“the assassin of my orchids”: Frank O’Hara, Mad Men, and the Reshaping of the Recent Past

Don Draper reading Frank O'Hara's Meditations in an Emergency

Don Draper reading Frank O'Hara's Meditations in an Emergency

Note: The following post is a paper I presented at the 2011 Northeastern University English Graduate Student Association Conference. The theme of this year’s conference was “Raw Materials,” and my paper was part of a panel titled “Raw Poetics.”

In a recollection of his friend Frank O’Hara, written for Book Week less than two months after the poet’s sudden death in July of 1966, John Ashbery proposes a solution for individuals who are wary of “a supremely tribal civilization like ours, where even artists feel compelled to band together in marauding packs.” He advises: “Whatever it is, join it; you can examine it later and neutralize it, if necessary, from within” (Selected Prose 81). This talk examines one of the ways that O’Hara attempts to neutralize the conventions of reading poetry that were established by the prevailing marauders of his day. Specifically, O’Hara’s use of proper names — represented in this talk by the poem “To The Film Industry In Crisis” — raise questions about how writers and their readers approach such references in poetry. My discussion will also examine what happens when O’Hara and his work (the poem “Mayakovsky”) become points of reference for the AMC television program Mad Men. This revision of O’Hara’s work seems to evade the ways that O’Hara challenges assumptions about how to read and write poetry.

Before I describe O’Hara’s use of proper names in his poetry as a site of resistance to strategies of reading and aesthetic conventions, I’ll provide some more context to demonstrate who and what O’Hara resisted.  O’Hara’s infamous statement of his own aesthetics, “Personism: A Manifesto,” is a pointed response to the prevailing critical lenses academics of the mid-century affixed to poetry. “Everything is in the poems,” O’Hara begins, immediately calling into question the necessity of a manifesto on aesthetics but also perhaps echoing New Criticism’s interest in poems that are “well-wrought urns” (to borrow the title of Cleanth Brooks’ 1947 collection of criticism). Brooks’ image of poem as urn is quickly undercut: “Now, come on. I don’t believe in god, so I don’t have to make elaborately sounded structures…I don’t even like rhythm, assonance, all that stuff. You just go on your nerve” (Collected Poems 498). Here we see at the very least the performance of a lack of interest in the conventional linguistic tools favored by poets, and as David Lehman notes in The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets, “the jokey manner should not blind us to its serious import” (185).

Personism, for O’Hara, “puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person…and the poem is correspondingly gratified” (499). Left out of this relationship is the critic of poetry, a figure O’Hara addresses in the 1951 poem, “The Critic,” as “the assassin / of my orchids.” What are the tools of this hired killer? Given O’Hara’s declaration that he “must live forever” at the end of this poem, one weapon is the ability to ignore or silence the poet’s work, impeding his access to future generations of readers and to a kind of literary immortality. But orchids also need room to breathe, and I wonder if O’Hara’s striking metaphor here (assassin of orchids?) also describes the way critical interpretations of poems suffocate them with rigid, fixed descriptions of reading.

It is this sort of critic that we hear O’Hara describe in a 1965 interview as someone who treats literature as little more than “the raw material for a wonderful piece of criticism.,” authors writing for publications like The New York Review of Books looking for little more than “a chance to bring out their paper and then they can really tell people that they don’t have to read the books at all, what they really ought to do is think about their opinion about the books” (Standing Still and Walking in New York 25-6).  A reluctance to trample on O’Hara’s orchids seems at the forefront of most scholars’ purviews: for example, Marjorie Perloff uses “The Critic” as the epigraph to her book-length study Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters. Some supplant (or seek to rhetorically distinguish themselves from) New Critical strategies of  close reading with “digressions,” as Joe LeSueur does in Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara.

Let’s turn, finally, to the poems, which are no doubt wilting by now due to neglect. In 1955’s “To The Film Industry In Crisis,” O’Hara provides us with what Perloff describes as a “litany” of proper names. After quickly dismissing the advances of “lean quarterlies and swarthy periodicals,” “experimental theatre,” and “promenading Grand Opera,” the speaker declares that “you, Motion Picture Industry, / it’s you I love!” The speaker then disparages and discards conventional aids that the inhabitants of his particular cultural moment might turn to “In times of crisis”: the “starched nurse” of medicine, the spiritual guidance of “the Catholic Church,” the strength in patriotism offered by “the American Legion.” The rest of the poem is primarily given over to interpellating the saints of the Silver Screen who preserve us: 30 “Apostles” in all, who are remembered for particular performances.

Laurence Goldstein begins his extended discussion of the poem in 1994’s The American Poet at the Movies: A Critical History by asking “How many readers, coming across this poem in an anthology or in Frank O’Hara’s Selected Poems, will ask the obvious question: What crisis?” (153). As Goldstein notes, O’Hara “provides no explanation, assuming that readers of the late 1950s will need none”: a perhaps-odd bit of poor planning by a poet who tells us in “The Critic” that he “must live forever.” Similarly, the list of proper names is the sort of thing the Internet Movie Database makes more manageable, but what about those poor poetry readers encountering the poem in that stretch of time where the Golden Age of Hollywood was a distant memory and the Internet’s reservoir of information was barely under construction? Goldstein and Joe LeSueur’s discussions of the poem provide those of us who need it with context on the crisis — audience attendance, theaters, and films being produced all declined in vast numbers in the decades after World War II, a result of, among other factors, the rise of television — and LeSueur provides a brief list of the films these scenes are taken from (Digressions 73-6).

O’Hara’s extensive use of proper names can be read as both a nod toward and a rewriting of the conventional poetic strategy of allusion, modified here by supplanting classical references with figures from popular culture (and continuing a technique used by some modernist poets, but these writers do not match O’Hara’s sheer number of such references). This technique is not the only acknowledgment O’Hara makes toward poetic traditions: if its object of praise is not conventional, it is still an ode; furthermore, as Goldstein notes, the poem’s final line, “Roll on, reels of celluloid, as the great earth rolls on!” is  a parodic rewriting of the famous line from Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage: “Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean — roll!” (163).

Several critics offer descriptions of O’Hara’s extensive use of proper names. As Perloff notes, movie stars were not the only names given to appear in a Frank O’Hara poem: “By the late fifties, O’Hara had established an elaborate network of cross-references to close personal friends, artists, film stars, city streets, bars, exotic places, titles of books, movies, operas, and ballets – in short, the name of anyone or anything that happens to come across the poet’s path.” She acknowledges the “excessive demands” placed upon readers, many of whom might perceive their presence as “part of a tiresome in-joke” (128) Perloff ends up siding with Charles Altieri’s analysis of O’Hara’s tendency in this fashion: he argues that these names function as “a reminder for the reader that the specific details of another’s life can appear only as momentary fragments, insisting through their particularity on his alienation from any inner reality they might possess” (qtd. in Perloff 130).

In a more recent volume of criticism, 2006’s Frank O’Hara: The Poetics of Coterie, Lytle Shaw continues the conversation on proper names by describing their broader implication for the writing and reading of literature:

On the one hand, through their reference to an empirical world of identities, careers, and potential sites of reception, they thematize writerly production as importantly inflected by its positions within social and historical networks. On the other hand, when O’Hara includes unknown names or seems to appropriate the meaning of a known one, he dispels the illusion that we share a fixed set of attributes or associations that a proper name would evoke. O’Hara’s proper names produce a fiction of stability, of empirical bedrock, and at the same time an opening to radical uncertainty about the reference field implied or contained in a name…O’Hara …stages the proper name’s entrance into poetic discourse as a site of contested, appropriated, tactically wielded meaning — meaning whose contingency announces itself from the outset. (124)

Let’s briefly look at the way the imagined stability of the reference to Marilyn Monroe — a more recognizable proper name for many contemporary readers — breaks down across various sites of engagement with the poem. LeSueur indicates that the reference to Monroe “in her little spike heels reeling through Niagara Falls” is a description of her role in 1953’s Niagara, which LeSueur briefly notes is “actually quite a decent thriller” (75). Readers familiar with Monroe’s film career might consider O’Hara’s selection of this particular film, one of the actresses’ darker projects. Those of us who have never seen one of Monroe’s films may have her inclusion here trigger thoughts of her prominence in the work of Andy Warhol, her relationship with President Kennedy, her tragic death. As Shaw notes, our engagement with O’Hara’s use of names may prove ultimately frustrating if we attempt to decode the references or arrive at a fixed meaning for them: instead, they function as reminders of the differences between O’Hara’s position within social and historical networks and the way these networks seem to constantly shift and be rewritten. A reader’s response to the reference to Monroe is constructed by that reader’s own personal experience with Monroe, and this encounter reflects the way that Monroe’s reputation has not “rolled on” smoothly like O’Hara’s reels of celluloid, but has rather been written and rewritten, framed and reframed, by an ever-changing reshaping of cultural history.

I also want to look at the way O’Hara’s work and life have been reshaped over the years by discussing his “appearance” on Mad Men, a critically-acclaimed and highly-rated cable TV show centered on a 1960s Madison Avenue advertising firm. Many discussions of the appeal of Mad Men focus on the show’s attempt at constructing what some critics and viewers term an “accurate” representation of 1960s American culture. Attempts to complicate these notions of the show’s authenticity have also been attempted, and one of the most high-profile analyses along these lines appeared in late February in the New York Review of Books. In an overwhelmingly negative piece on the show, Daniel Mendelsohn describes the relationship between Mad Men’s audience and the historical “reality” the show seemingly provides them access to: because its audience is primarily made up of people who “barely remember” the 1960s or were born after the period depicted on the show, they mistake “an alluring historical fantasy” for an accurate depiction of this time in American culture. But an implication of his assessment seems to be that a more precise or “authentic” portrayal of the period is possible, when in fact any contemporary vision of the 1960s would be a reshaping of history and a reflection of the ways the period has been reshaped by other authors and artists. Additionally, based on interviews conducted with Mad Men‘s creator and showrunner, Matthew Weiner, the people behind this program do not frame the show as explicitly authentic in the same way that viewers and critics do. When asked by a New York Times interviewer whether he was able to “enjoy the culture of 2010,” Weiner responded by saying that “half the stuff I tell you [on the show] comes from right now,” suggesting that he is not under the impression that he has somehow preserved the 1960s in amber and put it on display for contemporary audiences.

In fact, the presence of Frank O’Hara in Mad Men as a referent of 1960s American and / or New York culture is very much a product of “right now.” While initially popular amidst his own circle of friends, fellow poets, and artists, O’Hara’s current standing as a major figure in contemporary American poetry reflects his posthumous reception history: the acclaim that greets the publication of his Collected Poems (which includes the receipt of the National Book Award), the scholarship published by Perloff, Lehman, and other authors mentioned here, and the lasting influence his writing has had on poets of later generations have increased O’Hara’s visibility to the point where he does not seem completely out of place on a show like Mad Men. Weiner himself had not been exposed to the poet’s work until around 2007, when his wife took him to an art exhibition in New York City (“Audio Commentary by Weiner for Season Two, Episode One”).

Frank O’Hara and Meditations in an Emergency are prominently featured in the first episode of Mad Men‘s second season (and the season finale borrows the volume’s title). Donald “Don” Draper, the ad man at the center of Mad Men, encounters a young man reading Meditations in an Emergency in a Manhattan bar. After a brief conversation in which Draper inquires about the book, the man (dressed in a fashion that — perhaps intentionally — recalls Joe Brainard, albeit a less disheveled Brainard; it‘s more “student chic“) replies by saying “I don’t think you’d like it.” At the end of the episode we find Draper reading his own copy of Meditations in his home, and as he places the book in an envelope and mails it to an unknown recipient , we hear a voiceover of Draper reading the last section of “Mayakovsky,” the final poem in Meditations:

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.

The episode provides some social and historical context for O’Hara: the reader’s response to one of Don’s attempts at light conversation at the bar (a sarcastic “It’s all about getting things done”) as well as his assessment that Draper wouldn’t like the poems both separate the culture of O’Hara and his readers from Draper and his ad men. Reference is also made to the fact that these circles sometimes overlap, as the reader tells Draper that O’Hara composed part of Meditations in the unnamed bar they are sitting in.

The version of “Mayakovsky” we listen to in Mad Men is unnamed, as the show is more interested in the lines relating to “the catastrophe of my personality,” a crisis of identity that is framed as a reflection of Draper’s own concerns as a husband, an ad executive, a father, a man impersonating a dead man (long story). This reading of the poem is further reinforced when we meet the recipient of Draper’s copy of Meditations toward the end of the season: Mrs. Draper, the wife of the dead man whose identity “Draper” assumed after the Korean War (again, long story). Mrs. Draper notes that she was worried about Don after reading the volume.

“Mayakovsky” with its four sections intact is a lyric about a speaker’s male lover (“If he / will just come back one / and kiss me on the face”) and the process of coming to terms with his absence, temporary or permanent. In fact, the “he” that lingers in the fourth section, which Draper recites, is not remarked upon, though it could possibly be construed as a divide in the speaker’s (and Draper’s) self during the move from “catastrophe” to becoming “myself again.” Many of the specific references to O’Hara’s personal history — his relationship to the work of Mayakovsky (whose style O’Hara is imitating in this poem), his absent male lover, the life of a poet as he sees it (in the second section), the ailanthus and tracks of O’Hara’s New York (it should be noted that for a show about New York, Mad Men rarely shows us the city beyond bars and offices) — these details are for the most part discarded in favor of presenting a poem that resembles the “timeless” and sententious-sounding voice in poetry, a voice that seems so unlike Frank O’Hara’s in many ways.

Has the assassin found his way to this particular orchid? We might implicate the critical lenses that privilege poetry that sounds didactic and appeals broadly to (and, in turn, constructs a version of) “universal” human experiences in this attempt to expand (or flatten) O’Hara’s own catastrophe of personality.  Rather than “blame” the Mad Men staff for treating O’Hara shabbily (they actually renewed interest in Meditations and expanded his audience), I’d like to close by focusing on the implications of its reshaping of O’Hara and his work.

As mentioned at the outset, O’Hara can be read as an agent provocateur in poetry, adopting certain conventional strategies and writing work that resembles tradition poetry while simultaneously exposing these strategies as conventions subject to revision. His use of proper names in particular is one way that his work challenges long-held assumptions about a poet’s obligations to and relationship with readers and with poetic tradition. The revision to O’Hara’s work in Mad Men removes the unconventional strategies O’Hara adopts, transforming the poem into a more recognizable work for its audience. While O’Hara’s appearance on the show reflects the way the poet’s visibility has grown and transformed over the years, the reading of the work offered by the program reflects the way that New Critical strategies of reading poetry have not been completely neutralized.

Works Cited

Ashbery, John. Selected Prose. Ed. Eugene Richie. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005.

“For Those Who Think Young.” Mad Men: Season Two. Writ. Matthew Weiner. Dir. Tim Hunter. Lionsgate, 2008. DVD.

Goldstein, Laurence. The American Poet at the Movies: A Critical History. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994.

Itzkoff, David. “Divining Mad Men as Lives Unspool.” New York Times. October 18th, 2010.

Lehman, David. The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets. New York: Anchor Books, 1999.

LeSueur, Joe. Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004.

Mendelsohn, Daniel. “The Mad Men Account.” The New York Review of Books. March 24th, 2011.

O’Hara, Frank. Collected Poems. Ed. Donald Allen. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

— — —Meditations in an Emergency. New York: Grove Press, 1957.

— — —Standing Still and Walking in New York. Bolinas: Grey Fox Press, 1975.

Perloff, Marjorie. Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters. New York: George Braziller, 1977.

Shaw, Lytle. Frank O’Hara: The Poetics of Coterie. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2006.

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