To enter the world of Frank O’Hara is to abandon all familiar road maps, to give up hope for a straight and clear way through, for easily recognizable landmarks that indicate where one is going, where one has been. With “no revolver pointing the roadmarks,” the reader is free to travel without preconceptions and without insistent points made by the poet. O’Hara’s world is closer to Lewis Carroll’s than to Robert Frost’s, being constantly full of surprises, twists in the road, byways, sharp turns, cul-de-sacs, a grotesquerie of roadside attractions, and few places to stop or rest, so that one ends up nowhere near one’s anticipated goal, perhaps not even at an ending at all but simply at a halt, like running out of gas. For that is how many O’Hara poems conclude—with neither a bang nor a whimper, but only a sudden cessation of the impetuous, rapid drive of words and images and feelings that has made up the poem. His poetry is exciting, startling, dizzying, frightening, overwhelming, demanding, involving, crude, elaborate, stark, disorderly, sexy, and sometimes very funny. As a poet crafting his art, O’Hara had as much gleeful fun—even when dealing with feelings considerably less than euphoric—as the liveliest child or the most daredevil racer.
O’Hara was the epitome of the New York poet: fast, frenzied, jazzy, upbeat, smart-aleck, shrewd, unzipped, down-to-earth, open, and full of action. Like his fellow New York poets (friends, some contemporaries, some followers or students from a workshop he offered), he thrived on the bustle of the city and participated in its multitude of activities. Far from being a poetic hermit in an ivory tower, he actively involved himself with people and with the other arts—notably with painters, but also with dancers and musicians. The kind of painting he favored was action painting, a style indigenous to New York and led by Jackson Pollock. Its random quality, abstractness, and emphasis on the process of painting rather than the static permanence demonstrated in a still life or a portrait all have their correspondences in O’Hara’s poetry.
This poetry pulses with action of all sorts—sexual, mental, emotional, physical, natural, industrial, transportational—all the types of action, in fact, that make up the United States. Action itself is the subject of some of his poems, such as his self-styled “I do this I do that” poems. The action of the poem may be expressed in vocabulary (colorful concrete nouns and vivid active verbs expressing dynamic movement); in syntax (whether conventional—using such devices as piled-up participial phrases, short sentences, and parataxis, though quite grammatically—or unconventional—omitting parts of a sentence or letting a single word or phrase serve two different but simultaneous functions in two adjacent syntactical units); in interjections (“Hey!,” “Yeah!”); or in rapid shifts of subject, place, or time—from stanza to stanza, sentence to sentence, line to line, and even from one word or phrase to the next.
“My Heat” provides evidence of all these. The opening stanza is filled with verbs denoting vigorous action: four finite verbs (“committed,” “fell off the balcony,” “I’d force the port!/ Violate the piers”), one infinitive (“to refountain myself”), and two present participles (“jetting,” “turning in air”). Unconventional syntax and punctuation give a sensation of dizziness fitting this turning and falling: The “if” clause seems to have two main verbs unseparated by a conjunction or comma, both with “I” as subject; then O’Hara does not set off what is presumably his main clause by a comma after the subordinate clause, so that the infinitive could be regarded as part of either the subordinate or the main clause. The verb’s unfamiliarity (“refountain”) also sharpens the reader’s attention, as does the unclearness of its connection with the rest of the sentence. This main clause seems to end with the exclamation point after “port,” yet the next word is another verb, presumably another main verb for the subject “I”—unless it is an imperative for the two vocatives ending the stanza (“you bores! you asses!”). Keeping readers alert, the very next word, “geology,” at the beginning of the next stanza, not only has nothing to do with “the balcony,” “the port,” or “the piers,” but also is punctuated by a question mark.
The punctuation is certainly not completely unorthodox, though it is surprising. What would give the traditional poetry reader more trouble are the rapid shifts in imagery, but this is part of O’Hara’s point: the pleasure he takes in “jetting” from one image to whatever it suggests, the pleasure he takes in “jetting” such words and phrases from his typewriter—all as opposed to the “you” in this poem, who always seems a few steps behind poet “Frank,” who proclaims, with another surprising but apt and active verb choice, “I’ve kayoed your popular cant/ I’d rather jet!”
A New Critic such as John Crowe Ransom would probably throw up his hands at the untidiness of O’Hara’s metaphorical maneuverings. There is no clear one-to-one correspondence between tenors and vehicles here; there is certainly no single picture provided out of which the meaning derives, no identifiable incident that gives rise to the poetic expression. The meaning, rather, resides in the exuberant movement of the poem and its words, images that—in themselves and in their transformations throughout the poem—suggest the force of creativity as well as that of sexuality.
This poem is, in fact, only one of the most compressed treatments of sexuality among O’Hara’s work, from the ejaculatory “jetting” of its opening line on to the final line: “’That’s no furnace, that’s my heart!’” The heat of passion is inflated to the power of a furnace. The diffuse jetting rampant throughout the poem amply reflects the exuberant sexuality—not a sexual desire directed at a single person and thus capable of being satisfied, but rather directed at no one in particular, an all-pervasive urge, reveling in the fact of sexuality and the pleasure of the sexual feeling itself. O’Hara’s images are used not as specific metaphors—he mixes them too outrageously for that—but rather as evocations of the many flavors and feelings of sexuality (or, in other poems, whatever has motivated that poetic outburst): its sweetness and beauty in roses, its violence (in violating the piers), its power...
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