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 ejaculation in Walt Whitman’s “Song 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 didn’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 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?
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 textbook. 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 the 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.
- Required Reading List: Don Draper (flavorwire.com)