Jun. 27, 2004
Poem: "Poem," and "Today," by Frank O'Hara, from The Selected Poems of Frank O'Hara. © Vintage Books. Reprinted with permission.
Light clarity avocado salad in the morning
after all the terrible things I do how amazing it is
to find forgiveness and love, not even forgiveness
since what is done is done and forgiveness isn't love
and love is love nothing can ever go wrong
though things can get irritating boring and dispensable
(in the imagination) but not really for love
though a block away you feel distant the mere presence
changes everything like a chemical dropped on a paper
and all thoughts disappear in a strange quiet excitement
I am sure of nothing but this, intensified by breathing
Oh! kangaroos, sequins, chocolate sodas!
You really are beautiful! Pearls,
harmonicas, jujubes, aspirins! all
the stuff they've always talked about
still makes a poem a surprise!
These things are with us every day
even on beachheads and biers. They
do have meaning. They're strong as rocks.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of poet Frank O'Hara, born in Baltimore, Maryland (1926). He wanted to be a pianist when he was growing up, but while he was a student at Harvard he met the poets John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch and they persuaded him to write poetry too. He moved to New York City in 1951. He got a job selling post cards at the Museum of Modern Art, and he slowly worked his way up to became one of the curators.
He fell in love with the abstract art of the 1950s, and he argued that poems should be improvisational, like action paintings, full of random references to movies and taxies and paintings and garbage. He said, "I don't believe in rhythm, assonance, [any] of that stuff. 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.'"
In books such as Oranges (1953), Second Avenue (1960), and Lunch Poems (1964) he wrote about taking walks, hanging out with painters, reading newspapers, and Billy Holiday. At the height of his career he wrote constantly, and stuffed his poems into his desk drawers, often forgetting about them. He wrote one of his most famous poems "Lana Turner Has Collapsed!" while riding the Staten Island ferry to a poetry reading, and he read it that night, an hour after finishing it. Some of his poems only survive because friends copied them down and sent the copies to each other in letters. His Collected Poems was brought back into print in 1995.
It's the birthday of the poet and short story writer Paul Laurence Dunbar, born in Dayton, Ohio (1872). He was the one of the first African-American writers to gain popular recognition for his work. His father was a slave who had fled the South on the Underground Railroad and later fought in the Civil War as a Union soldier. His mother had been a slave until the end of the Civil War.
Dunbar was the only black student at his high school in Dayton, Ohio, but he was elected president of his class and editor of the high school newspaper. After high school, none of the newspapers in town would give him a job, so he supported himself as an elevator operator. He read and wrote poems while standing in the elevator stall, waiting for passengers. In 1862, the Western Association of Writers had a meeting in Dayton, and Dunbar's high school English teacher arranged for him to give the welcoming address. He read a poem that so impressed the audience that they invited him to become a member of the association. One of the people in the audience wrote an article about his poetry that was printed in newspapers around the country.
Dunbar published his first poetry collection, Oak and Ivy, in 1892, and he sold it himself to elevator passengers in his elevator. The following year, he was invited to read his poetry at the World's Fair in Chicago. He went on to publish several more collections, including Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896) and Lyrics of Love and Laughter (1903), before his death of tuberculosis when he was just thirty-three.
It's the birthday of poet Peter Davison, born in New York City (1928). His father was a British poet who had come to the United States as a professor of English literature. The family moved a lot throughout Davison's childhood, but they finally settled in Boulder, Colorado, where his father directed the University of Colorado Writer's Conference. Through the conference, Davison got to meet many of the country's leading poets, including Robert Penn Warren, Carl Sandburg, and Robert Frost.
His first poetry collection was The Breaking of the Day and Other Poems (1964). He went on to become an editor of The Atlantic Monthly, and he's been the poetry editor there for more than twenty-five years.
It's the birthday of novelist Alice McDermott, born in Brooklyn, New York (1953). She grew up on Long Island in an Irish Catholic family, where most of the men worked for the Con Edison electric company. She grew up to write several novels about Irish Catholic families in the suburbs around New York, including That Night (1987) and Charming Billy (1998). Her most recent book is Child of My Heart (2002).
McDermott said, "In fiction you have to be fairly specific. And I know how Irish-Americans in the New York area talk, what kind of couches they buy, and what kind of plastic slipcovers they put on the couches. ... But I'm more interested in what's going on in their heads than what's going on their couches."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®