How does Frank O'Hara juxtapose the popular and the highbrow in "Poem" (1962) ?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Frank O’Hara wrote several works titled “Poem.” One of the most famous, dated February 9, 1962, begins with the line “Lana Turner has collapsed.”  This text, like many of O’Hara’s other writings, arguably juxtaposes “popular” and “highbrow” culture, as the opening line clearly suggests. Yet this poem does not emphasize “highbrow” culture nearly as often or as obviously as some of O’Hara’s other poems, such as “The Day Lady Died.”

Lana Turner was a movie star who acted in many popular films of her day. Many sophisticated poets of O’Hara’s era would never have condescended to mention such a person in one of their poems, let alone make her the central figure of a “serious” poem. The mere fact that O’Hara writes about Turner in a poem – and in a poem written by someone who considered himself (and was considered by others) a serious “artist” – is the clearest way in which this work juxtaposes the popular (Lana Turner) with the highbrow (a “serious,” if whimsical, poem).

For the most part, however, the poem's tone is fairly consistently “popular.”  Thus the exclamation mark in line 1 seems the sort of punctuation one might find in colloquial speech or in popular writing.  In line 2, moreover, the speaker uses the word “trotting,” a word that seems the opposite of highbrow in its connotations, especially when used to refere to human movement.  Similarly, the poem’s casual references to winter weather seem “popular”: winter here does not seem to symbolize anything especially profound (as, for instance, in Robert Frost’s poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"). The fact that the speaker addresses an unnamed other person also helps give the work a common, colloquial tone.

Another aspect of the poem that makes it seem far more “popular” than “highbrow” is its almost total lack of punctuation (except for two exclamation marks), which gives it a kind of run-on, hurried, breathless quality. This is not formal, elevated, sublime speech; it is the speech of a person who seems a bit “ditsy” and comical. He seems easily excitable and doesn’t seem to care if he is perceived as lacking in seriousness and gravitas. There is, in fact, a definite “camp” element to this poem: the speaker is having fun at his own expense and even at the expense of the collapsed Lana Turner.

Despite the fact that the poem lacks much punctuation, it can easily be read aloud. In fact, when one does read it aloud, the tones of the speaker’s voice can easily be imagined, including his emphasis on certain words, as in lines 4-7:

. . . you said it was hailing

but hailing hits you on the head  5

hard so it was really snowing and

raining . . .  [emphasis added]

The poem trots along as easily and quickly as the speaker does through the snow and rain and traffic until suddenly the speaker sees a headline announcing that "LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED!" (11). This news shocks him, but he continues to talk in simple, everyday, colloquial language until he reaches perhaps the most “popular” line of all:

oh Lana Turner we love you get up    (17)

This line helps give the poem some symmetry (since it echoes line 1), but there is nothing highbrow about the speaker’s words or meaning here. If he had said, “Oh, please, Miss Turner, / We beseech you to arise!” the tone might have been highbrow. For the most part, however, this poem seems unrelentingly popular in is tones, style, and emphases.


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