On May 11th I was sitting with a number of animals in a room listening to Vannessa Barnier read. She read some of her own work, some of which was fashioned after the style of Gertrude Stein (formally) and read at an incredibly rapid pace, contrasting greatly with the steady, strong movement of Stein’s own style of reading (hear Stein read her work Matisse on the PennSound archive). Also, Barnier took a break from her own work to read a piece by Frank O’Hara, curator and poet of the New York School. I wouldn’t be remarking on this event except that Barnier read, out of all the O’Hara poems she could have read, Mayakovsky.
When Barnier began reading O’Hara’s Mayakovsky two questions immediately surfaced, First, I wondered who in the room had heard of Mayakovsky (read a brief biography of him on Poetry Foundation), and second, I was curious as to how Barnier came to this poem. There is a reason I was curious how she found this poem and poet, and it is the origin of my own introduction to these.
Sadly, my introduction (along with much of North America’s, I assume) to Frank O’Hara came via Our Great Teacher, Television. <<In any case, thank you, Television, for turning us away and into a book.>> In 2008 the series Mad Men aired an episode with the title Meditations in an Emergency, which is the title of a book of poems by Frank O’Hara. In the episode, the protagonist Don Draper performs a dramatic reading of Mayakovsky, the closing poem in that book.
So what? Why does it matter how one comes across such and such a poem? Why do I think it is sad that it was through the medium of Television and from the mouth of a dramatic character from a mediocre series that I first experienced this poem? Because they are now married. I was never able to experience O’Hara’s Mayakovsky without the now embedded experience and knowledge of Don Draper uttering feelingly the words of O’Hara. Now, of course, nothing is experienced in a vacuum–we are introduced to everything in some kind of context. It could have been in the university classroom or lecture hall, or (romantically) drunk under a bridge. We don’t usually get to choose the time and the place. That’s life, unfolding. What am I getting at…
Well, it’s not likely that any popular show will, in the near future, engage with the work of Mayakovsky. But, just in case the producers of My Little Pony are planning to have Twilight Sparkle recite Vladimir Mayakovsky’s A Cloud in Trousers, read it yourself, first.
Oh, and John Donne… It has come to my attention (though the sources are weak) that O’Hara derived the title of his book Meditations in an Emergency from the metaphysical poet John Donne’s own work Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions (which is a collection of prose meditiations). Perhaps it will be Deadpool who reads from this?