The Question of Simplicity: Frank O’Hara and Wendy Cope
A trademark of modern poetry is its attention to the beauty of mundane, ordinary existence. Infatuated with the private moment, fleeting emotions, and quotidian objects and symbols, such poetry offers a glimpse into an exclusive and private world. This article will explore the ways in which modern poets utilize ordinary objects and signifiers to explore private emotions and experiences. This article will consider the poetry of Frank O’Hara and Wendy Cope, who, although their works are decades apart, employ similar conventions of intimacy through ordinary objects and food in order to explore the sanctity of the private experience.
Jerry Jarniewicz (1996) offers a historical take on the significance of simplicity in modern poetry. Arguing that symbols of the mundane in modern poetry serve as a literary example of historical dissidence, Jarniewicz suggests that in an attempt to protest against art that spoke to a collective consciousness, representative of political ideologies such as communism and totalitarianism, the significance of poetry was founded in a growing interest in writing:
“ostentatiously private verse of limited perspective, poems about their friends, about their loves, about going to bed and eating an orange” (p. 201).
In this perspective, the proliferation of the orange as a literary trope stems from the response of modern poetry to narrow perspectives in a subversive move away from the “all-embracing ideologies” (p. 200) that defined the first half of the twentieth century. This modern poetry focuses in on small, mundane details of life, unconcerned with, though not detached from, political or historical magnitude. Tired of the weaponization of art as a political endeavour, the move towards simplicity became a form of protest through verse. The elevation of the private experience, as communicated through mundane snapshots, or ordinary objects and substances, serves as a direct reaction against the overwhelming outward and political nature of the twentieth century. The poetry of lovers in bed, walking in the park or sharing an orange became representative of a literary ideology in which the private moment was necessarily associated with an authentic, safeguarded, and sacred experience. Jarniewicz’s theoretical approach does not account for all instances of the elevation of the private, simplified experience, but offers an interesting position for the literary shift towards the mundane, as a reaction against the political enterprise.
An Instance of Simplicity: Frank O’Hara
Jarniewicz (1996) cites Frank O’Hara as a harbinger of simplicity. In relation to this literary shift towards the significance of the private moment, Jarniewicz (1996) offers the example of Frank O’Hara, “the poet who loved oranges and made ordinary things sacred” (p. 201).
For Grace, After a Party (1957) Put out your hand, Isn’t there / An ashtray, suddenly, there? beside The bed? And someone you love enters the room And says wouldn’t you like the eggs a little different today?
This attention to the sanctity of the ordinary would endow mundane objects, as in O’Hara’s poem For Grace, After a Party, with grand significance. The poem does not lose meaning in its mundanity. Rather, O’Hara’s infatuation with the private, ordinary experience reflects a generation of writers who are keen to “look at the world through a microscope”, and seek to “scan everyday trivia, the low and the insignificant, the ephemeral and the intimate” (p. 200). In this way, overlooked objects, such as an ashtray, come to bear grand significance as representations of love and affection when held under the poet’s microscope. The setting of this poem is significant as the enjambment of the poem suggests an anxious mental state that longs for privacy and for the lover that “sets [him] afire” (O’Hara, 1957, line 5). The violent and tumultuous imagery of ”writhe and bear the fruit of screaming” (line 8) is silenced with the command ”put out your hand” (line 9). The enjambment is replaced with caesuras as the speaker finds sanctity within his private, microscopic haven. It is significant to note that the shortest line of the poem is ”beside the bed?” (line 11), heralding the most extreme instance of private connection as it alleviates the anxiety produced by public witness and interaction.
The reader has accepted entry into the private experience of the lovers, into the intimacy of a bedroom after a party, yet they are always somewhat outside of the meaning. Whilst it is clear to the reader that the ordinary signifiers such as the ”ashtray” (line 7) and the ”egg” (line 9) are symbols of great, emotive significance, it is apparent that there is an emotional depth to the nouns that are left unexplored by O’Hara. The reader knows that outside of this scene, the ashtray signifies a crucial aspect of their relationship, even though the symbolism is brushed over and significantly unexplored by O’Hara. Despite the second-person address which indicates an expectation of understanding from the reader, it is undermined by the exclusivity of ”put out your hand” (line 9), an intimate command which bars the reader from being included. This plays into the intimacy of the moment constituted by O’Hara purposefully excluding the reader so as to build up the sanctity of a moment that can only possibly be understood by the two lovers. In this way, we return to Jarniewicz’s (1996) understanding of the generation obsessed with ”private verse of limited experience” (p. 200), a limitation that only elevates the significance of these ordinary identifiers of romantic connection.
The Significance of The Orange: Wendy Cope
The Orange by Wendy Cope (1991) At lunchtime I bought a huge orange— The size of it made us all laugh. I peeled it and shared it with Robert and Dave— They got quarters and I had a half. And that orange, it made me so happy, As ordinary things often do Just lately. The shopping. A walk in the park. This is peace and contentment. It’s new. The rest of the day was quite easy. I did all the jobs on my list And enjoyed them and had some time over. I love you. I’m glad I exist.
Both O’Hara’s and Cope’s inclusion of food as symbols of the private experience illuminates the attention of modern writers to ordinary symbols as vessels of grand, yet private, emotion. Carol E. Dietrich’s (1991) article on the poetics of food enlightens the significance given to the egg and the orange in O’Hara and Cope’s poetry. In her understanding, food ”supplies the imagery of our largest and most intense experiences” (p. 127). She then elaborates that when we speak of food:
“we speak of life and the cup of life; we speak [...] of sorrow as something to be drunk from a cup [...] we hunger and thirst righteousness; we starve for love; we speak of the fruit of our labors” (p. 127).
The inclusion of food in poetic expression highlights the role of ordinary signifiers as microcosmic allusions. Through a simple reference to an egg, or to an orange, the poet transcribes a limited private experience, a symbol that appears mundane but signifies a sacred and emotive moment. As Dietrich (1991) evaluates, the mundane symbol of food can serve as a microcosm for various emotions, experiences, and processes of life. It is proof that the commitment of modern writers to simplicity does not entail a forsaking of meaning.
The orange in Cope’s poem encapsulates the potential of an ordinary object to be a microcosmic poetic force. The connotations of fruit are endless: fertility, health and wealth, and in some instances, mortality and decay. James Everett (2008) attests to the richness of the orange (p. 194) as a symbol, and of the ”relative symbolic importance” of the orange ”in the north of Europe” (p. 194), evidencing the ways in which ordinary objects can be written with rich emotive potential. It is particularly interesting to consider that Cope does not gesture to such symbolic importance within her poem. One might interpret the speaker’s description of the size of the huge orange to be representative of health or wealth, but Cope’s preoccupation is with the immediate experience of the orange. The reader is again somewhat outside the private moment, despite being granted access to it. Whilst the reader attempts to configure the meaning of the orange, or indeed the size of it, the figures of the poem are able to simply enjoy their ”limited experience”.
Cope finds ”peace and contentment” (line 8) within her ordinary, private moment. As the orange resides in the poem unattached to anything but its immediate meaning which is a shared exchange between friends, Cope speaks to the beauty that generations of writers sourced within the simplicity of mundane moments. The summative statement which concludes this poem - ”I love you. I’m glad I exist” (line 12) - epitomizes the sanctity of the ordinary moment. It is a recognition of the importance of the “low and the insignificant”, that an object as simple as an orange can inspire the revelation of love and gratitude, which demonstrates how significance can be sourced from the seemingly insignificant.
Returning to O’Hara’s poem, the image of the “egg” inspires similar revelations. Much like fruit, the egg in literature has various symbols such as imagery of fertility, birth and creation, and this is acknowledged within O’Hara's simple dialogue between lovers. As the reader attempts to insert themselves into the exclusive interaction, O’Hara neglects interpretation and instead finds sanctity in its exclusivity. In the following line, the eggs arrive as “just plain scrambled eggs” as O’Hara brushes over symbolism to focus on the simple celebration that “the warm weather is holding” (line 14).
In their appreciation of the sanctity that can be found in simplicity, both O’Hara and Cope conclude their poems with unembellished declarations of gratitude. The shift in modern poetry towards an introspective simplicity is somewhat exaggerated within these respective poets. Despite this, these writers epitomize the ways in which modern poets sought to elevate the ordinary experience, utilizing symbolism without directly responding to it. In a fast-paced world of chaos, political tension, and ever-changing perspectives, O’Hara and Cope slow the axis, finding beauty and sanctity in snapshots of intimacy.
Cope, W. (1992). “The Orange“. The Gladdest Thing.
Dietrich, C. (1991). “The Raw and the Cooked“: The Role of Fruit in Modern Poetry. Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal, 24(2), pp. 127-144.
Everett, J. (2008). “Oranges of Paradise: The Orange as Symbol of Escape and Loss in Children's Literature“. Critical Approaches to Food in Children's Literature, Routledge Press.
Jarniweicz, J. (1996). Poetry, History and the Love of Oranges. Agni, 44, 196–201. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23007685
O'Hara, F. (1957). “For Grace, After a Party“. Meditations in an Emergency, Grove Press, p. 17.
Figure 1: Hulsdonck, J. (n.d). Still Life with Oranges and Lemons in a Wan-Li Porcelian [Painting]. Retrieved from https://blog.bridgemanimages.com/blog/the-depiction-of-orange
Figure 2: Toulouse-Lautrec, H. (1893). In Bed [Painting]. Retrieved from https://publicdomainreview.org/collection/toulouse-lautrec-bed-series
Figure 3: Benson, A. (n.d). Wendy Cope [Photograph]. Retrieved from https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/poet-wendy-cope-grew-up-depressed-in-the-shadow-of-evangelical-mother-37752796.html
Figure 4: Redl, H. (1958). Frank O'Hara [Photograph]. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/29/books/review/Logan-t.html