Tag Archives: Frank O’Hara

13 Poetry Books on Neptune

Stuart Ross asked me to list the 13 poetry books I’d want to keep me company if I were stranded on Neptune (he promised to provide breathing apparatus and a sandwich). It wasn’t easy to pare it down to 13, but here it is . . .

Click to see the list . . .

Camille Martin


The Self vs. Apollo the Dork: Ish Klein’s “WE WILL FREE EACH OTHER”

Klein’s complete poem is in the previous post and following the essay below.
         Two things about Ish Klein’s poetry have consistently grabbed the attention of reviewers: the voice, which is conversational yet poetically sophisticated; and her use of exclamation points both in the title of her first book (Union!) and sprinkled throughout her poems as the emotion associated with the “bang” arises and overflows.
          Klein’s poems exude personality, and that inimitable voice of hers makes them fun to read. It’s what Frank O’Hara might have sounded like if he had texted his poems.
          And just for fun, here’s a comparison of two passages showing the exclamatory trademark of each poet:

                    O’Hara, from “Autobiographia Literaria” (3):

                    And here I am, the
                    center of all beauty!
                    writing these poems!

                    Klein, from “WE WILL FREE EACH OTHER” (6):

                    I hissed

                    and he hissed back.
                    It was so ugly!
                    I cried and he cried
                    and I thought pathetic!

          In her essay “Frank O’Hara: Nothing Personal,” Elaine Equi writes of O’Hara’s “giddy” and “orgasmic” use of the exclamation point. She also notes that such instances can be read as “a curious mix of the heartfelt and the insincere. . . . His poems ask to be read as genuine, even as they retreat into irony.” And in Klein as in O’Hara, what saves all those exclamation points from being irredeemably hokey (or a little “too happy,” as Jerome Sala puts it [qtd. in Equi]) is that they serve a richer purpose beyond simple wonder or crankiness.
          In the following, I talk about Klein’s famous exclamation points, but first I want to zoom out and consider broader themes in one of her poems (“WE WILL FREE EACH OTHER”), within which enthusiasm and its signature punctuation mark are players on a dialectical stage.
          I wasn’t expecting to find the Genesis myths of creation and Eden lurking in Klein’s child-like speaker, but in fact they form the backdrop for her struggles with a conflicted self. First, Klein opens the poem with a hint of the biblical story of creation: an image of stars and the idea of things coming into being, expressed with a sense of awe and excitement:

                    [. . .] the stars,
                    they were wondering, “When is X coming out?”
                    Considering the material, X will be something!”

Also, the speaker sometimes uses biblical diction, reinforcing the allusions to biblical mythology:

                    As a stone on the base of [the mountain] did I make me.

Moreover, echoing the story of the Fall, the speaker takes the form of a “serpent.” After the “dorky actor” (more about him in a moment) insists on imposing form on the speaker, she “hiss[es]” at him in annoyance, whereupon he hisses back. Lastly, at the poem’s end, the actor and the speaker simultaneously lament that they “sold [their] birthright for food” to satisfy hunger—another reference to the Fall.
          A major theme in the creation myth of Genesis is the division of the previously amorphous universe into hierarchical dualities as God differentiates light from dark, land from sea, human from animal, male from female. In Klein’s poem, the theme of division plays out on several levels, including, at the opening, a Dionysian/Apollonian dichotomy between the enthusiasm of the exclamation point and the “dork” of an “actor” who arrives to contain the Dionysian excess and impose order.
          First, let’s consider the exclamation point, for Klein the punctuation mark of the Dionysian: “A glamorous anus . . . mark[s] the sentiment” of the sign, which also connotes excess (waste, appropriate to the anus) and superfluity:

                    Always it was exclaimed.
                    It was exclaimed!!!

Those who have taught Freshman Comp (or who have ever been young, for that matter) will recognize the novice writer’s tendency to signal such emotional excess, regardless of the rhetorical situation. Students are taught to curb this tendency in formal writing and save it for texting friends. But in the above passage from Klein’s poem, free reign is given to the diction of overflowing and youthful excitement, also emphasized by the repetition of the sentence “It was exclaimed.”
          These two lines not only heighten the theme of Dionysian excess; they also enact a little self-reflexive moment: “It was exclaimed!!!” with its excess of exclamation points enacts the enthusiasm it announces. That reflexivity is a harbinger for the larger theme that emerges in the interaction between the speaker and her alter-ego, the “dorky actor.”
          And it is this actor who emerges to spoil the Bacchanalian fun, demanding form and accuracy and coming after the speaker with “calipers.” This Apollonian presence gradually merges with the speaker through his mimicry of her: he is characterized as an “actor” who merely “pretends.” Yet this actor also remains at a critical distance of the self, which is characteristic of Nietzsche’s exploration of the Apollonian overseer of the self:

                    . . . the measured restraint, the freedom
                    from the wilder emotions, that calm of
                    the sculptor god [whose] eye must be
                    “sunlike” . . . (35)

          At the opening of the poem is an echo of the Apollonian “sunlike” eye and of the eye of God. Both Apollo and the God of Genesis impose order on formlessness, but Klein satirically figures the eye of Apollo/God as “larval”:

                    Yes, yes larval,
                    larvalous was eye–the stars,
                    they were wondering, “When is X coming out?
                    Considering the material, X will be something!”

“Larvalous was eye” echoes Psalms 118:23:

                    This is the LORD’S doing; it is
                    marvellous in our eyes.

as well as numerous biblical passages referring to the eye(s) of God. And there is a hint of the “eye/I” play on words as well—for the poet-speaker is also a maker and a shaper. But here the eye of the divider (whether of God, Apollo, or the self) is a mere larva, all potential rather than action. Klein, in one concise image cutting the divine Apollonian down to a potential insect, hints at the larger battle that develops between ecstatic enthusiasm and formal restraint.
          I have been pointing out Klein’s talent at foreshadowing themes, such as that of reflexivity in the sentence with three exclamation points, and of the dethroning of the Apollonian in the “larvalous eye.” The poem is rich in such moments, and I want to examine one more such instance. In the very image of the exclamation point (“line dividing over a little black hole”), the dividing line foreshadows the arrival of the Apollonian impulse of the actor, and seems to contain within one little symbol the dichotomy worked through later in the poem: the division between chaos and order, between Rimbaud’s “je” and “autre.”
          The remainder of the poem develops the struggle between the self and its Other, the enthusiastic “I” fighting against the dorky “me,” all calipers and control and “seeing-me-capacity,” and trying to outsmart and evade her shape-shifting pursuer.
          The poem’s playfully Romantic enthusiasm (its Wordsworthian “spontaneous overflowing of powerful feelings”) comes across more like a spoof, a cartoonish mimicry of Romanticism. In this cartoon, the caliper-wielding hunter pursues the hunted speaker, but every time the latter turns around, she seems to be looking into a mirror. The two forces within the split self may be endlessly duking it out, but there’s also an underlying identity between them, an identity that becomes ever more apparent at the end. The actor

                    mouth[s] my every mood. Instantly I say,
                    “Don’t believe him–he isn’t it.
                    He isn’t something; he’s pretending.”

                    Which is what he’s saying.
                    Then he says (and this comes from my mouth, too),
                    “Sold for food.
                    I sold my birthright for food.

                    I was hungry.
                    I WAS HUNGRY!”

                    But I am not hungry.

                    But I said it anyway.

          In this retelling of the myth of the Fall at the end of the poem, there’s a movement like a pendulum coming to rest at the mid-point of its arc. Throughout the poem, the self and the “dorky actor” have been reacting to each other. In the end their identities become one, like Rimbaud’s “Je est un autre.” They dissolve into one another and what’s left is indecision, a self conflicted: Hungry or not hungry? To say it or not to say it?
          The self-conscious self is a paradox. On the one hand, the self is in a sense discrete: an undifferentiated “aspic, unset,” or an Icaraus-like being, “the sun touching only me.” It is simultaneously the “pretender” who, having located his “seeing-me-capacity,” comes after the speaker with evaluating “calipers” and points at her.
          Klein’s self is never resolved but remains a seething contradiction, saying that hunger made it eat the apple of knowledge, yet simultaneously denying its hunger. The self and its “dorky” other may be mouthing each other’s words in an ongoing chain reaction of mirror neurons, yet it’s still a story of “he said/she said.” Knowledge may be power, but it’s also problematic. It’s like a detective story in which two criminals point the finger at each other, and as long as they continue to do so in the absence of evidence, the case will remain open.
          And what of the title? Have the self and the dork freed each other? I think the poem itself is proof that they have.

Here’s the complete poem:


Yes, yes larval.
Larvalous was eye—the stars,
they were wondering, “When is X coming out?
Considering the material, X will be something!”

Always it was exclaimed.
It was exclaimed!!!
The expectation and their faces like the mark:
a line dividing over a little black hole.

A glamorous anus was the mark of the sentiment.
And then, and then came the actor.
The dork who wanted form. And he figured
where the seeing-me-capacity was and he watched me be.

This guy had been practicing accuracy
and still he came upon me with calipers.
Calipers! Still he pointed towards me
until I hissed

and he hissed back.
It was so ugly!
I cried and he cried
and I thought pathetic!

So I rolled up and grumbled.
I put a mountain in my mind.
I broke from it—a boulder me
and I hurled down a slope—the hardest part of the mountain.

As a stone on the base of it did i make me
and then I said slowly,
“Mountain. Go. Away. Leave. Me. In. Space.
The. Actor. Can. Look. At. A. Rock.”

When I looked out the actor was a rock,
a rock who may have been there before me.
I should not have been so astounded.
So much the fool was I being.

I was, I was, I was
just short of being nothing
and the actor was more on top of it than me.
This actor—watch out!

If you see the actor, evaporate—
find a place—be there instead,

I returned to the serpent form. I said,
“Stop looking at me while I’m working on stuff!”
And I know you know this. I know you know
he’s saying when I say this at the same time

the same exact time. And maybe even—
No. That’s just me but some would say
he’s saying it first. Some would say,
I said it first.


What do you want then?
What do you want?
So weakened was I then being, indeed, NOW recounting
recounting turns me into an aspic, unset—

a drooling reverberating—just recounting,
and I have been recounting for hours,
every day in some point, in stone time,
although I am not now a stone girl.

In-between-worlds / during / visiting
under the heat lamp sun, the earth—
our incubator. Within this context
of incompletion, I am coming to power in space.

So it’s electric flying too
over grey and glinting paths,
the sun touching only me like so
because it’s my feeling

and wild-eyed I find myself aloft
and taken away: hurray, hurray
I say, “We’re here!”
and the ground comes up

and the actor is on the pavement splayed,
mouthing my every mood. Instantly I say,
“Don’t believe him—he isn’t it.
He isn’t something; he’s pretending.”

Which is what he’s saying.
Then he says (and this comes from my mouth, too),
“Sold for food.
I sold my birthright for food.

I was hungry.

But I am not hungry.

But I said it anyway.

Works Cited

Equi, Elaine. “Frank O’Hara: Nothing Personal.” Conjunctions 29 (1997): n.pag. Web. 14 Mar. 2012.

Klein, Ish. Moving Day. Ann Arbor: Canarium Books, 2011.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. “The Birth of Tragedy.” Basic Writings of Nietzsche. Tr. and Ed. Walter Kaufmann. (New York: Modern Library, 2000). 1-144.

O’Hara, Frank. The Selected Poems of Frank O’Hara. New York: Vintaqge Books, 1974.

Camille Martin

Part 2: “I hate my birthday!”—Or, what do elegies by New York school poets have in common with the story of an Italian anarchist?

Yesterday, I wrote about the ways in which the tip-of-the-tongue experience is helping cognitive scientists to learn how the mind stores and retrieves information. When we struggle to remember something, we will sometimes begin with the conviction that we remember a fragment, such as the first letter of a name.

This phenomenon demonstrates to researchers that information about a word or other kind of memory is likely to be stored in different locations in the brain: aural sound of a word in one location, meaning in another, and spelling in yet another. Somehow, they coalesce regularly and rapidly. But sometimes they don’t: we might know the meaning of a word that is trying to surface, but the word itself remains in hiding. The knowledge that our unconscious mind knows more than we consciously know, and knows it sooner than we know it, is an eerie thought. It brings to mind Antonio Damasio’s succinct statement of the tardiness of conscious knowledge: “We are always hopelessly late for consciousness” (127).

And sometimes the process of remembering leaves traces, clues of its mysterious origins and ways, demonstrating the imbalance between conscious and unconscious thought and proving once more that the unconscious mind knows more and knows it sooner than the conscious mind. And this is what really fascinates me: becoming aware that some pre-conscious part of my brain seems to be trying to tell me something, to throw little hints my way until the memory surfaces and I experience the eureka moment.

“I hate my birthday!”
A memorable instance of this kind of pre-conscious associative process occurred a few years ago when I was traveling with a friend in Europe. During our stay in Italy, we visited Francesco, a friend who lived near Padua. The three of us had a terrific visit. We chatted at his apartment for a while, and then Francesco showed us a printing press where he and some friends edited an anarchist newspaper.

Our next destination was the South of France to see friends in Montpellier. As the train passed through Provence, I gazed out the window at fields of poppies and lavender. I became aware that there was a memory that was trying to surface in my mind, but when I tried to remember what it was, I drew a blank. I knew that it was something that had made an impression on me, that it was somehow important to me. And whatever it was, it was tinged with sadness.

As I watched the colourful fields pass by, wondering about the elusive memory, the following phrase occurred to me:

      heavenly fields of poppy and lavender

This phrase gave rise to this sentence:

      But the people in the sky really love /
      to have dinner and to take a walk with you.

I knew this to be from an elegy for Frank O’Hara by Ted Berrigan.

Again I made an effort to recall the mysterious memory, but no other thoughts arrived. I still had the feeling that a memory wanted to surface. Then the feeling saddened and more words arrived:

      I hate that dog.

I remembered that sentence as the last line in an elegy for Ted Berrigan by Ron Padgett. The poem describes hearing a dog bark in the night and feeling the emptiness of Ted’s absence.

I thought it curious that both lines that surfaced in my mind were elegies for poets. Somewhere in my brain there must be a file with the label “elegies for poets of the second generation New York school.”

The clues from this mental file were leading me toward my memory, and the last clue, “I hate that dog,” was the catalyst that allowed me to remember what had been trying to surface:

      I hate my birthday.

On remembering these words, I experienced a eureka moment: this was the memory that had been lurking in the depths of my unconscious! It was also a poignant moment when I remembered what had occasioned Francesco’s speaking those words.

During our visit with Francesco, I showed him a cd that I had bought in Paris of the French anarchist singer Léo Ferré. Francesco told me that Léo Ferré had died several years before, in 1993. I was surprised and saddened, because although I didn’t know much about Ferré’s life, I had come to love the music of this “anarchanteur.”

Francesco then spoke of an Italian anarchist singer, Fabrizio de André, who had died just a couple of years earlier, the date of his death unfortunately coinciding with Francesco’s thirtieth birthday. So great was Francesco’s admiration for De André that after the singer’s death, he hated his birthday.

So the original elusive memory did eventually surface, but it took a circuitous path involving lateral associations. It was as though my brain were tossing little clues along the path: it knew what I didn’t know, and it seemed to be in dialogue with me, coyly leading me in the right direction.

It seems to me that the memory that “wanted” to surface was always the same memory: Francesco telling me of hating his birthday because De André had died on that day. I felt that this was so because of the eureka moment that I experienced when the memory finally surfaced. And the various memories that surfaced along the path to remembering that event were like stepping stones leading to Francesco’s statement about hating his birthday.

The first stepping stone was gazing at fields of poppies and lavender from the train and thinking of them as “heavenly.” “Heavenly” suggests the mythical abode of the dead, and the path that led from “heavenly fields of poppies and lavender” to “I hate my birthday” follows a certain logic having to do with remembering one’s fallen friends and hating something that one associates with that friend’s death. So the associative chain might look something like this:

lavender and poppy fields desire to remember

desire to remember heavenly fields

heavenly fields heaven

heaven friend’s death

friend’s death hate things reminding me of that death

hate things reminding me of that death hate birthday

If by chance you have actually made it to this point in my little essay, you may wonder at my meditating on this memory in such detail. If I do, it is because the more I find out about the workings of the mind, the more strange and wonderful it all seems. I find it so incredible that in our daily lives we make associations without thinking about them much. But if we stop to think about how the mind actually gets from A to B, things become very complicated very quickly!

There is just one more thing I want to consider. Earlier, I characterized the unconscious as having agency: it tossed little clues in my direction and coyly led me in the right direction. I know that it’s misleading to personify my unconscious that way. After all, is it really accurate to suppose that my unconscious “knew” the identity of the memory that was “trying” to surface and “concocted” a logical path of stepping stones for me to follow? If that were true, then why would my unconscious “withhold” the memory and tease me with clues?

It seems more likely that my conscious mind started guessing about the identity of the memory, shooting out trial electrical impulses to neurons that might be associated with the memory of Francesco hating his birthday. After all, the fact that the emotional aura of the memory was present from the beginning means that I knew something about the memory, just not the memory itself (perhaps similar to knowing that a word you’re trying to remember starts with the letter “b”). As Lehrer points out in the essay that I cited in Part I, the mind “makes guesses based upon the other information that it can recall.”

In other words, the meta-cognitive knowledge that I wanted to remember something was unable to link directly to “I hate my birthday.” Somehow, the direct link at that time was too weak. However, there were stronger links from “I hate my birthday” to the indirect categories that I listed above.

So perhaps my conscious mind got to “I hate my birthday” by guessing along a kind of zigzagging path. That scenario is certainly less eerie than imagining an unconscious with agency, regardless of whether it’s beneficent or malevolent! But it takes nothing away from the strangeness of the mind’s ways.

As a tribute to De André and Ferré, below are links to videos of each in concert.

Works Cited

Damasio, Antonio. The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. Heinemann: London, 1999.

Camille Martin