Poets Eat Surreal for Breakfast

Ellen Gwin

American Poetry

Anton Vander Zee

13 September 2022

Poets Eat Surreal for Breakfast

     Frank O’Hara was the leader of the New York School of poets. This title refers to a group of poets in Manhattan during the 1950s and 1960s who felt influenced by literary surrealism and abstract expressionist painting as “they responded to the events of the day without embracing the heavy seriousness characteristic of some post-war intellectuals” (“Frank O’Hara”). A serious music student at the beginning of his life, O’Hara’s poetry engages with various expressions of art: music, dance, and painting. He especially found the Abstract Expressionist movement inspiring. O’Hara worked as an assistant curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and later on acted as an assistant for an exhibition called “The New American Painting” –an exhibition that introduced the Abstract Expressionist movement to Europeans (“Frank O’Hara”). Because of O’Hara’s close affiliation with the art world, his inclination to write art reviews over literary opinion, and his affinity for surrealist, dadaistic writing, O’Hara became known as “a poet among painters” (“Frank O’Hara”). O’Hara admitted so much himself in his manifesto Personism, a roughly two page document where he refers to the movement he created behind his work, when he says “Personism has nothing to do with philosophy, it’s all art” (O’Hara). O’Hara goes on to say Personism is there “to give you a vague idea…thus evoking overtones of love without destroying love’s life-giving vulgarity, and sustaining him into feeling about the person” (O’Hara). O’Hara’s poetry’s ability to engage the reader can be described as gentle: his poetry is meant to inspire without feeling obtrusive or prodding, his poetry invites the reader in without force, his poetry is something to feel and visualize but not to get caught up in.

     O’Hara’s poem “To You” paints a wonderful scene of one lover watching as light, wind, and other forces of nature paint scenes on the landscape of the other lover (but also at the same time the landscape is vaguely the reader and simultaneously the actual landscape of Earth). The speaker starts the first stanza by inviting the reader into the poem, asking what they find more beautiful than someone in your arms at nighttime? They go on to compare this moment to art: something which shows preference towards people and does not leave. In the second stanza the speaker uses the lighting of the moon and a candle as a painter in an abstract sense, involving the reader further in the poem. The speaker says whether the light from the moon or candle casts a little light or even shadows, “you,” the reader, becomes a landscape for that light to paint, highlighting the nooks and crannies of the face. The speaker continues in the third stanza describing a river valley filled with ferns covered in sweat that lift up to the clouds with each breath, noting the ferns did not have to go that high as the clouds have sunk low. The fourth stanza the speaker notes that for once no melancholic color exists as there’s no looking back because there is now a lack of need for grand views as everyone exists in one perspective of space. In the fifth stanza the speaker then describes the architect as the bravest for they stand in the view of everyone for a long period of time. In stanza five and six the speaker says, as painters, that we are always glad to see the words “I’ll always love you” appear in the sky, using the neon glow to light the river. 

     “To You” by O’Hara consists of six stanzas, four lines per stanza with no rhyme scheme or punctuation. Unconcerned with form, this poem falls in line with the experimental nature that the New York School of poets felt fond of.

     The speaker engages the reader without feeling obtrusive by uniting the reader with the poem. The word “you” in this poem functions in a passive manner because “you” as the reader, outside of the title, are not invited in until the second line when the speaker says, “What is more beautiful than night / and someone in your arms (O’Hara, “To You”). The reader almost subconsciously identifies with the “you” without initially realizing they suddenly gained and identified with the idea of a lover within the poem. The speaker goes on to unite the reader with the poem further by using the words “we” and “us” saying, “that’s what we love about art / it seems to prefer us and stays” (O’Hara, “To You”). This tactic of deftly inserting pronouns acts as one of the ways O’Hara subtly inspires the reader through personal engagement in a manner that does not feel jarring or wildly evocative but still creates a sense of intimacy and nostalgia where one feels inside the poem, tucked away cozily.

 

Questions for classs: How do you feel Abstract Expressionism affected O’Hara’s writing? Do you find his work inspiring?

Below are some Abstract Expressionist paintings from Frank O’Hara’s time period. I included the first one by Gorky because it’s wildly abstract, I honestly cannot make sense of it and perhaps that’s the point. I found the second one by Rothko warm and inspiring. The third painting by Guston reminds me of the fourth stanza of the poem “To You,” “because it is looking back at us / there’s no need for vistas we are one / in the complicated foreground of space” (O’Hara).

The Liver is the Cock’s Comb, oil on canvas by Arshile Gorky, 1944.

Orange and Yellow, oil on canvas by Mark Rothko, 1956

Back View by Philip Guston, 1977.

Works Cited

Gorkey, Arshile. The Liver is the Cock’s Comb. 1944.

Guston, Philip. Backview. 1977.

“Frank O’Hara.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/frank-ohara. 

Rothko, Mark. Orange and Yellow. 1956.

O’Hara, Frank. Personism A Manifesto. 1959. 

O’Hara, Frank. “‘To You’ by Frank O’Hara.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, May 1960, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?volume=96&issue=2&page=16.

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