Commentary, Features

“I Made Myself Laugh and so I Forgot about the Point I Was Making”—on O’Hara, Bishop, and the Poetics of Delight

by Ellene Glenn Moore | Contributing Writer

S oon after moving to Florida I go to a poetry reading on, weirdly, South Beach. It’s Friday night and Ocean Drive is packed with tourists slugging down pink margaritas from stemmed bowls as big their heads. Neon lights buzz on my one side, and the dark ocean stretches out on the other. The reading itself is in the basement bar of an iconic hotel, a space that is self-consciously defiant of Ocean Drive’s glitter: long, velvet couches; oriental rugs; waterstained mirrors; dim lights, and a low ceiling of highly reflective rubber, which makes the room appear twice as tall and ripples pleasantly when prodded. The poetry crowd is all dark eyes and red lips, skinny jeans, the occasional and ironical pairing of a silk vest with a ratty T-shirt. A young attendee has clipped a cloth flower to his hair. A waitress makes the rounds with a tray of sushi whose clean aesthetic contrasts bizarrely with the brooding, speakeasy atmosphere. A poet in a thrift-worthy dress takes the mic.

There’s something here, it seems to me, that points to an essential quality of poetry: neon lights and dusky ocean; pink margaritas and subversive hair ornaments; the swarthy, dim bar, but also the sundressed poet’s exegetic consideration of the relationship between Whitman and tit-pics. And so what if that relationship is purely sonic (it isn’t, turns out, but—)? Isn’t it just delightful that we’re here, doing this, and that it’s all happening not just at the same time and in spite of, but because of and in response to?

So, delight. What exactly do I mean by this? Is delight simply joy and good humor? Humor is not something I have reached for in my poetry. In fact, my mother loves to tell me that I have no sense of humor. This is exactly how she says it, you have no sense of humor, which feels distinctly different from you don’t have a sense of humor. Not a complete negation, necessarily, or an absence of possession, but rather possession of an absence—as if no humor were itself an object I carry around with me and hold up for evaluation, and which the world finds lacking. She is certainly delightful, my mother. Or, she finds delight in ribbing me. I don’t, always, but I do concede that there’s not much in my work to make a reader laugh. And surely laughter has a part in delight. I return here to the title of this essay, which is lifted from some marginalia in my copy of Frank O’Hara’s Collected Poems. It’s a quote I scrawled next to “To the Mountains in New York” which I’ve apparently attributed to a former professor, but I don’t know now if he was referring to that poem, or O’Hara’s work at all, or some other nth-hour-of-class tangent. O’Hara’s work does seem, up to a point, to be easy in laughter. It is funny, charming, and it says not so much “I made myself laugh and so I forgot about the point I was making” but “I made myself laugh and there was no point in the first place, but chin chin isn’t laughing such fun?”

And yet, the delight I encounter in O’Hara’s writing does not seem to be just about humor, really. His work is imbued with a painfully necessary delight in the world around him. “I am ashamed of my century,” he writes in “Naphtha,” “for being so entertaining / but I have to smile.” Such love for his era, and all its bobbling inconsistencies! Not just the face of god, but face of a “sissy truck-driver”; not just the proprietary airs of the Académie, but Debuffet’s art brut muscling against the mainstream. Is this, then, a facet of delight—a loving kind of tenderness that lets us unfold even dissonance, or chagrin, or inadequacy into something worth smiling over? I hear this same tone in the Lana Turner poem: “oh Lana Turner we love you get up.” The near-absence of punctuation throughout the poem lends itself to that manic, hyperventilative (this is a word) “hurry / to meet you” while the sky and traffic are all mixed up—the weather doesn’t stop for signage, nor do New Yorkers, so why should these sentences?—until that final line, where it is all exhaled in exasperation. But a loving exasperation, isn’t it? Lana Turner, I am ashamed of you, but I have to smile. This is, I’ll hazard, an important relationship: the effect delight has on craft, its ability to push us towards folding out instead of folding in.

This act of unfolding one thing into another—shame into a smile, exasperation into affection—seems, to me, suggestive of the kind of unfolding and refolding of image that metaphor requires. How one thing can be both itself and something entirely different—but not so different—all at once. Is this, too, delight: the practice of seeing an object and not-that-object at the same time, the transmutation of water into fire that exists only because a writer told me to see it? I’m referencing, of course, a line from Elizabeth Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses.” Bishop is all about how to look at things, to see them as what they are and what they aren’t and to transform that space in the middle into something meaningful: the ocean becomes “yard-goods” to the land’s domestic touch, a fish’s skin becomes “strips [of] ancient wallpaper,” the photograph of women’s “horrifying” breasts unpacks into a cosmic gulp at the question of identity and existence. And, the full context for the metaphor I mentioned above:

If you should dip your hand in, […]
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.

We start with the water: it’s cold. So cold, it feels like it is burning our skin. And once we’ve got “burn” in there, that tactile image of fire, of course the visual image suggests itself. (Disclosure: I actually first heard this turn of phrase, “suggests itself,” from that same former professor, but I am definitely going to use it as much as possible, and I am going to pretend I thought of it all on my own, and nobody will ever know, and eventually I will have persuaded myself that I did think of it all on my own, and I will use it so convincingly in a class lecture that one of my students will write it down and steal it from me—there’s some transmutation for you.) Anyway: this fire-water is dark and grey and hungry for stone. The metaphor doesn’t just move us from tenor to vehicle; it moves us from tenor to one grounds of comparison, to another grounds of comparison, to vehicle. So much unfolding here. If there is delight in the conflation of exasperation and affection, surely there is delight in the conflation of water and fire. Not a loving delight, perhaps, but an exacting delight. Bishop is nothing if not exacting.

Now that I’m on a tear, I have to point out that even the language of metaphor seems to suggest delight—one thing is like another. Like, as in affinity, as in pleasure, as in delight. Or, like, from the Proto-Germanic for “similar,” “equal,” from the Proto-Indo-European root līg-, “image” or “body.” And delight, from the Latin “to select,” “to cull,” “to choose,” all the way down to its PIE root leǵ-, meaning “to gather,” or perhaps leyǵ-, “to bind.” Maybe this is a stretch. But—! Is it really so strange, after all, to imagine an impulse towards delight as the real spirit of metaphor-building? With this etymological guidance, delight certainly seems to resonate with the pleasure of metaphorical precision—gathering and culling images, binding them together, demanding rigor from figure and ground. It asks for a degree of fixation from the writer.

“Fixation” has been for me, and is for many writers, I suspect, a prominent feature of my writing. A fixation on memory, specifically—but also a fixation on the obsession itself, a deep-seated need for understanding, categorizing, plotting the movement of my own memories from impression to encodement to recollection. I am often guided—sometimes with extreme intensity—by a resistance to losing things. I like to gather. When I am searching the internet for an answer to some question, I make myself open twenty tabs, then systematically scan and close each one until I feel I have a comprehensive survey of the answer from all angles; when I share a bag of chips with a friend, I cannot take a chip or two, eat them, and return to the bag, but must instead take a full handful and guard it against my belly until it is gone; and in disagreements with my husband, I frequently find myself recounting, word for word, everything that both of us has said, because I certainly couldn’t bear the tragedy of either of us having missed something (without a doubt, this is my husband’s favorite thing about me).

And, come to think of it, haven’t I written over and over about cutting my hand on a broken toilet my first summer home after college? A poem here, a lyric essay there, fragments of the same memory enthusiastically gathered together. I don’t know how delightful that sounds. But gathering is only one part of the equation for delight—what about culling? What about chiseling and sculpting a poem into shape? It is about process, then: not just an initial delight that provides an occasion for a poem, but delight in the actual selection, culling, choice. Is this, perhaps, what Michelangelo had in mind each time he abandoned one prisioneiro and began chiseling away at the next one? The meticulous, too—obsessive, even—can be driven by and engender delight.

Maybe I should be reaching for delight in my work; maybe, if delight is more than humor after all, I already am. O’Hara and Bishop certainly seem to be observing delight in manifestly different ways, but I think it is delight nonetheless: tenderness towards the source material, meticulous gathering and culling of image and metaphor. And me, awaiting bald bewilderment at the finished product. I don’t know if this map of delight provides any meaningful directions towards the writing of “good” poetry. Poetryland is a strange place. But the actual world is a strange place, and it seems to me that there is a choice to be made. The liquor-rug-sushi-neon-snow-hunger-fire-breasts-sky-Whitman confusion can either be met with distrust or delight. Who is not going to choose delight every time?

Ellene Glenn Moore is a writer living in sunny South Florida. Her prose has appeared in BrevityFjords ReviewCritical Flame, and elsewhere, and her poetry has appeared in Best New PoetsCaliban, and Ninth Letter, among others. She earned her MFA in creative writing at Florida International University, where she held a John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Fellowship in Poetry. Her chapbook The Dark Edge of the Bluff is forthcoming from Green Writers Press. Find her at elleneglennmoore.com.

photo credit: y.caradec Mécanique musique – Jean Dubuffet, 6 février 1966 via photopin (license)