Of Mad Men, Mayakovsky and Frank O’Hara

Poet, Frank O’Hara

I was going to add the Oxford comma to the title of this post but later decided that I liked what it meant when I wrote it this way. Perhaps that is the one flaw of the OC, by being more precise it loses the magic implications of poetic ambiguity. With it the meaning becomes singularly more vivid but less flexible, less useful in the art of implication. I shall leave it; sometimes the art is in the foible and fumble.

Brian and I don’t watch much TV, but we sometimes find a good show, recommended by a friend perhaps, and watch it through on DVD. LOST and the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica are two examples from the last couple of years. The current show we are marathoning through is the AMC series Mad Men, and while I expected to not like it, I admit to being totally hooked.

I just didn’t see myself enjoying a show about Madison Avenue advertising executives, part of the machine that moved our culture deep into the depths of consumerism, as something worth watching, let alone one that I would enjoy. But the series is very aware of what the ad industry was up to and is more of a chronicle and character study of those times than a trumpeter of the merits of advertising. And anyway, when Brian’s friend Will loaned him the first four seasons on DVD, I knew two things. 1. We were stuck. And 2. Will obviously loved the show. And since he’s a sharp guy, who is not the least bit afraid to challenge the culture, I thought, why not? And truth be told, the writing, directing and acting are all top-notch. Yes, I’d highly recommend it.

We have just started season five, so no spoilers, please. I know that scenes from season six’s premiere were being shot in Hawaii this past weekend, and that’s all I want to know. I was reading along when I saw the phrase, “We last left Don Draper in his–” And I quickly stopped reading. If you’ve already seen the end of season five, please tell me nothing, and let me catch up.

Mad Men’s Don Draper

Tonight though I wanted to toss the discussion back to season two, in which we find Don in a bar, next to a young man who is reading from Frank O’Hara’s book of poems, Meditations in an Emergency. Don gets a bit of the cold shoulder from the young reader, but he is interested, and it’s intriguing to wonder why. While Draper, formerly Dick Whitman (hmmm. . . another poet’s name. I hadn’t thought of that) appears to be Mister Conformity in his suit and tie, we know that he has a very secret past and a penchant for the dark and unusual.

Draper seems so clean cut, so visually respectable. I recall the scene when he was smoking with his mistress and her friends, and I do not mean cigarettes. The police had surrounded the building and were apparently making arrests in the neighborhood. Don put on his overcoat, donned his fedora and headed for the door. One of the young men, obviously dressed as a sixties hipster, said, “You can’t go out there!” Don eyed him up and down quickly, and said, “I can. YOU can’t.” The persona seems vastly dissimilar to the high-strung, full of life (albeit also full of sardonic wit) character we see in the punctuation-less poems of O’Hara.

So, what do they have in common? The key is in the segment of “Mayakovsky” that Don recites as he walks down the street to drop off a copy of the book in the mail for (we find out much later) his former wife, to whom he was never really married because he took on the identity of her husba. . . but wait, if you haven’t seen any of the show yet, but intend to, I’ve told you enough. If not, maybe I’ve piqued your curiosity enough to start watching.

From O’Hara’s recording “Having a Coke with You”

“Mayakovsky,” the title of the poem from which Draper reads references Vladimir Mayakovsky, a Russian poet from the 1920’s who apparently loses hope and takes his own life in 1930, the same year he produced “Bathhouse,” one of several plays criticizing the direction Stalin had taken for the Soviet Union.

Whether O’Hara had a fondness for Mayakovsky’s work I do not know, but the New York poet starts his poem with the speaker crying in his bath and knowing O’Hara that is probably no coincidence.

Below is Don’s reading from Mad Men in which he recites part four of the piece. Beneath that I’ll include the entire text of the poem for you.  Enjoy!

“Mayakovsky,” by Frank O’Hara


My heart’s aflutter!
I am standing in the bath tub
crying. Mother, mother
who am I? If he
will just come back once
and kiss me on the face
his coarse hair brush
my temple, it’s throbbing!

then I can put on my clothes
I guess, and walk the streets.


I love you. I love you,
but I’m turning to my verses
and my heart is closing

like a fist.
Words! be
sick as I am sick, swoon,
roll back your eyes, a pool,
and I’ll stare down
at my wounded beauty
which at best is only a talent
for poetry.

Cannot please, cannot charm or win
what a poet!
and the clear water is thick

with bloody blows on its head.
I embraced a cloud,
but when I soared
it rained.


That’s funny! there’s blood on my chest
oh yes, I’ve been carrying bricks
what a funny place to rupture!
and now it is raining on the ailanthus
as I step out onto the window ledge
the tracks below me are smoky and
glistening with a passion for running
I leap into the leaves, green like the sea


Now I am quietly waiting for
the catastrophe of my personality
to seem beautiful again,
and interesting, and modern.

The country is grey and
brown and white in trees,
snows and skies of laughter
always diminishing, less funny
not just darker, not just grey.

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.

8 Comments Add yours

  1. I could not get into MM at all.

    But I do like this poem.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. sonofwalt says:

      It did take me a few episodes, plus, like I said, I sort of felt obligated when the first four seasons showed up from a friend. 🙂


  2. slpmartin says:

    Quite enjoyed the readings…alas not a fan of tv.


    1. sonofwalt says:

      Thank you, Mr. Martin! And yes, not a fan either. Just a few good shows now and then, but who has time to sit around waiting for when the network shows it? Not me.


  3. kittyb says:

    Like the poem !


    1. Yeah, that’s some classic Frank right there. Thanks, K!


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