Adieu to Normal, Bon Jour To Frank

Frank O’Hara is my favorite poet and now that I live in New York City I think about him all the time and sometimes in my head I try to write like him and ignore punctuation or moderation completely.

To me, no poet encapsulates the true wonder of New York City like he did. Because the city’s beauty is its frenetic energy, the want (need?) to get up, walk around, observe, laugh, moan, and whatever else. There’s enough going on in one city block for your own personal run through of a dozen emotions. Minimum.

One of my favorite poems by O’Hara is titled ‘Adieu to Norman, Bon Jour to Joan and John Paul‘ which starts headlong and right into his lunch break at just past noon in New York City. The narrator is struck in the first stanza by the immediate need to figure out whether he can make lunch on time while almost simultaneously fretting about leaving the city for the weekend and not working on his poems. It’s the classic trap of summertime productivity, where one must think about the dismissal of creative duty in order to enjoy the fruits of metropolitan and coastal living.

It’s classic O’Hara and he made a living out of writing poems that explore this very quandary and the life that exists in the short-lived panic of wondering if you’ll be punctual. That mixed with the larger, more existential panic of what parts of life are worth living and when. It’s just one reason I love his writing so much—he can blow a minute up to a lifetime or make a minute as meaningless as any other.

The rest of the poem is a departure though. The narrator speaks of looking up a street in Paris and then rumbles into a set of stanzas about the nature of change—what exists always as is and what has changed. He himself has changed and is exploring the possibilities of where he could be or what he might be doing.

But then he arrives at a simple mandate:

the only thing to do is simply continue
is that simple
yes, it is simple because it is the only thing to do
can you do it
yes, you can because it is the only thing to do
The simplest way forward? To just continue to move forward. No deeper thought needed. No reckoning or doubt or thought experimentation. Be and see tomorrow. And then:
and surely we shall not continue to be unhappy
we shall be happy
but we shall continue to be ourselves everything
But now, in May of 2020, these lines mean something else entirely. The very poem in which O’Hara explores whether change is even worth it now seems like an archaic, vintage sentiment. It no longer fits.
Because now nothing feels like it must continue as is. In fact, we know that it won’t. Those that had bene existing as is, even those that O’Hara mentions like the Seine, the Louvre, the Parisian streets, they are shut down. Just the same with his beloved New York art museums (the Met, the Frick) and the famed Manhattan avenues here. We hope they will be back. We don’t know. And we hope we will not have to continue on as we are right now—locked in and uncertain.
I love this poem so it’s not something I want or care to dismiss. And I won’t have to. O’Hara’s words may not fit right now (and no one mistook Frank O’Hara for a deterministic philosopher anyway)—but instead they make me ache for a time more wonderful, where New York exists one day the same as it did the day before, with the map of Manhattan set in place and the trains running on their own schedule. What continues is not the storefronts or the bars or restaurants, but our capacity to find the beauty of life amongst it all.
After all, he ends his poem like this:
                                                                         continues to be possible
René Char, Pierre Reverdy, Samuel Beckett it is possible isn’t it
I love Reverdy for saying yes, though I don’t believe it
I’m not sure Frank would know what to say now. He seemed so positive despite his own setbacks—even the hard times begat beauty. But these are no ordinary hard times and the very idea of freely walking around and observing is now an act of calculated risk.
Everything has changed and as we look ahead all we know is that everything will continue to change, some all at once and some slowly in a crawl. In that, we’re saying goodbye to our normal, no longer for now having to worry about making lunch on time. I love O’Hara for writing what he did—that we can be happy in the continuation of the things we love AND move forward freely into the times that break our world so suddenly, though I don’t believe it.