"Okay I'll Call You/ Yes Call Me": Frank O'Hara's "Personism"
by Stephen Burt
Academic poets from the 1940s avoided manifestos like the proverbial plague; avowedly anti-academic poets from the 1950s therefore embraced them. The New American Poetry 1945-60 concludes with forty pages of statements on poetics, most of which now seem useful in inverse proportion to their length. Frank O'Hara in that volume called his contemporaries "a useful thorn to have in one's side" and said something that might strike his casual readers as surprisingly serious: "at times when I would rather be dead the thought that I could never write another poem has so far stopped me." O’Hara, in other words, took his poetry as seriously as anyone else whose poetry you'd want to spend a lot of time reading.
And yet, and yet: it’s hard to imagine O’Hara saying, as Wallace Stevens famously said, "a book of poems is a damned serious thing." It’s hard to imagine O’Hara saying, even, as William Carlos Williams said, that a mere poem felt like a bomb dropped on him. Part of the seriousness in O’Hara’s approach (as with Lord Byron or W. H. Auden) involved making much of his poetry seem tossed-off, personable, the evidence of a personality you'd go out of your way to encounter. (That he did have such a personality seems almost too good to be true.
O’Hara’s best-known and most tongue-in-cheek manifesto "Personism" came not in the New American pile-up but in the magazine Yugen, in September 1959. The magazine, like the manifesto, owes part of its existence to LeRoi Jones (now Amiri Baraka), a debt O'Hara acknowledged readily in the essay: Personism "was founded by me after lunch with LeRoi Jones." In actuality, it grew out of a love affair (not with Jones; probably with Vincent Warren) and consisted of the smitten O’Hara’s realization that love poems might not differ in intention, nor in effect, from phone calls: "I realized that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born." Poems, in other words, are only one kind of intimate communication, and ought to be at least as impressive, at least as personal perhaps, as the others (even if their forms differ). Every poem is or could be a "Personal Poem" (an O’Hara title), with an "I" and a "you," and a hope, not that Heaven will favor the poet, but that "one person out of the 8,000,000 is / thinking of me."
What I value most in "Personism" might just be its tone: "look," it says, "reading these things may not actually help you read poems, and it probably won’t help me write them, but isn’t it fun?" No thousand-word (no thirty-thousand-word) document can offer a set of rules as fruitful for readers as the countless, nameless unremembered acts, reflexes, habits and associations you can encounter by reading a lot of poems. You can start up more arguments, more discussions, through manifestos and claims about movements (I should know: I wrote one), but you can usually do more good in the long run by listening closely to individual poems.
What I value second-most in "Personism" is the way it serves as a backhanded guide to O’Hara’s own practice, and to one of the virtues in his poems, a slippery virtue which makes an aesthetic asset out of a psychological fact which usually interferes with fair reading and hearing. Like it or not, when you've met someone, and especially if you like them, you almost automatically bring more to, find yourself better-disposed towards, and hence take more from, think more of, that someone's writings. But no poet's work survives for long if it depends just on the judgment of personal friends, or even on our knowledge of the author's life (otherwise Oscar Wilde's sonnets would have as much currency as his plays). Most major poets, dead or alive (even those who refer frequently to their own lives: Wordsworth, Yeats, Rich, Lowell) stand up perfectly well if you don’t think much about what it would be like to meet them.
With O’Hara, though, you have to think about what it would be like to meet him: the poems almost cajole you into doing so, and you’ll be glad you did. O'Hara figured out how to get you to read his poems (even or especially if you’d never met him) not as you’d read other poems by other dead strangers, but more or less as you’d read poems by your close friends. The style O'Hara gradually invented (you can see it as early as "Autobiographia Literaria," though it doesn't take charge until maybe 1956) reverses the process by which you think more, get more from a poet's work, judge the work more sympathetically, give it more play, if you already and like the poet personally. Instead, O'Hara's poems give strangers the feeling that we know and like him.
That’s how a Personist poem works, and it’s why Personism isn’t (as I once believed) just a parody of manifestos, but a good way to describe what O’Hara invented, though not an explanation of why it works. O’Hara’s best poems come off informal, almost inordinately sympathetic, charmed, especially alert to comedy, intimately privileged. They leave me, at least, almost defensive (I want to explain away flaws in the work) but finally admiring (I look up to him, I want his approval, rather than wanting to help the poor guy, as when I read John Clare). Some of those feelings are just my reaction to talent, to what Walt Whitman called "personal force," and some are the feelings I ordinarily get about poetry (good or at least promising) by people I know.
That second set of feelings comprises the effect "Personism" really names. Confessional poetry (Life Studies, Heart’s Needle) also put the poem "between two persons instead of two pages," but in those books, attentive readers become not the poet’s friend but his or her therapist, hearing exactly the facts and reactions people do not ordinarily tell their friends. The Personist poem instead makes the reader a nearly intimate equal. (It’s tempting to see Personism, the style, as a reaction to Confessionalism, except that O’Hara invented his own style first.) "Personism" becomes both a manifesto and a parody of a manifesto, and if it seems to name a point of view which makes poems obsolete, it also names an aesthetic effect which only a few poets achieve.
Plenty of poets have learned from O’Hara, and they’re not shy about saying so: how to emulate the exhilarating life of happy crowds, how to make poems that sound like New York, how to make words acknowledge the accomplishments of abstract visual art, how to "let our guard down" (yes, those are scare quotes), and how to emulate the energetic representational practice of post-abstract painters such as Larry Rivers. Plenty of devices all too common in today’s young poets have exempla in O’Hara: "I am a mural / you are two big cows hanging your head / I am / a liver an orator," he declares in "Seven Nine Seven". And yet I can think of just one living poet whose poems not only treat readers as near-but-not-quite-intimate-equals, but consistently, through tone and pace internal to the verse, encourage me to hear and judge his work by the inevitably-more-generous standards I normally give (however much I try to resist doing so) only to poems by my friends: that poet is Albert Goldbarth. What does he know that I don’t?