Starting my morning over coffee by looking for clips of Frank O’Hara reading his own work. Wound up getting sucked down a rabbit hole of Man Men blogs. (Getting ready to teach O’Hara today has been more fun than getting ready to teach most things. Maybe it’s just that I don’t teach this stuff all that often and so it still feels fresh.)
First, O’Hara on O’Hara:
If you want to start making sense of O’Hara’s poetry, you could do worse than to think about his tongue-in-cheek manifesto “Personism” (1959).
Two: I found something sweet about the idea of a 15-year-old Jim Carroll dogging O’Hara’s steps one afternoon in an attempt to see everything he was seeing, so as to be able to identify, at some future date, the poem O’Hara was about to go home and write:
And finally, the Mad Men episode. I had forgotten the use of Meditations in an Emergency at the opening of Season 2. Don encounters someone in a bar reading the poems over lunch (heh, heh: lunch poems, get it?). He later winds up sending the volume to an unspecified lover, probably Midge, his bohemian girlfriend from the first season who had finally blown him off. (Too bad, too — I kind of liked the midtown/downtown tension of that relationship more than the similar function of Paul Kinsey’s beard or the pot-smoking punks brought in to help the firm reach a younger demographic.) The actual sequence from the end of the first episode of the second season has been disabled by request. Here’s the voiceover with a fan montage of scenes, which has the over-the-top effect of making the poem even try harder to get at Don’s particularly shifty interiority, but also extends the “emergency” to the rest of the cast:
“Grey” in the poem calls up the idea of “grey flannel suits” quite effectively.
For kicks, here’s where the Man Men blogs took me. One post noted that in the commentary track for the DVD release of the season, the series creator described how accidental his encounter with O’Hara was, and how chance the use of that specific poem (“Mayakovky”) was as well:
Matthew Weiner was at an exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York where there were snippets from Frank O’Hara’s poetry on the walls. The poetry he saw that day was from a different O’Hara book, Lunch Poems. Weiner wanted to use this book in the show, but it had not yet been published in 1962. Instead, he chose Meditations in an Emergency, seemingly without having read it. When Weiner had finished the script for “For Those Who Think Young”, he and a co-worker looked at the last poem of the book out of curiosity and found that the last poem, “Mayakovsky”, fit perfectly with what Don was experiencing in the episode. This is how they came to have Don recite the poem as he walked to the mailbox in the last scene. Not the brilliant creative decision I had expected, but an interesting case of serendipity.
The folks at AMC’s house blog, though, have pushed a more academic approach, suggesting just how brilliant the creative decision was. They enlist David Lehman, the collective biographer of O’Hara and the other New York School poets, to tease out the “hidden messages and literary motifs” in the episode. Lehman obliges:
“‘Mayakovsky’ has the phrase ‘the catastrophe of my personality,’” Lehman explains. “It is part of O’Hara’s charm that he uses such self-deprecatory humor, and I think that charm extends to the voiceover. Also, the ending of that poem implies 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.’ Note the difference between ‘I’ and ‘he.’ Does Don ‘feel like’ himself?”
Well read! Though I can’t help but note the sharp difference between O’Hara’s reading style, which camps everything up, and the gravity of Hamm’s delivery. Maybe that’s another point to be made: how the poetry can’t help — perhaps especially because O’Hara died so tragically young — but be more serious than his own delivery suggested.