Frank O’Hara and Intimacy: What Is Personism Again?

“Personism has nothing to do with philosophy, it’s all art. It does not have to do with personality or intimacy, far from it!”

Frank O’Hara is the love of my life, and I know better than to take him at his word. He is a poet after all, and a skilled liar as all poets are.

The quote above is from O’Hara’s mock-manifesto on what he calls Personism, in which he does a beautiful job of not explaining what Personism is. One might be tempted to say that Personism is likely nothing at all, a joke or a hollow movement to show the hollowness of all movements. One might otherwise be tempted to say that Personism is a word O’Hara invented to justify his own poetry, but isn’t that what every manifesto means to do? At any rate, I think these are all fair readings. But there’s something else going on in there that needs to be acknowledged.

What’s most obvious about the manifesto is how much it talks around itself, going always in very small circles. He makes bold statements. Talking about abstraction, he says that the greater the degree of abstraction, the more the poet is removed from the poem, and thus more of Keats’s concept of “negative capability” is possible. Then, immediately: “Personism […] interests me a great deal, being so totally opposed to this kind of abstract removal that it is verging on a true abstraction for the first time, really, in the history of poetry.” What are we to make of that?

Looking at “A Step Away From Them,” one of O’Hara’s most-anthologized poems:

There are several Puerto
Ricans on the avenue today, which
makes it beautiful and warm. First
Bunny died, then John Latouche,
then Jackson Pollock. But is the
earth as full as life was full, of them?

These are three sentences, each of a growing level of abstraction. The first contains details about what is in O’Hara’s immediate experience while writing. The second is an overview of some friends of his that have died, and in what order, and unrelated to the first sentence. The third is a question regarding the people who died in the second sentence, and doesn’t gloss, or glosses in several separate ways. The effect is jarringly fast, but really only out of context like this.

Reading the poem from the beginning, we see that he has (un)carefully prepared us for this moment in every small space between sentences, and between phrases within sentences, and even in the middle of phrases where there is no space between. “The sun is hot,” then, immediately, “the / cabs stir up the air.” Also, “Everything / suddenly honks: it is 12:40 of / a Thursday” as if the two are related. In the poem, I suppose, they are related. And that’s the trick, isn’t it?

I’ll refer now to Richard Hugo, who, in his essay “Writing Off The Subject,” advises poets to “make the subject of the next sentence different from the subject of the sentence you just put down.” “It is impossible,” he says, “to write meaningless sequences.” The implication here is that the poet’s mind (or framework, rather) provides unity and cohesiveness. Hugo wants us to have faith in our unconscious, saying that we “may be foolish, but foolish like a trout.”

Frank O’Hara is quite possibly the most foolish trout of them all. He puts things together that only belong together because he chose to experience them as such. “I look / at bargains in wristwatches,” then, “There / are cats playing in sawdust.” Later, he stops “for a cheeseburger at JULIET’s / CORNER,” then, with no explanation, “Giulietta Masina, wife of / Federico Fellini, è bell’ attrice. / And chocolate malted.” The effect is somewhere between stream-of-consciousness and actually being inside his brain. It is, in its own way, the opposite of the kind of abstraction one typically sees in poetry. Or at least a grounded kind of poetic abstraction–that is, grounded in the poet’s own framework. It’s very intimate in a strange way.

And that seems to be the effect of much of what O’Hara does (at his best): strange intimacy. O’Hara explains the invention of Personism:

“It was founded by me after lunch with LeRoi Jones on August 27, 1959, a day in which I was in love with someone (not Roi, by the way, a blond). I went back to work and wrote a poem for this person. While I was writing it I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born.”

His choice of the telephone (rather than face-to-face conversation) is interesting. The telephone is intimate in that only two people are involved, but there’s distance involved as well. The important effect is, as O’Hara notes, “the poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages.”

But how do we reconcile that with his line of thinking earlier in the manifesto, where he asks, “How can you really care if anybody gets it, or gets what it means, or if it improves them. Improves them for what? For death? Why hurry them along?” What is the difference, exactly, in writing to a specific person and writing with one’s audience in mind? The difference, I suppose, is in separating the creation and reception of a poem. The idea here is that a poet cannot (or should not) write a poem with his audience in mind. The idea of addressing the poem to a specific person, however, has more to do with how the poem is structured: what is explained, what is supposed, what is left unsaid. The difference is that writing a poem “Lucky Pierre style,” as O’Hara recommends, has more to do with the framework of the poem. (By the way, Hugo agrees with O’Hara that communication with the audience is not a consideration, and mentions a telephone to boot: “Give up all worry about communication,” he says. “If you want to communicate, use the telephone.”)

But, despite my reading intimacy into his poems, O’Hara insists that Personism does not have to do with intimacy. Perhaps this is better explained in his insistence that it “has nothing to do with philosophy, it’s all art.” And, again, intimacy in O’Hara is of a strange kind: there’s a distance there. It’s almost as if he is passively exposing a portion of his psyche, and we as readers are left to experience it (or not) through the distancing lens of his poems. One might think of O’Hara (who loved art probably more than poetry) hanging himself on a gallery wall wearing only underwear, and all the gallery-goers viewing him from behind a velvet rope. It is intimate, sure, but the distance between poet and reader is great. It’s only when we start trying to put philosophy onto it that we may miss the distance and see only the intimacy.

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3 Responses to Frank O’Hara and Intimacy: What Is Personism Again?

  1. AVZ says:

    Well, Jared, the only thing missing here is Whitman. The game of “Where’s Whitman” can be a complex one and no mere parlor game–especially for O’Hara, who would probably prefer it remain a parlor game anyway, so let’s just get on with it anyway.

    O’Hara’s urbane and aloof style seems everywhere to contradict some core Whitmanian ideal, and yet there is a significant relationship here.

    Any thoughts?

  2. Jared S. says:

    Ah, silly me, forgetting Whitman. Let’s see what I can do.

    It’s true that there’s something in O’Hara that resists Whitman. Most of all, I think, O’Hara lacks Whitman’s belief that poetry can (or should) change people. Whitman wanted to prevent the Civil War; O’Hara wrote poems in five minutes and shoved them in a box where they stayed, most of them, until he died. Whitman wrote to every person at once, O’Hara wrote to one at a time. There’s a faith in O’Hara, somewhere, that poetry accomplishes /something/, but I’m not sure he knows or cares to know what. It’s enough, I think, to note that he wrote poems–a lot of them, in fact–to show that he didn’t believe it a completely useless enterprise.

    And O’Hara loved poetry, but it’s important to note how intimate that love was. The last line of “A Step Away From Them” is, after all, “My heart is in my / pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.” His heart. If Whitman wrote poems in a coliseum, O’Hara wrote them in a bathroom. That’s not to say that Whitman wasn’t a poet of intimacy–he was as intimate as he could be at that level of urgency. There’s a limit to how intimate one can be while yelling grand proclamations and declarations.

    Where O’Hara agrees with Whitman is the value and beauty of the (granted, urban) world. I don’t think Frank O’Hara saw anything in New York that wasn’t good enough to go in a poem. “I live above a dyke bar and I’m happy” indeed. Whitman loved the homeless, the prostitutes, the disenfranchised. So does O’Hara, and the Puerto Ricans, and the homosexuals, and the construction workers.

    Also, they both have faith in the interconnectedness of things. Surely Whitman more than O’Hara, but this business where O’Hara makes seemingly unrelated statements very close to one another speaks to an innate trust in the comprehensibility of the universe that he shares (to some degree) with Whitman. They both allow contradiction into themselves, and remain. The difference is chiefly that O’Hara is a bit too urbane, as you say, to do anything other than shrug and maybe giggle a bit. Whitman, by contrast, sounds his barbaric yawp. It’s a matter of degrees, I suppose.

    It’s probably worth it to note that O’Hara famously eschewed most American literature in favor of the French and the Russian. I’m not saying he’s not enormously indebted to Whitman (we all are), but he’s also drawing from sources fairly separate the Whitman Experience. I don’t know enough Rimbaud and Mayakovsky to speak to that, though.

  3. AVZ says:

    Thanks for these additional thoughts–what you say about Whitman and intimacy (that he was as intimate as he could be given the level of urgency at times) in comparison to O’Hara seems just right. What I love most about pairing these figures together is the stark sense of contrast, which you draw out in many fine distinctions–especially the degree to which O’Hara is totally cool with just dropping the whole I’m-an-american-bard things and just writing poems, often slight poems of often disarming power. More on this tomorrow, I hope…

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