Writing about Death, Plath and Merrill

During our class presentations, I found some very interesting similarities between Renate’s poem, “Balloons” by Sylvia Plath, and the poem that I presented on, James Merrill’s “Christmas Tree”. The idea of a poet writing at the end of their life was present in both of our poems, and the poignancy and sadness associated with the coming of death was evident in both. In “Christmas Tree”, Merrill writes about his impending death, and the expectations that he has and that others might have. Merrill writes, “Brought down at last/ from the cold sighing mountain”, and says that he has been “cherished, kept warm,” perhaps by friends and family or critics. The tone of Merrill’s poem is nostalgic, it seems, but not necessarily depressing or conflicted. There seems to be some significance to the phrase “brought down at last”, and later, the description of his physical state, “the stripping, the cold street, my chemicals plowed back into the Earth for lives to come,” These lines seem to suggest Merrill’s reaction to his illness, as he died of complications related to AIDS. Additionally, I think the poem’s illustration of a family owning a Christmas tree and then getting rid of it as soon as Christmas is over alludes to the idea that Merrill’s reputation and body of work were seen as a part of his identity, and he hopes that his legacy will remain despite his physical death. Merrill also references his critics and perhaps his family and friends, in lines such as “it did help to be wound in jewels, to send their colors flashing forth from vents in the deep fragrant sables that cloaked me head to foot,”. I think these lines also refer to Merrill’s perception of himself in the eyes of others, and how his death is significant but also somewhat trivial because while he will die, his work will remain.

In comparison, “Balloons” seems to take on a more cynical tone, and perhaps that is due to the way that Plath died, by suicide, instead of a medical condition, like Merrill. Similar to “Christmas Tree”, “Balloons” was one of Plath’s final poems. She writes about the goings on in a home, writing, “Since Christmas they have lived with us, guileless and clear, oval soul-animals, taking up half the space,”. Her observational tone seems to realize certain changes or aspects of things around her, especially in reference to her children, when she writes “your small brother is making his balloon squeak like a cat. Seeming to see a funny pink world he might eat on the other side of it,”. This line seems to describe a mother watching her child eat a balloon, and given what we know about parenting and child safety, it seems like the mother is not fully present and seems ambivalent about her children. The tone of ambivalence is evident throughout the poem, with Plath’s observation of “invisible air drifts, giving a shriek and pop”. As Merrill also frequently does, it seems that Plath is taking normal, everyday situations and attributing a sense of foreboding to them in order to help us understand her impending doom and detached sense. I think the use of a family and home in this poem is significant because it shows Plath’s evident lack of concern and emotional connection to her family and children, as well as the state of the home, which goes against the traditional female role of mother and homemaker.

The two poems, both written at the end of the poet’s lives, are at once poignant, foreboding, and observational. Both poets seem to reflect on their experiences but also have come to terms with their impending death, and they seem to reference outside relationships which will be affected by their deaths, which I think is an important aspect of both poems, given the lives lead by both Plath and Merrill.

Inappropriate Appropriation

Sylvia Plath is my least favorite poet from this course. There have been many times when the poetry I was reading seemed empty, or simply too confusing to enjoy, but by spending time with the poems, working at them critically, I have been able to salvage beauty and enjoyment out of almost everything we have read. Not Sylvia Plath. I know that she had some profound mental issues, and that her confessional style brings them to the forefront of her work, so I can at least appreciate what she is trying to do. My issue is not with her content but rather her style. Unlike Robert Lowell’s haunting ruminations on his own psyche in “Skunk Hour”, Plath’s poetry, in particular “Daddy” and “Cut”, tends to be brash, obnoxious, and melodramatic (in my opinion).

What particularly bothers me is the way in which she appropriates extremely powerful cultural symbols in her attempts to convey her individual pain. The fact is, when I hear a highly educated and successful American comparing her relationship with her father to the holocaust, I tend to want to call bullshit. Of course, the depths of Plath’s mental anguish can be seen in her repeated (and eventually successful) suicide attempts, and I am not suggesting that she is just being a baby. Mental illness is, after all, an illness, which is beyond the control of the afflicted individual. My issue is rather with the ways that she chooses to express that suffering poetically. In describing her father, Plath writes “I have always been scared of you,/ With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo./ and your neat mustache/ and your Aryan eye, bright blue./Panzer-man, Panzer-man, O You-.” I can’t help but to be reminded of a certain trope in modern political protests in which leaders, either republican Bush or democratic Obama, are directly compared with Hitler. Another example might be a scene in the movie Blazing Saddles in which Nazi soldiers are anachronistically inserted into a posse of outlaws assembled towards the end of the film. In both instances, it is revealed how Nazism and all of its symbols are deeply associated with western notions of evil, to such an extent that in the latter example it is used to achieve a humorous exaggeration. I feel that Plath’s Nazi references tend to have the same effect.

In “Cut”, her references become absolutely ridiculous “The stain on your/Gauze Ku Klux Klan/ Babushka.” I can see no way in which the gauze she is using to cover her wound in this poem needs to be a “Ku Klux Klan Babushka.” Is her thumb part of a Klan splinter group comprised of elderly Russian women? Of course it is possible to find some poetic meaning here, if only because Plath has cast such a wide net or cultural catchphrases. Nevertheless, her lack of subtly, of coherent method or structure, robes her poetry of any sense of artistry or even tact.

In spite of my distaste for Plath, I would encourage someone to prove me wrong. I would rather find away to enjoy her poetry than to relegate it to the list of things that I simply do not care about, as I intend to do.

Frank O’Hara and Vincent Warren

During research for my paper, I came across O’Hara’s “Les Luths” and it struck me as overly sentimental.  In fact, in a letter to Pierre Martory, who is mentioned in the poem, O’Hara says, “Here is a little poem which you appear in so I am sending it regardless of its soupiness” (Norton 370).  This “soupiness” brought to my mind not only O’Hara’s relationship with Vincent Warren but also O’Hara’s identity as a gay poet.  The “one I love” in “Les Luths” refers to Warren, with whom O’Hara had a twenty-one month long relationship during which he wrote many of his most successful poems (Gooch 330).  I will close read “Les Luths” in order to determine the feelings of love and sentimentality O’Hara shows to Vincent, and I will briefly examine “You are gorgeous and I’m coming” because it is a poem directed specifically at Vincent that is an obvious pun on sexual intercourse and sexuality.

In “Les Luths” O’Hara draws worldly visions and themes of travel in order to juxtapose the simplicity he desires—to be with Vincent.  He brings his reader to three different locations—New York, Japan, and Paris—to make the statement that he does not care what is happening in the rest of the world.  He mentions three friends—Gary Snyder, Monsieur Martory, Martory’s brother Jean, and Matthieu Galey—and contemplates what they are doing in their respective locations.  O’Hara’s (in?)famous move of incorporating personal names is obvious here, but I am not entirely sure of what to make of it.  Is he simply equating these names to the poem’s idea of worldly indulgences?  Finally he declares, “Everybody here is running around after dull pleasantries…and I am feeling particularly testy at being separated from the one I love” (179).  What would make O’Hara happiest is not to go to Paris or bustle about the city; he wants the presence of his partner.

Using a jet plane to suggest travel, O’Hara says, “Somewhere beyond this roof a jet is making a sketch of the sky.”  This swift jet opposes his desire to simply “lean on my elbow and stare into space feeling the one warm beautiful thing in the world breathing upon my right rib.”  To further oppose this idea of worldly travel, he grounds himself in the memory of a location he can associate with Vincent in order to place himself in the world and a solid foundation.  He recalls Vincent “running on about Florida” (Selected Poems 179).  This memory gives O’Hara solace even though he cannot physically be with Vincent.

In “You are gorgeous and I’m coming,” the first words of every line spell out “V-I-N-C-E-N-T W-A-R-R-E-N.”  This use of an acrostic is pretty obvious, a fact that Warren feared for he had not come out to his mother at the time.  He was concerned that his mother would read O’Hara’s poems.  This led O’Hara to “further tricks and poetic camouflages,” and he often references Florida because Warren was born there (Gooch 336).  In “Les Luths” for example, O’Hara writes, “I want to hear only your light voice running on about Florida” (Selected Poems 179).  O’Hara’s comfort and delight in discussing his sexuality openly quite possibly was not matched by his lover.


In “You are gorgeous and I’m coming” there is little punctuation and no periods, making the language and tone of the poem feel rushed and excited, like the act of sex. He uses innuendos such as, “exposed” “acceleration” “thundering and shaking” “intimate” “stumbling” and “breathing” that suggest passion (Selected Poems 163).  He mentions “repeating the phrases of an old romance” which evokes classic feelings of love and intimacy.  When I picture an old romance, I think of a gangster wooing a beautiful movie star and, although I’m not sure how to place this in the poem, I think it suggests dangerous yet passionate love.  O’Hara also writes, “The stumbling quiet of breathing” and this also refers to the very personal act of sex.  Leave it to O’Hara to write a poem about the most personal act of all and make it very impersonal.  By impersonalizing the personal, what does O’Hara achieve?  Is he aware of this paradox?

By examining these two poems along with O’Hara’s relationship with Vincent Warren, I have come up with a couple final questions: Does O’Hara’s blatant sexuality suggest a desire to keep some aspects of his life private?  Can you have a private life if you are writing as honestly as O’Hara was?


O’Hara, Frank, and Mark Ford. Selected Poems. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. Print.

Gooch, Brad. City Poet: the Life and times of Frank O’Hara. New York: Knopf, 1993. Print.

O’Clair, Robert, Richard Ellmann, and Jahan Ramazani. “Frank O’Hara 1926-1966.” 2003. The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry: v. 2. Contemporary Poetry. 3rd ed. Vol. 2. New York: W.W. Norton, 2003. 361-70. Print.


Language Poetry and Social Justice

When reading Charles Bernstein’s “Lives of the Toll Takers,” I found that although the poem is chaotic throughout, streams of thought near the end seem to coalesce around the theme of societal injustice, especially pertaining to the Holocaust.

On page 172, Bernstein connects Jewish culture to passivity: “self-reproach, laden with ambivalence, not this or this either . . . whose only motivation is never offend, criticize only with a discountable barb,” and then makes the bold statement: “Genocide is made of words like these . . .” It seems incredibly harsh to blame language used by the Jews for mass murder clearly inflicted on them by another, dominant culture and government. But Bernstein explains his pronouncement somewhat in his reference to Nietzsche, on whom Hitler based some of his ideas, and Pound, who was anti-Semitic: “Pound laughing (with Nietzsche’s gay laughter) all the way to the cannon’s bank . . .” Here, he portrays dominant Western (literary) culture as one that favors literature made up of language that can ultimately be terribly destructive. (I think that Bernstein intentionally references authors known for their iconic literary/philosophical works more than for Holocaust connections)  I think that Bernstein is not blaming any one kind of language, used by any group or author, but rather holding the ways in which our entire society uses language accountable: language is the way in which human beings communicate with one another, and therefore a driving force in every aspect of society. Drastic change in the way that language is used is therefore necessary for creating a culture in which genocide cannot happen.

In “Barbarism, Hejinian also blames language structures for creating a society that could bring about the Holocaust. She says in response to Adorno’s statement that poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric, “Poetry after Auschwitz must indeed be barbarian; it must be foreign to the cultures that produce atrocities.” (326) This statement twists Adorno’s words to assert that language must change in order to change our culture, and claims that the task of poetry should be “not to speak the same language as Auschwitz,” (326).

Hejinian also lists a wider set of cultural goals for Language Poetry as “premises,” (322) of their outlook on language and society. Hejinian includes in her list, “racism, sexism, and classism are repulsive,” (323) and “institutionalized stupidity and entrenched hypocrisy are monstrous and should be attacked” (323). According to Hejinian, these societal issues are within the realm of language because “language is preeminently a social medium” (323). Disturbing the linguistic structures of a culture that allows for “racism, sexism, and classism,” is therefore necessary in order to end those problems.

As Holly explained in a post, a phrase in quotations in Bernstein’s poem, “Daddy, what did you do to stop the war?” (117) recalls a propaganda poster from World War I in which a child asks, “Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?” I think that this phrase in the poem serves two purposes. First, Bernstein uses it as an example of how a statement can (and should) be altered with only a few word changes from a statement promoting and glorifying war to one that encourages peace. Second, by claiming that “Daddy” did not successfully stop “the war,” it also implies that a previous generation could not have prevented war because they were using language from a tradition that historically caused many wars.

How important do you think a social justice/cultural change agenda is to Bernstein? Where else in “Lives of the Toll Takers” is it visible? How “social” is the writing of the other Language Poets that we read over the past few weeks?

Armantrout’s Hey

In a review in the “New Yorker” titled Entangled; The Poetry of Rae Armantrout, Rae Armantrout was described as the author of “some tantalizingly hard poems”. As discussed in class, language poets can certainly be tricky, sometimes purposefully so. However, Armantrout seems to at least somewhat separate herself from many other language poets. Her poems often seem to offer a more personal approach. The form she uses is often easier to comprehend, and her lines are usually written as full thoughts, which make her poems easier to follow.

In Armantrout’s poem “Hey” she conveys a lot with only a few lines. The first line reads only “Sound”, followed by “May be addressed/      to you”. Armantrout uses only a few words and some white space to convey her message. The first line of “Sound” immediately following the title “Hey” makes me think that the sound that is being referred to is the “hey” in the title. This hey “may be addressed/      to you”. The sound of the “hey” is the only thing that is definite; who it is addressed to is up in the air. The white space adds to the feeling of not knowing. The second stanza continues with the feeling of not knowing. Except this time the trick is based on sight. “A receipt,/Blown crazily’/across the parking lot/was, perhaps,/a moth”. In this stanza Armantrout uses the past tense to describe a receipt blowing across a parking lot, but in the end declares that it “was, perhaps,/ a moth”. The way she writes these lines shows that there is a certain amount of acceptance by the speaker of the poem that her sight is unreliable.

In both of the stanzas of this poem Armantrout takes two physical senses and complicates them. The way in which she does this is fairly straightforward and easy to understand. The lines are simple and easy to read, but there does seem to be some tricky layers to this poem. The second stanza is harder to relate back to the title of the poem. It is also hard to relate this poem to many ideas that language poets typically deal with. Armantrout can be both simple and complex, and there always seems to be some deeper message that she wants the reader to search for.

Reflection in Armantrout’s “Apartment”

In our class on November 17th, we discussed Rae Armantrout, one of the Language poets. The Pulitzer Prize committee (she won the Pulitzer Prize for her book “Versed” in 2010) explained her poems as “little thought bombs” that “tick in your brain,” which I think is a accurate description. I very much admire her style of poetry so I wanted to write my last blog post on a new poem we didn’t read in class. We examined the use of white space and that these breaks could be used to show a thought process, or to create suspense. I saw them primarily as a way for the reader to have time to digest the poem, to immerse oneself in a stanza and then have a moment to reflect before going on the new thought. In “Apartment” (one of the poems in the packet we received, but was not assigned) her pauses help the reader reflect, but they also help Armantrout reflect on her life. The poem describes the sensation of seeing oneself years later, the mixture of the past and the present.

“Apartment” begins with the author looking at a photograph of herself. From when, we are not exactly sure. It is before the tumor that “squats on her kidney” was discovered. It is important to note that Armantrout was diagnosed in 2006 with adrenal cortical cancer, a very rare type of cancer that affects less than one in 500,000 people and has a 5 to 15% survival rate. However, she underwent the chemotherapy and the cancer has not since returned. So this stanza is looking back on her life before the diagnosis. The woman in the photograph “doesn’t much resemble [her]” showing a change that she has undergone.

In the second stanza, we are introduced to the present, “a sentimental favorite.” It has been “truncated / framed,” in her mind, with the “grandiosity / and abjection.” I think that this present that is being “truncated / framed” is the present that was in the photograph in the first stanza. It is a mixture of “grandiosity / and abjection.”

In the third stanza, she is talking about how she is reflecting on herself, maybe when she had cancer, or before she had cancer, but her feelings at those moments are distant now. It feels, for her, “as if I’m subletting / a friend’s apartment,” meaning her feelings are an extension of herself. But she doesn’t know who that person is; she is “trying to imagine / which friend” the apartment belongs to. I think of this idea similar to when you look at a picture of yourself from a long time ago or read a note from years ago, and you always have this weird feeling like, “Was that actually me?”

At the end of the poem, she’s “trying to get / all of [her] robes together.” Her choice of the word “robes” is interesting—it could have been any other type of clothing, or object. But she is trying to get them all together—“robes I really own and/robes I don’t.” This is where my question of the blog post comes in. I’m unsure of what these “robes” are. My initial thought was that she was trying to gather the thoughts, or memories, of the moment from the past, but she can never really be sure of what she was thinking at the time because the present she is currently in has changed. Also, the significance could be that robes are what one puts on when there’s nothing else to wear; it’s what shields you from nakedness, what’s between you and the outside. Maybe Armantrout is trying to say something about that? I might be reaching for something that’s not there, but what do you guys think?


Some things I looked up while writing this blog post that you might be interested in listening to:

Armantrout at the 2010 National Book Festival, she gives a talk about her life and work and then reads a few poems from “Versed”–

Armantrout reading “Apartment”


Returning to Ginsberg’s “Howl”

On the final day of this class, it seems appropriate to return to the poem that began the semester, Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”.  In nearly every class since “Howl”, members of the class have together read aloud poems or listened and watched poets perform his or her poems.  The most extraordinary, unique presentation was undoubtedly The Galax Quartet’s rendition of Gary Snyder’s “Journeys.”  After a semester of underscoring the importance of performing poetry, I recommend Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s 2010 film Howl to those who have not yet seen it.

The film is split into five disparate parts, all of which are constructed entirely around “Howl” – its creation, its debut performance, and the controversy that followed.  It begins and ends with Ginsberg reading the poem at the San Francisco Six Gallery in 1955.  This reading is juxtaposed alongside the poem’s 1957 obscenity trial, an interview with Ginsberg, flashbacks to his early life, and an animated interpretation of the poem.

        Interview                         Flashback                             Trial

The film uses cinematic technique to create an atmosphere, feeling, and understanding that one cannot achieve by simply reading the poem aloud.   In the smoky gallery, Ginsberg reads

who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat

up smoking in the supernatural darkness of

cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities

contemplating jazz.

As Ginsberg utters the word “jazz,” Jean-Claude Petit & Jack Arel’s “Tonight at the Sands” begins to play and lively opening credits,  featuring photos of Franco as Ginsberg and authentic images of Ginsberg, supplant the gallery scene (00:01:51-00:03:41).  The film then moves to an interview with Ginsberg – we see the interviewer operating a reel-to-reel recorder and occasionally hear him speak; however he is a largely nonexistent part of the film.  The interview becomes an intimate conversation between Ginsberg and the spectator and it acts as a response to the trial scenes from which he is absent.  On coming out as a homosexual, Ginsberg says, “People would never really be shocked by an expression of feeling,” and yet much of the film is dedicated to the public’s censorious response to his work (00:13:16 – 00:13:40).  Prosecuting attorney Ralph McIntosh questions Howl’s “literary merit” and whether the words chosen by Ginsberg are necessary “to make [it] a work of literary value” while Ginsberg, in his interview scenes, explains the origin of his chosen words (00:36:55-00:37:15).  Later in the film, Ginsberg , in the interview, talks of Carl Solomon’s shock treatments and then transitions to the gallery where he reads aloud, “Ah, Carl, while you are not safe I am not safe, and / now you’re really in the total animal soup of time.”  The film then shows grainy footage of a man receiving the treatments (00:25:26-00:28:14).  The film makes the poem a more stimulating, engaging experience in endeavoring to visually present that which the poem describes.

“Howl” is not perfect –the animation of the poem is certainly odd to watch, and yet it a cinematic homage to poetry unlike any other.  We have seen other artists from this semester in recent popular culture – O’Hara’s “Meditations in an Emergency” was featured in Mad Men and Sylvia (2003) is a film that depicts Plath’s life.  However, “Howl” is a unique, untraditional film, which dedicates eighty-four minutes to the experience and performance of a single, monumental poem.


The Animation

who were burned alive in their innocent flannel suits

on Madison Avenue amid blasts of leaden verse

and the tanked-up clatter of the iron regiments

of fashion and the nitroglycerine shrieks of the

fairies of advertising and the mustard gas of sinister intelligent editors, or were run down by

the drunken taxicabs of Absolutely Reality (00:21:23-00:21:47)

and rose reincarnate in the ghostly clothes of jazz in

the goldhorn shadow of the band and blew the

suffering of America’s naked mind for love into

an eli eli lamma lamma sabacthani saxophone

cry that shivered the cities down to the last radio



Howl. Dir. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Perf. James Franco, Jon Hamm, David      Strathairn, Alessando Nivola, Jeff Daniels. Oscilloscope Laboratories, 2010. DVD.

Language Poetry, Decoded

My 403 read Jay-Z’s book Decoded for class a few weeks ago, not long after our unit on Language Poetry in 370. I was really struck by what I thought were some important similarities between Jay-Z’s work and Bernstein’s poem “The Lives of the Toll Takers,” as well as Jay-Z’s and Lyn Hejinian’s visions for their respective media. I’ll admit that I don’t know much about hip-hop, so I’ll use Decoded as a cipher for understanding some wider generic conventions. I’ll focus on “Barbarism” and “Lives of the Toll Takers” as a way of understanding Language Poetry and its goals.

Hejinian’s the hippie-feminist at the top of this page. Charles Bernstein is a poet, professor, theorist, and scholar. Jay-Z is this glamorous former-crack-dealer-from-the-projects and, well, Jay-Z. They write in different time periods to different audiences. But I’m not sure they write to entirely different ends. I think comparing them yields surprising results.

Charles Bernstein

First, I think it’s useful to examine their politics. In “Barbarism,” Hejinian sums up the Language Poetry project in distinctly political terms: “The pervasive hypocrisy of the 1950s and 1960s was operating in several strategic forms: as outright lies…as deceptive metaphors…and, finally, in the more subtle form of a complete failure to examine political language and indeed any language at all, thus establishing the pretense that language is ‘natural'”(323-24). On the same page, Hejinian lists the major contentions of Language writing, many of which relate to the social structures of language.

Jay-Z gets political in Decoded, too, albeit in a less theorized way: “America, as I


understood the concept, hated my black ass” (154). He describes the poverty and racism in the same projects that yielded hip-hop music, and contends that hip-hop “was hugely influential in finally making our slice of America visible through our own lens” (155). He also argues that the “War on Drugs” was a patently racist endeavor, designed to imprison young black men. Though Hejinian and Jay-Z express their projects in vastly different ways, they both focus on challenging accepted conventions of language as a way to challenge the received (and corrupt) social order. They both achieve this goal, in part, with an emphasis on word-play and punning.

We all talked about, and hopefully enjoyed, the wordplay in “The Lives of the Toll Takers”; my favorite was “rhymes may come and rhymes may go, but there’s no crime like presentiment.” Or, in an anticipation of MasterCard, “A picture is worth 44.95 but no price can be put on words.” We talked about how the disruption of these idioms and cliches shows that our received language, just like our received social order, is not natural or necessary. Based on the principles of Language writing, Jay-Z’s forwardly political “American Dreamin'” challenges the received social order in both form and content.

Specifically, American Dreamin’ disrupts conventional images and idioms through coded references to drugs – references Jay-Z does, indeed, decode in Decoded (33-34). One of the first lines in the song states, “We need a place to pitch, we need a mound.” “‘Pitch’ was slang for a hustle,” Jay-Z explains in a footnote, though the reference to baseball seems the most obvious. This is just one example of a song full of wordplay, and he references the wordplay in the lines “The ironies are/ And at all costs better avoid these bars.” In the annotation, Jay reveals that the “ironies” are a self-conscious reflection on the ironies (or, as Hejinian might say, hypocrisies) of life in the underclasses, as well as a reference to the song’s wordplay, and a play on words itself – the “iron” of the next line’s prison bars. Another example are the rapidly rhyming lines, “Survive the droughts? I wish you well?/ How sick am I? I wish you HEALTH/ I wish you wheels, I wish you wealth/ I wish you insight so you could see for yourself.” Jay takes the idea of “well-wishing,” perhaps most often seen on a Hallmark card, and disrupts it in several ways: “The well is a literal place to store and draw water,” he explains, “so I’m wishing my fellow hustlers the foresight to stash, to be resourceful…to have a place from which to draw.” He also surprises the listeners by wishing them “wheels” and “wealth,” which may not typically be part of the Hallmark-card variety of well-wishing. Finally, Jay contends that the use of “insight” refers not just to perception but also to “sight in, the ability to see beyond what’s visible, to see even within your soul.”

Jay’s line-by-line decoding in Decoded shows that his lyrics are often layered with meanings and connotations intended to simultaneously call to mind several disparate images, often images that disrupt one another (the conflation of selling crack with the Great American Past-time, for example). Considering hip-hop’s stated political and social aims, I think some of these rhymes, intentionally or not, actually fulfill the goals of Language poets.

O’Hara’s Love for Film and the “Pop Icon”

For my final blog post, I wanted to write about a link between poetry and film (being a film minor).  It seemed the obvious answer (and one in tune with my final paper) was Frank O’Hara.  O’Hara’s poetry contains countless references to film, especially in “To The Film Industry In Crisis”.

Frank O’Hara begins his poem by denouncing high-class, elite forms of performance art, expressing discontent towards the “pomposity” of forms like experimental theater and Grand Opera.  He also takes a shot at scholarly literary publications when he writes, “Not you, lean quarterlies and swarthy periodicals / with your studious incursions toward the pomposity of ants” (1-2).  O’Hara then goes on to praise the Hollywood film industry, praising the silver screen for its “heavenly dimensions and reverberations and iconoclasms” (16).  It would seem that O’Hara sees the film industry as somewhat provocative and gives a more lasting experience on the viewer than the elite forms of art he refers to in the early lines of the poem.  I believe that O’Hara’s love for film here reflects his poetic ideas of personism and experience.  O’Hara praises the film industry for going against some preconceived notions of art and also for its timeless characters and the relationships and experiences they share that stay with the viewer after the film is over.

This love for experience within characters (linked to personism) becomes clear in his many references to film.  Several of his references to film include memorable interactions between characters, “Miriam Hopkins dropping her champagne glass off Joel McCrea’s yacht and crying into the dappled sea, Clark Gable rescuing Gene Tierney from Russia and Allan Jones rescuing Kitty Carlisle from Harpo Marx” (27-29).  These references are all of some kind of personal experience within characters, and O’Hara’s reaction to them evoke his poetic “personism” in the sense that he expresses a kind of personistic relationship to the characters in the film, that they are speaking to him in a way.  Other references he makes are character-specific, but he makes sure to note some characteristic of the character which had a long lasting effect on him.  Lines like “Mac West in a furry sled, her bordello radiance and bland remarks” (24-25) and “Myrna Loy being calm and wise, William Powell in his stunning urbanity” (35-36) refer to the experience and personality of the character in the same way that O’Hara tried to convey experience and personal relationships in his poetry.

Finally, it is important to note the variety and types of films that O’Hara namedrops in his poem.  He refers to actors that could be considered more “pop icons” than accomplished, elite actors.  From Marilyn Monroe to Clark Gable to the Marx Brothers, O’Hara seems to be naming these types of “pop icons” that everybody loves and goes to the movies to see.  His choice of references once again point to a connection between O’Hara’s personism and film; he chooses widely loved characters that audiences can identify with and essentially share experiences with, there are no Daniel Day-Lewis type Academy Award winning actors named.

What kind of purpose do you think O’Hara’s various references to film serve in this poem?  Is there a clear link to his poetic style or is this simply a personal expression of love for the film industry?

Stop doing your hair and let’s do a puzzle.

Mirrors in poetry are cliché.  Too often do I read a poem that makes reference to a looking glass and think, “Well, great – I can’t wait to talk about how mirrors are metaphors for memories.”  But then, if you were to eliminate all mirrors, you’d also have to get rid of polished metals, all glassware, and most bodies of water.  In other words, you’d have to create a world that would resemble Narcissus’s worst nightmare.  In our class, we’ve discussed mirrors on several occasions: we have Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” Li-Young Lee’s “Night Mirror,” and of course, Merrill’s, “Mirror.”  Okay, we haven’t discussed Lee’s poem, but trust me, there are tons of mirrors in the works that we’ve read.  The point is that mirrors are stale.
Most of the time, the poet describes the way a mirror cracks or fades, or the way water ripples or ebbs and flows.  This usually has to do with the theme of time – another favorite topic for literary discussion.  The use of time in a poem is like using dynamite in a game of “Rock, Paper, Scissors.”  We get it – time outlasts us all, and all things typically burn out, rust, or fade away.  Thanks, Neil.  Also, anybody that has every considered themselves a poet has probably thought about the word, “reflect,” and the poetic relationship between its many definitions.  This notion brings us back around to the connection between mirrors and memory, so now let’s explore an example.
In his poem, “Mirror,” Merrill outlines a conversation between a mirror and a window.  Well, really, the mirror is commenting on how it is fading away.  Similar to the relationship between art and reality, the mirror can no longer preserve images, while the window acts as a reminder of our mortality.  He writes:

As decades lengthen, this vision

Spreads and blackens.  I do not know whose it is,

But I think it watched for my last silver

To blister; flake, float leaf by life, each milling-

Downward dumb conceit, to a standstill… (Merrill, 11-12)

In this, the mirror represents one’s memory that is fading as time passes and the fleeting ability of mirror to reflect is similar to that of a person.  Once you get past the phenomenal penultimate rhyme scheme, this poem is really quite sad.  Poor mirror.  Nevertheless, despite Merrill’s excellent style, this poem still falls victim to the pedestrian relationship between mirrors and memory; however, I would like to make the argument that Merrill redeems himself with his other work, entitled “Lost in Translation.”
Let’s get one thing straight – I love this poem.  I love every single thing about this poem, especially the title.  I even love Murray and Johansson together in the movie.  What I like most about this poem, though, is the way it was written.  It tells the story from Merrill’s perspective flip-flopping between his older and younger self, waiting for a puzzle to arrive from Manhattan to his house in the Hamptons, while his parents are off fighting or getting a divorce or something.  There’s just so much going on in this poem; I don’t think that one could possibly blog about it in one sitting, so I’ll just stick to the point.  The reason why there is so much going on in this poem is because there was so much going on in the world around Merrill as he was growing up.  The way this poem is written, however, is from the perspective of a little boy.  Sure, it hints at the war and is loaded with intertexuality, but really, the poem is just about a boy waiting with his governess and collie for a puzzle to arrive.
This poem is a favorite of mine for the same reasons I mention it in this blog post about mirrors; this is the first poem I have ever read that deals with the concept of creating memories.  I believe that the card table that stands ready in the library (143) represents the unused space in Merrill’s adolescent mind.  Sadly, one of the first memories he is creating is “[a] summer without parents,” (143).  This poem is a way for the adult Merrill to piece together this difficult time in his childhood by referencing language via translations and Mademoiselle’s relationship to the war and borders.  All of these things are part of a greater picture that Merrill only sees through the eyes of his younger self, yet describes as his older self.
In Part Four of “Lost in Translation,” Merrill switches the style and scheme of the poem to AABA quatrains, the first stanza of which makes reference to the relationship between the world and the puzzle.  He writes:

This World that shifts like sand, its unforeseen

Consolidations and elate routine

Whose Potentate had lacked a retinue?

Lo! it assembled on the shrinking Green.  (146)

In this passage, the puzzle represents the world and all its realities, while the shrinking green of the card table represents Merrill’s loss of innocence.  He is putting together the thoughts and memories in little, hand sawed shapes, thus eliminating his childish obliviousness.  At the same time, Merrill is creating an image that echoes, yet contrasts with the aforementioned image in “Mirrors,” but instead of the blackening, blistering, and flaking, Merrill is now shifting, consolidating, and assembling images and memories.  Because of this, I believe that these two poems play off of one another, and that puzzles are the antithesis of mirrors.