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The Critic

April 9, 2015

I’ve been reading poems by Frank O’Hara since early February, when my Writing Center colleague Jill Stephen came to Kenyon with her co-author David Rosenwasser to talk about ways to use their book Writing Analytically and she incidentally mentioned that she was teaching all of Frank O’Hara’s poems during spring semester. It seemed the time for me to embark on reading O’Hara.

O’Hara was a poet who wrote down everything, not just ideas that struck him as particularly poetic or illuminating–not always a leaf as a metaphor, but sometimes just a thought about what it might mean for him to pick up a leaf. What we might need to keep up with, he pointed out, is not the reason why a chestnut tree looks like it’s “about to flame or die,” but the details of everyday life:
“We must keep interested in foreign stamps,
railway schedules, baseball scores, and
abnormal psychology, or all is lost.”
Life is full of big feelings, many of these poems say, but you don’t have to let them take you over. You can examine them by the handful and keep your hands in your pockets the rest of the time.

And so I got to a poem about me and what I do here. I’m a reader and a writer of criticism. Since I don’t concentrate on my favorite genre, like Jo Walton, I can’t follow in her footsteps to say What Makes This Book So Great about everything I read. What I’m doing comes from the old idea of a commonplace book, a place to gather the best quotations from what I’ve read with my thoughts about them in order to help those thoughts develop. And of course it’s fun, talking about books, especially when other readers join in. There’s always the possibility, though, that I’m going to expose my ignorance by missing something, or one of my obsessions by reading way too much into something else.

Here’s O’Hara’s poem:

The Critic

I cannot possibly think of you
other than you are: the assassin

of my orchards. You lurk there
in the shadows, meting out

conversation like Eve’s first
confusion between penises and

snakes. Oh be droll, be jolly
and be temperate! Do not

frighten me more than you
have to! I must live forever.

Being an assassin in someone’s orchard makes my mind jump to the Assassin’s song from the musical Blondel:
“They were tortured…in the orchard
It was messy with fruit but I have improved since then.”
And then the refrain: “I’m an A double s A double S.…yes, I’m an asparagus!”
Oh yes, you writers. I’m the comic but deadly figure of your nightmares.

But wait…I’m “meting out conversation” as if I’m the boss and nobody else is allowed to talk about any other topic–and the conversation will be about phallic figures, which any critic knows means anything longer than it is wide any day.

Then I’m intreated (oh, I like that) to be droll. But wait, how can I be both droll and jolly? First one, then the other… and finally, temperate? Like I’m keeping my hands in my pockets in between showing you what’s in them? (String, or nothing.)

“Do not/frighten me more than you/have to” the writer pleads, although surely the potential to live forever lies with others. What may frighten you, good writer whom I’m approaching with the half of a peach, pit out, is not what may frighten others away from the continuing conversation about you, wherein lies the seed–the pit, as you see it—of your possible immortality.

I love the whimsy of this poem, the slightness of it, the fear and the ambiguity and the promise. Surely it is critics who, talking about the works of others, can make “a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven” with their audacity.

It’s in the details of my everyday life that you can see the effect words can have on a person. That’s what I’m here to tell you… amid airline schedules and chess scores.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. April 10, 2015 10:10 am

    What a great poem, Jeanne, and I loved reading your thoughts about it. Poetry is so hard to talk about. Have you ever read Al Alvarez? I really admire the way he does it, as if he were talking about something completely ordinary and everyday, no change of tone, which is much as you do it, really!

    • April 10, 2015 11:11 am

      I have not read Al Alvarez, but I looked him up and like his poem “Love Affair,” which starts with “the sun sees many flowers, but the flower sees only the sun.”
      Poetry is completely ordinary if you think about it enough.
      One of my goals in life is to become like Mrs. Which, speaking only in quotations.

  2. April 11, 2015 6:20 pm

    It’s funny that you mention Frank O’Hara, since he came up pretty frequently in a book I just finished (Smash Cut by Brad Gooch). I think Gooch even write a biography of O’Hara, but I could be wrong on that one. Either way, delightful poem.

    • April 11, 2015 9:16 pm

      Yes, Gooch did write a bio entitled City Poet (I looked it up).
      Glad you enjoyed the poem!

  3. April 13, 2015 11:22 am

    I love this one in particular, especially given how appropriate it is to how I feel about a book club member right now. This member has a tendency not to temper statements and I think they come off more harshly than she intends, but that might be me thinking optimistically.

    • April 13, 2015 11:40 am

      I do that all the time, talking about books–someone takes something I’ve said much more harshly than I meant it. But I like the half-a-peach metaphor about such harsh statements. If I come at an author with my dripping, eviscerated peach of a statement about something he/she did or didn’t do, that’s just one criticism from one person. Even if it’s a legitimate criticism, it may not be what others notice and remember. The author may focus on it and feel like it’s a dark, yawning pit of criticism when maybe it’s just a seed of something I would have liked, but that wouldn’t have pleased that many other people in the world.

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