In the Moment: The Poem as Time Machine


Two hundred years ago, William Wordsworth described poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions recollected in tranquility” – and this is still how we often think of writing a poem: sitting down, pen (or keyboard) in hand, and thinking of some deathless poetic expression…

Of course, Wordsworth would have been the first to say poetry should be written in everyday language, and it should be about the real world. But what about this spontaneity?

Two poets who really put “spontaneous” into practice were the Northern Irish Louis MacNeice – with his book-length (and real-time) Autumn Journal, which describes life in London in the year before the Second World War – and Frank O’Hara, perhaps the best-known of the New York School poets, whose 1950s poems about life in New York City are still incredibly fresh.

Helen Mort wrote on this website last spring about keeping a notebook. Louis MacNeice took this to extremes, writing 80 pages of daily impressions in poem form between August and January. As it was published the following April, he didn’t have much time to revise his work, and the result is that all the tension, the uncertainty and the oppressive atmosphere of the months before the War are alive in the poem.

…Hitler yells on the wireless,
The night is damp and still
And I hear dull blows on wood outside my window;
They are cutting down the trees on Primrose Hill.
The wood is white like the roast flesh of chicken,
Each tree falling like a closing fan;
No more looking at the view from seats beneath the branches,
Everything is going to plan.
They want the crest of this hill for anti-aircraft,
The guns will take the view
And searchlights probe the heavens for bacilli
With narrow wands of blue.

(A very old woman who lived through the War says it’s a perfect description of what life was like then.)

Two decades after the War, and across the Atlantic Ocean, Frank O’Hara – who was an art museum curator in New York – used to write about his daily life, his friends, and even the walks he took in his lunch hour. One of his books is aptly titled Lunch Poems.

In “The Day Lady Died,” he sets the scene for discovering that the great singer Billie Holiday had died by describing the very ordinary day he was having before he bought the newspaper:

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
in Ghana are doing these dayI go on to the bank…

O’Hara had a phrase for the kind of poems he wrote, calling them his “I do this, I do that” poems.

In “A Step Away From Them,” he writes:

It’s my lunch hour, so I go
for a walk among the hum-colored
cabs. First, down the sidewalk
where laborers feed their dirty
glistening torsos sandwiches
and Coca-Cola, with yellow helmets
on. They protect them from falling
bricks, I guess. Then onto the
avenue where skirts are flipping
above heels and blow up over
grates. The sun is hot, but the
cabs stir up the air. I look
at bargains in wristwatches. There
are cats playing in sawdust…

These images work in the mind’s eye almost like a series of photographs. William Carlos Williams said, “No ideas but in things.” What Frank O’Hara and Louis MacNeice show us is that the more specific these things are, the more they can stay new forever. They are a time machine.

Now, I wonder if Frank O’Hara took notes as he walked…

Katy Evans-Bush’s two poetry collections are Me and the Dead and Egg Printing Explained, both published by Salt Publishing. She teaches poetry at the Poetry School, and writes the blog Baroque in Hackney.

Published February, 2012

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