How does Frank O'Hara undermine reader expectations in "Ave Maria"?

Expert Answers
Stephen Holliday eNotes educator| Certified Educator

O'Hara begins to undermine our expectations in his poem "Ave Maria," which is Latin for "Hail Mary" and is the title of a standard Catholic prayer to the Virgin Mary asking for help "now and at the hour of our death."  Readers unfamiliar with O'Hara's relentless sense of humor naturally expect the poem to be a serious exploration of a theme involving religion, more specifically, Catholicism.  Instead, O'Hara gives us a hilarious, insightful discussion of how and why mothers should give their children some freedom--in this case, the freedom to go to the movies and learn something of the world outside the home.

As O'Hara point out, children should be allowed the freedom to go to the movies because movies instruct their souls:

. . . but what about the soul/that grows in darkness, embossed by silvery images/. . . they won't hate you/they won't criticize you they won't know/they'll be in some glamorous country the first saw on a Saturday afternoon. . . .

Implicit in these lines is the proposition that getting children out of the home and into a movie theater is a good thing for both the mother and the children--the children become so entranced by the world they see in film, which expands their view of the world, they can't resent their mothers for keeping them penned up at home.

More important, perhaps, is that allowing children to attend movies allows them to expand their horizons in a sexual context:

. . . they may even be grateful to you/for their first sexual experience/which only cost you a quarter/and didn't upset the peaceful home. . . .

O'Hara is saying that it is better for all concerned for children to experience their first sexual urges out of their mother's view, and, by the way, the experience only costs the mother the price of admission to a movie.  Again, many readers are not expecting a poem entitled "Ave Maria," whose subject should be the mother of Christ, to discuss the first sexual urges of children.

Throughout the poem, O'Hara extols the wisdom of giving children the freedom to experience life:

. . . oh mothers you will have made the little tykes/so happy because if nobody picks them up in the movies/they won't know the difference/and if somebody does it'll be sheer gravy/and they'll have been truly entertained either way/instead of hanging around the yard. . . .

Playing on a mother's constant fear that she'll forget to pick up the children from a theater on time, O'Hara is essentially arguing that, to children, such an event is simply another adventure to be enjoyed--demolishing the mother's expectation, and perhaps ours, that failing to pick children up will result in disaster.

In the last few lines, O'Hara provides a very funny, but accurate, warning to mothers who don't heed his advice: by keeping children from experiencing the "darker joys," that is, sexual experimentation, the family will fall apart and children will "grow old and blind" watching movies they couldn't see when they were young.  O'Hara's reference to blindness here is most likely to a warning parents used to give to their children, especially boys--if you engage in masturbation, you will go blind.  Boys who grew up in the 1950s heard that warning quite often.

In sum, then, the title of the poem sets up expectations for most readers that are completely reversed by the poem's serious subject, very funny tone, and images that resonate with any child or mother