Falling in love with a poem

Have you ever? And without being sure why (and half wishing not to know why)?

I’m falling in love with a Frank O’Hara poem, untitled (unless you consider “Poem” a title), written circa 1950 when the poet was in his twenties. It strikes me as not only very smart but wise as well. And yet no doubt dashed off, the way he did so many poems, and didn’t even bother to give it a title. Funny, the poem immediately struck me as about love, but I’ve just now noticed the word “love” is not mentioned nor is it specified that the “we” is a couple, although one might see a suggestion of a certain tree in a certain garden which conjures an image in the mind of a naked couple–well naked at first, then trembling ashamed and running for cover.

But I don’t know if he’s referring to that tree or not. I’m still getting to know the poem. But why do I have a feeling that O’Hara has constructed it so that I will always be just getting to know it? Yes, I do think that’s a possibility. I really admire this poem, and without fully understanding it. That is to say it’s alluring.

I think it’s about love because when you’re in love with someone you have the good sense not to analyze everything. You feel more than understand that if you did, your whole world together would fall apart. O’Hara cites tremendous things: trees, pyramids, fire, death, treasure, mountains–all things that are bigger, last longer or will consume a human being. They’re nature or the cosmos that encircles the couple that I like to see holding hands in a forest or a vast landscape.

We don’t know exactly what the speaker knows. He isn’t saying. So maybe we are the object of his love.

Notice that it is not just trivial or mundane pursuits we must keep interested in (this is the only part of the poem that is dated. Today we might substitute something like Facebook for “foreign stamps”) but “abnormal psychology” as well! We are in love, not stupid.

When you’re in love there are things that should remain unsaid. We all know, in our own situations and hearts, what those things are. If O’Hara was more prosaic on this point (why a chestnut tree? why “about to flame or die”?) we wouldn’t get it. Or maybe we would. But it would be like reading a menu or watching someone else eat.

And if you do say the things you shouldn’t, “all [will be] lost”–the couple’s connection to the cosmos. The whole universe may as well crumble because connection to the loved one is the whole universe.

And then that picnicker thrown in there! Just because the world has ended doesn’t mean it isn’t still going on, just as before. All of your ties to it have just been severed, that’s all.

Life goes on. But we’ve lost our innocence. And we know it! Each knows that the other knows, and isn’t saying. And this not saying is what we have a duty to. And this is a profound love, a love one can grow into old age with. And look how perfectly chosen his metaphors are. They actually take my breath away:

…. And now it’s our tree
going up in flames, still blossoming, as if

it had nothing better to do! Don’t we have
a duty to it, as if it were a gold mine

we fell into climbing desert mountains,
or a dirty child, or a fatal abscess?


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5 Responses to Falling in love with a poem

  1. Susan Scheid says:

    Oh, wow, this is a remarkable poem. What a wonderful find! I immediately thought of Ashbery’s poem, “Some Trees.” And then I thought, how sad that O’Hara’s life was cut short, for what might he have reflected on about this poem in later years? (Though perhaps he would have known, as you do, that some things should remain unsaid.)

  2. angela says:

    Rather serendipitous to read this post right before I went to read the last poem by James Schulyer over at ModPo. He comments on a chestnut tree as well (and sorry, it is such a long poem that I couldn’t find the lines but they allude to the tree’s death https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/32568/hymn-to-life). J.S. also published a poem in the New Yorker “Horse-Chestnut Trees and Roses” but I can’t access it. While I don’t think J.S. and O’Hara had a romantic relationship, I’ve oft wondered if J.S. perhaps had romantic inclinations toward his once roommate O’Hara. Sorry to have hijacked your comments field with this drama, but I’m a bit NYS obsessed at the moment. It IS a lovely poem, thank you for sharing. a

    • I don’t recall reading about a romance between the two but it wouldn’t surprise me if they had a fling. My impression is at the time in their world there was a lot of flirting and sexual teasing.

      This chestnut tree info you bring is fascinating even if I don’t know what to do with it. I’ve scanned both Schuyler poems but I want to read them more carefully. In the first poem the tree is dying from wounds and in the second the trees are gone. In both poems there’s a sense of regret or loss. In the O’Hara poem the chestnut tree seems so specific and yet so mysterious (why a chestnut tree?) that one wonders if it had personal significance. And one wonders if the two poets shared something having to do with a chestnut tree. If so, it may not have been recounted in any biography or memoir (a quick google search didn’t help) and we may never know.

    • I just read in Lehman’s book on the NY School that Schuyler and O’Hara met in 1951, just when the O’Hara poem was written.

      By the way I highly recommend that book. It’s called “The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets” by David Lehman.

      • angela says:

        Gratitude for your thoughtful reply and the book recommendation, Mark. I dare admit that I’m inclined to wish both poets shared a special link with the chestnut tree. (When I researched it a bit, it seems that there was a great kill off of the species in NYC for last 100 years until a replanting in 2012.) Thanks for sharing this poem. a

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