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"The / profile of a city / exploding": Frank O’Hara’s Aesthetics of Shock

Olivier Brossard
p. 215-228


Dans le cadre d’une étude du lyrisme dans l’œuvre poétique de Frank O’Hara (1926-1966), cet article se propose d’explorer la relation du poème (et de la subjectivité qui s’y révèle) à la ville. Dans le tumulte de Manhattan, l’expérience urbaine se fait sur le mode de la collision. Au fil des poèmes s’affirme une esthétique du choc : le sujet lyrique qui trace ses itinéraires le long des rues et avenues de New York ne cesse d’"accuser le coup", sans qu’à aucun moment l’agressivité du milieu urbain soit regrettée. Au contraire, l’animation parfois violente de la ville est vitale pour O’Hara : de kaléidoscope à sismographe, le "je" des poèmes se fait porteur, pour son bonheur, des chocs urbains. A partir du début des années soixante, O’Hara écrit des poèmes baptisés "For Your Information Poems", dans lesquels l’esthétique du choc porte non plus seulement sur le récit d’une journée en ville mais affecte la grammaire et la structure même du texte: le poète aère ses poèmes, précipite les mots les uns contre les autres et forme de nouveaux agrégats. Tout se décompose et se recompose dans l’architecture du poème et la syntaxe de la ville. Etre en ville, pour Ο’Hara, c’est accepter qu’elle nous fasse violence, c’est ne tenir aucune relation—qu’elle soit personnelle ou verbale—comme allant d’elle-même. Tout doit rester ouvert.

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1At the World Financial Center Plaza in downtown Manhattan, on the steel railing which overlooks the Hudson River, two quotations, one by Walt Whitman, the other by Frank O’Hara (1926-1966), are inscribed in bronze lettering. Whitman’s lines, "City of tall facades, of marble and iron-proud and passionate city-mettlesome, mad extravagant city!", ("City of Ships") are followed by an excerpt from O’Hara’s "Meditations in an Emergency": "One need never leave the confines of New York to get all the greenery one wishes" (O’Hara 197). In very little time, O’Hara has become one of the "poet[s] in New York" (Lorca). In a chapter of my doctoral study of lyricism in O’Hara’s work (University of Paris 7, 2006), I tried to question the many ways the poet inhabits the city, through the angle of subjectivity: O’Hara’s urban song is also a song of myself, however dissonant it may be.

Bump-along poems

  • 1 "Life on Earth", 156.

2By the mid-1950s, O’Hara has made New York City his home and the locus of his poetry: out of his poems emerges a poetic self constantly on the run, someone who "wish[es] to be quickened, yes, until [he] collapse[s] of nervousness".1 There are too many things to be seen in the city and not enough time for each of them; in the buoyant life of city streets, everything is set in perpetual motion:

the country is no good for us

there’s nothing

to bump into

or fall apart glassily

there’s not enough

poured concrete

and brassy

reflections (476-77)

3Far from being the source of all modern ills, the city is the best remedy to postwar anxiety: for existential crisis, go to the countryside, O’Hara seems to say, suggesting that the physical encounter with the streets and walls of the metropolis soothes one’s fear of emptiness. The city articulates the materiality of concrete and the immateriality of light reflected in metal: at once a massive landscape and a flashing presence, the urban environment absorbs man completely. An urban milieu is an apt name for New York City as things and beings become suspended particles, floating like the lines on the page, waiting for a new commotion to move again and reassemble in a new way. Such urban impermanence is not to be feared but desired: in his "I do this I do that" poems, O’Hara elaborates an aesthetics of shock. Existence is simultaneous, if not synonymous, with the experience of sustaining a shock ("to bump into"), of falling or even disintegrating. Such collisions are transcribed in the poems. The three lines "there’s nothing / to bump into / or fall apart glassily" enact a syntactical shock: one can read the first line by itself or decide to read the first two lines as part of the same sentence, in which case "nothing" becomes the object one collides with. However, when one reads the third line, "nothing" becomes the subject of the general collapse: "there’s nothing that falls apart glassily".

4In Frank O’Hara’s poetry, the self is constantly prodded by urban life: existence is measured to and against the rhythm of the city. The "I" finds substantial ontological evidence in the blows dealt by Manhattan. O’Hara is "a poet of modern life", the lyric self is a "lover of universal life", nowhere more at case than in the "enormous reservoir of electricity" of the city:

Thus the lover of universal life moves into the crowd as though into an enormous reservoir of electricity. He, the lover of life, may also be compared to a mirror as vast as this crowd: to a kaleidoscope endowed with consciousness.... It is an ego athirst for the non-ego, and reflecting it at every moment in energies more vivid than life itself, always inconstant and fleeting. (Baudelaire 395-422)

  • 2 "Il [ne] s’agit pas, comme dans l’autobiographie de refaire la genèse d’un individu ou de sa vocati (...)

5O’Hara’s work welcomes the idea of an "ego athirst for the non-ego" as his poems give the lyrical "I" its "alterity card".2 The city is the ideal place for the self to express and deny itself in its encounter with "energies more vivid than life itself, always inconstant and fleeting". With his "I do this I do that" poems, O’Hara turns his shocking urban encounters into a relentless quest for the "non-ego". In the multiplicity of Manhattan, calm and quiet are words which have no currency:

  • 3 "A Warm Day for December", 376.

I get in a phone booth on a corner
like a space ship
I like the people passing noisily by
blasting off
"I love you"
"I love you too"
then I open the door the sounds rush over me the people
but I am in the air
yet I follow 57
meeting Roy and Bill I drink Vermouth
we talk about the pleasantness distractions of New York
you’re almost there
th street3

6Even when sentimental, the overheard fragments of conversation morph into volleys fired at blank point: the poet first tries to protect himself by getting in a phone booth before deciding to join the ongoing skirmish, opening the door and surrendering (his body) to city sounds. The poem then takes a slightly ambiguous turn as words, juxtaposed, collide. Indeed, reading "then I open the door the sounds rush over me the people", one wonders whether people are also the victims of the unfurling sound wave; in which case one could add "and": "the sounds rush over me and the people". However, another reading becomes possible with a comma between "me" and "the people": "the sounds rush over me, the people..." First sounds, then people: the self also drowns in a human wave. As the line is written, the ambiguity is maintained and the poem stages the shock between "me" and "the people", whilst playfully hinting at the opening words of the American constitution "we the people", as if the lyrical "I" hoped to embrace the multitude of midtown Manhattan. The city offers the possibility of fusing the "ego" with the "non-ego" of the crowd, to the jolty rhythm of new encounters.

The kaleidoscope and the seismograph: urban reliefs

7"Moving through the traffic [of the big city] involves the individual in a series of shocks and collisions. At dangerous intersections, nervous impulses flow through him in rapid succession, like the energy from a battery" (Benjamin 190-91). In O’Hara’s work, similarly, the "I" finds itself on the receiving end of urban turmoil, as it becomes both a receptor and mirror of the effervescence of the city. In "For the Chinese New Year & for Bill Berkson" (1961), O’Hara uses a metaphor which echoes Baudelaire’s kaleidoscope:

it’s a strange curse my "generation" has we’re all
like the flowers in the Agassiz Museum perpetually ardent
don’t touch me because when I tremble it makes a noise
like a Chinese wind-bell it’s that I’m seismographic is all (392)

8The ardent nervousness of O’Hara’s generation calls for the metaphor of the self as a seismograph, a slightly different image from Baudelaire’s kaleidoscope: a seismograph is an apparatus which registers and transcribes vibrations. The "I" is seismographic on account of its extreme sensitivity: collisions are perceived so intensely they have to be jotted down, as if the poem were the transcription of the shock wave on the page, and words the ripple effect of experience.

9In many respects, O’Hara’s aesthetics banks on images and metaphors invented in the first half of the twentieth century to account for new theories of perception. Christoph Asendorf traces the seismograph metaphor back to Hugo von Hofmannsthal:

The writer is pure permeability. Withdrawn into soundlessness and inconspicuousness, he is wholly passive sensibility: "He lives, and lives ceaselessly, in the pressure of immeasurable atmospheres... ... He is like the seismograph that translates every jolt... into vibrations... ... His ceaseless activity is a searching for harmonies within himself, a harmonization of the world that he carries inside". [Hofmannsthal, 'Der dichter und diese zeit' (1906)] "Atmosphere" is here only an alternative expression for mood that implies the physical: the writer as seismograph of the moods of the time. Baudelaire’s artist, the kaleidoscope endowed with consciousness, seeks to process the shocks of reality—in Hofmannsthal a strategy of harmonization has been made of the enterprise. (Asendorf 183)

10Although the metaphor is similar, there is a difference between the purely permeable writer of Hofmannsthal and O’Hara’s brisk New York walker: the self of the "I do this I do that" poems can hardly be said to be "wholly passive". Furthermore, in processing the shocks of reality, it seems difficult to find in O’Hara’s work a similar "strategy of harmonization". O’Hara was too interested in the principles of dissonance to search for harmony: having learnt his lesson from the Surrealists, he knew that beauty should be jarring, if not convulsive. Therefore he had no particular desire to smooth things out: every thing—and being—should be presented in its abrupt alterity. In the city, the poet finds himself in a state of perpetual nervous excitement as each new encounter triggers off a different reaction: O’Hara adapts the kaleidoscope and seismograph metaphors to post-war New York City life. Shocks acquire an existential dimension; should they yield to a brief period of calm and quiet, depression settles in:

It’s eight in the morning
everyone has left
New York Times has put itself to bed on Wednesday

or Thursday and arrived
this morning I feel pale


how sad the lower East side is on Sunday morning in May


  • 4 "Early on Sunday", 404-5.

Joe stumbles home
pots and pans crash to the floor
everybody’s happy again

  • 5 "Meditations in an Emergency", 197.

11As prosaic as it may sound, the kitchen incident is the first sign that the energy of the city has not petered out: life is simmering again. In O’Hara’s poetry, happiness is a feeling one stumbles and bumps into, and unrest a vital stimulation, the sign "that people do not totally regret life".5

12O’Hara’s aesthetics of shock is fully developed from the mid-1950s onwards, especially in his "I do this I do that" poems. The seismographic self is the walker-about-town: the lyrical "I" becomes an urban mobile which records and transcribes its itineraries, its encounters, its motions and emotions. For O’Hara who disliked the peace and quiet of the countryside, nothing could be more pleasant than to come back to town and hit the street again:

  • 6 "Petit Poème en Prose", 427.

I was back in town!
what a relief!
I popped into the nearest movie-house and saw two marvelous Westerns

13Here, "relief" means the poet’s happiness to be back in town; however, the word can also be understood as the morphological contours of the cityscape, the accidental shape of the New York skyline. The two meanings of the word "relief"— "appeasement" and "sharpness of outline"—may seem paradoxical since the perception of such urban landscape is likely to move the self, as evidenced by the poet’s exclamation. Yet tranquility in O’Hara’s poetry shuns silence and solitude. "My quietness has a man in it", one of his most famous lines, opens "In Memory of My Feelings" (254): the self’s quietness is always a busy place.


14The best remedy for the self’s anxiety consists in seeking contact with the world. Walking in the city, hitting, being hit and running along, such is O’Hara’s response to the fear of death and of emptiness, as the poem "Walking" (1964) shows:

I get a cinder in my eye

it streams into

the sunlight

the air pushes it aside

and I drop my hotdog

into one of the Seagram Building’s


it is all watery and clear and windy

the shape of the toes as

it describes the pain

of the ball of the foot,

walking walking on


the strange embrace of the ankle’s


on the pavement

squared like mausoleums

but cheerful

moved over and stamped on

slapped by winds


15The particle of ash which gets into the eye triggers off a reaction which may seem disproportionate: the hotdog falls into the fountain. Urban movement is made of a series of shocks which lead to new commotions, a ceaseless chain reaction. "Bodies that strike the eyes, awaking sight. / ... To such degree from all things is each thing / Borne streamingly along, and sent about / To every region round; and nature grants / Nor rest nor respite of the onward flow, / Since ‘tis incessantly we feeling have" (Lucretius 143). ‘Tis incessantly the self feeling has: O’Hara’s conception of perception owes much to Lucretius whom he quotes in his Harvard notes. However, just because the self receives and perceives the vibrations of the world, does not mean that it is privileged in any way: the "I" lives among the beings and things of this world where blows are equitably dealt. In "Walking", the chain reaction reaches the street and the sidewalks which are trodden on and "slapped by winds". The self has its part to play in the great trade off of blows, in the unruly commotion of the city, as it redistributes some of the energy it was given. However, in the urban experience of shock, there is a foretaste of death as the foot treads a ground which will eventually become a final resting place: the paving stones are said to be "squared like mausoleums". Yet the awareness that death is but a shock away is not morbid but "cheerful", the poet writes. Death is just another jolt in a long series of bumps.

16The aesthetics of shock could be summed up by a new cogito: "I jostle my way through the city ergo sum". Walking is the key principle of O’Hara’s aesthetics. During its walks, the self blends into the crowd, joins the movement of all things and beings: embracing the rhythm of their appearances and disappearances, the seismographic "I" also acquires a foretaste of its own passing. The poet records his city walks and gives an account of his itinerary amongst greater movements. As the title of the poem "A Step Away from Them" indicates, the poet is only "a step away" from his dead friends. He is aware that his city walks arc part of a process which will ultimately lead to his own death. Walking allows the poet to stage, rehearse and exorcise his precocious awareness of death. Indeed, in the first three stanzas of the poem, Ο’Hara gives his bearings during his lunch hour walk: "First, down the sidewalk / ... Then onto the avenue / ... On / to Times Square..." (257-58, emphasis mine). In the fourth stanza, he repeats the same temporal conjunctions (first, then) condensed in three lines about the death of close friends:

Bunny died, then John Latouche,
then Jackson Pollock. But is the
earth as full as life was full, of them?
And one has eaten and one walks,
past the magazines with nudes
and the posters for BULLFIGHT and
the Manhattan Storage Warehouse
which they’ll soon tear down.
I used to think they had the Annory
Show there.

A glass of papaya juice
and back to work. My heart is in my
pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy. (257-58)

17Once stated, his friends’ deaths seem to be rapidly left behind, although not without difficulty as the "I" is abstracted into the impersonal pronoun "one". In spite of the prevailing sadness, these deaths become yet another stage in the poet’s walk, a mere moment in a broader cycle. The photographs of nudes hark back to his friends’ dead bodies, and the corrida posters conjure up images of hits and blows: the violent shock of Jackson Pollock’s deadly car accident is also indirectly hinted at. Lastly, the impending destruction of the Manhattan Warehouse is the sign that nothing remains in the city: for O’Hara, the last thing to do is to stop walking. He does not stop: once lunch is over, the poet goes back to work, accepting the dynamics and temporality of the workplace.

The city’s "nebulous vitality"

18In "Commercial Variations" (1952), Frank O’Hara writes that "In the city’s mouth if you’re hit in the eye it’s the sun / or a fist, no bushing around the truth, whatever that is" (86). The city is a space where things and beings trade off blows of various kinds, where truth (including truth about oneself) comes out of a series of frontal shocks. "No bushing": the urban environment exposes rather than protects the self: such exposure is more sought than feared by the poet, the only guarantee that life is worth living. At the end of "Thinking of James Dean" (1955), O’Hara writes that "... the city flatters meanings of [his] life [he] cannot find, // squeezing [him] like an orange for some nebulous vitality..." (231). Far from a complaint, this line looks forward to the constant pressure exerted on (and needed by) the self in the city. The expression "nebulous vitality" is particularly apt at describing the effect urban commotion has, not only thematically on the self but also syntactically on the poems themselves.

19In the early 1960s, Frank O’Hara wrote a series of poems which could be grouped under the heading "memorandum poems" or FYI poems. Seldom the focus of critical analysis, the FYI poems, as well as other poems written in the early 1960s, carry the aesthetics of shock from a thematic to a structural level: the nebulous vitality the city squeezes out of the poet’s urban persona is that of the words and lines weathering the metaphoric winds and blows of the city. The question for O’Hara was how to account for the seismographic nature of urban experience within language, how to fuel the poem with the energy of the city, how to write the impact of shocks into the grammar and syntax of the poem.

20Shortly before writing the FYI series, O’Hara begins to let air into his poems, spacing out words, questioning the connection between words and meanings, between words and words; "holes" are punctured in the lines as spaces sometimes interrupt grammatical clauses, announcing the disjunctions to come in his later poems. The air that fills the poems seems to come directly from the gusts of wind rushing down Manhattan avenues, as in "F.M.I. 6/25/61":

Park Avenue at 10:10


fragrant after-a-French-movie-rain is over

"and shine the stars"

Kupka buildings aren’t being built, damn it


... there’s a staggering grid


air cooling, rushing along

out of the Astor,

out of the Ritz, Godfrey

out of the Broadhurst Plaza... (410)

21The poem mixes thoughts about love, notes on food and remarks addressed to an indefinite you. Perhaps the difference with the art of literary collage is that this FYI poem does not seek to create a surprise effect by bringing various things and thoughts together; rather, it responds to the necessity of jotting things down before they are washed away with a new influx of urban stimuli. The FYI poems are memorandums, the registries of the thoughts and events that take place in the city, regardless of any other coherence than the matter-of-factness of the here and now. They can therefore be considered as "post-it poems", mere extensions of city life, directly tapping into the confusion and energy of Manhattan:

  • 7 "Muy Bien (F.Y.S.C.)", 414.


whew! I needed a push!

Hey! Halt! (I mean) stop! hurry up! the corner

of Madison and 57th is a very confusing place!

(waiting for you to call I thought your cook had died)7

22This does not mean that the FYI poems are necessarily about the city or even that they choose New York as their main theme; to read them however is to read the works of someone whose mind functions on the same wavelength as the hustle and bustle of a metropolis. In such poems the presence of the city is to be felt almost organically as if the poem dealt with its elements in the same way an urban center manages its ongoing traffic of vehicles and people, its flux of information. The architecture of the poem answers, if not mirrors, the syntax of the city: in O’Hara’s urban grammar, clauses are hit-and-run accidents.

Accidental architecture

23In the final movement of "F.M.I. 6/25/61", very few conjunctions or connecting words are used—except O’Hara’s favorite "and" / &:

I want

you to be very very happy like Central Park

what a wonderful city you have here I never

dreamt until we’d been together two weeks straight there’s the fish again

staring at us. I love that fish & I love Jean Arthur & I love publicity

to read about and think about and dream awake

this train is going away from the Guggenheim

a hot"dog"

worrying rent already paid

Joe? He’s in the sack

you know,

your eyes are the color of that Miro’s back it’s

a marvelous happening of Frank L. Wright

the great accidental architect

who gives life?

who taketh away?

Who’s for real?

wow! (Westminster Abbey) (411)

24The prevailing idea here is juxtaposition as if O’Hara modeled his poem from "the great accidental architect" Frank L. Wright, as if his poems were to follow no other rule than accidental composition. The principle of O’Hara’s "organic architecture" of the poem amounts to making the words and lines respond to the incoherent life of the city. Accidental composition also means the refusal of the monumental as exemplified here by Westminster Abbey enclosed within a shrine of brackets and preceded by the ironical interjection "wow!" (also a humorous yet genuine way of paying homage to O’Hara’s literary forebears buried in Poets’ Corner). From the gothic style of Westminster Abbey to Wright’s modernism, O’Hara sketches an aesthetic perspective, as if he placed himself within that evolution: he composes an architecture of words which embraces post World War II New York City in the same way Wright’s buildings embody the aesthetic concerns of the first half of the 20th century. In the FYI poems and the poems written in the early 1960s, O’Hara’s architecture turns the accidental into a style against monumentality, integrity and continuity.

  • 8 Assuming that what O’Hara means by "Kupka Buildings" is buildings in the style of abstract art pred (...)

25At the beginning of "F.M.I. 6/25/61", O’Hara seems to regret that "Kupka buildings" are no longer being built as if he were saying that the daringly abstract buildings are no longer in fashion:8 the poet is making this dream of architectural abstraction his writing principle in the companion poem, "F. Ο. I. (A Vision of Westminster Abbey)". The poem could very well have been called a decomposition of Westminster Abbey as words are scattered on the page when they do not collide in mid-air to form new verbal compounds:

  • 9 "Vincent, (2)", 402.

26In that particular case, the memorandum poem takes the idea of jotting down back to the etymology of the verb "to jot", the Latin word "iota": going back to what is elemental, the poet writes down mere words and groups of letters, as if they were ideas and thoughts only accessible to him, deprived of any syntactical coherence; what’s more, many of the words in the poem are compound words as if O’Hara were writing in code. The poet launches into a poetics of the letter, a poetics of removal ("-ectomy") and, at the same time, of recomposition, as he grafts syllables and words together. Such verbal commotion banks on the idea of shock, of hitting and hitching words together: "ofatempo fairlytobruise / ... / hit hitohit sooftrepeatedhit sooftponderedandreadedhit / sopersonalhit". The words function like particles suspended in the air of the poem: they break apart or recombine, according to chance ("start ofadie" beckoning back to Mallarmé) or to the hammering of syntax, O’Hara hinting at Char’s Le Marteau sans maître in the line "quandvousavezlemaitredeschosestueslemarteaudesmaitres". Words and expressions in the FYI poems are like "robust meteors" to borrow Rene Char’s title: the line "Space electricity flipping stains" could be read as a mise en abyme of O’Hara’s urban syntax. He opens up space in the poem so that syllables and words will not fall into neat and stilted patterns. Instead, they must be subjected to the upsetting energy of the city, to the "electrical (artificial spring) air"9 of Manhattan; they should be meddled with, and slapped onto the page. In this poem, Westminster Abbey’s gothic architecture does not get the full descriptive treatment it would deserve had anyone wanted to create a verbal still life of this masterpiece. Instead, Westminster Abbey is atomized: not so much its façade and buttresses, but the monumental transcendence and the royal ideology it stands for. "lallumpherousbreak" is an expression which one could interpret as denying the heroic pretention of such architecture: lal, being short for fallal, a fancy ornament, lump being followed by hero, by us and then by break. It would be easy to dismiss this poem as a mere amusement, a short-lived exercice de style: it seems however that in "F.O.I." O’Hara is trying his conception of the poem as a great verbal particle collider, an idea which informs the poems he wrote in the mid-1960s. The air flowing into the FYI poems, the verbal bumps and jolts they bank on are an essential moment of O’Hara’s urban aesthetics, a stage which paves the way for the later masterpieces such as "Biotherm (For Bill Berkson)".

Orpheus dismembered by the city

27The aesthetics of shock seems to be a constant feature of his work from then on, as the verbal shock wave spreads to other poems, true verbal mobiles. Such is the case of "Polovtsoi" (1961) which presents words as suspended particles floating on the page, ending on the word "disperse". The danger—or pleasure—of dispersion is also the backdrop of a poem written shortly after, "Seven Nine Seven" (1961), which insists on the explosive nature of urban environment:

... that’s right

be grumpy manwithahead manwithahand handwithahead a



testicles flopping

serving the silence, swooning

I am a mural

You are two big cows hanging your head

I am

a liver an orator

spook drawing window letters piled

drawing figure sticks bugs fatness circleness cats


it is the

profile of a city

exploding against the old dull bed (433)

28The explosive profile of the city translates into the mere juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated words as if the poet were making an inventory of city images and thoughts ("spook drawing window..."); it also translates into the creation and formation of new expressions ("manwithahead") as if they were still lives, "a / boom city testicles flopping": the poem stages the dismemberment of the orphic body by urban energy. The self hesitates between being a part of the city ("I am a mural"), "an orator" and a mere organ ("a liver"). In O’Hara’s urban aesthetics of shock, ontological coherence is merely a fictive idea; experience, at best fragmented, cannot be subsumed under an overarching meaning or unity. The blows dealt to semantic and syntactic coherence arc the consequences of urban experience and the conditions for the literary representation and recreation of the city; such blows are symbolized by the various verbal and physical limbs flying around in O’Hara’s late poems. The body of the self and the body of the text are equally affected by the aesthetics of shock. Yet dismemberments also allow new shapes to be formed, coinciding with new expressions, new fantastic verbal creatures, as the three following excerpts from "Biotherm (for Bill Berkson)" show:

there in the dark London streets

there were all sorts of murderers

gamblers and Greek wrestlers

"I could have had all of wrestling in London in my hand"


down by the greasy Thames shack

stumbling up and over (440)

favorites: vichyssoise, capers, bandannas, fudge-nut-ice, collapsibility, the bar of the Winslow, 5:30 and 12:30, leather sweaters, tunafish, cinzano and soda, Marjorie Rambeau in Inspiration

whatdoyoumeanandhowdoyoumeanit (445)

at the flea circus there was a bargain-hunter
at the end of the road a bum, the blue year
commenced with an enormous sale of loneliness
and everyone came back with a little something
one a baby, one a tooth, one a case of clap,
and best of all, a friend bought a medical dispensary
there were a lot of limbs lying around
so of course someone created a ballet company (447)

29The first excerpt shows that even when "in" London the situation is as explosive as it can be in New York City, as if urban "nature" had to be expressed convulsively. Inspired by Jules Dassin’s 1950 film Night and the City starring Richard Widmark and Gene Tierney, this fragment of O’Hara’s poem quotes one of the hero Harry Fabian’s lines not so much for its meaning—Fabian wanted to be the boss of wrestling arenas in London—as for its strange poetic quality, as if an apt metaphor for the city were a group of wrestling characters. "Stumbling up and over" hints at the final movements of Harry Fabian shot by London gangsters; but the expression also symbolizes the movement of the self in the city, a far from linear experience. In the second excerpt, "Collapsibility" is the corollary of the vision of the city as a magnetic field where people and objects collide: everything may collapse, fall and disintegrate or fold back upon itself to expand again later, "whatdoyoumeanandhowdoyoumeanit" is the expression of this aesthetics of shock which hurls words against each other to take them apart, send them flying and sec what new configurations they will form. Such new configurations arc hinted at in the final excerpt when, in a dreamy sequence inspired by Dietrich’s "Black Market" song in Billy Wilder’s 1948 movie A Foreign Affair, O’Hara mentions "a lot of limbs lying around", as if a body had been dismembered. The interest of the passage lies in what seems to be a natural consequence of such scattering: "so of course someone created a ballet company".

30In O’Hara’s poetry, hitting, breaking and taking apart are urban actions par excellence: as aggressive as it is, the energy of the city is not something that the poet bemoans, on the contrary. Urban onslaughts are the very possibility for a "new dance of the intellect among words" (Pound) or maybe for a new dance of words among the intellect. O’Hara saw the city as a discontinuous space, a locus of convulsive beauty in which beings, objects and words are but particles, "New Particles from the Sun" to quote the title of a poem written in 1962:

Leningrad Kirov ex-Maryinsky dream continuity space disgust
"Because only once does prosperity let you get away"
The seeming eventuality of a misunderstood conversation
"there is a praint steeming in the Rathbone" pix
a logical *doyouordontyoupleasepleasebangcrashwhyspook*
to the deserted isle to the deserted isle
chiffonier* balustrade* cotillon* (456)

31It is tempting to read "continuity" here as the source of the feeling of "disgust", the poem itself exhibiting no concern whatsoever for semantic or logical sequence. The poem is "about" a different city as O’Hara conjures up images of Leningrad and its ballet company, in the midst of various comments and obscure quotes, with the idea lurking at the back of the poem that there may just be a misunderstanding. But the shape and charm of the city, be it Leningrad, London or New York, resides in the fact that its syntax—or the many relationships which are formed in its midst—is not set once and for all. O’Hara’s aesthetics of shock is a celebration of openness and fluidity, a refusal of closure and consequence: its two extremes are staged here from the mockingly logical compound expression *doyouordontyoupleasepleasebangcrashwhyspook* to the few words floating on the page in their superb isolation, almost dancing: "chiffonier* balustrade* cotillon*". "Balustrade" and "cotillion" are the names of two ballets created by Balanchine. "Bang" and "crash" are here to remind us that the poem is likely to be hit any minute into a new line, a new stanza, a new dance of verbal particles.

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Asendorf, Christoph, Batteries of Life: On the History of Things and Their Perception in Modernity, trans. D. Reneau, Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993.

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Benjamin, Walter, "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire", The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006.

Dassin, Jules ed., Night and the City, act. Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney, Googie Withers, Hugh Marlowe, 20th Century Fox, 1950.

Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, trans. William Ellery Leonard, New York: Dutton, 1950.

Maulpoix, Jean-Michel, Du Lyrisme, Paris: José Corti, 1999.

O’Hara, Frank, The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, Allen, Donald M. ed., New York: Knopf, 1971 [Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995 (revised edition)].

Whitman, Walt, Complete Poetry and Collected Prose, Kaplan, Justin ed., New York: The Library of America, 1982.

Wilder, Billy ed., A Foreign Affair, act. J. Arthur, M. Dietrich, J. Lund, Paramount Pictures, 1948.

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1 "Life on Earth", 156.

2 "Il [ne] s’agit pas, comme dans l’autobiographie de refaire la genèse d’un individu ou de sa vocation en expliquant 'voyez comment je suis devenu celui que je suis', mais plutôt de substituer à la carte d’identité d’un sujet sa carte d’altérité, c’est-à-dire l’expression de ce qui l’altère, l’excède, le mobilise et finalement le tire hors de soi" (Maulpoix 277-78).

3 "A Warm Day for December", 376.

4 "Early on Sunday", 404-5.

5 "Meditations in an Emergency", 197.

6 "Petit Poème en Prose", 427.

7 "Muy Bien (F.Y.S.C.)", 414.

8 Assuming that what O’Hara means by "Kupka Buildings" is buildings in the style of abstract art predecessor Frantisek Kupka’s paintings.

9 "Vincent, (2)", 402.

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Bibliographical reference

Olivier Brossard, « "The / profile of a city / exploding": Frank O’Hara’s Aesthetics of Shock », Caliban, 25 | 2009, 215-228.

Electronic reference

Olivier Brossard, « "The / profile of a city / exploding": Frank O’Hara’s Aesthetics of Shock », Caliban [Online], 25 | 2009, Online since 13 December 2016, connection on 23 February 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Olivier Brossard

Université Paris Est

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Licence Creative Commons
Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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