American Contemporary Poetry: Creating the Personal Amidst the Political

Politics have always been a point of contention within organized society. The fast- paced nature of politics makes it extremely difficult for people to understand and relate to what is going on in the political world in the same ways that someone might relate to what is going on in his or her own life. This lack of understanding makes for an unattractive relationship between people and politics. People like being in relation to things and others and having a personal connection to them. The relationship between the “political” and the “personal” was, and still is one of vast distinction and separation. American poet Frank O’Hara, who wrote in the 1950s- 1960s understood this clash between what we could call the “people’s party”, and the actual people. His poetic movement Personism, “has nothing to do with philosophy”, as sometimes politics tends to do, “but is all art”(O’Hara, 354). Personism lends itself to the dialogue O’Hara creates between the personal and the political, as he recognizes politics as one of various impersonal social constructs. Politics do not always work, but poetry is something personal that we can create to make things that are incomprehensible or unrecognizable to us, understandable.

Through Personism, Frank O’Hara seeks to evade the abstract and put the personal experiences of the poet and the life of the writer into poetry, giving it an individualized context. Politics are difficult to always give this type of context, given the various parties and forms through which it is practiced world- wide. O’Hara states “Nobody should experience anything they don’t need to, if they don’t need poetry, bully for them”(354). He is saying that we really do need poetry in order to create a linkage between the personal and impersonal, the impersonal in this case being politics. Frank O’Hara is all about the person and how he or she relates to the world as expressed through the art of poetry. Particularly evident in his two pieces Personal Poem and Poem(Khrushchev is coming on the right day), we see the stark contrast between the personal and the political, as well as how Frank O’Hara artistically and unconventionally manages to create a melange of the two in his written works from Lunch Poems.

We can deem Personal Poem by Frank O’Hara as just that: personal. Within this poem, O’Hara mentions a multitude of seemingly arbitrary things, such as the contents of his pockets as he strolls the city streets, his batting average of “.016”, eating fish, drinking ale, and buying a strap for his wristwatch during his lunch hour(O’Hara, 32-33). As readers we understand these details as arbitrary, for when we think of O’Hara, we think Frank O’Hara the poet and not so much of Frank O’Hara the person. For Frank O’Hara the poet, none of these things matter except how we know him to have influence on the literary world, yet to Frank O’Hara the person this minutia is part of what differentiates him as the “one person out of 8,000,000” who flood the streets of New York City day in and day out(33). Personal Poem is a lament over how impersonal the metropolitan lifestyle can be at times; it is very easy to get swept away in the action, hustle and bustle of millions of people living their lives just as you are. Yet, as O’Hara points out, the ways in which others live their own lives affect how you feel and how you see yourself in your own. He walks,

“through the luminous humidity

 passing the House of Seagram with its wet

 and its loungers and the construction”

wondering what it is like to be one of those construction workers and wear one of those hats(33). He makes a point to say his must be silver, just so that others can see it amongst a sea of yellow hard hats and say “Hey, that one is Frank O’Hara”. He yearns for something that will separate him from everyone else and make him unmistakably known.

As much personality as New York City has, there is a very impersonal way in which we pass through it as people. O’Hara attempts to combat this impersonal relation in his poetry by inserting names of people, places and things that he knows to be familiar in his own life; sometimes they are and things people we recognize in reading the names, and at other times they are things that we would only know if we were Frank O’Hara himself or a part of his close inner- circle of friends. This detailed subject matter of his poetry reflects his need to have things that distinctly form his identity, such a his relations to others and personal preferences, as well as how hard he tries to make everything more unique to himself in his writing.

In essence, Frank O’Hara is yearning for the magnitude of notoriety and celebrity status that secretary of the Communist party of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev had during the time of the Cold War era, and even now has, as someone of political infamy. O’Hara wants this not just as a writer or a poet or anybody of any particular high social standing, but simply as a person. He wants to be undoubtedly Frank O’Hara, not just Frank O’Hara the poet. Your public self versus your private self involves a descent from intimacy and familiarity to guardedness and role- played privacy. Similarly, we see Khrushchev in Poem(Khrushchev is coming on the right day) not as Khrushchev the person, but as Khrushchev the politician.

Politics as a social practice are difficult to fully understand and make familiar to the general population of Americans, even today- familiar in the context of interpersonal relation with and recognition of one another. We think we know political parties, we think we know politicians, we think we know how our democratic system functions, What we know as a collective society is ideas and personas as opposed to persons. In comparison to the intimate familiarity with which we encounter O’Hara’s friends in Personal Poem, the name of Khrushchev in particular was purposely chosen in this poem to make a point about what Khrushchev represents to the audience of the poem at this time- the Cold War, threats of looming global Communism, the Red Scare, and in addition the possibility of spontaneous nuclear war. These political ideas are some that everyone who would have read this poem would have been able to identify as ideas that came across their minds in their daily lives. He is not familiar to us as a person, but as a symbol of politics.

 On the same token, many of us know Frank O’Hara as a poet rather than a person. O’Hara insists on making us see him in a more intimate, personal light. It is much more difficult to do so with political figures. What we know about Frank O’Hara, we know because he made the efforts to tell us in his writing. However, politicians shy away from revealing intimate details about their personal lives to the public, as it is considered distracting to their political campaigns. This lack of familiarity with our world leaders is where the disconnect between the personal and the political develops. Few of us have the opportunity to introduce ourselves to affluent leaders in political parties and know them intimately in order to truly comprehend from where it is that their ideologies derive. Because we do not know these political people personally, how are we to trust them or understand their political platforms?

We see and understand the separation between politics and personal life. That being said, we are even less- so familiar with politics in other regions of the world. We are so far removed from the as a citizenry, in that there’s “us”, and then there’s the “Khrushchevs” of the world, or other politicians. In order to make government and legislation successful and beneficial to all on a national or global scale, there must be this familiar rapport created between the “us” & “them”. O’Hara attempts to create this rapport for us in Poem. He takes aspects of his own everyday personal life and intertwines them with the impersonal qualities of politics in a fashion that makes the far- removed politically, personally relatable.

On this day in particular, “the cool graced light is pushed off the enormous glass piers by hard wind, and everything is tossing, hurrying on up”(28). Frank O’Hara makes notes on the type of day New Yorkers are experiencing- windy, cool, haphazard. The words cool and cold come up within the poem, bringing to mind the Cold War that blows everything awry and causes everything to toss and turn out of nervousness and anticipation(28- 29). It’s almost as if the wind is pulling Khrushchev towards New York, making the realities of the threat he represents hit home for New Yorkers much closer than they would like for it too. It’s easy to ignore dissenting political views when you’re not living out the effects of them, but when they are in your own backyard, that creates a much more real situation. O’Hara makes Khrushchev real for his readers, depicting him as someone who comes in like a whirlwind and pushes away everything in his path. Repetition of words like “tossing” and the mention of wind and how cold wind makes everything evokes an imagery of chaos which surrounds the persona of Khrushchev.

Poem starts off by noting that Khrushchev is coming to New York. In fact, “Khrushchev is coming on the right day”(28). In the streets this day, as everyday, are cab drivers who have “everything but politesse”. New York is a city with no politesse- we’re infamous for being the least friendly and most brash, cut- throat city in the world. We push past each other in the streets, in the subway, completely unaware of one another as individuals and merely seeing a large mass of bodies occupying the space we need to pass through. O’Hara knows that his New Yorker readers can relate to that in their own lives, even if they are unable to relate to politics. Another place with no politesse? Washington D.C.. Politics seldom have politesse or personal qualities to them, and of course this is where Khrushchev is headed first.

While the journey from the capital to the Big Apple progresses, O’Hara treats the rest of the poem as he does many others in Lunch Poems– He mentions a myriad of names and places that we would only know if we were Frank O’Hara or we lived in New York City, things that are personal to him or could be personal to us.  Khrushchev is mentioned as if in the background of O’Hara’s personal life as a reflection, an afterthought perhaps. The hustle and bustle of the City continues, regardless of whether or not he is present. Many people during the time of the Cold War saw him or Communism as such- something that could be a threat any moment, but not something that always disrupted everyday life. Everyone knew what was going on, everyone was scared, but very few uttered it publicly. The mention of “unknown figures” reinforces the notion in Personal Poem that New York is sometimes impersonal in the same sense as politics. Yet in Poem, Frank O’Hara is able to use this to his advantage as a common observation that New Yorkers share(29). New York is “blinding” in that sense, in that people and events come and go so quickly that we barely see what is going on, they just slip by us as Khrushchev slips by in his visit(29).

Poem poses the question “where does the evil of the year go when September takes New York”, the evil of the year with the power to turn the City into “ozone stalagmites” possibly being Nikita Khrushchev arriving in the brisk September weather(29). In choosing to reveal his political opinions through everyday interactions and experiences, O’Hara exposes and highlights his sentiments towards the state of politics and America in relation to the rest of the world. O’Hara tries to blow the negative feelings he has off by making himself a cup of coffee, and yet he is stuck.

“My tie is blowing

up the street

I wish it would blow off”,

O’Hara might feel as if the concerns he has regarding the danger Khrushchev represents to him personally and to New York, are strangling his neck like a tie and he wishes it would blow off, or that these feelings, or Khrushchev, or both, would go away (28). It is cold, but somewhat warms his neck, as if the threats are breathing hot and heavy on the back of his neck, looming over him. This contrast between the previously brisk, windy imagery and that of heat starts the passionate momentum towards the end of the poem.

As the train comes closer to New York, it dawns on Frank O’Hara that “light”, a source of heat and synonymous to an inner- joy, can always be found by him, because he is foolish enough to believe that all things will pass, Khrushchev included(29). Part of being a poet or writer is the cliched concept that we are all over- dramatic, passionate and emotional. Here, this trope rings true, as O’Hara ends a poem on a very impersonal concept on a very personal, intimate note on his own state of being, no matter how naive he may be for thinking that the wind might continue to carries his worries away.

Poetry gives people like Frank O’Hara and people like us a chance to reflect on where and how it is that we fit into this world. Poetry is a form of relief, release and self- expression to many people; it is a chance to address and express feelings and ideas that could be considered taboo or too risque for the times, such as admitting how alone one might feel in a sea of millions as in Personal Poem, or even the terrors of politics, as in Poem. O’Hara treats poetry as the form of art he knows it is given his background and experience in the art world. He juxtaposes juxtapose the personal and the impersonal in a way that makes us as readers able to piece together his distinct style of writing in such a way that we receive a unique understanding of who Frank O’Hara is. In the particular example of these two poems, the contrast exists in the “personal” versus the “political”, “political” serving as a placeholder for the impersonal. The genre of contemporary poetry seeks to extract the impersonal from everyday life and make it something that we all can relate to.

Sources Cited:

O’Hara, Frank. Lunch Poems. San Francisco: City Lights, 1964. Print.

Tallman, Warren. “Personism: A Manifesto.” Poetics of the New American Poetry. Ed. Donald Allen. New York, 1973. Print.



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