Suddenly I saw a waterfall last Sunday afternoon when walking to a local place called the Greater Good to pick up some barbecue. I'd seen the waterfall many times before, yet it always surprises me. While not a natural wonder - it's the product of a manmade culvert built across a creek as a flood control measure for a town home community - the waterfall possesses beauty. I shot video of its rushing motion, posting it on Facebook.
At such moments, I often think of Frank O'Hara, and writing a poem using the "I did this and then did that" model from his "Lunch Poems." Mary Karr in Sunday's New York Times Book Review claimed that John Ashbery was been the worst influence on American poetry, but a case can be made for O'Hara's poems, which are among my favorites.
After Ashbery, poets thought they could come up with a poem by arbitrarily stringing together a few disparate images and absurdist sentences. Instant surrealism! O'Hara made popular the technique of listing a few occurrences that happened while walking down the street during lunch hour: (On Sunday afternoon, I walk to the Greater Good/to pick up barbecue. The waterfall/suprises me once more.)
O'Hara, tragically killed at a young age in a beach-buggy accident on Fire Island, was the best poet of the so-called New York School, although Ashbery with his long career is probably considered the group's leading figure. O'Hara's aura still exerts a strong influence; I was thrilled to see Don Draper reading "Lunch Poems" in one "Mad Man" episode. While O'Hara reaches toward the whimsical absurdist surrealism that marks the work of Ashbery, Kenneth Koch and James Schulyer (my second favorite among the group), O'Hara's work was better grounded in concrete details.
Recently, Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights Books in San Francisco published a 50th anniversary edition of O'Hara's "Lunch Poems," with an expendable introduction by Ashbery, a member of O'Hara's circle. I was reading through the collection today and came to "Poem," often subtitled "Lana Turner Has Collapsed!" Once again, I marveled at how the poem mysteriously achieves a higher level of expression with simple language. In fact, I was thinking about that poem the other day when walking toward the barbecue place and encountering the waterfall
One of the interesting things about the poem is how often O'Hara uses adverbs, especially those ending in - ly, violating one of the shibboleths of creative writing courses. He twice uses the red-flag word "suddenly." His exclamation points also stick out. The "Poem" title also hit me, recalling Howard Nemerov telling us at the Sewanee Writers' Conference to beware of titling a poem simply "Poem."
Lana Turner has collapsed! I was trotting along and suddenly it started raining and snowing and you said it was hailing but hailing hits you on the head hard so it was really snowing and raining and I was in such a hurry to meet you but the traffic was acting exactly like the sky and suddenly I see a headline LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED! there is no snow in Hollywood there is no rain in California I have been to lots of parties and acted perfectly disgraceful but I never actually collapsed oh Lana Turner we love you get up