Sunday, August 10, 2008

Poems Katie Couric Would Like: Frank O'Hara's Meditation in an Emergency

WHEN THE SEASON TWO premiere of Mad Men made Frank O'Hara's 1957 collection of poems, Meditations in an Emergency, a major point in one of its subplots, the unlikliest of poets was, overnight, thrust into American popular culture. Immediately following the show--and even during the program--viewers all over America were typing "Meditations in an Emergency" into Google. When the search engine kicked out "Frank O'Hara" and the accompanying smattering of poems, Mad Men aficionados were no doubt puzzling over what the possible connection might be between this poet and their beloved show.

Perhaps even Katie Couric was wondering about O'Hara and if she'd like his poems.

"In times of crisis, we must all decide again and again whom we love." That's O'Hara with one of the best lines in one of the best poems from Meditations. It's a line that, when taken out of context (like in a blog), appears to be about romantic relationships in a time of war, or the complexities of divorce, or love and death during the Great Depression. But, one reason O'Hara is great is the simple fact that this line refers not to any economic, natural, or emotional disaster but to movies!

It's true.

This line is the catalytic moment in a funny, goofy, over-the-top poem called "To the Film Industry in Crisis." Had Walt Whitman been around in the 1950s and been obsessed with Johnny Weissmuller, Clark Gable, and Marilyn Monroe, this is the poem he would have written. Expansive and ambulatory, its catalogs of names and notions actually make you believe that Hollywood is/was in crisis.

No American poet was more enamored with visual culture than O'Hara, and no poet would have loved contemporary TV (and having his poem appear on TV) more than he. Many of the poems in Meditations are homages to celebrities (James Dean), to the love of celebrities, to love itself as embodied by celebrities.

Obviously, this awareness of celebrity presence is one reason Katie Couric would like O'Hara's poems, but she (and most readers) would also be attracted to O'Hara's love of attraction. Drawn to everyone and everything, O'Hara looks at everything through the lens of love:

O boy, their childhood was like so many oatmeal cookies.
I need you, you need me, yum, yum. Anon it became suddenly.

Love, love, love,
honeymoon isn't used much in poetry these days
(For Janice and Kenneth to Voyage)

I am moved by the multitudes of your intelligence
and sometimes, returning, I become the sea--
in love with your speed, your heaviness and breath.

One thing I love is O'Hara's knack for playing with easy assumptions and cliches about authenticity, depth, and what we might call "appearances." O'Hara is a master at teasing out the nuances of interior and exterior. "It is easy to be beautiful;" quips O'Hara, "it is difficult to appear so."


No doubt Katie Couric thinks something like this every day, just before that red light atop Camera 1 flashes on.


  1. is katie couric giving the camera the finger?

    does she know about your poems she would like?

    does she know you have a photo of her giving us the finger on your blog?

  2. There's a resonance betweem poem and contemporary advertising with our vigilance over celebrity and pop culture, the emergence of the image/brand over logos/word and necessary love of attraction (which we seek to understand, in our era, through science).

    Yes, I agree that O'Hara would have loved modern television and probably would have found tastily ironic the fact that the actor who portrays the still-toothed old lion, agency co-owner Cooper, had once played the young mailroom-boy-become executive in "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" - Robert Morse.
    Greg Pabst

  3. V.J. & Greg,
    Thanks for your comments.

    V.J.: Yes. Katie is giving us the bird. She sent TWR the photo when she found out about the poem column.

    Greg: Smart observations. Certainly, O'Hara was a brand among the New York poets.

  4. Hey Dean-- Sharp post, thanks for the insight on O'Hara. Should I watch Mad Men now? (But, do I need to know who Katie Couric is?)

  5. Hey Jeff . .yeah, you should check out Mad Men. AMC may be running old episodes, but if not, the first season just came out on DVD.