Poems by Frank O’Hara and Roger Reeves and Another Poem by Ocean Vuong, Plus a Generative Writing Adventure for Anyone Who Wants To Try It

American poet Frank O’Hara (1926-1966)

Katy

They say I mope too much
but really I’m loudly dancing.
I eat paper. It’s good for my bones.
I play the piano pedal. I dance,
I am never quiet, I mean silent.
Some day I’ll love Frank O’Hara.
I think I’ll be alone for a little while.

Frank O’Hara from The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, Alfred A. Knopf Inc., 1972

I have been enjoying the Fifth Living Room Craft Talk by marvelous American teacher and poet Ellen Bass. On Friday she shared , among others, two poems by American poets Roger Reeves and Ocean Vuong. These two poems I featured in a generative writing adventure I prepared for a ten-day poetry retreat at the La Romita School of Art in Umbria in 2017. Both the Vuong and Revves poems owed their genesis to the lovely lyric poem by Frank Hara above. Here below is my 2017 discussion of all three poems and a writing adventure at the end.

“Often, a line from a poem becomes a great launching off place for your own poem. This is where the mystery starts to take place. The place where you let go of control. The place where another voice meets you and becomes yours. Sometimes it is the line, only, that is what you are left with. At other times it is the whole poem that becomes a template for your own. An echo of form, of line break, of syntax but your own words. Some call this po-jacking.

Back in the 1960’s Frank O’Hara, an art curator and a key member of the so-called New York School of poets wrote a small poem in the voice of a small girl, a daughter of a friend. It’s not one of his better known poems but it has come into notice through two contemporary poems published in the past few years that have po-jacked O’Hara’s poem, have used the line, Someday I’ll love Frank O’Hara or part of it, as the title in theirs.

A few months ago I came across the poem Someday I’ll Love – by the gay Vietnamese American poet Ocean Vuong and saw that it was after (based on a line) a poem of not just O’Hara but also Roger Reeves, an African American. Sent me scrambling to find both the Roger Reeves poem as well as the O’Hara poem. In that scramble I discovered that both Reeves and Vuong turned the O’Hara’s poem into a more personal lyric journey about their lives whereas in the O’Hara poem it is Katy, the eponymous narrator of the poem who says someday I will love Frank O’Hara.


Such a great line to steal as a title for a poem. And that will be the challenge for this poetry adventure: to write a poem with the O’Hara line as the title or buried somewhere in the body of your poem and also to follow the image-full lyric nature of all three of the poems. But before you do I want to share the O’Hara, Vuong and Reeves’ poems.

There is a whimsy in O’Hara’s fantastical small poem, Katy. A little girl, Katy, accused of moping but instead has a lively inner life and imagination. No moping. Lots of strange and surreal images. Loudly dancing, eating paper (with the aside, it’s good for the bones), playing the piano pedal and the unexpected last two lines that seem to come out of nowhere yet, in some way, not really. We are seeing inside the mind of a child, one who comes out of her active inner life to explain something and then dives back in: I think I’ll be alone for a little while. Marvelous, this capture of a lyric moment in the life of a child.

While I would call Katy a lyric poem (no obvious narrative) O’Hara is famous for his disarming poems that feel like grab-all bags that pull the reader in with all their rich detail and narrative continuity and then often add a lyric twist for good measure.

American poet Roger Reeves (1980 -). Photo Credit: Beowulf Sheehan

In Katy, O’Hara gives us lyric moments. Reeves and Vuong do the same with their poems which after all are “after” O’Hara but they stretch the logical connections of their images even further. This approach, while startling and arresting, risks losing the reader. Especially when there is no obvious narrative to hang on to.

B.F.Fairchild, the wonderful American Narrative poet, says something in craft lectures from 2009 that feels critical to understanding poetry, particularly a poetry of images and discontinuity: Mystery need to be inside the room of a poem but the reader needs a path to the room and to see the door.

I stay with Reeves and Vuong because of their titles that feel like both path and door to the room of their poems. First, here is Reeves’s poem:


Someday I’ll Love Roger Reeves

Until then, let us have our gods and short prayers. Our obligations.
Our thighbone connected to our knee bone.

Our dissections and our swans. Our legs gashed
upon a barbwire fence and our heels tucked behind a lover’s knees.
Let us have a stalk of sugarcane to suck

and another to tear our backs with what it knows of disaster
and a tadpole’s folly. Let us have mistakes

and fish willing to come to a bell rung across a body of water.
let us have our drawbridges and our moats. Our heavens
no higher than a pile of dead leaves. Let us have irrelevance

and a scalpel. A dislocated ankle and three more miles to run.
A plastic bottle to hold nothing but last names and a chill.

If none of this will be remembered, the let us keep speaking
with tongues light as screen doors clapping shut
on a child’s finger. For there is love. To press

one frame against another
and when something like a finger is found between the pressing

to press nevertheless. For this is our obligation.
Let us forget our obligations. For this is love.
Let us forget our love. Our eyelids’ need for beginnings
and ends and blood. Our coils of hunger
that turn another into dried honey on our hands.
And what if this goes on forever—our ours?
Our drafts and fragments? Our blizzards and our cancers?
Then let us. Then, let us hold each other toward heaven
and forget that we were once made of flesh,
that this is the fall our gods refuse to clean with fire or water.

Roger Reeves from King Me, Copper Canyon Press, 2013

Reeves’ light hearted tone and images at the poem’s beginning throw me inside his poem’s room and his title to mix metaphors also becomes a candle to light up the room when I get a bit lost. I remember this poem is about someone one day loving themselves.

Do these images then give a clue as to why he doesn’t love himself right now? For me the big clue comes in the line that talks of obligation. Our obligation (do we accept or refuse it?) to live in a topsy turvey world of miracles and mishaps (fish coming to a call of bells, a dislocated ankle and three more miles to run and legs gashed by a barbwire fence). And even more difficult our obligation to press toward love even if it feels like pressing a child’s finger between door and frame. His last lines:

Then, let us hold each other toward heaven
and forget that we were once made of flesh,
that this is the fall our gods refuse to clean with fire or water.

Oh, how these lines hve me stumble out of the poem, still bewildered but glad I had a visit. Is that not a moment out of time: this need to hold each other in spite of a chaotic and suffering world. To reach for a heaven, holding each other, from a world where even the gods (God) appear to abandon us.

Vuong’s poem is less specific in the title: it could mean he will someday love himself or that someday he will be able to love but not quite yet.

Someday I’ll Love –

After Frank O’Hara / After Roger Reeves

Ocean, don’t be afraid.
The end of the road is so far ahead
it is already behind us.
Don’t worry. Your father is only your father
until one of you forgets. Like how the spine
won’t remember its wings
no matter how many times our knees
kiss the pavement. Ocean,
are you listening? The most beautiful part
of your body is wherever
your mother’s shadow falls.
Here’s the house with childhood
whittled down to a single red tripwire.
Don’t worry. Just call it horizon
& you’ll never reach it.
Here’s today. Jump. I promise it’s not
a lifeboat. Here’s the man
whose arms are wide enough to gather
your leaving. & here the moment,
just after the lights go out, when you can still see
the faint torch between his legs.
How you use it again & again
to find your own hands.
You asked for a second chance
& are given a mouth to empty into.
Don’t be afraid, the gunfire
is only the sound of people
trying to live a little longer. Ocean. Ocean,
get up. The most beautiful part of your body
is where it’s headed. & remember,
loneliness is still time spent
with the world. Here’s
the room with everyone in it.
Your dead friends passing
through you like wind
through a wind chime. Here’s a desk
with the gimp leg & a brick
to make it last. Yes, here’s a room
so warm & blood-close,
I swear, you will wake—
& mistake these walls
for skin.

Ocean Vuong from The New Yorker, 2014

Vietnamese American poet Ocean Vuong (1988 -). Photo Credit: The Oxford Student

What a love poem to himself. So many lyric moments in startling images that also suggest, but only suggest a narrative. Elements of his life. It helps to know that Vuong (the speaker) had a violent father and he’s gay. With that knowledge and the title the poem opens up even more. This journey from violence, from trying to find love (graphic images of love making on his knees) to this call of love: Ocean, Ocean/ get up. The most beautiful part of your body is where its headed. And what a hopeful reminder: & remember,/ loneliness is still time spent/ with the world.

Now, back to the invitation of this poetry adventure. Using the O’Hara line and following the lyric impulses and unexpected images of the O’Hara, Vuong and Reeves poems, write your poem. But above all have fun let your mind be like Katy’s and jump around. Let strange images dance and sing inside your poem about someday loving yourself. And, oh yes, don’t forget after your title to put: After Frank O’Hara/ After Roger Reeves/ After Ocean Vuong!”

2 Comments