Frank O’Hara’s 'Naphtha'

Ralph Hawkins

Little Indian kids on a bridge up in Canada 
    They can balance and they can climb
        Like their fathers before them
They’ll walk the girders of the Manhattan skyline

Joni Mitchell, Song For Sharon[1]

The skyscraper became practical only when certain essential technologies had developed to the point that they could sustain the structure and the human activities within it. The most important construction advances were metal framing, wind bracing, secure anchoring, fire protection, and the development of power-operated construction equipment[2].

and to Duke Ellington
for playing in the buildings when they are built[3]
Worry looms large in the poetry of Frank O’Hara; worry, concern, anxiety – much to do with the 20th Century’s perplexing nexus of social, cultural and sexual relations. The century, from a particular American point of view may well be something to be ashamed of. However, one’s feelings towards one’s country and its history may well be ambivalent. O’Hara’s feelings, emotions, the ups and downs, are seemingly intimately recorded (although recorded seems an inaccurate term). According to the poet these extremes may well be the motivation for writing[4]. O’Hara always seems to be teetering on the brink, emotionally vertiginous between the highs of happiness and the mire of melancholia, profligate, and prone to what others may view as indulgences – some think the poet wallows in self-pity, (Post The Lake Poets Ballad[5]), others think his work a superficiality[6]. The balance Joni Mitchell notes of Indian children is the balance of the sure footed Iroquois in O’Hara’s Naphtha.


Ah Jean Dubuffet
when you think of him
doing his military service in the Eiffel Tower
as a meteorologist
in 1922
you know how wonderful the 20th Century
can be
and the gaited Iroquois on the girders
fierce and unflinching-footed
nude as they should be
slightly empty
like a Sonia Delaunay
there is a parable of speed behind the Indians’ eyes
they invented the century with their horses
and their fragile backs
which are dark
A metaphorical balance / imbalance seems to operate throughout the poem. The balance of feelings, emotions, love – and of course their opposite unbalancing effects. There is also the balance of the times, a few days before this poem Miles Davis was clubbed 12 / times outside BIRDLAND by a cop [7]. This indicates society’s inherent racism. Its undemocratic Democracy. Getting the balance right in terms of the self and others, and the living, and the art is always enclosed within the poetry.

In Personism: A Manifesto[8] O’Hara plays down the conscious constructive elements of fabricating, “I don’t like rhythm, assonance, all that stuff. You just go on your nerve.” And true to this many of O’Hara’s poems appear as natural as breathing or walking or talking, “you just let all the different bodies fall where they may, and they always do may after a few months.” Yet if we look at Naphtha we discover a complex of patterned interacting, interconnecting operations which occur over a changing surface of difference and contrast. Strangely enough the construction of Naphtha proved slightly problematic for Marjorie Perloff. She talks of false connectives and inquires,

who are these ‘gaited Iroquois’ who appear ‘on the girders’? Construction workers who are afraid of heights? Statues? The Indian as primitive life source? Or what? And then the whole tableau turns into a Sonia Delaunay painting which is ‘slightly empty’. Emptiness, and the concomitant need to maintain one’s ‘fragile’, precarious balance is the keynote here, and so we can forget all about the Eiffel Tower and shift to the intimate conversation of the third verse paragraph.
She goes on to add,

Such surprising conjunctions of literal reference and comic fantasy are typical of O’Hara; he shifts from real to surreal and back again with astonishing speed. And this is why his poetry is ultimately so difficult to imitate…but without O’Hara’s Dada or fantasy context, such empiricism (the literalism of simple Pop Art) becomes monotonous.[9]
Here she aims to open up the poem managing to weave in a fantasy world and two art movements, missing out on Orphism(the Delaunay connection), or perhaps even Cubism; O’Hara in a letter to John Ashbery asked, “Do you think Naphtha is sort of Reverdian?”[10] She suggests the poem is concerned with emptiness - if anything it’s about the opposite of being empty - moving, as we shall see, from a perceived outside (building) closer to an (intimate) interior, which is at once spatial, physical and of course emotional. Importantly she highlights balance but seemingly only relates to a one dimensionality.

Emptiness may refer to the content of Sonia Delaunay’s art or the emptiness in the spaces made by the skyscraper building’s incomplete state, the vacant girder spaces of an unclad exterior. The second stanza envisions the occupants of the buildings completion and accompanying activities. It would be difficult to argue an emotional emptiness here – rather than a philosophical one (the anxieties of ennui and loneliness lurking beneath O’Hara’s written surface), given O’Hara’s preoccupation with what we can realize as his new love. Perhaps the emptiness can be read into the temporal suppositions of the poem as a whole or that indeed emptiness (absence) may lie on the other side of love. We could even read into it a moral historical skyscrape given we (a nation) owe a debt to the Iroquois. For Perloff the reader can more or less do away with the second “verse paragraph”, containing as it does an intimate fuck, to get to the “intimate conversation”, of the final stanza.

Much of Naphtha has to do with temporality, or a contemporality, even a hidden ontological questioning of one’s place in it. There are referents to 1922, the 20th Century, (parable of) speed, invented the century, and ancient September. We have historical time, Indians and the Eiffel Tower, and contemporary time, the construction of a building, the girders, and personal (lived) time. What we are witnessing (reading) here is an outside, a beyond, a past. We move from Dubuffet (we will return to him in the final stanza with the time oriented word memory) in France, from one building, the Eiffel Tower (girders), to another being constructed in the middle of Manhattan, Park Ave, by Iroquois workers. The outside is the air, the space, the sky which the emerging building emptily penetrates. Naphtha, which is a petroleum based chemical sometimes referred to as petroleum ether[11], may well take us into the air, bubbling as it does up from beneath the ground. The final ha of tha (open mouthed vowel) leading us by its reversal into the opening Ah of the poem.

How much of going on your nerve, knowing what fits and works, is unconscious and perhaps accidental and coincidental? Therefore what is worked and constructed is difficult to ascertain in art that eschews specific formal occasions. Can one poetic technicality inform another? How much of sound, image and thought pattern are interactive, one springing meaning into the other? Sound particles leading to further ideas and images. How do all these images, which seem unconnected, relate and form a mulitiplex? The skeletal Eiffel Tower’s girders somehow reflected / mirrored by the Manhattan skyline. Is it a coincidence that the double f in Dubuffet is repeated in Eiffel and that further f’s proliferate and that France and Eiffel are invoked through Sonia Delaunay and her husband Robert Delaunay who painted the Eiffel Tower, time and time again. Reading notes that there is an abundance of final y’s. That balance is maintained by gaited unflinching feet, and that gaited refers not only to step but also to the stepping pattern of horses, the horse which the Iroquois ride. The horses, the nudity, the fragile backs and darkness conjuring up a number of sexual connotations. How many of these connections reach across morphing and mutating the progress of thought, proliferating further signification?

How do we approach the personal, the intimate and the immediate, this whirlwind emotive pulse which motors O’Hara, that which fires the anxieties associated happiness, longing and desire or their absence. We move from the outside to the inside, to perhaps the anxious laden uncertainties and insecurity of dark, the final word of the first stanza, from daylight to interior light. To the inside of the buildings, “when they are built”. Parallel to this we proceed from a general or unspecified (ambiguous) pronominal use, the you of the poem’s opening, the split we’s of the poem’s balancing middle, to the specified you, the identifiable god like unbalanced, perhaps because of being in love, sissy truck driver Vincent Warren. In the end we move from the activated outside to the interiorization of feelings and thought, specifically the provoking played down by the smiling end of the poem, I am ashamed of my century.

The darkness or impersonal interiors of the second stanza resonate, echoing and enclosing some of the opening stanzas themes.

we owe a debt to the Iroquois
and to Duke Ellington
for playing in the buildings when they are built
we don’t do much ourselves
but fuck and think
of the haunting Metro
and the one who didn’t show up there
while we were waiting to become part of our century
just as you can’t make a hat out of steel
and still wear it
who wears hats anyway
it’s our tribe’s custom
to beguile
We are back in France (in thought) the haunting below ground artificially lit Metro, the Metro echoing / mirroring meteor of meteorologist, an open air activity! (this mirror-echoing can be found frequently in O’Hara’s work). The Metro again is another construction. The line before mention of the Metro becomes ambiguous, being able to be read as end stopped and running on – we don’t do much ourselves / but fuck and think / of the haunting Metro, leading one to think that maybe the Metro will lead to a some furtive sexual pursuit. The below ground is the hidden and the dark of anxiety – but perhaps this darkness and these drives are ironically not hidden by O’Hara, their revealing and testament are part of his art. Quandriness about Being is central to the oeuvre.

The final beguile takes on a plethora of possible interpretations balancing the implications of charm, spending time with Vincent or according to how we interpret tribe’s custom, to cheat and deceive. History does owe a debt to the Iroquois and by syntactic construction to Duke Ellington. O’Hara once more pointing to the specific, still segregated, racist society of those times?

Syntactic confusion is of course deliberate, where to begin and end an undesignated sentence leads to positive as well as negative pollination, ‘false connectives’ (even cross pollination!). In this way the concluding lines of the opening throw the century into confusion through a multi-layering broken syntax – the Indians didn’t invent the century with their horses but rather helped build the initial 20th century skyline of Manhattan. According to Rem Koolhaas, “The Manhattan Skyscraper is born in installments between 1900 and 1910”.[12] [13]

That which is hidden, jumbled or disguised works firstly on its surface (the system of naming in O’Hara, from the highly personal to the anonymous other is a means to intimate inclusion and contemporary in knowingness – or its opposite the exclusion of those not in the know). Again the concluding lines of the middle section work to elaborate on what we already know by furthering the concerns of the poem,

just as you can’t make a hat out of steel
and wear it
who wears hats anyway
it is our tribe’s custom
to beguile
But these lines also indicate where the precise building may be and O’Hara’s ambivalent attitude towards hats!

This poem is dated September 3, 1959. The previous poem, Post the Lake Poets Ballad, is dated August 28 1959, Personism was founded August 27 1959…I was in love with someone…I went back to work and wrote a poem for this person. That poem must be Personal Poem also dated August 27, 1959, another anxiety ridden poem not only with its personal preoccupations I wonder if one person out of the 8,000,000 is / thinking of me. That one person presumably is Vincent.

Within Personal Poem there are correspondences and related differences to Naphtha. I return to the hats and who wears them.

I walk through the luminous humidity
passing the House of Seagram with its wet
and its loungers and the construction to
the left that closed the sidewalk if
I ever get to be a construction worker
I’d like to have a silver hat please

(Personal Poem)
And later,
we just want to be rich
and walk on girders in our silver hats
The House of Seagram is on Park Ave. and O’Hara is walking towards Moma on 53rd St. We now know exactly where and when the Iroquois construction workers in their silver hats were balancing across the Manhattan skyline.

Here, in this final stanza, it is pertinent to note O’Hara’s written dexterity in the inherent sonic and thought play – that which sometimes is accorded simplicity is indeed a complex mutivalence. Here steel becomes still , steel not only taking us back to the girders but also the protective hats of the construction workers – were becomes wear and wear turns into wears, w’s, wh’s and h’s implant connective sounds. It is interesting to also note here the reference to making (steel) taking us back to the opening (girders) and the making of the century leading towards the making of images (god and sissy) and to Jean Dubuffet, whose image making qualities began the making of the poem.

The final stanza doesn’t resolve anything. For this poet there can be no balance, indeed there’s an imbalance to do with feelings, (a wet highway, implying it’s hard to maintain control), to do with thoughts combined with feelings, feelings towards others, one’s own feelings and thoughts about ‘my century’ which within this poem I read as an American century.

how are you feeling in ancient September
I am feeling like a truck driver on a wet highway
how can you
you were made in the image of god
I was not
I was made in the image of a sissy truck-driver
and Jean Dubuffet painting his cows
“with a likeness burst in the memory”
apart from love (don’t say it)
I am ashamed of my century
for being so entertaining
but I have to smile
Sometimes it is difficult to know who is saying what to whom in O’Hara’s poetry (I will discuss this in a further article dealing with some later work). He operates a heteroglossia, indeed the dialogue is as sometimes confusing as the unpunctuated, unindicated speech of Cormac McCarthy’s characters (in particular No Country For Old Men). This of course is deliberate. The Dubuffet quotation functions here as a separation from the confused, anxious feelings of the I’s. The words “with a likeness burst in the memory” have at their center the active verb burst which is in direct contrast to the darkness of the previous stanza and highlights the interiorization of time within memory – here we would of course remember our loved ones. The anxiety caused by time, one’s time, or our time, our century in the poem and the fragility of being, are constants in O’Hara’s work. Thus the balance of feelings and love, are juxtaposed with the balance of the unflinching footed Iroquois. Balance here is a matter of life or death. Time passes so quickly. It is already ancient September.

[1] Hejira
[2] Rise of The New York Skyscraper 1865-1913, Sarah B Landau and Carl W. Condit, Yale University Press, 1996
[3] p.337 Naphtha, The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, Alfred A Knoff New York 1972
[4] ibid. p.510 Statement For The Patterson Society, But it is also, like a manifesto, a diary of a particular day and the depressed mood of that day (it’s a pretty depressing day, you must admit, when you feel you relate more importantly to poetry than to life), and as such may perhaps have more general application to my poetry since I have been more often depressed than happy, as far as I can tally it up. In the case of either, it’s a hopeless conundrum: it used to be I could only write when I was miserable; now I can only write when I’m happy.
[5] ibid. p.336
[6] p.112 Enlarging the Temple: New Directions in American Poetry of the 1960’s, Charles Altieri, Lewisburg,PA: Bucknell Univesity Press1979. “What makes O’Hara so interesting a poet is his sense at once of the necessity for story, of its superficiality, and of the pain potentially lurking in every moment”.
[7] p.335-336 Personal Poem, The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara
[8] ibid. p.498 Personism: A Manifesto
[9] p.126-127 Frank O’Hara Poet Among Painters, Majorie Perloff, George Braziller, New York 1977
[10] ibid. p.214-215
[11] Wikipedia
[12] p.82 Delirious New York, Rem Koolhaas, 001 Publishers, Rotterdam 1994
[13] p.329 City poet, The Life And Times of Frank O’Hara, Brad Gooch, HarperPerennial 1994. “On August 10 1959, O’Hara wrote in Joe’s Jacket of returning to New York after a weekend in Southhampton:
returning by car the forceful histories of myself and Vincent loom
like the city hour after hour closer and closer to the future

I appreciate your scholarship, particularly your analysis of sounds and of dates. I wonder- do you think through O'Hara's description of the nude Iroquois, combined with the references to Delaunay and Dubuffet, who painted nudes, O'Hara could be positioning his poet-speaker in the place of a painter?
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