Fiction as Reality in Frank O’ Hara

This is a paper I wrote on Frank O’ Hara, a gay American poet. Wrote it in about an hour and a half if I remember correctly. I got an A along with heaps of praise from my professor, who officially became my fan after reading this paper. I’ve never had such an attentive professor. We spoke after class and I found her to be rather insightful. She understood me and quickly saw with clarity where I am coming from, who I am. With her encouragement, she changed my infatuation with screenplays into one for novels. I’ll write more about that tomorrow. Anyway, here’s the paper I wrote (with links to the poems where first referenced).

Many of Frank O’ Hara’s poems are written in the first person. They often give an inside look of the mind of the narrator during a specific moment. The question is whether or not fictions are more credible than realities. To address that question, let us first define what should be deemed a fiction and what can be considered a reality. Merriam-Webster defines fiction as “something invented by the imagination or feigned.” Alternatively, it is “an assumption of a possibility as a fact irrespective of the question of its truth.” Fiction by its nature is not a dependable account, thought it can be rooted in the truth.

Then one must ask, what is truth? The dictionary tells us that it is the state of being fact, the body of real things. In other words, reality is a certain type of truth. Or perhaps truth is a certain type of reality. Reality is described as the quality or state of being real. Therein lies the conundrum. What is real?

Consider the reality of the first poem. The narrator arrives at an acquaintance’s home, finding himself the first on the scene of a grisly suicide. Yet the tone of the poem is almost whimsical. One might even say that there is a tinge of dark narcissism to the poem.

Let’s imagine that you are at a party. You meet someone who takes an interest in you and they wish to become friends. However, you are more or less dismissive of him. One day, you receive a note from this new acquaintance: “The eager note on my door said, ‘Call me, call when you get in!’” He is relatively unimportant to you: he is a rather casual acquaintance. So despite your best intentions, you make only lackadaisical efforts to get back to them. Several months later, you take him up on his offer to meet up. Perhaps you are in the neighborhood and only out of convenience do you stop by his home. You notice that the lights are on and the hall door is open at this hour. You enter the dwelling. And lo and behold you find that this acquaintance of yours is lying flat on his back, with blood flowing prodigiously down the stairs.

Most people would be horrified at such a discovery. They would mourn the tragic loss of someone they knew, even if it was someone they knew only in passing. Most people are deeply and very emotionally impacted upon learning that someone they knew committed suicide. Suicide is an immensely affective event, one that touches most everyone connected to the victim, leaving them with the lingering question of, “Why?”

However, we see here that the narrator is not one such person. Instead of a tone of sadness, he takes on an almost whimsical attitude, irrespective of the finality of the event he just stumbled upon. Take the following line, “…oh all unwilling to be either pertinent or bemused, but the leaves were brighter than grass on the sidewalk!” Unwilling to be either pertinent (in other words having a logical relevance) or bemused (absorbed, baffled, or deeply thoughtful) brings attention to this whimsical attitude. As he makes his way to the house, he observes the late hour of the night and takes compliment that his host is awaiting his arrival: “What a host, so zealous!” Continuing on, he finally reveals his narcissistic nature by commenting that he appreciated such a thoroughly prepared greeting for a guest, especially one that kept him waiting for months. Instead of a reverent respect for the departed, he has a morbid selfishness. He does not ask why the man took his own life. He presumes to know the answer to that already. By saying, “I did appreciate it,” O’Hara implies that he believes that the man’s act of suicide was done for him.

And it is in this fashion that O’Hara shapes reality. Fictions of the mind are far more credible than the world presented to us in reality. As Taoism suggests, there are as many worlds as there are living things. For each fish in a pond, there is another world. O’Hara manages to present to us a suicide in the light of capriciousness. In that poem, the truth that is presented to us is one in which a man committed suicide in order to impress him. We are not presented with any other truths. However, as readers we can form our own ideas of the truth and react in a way different from the narrator, therefore creating our own reality.

Let us now examine Meditations in an Emergency. The entire poem is again written in first person, through O’Hara’s (or some imagined narrator’s) eyes. It is essentially an account of his emotional reaction to matters of the heart, something that happened to him that created an emotionally tumultuous moment. However, he also speaks on many tangents of the elusive topic of love and romance. In this poem, there is a reality that is created in his mind (a type of fiction if you will), and then there are the actual events that transpired. In the stanza beginning with, “Each time my heart is broken,” we can deduce that he has gone through something of a romantic break-up that resulted in his heartbreak. In all likelihood, it was the denial of the object of his affections to remain loyal and committed to him (“Why should I share you?”).

If we were to look strictly at the facts, we could only see that he was attempting to go steady with his romantic partner. In this endeavor, he was denied. And that would be the end of the discussion. There would be no poem, only a “just the facts ma’am” type of account. However, if you examine the poem beyond only what is presented to you as reality (or the objective truth), O’Hara provides a rich but convoluted image of his emotions.

This poem is not only about his failed romantic affair. If we were to strip away everything but the facts, then we would miss out on the struggle with his sexuality (“Heterosexuality! you are inexorably approaching. How discourage her?”) We would not be able to see his internal monologue about unrequited love or his wandering eyes. The fiction of his mind is just as important as the events that factually (though whose accuracy isstill argua ble and open to interpretation) happened. The fiction of his mind is his perceived reality, which is one’s own ultimate measure of credibility. If we were to attempt to figure out just what happened in Meditations in an Emergency, it would be a safe bet to say that there would be many different interpretations. Each of these interpretations can be a truth in its own right, its own separate reality. And so these worlds are no more valid than each other, with each one holding its own truth.

The simple act of picking up a leaf in the poem Les Etiquettes Jaunes, as short as it is, would not mean very much if we did not accept the fictions of our minds as a certain kind of reality. The childish wonder that is expressed in the poem represents O’Hara’s emotional state at that particular moment. Who are we to question the veracity of the poem? We must accept his reality to be truth in order to attempt to analyze, understand, and even question the poem. Without this acceptance, nothing ever expressed holds any value whatsoever. Les Etiquettes Jaunes would be nothing more than three lines describing a single action if we are to adhere to a strict definition of what is to be considered reality.

Poetry is subjective and open to interpretation. The meaning behind many of O’Hara’s poems is elusive. As we search for the truth in his words, we must ask ourselves: just how sound are these ideas that are put forth for us to read? How truthful is this reality that lies in front of our eyes? Did that suicide victim really kill himself for O’Hara? What really happened to O’Hara in Meditations in an Emergency? The truth that we may find isn’t any more real or dependable just because we deduce certain things from the text. Because the world is a reflection of our perceptions, there is no single truth, no single unified reality. Ultimately, the fictions of our minds are the truths that make our reality, making reality that much more elusive.

Apparently, the first poem I mentioned is entitled (perhaps not by the O’ Hara himself but by someone else) “Call Me”. On the next page are all the poems.

Meditations in an Emergency
Am I to become profligate as if I were a blonde? Or religious
as if I were French?

Each time my heart is broken it makes me feel more adventurous
(and how the same names keep recurring on that interminable
list!), but one of these days there’ll be nothing left with
which to venture forth.

Why should I share you? Why don’t you get rid of someone else
for a change?

I am the least difficult of men. All I want is boundless love.

Even trees understand me! Good heavens, I lie under them, too,
don’t I? I’m just like a pile of leaves.

However, I have never clogged myself with the praises of
pastoral life, nor with nostalgia for an innocent past of
perverted acts in pastures. No. One need never leave the
confines of New York to get all the greenery one wishes–I can’t
even enjoy a blade of grass unless i know there’s a subway
handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not
totally _regret_ life. It is more important to affirm the
least sincere; the clouds get enough attention as it is and
even they continue to pass. Do they know what they’re missing?
Uh huh.

My eyes are vague blue, like the sky, and change all the time;
they are indiscriminate but fleeting, entirely specific and
disloyal, so that no one trusts me. I am always looking away.
Or again at something after it has given me up. It makes me
restless and that makes me unhappy, but I cannot keep them
still. If only i had grey, green, black, brown, yellow eyes; I
would stay at home and do something. It’s not that I’m
curious. On the contrary, I am bored but it’s my duty to be
attentive, I am needed by things as the sky must be above the
earth. And lately, so great has _their_ anxiety become, I can
spare myself little sleep.

Now there is only one man I like to kiss when he is unshaven.
Heterosexuality! you are inexorably approaching. (How best
discourage her?)

St. Serapion, I wrap myself in the robes of your whiteness
which is like midnight in Dostoevsky. How I am to become a
legend, my dear? I’ve tried love, but that holds you in the
bosom of another and I’m always springing forth from it like
the lotus–the ecstasy of always bursting forth! (but one must
not be distracted by it!) or like a hyacinth, “to keep the
filth of life away,” yes, even in the heart, where the filth is
pumped in and slanders and pollutes and determines. I will my
will, though I may become famous for a mysterious vacancy in
that department, that greenhouse.

Destroy yourself, if you don’t know!

It is easy to be beautiful; it is difficult to appear so. I
admire you, beloved, for the trap you’ve set. It’s like a
final chapter no one reads because the plot is over.

“Fanny Brown is run away–scampered off with a Cornet of Horse;
I do love that little Minx, & hope She may be happy, tho’ She
has vexed me by this exploit a little too.–Poor silly
Cecchina! or F:B: as we used to call her.–I wish She had a
good Whipping and 10,000 pounds.”–Mrs. Thrale

I’ve got to get out of here. I choose a piece of shawl and my
dirtiest suntans. I’ll be back, I’ll re-emerge, defeated, from
the valley; you don’t want me to go where you go, so I go where
you don’t want me to. It’s only afternoon, there’s a lot
ahead. There won’t be any mail downstairs. Turning, I spit in
the lock and the knob turns.

Call Me
The eager note on my door said “Call me,”
call when you get in!” so I quickly threw
a few tangerines into my overnight bag,
straightened my eyelids and shoulders, and

headed straight for the door. It was autumn
by the time I got around the corner, oh all
unwilling to be either pertinent or bemused, but
the leaves were brighter than grass on the sidewalk!

Funny, I thought, that the lights are on this late
and the hall door open; still up at this hour, a
champion jai-alai player like himself? Oh fie!
for shame! What a host, so zealous! And he was

there in the hall, flat on a sheet of blood that
ran down the stairs. I did appreciate it. There are few
hosts who so thoroughly prepare to greet a guest
only casually invited, and that several months ago.

Les éttiquettes jaunes
I picked up a leaf
today from the sidewalk.
This seems childish.
Leaf! you are so big!
How can you change your
color, then just fall!
As if there were no
such thing as integrity!
You are too relaxed
to answer me. I am too
frightened to insist.
Leaf! don’t be neurotic
like the small chameleon.