Poetry is unique compared to other literary works in that in order to close the gap of emotional distance within the individual reader, the voice needs to be sincere. When a character is not relatable to the reader, it destroys the art of poetry. Berg explains in his essay “The Poetry Does Not Matter”, “I detest that man, who hides one thing in the depths of his heart, and speaks forth another” (Berg, x). Readers want to be able to relate to the work and not simply hear stories and morals. One manner in which poetry is able to connect to the readers is through the voice of the poem.
When it is sincere, voice is incredibly powerful and persuasive because it holds great sway and power over the reader. While it can be difficult to fully immerse poems with sincerity, once this is accomplished a “poem can be about anything and still include anyone” (Berg, ix). This is what makes a great and memorable poem. Frank O’Hara published a collection of his works, Meditations in an Emergency, back in 1957. Decades later, readers are still captured and fascinated by his voice. While the specific topic of his poems vary greatly throughout his work, his voice remains iconic.
Recently, the work of Frank O’Hara was featured in an episode show of Mad Men, reintroducing the general public to the work of this significant poet. O’Hara is able to utilize his voice in a most sincere and genuine manner, resonating in the minds and souls of his readers. This is established in the poems To the Harbormaster, Meditations in an Emergency and For Grace, After a Party. By examining these poems, it is possible to clarify exactly how and why O’Hara is able to speak “through fewer and fewer masks until the truth and the reader are one” (Berg, x). Each of these poems is unique and artistic in its own manner.
The subject of the poems vary, but the voice is still very clear throughout every piece. Not only is the voice distinct, it is also familiar and welcoming. The everyday voice that is used by O’Hara, specifically in these three poems, allows the speaker to appear ordinary and relatable. Dennis writes in his essay “The Voice of Authority”, poetry is not intended to imply that the most confident of speakers is the most persuasive (Dennis, 15). Readers rarely wish to be talked down to, condescended to or otherwise insulted.
They want to be on the same level as the speaker or character in the poetry they read because that connection is what makes poetry effective. In many instances, readers are drawn to poems whose voices are relatable and lack any kind of arrogance. To the Harbormaster is a particularly powerful piece because of its voice. This apology for one’s own slights and imperfections is something to anyone can relate. The metaphor created is between the boat and the body.
Likewise, the sea represents life. The harbormaster is an entity which is present and oversees everything, but which has no direct impact on what happens. This could be a god, a goddess, a loved one, one’s intended or anything abstract like that.
The reader can decide how to best relate to the poem on their own. The harbormaster is important, but undefined by O’Hara, which allows it to become relevant in the mind of the individual reader. When addressing the harbormaster, the speaker in the poem is apologetic, explaining a delay and change of plans. There was always something coming up and keeping the speaker and the harbormaster apart. Depending on the way the poem is read, it could be religious in nature or it could be written to a loved one. However, there is a primary aspect to the poem to which almost any audience member could relate.
The speaker acknowledges their own faults and vanities. The speaker is very aware of the fact that they probably made some mistakes. “Though my ship was on the way it got caught up on some moorings” (O’Hara, 1). This line in particular is effective at being sincere and, thus, closing the gap of emotional distance as explained in Berg’s essay (Berg, ix). It is unlikely that there is anyone who has not experienced being “caught” in one manner or another; effectively changing their intended plans. “I am always tying up and then deciding to depart” (O’Hara, 1). Very few people have a proposed plan for their life that
they never changes; however, this line would be particularly striking among those who have trouble setting a plan of any sort. The adventures may have brought the speaker to unintended places, but the speaker is still happy to have made the most of these adventures. Nonetheless, the speaker is quick to point out their own flaws and offer him or herself, unchanged, to the harbormaster and the sea. Deep down, almost everyone realizes they are not perfect, as the speaker does, but the speaker is humorous and accepting of their own flaws.
The speaker accepts everything, their mortality, the inevitableness of their death, and the fact that the speaker’s true love may never be fully captured. Whatever the reader can imagine, the speaker is accepting and this can be applicable and therefore relatable to almost anyone, if not everyone. However, for all its impressive aspects involving the voice, there are specific flaws to the poem.
Most notably, very few poets or critics would start a line with “and”. However, O’Hara writes, “and then deciding to depart” (O’Hara, 1). Still, this emphasizes the very important point that it is the voice, and not necessarily the form and structure of the poem, which impacts the reader. Meditations in an Emergency continues this.
Not only does a line of the poem, “(and how the same names keep recurring…)” start with “and” again, it is preceded and ended with parenthesis (O’Hara, 38). This is not something that is structurally and formally encouraged in poetry and yet, O’Hara makes it work because of the voice of the poem. Later, “(How best discourage her? )” emphasizes O’Hara’s reliance on parenthesis, which he uses in his poem although still likely disliked by critics (O’Hara, 38). The poem, in so many ways, exceeds the personality and therefore the limitations of the writer.
To this extent, the poem becomes a concept not having to do with the speaker or the poet, but rather one having to do with the individual reader of the piece (Berg, ix). People often start on one idea and quickly their thought process is briefly altered, before they get back on track again. Thus, the parenthesis and the usage of the word “and” to begin a line seem very humanistic in nature. The parenthesis help to emphasize a side note and the use of the word “and” to start a line is something informal and understandable to those who do not obsess over the “rules of poetry”.
As one might imagine, Meditations in an Emergency is the brief moment in time where something chaotic happens to the speaker, a type of emergency.
While it is not specifically stated what happens, it can be assumed that it was romantic. Since few people are lucky enough to be successful at everything, this again allows readers the opportunity to relate to the speaker. In addition, very few people automatically fall in love and stay in love, therefore almost everyone will relate to a romantic failure. The speaker explains “Each time my heart is broken” (O’Hara, 38). This heartbreaking experience is something that has happened to the narrator repeatedly.
The speakers has emotionally invested themselves in something over and over again and it has repeatedly not worked out. The speaker is not an individual who has love, or at least this is not the reality expressed in the poem. Rather, in this isolated moment, the speaker becomes someone that anyone can relate to through the rejection.
They are a common individual who has suffered and been denied. In the end, the speaker feels defeated. They do not know whether to assume an inconsiderate personality or a religious one; they simply want to be loved and accepted as they are. The speaker in Meditations in an Emergency seems sarcastic and cold, despite the fact that their adoration and affection emphasizes all of the speaker’s comments.
To this extent, they are human and have their flaws. They speak out without forethought. Again, this is a perfect example of the speaker being only human. They do not speak through masks and use perfect or flowing words. Masks, as discussed by Berg, are something that disrupts the poet and creates distance between the speaker and the reader. Due to the convincing and sincere voice of the speaker, O’Hara is able to avoid this. “I am always looking away. Or again at something after it has given me up” (O’Hara, 38).
The longing expressed in this is so universal and simple; these lines are extremely powerful and moving without being fake or detached. Lastly, throughout For Grace, After a Party, the audience is exposed to a hopelessness most can relate to. Similar to the defeated feelings expressed in Meditations in an Emergency, there is no hero. There is no perfect character.
There is only the speaker, with not just apparent flaws as expressed in To the Harbormaster, there are significant slights. For example, the speaker is unable to emotionally connect with the subject of the poem. This is a common problem in relationships; either partner is unhappy about communication within the relationship.
Once more, O’Hara successfully utilizes the word “and” to begin a line, “And isn’t it odd? ” (O’Hara, 17). This does seem like something someone would say in a stream of consciousness, such as when writing a new poem. The free form of the poem also works to relax the reader; as with the other poems, the reader does not see a strict poetic structure. Those who are both familiar or unfamiliar with poetry can both feel comfortable with the structure of the poem since it is so unimposing and it allows the voice to flow and be free.
One of the most powerful aspects of Frank O’Hara’s work that frequently occurs in all three poems is “the influence of that vague inner state, a singular emotional direction that rises out of no clear known source and gives each poem its inevitability, necessity and sincerity” (Berg, xii). There is no clear explanation for any of these three poems.
There is no real start or finish. They exist in the moment in which they are written and the beauty of the work is that these things can be enjoyed without any explanation. “Moods ultimate result is to allow the reader to trust the speaker, to listen, to participate and be moved” (Berg, xii). Frank O’Hara may not have been a master when it comes to form and structure, at least according to classical thought regarding poetry, but he was skilled when it came to relating to the audience. Specifically, O’Hara was able to overcome his own limitations and personality to appeal to a variety of audiences.
The speakers of his poems are unique, while maintaining the relationship O’Hara has with his readers. Since being written in the first half of the 1900’s, Frank O’Hara’s work is still relatable, enjoyed and sought after to this day. Whether one is reading a singular poem by O’Hara or his whole work, his skillful use of voice is inviting to the reader, encouraging them to continue reading his poems.