David Reads “For Grace, After a Party,” by Frank O’Hara

Cover of "Meditations in an Emergency"

Cover of Meditations in an Emergency

Recently I soothed my winter-wearied soul with a few small purchases of poetry, including both Lunch Poems and Meditations in an Emergency, by Frank O’Hara. It’s one thing to read a “best of” collection, or to study a few of a poet’s works in an anthology, but have you ever enjoyed leaning back with your headphones on to enjoy the flow and structure of an entire album by a favorite musical artist? It’s a very different experience from just listening to a few select singles that the music industry has decided you should hear, isn’t it? That’s very much like the experience of reading an original volume of a poet’s work, work he or she compiled in a particular order and set between the covers of a book, presumably with some sense of how they could be best presented together.

Of course, sometimes you seem to enjoy every song, and they hang together perfectly, but other times only a few really speak to you, and they don’t always flow easily from one to another. I remember being surprised and disturbed when I stumbled upon a description of an ejaculation in Walt Whitman’s “Son of Myself.” Defend him if you like, but I was not impressed. I’ve written of him as being a bit of an eccentric uncle whom I loved, but who sometimes embarrassed me, or made me feel embarrassed for him. “No, Uncle Walt, you did’t just do that. Oh god, you did, didn’t you?”

I’m not saying that a good poem couldn’t contain a cum shot, or that it could be written so well that I’d love even that part of it, but I don’t think I’ve read that poem yet. Anyway, I had a similar experience in Frank’s Meditations in an Emergency. Sometimes poetry is messy. Sorry. Still, that’s part of the learning experience, as you get to know someone. Sometimes you see more than you came for.

Yesterday’s poem by Frank O’Hara was from his book Lunch Poems, and it was one that for me balanced a sense of delight in reading it, and a challenge in grasping it. Unlike some modern poetry which seems to revel in our being shut out, O’Hara takes your hand and invites you in to just tumble right into the ball pit, and somehow you enjoy, as Billy Collins says, “Feeling the walls for a light switch.”  Now how’s that for mixing metaphors?

Mad Men

Mad Men (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today’s poem is also From O’Hara and is from his Meditations in an Emergency, published seven years before Lunch Poems. You may remember a post here in October in which the character Don Draper from the AMC series “Mad Men” recited part of “Mayakovsky,” the final poem in Meditations. It’s worth watching again. The contrasts between O’Hara and Draper are many, but they were living and working in the same city, during the same time, and this junction of mood, and the sense of an era is truly well done.

This poem is lighter than “Mayakovsky” and “Poem (is it dirty),” or so it seems. But the label “light poetry” can be deceiving. There is a school of poets alive today who would dismiss this one as “accessible,” as if having a door to a museum were a bad thing, and crossing alligator-infested moats, scaling barbed wire and stone walls were preferable ways to experience art.

Sorry, I’m getting on my high horse, fighting high-horses again. Back to the poem at hand. It’s called “For Grace, After a Party,” and it’s one I’ve loved for a long time, having discovered it years ago in a text book. I’m glad someone thought it worthy to be in an anthology, because it is one of those simple delights that can be enjoyed on one level, while it hints at something more than the sum of its text. An emotional mood created just underneath, implying by showing rather than telling. As I’ve said before, accessible does not equal simplistic, and there are things about this that sank in for me in very satisfying ways each time I came back to it.

* Note: Feel free to skip my commentary in the next paragraph for the moment, and scroll right down to the audio reading and the text of t he poem itself below. In fact, I recommend that as the better way to experience the poem in its own right.

For instance, how about the title? Is this written for someone whose name is “Grace?” Or is this about fumbling for some sense of grace after possibly disgraceful behavior at a party the night before? Well, he did have a friend, a painter, named Grace Hartigan, and I imagine this was written for her, but playful as he is I would wager that he also meant to imply a contrast, between his behavior at the party, “blazing” some “tirade against someone” who didn’t even interest him (and there’s another tasty nugget; do we believe him? Is he a reliable narrator?), and the more gentle, grateful act of making her eggs in the morning, or bringing an ashtray to her bedside? A true friend’s faults can be overlooked in such acts of thanks. Grace restored.

Although he may have given some credence to “poetry for poetry’s sake,” he was coy and tricky. He reminds me, though it might surprise you, of Robert Frost. One writes in the city, the other in the country, but both wrote far more complex masterpieces than they let on. And I think both of them (wink) knew it.

What do you think?

 For Grace, After a Party

You do not always know what I am feeling.
Last night in the warm spring air while I was
blazing my tirade against someone who doesn't
interest
        me, it was love for you that set me
afire,

     and isn't it odd? for in rooms full of
strangers my most tender feelings
                                  writhe and
bear the fruit of screaming. Put out your hand,
isn't there
             an ashtray, suddenly, there? beside
the bed?  And someone you love enters the room
and says wouldn't
                  you like the eggs a little different today?
                And when they arrive they are
just plain scrambled eggs and the warm weather
is holding.
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21 thoughts on “David Reads “For Grace, After a Party,” by Frank O’Hara

  1. Great post, great poem, awesome reading… enjoyed it all very much.

    Cum shots in poetry… those are words you don’t often hear together, though, I suppose, if one dug around on the internet, one might just find a whole genre dedicated to cum shot poetry.

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  2. Ha! David, I love the O’Hara – but I also like Song of Myself – and the ejaculation – I think you may mean As I Ebbed With the Ocean of Life – or at least it happens there too – and you know, well, I love Whitman! Not everything certainly. Some gets a bit tedious, but– I think he’s pretty brave. Anyway, enjoyed this. k.

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    • Oh, there was more to that ebbing with the ocean of life thing. Maybe I’ll be brave enough to quote it eventually. And don’t get me wrong. This is probably more of a confession about my cowardice than an indictment of Whitman’s or O’Hara’s bravery. I’m a huge fan (almost worshiper) of both. My screen name for years has been sonofwalt. 🙂

      And I love that while other popularly published poems in America in his time were predictable cliches about virtue, truth, honor and all those abstract tropes, but then along came Uncle Walt writing about how the smell of his armpits were “an aroma finer than prayer!” I adore him for his bravery. He not only opened the doors to write about literally anything, he removed the “doors from their jambs.” 🙂

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    • Yes. I know you like him! I was really teasing. And sometimes he gets a bit too self-reverential, i agree. But, of course, that’s excused by the sublime bits! Take care, k.

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    • I agree. And who knows what my readers might say about some of the things in a few of my own poems. I am sure my sons might be embarrassed by a few bits. I hope they’ll be at least as forgiving. 🙂

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  4. There is something deeply satisfying about this poem that I haven’t yet analyzed. But the best grace we can hope for, the morning after a party, is to return to normal life, to eat plain scrambled eggs, for the person we love best to return to his ‘real’ self instead of the opinionated bastard who’s shouting about philosophy or politics to cover his jealousy. [It took me a couple of years to get over seeing my ex talk to other guys at parties. Yes, I am that bastard.]

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  5. Pingback: David Reads “Oh No,” by Robert Creeley | The Dad Poet

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