Monday, May 9, 2011

Writing Prompt #8: The O'Hara-esque Walk Poem

The late Frank O'Hara, a key member of the New York School's first generation, had an all-too-brief poetic career — he was tragically killed in a freak accident in 1966 — and yet he left behind a prodigious body of work, largely because he successfully integrated his writing habits into his daily life, creating a characteristic style.  Here's the poet's tongue-in-cheek back cover blurb to one of his best known collections, Lunch Poems

Often this poet, strolling through the noisy splintered glare of a Manhattan noon, has paused at a sample Olivetti to type up thirty or forty lines of ruminations, or pondering more deeply has withdrawn to a darkened ware- or firehouse to limn his computed misunderstandings of the eternal questions of life, coexistence, and depth, while never forgetting to eat lunch, his favorite meal.

O'Hara's peripatetic style is often shorthanded as "I do this, I do that," and one of his best known poems in this style is "The Day Lady Died," written upon hearing news of the passing of jazz singer Billie Holiday, also known as Lady Day:

The Day Lady Died

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton   
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun   
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets   
in Ghana are doing these days
                                           I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)   
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life   
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine   
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do   
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or   
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and   
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue   
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and   
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

A few other favorites written in this style are "A Step Away From Them" and "Personal Poem," and you can see traces of this style in the work of Ted Berrigan, particularly in poems like "Today in Ann Arbor" and (in a very compact form) "10 Things I Do Every Day":

10 Things I Do Every Day

wake up
smoke pot
see the cat
love my wife
think of Frank
eat lunch
make noises
sing songs
go out
dig the streets
go home for dinner
read the Post
make pee-pee
two kids
read books
see my friends
get pissed-off
have a Pepsi

Part of the beauty of this style is its all-inclusiveness — this form admits all occurrences and emotions, and it's list-like order is set up beautifully for experiments with flow, pacing, repetition, etc.  The everyday events of your life can have great poetic resonance and the people who surround you can be just as interesting in their humanness as grand heroic figures.  The trick, in part, is finding the aesthetic in the mundane, and letting your ear (and eye) guide you through your world, finding the interesting elements, the names, sounds, sights and bits of speech that will make your poem feel both true to your life but also engaging to your reader.

So for this week, I'd like you to play around a little with this form, finding poetry in your daily routines.  Use the O'Hara and Berrigan poems as inspirations, but feel free to adapt the form however you see fit to match your own needs.

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