The Personism moment  TIM CARMODY  ·  AUG 12 2010

I always liked the way poet Frank O'Hara walked up to the manifesto:

Everything is in the poems, but at the risk of sounding like the poor wealthy man's Allen Ginsberg I will write to you because I just heard that one of my fellow poets thinks that a poem of mine that can't be got at one reading is because I was confused too. Now, come on. I don't believe in god, so I don't have to make elaborately sounded structures. I hate Vachel Lindsay, always have; I don't even like rhythm, assonance, all that stuff. You just go on your nerve. If someone's chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don't turn around and shout, "Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep."

But what do we call it, Frank? We need a name.

Personism, a movement which I recently founded and which nobody knows about... was founded by me after lunch with LeRoi Jones on August 27, 1959, a day in which I was in love with someone (not Roi, by the way, a blond). I went back to work and wrote a poem for this person. While I was writing it I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born. It's a very exciting movement which will undoubtedly have lots of adherents. It puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style, and the poem is correspondingly gratified. The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages. In all modesty, I confess that it may be the death of literature as we know it. While I have certain regrets, I am still glad I got there before Alain Robbe-Grillet did. Poetry being quicker and surer than prose, it is only just that poetry finish literature off.

LeRoi Jones eventually changed his name to Amiri Baraka. Alain Robbe-Grillet was an proto-postmodern French novelist associated with the nouveau roman, or "new novel." It's probably better if I let you figure out what a Lucky Pierre is for yourself.

Because O'Hara dated his poems, we know what poem he wrote between lunch with Jones and picking up the telephone; appropriately, it's called "personal poem":

Now when I walk around at lunchtime
I have only two charms in my pocket
an old Roman coin Mike Kanemitsu gave me
and a bolt-head that broke off a packing case
when I was in Madrid the others never
brought me too much luck though they did
help keep me in New York against coercion
but now I'm happy for a time and interested

I walk through the luminous humidity
passing the House of Seagram with its wet
and its loungers and the construction to
the left that closed the sidewalk if
I ever get to be a construction worker
I'd like to have a silver hat please
and get to Moriarty's when I wait for
LeRol and hear who wants to be a mover and
shaker the last five years my batting average
is .016 that's that, and LeRol comes in
and tells me Miles Davis was clubbed 12
times last night outside BIRDLAND by a cop
a lady asks us for a nickel for a terrible
disease but we don't give her one we
don't like terrible diseases, then
we go eat some fish and some ale it's
cool but crowded we don't like Lionel Trilling
we decide, we like Don Allen we don't like
Henry James so much we like Herman Melville
we don't want to be in the poet's walk in
San Francisco even we just want to be rich
and walk on girders in our silver hats
I wonder if one person out of the 8,000,000 is
thinking of me as I shake hands with LeRol
and buy a strap for my wristwatch and go
back to work happy at the thought possibly so

Here is a photo of Davis after being beaten:

Miles Davis Birdland 1959

One reason Davis's assault and arrest alarmed O'Hara as much as it did was the increasing police violence at bars and clubs where gay men gathered -- which culminated in the Stonewall Riots, five years after his accidental death in 1964.

O'Hara's poetry got a boost in sales and pop-culture recognition recently, when it was prominently featured in the Season Two premiere of Mad Men. Don Draper reads from Meditations In An Emergency's "Mayakovsky":

Now I am quietly waiting for
the catastrophe of my personality
to seem beautiful again,
and interesting, and modern.

The country is grey and
brown and white in trees,
snows and skies of laughter
always diminishing, less funny
not just darker, not just grey.

It may be the coldest day of
the year, what does he think of
that? I mean, what do I? And if I do,
perhaps I am myself again.

I don't know why I always think of this mode of literature in terms of media history. Maybe that's just the way I think. Or it's O'Hara picking up the telephone, that black-and-white photo of Davis's blood-spattered suit, Don Draper dropping his copy of a book into a suburban corner mailbox.

Elsewhere in Personism, O'Hara says, "Nobody should experience anything they don't need to, if they don't need poetry bully for them. I like the movies too. And after all, only Whitman and Crane and Williams, of the American poets, are better than the movies." Maybe if he were writing today, he might say, "only ___ and ___ and ___ are better than playing video games."

His poem "Lines for the Fortune Cookies" shows O'Hara would have completely understood (and ruled at) Twitter. Here are just three samples (all well under the character limit):


  1. Your walk has a musical quality which will bring you fame and fortune.

  2. You may be a hit uptown, but downtown you're legendary!

  3. You are a prisoner in a croissant factory and you love it.

Read more posts on kottke.org about:
Frank O'Hara   Mad Men   Miles Davis   poetry

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