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Mark Doty

Urbane, ironic, sometimes genuinely celebratory and often wildly funny, O'Hara would allow a realm of material and associations alien to academic verse to pour into his poems: the camp icons of movie stars of the twenties and thirties, the daily landscape of social activity in Manhattan, jazz music, telephone calls from friends; anything seemed ready material for inclusion into the particular order that the moment of composition would call for. Dadaist even in his approach to his own work, O'Hara composed huge numbers of poems with apparent spontaneity and ease; a friend estimates that his vast Collected Poems contains perhaps only a third of his work, which was often scribbled or typed quickly, stuffed in drawers or left about in stacks. This relaxed attitude toward preservation and collection results in a chronology of composition quite different from the dates of publication, but Meditations in an Emergency and the poems written throughout the late fifties comprise his finest work. "The Day Lady Died," "Steps," "A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island" (a brilliant re-visioning of Mayakovsky's poem on the same theme), and O'Hara's famous lament upon reading of the collapse of Lana Turner ("I have been to lots of parties / and acted perfectly disgraceful / but I never actually collapsed / Oh Lana Turner we love you get up") mark O'Hara at the height of his powers. His language is often casual, relaxed in diction, yet it presses forward with a kind of breathless urgency, a will to celebrate the density and richness of experience—in all its refusal to be summed up, to marshal itself into an orderly vision—by including as much as possible. Many of these pieces have been labeled "I do this, I do that" poems; they report whole chunks of experience, days of walking, conversing, noticing, with careful specificity. Place-names and the names of friends and acquaintances abound; paradoxically, their inclusion seems to make the poems more universal, more available, convinced as we are by their artfully shaped controlling tone of the authenticity of the speaker’s voice. The notion of contrasting and mutually influencing elements arranged on a surface—a key concept in Abstract Expressionism—is important in O'Hara's work. The poems seem, indeed, to spill one into the other, creating one immense canvas which displays in all its parts O'Hara's character engaged in all the business of living—alternately joyful, petulant, obtuse, tired, awed. The finest of his love poems—"Steps," for example, which concludes "oh god its wonderful / to get out of bed / and, drink too much coffee / and smoke too many cigarettes / and love you so much"—disarm with their directness. Their comic, carefully built quotidian contexts allow O'Hara to work with direct statement in an inimitable fashion, generating a current of emotion which rises above his camp humor, his exuberant ironies and mocking play.

from A Profile of Twentieth-Century American Poetry. Ed. Jack Myers and David Wojahn. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1991. Copyright © 1991 by the Board of Trustees of Southern Illinois University.