How are the popular and the highbrow juxtaposed in Frank O'Hara's poem "Ave Maria"?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

“Popular” and “highbrow” elements are not juxtaposed in Frank O’Hara’s poem “Ave Maria” as obviously as they are set side-by-side in some of his other works (such as “The Day Lady Died”). For the most part, the emphasis in “Ave Maria” is on popular culture rather than on anything particularly “highbrow.”  Essentially, the poem urges the “Mothers of America” to let their “kids go to the movies” (1-2). By doing so (the poem implies), these mothers can give their children the chance to experience the broadening influence of film, although there is little in the poem to suggest that the films the speaker has in mind are especially “highbrow.”

Admittedly, in lines 4-6 the speaker claims that  “it’s true that fresh air is good for the body” and that he then asks,

but what about the soul

that grows in darkness, embossed by silvery images

The reference to “the soul” might suggest that the speaker is thinking of films that might be spiritually uplifting and culturally elevating.  The reference to "silvery" images might also connote the highbrow, although more likely it is just a vivid description of the effect of light of the cliched "silver screen."

The possibility that the speaker may be thinking of movies as "highbrow" is, admittedly, reinforced when he suggests that if children are given the chance to go to films, “they’ll be in some glamorous country” (10). The word “glamorous” strongly implies that the speaker is thinking of films that will expose young people to a different, “higher” lifestyle than the one they experience in their daily lives.  It is line 10, more than any other in the poem, that strongly suggests the “highbrow” and juxtaposes it with the “popular.”

Few other references in the poem, however, have this effect. For example, the speaker later implies that if kids (presumably adolescents or older teens) are allowed to go to the movies, they “may even” later “be grateful” to their mothers

for their first sexual experience

which only cost you a quarter    (13-14)

This is not, perhaps, how one typically thinks of “highbrow” culture”: as providing opportunities to have sex.  Indeed, the poem implies that adolescents or teens can get “pick[ed] up” by anonymous and perhaps older strangers while they are at the movies. The kind of sexual encounter imagined in O’Hara’s poem, then, is not the romantic sex one teen might experience during when first making love to another teen s/he deeply cares about. (That kind of sex could just arguably considered “highbrow,” resembling, perhaps, the beautiful, tasteful, discreet lovemaking between young persons in Zefferelli’s film of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet).

In O’Hara’s poem, however, the sexual encounter sounds almost predatory: the teen is taken back home by a

a pleasant stranger whose apartment is in the Heaven on Earth Bldg

near the Williamsburg Bridge   (19-20)

The tone of the poem (not only in line 19 but elsewhere) sometimes seems facetious, as when O’Hara next refers to these sexually active young people as “little tykes” (21).  As the poem develops toward its conclusion, it emphasizes exaggerated humor rather than anything especially “highbrow.”

Anyone looking for especially memorable examples of the juxtaposition of the popular and highbrow in O’Hara’s poetry might want to look elsewhere than inthe sometimes disturbing "Ave Maria."