The Poem

The manuscript of Frank O’Hara’s poem “In Memory of My Feelings” indicates the time of composition as having occurred between June 27 and July 1, 1956, ostensibly to mark the poet’s thirtieth birthday, and, incidentally, the midpoint of his poetic career—the threshold of maturity, by any counts. At the time of the writing, O’Hara believed he had been born on June 27, 1926, but, in fact, it was later discovered, after the poet’s death, he had been born three months earlier, on March 27.

Totaling 194 lines, the poem is subdivided into five fairly balanced and numbered sections of, respectively, 41, 33, 41, 44, and 35 lines grouped in rather irregular verse paragraphs, which often begin in midpage, following a third, a half, or even three-quarters of the preceding line. This accounts for the jagged, prose-like aspect of the poem, which highlights its rhetorical stance—described by the poet some months later in “Poem Read at Joan Mitchell’s” as “post-anti-esthetic, bland, unpicturesque and William Carlos Williamsian! [8] Not nineteenth centurynot even Partisan Reviewnewvanguard.”

The poem is dedicated to Grace Hartigan, an artist who at the time was the poet’s lover and chief muse. Her name is gracefully punned in the heart of the fourth section: “Grace/ to be born and live as variously as possible.” The line was fated to become one of the best known in O’Hara’s poetry, since ten years later it was chiseled as...

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Forms and Devices

“In Memory of My Feelings” is a medium-length poem generally employed by O’Hara as a vehicle for weightier, quasi-philosophical statements, which by their nature require an accumulation of facts or evidence in support of a thesis, however vague or elusive at a first reading that might appear to be. His main concern is the marshaling of instances, rather than the musicality of his utterances. There is an absence of clear-cut, clean tunefulness in this poem. Its lyricism is subdued, in spite of the conspicuous part the poet’s ego plays throughout. Rhythm too is achieved not by means of regular metrical beats or evenly distributed stresses, but—as in Walt Whitman, Vladimir Mayakovsky, or William Carlos Williams—by syntactical parallelisms or the cavalcade of catalogues of alternative actions, as in part 4 (lines 26-36), which originally was an independent poem cast as a regular sequence of four quatrains. However, when it was incorporated into the larger structure, it had to obey its dominant formal principle. That required the redistribution of words or syllables as well as the relaxation of the grip of the regular metrical pattern.

Furthermore, if one looks at the poem as a whole, one cannot fail noticing the fivefold structure of the grand Romantic symphony (which may have a fifth part added to the usual classical four). Indeed, the poem makes much structural sense when it is viewed from this compositional perspective. The opening is solemn...

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