Frank O’Hara’s remarkably inventive and characteristically humorous “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island” is an eighty-three-line poem written in 1958 but first published posthumously in 1968 and widely anthologized since. In keeping with the idea of a true testimony, the persona is identified as the poet O’Hara himself.
The poem begins (in the first thirteen lines) quite simply but dramatically, with the poet awakened by the sun—who is annoyed because he (O’Hara assigns the sun a masculine gender) has had difficulty awakening O’Hara. The poet attempts to apologize in lines 14-26. He is a guest at the beach house of Hal Fondren, a close friend since college days, and stayed up late the night before talking with his host. This excuse allows the sun to explain why he wants to speak with the poet. Lines 27-56 constitute the sun’s primary message, while lines 58-76 represent important advice offered as a sort of valediction, or farewell message. Lines 77-83 function as an envoy or coda, allowing the sun to exit the stage and the poet to go back to sleep.
“A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island” depends primarily upon whimsical personification for its effects. For example, the sun is described as “petulant” when he compares O’Hara’s lackadaisical attitude to the startled attentiveness he received when he last visited a poet, the 1920’s Russian avant-garde writer Vladimir Mayakovsky. This playful allusion refers to a poem by Mayakovsky that serves as precursor and model for O’Hara’s poem.
The sun points out that ordinary people think O’Hara is crazy, while other poets—who are crazy—think that he is boring. The sun insists that the poet should not let such criticism bother him. The sun, too, is criticized every day by those who are dissatisfied with the weather and, he points out, someone is always dissatisfied with the weather. The sun assures the poet that it is no disgrace to be “different,” confiding that he has been keeping an eye on the poet, watching his development, and is now pleased that he is “making [his] own days, so to speak” by beginning to express himself in his own fashion.
It is clear to the reader, however, that the poet has not entirely abandoned being concerned about what other people will think of him. If he had done so, there would be no need for the sun to make this special effort to bolster his courage and self-esteem.
“A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island” is a lyric poem that, because it purports to record a verbatim conversation, can also be considered a mock pastoral. The pastoral is an ancient form—used by poets writing in English since the sixteenth century but dating back to the Greek poet Theocritus—which presents a dialogue in a rustic setting. Here, however, instead of a conversation on love or philosophy between two shepherds, is a conversation between the poet and the rising sun.
O’Hara employs a comic tone and dramatic form in order to present serious ideas in a pleasant way. The sun’s comments are often comedic plays on words. “I can’t hang around/ here all day,” he tells the poet. Later he claims not to be upset that people do not “look up” to him because it would hurt their eyes. Choosing that colloquial phrase instead of the word “admire” allows O’Hara to depict the sun as a witty, tongue-in-cheek conversationalist. The poem tacitly suggests that ideas presented in this avuncular tone will be much...
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more readily received than advice given in a sternly authoritarian manner.
The sun’s valedictory remarks also undermine the traditional pastoral form by acknowledging the fact that O’Hara is an especially urban and sophisticated man. The poet is not at all interested in endorsing a traditional view of nature, nor is he seriously attempting to present his wisecracking sun as the equivalent of a capricious classical deity or the powerful Judeo-Christian God one might encounter in the poetry of John Milton. Nevertheless, the poem’s dramatic situation will easily lead readers to at least contemplate (and then discard) such identifications.
Basically, O’Hara distrusts philosophy and metaphysics, preferring to view poetry as pure art or as purely personal communication—as useful as the telephone. One result of this view is the unpretentious colloquial diction of his poems. The model for this poem is the Russian poet Mayakovsky’s “An Extraordinary Adventure Which Befell Vladimir Mayakovsky in a Summer Cottage,” written in the village of Pushkino in June, 1920. It is further testimony to his deep love of poetry—and art for its own sake—that on July 10, 1958, writing at the beach resort of Fire Island, New York, O’Hara chose to pay homage to his predecessor with his own poem. Similarly, O’Hara wrote a poem every year in commemoration of the birthday of the composer Sergei Rachmaninoff.
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Feldman, Alan. Frank O’Hara. Boston: Twayne, 1979.
Gooch, Brad. City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994.
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Perloff, Marjorie. Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters. New York: George Braziller, 1977.
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Ward, Geoff. Statutes of Liberty: The New York School of Poets. New York: Palgrave, 2001.