Sunday, February 15, 2009

Zeitgeist Corner: Frank O'Hara

Dear reader, since you are an educated person of quite outstanding taste and learning, no doubt you are familiar with the poetical works of Frank O'Hara. I salute you and your greater commitment to self-improvement. Despite being a big fish in the poetry pond, O'Hara is news to me.

Oddly, this didn't stop O'Hara's writings being at the heart of two quite distinct creative works in this last week. The first of these was Zadie Smith's Speaking in Tongues, a spellbinding lecture she gave for the New York Review of Books (an audio version is available here). Her theme was voice and register, of the perils of moving from on to the other, and of authenticity. She described her own loss of a 'real' London voice as she tried on the voice of the academy, to Eliza Doolittle, a heroine who really suffered for her loss of voice, all the way up to Barack Obama. It's a bloody marvelous piece which should be read immediately. Here's a bit that chimes:

Voice adaptation is still the original British sin. Monitoring and exposing such citizens is a national pastime, as popular as sex scandals and libel cases. If you lean toward the Atlantic with your high-rising terminals you're a sell-out; if you pronounce borrowed European words in their original style—even if you try something as innocent as parmigiano for "parmesan"—you're a fraud. If you go (metaphorically speaking) down the British class scale, you've gone from Cockney to "mockney," and can expect a public tar and feathering; to go the other way is to perform an unforgivable act of class betrayal. Voices are meant to be unchanging and singular. There's no quicker way to insult an ex-pat Scotsman in London than to tell him he's lost his accent. We feel that our voices are who we are, and that to have more than one, or to use different versions of a voice for different occasions, represents, at best, a Janus-faced duplicity, and at worst, the loss of our very souls.

Whoever changes their voice takes on, in Britain, a queerly tragic dimension. They have betrayed that puzzling dictum "To thine own self be true," so often quoted approvingly as if it represented the wisdom of Shakespeare rather than the hot air of Polonius. " What's to become of me? What's to become of me?" wails Eliza Doolittle, realizing her middling dilemma. With a voice too posh for the flower girls and yet too redolent of the gutter for the ladies in Mrs. Higgins's drawing room.

The lecture's second half is about what Keats called (rather clunkily?) negative capability, the skill of being able to fully inhabit other voices as if they were your own, of "being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason", a talent we venerate in writers but abhor in politicians. Smith reaches the tentative hope that Obama's obvious gifts as a writer won't inhibit him a man of action. And then we get this:

Being many-voiced may be a complicated gift for a president, but in poets it is a pure delight in need of neither defense nor explanation. Plato banished them from his uptight and annoying republic so long ago that they have lost all their anxiety. They are fancy-free.

"I am a Hittite in love with a horse," writes Frank O'Hara.

I don't know what blood's
in me I feel like an African prince I am a girl walking downstairs
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 mist
in which a face appears
and it is another face of blonde I am a baboon eating a banana
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 Indian
sleeping on a scalp
and my pony is stamping in
the birches,
and I've just caught sight of the
NiƱa, the Pinta and the Santa
What land is this, so free?

Frank O'Hara's republic is of the imagination, of course. It is the only land of perfect freedom. Presidents, as a breed, tend to dismiss this land, thinking it has nothing to teach them. If this new president turns out to be different, then writers will count their blessings, but with or without a president on board, writers should always count their blessings. A line of O'Hara's reminds us of this. It's carved on his gravestone. It reads: "Grace to be born and live as variously as possible."

Well, at this point, I was as bowled over as you can be in the lifts at Convent Garden station. This sounds like a poet I want to read more of, even if he's light-years from the tight little metrical constructions of a Larkin or an Auden or whoever: I do like a good poetical list, scansion be damned*.

And then, the first episode of Season Two of Mad Men (the absence of which I think explains our winter melancholy better than any putative lack of daylight). It was a sheer delight. I'm especially addicted to those moments when Don Draper looks into the middle distance and enunciates to his less-gifted flock some hitherto-unguessed-at principle of advertising. This week: "Why do men fly?" Do tell, Don! "They fly because they want to escape the city. They fly because they want to see a skirt that is one inch too high." *applause* (Next week: "What do men want? They don't to eat eggs. They want to go to work on them. Work something out won't you."

Anyway, the episode culminated in a Don voice-over, a reading from— yes, you're way ahead of me— Frank O'Hara's Meditations in an Emergency: "Now I am quietly waiting for/ the catastrophe of my personality/ to seem beautiful again/ and interesting, and modern".

Wow. Of course, since these things come in threes, my radar is now fully extended. I won't be at all surprised if today's winner of the 3:30 from Chepstow is called 'O'Hara's Paradox'

*Like Borge's certain Chinese encyclopaedia that divides animals into those: (a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camel-hair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.

That's a list.

No comments: