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Creation and Criticism

 ISSN: 2455-9687 

(A Quarterly International Peer-reviewed Refereed e-Journal

Devoted to English Language and Literature)

Jan-April 2019

Postmodern Poetry of Frank O’ Hara:  A Journey Within

Gunjan Saxena 


Creation of literature wears a semblance to creation of life. Like life itself, literature is also altering relentlessly, following closely the global trends. For literary intellectuals, authors and consumers, it is important to recognize the essence of both contemporary literary questions and symbolism of genuine literary response to new age challenges. Literature, today, is quite a different concept from that of only a generation ago, and this difference is attributed usually to ‘post modernism’. Most radical of all is the possibility that the very notion of literature is rendered untenable by postmodernism. The term ‘Postmodern’ is used to designate poetry that breaks with the modernist faith in the genuine value of poetic techniques and registers the intervention of rhetoric in any such connection between forms and values. Hoover’s easy reduction of a historical period to technical experimental and oppositional politics typifies the bias shaping discussions of postwar poetry: “Post modern means the historical period following World War II. It also suggests an experimental approach to composition as well as a world view that sets itself apart from mainstream culture” (xxv). Thus, post modernism is best understood not as a rigid concept or a coherent ideological stance but as a bundle of shared impulses and tendencies amounting to a kind of common spirit.


De facto, the literary elements of Classicism, Realism and Romanticism dwell in outer cosmos while contemporary literature is commonly a withdrawal into the author’s consciousness. Most apparently in the realm of poetry and novels, postmodernism has some significant features like iconoclasm, groundlessness, formlessness and populism. Each faction of postmodernism is a little different from that of modern trends and such differences create the poems that are crude, disconnected and up front with the issues of the world at the time of the writing. If naturalizing rhetoric is a modernist practice, the postmodern tendency of poets like O’ Hara, Bishop, Ashbery and Merrill is to note if there exists any link between empirical, historical or natural experiences and transcendent truth. Postmodern poetry highlights this moment of rhetorical intervention and focusing on representation and the persuasive goals of figuration breaks with Romantic and modernist organics alike, which have ceased to be convincing.


Breaking away from the academic tradition of the modern poetry, Frank O’ Hara’s “Concept of the poem as the chronicle of the creative act that produced it,” gave rise to poetry different from anything that had burst upon the literary scene. All of his intensely felt experiences served to nourish his unique form of expression. Frank O’ Hara repudiated modernist preoccupation with harmony and organic form. He was mainly preoccupied with the world as he experienced it. He was conscious of his different, spontaneous and obscure poetic talent. Mark his words:


I don’t think of fame or posterity, nor do I care about clarifying experiences for anyone or bettering anyone’s state or social relation nor am I for any particular technical development in the American language simply because I find it necessary. What is happening to me, goes into my poems. I don’t think if my experiences are clarified or made beautiful for myself or anyone else. They are just there in whatever form I can find them. What is clear to me in my work is probably obscure to others and vice-versa. (The Collected Works 500)


Conspicuously O’ Hara’s innermost feelings seem to be poured into the essence of poetry. As his poetry covers multiple levels of consciousness, it needs to be approached psychologically. His theory of ‘Personism’ indicates his relation with psychology and not with philosophy. According to O’Hara, the technique and style of his poems is a part of ‘Personism’ and this theory seems to be dipped into the conversational style. He had learnt how to inject his naturally fresh intelligence with hidden fury to create a kind of talk that was at once stinging and entertaining. In most of his poems O’Hara seems to make a conversation with either his beloved or another person but in the imagination. His poem “Morning” contains some conversant essence, and one needs not surmise the mental condition of the poet for it is much conspicuous in it. It floats in the conscious imaginative state, passes through various domains and manifests the poet’s mental undercurrent of sentiments and moods. Thoughts and emotions of love seem to be capsulated in his memories which he cordially desires to make emerge out. The essence of the poem lies merely in his deserted love that seems somewhere self-centred, but always candid and unquenchable. The expressions of the poet’s heart are without stops and commas in this poet. The logic behind it is nothing but to manifest the restlessness and impatience of the poem. The poem is just like a river and not a pond in which the water of thoughts is flowing continuously and spontaneously. In this way the poem seems to be attracted by the theory of ‘stream of consciousness.’ The poem caters us to have an inner journey with him as throughout the poem he wanders in the imaginative world but with conscious mind. He endeavours to express the intensity of his love to his supposed beloved for it seems almost impossible to measure the love in the conscious world. This emotional issue is overlapped by intellect but with an alloy of sentimental recollections and thoughts. He recalls all the pleasant moments spent with her in his memory but they remain neutral to provide him the same warmth and passions in the present. Through sensuous imagination, he remembers all the activities done in the past with her but it doesn’t gratify his psychological hunger. Hence he earnestly wishes for the company of his beloved. These lines can move any lover’s heart to tears:


I miss you always

When I go to beach

the sand is wet with

tears that seem mine. (The Collected Works 31)


The intellectual faculty and psycho- synthetic notions assist him in recollection and to pour out such pathetic situation. But he compensates his sadness and loneliness with this thought that his beloved always resides in the innermost of his inward eyes. In the depth of his inner self, he can realize her existence but physically he cannot relish her presence. So his calibre remains failure to surmise her whereabouts and routines. He is confused and surrounded with apprehension which is converted afterwards into depression. These dynamic emotions touch the grounds of sympathy to a great extent. In a nutshell, the poet cannot tolerate the separation anymore. Even the thought without her pinches him and the idea of her desolation makes him nervous and depressed. The feelings of pain and pleasure in his inner cosmos seem to assimilate with natural phenomena. When he had her company, the night was glorious and full of infinite stars but all the warmth of love is extinguished with her absence and the environment becomes cool down like his emotions. In such tense mood, he can’t relish even the bliss of music which seems to him merely a ‘crossword puzzle’.


Last night the stars

were numerous and today

snow is their calling

card I’ll not be cordial (The Collected Works 31)


If a minute observation is made, we can find here a typical mood of self-pity aroused from the depth of consciousness. At the end, the most pathetic lines emerge from the depth of his heart:


When you are the only

passenger if there is a

place further from me

I beg you do not go. (The Collected Works 32)


In fact, O’Hara seems dexterous to deal with the tender aspects of conscience so delicately that the reader is made to wander with him in various lanes of imaginative consciousness. A minute analysis of his poems proves that he has a penchant to analyse psycho-synthetic facets comparatively. O’Hara wrote the first of his poems about childhood and the vocation of poetry, “Autobiographia Literaria”- its title a spoof of Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria in 1949 or 1950. The entire with various fluctuations weave a texture of the poem’s background. It seems that O’ Hara grasps psychological dose through the recollection of the melancholy and tragic memories of his childhood. The school life of the childhood still lingers in the safe and sound place of his mind. But those reminiscences are bitter and immersed in the lonely and solitary state. His immature mind got eclipsed with deep psychological problem that compelled him to seek comfort in the company of the self. We can notice here that his attitude towards childhood is enmeshed with a kind of repulsion for everything materialistic or the living one including animals and birds:


I hated dolls and I

mated games, animals were

not friendly, and birds

flew away. (The Collected Works 11)


On the contrary, Wordsworth perceives his own childhood full of attachment with nature and particularly with animals. It is another thing that this indication of his consciousness is merely at physical or sensuous level. Actually, O’Hara does not evolve any particular theory about childhood, instead he analyses subtly of what he himself experiences. He still remembers how he used to endeavour to be absent from other’s eyes:


If anyone was looking

for me, I hid behind a

tree and cried out “I am

an orphan. (The Collected Works 11)


Here he emotionalized his own existence by wrapping his childhood in a word- ‘orphan’. Actually this tendency of being invalid and isolated in the childhood does not emerge from his any imaginative icon rather it was the consequence of adverse circumstances in which he had to live alone. “Nights were the most difficult time for young Francis, an only child for the first seven years of his life until the birth of Philip, his younger brother. Often when his parents were downstairs reading the newspaper or talking, he would as he later wrote in his journal at Harvard, “Cover myself with bed clothes and underneath the white faintly lavendered sheets be protected from whatever horrible thing was in my room waiting to plunge daggers into me.” His worst fear was that of being orphaned, that his parents would slip out to one of their cocktail parties, an accident would occur, and he would be left to grow up alone. To allay their fear, he would insist that they always kiss him in his bed before departing, and that they would be careful to whisper “Good night” rather than “Good bye” (Gooch 26).


As he has grown up now, he is able to intellectualize his initial innocent doubts and fears i.e. the emotional domain of his heart. So he realizes his superiority of all other living things. He develops a view to prefer his existence and tries to provide it meaning. After a deep meditation, he feels that the pricking experiences of childhood have dwindled with time and now they are converted into an everlasting source for enriching his intellectual faculty. Thus his spirit energizes him to create sublime thoughts and he utters:


And here I am, the

centre of all beauty!

Writing these poems!

Imagine!” (The Collected Works 11)


Being in speculative mood, O’Hara ponders on the feelings of love and enjoyment of physical pleasure too. He uses to create an erotic image on the mental level. He does it knowingly in addition to arouse excitement and zeal and to soothe his sensual desires. He believes that in the absence of such erotic passions, the warmth of his feelings will evaporate and he will become a ‘dank feeler’. In this way, he lets his readers visit to have a glimpse of erotic aspect of love. Actually it is something different from that which we call obscenity because we find the poet under the effect of narcissus instinct. In his poem “The Afternoon”, he analyses himself and assumes another personality with whose assistance he can manifest his inner activities. He depicts that in his inward realm, some erotic images emerge without providing him painful experience. They are as energetic, powerful and active as horses are. It is noticeable that if he desires to haunt such sensual notions, they forbid to be entangled or suppressed and all the suspicions and doubts are erased by the dominance of such feelings in his heart. Thus the illusions in the form of the ghosts fall rapidly in value like a note struck on a piano.


When O’ Hara breaks out an image or a particular thought, he tries to sustain it upto four or five lines. But suddenly he seems to deviate his mind and goes astray for he uses to talk at another stratum of consciousness in his conversational tone. His conversations are the consequence of the bifurcation of his own personality. He can’t tolerate the absence of company in toto. He neglects the idea to be alone because it brings no pleasure for him: “Sowing absence as if it would grow up, / to be golden freedom of the mind and air” (The Collected Works 174).


While he longs himself for wrapping himself into touching sentiments and emotions with a companion whether it may be his another self. His indication towards the existence and importance of his own other self seems sometimes inevitable in his poems because he can’t restrain himself to represent his thoughts dipped in conversational tone. In fact, he desires to make his soul the representative of his convictions. That is the best way for him to fulfil his immature desires. Whatever he himself wants to be, he imposes it on that:  “You seek? you do want to be a rose, don’t you? / and lose your petals and be free for all the weeds” (The Collected Works 174)?


Sometimes he has to fumble the way of expression due to being deprived of free speech. He imagines himself to be gagged. In spite of his incapability, he doesn’t feel inferiority complex rather he approves his good luck in the current of self analysis. He provides reasons for it. At first, he indicates about fertility through the word ‘womb’ that is like a net through which human being has to adopt an existence. It is the cause to enmesh a living person in the worldly process. Due to a good fortune, he is deprived of indulging in sex instinct or any kind of sensuality. Such thoughts refer to the ‘sex revolution’ in the world specially in America. At that time, system of marriages was discarded and living together for pleasure was regarded as the only aim of life. The men and women were not in bringing forth the birth in the world. Here seems a kind of satire against the growing aversion to the procreation. This is the reason that he thinks himself separate from others. Simultaneously, he doesn’t boast to be sacred and full of spirituality. He denies the possibilities of celestial light in himself, which is mentioned in the Bible and that spiritual light can cause an angel to visit: “There is no light in my breast to get an angel / in trouble, no one has ever mistaken me for a window” (The Collected Works 174).


O’ Hara’s minute self analysis continues with the contraction and expansion of the consciousness. He is not ready even to accept the existence of tree because of his lack of the traits that the tree has. If we ponder over his condition, we’ll find that he perceives no base or foundation of his own entity neither on earth nor in the sky. In this poem, the want of enthusiasm and zeal dominates over his thorough mental and psychological regions because he feels as if he had all yet nothing: “I am an army without a battle” (The Collected Works 174).


Further he imagines of the paradoxical images and slips into the inner consciousness. He juxtaposes the contradictory things in which there is the zipping nature of the overpowering almighty that makes human beings join to the earth and causes to disconnect them from the earth. The image of ‘storm’ has a negative as well as positive force also. Another image of ‘bread knife’ which is made of wax provides separate workings i.e. the knife is used for cutting and wax for joining.


He doesn’t expect his memories to dominate him but he longs for remembering them cordially so that they may be the cause of fruitful result during their trip from the heart to the mind. Now he comes again to the emotional level with a conversational tone to his other being. He restrains it to be entangled in the sentimental ideas otherwise it will have to suffer itself. Naturally, the afflictions of his own his ego will affect him badly so he forbids it to go astray and convinces that there is no alternative to be happy except to imagine and enjoy whatever is the deficiency in the real life. Then the poet draws his attention towards the stability of the natural dwellings. He regards them as his paramours because with them he can assimilate his sorrows of love. The natural surroundings including the plainness of the field and vastness of the sky soothe his painful experiences. He seems to have a penchant to perceive and enjoy of the monopoly on his entire entity:


With you I’m again alone, doesn’t

it please you, that you have all to yourself

like sea? (The Collected Works 174)


The thought that someone is with him even in his misfortunes nourishes his courage to face the calamities. He addresses   the terrible times to meet with him because he is ready to tolerate them. He is conscious of his ego which is the centre of the entire world which one is experiences. So he confirms that he is ‘more powerful’ and ‘more true’ than the heavens because if one is not true, whole world becomes the thing of falsehood. He has no faith even on his observances and the etiquette of the senses. He likes the horse of imagination that can gallop far and wide yet remains within control.


O’Hara’s poetry is a kind of reaction against the poetry of those who tried too hard and ended up with a facsimile of reality. He wanted poetry to be read and understood by the masses and, therefore, it had to conform to the emotions and experiences of the average person (Ramazani et al, 361). His poem “The Day Lady Died” shows just how he bucked against the blank and free verses of his time. “The poem was written about Billie Holiday’s death. The lack of structure, which includes the lack of punctuation, creates a rush of feelings gaining speed as the reader goes further into the poem. Then on lines 16 and 18 he adds commas, which cause an unnatural break in the rush and slows the reader down for just a moment before the end of the poem. The rush of feelings begins to grow again only to have it slammed to a stop by the end of the poem when he discovers her death (Ramazani et al, 365). The disconnected stop throws the reader for a moment just as the discovery of a celebrity or friend’s death will cause a person to stop suddenly and be distracted or disoriented, O’ Hara used this lack of structure to create the rhythm he needed for his expressions of reality for his readers. Thus, as a postmodern poet, O’Hara seems true to his craft and his use of poetry to get the reader feel and experience the poem and not just read it.


Works Cited:


Gooch, Brad. City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1993.


Hoover, Paul. Postmodern American Poetry. New York: Norton Hulme, 1994.


Kaw, M.K.  The Science of Spirituality.  Delhi: D.K. Publications. 1983.


Micah.   “Periodization and Difference.” New Literary History 35.4 (2004): 685-697.


O’Hara, Frank. The Collected Works of Frank O’Hara. Ed. Donald Allen. New York:  Alfred A Knopf, 1971, First Paperback edition 1995.


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


Ramazani, Jahan, Richard Ellmann and Robert O’Clair (eds.). The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry  Vol.2.  New York: W.W. Norton & company, 2003.



About the Author:


Dr Gunjan Saxena is Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Bareilly College, Bareilly. She has attended many seminars and published several research papers in the national and international journals. Her area of interest is American literature and Indian English Literature. She can be contacted at