on 31 March 2010
Since his death in 1966 in a freak beach-buggy accident O'Hara, who published little during his lifetime, has had an increasingly wide influence. Although this Selected includes earlier work showing the influence of the French Surrealists, O'Hara's best known today for his 'I-do-this-I-do-that' poems, where he's wandering about New York City on his lunch-breaks from his job at the Museum of Modern Art. His typical manner in these poems is casual, improvisatory and non-metrical, producing a convincing impression of immediacy and intimacy. He uses real friends' names and events and pop references. Quirky line breaks, colloquial diction and vocabulary, and 'undignified' exclamation marks create a sense of breathlessness, excitement and innocent wonder, which were astounding and original emotions for American poetry in the 50s, when the mainstream style (of Lowell, Wilbur and co.) was to be civilized, ironic and cerebrally distant. O'Hara, who cared little about wider publication, wrote for his wide circle of artistic friends and, for such a promiscuous poet, friends were potential seductees. These poems are like extensions of display behaviour, where the poet is _calculatedly_ lovable.
Much lyric poetry (then and today) seems to have the poet 'coming to a realisation' about something, moving from ignorance to knowledge that he or she then wants to share. O'Hara found this false and patronising. His poems don't make a 'point'; there is little attempt to derive meaning, or make judgements. He shows instead what things feel like at a given moment, and seems less interested in questioning American society than in working out how to live as a individual within it: "how to be open but not violated, how not to panic" and "what's important is not what happens but how one feels about it", as Marjorie Perloff says in her book. It's perhaps this approach that's made him increasingly popular these days, where more and more people live a friends-centred, urban, socially-rich, sexually-diverse, politically-inactive, individualist life than ever before, and where the seductive, witty, inconsequential voice he invented now gets heard ubiquitously in journalism and TV as well as in literature.
This selection includes 'Personism' (O'Hara's parodic manifesto), nearly all the poems discussed by Perloff and many more, an index of first lines and a list of works.