Can the poetry of Frank O'Hara be considered elitist/highbrow or popular or middlebrow?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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The poetry of Frank O’Hara is difficult to classify as simply popular, middlebrow, or highbrow. Some poems fit one category, other poems another, and other poems another category still. O’Hara was very well educated, moved in circles that might be considered “highbrow,” and was very familiar with the texts of sophisticated writers. Yet he often deliberately cultivated a style reflecting spontaneity, colloquialism, and whimsy and in these ways his work can be seen as a reaction against the “High Modernism” associated with such earlier poets as Eliot, Pound, and Stevens.

Examination of a few poems selected at random (they are featured on the web site FrankO’ can illustrate the claims just made.  Take, for example, the middle stanza of a poem titled “Animals”:

it's no use worrying about Time

but we did have a few tricks up our sleeves

and turned some sharp corners

Various aspects of these lines suggest a popular or “lowbrow” mode, including the contraction (“it’s), the use of lower-case letters at the beginnings of lines, the simple, mundane diction, the use of popular clichés (as in the second and third quoted lines), the absence of formal punctuation, the absence of rhyme, the absence of a strong metrical pattern, etc. These lines sound like something more from a poem by William Carlos Williams than from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land or Ezra Pound’s The Cantos. They have none of the highly self-conscious polish of most poems by Wallace Stevens. They are “popular,” but they are not “popular” in the way that the poetry of (say) Edgar Guest was popular. In other words, by cultivating the kind of style he uses here, O’Hara was not really writing for “the masses” but was mostly in dialogue with other poets who were part of a cultural elite, however much they might have liked to think otherwise. William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg were, in some ways, just as elitist as Eliot and Pound, at least if one associates “popular culture” with what is truly popular and sells by the millions.  (By such a standard, Robert Frost may have been the true “popular” poet of the American twentieth century.)

Much of what has already been said about the lines from “Animals” might also be said about these opening lines from O’Hara’s “Ave Maria”:

Mothers of America

let your kids go to the movies!

get them out of the house so they won't know what you're up to

Here one detects a similarity not only to the work of writers such as Ginsberg and Williams but also to the much earlier writings of Walt Whitman.  Again, this is not the sort of “popular” poetry that used to be printed in newspapers, where Edgar Guest was represented by a poem each day, of which the following lines are typical:

When you're up against a trouble,

Meet it squarely, face to face,

Lift your chin, and set your shoulders,

Plant your feet and take a brace . . . .

In short, one might claim that O’Hara often cultivated a “popular” or “middlebrow” style but that in doing so he was greatly influenced by his strong familiarity with “highbrow” or elitist culture.

Something extra: O'Hara's poetry might particular benefit from study from a formalist perspective, which can especially highlight the importance on individual words in poetry intended to seem "plain."


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