Mad Men: Poem Unlimited!

Learning to enjoy poetry with Don Draper

Meditations in an EmergencyMeditations in an Emergency by Frank O'Hara

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This collection of poems made an appearance in Season 2, Episode 1 of Mad Men, and concludes with the eponymous title for the final episode of the season. Don Draper (Jon Hamm) sees a guy reading this book in a bar, and asks, "Is it good?". The guy says, “I don’t think you’d like it". Later, Don is reading the book.

I enjoy "discovering" literature through other books and media. One of my favourite discoveries was Lady Rose's Daughter by Mrs Humphry Ward, where a journalist visiting my home town in Gunning in 1905 tells of reading the book while waiting for a delayed train. I have since read numerous references to Mrs Humphry Ward, including in Downton Abbey. Both Downton Abbey and Mad Men include numerous cultural references that are worth pursuing.

Indeed, my fascination with the work of Hemingway and Fitzgerald began with Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, which I first watched while finalising the submission of my PhD thesis. Since casting that monkey off my back, I have been reading great literature as often as I can in an effort to "catch up" (as Harold Bloom said, we often end up reading "against the clock").

It has taken me some time to come to enjoy reading poetry; my earlier hard work in reading Homer and Virgil stood me in good stead. Yet I recall a quote from The Big Short:

Truth is like poetry. And most people fucking hate poetry.
At the time, I might have agreed. But after reading O'Hara's work, I had to think why, as someone who randomly writes poetry, that I would shy away from reading it. And then it all flooded back.

It was in 1981. There was a monsoonal storm outside the old Queenslander classroom in Cairns, Far North Queensland. I was sitting next to the window on the verandah and it was our Year 6 English exam. We had to write a poem. I looked out the window and I wrote a poem about the storm, as if it were a group of demons "playing their game of bedlam" and then moving on. (Bedlam was a rough game all the boys in the school used to play. It was invariably banned as we cycled through new variants of rough games that often ended in bloodied noses.) Debussy would have been proud (the memory makes me think of one of my favourite pieces - the "symphonic poem" Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune).

I was quite happy about the poem, went home, and thought nothing of it. The next day, Mum was called to the school, and I was accused of plagiarism. No child could write such a poem. After what I remember as the longest time, it was decided that my poem was indeed original, and I was awarded 100% for the exam.

But then it got worse. They made me read it out to the entire class - a combined class of about 60 eleven-year-old children. My reference to the game of "Bedlam" wasn't a hit. Kids today would have said that this reference was "lame". What I didn't know then was that the other kids were jealous. But after the whole experience, my thoughts were simple. Fuck poetry. Until I read O'Hara.

I hope the reader will forgive my indulgence in my pitiful primary school memories (channelling Turgenev here), but O'Hara's work brought all this back to me. But not just childhood memories. O'Hara refers to Greek mythology, botany, music, composers, artists (many I had to look up), but I could recognise O'Hara channelling Walt Whitman when I read a line in "Mayakovsky", the final poem in the book:
I leap into the leaves, green like the sea.
So now I find myself wanting to read poetry again. The first thing I did today was to renew my subscription to The Paris Review. (Today I received the last edition of my subscription.) I don't want to miss out on any more new poems, and I will go back and read my old editions. I might even start writing poetry again. All this from buying a book based on a cultural reference in Mad Men.

But one thing that struck me while reading Meditations was what voice would the author use if he were to read his own poems? Would it be lyrical and sweet? How would he pause, where would he place his emphasis? I was shocked to watch a few of Frank O'Hara's readings on YouTube. It was a bit like listening to Ernest Hemingway's voice in his Nobel Prize speech after listening to Corey Stoll speak the way we wished Hemingway spoke (in Midnight in Paris). Yet it gives me confidence that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. Magazine and movie people might provide us with perfect images of the literary greats, but great literature is written by real people who live real lives and have foibles like the rest of us.

Why read poetry? I will need to buy Harold Bloom's book to find out in more detail. But for me, at least, reading O'Hara has opened up a whole new world of inner experience, sentiment, and beauty. His work makes me feel exactly as I do when listening to the work of Claude Debussy or my favourite American composer John Adams. It isn't sublime, it's magical. It makes sense of the term that up until now has vexed me: Poem Unlimited.

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