A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island

by Frank O’Hara

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Themes and Meanings

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O’Hara has been admired as an idiosyncratic and inventive poet, yet his work also contains a sometimes satirical awareness of traditional poetic conventions. On one level, “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island” echoes the praise of nonconformity found in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous essay “Self-Reliance” (1841), but the poem also has additional resonances.

Because O’Hara carefully dated his manuscripts, it is clear that this poem continues to explore concerns recorded in “Ode: Salute to the French Negro Poets,” written the day before. Both poems argue that poets may be unappreciated and even disparaged by their fellow citizens; yet they can expect to be praised by future generations if they are brave enough to persist in telling the truth about life as they understand and experience it. To be a poet, in O’Hara’s view, is to accept a difficult but vitally important vocation. While much of “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island” seems to say that this poetic vocation, or “calling,” is ultimately rewarding, the final lines somewhat ominously suggest that reward is beside the point, that the poet is actually the servant of unspecified forces in the universe that he cannot fully identify yet must obey.

“A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island” seems to confirm what many poets before O’Hara have asserted: that the poet is, in fact, a medium through which cosmic forces speak—and that there is something glorious and personally fulfilling about accepting this misunderstood and often unappreciated role. There is little in O’Hara’s purposefully nonchalant tone, however, that urges the reader to think of this as an especially mystical or religious observation.

At first reading, O’Hara’s cosmic encounter seems to have a curiously mundane result. The poet in “A True Account” does indeed experience a transcendent moment, but this experience seems merely to arm him with the tools that will allow him to chart an independent, self-assured path in the contemporary urban society of creativity, style, and clever conversation that he ordinarily inhabits.

The poet’s tools—or “miraculous arms,” to use a phrase from Aimé Césaire, one of the French poets O’Hara admired—are his enhanced perceptions. That fact, and the sun’s promise of continued poetic inspiration, reinforce an idea that firmly links the modern urban poet with ancient forebears such as the Greeks, who felt that the human ability to make poetic utterances was an unexpected and undeserved gift from the divine Muses. In “A True Account of Talking with the Sun at Fire Island,” O’Hara eschews the supernatural but nevertheless enlists himself in the ages-old struggle by poets to be the truthful witnesses of humankind’s fate.

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