Since the season premiere of Mad Men on AMC last night, people have been scrambling and googling to find out more about the poet Frank O'Hara and his book Meditations in an Emergency. In the show, the man reading it (with horn rimmed glasses and curly hair: code for highbrow) is sitting next to Don Draper at the bar of a midtown cafe -- like perhaps Larre's, where O'Hara, professionally a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, lunched often. Draper asks the man about the book. "You probably wouldn't like it," he is told. But Don buys it, we see him reading it in his office, and the episode concludes with Don's voiceover reading the fourth and final part of O'Hara's poem "Mayakovsky" in Meditations in an Emergency.
The title of the book began as a very sophisticated literary joke, an allusion to John Donne's "Meditations on Emergent Occasions." But as sometimes happened in O'Hara's poetry, the joke turned out to have a surplus of meaning. His poems are meditations -- but not the kind that comes after hours of quiet thought; they proceed from the heart of noise; they are written on the run, in a hurry, on a lunch break, in a perennial emergency. O'Hara's poems perfectly capture the pace of a New York day in 1962. He is a master of the art of gentle self-laceration: "Now I am quietly waiting for / the catastrophe of my personality / to seem beautiful again, / and interesting, and modern."
For more on Frank O'Hara's life and work, and his central importance in the whole New York art scene in the early 1960s, I hope readers will look at my book The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets. You may read an excerpt here or there. The introduction appears in an issue of the online magazine, Jacket.
The title poem of O'Hara's Meditations in an Emergency appears in Great American Prose Poems.
See also "A Poet in the Heart of Noise" in the New York Times Book Review, June 20, 1993. -- DL