O’Hara’s style and subject matter are very different from the dominant poetic tradition of the period. O’Hara disliked the complex modernism of T. S. Eliot, and he was displeased about Eliot’s influence upon the most important critical school of the period, the New Criticism. He described Eliot’s influence on modern poetry as “deadening.” In contrast, he called his critical view “Personism”; this was a rejection of nearly all the formal aspects of poetry—such as rhyme, meter, assonance, even logical structure—while substituting for these elements the immediacy and presence of the individual speaking voice. Often, in some of O’Hara’s most interesting and amusing poems, that personal voice is captured in conversation with friends about the seemingly trivial events of the day. There is no attempt to create symbolic or mythic depth out of these ordinary events; the emphasis is on the intensity and wit revealed in these exchanges and descriptions.
O’Hara did not, however, reject all poetic influence. He preferred the simplicity of diction of William Carlos Williams and the surrealistic imagery of the French Symbolists, especially Arthur Rimbaud, to the high modernism of poets who followed the lead of Eliot. Another important influence was the poetry of the Russian Formalist Vladimir Mayakovsky, whose riddling lines concentrated on making the literary device reveal itself. O’Hara never seeks to hide the fact that what he is creating is a work of art.
O’Hara also has a Walt Whitman-like openness to experience that is manifested in lists of people and places. The long list in “Second Avenue” is a good example of the technique. “And must I express the science of legendary elegies/ consummate on the Clarissas of puma and gnu, and wildebeest?” There is an exuberance in the production of witty lists. O’Hara has the same inclusiveness as Whitman, although O’Hara does not usually reach out to embrace all America. His world is bounded by Manhattan and the Hamptons. It is a particularly urban art that has little use for nature or the rural world.
Proper names, especially the names of friends, appear in nearly every one of his poems, and names dominate some of them. “At the Old Place” is a good example of O’Hara’s insistence on naming. “Through the street we skip like swallows./ Howard malingers. (Come on Howard.) Ashes/ malingers. (Come on, J.A.) Dick malingers./ (Come on, Dick.) Alvin darts ahead. (Wait up,/ Alvin.) Jack, Earl, and Someone don’t come.” Naming seems to have a special value for O’Hara, although O’Hara’s poetry seems, at times, to be addressed to those who know or can recognize the names that are invoked. Yet it is not necessary to know the names of places to which O’Hara refers, as the effect is to reveal the delight the speaker has about the world in which he lives.
O’Hara often mixes the real with the surreal in his poems to create what John Ashbery called “home-grown surrealism.” A typical example can be found in the first stanza of “Je Voudrais Voir.”
an immense plain full of nudesand roses falling on them from the green aira smile of utter simplicity speaking to the soldiersof the camel corps, so brief and smelly
The effect is created by the precision of the detail and the strange mixture of roses and nudes, of a smile and the camel corps. O’Hara’s version of Surrealism involves the connection of a conventional poetic image—the rose—to some esoteric imagery.
O’Hara once described some of his work as his “I do this, I do that poems.” The most random and trivial events are related with a breathless excitement. Such a description can be found in “John Button Birthday”:
And in 1984 I trust we’ll stillbe high together. I’ll say “Let’s go to a bar”and you’ll say “Let’s go to a movie” and we’ll go to both;like two old Chinese drunkards arguing about theirfavorite mountain and the million reasons for them both.
For O’Hara, every experience, even the most trivial, can become a poetic element. Poetry for O’Hara was made up not of grand moments but of small ones, especially those with friends, which the poet’s voice singles out and exults over. Critic Marjorie Perloff has noted that O’Hara’s “poetic world is one of immanence rather than transcendence.”
Painters and painting were often the subjects of O’Hara’s poems, and at times he used the structure of modern art in this poems. “Why I Am Not a Painter,” paradoxically, is a good example of O’Hara’s use of painting as subject and form. He describes a painter’s process of inclusion and exclusion and contrasts it to his own method. Both the poet’s and the painter’s methods, however, are strikingly similar, as are the results. Both works are generated by an early impulse that may not exist in the completed work except as a remnant in the title. Neither art relies on logical form but rather on the path the work itself seems to take. Above all, the creation of a work of art—a painting or a poem—is something that cannot be consciously explained; some mystery about how it is brought about remains.
O’Hara’s word choice is interesting. One of his favorite techniques is the use of exotic and strange words, which are often strung together: “Oh! kangaroos, sequins, chocolate sodas!/ You really are beautiful! Pearls,/ harmonicas, jujubes, aspirins!” O’Hara loves the sound of words for their own sake and for their strangeness. There is no attempt to transform such an amusing pattern of words into symbolic meaning; the pattern exists for its own sake.
O’Hara uses meter or rhyme only for effect, as in such lines as “At night Chinamen jump/ on Asia with a thump.” The effect is comic rather than formal. The poetic line, however, is an important structural unit in...
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