Ah Jean Dubuffet2
when you think of him
doing his military service in the Eiffel Tower3
as a meteorologist
you know how wonderful the 20th century
and the gaited Iroquois4 on the girders
fierce and unflinching-footed
nude as they should be
like Sonia Delaunay5
there is a parable of speed
somewhere behind the Indians’ eyes
they invented the century with their horses
and their fragile backs
which are dark
we owe a debt to the Iroquois
and to Duke Ellington6
for playing in the buildings when they are built
we don’t do much ourselves
but fuck and think
of the haunting Metro7
and the one who didn’t show up there
while we were waiting to become part of our century
just as you can’t make a hat out of steel
and still wear it
who wears hats anyway
it is our tribe’s custom
how are you feeling in ancient September
I am feeling like a truck on a wet highway9
how can you
you were made in the image of god
I was not
I was made in the image of a sissy truck-driver10
and Jean Dubuffet painting his cows
“with a likeness burst in the memory”11
apart from love (don’t say it)
I am ashamed of my century
for being so entertaining
but I have to smile12
1Naphtha is petroleum based chemical, and is one of the lightest and most volatile of the petroleum based fractions. Frank O’Hara uses this as the title for his poem which could easy be seen as volatile in the way that it makes us take a look at the things which we contribute to society. O’Hara starts the poem by asking us to think of Jean Dubuffet and to consider the simple art for which he became famous. This immediately allows us to feel comfortable in whatever sort of art we can offer, for this is the beauty offered by “art brut”. O’Hara then continues to show us the heights we can achieve, if only we have the courage to climb. Certainly, the natives were not familiar with the tools and fundamental architecture needed to create the wondrous skyscrapers; however, they had bravery and were open-minded enough to learn the craft. After this, O’Hara brings us back to another artist, Sonia Delaunay, who was famous for creating Orphism. Neither Delaunay nor Dubuffet seemed to be particularly masterful in their art. I believe that O’Hara used these two artists for that very reason. He wanted to show us that anyone can contribute to the status of our age. Then, O’Hara pulls the trigger on his message. He references, once again, the native people but this time adds Duke Ellington to the list of contributors. No longer are we dealing with artists without skill. Ellington raises the bar, and then O’Hara lets us know how grossly we have underachieved. He shows us the trifling things that distract us from giving something more to society as a whole. We are so wrapped up in our temporal relations and the grind of the day to day that we miss out on so many opportunities to become something greater. No, we do not have much desire to contribute or become something more; for it has become our destiny to lead others through our deceit. O’Hara understands that we have become something that can contribute little more than simple entertainment. Then, just after he has made us feel like uneducated and unmotivated sloths, O’Hara lets us off the hook. Even though he is disappointed in us and with himself, he has to smile at the entertainment we bring.
2Jean Dubuffet was a French artist who coined the phrase art brut, which translates “raw art”. It is no surprising, then, that O’Hara would reference this particular artist who was basically unprofessional in his work to help drive home the point of his shame in our century. Dubuffet’s art is often regarded as primitive or child-like.
3The first regular radio broadcasts of the “spoken news” began transmission from the tower in 1922.
4During the Industrial Revolution, it was discovered that the Native Americans were natural born bridge men. They had no fear of heights and were sure-footed as goats on the lofty beams overlooking the city.
5Sonia Delaunay, with the help of her husband, created a style of art called Orphism. This art used bold colors and simple geometric shapes.
6Duke Ellington was a jazz composer and leader of big band music. His musical career spanned over 50 years. He was awarded The Pulitzer Prize posthumously in 1999. Ellington, with his talent and charisma, was believed to be the reason for the drastic growth in popularity of jazz.
7The Metro in Paris, France is the second largest in Europe. Certainly, there would be crowds and a world-wide disdain for this sort of public transportation.
8According to Merriam Webster, beguile can be defined, to lead by deception. These are very powerful words given the text.
9O’Hara uses a simile here to show how unsure of his path he has become. The next few lines follow on this line of reasoning, showing Frank’s loss of identity and seeming jealousy of those who know themselves.
10O’Hara uses this line to poke a little fun at himself and at his poetry. He intends for the reader to have a little laugh before the final lines of his poetry. There is a comical contrast of a truck-driver and a sissy that should not be missed by the reader. This is a sort of opening up by Frank about his homosexuality.
11”with a likeness burst in the memory” was used by Hattie Smith to describe a piece by Dubuffet in a catalog for his 1939 show at the Museum of Modern Art.
12O’Hara may be ashamed of his century, but entertainment seems to have a way of making people smile. Perhaps that is our greatest contribution: entertainment.