What is Frank O'Hara essentially saying in his essay titled "Personism" ?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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In his essay titled “Personalism,” the American writer Frank O’Hara makes various whimsical assertions, which can perhaps be understood as follows:

  • Poems really don’t need to be explained, but O’Hara will nevertheless try to offer some words of explanation about his poetry lest anyone think that puzzled reactions to his poems are the result of his own confusion when he wrote the poems. Just because a poem confuses a reader on first reading does not mean that the poet was confused when he wrote the work.
  • O’Hara feels no need to write in obviously “literary” or conventional or traditional ways.
  • Poetry is largely the result of unconscious impulses. It is like running, which we do without really thinking as we do it.
  • A poet can’t predict or control how his poems will be received. If they are badly received, that is no reason to cease writing. Just as we fall in love but can’t predict if the person we love will hurt us, so we write poems but can’t predict how the poems will be read or received. Writing poems is as valuable as falling in love, even if poems ultimately are badly received and even if love ultimately results in pain.
  • A poet’s ideas are less important than the poems he actually writes. Anyone can have lofty ideas; what matters is what gets down on paper. Explicitly formulated  theories don’t produce  poems; in a sense, unconscious thought produces them.
  • If people don’t like poetry, who cares? Why feel any need to make poetry appetizing to large numbers of people? Or, as O’Hara puts it,

Too many poets act like a middle-aged mother trying to get her kids to eat too much cooked meat, and potatoes with drippings (tears). I don't give a damn whether they eat or not.

  • If people don’t feel the need to read poetry, that’s fine; if they prefer to go to the movies, that’s fine. Only the poems of Walt Whitman, Stephen Crane, and William Carlos Williams are better than the movies.
  • Poetic meter and other technical aspects of poetry are just matters of “common sense”; using them doesn’t require a great deal of thought, just as wearing the kind of clothing that makes one sexually attractive to others doesn’t require a great deal of thought.
  • Writing in an abstract way involves removing oneself and one’s own feelings and attitudes from a poem and writing objectively, in the way that John Keats recommended when he discussed “negative capability” (in other words, the ability to describe without feeling any need to push a particular, limited, personal point of view).
  • “Personism,” a term O’Hara has coined and an approach to writing that he has invented, involves writing with at least one other person in mind while still keeping one’s focus on the poem itself. This attitude toward writing has the potential to destroy conventional ideas about literature.

O’Hara’s remarks about “Personism” are written in a breezy, light-hearted, colloquial style that makes them difficult to follow and explain, which is surely part of the impact he hoped to achieve.

Something extra: O'Hara's "manifesto" might be read almost as a parody of the typical poetic manifesto. Instead of carefully and logically explaining his position about poetry, O'Hara rejects logic and spoofs the very idea of careful, painstaking explanation. His explanation is itself a kind of prose poem.




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