Frank O'Hara's "Mad [Men]" World

The sixth season of AMC’s hit “Mad Men” starts tonight at 9p.m., and I can’t wait. The show, initially set in the 1960s – if you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and watch – is glamorous and sensual, it’s bristling, it’s meticulously attentive to period detail, and above all, it’s addictive. It’s not exactly a fast-paced or an adventure-laden show, but it is consummately one of escapism and of conspicuous consumption both for the characters on-screen – the men who drink themselves out of consciousness and seek extra-marital pleasure on a whim - and for the audience, whose 21st century selves are transported to another time and another reality. Importantly, however, this escapism proves only as superficial as the glossy advertisements being hustled each week at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (the ad agency at the center of the show). Though we, much like the characters, may seek to revel in something beyond our everyday lives, we all are ultimately rebuked by time: for us, the show ends and we relegate the 1960s back to the history books; for them, it inevitably presses on, crises after crisis unfolding in the tumult of the post-Cold War era. For “Mad Men,” the idea of time is fundamental, and not just because the show is inundated with period details, relics, and startling biases (anti-woman, anti-black, anti-Semitic). More than the titillating drama and the enviable clothes, the characters are all struggling with some notion of time: the past (Don Draper’s elusive background, Roger Sterling’s navy days); the present (Joan Harris’ husband in Vietnam, Betty Draper’s bleak housewife existence); or the future (Peggy Olson’s and Pete Campbell’s career prospects on the micro level and a rapidly changing political and social landscape, broadly). Perhaps, at base, “Mad Men” presents some kind of generational divide: the older generation seeks to forget the past and consequently finds itself consumed by the present, while the younger one insistently and ardently looks toward the future. Ultimately, however, the tension between what was and what will be, in an era fraught with uncertainty, is a crucial part of the riveting narrative that drives the show. And perhaps this is what strikes audiences as so realistic, not just those who can remember the post-Cold War era, but any generation (and certainly this generation) caught between its immediate past and its impending, unknowable future. The characters in “Mad Men” are  preoccupied and struggling – not unlike Millenials today – with the notion of definition: what is this time we are living in? Who are we?

But with this notion comes with an important corollary: it is not just “who are we?” but also “who am I?” – the idea of a tenuous selfhood. Many of the characters in the show are unhappy; though soothed by materialism, they struggle with a kind of existentialism. A recurrent theme, it is especially pronounced early in the series as we, audience, begin to learn about and to become invested in these characters: their backgrounds, their idiosyncracies, and their motivations.

This idea dawned on me when in anticipation of the 6th season, I began to re-watch the series – conveniently available on Netflix, if I haven’t yet convinced you to watch the show. (And let me say it’s just as thrilling the second time around). I was particularly inspired to think about these ideas and to write about them after watching the second season premiere. In this episode, Don Draper – for all intents and purposes, the show's protagonist – is sitting in a bar at lunchtime, drinking and avoiding work, when he spots a fellow patron reading “Meditations in an Emergency,” a 1957 collection of poems by New York School poet Frank O’Hara. References to the O’Hara work emerge through the season and the book comes full circle by the end of it, but there is a specific moment at the end of the first episode of Don reciting the last section of O’Hara poem “Mayakovsky” :

Now I am quietly waiting for
the catastrophe of my personality
to seem beautiful again,
and interesting, and modern
The country is grey and
brown and white in trees,
snows and skies of laughter
always diminishing, less funny
not just darker, not just grey
It may be the coldest day of
the year, what does he think of
that? I mean, what do I? And if I do,
perhaps I am myself again.

It’s a beautiful poem - its last section is especially magnificent - and it’s a beautiful ending in voiceover. In some ways, it seems to perfectly capture the mood of the series: dark but elegant (not just darker, not just grey), always searching. But more pointedly, I thought, there must be a reason why the series creator chose this poem to excerpt. Matthew Weiner, the creator, is renown for his attention to detail – so why? I did a quick Google search; surely, I presumed, someone has blogged about the connection between the poem and the series. I did find several posts that begin to scratch the surface, but I was surprised that I hadn’t uncovered a closer reading of the poem in connection with the show, so I decided that would be my approach.

Though they were both certainly men struggling with their times, O’Hara and Don Draper seem like incompatible figures. O’Hara is campy, flamboyant, “light and sassy” (as he’s been described), a gay man, an artist. Don is serious, furtive, hardly light or sassy, creative but not an “artist-type,” a straight, philandering capitalist. Yet both are elusive. O’Hara, like Don, keeps you guessing. Much of his work is rooted in the autobiographical and yet it proves elliptical, never quite transparent. I always think of it, maybe unfairly, as flitting, inviting a chase. The autobiography of Don Draper is similarly opaque and kept secret. Without giving too much away, Don is not quite who he says he is, as Weiner reveals to us in flashback and haltingly through Season 1. So while the two men might seem diametrically opposed, what they seem to share on some basic level is a wrestling with identity, with the past and with the future, an uncertainty of “who am I?” It’s a generalization of O’Hara’s poetry, of course, but it does repeatedly resurface throughout his oeuvre.

And indeed, it is a central aspect of the poem read, fittingly then, by Don. O’Hara’s poem is written to or in memory of the Russian Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsy, who supposedly shot himself in 1930. This sort of spectral death seems to overshadow the poem, or at least in the speaker's quest to make the self whole again. At the beginning of the work, the speaker reveals: “My heart’s aflutter!/I am standing in the bath tub/crying. Mother, mother/whom am I?” The enjambment of the lines is characteristic of O’Hara; it, too, leads you on but evades completion. But here we have a poetic voice, crying out “Who am I?” There’s something manic about the energy at the beginning of the poem, unsettled, confused, and in some ways almost unconsciously defiant  (standing upsets the conventional use of the bath tub). The poem continues, “If he/will just come back once/and kiss me on the face/his coarse hair brush/my temple, it’s throbbing!” There is a rupture at stake here. The poet could be calling out to some Mayakovsy, the “he” that should come back (now dead), but it could also be a call to a former lover “kiss me on the face” or a splitting off self into a second spectral form (in which the “I” and the “he” are one). It’s a conditional statement: “If he will just come back once […] then I can put on my clothes/I guess, and walk the streets.” There is a sense that something is not whole and if the speaker were just put back together, he could regain a sense of normalcy, putting on clothes and walking the streets – though even that’s uncertain (“I guess”; the seeming aimlessness of “walking the streets”). Immediately, the poem foregrounds a sense of vulnerability, of emotional and literal nakedness – I’m forced to think of the Ginsberg line “starving, hysterical, naked” as a way to describe this visceral scene.

The poet continues searching through his words: “I love you. I love you,/but I’m turning to my verses/and my heart is closing - /like a fist.” There’s an insistence in the repetition of the line, "I love you" as though he’s seeking to convince both himself and this “you." But there’s also an inaccessibility of expression, “my heart is closing,” especially through words ("verse"), as though the poetry in some way precludes the emotion or as though the words are not enough: not enough to bring back, not enough to express his anguish, not enough to make whole again. Certainly, the poet writes “Words! Be sick/as I am sick, swoon,/roll back your eyes, a pool.” There’s a madness and mania in the “Words!” or a sickness that reminds me both of an epileptic seizure/fit or of a climactic, sexual release (“swoon/roll back your eyes”). Here, we seem to have reached a precipice or an abyss, a “pool” which has some intangible depth, and contains the possibility of death or drowning. So the poet will “stare down” into it “at my wounded beauty.” The idea of narcissistic (self) reflection is palpable, but thwarted; the reflection is not merely one of vanity or pleasure, for it is “wounded,” and hurt. There is a decided sense of disenchantment with and detachment from what is seen, with what is past, what future, and what "written," at present. It is a self-reflective experience rooted in the restlessness of a poetic that “cannot please, cannot charm, or win/what a poet!” This seeming act of self-flagellation is the poet’s but it is also perhaps one that speaks to the act of Mayakovsky’s suicide. There is not just one "poet!" implicated here, but two. Or perhaps these poets cannot please some third, now lost, now forsaken ‘other.’ So how, then, to proceed? “The clear water is thick/with bloody blows on its head. To jump? The future only looks grim and full of failure: “I embrace a cloud,/but when I soared/it rained.”

No sooner does O’Hara avoid giving us a decisive answer than we learn that his poet is already bloody: “That’s funny! There’s blood on my chest” – which could again intimate the act of shooting oneself, but also perhaps suggests that the “heart” is bleeding. I’m reminded here of a line from another O’Hara poem, “In Memory of My Feelings” where, as though against the poet’s will, his feelings or emotions, have spilled out but are already gone, dead (memorialized): “the heart bubbles with red ghosts, since to move is to love.” Now that the poet has stopped moving, he laments the loss of love, of self, of wholeness and is reminded of the red ghosts of his past. Still, it’s a kind of self-imposed infliction as “I’ve been carrying bricks” and  it was then only a matter of time until the rupture. It begins to rain, and the poet “steps onto the window ledge” at once contemplative and maybe suicidal, “the tracks below me are smoky and/glistening with a passion for running/I leap into the leaves, green like sea.” Again we’re at a precipice. It doesn’t seem like a death wish here, per se, though he toys with that idea, noting the glistening down below, but also the fog and the haziness. Ultimately, however, he leaps into the “leaves” to soften the blow? This line to me is the most enigmatic – it’s not certain death, but there is a fall and a boundlessness, though it's not quite as threatening as it should be. It's a movement forward or onward, even in the face of omnipotent and potential death.

Indeed, I think it’s important that the O’Hara poem somehow steadies itself here and goes on; it literally and figuratively seems to come down off some high or off some ledge, inviting in a stillness that counteracts the preceding manic energy. The last section begins: “Now I am quietly waiting for/ the catastrophe of my personality/ to seem beautiful again.” The language and tone is so restrained, so quiet and valedictory, as though the poet has accepted the catastrophe, and has resigned himself to it. It doesn’t seem like a resignation through death, however, but it does seem to signal a desire for affirmation, a waiting to feel whole again. It perhaps captures the fall-out of a breakup or of a imploding love. Through the poem, some self has been rent apart, and now seeks its pieces to be put back together. But how? So much questioning throughout the poem, of identity, of self and of self-worth. Of letting go of the past and of making things “interesting,” “beautiful” and “modern again.” We are transported from the rush of the railroads, to the quietness of the country, of “snows and skies” of fading “laughter.” It’s a bleak scene, at the end, a cold one, but it’s not without a glimmer of hope: “It may be the coldest day of/the year, what does he think of that?/I mean, what do I? And if I do,/perhaps I am myself again.” The preoccupation with the second, spectral form, is again poignant here : “what does he think of that” with the quick self-correction “what do I?” The "he" is once more dualistic, maybe a lover, maybe a former self. Indeed, the idea of a fractured past self seems quite important and unshakeable throughout the work. It’s as though the poet wants to give himself permission to feel again at the end of the poem, to think again, to be himself again, so that he can be whole. Still, like much else in the poem, it is not quite enduring or certain, but always qualified, always conditional.

The end of the poem therefore feels very much caught between the immediate past (the scene of the poem, the history of the self, maybe even relationships past) and the looming present (the ability to feel whole again, the repaired identity). If this is the situation of the speaker, then, it makes sense – to at last! return to “Mad Men” – that Don Draper would identify with and that Weiner would capitalize on O’Hara’s works to convey this sense of self-doubt. Neither the poet's speaker and Draper feel certain of a concrete identity. The poem is, after all, couched in a collection called “Meditations in an Emergency” and the emergency is not just the sense of crises (of self, of the times) but also in the sense of “emergence” – as Majorie Perloff has pointed out – a “coming out” (which might well resonate with the idea of being a gay man for O’Hara) but that evokes the routine questioning of O’Hara and of Draper “Who am I?.” There’s a pointed anxiety and a profound unease about time that drives these characters - a restlessness and a dissatisfaction. In the third episode of season two, Don says (speaking of an account): “there’s no such thing as American history, only a frontier. Ask not about the bomb, the missile crises, we’re going to the moon.” It’s a statement that encapsulates the tension at play. Much as Don and O’Hara’s speaker would like to pretend the past, and their own history, do not exist, it’s unavoidable and inescapable. Looking forward to or anticipating what’s ahead may help (even if it proves equally bleak), but it does not truly make one whole. And so, we’re drawn back again and again to a precipice in O’Hara’s poem and often through Draper’s character (many times, we think, he might give it all up and run away, and he even tries to several times). But that’s never an answer, only a road to more uncertainty, as we learn. And as O'Hara teaches us: it’s always "perhaps."