When her time had come, that nymph most fair brought forth a
child with whom one could have fallen in love even in his
cradle, and she called him Narcissus. When the prophetic
seer was asked whether this boy would live to a ripe old
age, he replied: "Yes, if he does not come to know himself."
(Ovid: 1955, 83)
Narcissusa boy so beautiful that no one could
help falling in love with him, yet, who himself never
reciprocated such love. Rather, he played with the
affections of Echo, allowing her to waste away to stone, and
others, until one of his admirers prayed: "May he himself
fall in love with another, as we have done with him! May he
too be unable to gain his loved one!" (Ovid (1955), 85).
Ironically, he came to know himself as others knew him,
falling in love with his own reflection.
I can think of no better introduction to Frank O'Hara's
long poem, In Memory of My Feelings, than the story of
Narcissus because of the questions it raises concerning the
concept of the self, the ability to know one's self and the
ability to be known by others. At the outset of the story,
the seer prophesizes that Narcissus will live to "a ripe old
age" if "he does not come to know himself." We are then
confronted with the situation where Narcissus comes to know
himself as others knew him, thus, on the one hand,
fulfilling the seer's prophecy. On the other hand, as
readers of the story, we might very well dissent, saying
that Narcissus did not, in fact, come to know his true self,
only himself as others perceived him. From this perspective,
the seer's prophecy is erroneous.
Metanarratively, however, the seer's prophecy seems to
argue that the concept of "self" is a constructed entity by
revealing the distance between the "Narcissus" constructed
by the love-struck nymphs and the "Narcissus" constructed by
Narcissus himself. This distance is furthermore accented by
the ensuing despair and "narcissism" when the physical
Narcissus falls in love with his reflection in the pool,
seeing himself as the nymphs see him. The seer's prophecy
also seems to argue, unlike the hegelian dialectic, that it
is impossible to know oneself objectively. For if one were
actually able to take leave of the self and inhabit the
other (as Narcissus did), returning to the self again would
be impossible because we would then only recognize our
"self" as another. The dialectic would not come full circle
and there would be no synthesis.
AS/SA nº 11-12,
In Memory of My Feelings is like the seer's prophecy.
Throughout the poem, O'Hara distances not only the "self"
others have constructed to represent him, but equally the
"self" he has constructed in his poetry, from his actual
physical self. In Memory of My Feelings combats the idea of
a coherent, ideal self.
Presence and Killing
There have been several useful studies that have already
addressed the role of the self in O'Hara's poetry. Charles
Altieri, for example, has argued that the poets of the 1960s
in rejecting the academic impersonal style of Eliot turned
to English Romanticism by attempting, in their poetry, "to
create a specific attitude or model for imaginatively
perceiving relationships in a given situation,
whichas attitude, not as symbol or
statementdefines and gives value to a more general
perspective on experience" (Altieri (1979), 16). O'Hara's
poetry, Altieri argues, falls within the "immanetist vision"
of poetry established by the early Wordsworth where "poetic
creation is conceived more as the discovery and the
disclosure of numinous relationships within nature than as
the creation of containing and structuring forms" (Altieri
(1979), 17). It is marked by a "radical presence" which
insists "that the moment immediately and intensely
experienced can restore one to harmony with the world and
provide ethical and psychological renewal" (Altieri (1979),
Mutlu Konuk Blasing, on the other hand, characterizes
O'Hara's dilemma as follows: "On the one hand, he must
transform his past into art so that it can no longer hunt
him. On the other hand, he must try, as a person, to
preserve his past as history in order to salvage a
continuous and coherent self out of the flow of isolated
moments of consciousnessthese series of transparent
selves" (Blasing (1977), 150). His poetry is a sort of
"impure poetry, in which the poet is interested more in the
processes of perception and self-creation through language
than in 'poetry'more in daily history than in
'purity'"(Blasing (1977), 140-141).
I believe that the word "presence," in its aesthetic and
not philosophical sense, is a good way to begin speaking
about the poetry of Frank O'Hara. However, I am not sure
that O'Hara's emphasis on "presence" is an insistence, as
Altieri believes, on "ethical and psychological renewal."
O'Hara's poetry is a poetry of "presence" because, for him,
the "self" can only exist in the present. The polemic for
the poet then is to capture these present selves within
their particular contexts, knowing, all the while, that once
the self, in a particular situation, has been captured in
poetry it is no longer "alive" because it has become apart
of history and memory and is therefore no longer organic and
able to change. Blasing, I believe, is correct in asserting
that O'Hara's poetry attempts to transform "his past into
art" by presenting "isolated moments of consciousness." The
goal, however, is not "to salvage a continuous and coherent
self," but rather to capture his particular selves as they
appeared particular situations in order to combat the idea
that the self exists as an absolute, coherent, and ideal
entity outside of time.
The poet as one who both presents his self and kills his
self through the art of poetry is presented fairly clearly
in stanzas III, IV, and V of "Ode on Saint Cecilia's Day,"
where O'Hara writes:
All of us who play at
music fill our empty hearts
and slump beside an indifferent pool
in the passionless gloaming, hearing
in the pure geometry of tones
whatever complicated commentaries we wish.
Our motive's not
despicable, in play
we separate desire from the mirage
of sentiment and
Those who are not very fond
of the tangible evidences of love
shun music and are quiet, doctored by
memory and the martyrdom of Saint Cecilia.
The rest of us play and are played,
seeking like Pan the pattern of our true desire,
willing to follow
to the tempo of failure and crime.
I wonder can a
virgin make music?
For this is necessary. Memory
is a soundless ruin, a habit of
mourning that builds no bridges or hands.
It sighs, a harp no love can search; memory
is without symmetry, supine and bad.
Even with sandwiches and a pocket flask we die
among its black
houses. My dear!
seek things seriously on your flute!
I want you,
tomorrow! (CP, 28)
AS/SA nº 11-12,
In stanzas III and IV poetry is presented as an art that
should be organic. Poetry as music has tempo and rhythm. It
affects those who play by filling "our empty hearts." Poetry
as music is a way of seeking "the pattern of our true
desire" and way of separating "desire from the mirage of
sentiment and ideal choice." O'Hara, finishing the IV stanza
with the question, "I wonder can a / virgin make music?"
retrospectively raises the question of the relationship
between poetry and sex. If poetry is the music (tempo and
rhythm) of the pattern of our underlying emotions, expressed
outside our body, then sex and poetry are also linked as
external creations of the self. Stanzas III and IV are also
full of references to Ovid's Metamorphosesa grouping
of myths about humans changing form. This is integral
information for understanding O'Hara's thesis at the end of
stanza V, where he claims that as poetry reflects the
organicity of music and sex so poetry should reflect the
organicity of the poet. O'Hara presents the idea that the
self is, or should be, "radically present" in poetry when we
concludes "My dear! / seek things seriously on your flute! /
I want you, / tomorrow!" On one level, the song on the flute
could be read simply as an aphrodisiac, creating the desire
in the poet to "want" the flutist. On the other hand, the
song on the flute could be read as the flutist himself;
therefore, when the poet says that he "wants" the flutist
what he means in fact is that he wants the flutist song. In
this second case the flutist and his song are inseparable.
In O'Hara's mock manifesto, Personism, a similar argument
is made. A poem captures the poet's feelings in a particular
context without raising these feelings to a level of
abstraction where the poem is no longer "between the poet
and the person" but between "two pages" (CP, 499). O'Hara
argues that "abstraction (in poetry, not in painting)
involves personal removal by the poet." Personism, however,
is "totally opposed to this kind of abstract removal that it
is verging on a true abstraction for the first time, really,
in the history of poetry" (CP, 498). In painting, the more
the artist involves only himself in his painting, making
himself the object of his painting (as in the abstract
expressionism, for example, of Jackson Pollock (reference))
the more abstract, one could argue, the painting becomes. In
poetry, however, the poet must use words and whenever he
uses the word "I," involving himself in his poem, the less
abstract the poem becomes. Therefore, poets such as Stevens
attempted to be abstract by avoiding the use of such
personal pronouns. O'Hara writes that "the decision involved
in the choice between 'the nostalgia of the infinite' and
'the nostalgia for the infinite' defines an attitude towards
degree of abstraction" because "nostalgia of the infinite,"
as a clause, does not require a personal pronoun whereas
"nostalgia for the infinite" does. This is why O'Hara claims
that "nostalgia of the infinite" represents "the greater
degree of abstraction." The problem is that if the poet must
remove the personal pronoun "I" from the poem in order to be
abstract, poetry turns into philosophy because the
abstraction presented in the poem is not an abstraction of a
person but of an idea. "Personism," O'Hara writes, "has
nothing to do with philosophy, it's all art." (CP, 499). On
the other hand, it "does not have to do with personality or
intimacy" either (CP, 499). Rather, it is an attempt to be
deeply personal and abstract at the same time.
O'Hara's poetics is a chronicle of this attempt to
present the self squarely at the center of the poem in order
to be truly abstract without slipping into the abstraction
in poetry typified by Eliot and Stevens. However, O'Hara's
poetics is also a chronicle of the impossibility of placing
the self squarely at the center of the poem because the
self, as that which is living, changes whereas a poem, once
written, is static. That is why O'Hara follows the lines
"All of us who play at / music fill our empty hearts," in
"Ode on Saint Cecilia's Day," with "and slump beside an
indifferent pool," mimicking Narcissus' dilemma (CP, 28).
The poem both captures the self in a particular present
situation while "killing" the self by virtue of the fact
that once a particular self has been captured in a poem it
also becomes a part of the past and "memory," The only way
to solve this problem would be to view the self as an
absolute, ideal entity; thus, making the self as static as a
poem. O'Hara, however, is unwilling to do this because, on
the one hand, it has been done in the past and, on the other
hand, it pushes poetry away from the "life-giving vulgarity"
out of which it was createdthat of one person
addressing himself to anotherthe particular
AS/SA nº 11-12,
Poetry, for O'Hara is not a Romantic chronicle of the
search for the "coherent" self, nor is it a way of "ethical
and psychological renewal." Rather it is a presentation (and
subsequent death) of the particular self in finite
situations and the chronicle of the absence of the concept
of the ideal self in the poet.
The Romantic "I"
Charles Altieri characterizes the Romantic poet as either
a "symbolist poet [who] seeks to transform nature
into satisfying human structures" or an "immanetist poet
[who] stresses the ways an imagination attentive to
common and casual experience can transform the mind and
provide satisfying resting places in an otherwise endless
dialectical pursuit by the mind of its own essences and of
Transcendental realities" (Altieri (1979), 17). With a title
such as In Memory of My Feelings, one might expect that what
would follow would be a confessional, Wordsworthian,
self-revelatory poem. O'Hara, however, follows the title
with these first lines:
My quietness has a man in it, he is transparent
and he carries me quietly, like a gondola, through the
streets (CP, 252)
These lines, while seemingly Romantic with the use of
heavily connotative words such as "quietness" and
"transparent," in fact, bar the reader from pinpointing a
clear Romantic "I" at the center of the poem. It is this
process of pinpointing, or constructing, the "I" in others
that itself becomes the subject of the rest of the poem.
The very first clause, while not yet directly dealing
with question of the Romantic "I," is interesting because of
its reversal of the classical distinction, first made
explicit by Plato, between the intelligible realm (noeton)
and the visible realm (boraton) (Plato (1955), 269-270). If
we understand "man" as that which is visible and "quietness"
as that which is intelligible, according to the Platonic
tradition the "man" should have the "quietness" in him.
O'Hara, however, reverses these philosophical categories and
places the intelligible as that which is readily perceived
and the visible as that which is hidden by the intelligible
realm ("My quietness has a man in it, he is transparent").
This first clause, then, is setting the scene for what will
become a full-fledged attack on the categories of absolute
versus particular, intelligible versus visible.
Returning to the question of the Romantic "I," the next
clause, beginning "he is transparent," obviously refers to
the "man" in the preceding clause due to the fact that "my
quietness" has already been attributed the impersonal
pronoun "it." So the line, in its amplified form, would now
read: "My quietness has a man in it, this man is
transparent." The barriers to establishing a clear Romantic
"I" begin with the second part of the second clause, "and he
carries me quietly." With the added pronoun "me," we now
have three different references to the poetthe
"quietness" of the poet containing a "man" who carries the
poet, "me," through the streets "like a gondola." The
question, here, is: Which one of these pronouns could work
as the Romantic "I" of the poem? If all three are, how might
we understand such a presentation in light of the
traditional Romantic dichotomy of the conscious (freed)
versus the unconscious (captive) self exemplified, for
example, in Wordsworth (Wordsworth (1903), 375)?
We cannot, in fact, place a Romantic ego. O'Hara draws
the reader in with Romantically connotative words while
withholding the typical Romantic paradigm. He is playing
with us, winking at "gondola." We see now why O'Hara must
write that his quietness has a man "in it" and not "in him"
in order to postpone the crisis until the second line and
the entry of the third pronoun. If O'Hara had used "him" to
refer to his "quietness" we would have stayed within a
dichotomy of the poet's "quietness" versus the "man," with
all subsequent pronouns arguably referring to either one or
the other. A dichotomy that would, perhaps, not be all that
different from the wordsworthian dichotomy in The Prelude.
This process of combating the abstract idea of the ideal
self as it is imposed on the poet from a variety of
communities is the subject of In Memory of My Feelings.
Terence Diggory writes that "community will tend to be
viewed as a fusion or communion of individuals into some
greater whole [
] To think community
differently [sic] requires the death of the Subject,
and those who participate in such an alternative community
could be said to "belong to death" in this sense, insofar as
this constitutes their community" (Diggory (2001), 24).
AS/SA nº 11-12,
The first section of the poem sets the scene of the poet
resisting the violence of different communities' tendencies
to organize "selves" according to some predetermined norm.
The poet presents his "naked selves" equipped with pistols,
ready to defend themselves against "creatures who too
readily have recognize my weapons / and have murder in their
heart" (CP, 253). The pluralities as well as the reference
to murder establishes the idea that participating in a
community requires the death of ones self or selves. Poetry,
as a genre or as a school, tends to organize in the same way
that community does. The first section of the poem, then, is
not only concerned about setting up the polemic of a
plurality of selves resisting the "murderous" desire of the
participating in a community, it is also concerned with
informing the reader that poetry is murderous as well.
In this first section, O'Hara refers to a serpent on
three occasions. "So many of my transparencies," O'Hara
first writes, "could not resist the race" because of the
"love of the serpent." (CP, 253). In the next line, the poet
is the serpent, "underneath its leaves as the hunter
crackles and pants." Then in the final stanza O'Hara writes:
My transparent selves
flail about like vipers in a pail, writhing and
without panic, with a certain justice of response
and presently the aquiline serpent comes to resemble
the Medusa. (CP, 253)
Medusa, as the mother of Pegasus, is also the mother of
poetry. When Persus severed the Gorgon's head, the blood
spilled on the ground and bore Pegasus. Later, when Persus
carried the head of Medusa around the world, the blood that
dropped on the ground became poisonous snakes. O'Hara writes
that his "transparent selves / flail about like vipers in a
pail" but that "the aquiline serpent comes to resemble the
Medusa." (CP, 252). As Ovid makes the distinction between
the creator (Medusa) and the creation (snakes), O'Hara
distinguishes between the poet (the aquiline serpent coming
to resemble the Medusa) and the poet's poems (transparent
selves flailing about like vipers). In the final section of
the poem, O'Hara claims exactly this when he associates the
"scene of my selves" with "the occasion of these ruses":
and I have lost what is always and everywhere
present, the scene of my selves, the occasion of these
which I myself and singly must now kill
and save the serpent in their midst. (CP, 256)
O'Hara has lost what is "always and every present"
because "memory is a soundless ruin" (CP, 28). Once
particular occasions become apart of the past they are no
longer useful in creating poetry. This explains, as stated
before, O'Hara's emphasis on the present in his poetry. It
is the present moment couched within its particular context
that is lively in poetry. However, poems, once written,
transform what was once organic into memory. For O'Hara
poetry both captures and kills the present, which is what he
means when he plays on the word "singly" in the penultimate
line of the poem. The serpent in this last line, by virtue
of it being presented in the demonstrative singular, is the
same "aquiline serpent" resembling Medusa in the last line
of the first section. Poems, selves, and serpents must be
"killed" in order to "save the serpent," or poet, "in their
midst." This salvation, however, is not brought about by
some how participating in the larger poets guild, being,
therefore, apart of the community of poets. After the poem
is accomplished, remember the poet then "slumps beside an
indifferent pool." (CP, 28). Poetry brings about death, as
does the participation in any community. The poet is only
"saved" from his despair by death itself and being apart of
the community of death (Diggory (2001), 24). The real
tragedy of Narcissus is that even death did not offer an
escape from his despair because "when he was received into
the abode of the dead, he kept looking at himself in the
waters of the Styx." (Ovid (1955), 87).
While O'Hara the poet claims that he has allowed his
selves to be killed (he is himself the murderer) by becoming
apart of the community of poetry, he has withheld himself,
however, from other communities and details this aloofness
in sections two, three and four. In the second section, for
example, O'Hara begins by speaking of his family moving to
the military and philosophy all underneath the following
AS/SA nº 11-12,
The dead hunting
and the alive, ahunted. (CP, 253)
O'Hara then goes on to present his grand-aunt, whom, he
says, died for him "like a talisman, in the war, / before I
had even gone to Borneo" (CP, 253). His aunt, unlike
himself, is more than ready to die for a cause; thus O'Hara
presents her as dying for him as he is going to war in order
to mock this sort of sacrificial death--the distance in
their blood relation adding to the ridiculousness of the
act. O'Hara seems to imply that he will not sacrifice
himself for his grand-aunt despite the fact that he is
"ahunted" by the memory of family members, such as his
grand-aunt, who have died for their family.
As O'Hara presents the family in military verbiage, he
presents the military in philosophical jargon, writing:
a rusted barge
painted orange against the sea
full of Marines reciting the Arabian ideas
which are a proof in themselves of seasickness
which is a proof in itself of being hunted.
A hit? ergo swim. (CP, 254).
The military, organized like a great book of philosophy,
is simply a community which plays at the game of logic. This
community, as was the case with the community of his family,
requires death of its membersa death that is
presented in as ridiculous terms as the death of his
grand-aunt ("A hit? ergo swim"). His grand-aunt, being apart
of the community of family, had to die because of, or for,
the family. Soldiers, being apart of the community of the
military, have to die because of, or for, the logic of the
In the following sections of the poem, the community of
the military comes up again and again as O'Hara also
introduces the community based on nationalism. Nations,
O'Hara claims, progress to a certain climax, decline and
then die. He writes:
You preferred the Arabs? but they didn't stay to
their inventions, racing into sands, converting
embracing, at Ramadan, the tenderest effigies of
themselves with penises shorn by the hundreds, like a
ravishing a goat.
And the mountainous-minded Greeks could speak
of time as a river and step across it into Persia,
leaving the pain
at home to be converted into statuary. I adore the
And the stench of the camel's spit I swallow,
and the stench of the whole goat. For we have
together into a new land, like the Greeks, where one
for mere ideas, where truth lies on its deathbed like
and one of me has a sentimental longing for number,
as has another for the ball gowns of the Directoire
another for "Destiny, Paris, destiny!"
or "Only a king may kill a king." (CP, 254-255)
AS/SA nº 11-12,
This "progress" presented in history, however, is not
really progress because in each case it moves the nation
closer to death. O'Hara mocks this idea of advancement with
the pre-schoolish rhyme "we have advanced, France" in order
to show the over-simplicity of the idea of progress. The
next line confirms this over-simplification, presenting
France as advancing "into a new land, like the Greeks, where
one feels nostalgic / for mere ideas, where truth lies on
its deathbed like an uncle" (CP, 254). While nations present
themselves as resting upon unchanging "truths" these truths
in fact change, for example, from an nation built about
aristocracy, "'Only a king may kill a king'" to a nation
built on democracy, "'Destiny, Paris, destiny!'" (CP, 255).
Yet it is these same nations that ask their citizens to die
for these "ideas" on a "deathbed." O'Hara continues,
How many selves are there in a war hero asleep
in names? under
a blanket of platoon and fleet, orderly. For every
with one eye closed in fear and twitching arm a sigh
for Lord Nelson,
he is all dead [...] (CP, 255).
Though he may not be physically dead yet, "he is all
dead" because of his position in the community of the
military and the nation.
We come to see a picture in these sections of family,
philosophy, military and nationality all working together to
incorporate individuals into the community. The poet, on the
other hand, attempts to break free of these communities in
the fourth section, where he writes,
to be born and live as variously as possible. The
of the masque barely suggests the sordid
I am a Hittite in love with a horse. I don't know what
in me I feel like an African prince I am a girl
in a red pleated dress with heels I am a champion
taking a fall
I am a jockey with a sprained ass-hole I am the light
in which a face appears
and its is another face of blonde I am a baboon eating
I am a dictator looking at his wife I am a doctor
eating a child
and the child_s mother smiling I am a Chinaman
climbing a mountain
I am a child smelling his father_s underwear I am an
sleeping on a scalp
and my pony is stamping in the birches,
and I've just caught sight of the Nina, the Pinta and
the Santa Maria.
What land is this so free?
AS/SA nº 11-12,
The absence of either commas or periods between many of
these sentences is an important detail. There is no
separation between these selves because they are contained
within the same "I." There is not easy bipartite or
tripartite classification of this "I," nor is there any
particular coherency or logic of relation between these
selves other than the fact that they all find their
expression under the umbrella of the "I" of the poet.
Communities, however, impose a logic and an organization of
the self, thus excluding certain selves (see Derrida (1967),
L'Écriture et la différence, for a discussion
of logic and exclusion). Hence, O'Hara poses the question:
"What land is this so free?"
We must remember, however, that while the poet withholds
his own participation in these communities it is not in
order to live a life of complete and autonomous freedom. He
simply chooses death by poetry (CP, 257) as opposed to these
other deaths--for we all must die, "philosophically
speaking" (CP, 256) as well as physically. The title of the
poem is a liturgy. It is In Memory of My Feelings like
Auden's "In Memory of W.B. Yeats." The only reason the poet
gives for choosing death by poetry as opposed to other
deaths brought about by participating in the collective self
of a particular community is given at the end of the poem,
where he writes "to move is to love and the scrutiny of all
things syllogistic." As we saw previously, O'Hara sees
poetry as that which is organic, which moves like music.
Here he compares "moving" as poetry with philosophically
"syllogistic" language and states that writing poetry,
"moving," gives pleasure. It is lovely. It is an act of
love. "So many of my transparencies," O'Hara writes, "could
not resist the race" because of the "love of the
serpent"(CP, 253). It is worth noting, first of all, that
O'Hara is quite vague here on what he might mean by love,
and second of all, that he does not seem to be claiming that
poetry offers some sort of final resolution to man's dilemma
(as Coleridge, perhaps, believed). Poetry kills, but the
poet, O'Hara, seems to enjoy the killing.
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---, Charles. Self and Sensibility in Contemporary
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