance in relations I never dreamt of considering before, an old lady's affection for a small boy, the Waterhouses and their retriever, the curious bond between Offal and Snig, the partners in the hardware shop in the front." The wound is not named, though we read of a visit to a surgeon, who begins a sentence, "I'm afraid," and need not add a word. The particular virtue of this epistolary prose poem is that "I" and "you," a pair of pronouns, are raised to the level of a universal duality and are therefore greater than any specific duality that seems appropriate — whether "artist" and "wound," or "self" and "soul," or "ego" and "id," or "lover" and "beloved."
It is difficult not to fall under the spell of Wilson's wound and bow or of the corresponding myth in the Hebraic tradition. In the thirty-second chapter of Genesis, Jacob — who twice in the past had got the better of his brother Esau, both times by cunning or deceit — must wrestle with "a man" who will not reveal his name and who must flee the scene at daybreak. The struggle takes place on the eve of his first encounter with Esau after many years, in the deep darkness of the night, and it is physical combat of a kind not associated with Jacob. When he fights the angel to a standstill, he receives a blessing and a new name, Israel (because he has "contended with God and men and has prevailed"). But he has also suffered a wound "in the hollow of his thigh" that causes him to limp thereafter. The story is rich and mysterious in inverse proportion to its length: nine biblical verses. Though each is said to be a source of power, the Hebrew blessing bestowed on Jacob is utterly different from the Greek bow. Yet at bottom we find the familiar dialectic of compensation.
Such myths may console us. The logic of Emerson's essay "Compensation" has saved my spirits on many a dismal afternoon. "The sure years reveal the deep emotional force that underlies all facts," Emerson writes. "The death of a dear friend, wife, brother, lover, which seemed nothing but privation, somewhat later assumes the aspect of a guide or genius; for it commonly operates revolutions in our way of life, terminates an epoch of infancy or of youth which was waiting to be closed, breaks up a wonted occupation, or a household, or style of living, and allows the formation of new ones more friendly to the growth of character." It is to Emerson's essay that I turn when I need to tamp down the impulses of resentment or envy and reconcile myself to realities. There is wisdom here and truth, a counterargument if not exactly a solution to the problem of evil that Gerard Manley Hopkins stated summarily: "Why do sinners' ways prosper? And why must / Disappointment all I endeavor end?"
There is also, however, a danger in the intimate association of genius and illness, especially mental illness, especially at a time when many of us engaged in the discourse of poetry come into contact with ever-increasing numbers of impressionable young people who want to study creative writing. The romantic conception of the poet can lead too easily to self-pity or worse, the glorification of madness and the idealization of the self-inflicted wound. We need to remember that poetry springs from joy as often as from sorrow: the impulse to praise is as strong as the impulse to mourn. Lionel Trilling's essay "Art and Neurosis" is a vital corrective to the tendency to assent too readily to propositions obscuring the differences between genius and madness. Trilling accepts the premise that all of us, including "the fortunate Sophocles," are ill; we are all neurotic. In that case, it is not the primal hurt but the ability to rise above it that distinguishes the artist. Poetry is not a matter of divine madness but the product of labor and conscious mind. "Nothing is so characteristic of the artist as his power of shaping his work, of subjugating his raw material, however aberrant it be from what we call normality," Trilling writes. "What marks the artist is his power to shape the material of pain we all have."
My favorite sentence in Kierkegaard's parable is the one in which poets and critics are considered identical except that the latter lack the very qualities — the anguish in the heart and the music on the lips — that are definitive of the poet. For many years I resisted Kierkegaard's "either/ or" logic. I felt that there needn't be a structural enmity between poetry and criticism. Now I wonder.
The characteristic badness of literary criticism in the 1980s was that it was heavily driven by theory and saddled with an unlovely vocabulary. T. S. Eliot, in "The Function of Criticism" (1923), says he "presumes" that "no exponent of criticism" has "ever made the preposterous assumption that criticism is an autotelic activity" — that is, an activity to be undertaken as an end in itself without connection to a work of literature. Eliot did not figure on post-structuralism and the critic's declaration of independence from the text. If you wanted criticism "constantly to be confronted with examples of poetry," as R. P. Blackmur recommends in "A Critic's Job of Work," you were in for a bad time in the 1980s. The academic critics' disregard of contemporary poetry paralleled the rise of creative writing as a field of study and, partly in consequence, the writing of poetry did not suffer, though from time to time you would hear the tired refrain that poetry — like God, the novel as a form, and the author altogether — had died. This shibboleth itself has not perished. Newsweek reports that, despite "anecdotal evidence that interest in poetry is on the rise," statistics show a decline. "Is an art form dying?" the magazine asks.3 Donald Hall wrote the definitive response to these premature death notices, "Death to the Death of Poetry," which served as the introduction to The Best American Poetry 1989. Hall's assertion remains valid: "American poetry survives; it even prevails."
Poetry criticism at its worst today is mean in spirit and spiteful in intent, as if determined to inflict the wound that will spur the artist to new heights if it does not cripple him or her. Somewhere along the line, the notion took hold that poets were reluctant to write honestly about their peers. But in the absence of critics who are not themselves poets, surely the antidote is not to encourage the habit of rejection without explanation, denunciation without a reasoned argument, and a slam of the gavel in high dudgeon as if a poem were a felony. Hostile criticism, criticism by insult, may have entertainment value, but animus does not guarantee honesty. As one who knows from firsthand experience what a book reviewer faces when writing on deadline, I can tell the real thing when I see it, and the hysterical over-the-top attack is as often as not the product of a pose. Every critic knows it is easier (and more fun) to write a ruthless review rather than a measured one. As a reviewer, you're not human if you don't give vent to your outrage once or twice — if only to get the impulse out of you. If you have too good a time writing hostile reviews, you'll injure not only your sensibility but your soul. Frank O'Hara felt he had no responsibility to respond to a bad poem. It'll "slip into oblivion without my help," he would say.
William Logan typifies the bilious reviewer of our day. He has attacked, viciously, a great many American poets; I, too, have been the object of his scorn. Logan is the critic as O'Hara defined the species: "the assassin of my orchards." You can rely on him to go for the most wounding gesture. Michael Palmer writes a "Baudelaire Series" of poems, for example, and Logan comments, "Baudelaire would have eaten Mr. Palmer for breakfast, with salt." The poems of Australian poet Les Murray seem "badly translated out of Old Church Slavonic with only a Russian phrase book at hand." Reviewing a book by Adrienne Rich is a task that Logan feels he could almost undertake in his sleep. Reading C. K. Williams is "like watching a dog eat its own vomit."
For many years, Logan reserved his barbs for the poets of our time. More recently he has sneered at Emily Dickinson ("a bloodless recluse") and condescended to Emerson ("a mediocre poet"). And still the New York Times Book Review turned to Logan to review the new edition of Frank O'Hara's Selected Poems last summer. Logan's piece began with the observation that O'Hara's death at the age of forty in a freak accident was a "good career move." This is not a particularly original phrase, but in O'Hara's case it is doubly unkind, giving the false impression that he died by his own hand.
Logan's treatment of Langdon Hammer's Library of America edition of Hart Crane's poetry and prose — which ran in the New York Times Book Review in January 2007 — provoked among many readers the feeling that here he had gone too far. The piece dwelled on Crane's "sexual appetites," which "were voracious and involved far too many sailors," and included a flip dismissal of Crane's poem "Chaplinesque" (a "dreadful mess"). The review triggered off a spate of letters that the Times duly printed. Rosanna Warren summed up what many felt: "Snide biographical snippets about homosexuality and alcoholism are not literary criticism, nor are poems illuminated by sarcastic bons mots ('a Myth of America conceived by Tiffany and executed by Disney,' 'like being stuck in a mawkish medley from Show Boat and Oklahoma!'). Crane's revelatory weaknesses as well as his, yes, genius, deserved a more responsible accounting."
Wounded by the outcry, Logan wrote a lengthy defense of himself and his procedures in the October 2008 issue of Poetry. More letters to the editor followed: three pages of them in the December 2008 issue, along with a concluding comment by Logan longer than the combined efforts of the correspondents. For one who routinely seeks to give offense, Logan turns out to be thin-skinned. In the end he falls back on the argument that it is fruitless to argue in matters of taste. "The problem with taste is, yours is right and everyone else's is wrong," Logan writes. Bosh. The real problem is that Logan confuses taste with bias. Using the Romantic poets as an example, he writes: "You can't stand that ditherer Coleridge, she can't stand that whiner Keats, I can't stand that dry fussbudget Wordsworth, and we all hate Shelley." Only someone for whom poets are merely names, abstractions that never had a flesh-and-blood existence, could so gleefully reduce these poets to those epithets. But when Logan returns to "Chaplinesque," Hart Crane's "hapless little" poem (and how that unnecessary "little" rankles), he gives the game away.
Here is "Chaplinesque":
We make our meek adjustments,
Contented with such random consolations
As the wind deposits
In slithered and too ample pockets.
For we can still love the world, who find
A famished kitten on the step, and know
Recesses for it from the fury of the street,
Or warm torn elbow coverts.
We will sidestep, and to the final smirk
Dally the doom of that inevitable thumb
That slowly chafes its puckered index toward us,
Facing the dull squint with what innocence
And what surprise!
And yet these fine collapses are not lies
More than the pirouettes of any pliant cane;
Our obsequies are, in a way, no enterprise.
We can evade you, and all else but the heart:
What blame to us if the heart live on.
The game enforces smirks; but we have seen
The moon in lonely alleys make
A grail of laughter of an empty ash can,
And through all sound of gaiety and quest
Have heard a kitten in the wilderness.
To Logan the poem's concluding lines are self-evidently "embarrassing," an adjective he uses twice without substantiation. In the three separate pieces in which Logan brings up the poem, he lazily repeats the same charges, uses the same modifiers: the penultimate stanza of "Chaplinesque" is "hapless and tone deaf," the ending is "schmaltz," and the poem as a whole is evidence that the poet was "star-struck" by Charlie Chaplin, whose movies inspired Crane.
Everyone is entitled to an opinion, but a professional critic has the responsibility to develop opinions, not just to state them. Rather than make the effort to see how Crane's poem works as a response to Chaplin's film The Kid, Logan ridicules the "star-struck" poet, likening Chaplin then to Angelina Jolie now, a comparison of dubious value that manages to insult everyone including Chaplin, Crane, Angelina Jolie, and the "seventy-seven American poets" who, Logan says in his patented blend of self-regard and snarky wit, have written odes to Jolie because Logan wrote that Crane met Chaplin after writing "Chaplinesque."
I do not claim to comprehend "Chaplinesque" perfectly, but I believe that the lover of poetry will recognize the genius in this poem before any irritable reaching after paraphrase. Crane's repeated use of the homonym for his first name — "We can evade you, and all else but the heart: What blame to us if the heart live on" — seems to me, for example, well worth pondering in the context of the lines' pronomial ambiguity. The poem's opening stanzas are so rich one wants to say them over and over, to speculate on the idea of the Chaplin persona as an image of the poet, of the "famished kitten" as an image of poetry, or to contemplate the remarkable sequence of "smirk," "thumb," and "squint" in the third stanza. The finger-in-the-eye slapstick comedy routine has never seemed so threatening, even if we can "Dally the doom of that inevitable thumb / That slowly chafes its puckered index toward us." The poem's ending is particularly memorable. You may not make easy sense of that "grail of laughter" created by the moon out of a garbage can in a deserted alley. But this arresting image that fuses the sacred and the profane, sky and slum, will not soon depart from your consciousness. The key phrase here, "a grail of laughter," is a great example of a poetic image that defies logical analysis, for we instinctively grasp it as a figure of the sublime, though we know that a grail cannot be "of" laughter in any conventional sense. The laughter is the "sound of gaiety and quest," and "we" can see the miracle, behold the grail, because we have heard the cry of the alley cat, and we know that poetry is not simply a grand visionary quest but also something very precious and vulnerable, a kitten in the wilderness.
The critic whose take on "Chaplinesque" I'd like to see is Christopher Ricks. Ricks begins his book T. S. Eliot and Prejudice with a reading of the most audacious poetic debut of the twentieth century. You might have thought that "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" would require the critic to digress from a consideration of prejudice, the focal point of Ricks's study of Eliot. Not so. Ricks quotes the uncanny stand-alone couplet that Eliot uses twice: "In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo." What have scholars said about the lines? The Oxford don Helen Gardner hears "high-pitched feminine voices" that are absurdly inadequate to the "giant art" of Michelangelo. Grover Smith says he has "no doubt" the women are talking "tediously and ignorantly." To Hugh Kenner, the women are "trivial." John Crowe Ransom, discerning "contempt" in Eliot's voice, rephrases the couplet as a rhetorical question about the women: "How could they have had any inkling of that glory which Michelangelo had put into his marbles and his paintings?"
Yet, as Ricks observes, nowhere does Eliot tell us how to react to these women entering and leaving the drawing room. He chooses "talking" to describe what they are doing when he could as easily have said "prattling." He uses no adjective to denigrate the women, though at his disposal he had those I've already given ("trivial," "ignorant," "tedious") and more ("shallow," "affected," "fashionable"). Nor does Eliot praise the "glory" of Michelangelo's "giant art" by way of emphasizing the discrepancy between the women and the object of their conversation. It is a measure of Eliot's subtlety and skill that he disdains such modifiers as would bully a reader into the desired response. But Ricks's larger point is that even redoubtable critics are unaware of "how much their sense of the lines is incited by prejudice."
Ricks's treatment of Eliot illustrates how canny a close reader he is. It may remind us also of the pleasure to be had from such acts of critical acumen. And if, as Wordsworth insisted in the preface to the Lyrical Ballads, the giving of pleasure constitutes the poet's first obligation to the reader, may it not be reasonable to expect the critic of poetry to honor this same imperative? Yet what Wordsworth calls the "grand elementary principle of pleasure" is missing from discussions of contemporary poetry. Schadenfreude is a poor substitute. True delight accompanies edification when a lover of poetry shows us how to read a poem on its own terms, paying it the respect of careful attention, leaving aside the prejudices of the anathematist, the ideologue, the apostle of received opinion, or the bully on the block.
It may just be that the most appealing alternative to the negativity of contemporary criticism is the selective inclusiveness of a dedicated editor. For thirty-six years David Wagoner edited Poetry Northwest. The value of a supportive editor is incalculable, and Wagoner was among the best. His editorial practice can be seen as an extension of his humane poetics. For more than a half century, he has written about ordinary lives and real landscapes with grace and emotional complexity. A master of the plain style, for whom clarity and directness are cardinal virtues, he is a poet of wisdom and wonder. In their unostentatious way, his poems remind us of what it means to be human. Although we set our sights on the heavens, what we see from the wrong end of the telescope may prove more vital, for it "shows us just how little the gods see / if they look back." Yet like actors in a grand comedy we turn and change, turn and change, "like young heavenly objects / endlessly reembodied" with "wardrobes as various / as the wonders of new stars." I am conflating quotations from two poems in Wagoner's latest collection, A Map of the Night, which appeared last year — the year Wagoner spent reading for The Best American Poetry 2009. He has selected poems from an unprecedented number of print or electronic journals: fifty-six. The poets explore subjects ranging from love and death to God, Freud, the beauty of the matriarchs in Genesis, the animals with which we share the planet, "the land to the south of our neighbors to the north," the movies, and "The Great American Poem." A number of the poets address crises in the body politic: the damaged Mississippi Gulf Coast ("Liturgy"), the assassination of Daniel Pearl ("Forty"), the massacre at Virginia Tech ("Ringtone"). We read about the prospect of a change in government ("A Sea-Change") and are confronted with "A Democratic Vista" and the assurance that "Ultimately Justice Directs Them."
The biggest political story of 2008, the campaign and election of Barack Obama as president of the United States, sparked great enthusiasm among American poets. No sooner had the election results come in than the speculation began as to whom the incoming administration would tap to read a poem at the inauguration. Only two previous presidents (Kennedy and Clinton) had incorporated a poem in the inaugural proceedings, but everyone was confident that Obama would renew this tradition and everyone was right. Elizabeth Alexander was entrusted with the task. But even after her name was disclosed, the print and broadcast media continued to run stories on the importance of poetry in the national discourse. Perusal of the poems written by U.S. presidents of the past revealed Lincoln to be our best presidential poet. Anecdotes surfaced on Theodore Roosevelt's admiration of Edwin Arlington Robinson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt's recognition of Archibald MacLeish's talents as a speechwriter, librarian, and adviser at large. The Associated Press reporter Nancy Benac asked a number of poets to write — and, where practicable, recite for the camera — ceremonial poems written with Obama's inauguration in mind. Billy Collins, Yusef Komunyakaa, Alice Walker, Christopher Funkhouser, Amiri Baraka, cowboy poet Ted Newman, Julia Alvarez, Gary Soto, Bob Holman, and I composed poems for the occasion. The results are still accessible via the Internet.
The Internet has multiplied the number of places in which a poem may appear. If it was difficult previously to cover American poetry, even with a company of skillful readers, it is now quite impossible. As David Wagoner notes in his introduction to this year's Best American Poetry, there are more venues for poetry than ever before. Web sites, zines, and blogs have enabled us to close up the lag between the composition and dissemination of any piece of writing. It remains to be seen how this technological advance will affect the nature of the writing itself, although the odds are that it will abet not only the tendency toward informality but also the impulse to buck it by emphasizing new and unusual forms: the abecedarius (or double abecedarius), the lipogram, the use of "found forms" such as the index of first lines in the back of a book of poems. Poems in such forms as these have turned up in recent and current volumes of The Best American Poetry, as have, to be sure, sonnets, sestinas, riddles, prose poems, a villanelle, a cento, a blues poem, a pantoum. The rediscovery of old forms and the fabrication of new ones is one notable tendency in contemporary poetry. A second is the growing appeal of the conversational style that David Kirby calls "ultra talk": a poem that sounds as natural as talk — if we could script our talk. After observing that "every revolution in poetry" is at base "a return to common speech," T. S. Eliot in "The Music of Poetry" (1942) goes on to give the rationale for this sort of "talk poetry": "No poetry, of course, is ever exactly the same speech that the poet talks and hears: but it has to be in such a relation to the speech of his time that the listener or reader can say 'that is how I should talk if I could talk poetry.' "
In 2008, The Best American Poetry launched our blog, which seemed at first to be an indulgence, then a convenience, before we understood that it could function as a kind of magazine, the contents of which change daily and feature an ever-changing roster of contributing writers and columnists. We post poems and comments on poems but also news, links, photos, illustrations, and prose on any subject that engages the mind of a poet. There are certain recurring features. We like aphorisms ("There are people who are too intelligent to become authors, but they do not become critics": W. H. Auden) and brainteasers ("Lives in winter, / Dies in summer, / And grows with its root upwards").4 From time to time we have run contests. Mark Strand judged Gerald Greland the winner of the inaugural ode contest we posted a day or two after Barack Obama's electoral victory. Paul Violi judged Frank Osen the winner of the previous year's competition, in which contestants were asked to decipher an anagram and to write an acrostic poem based on the result. I am still marveling at the notion that, in contrast to the strict limitations of space in a print magazine, we can publish 365 poems in a calendar year. And we can do things like monitor the cultural markers on an acclaimed television show.
The spirit of Frank O'Hara hovered over the second season of the TV series Mad Men on AMC in 2008. In the first episode, ad man Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm) finds himself at a Midtown bar not far from where O'Hara loitered during his lunch hours when he worked as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art. On the barstool next to Draper sits a man with horn-rimmed glasses and curly hair reading O'Hara's Meditations in an Emergency. It is 1962. John F. Kennedy is president. Marilyn Monroe is still alive. Draper asks the man about the book. "You probably wouldn't like it," he is told. But Don buys it, we see him reading it in his office, and as the episode concludes, he mails the book to person or persons unknown and, in a voice-over, recites the fourth and final part of O'Hara's poem "Mayakovsky" in Meditations in an Emergency. The unforgettable phrase "the catastrophe of my personality" occurs here. The charm of such ironic self-deprecation, which is part of O'Hara's character armor, extends to the voice-over. The last words in "Mayakovsky" imply a split in the speaker's personality: "It may be the coldest day of / the year, what does he think of / that? I mean, what do I? And if I do, / perhaps I am myself again." The grammatical fact that, in a narrative, the same person can be either "I" or "he" turns into an apt metaphor for Don Draper, who bears someone else's name — he switched identities (we learned in season one) with a fallen comrade in a skirmish during the Korean War.
Meditations in an Emergency returns as the title of the thirteenth and final episode in season two of Mad Men. Marilyn Monroe has died. It is October. President Kennedy is addressing the nation on TV. Virtually all the characters in the show are going through an emergency of one kind or another, while the country as a whole faces the grave emergency that was the Cuban Missile Crisis. Unlike radio, which has always been a congenial medium for poems and verse plays, TV and poetry have seemed as irreconcilable as dance and architecture. Not the least of Matthew Weiner's accomplishments is the brilliant way he has used O'Hara's poetry to govern the themes of a dramatic series on TV. Mad Men is a big hit, sales of Meditations in an Emergency continue to climb, and a new generation of readers has fallen in love with the poems of Frank O'Hara.
Copyright © 2009 by David Lehman
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