Do I want a part in my own movie?

Why did nobody introduce me to Frank O’Hara
back then, when I was a poet,
or thought I was,
or wanted to be?

I had discovered T.S. Eliot.
At school we didn’t study Eliot,
just Edwin Muir and the Thomases,
Edward and R.S.
But I was looking for something more jagged,
more urban, more modern,
so I read the poets we weren’t supposed to read
and that’s when I found Eliot.

The Love Song, The Waste Land, they
did things with words
that intrigued and engaged and inspired me.
I thought, I can do that,
so I did.
Not quite Eliot, but Eliotish.

I was a poet, for a while at least,
but nobody introduced me to Frank O’Hara.

At university, I was introduced to Jimmy Simmons,
the best known and, to my mind, the best
of the poets I met in Northern Ireland.
I read at Poetry Society meetings,
I submitted poems to Poetry Society magazines.
Once, an entire issue of the magazine
was given over to one long poem I had written,
and a girl I had never seen before sought me out
and asked for an autograph. I don’t
even have a copy of that poem myself anymore.
I wonder what I wrote?

But Jimmy liked them, encouraged me
to submit to Honest Ulsterman and Stand,
the magazines that published his own work.
So I bundled some up and sent them off.
They must have gone astray, I never heard back.
I didn’t try the experiment again,
I think I was already learning not to be a poet.
Because nobody had introduced me to Frank O’Hara.

I was reading poetry in translation then,
Cavafy and Seferis, Nelly Sachs and Yevtushenko,
and tried to get something of that distanced,
not-quite-poetic language of translation
into my own poems. And it worked,
for a while, but not-quite-poetic soon becomes
not-poetic, and I found myself writing prose.

How many poems did I write during those,
what, five years? Dozens certainly, scores,
perhaps hundreds. All gone now,
destroyed, discarded, lost along the way.
I don’t think about them, have no regrets,
have no desire to ever write anything except
where the line breaks fall naturally
at the end of a paragraph.

But then, Maureen introduced me to Frank O’Hara,
and I felt familiarity, recognition.
This use of discords, these sudden surreal shifts in imagery,
the naturalistic feel of the language, the sense
that here is everyday life, the streets, the acquaintances,
all subtly distorted, made anew.
All of this, I felt I knew.
Wasn’t this what I had set out to do
in my own poems?

Better? Oh yes, Frank O’Hara is so much better
than my own efforts. At least, I must assume
without the evidence of those no longer extant works.
But maybe, if I had known O’Hara then,
had the example of someone working in this vein,
it might have helped, might have kept me
working on my poetry long enough to improve.

But as it is I am no poet,
do not want to be, never will be,
because nobody introduced me to Frank O’Hara.

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8 thoughts on “Do I want a part in my own movie?

  1. Paul, I’ve been writing some FOH poems myself. I’ll send them to you, if you like!

    I was introduced to FOH’s work by the late Charles Mann, curator of Penn State’s Rare Books Room and one of the best teachers I ever had.

    • I’m not sure I’d count this as a Frank O’Hara poem, though it was inspired by him. Actually, I’m not sure I’d count it as a poem.

      And yes, I’d love to see your FOH poems, send them along.

      I was introduced to his work because Maureen was teaching him this last term, so I found myself reading some of the poems over her shoulder, as it were. I fell in love with them straight away. I don’t think I’ve had such an immediate response to anyone’s poetry since Eliot, or possibly Cavafy. This just seemed like the only possible way to say so.

      • I should have said rather “inspired by FOH.”

        The collected FOH is one of my favorite books. I’m a huge fan of the New York School in general. The Library of America John Ashbery collections treasures, and Kenneth Koch was a big influence on certain parts of my first novel Giant Slugs. (FWIW.)

        • For fairly obvious reasons, American poets don’t get much of a look-in over here. We’ve got more than enough of our own, so unless you do a specialist American Lit course you’re really not likely to come across them. I didn’t even know there was a ‘New York School’, and though I’ve heard of Ashbery I’m not sure I’ve ever read anything by him, and I wouldn’t have known to place him in New York. And Koch is not a name I’ve come across before. More for me to look out for, then.

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