Sunday, July 27, 2008

Frank O'Hara and Mad Men

Watching Mad Men for the first time tonight, I was surprised to see ad man Don Draper reading the paperback edition of Frank O'Hara's Meditations in an Emergency (1957). Don picks up a copy after seeing someone reading the book in a bar.

Meditations was published in a very limited run: 90 hardcover and 900 paperback copies. Brad Gooch's O'Hara biography A City Poet notes that by 1960 the book was out of print. This episode of Mad Men focuses on Valentine's Day, 1962 (the night of A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy). How does Don Draper get hold of this book so readily? Well, it's television.

At the end of the episode, Don reads aloud the fourth (last) section of "Mayakovsky," the last poem in Meditations:

Now I am quietly waiting for
the catastrophe of my personality
to seem beautiful again,
and interesting, and modern.

The country is grey and
brown and white in trees,
snows and skies of laughter
always diminishing, less funny
not just darker, not just grey.

It may be the coldest day of
the year, what does he think of
that? I mean, what do I? And if I do,
perhaps I am myself again.
Is O'Hara's poem charting this character's future? Tune in next week.

["Mayakovsky" is available in O'Hara's Collected Poems (1971), in two editions of Selected Poems (1974, 2008), and in the reissued Meditations in an Emergency (1996).]

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comments: 11

jcrn said...

Actually, there are plenty of copies listed on Amazon for relatively low prices in the paperback form so I'm wondering if a later edition came out? The hardcovers go for an astronomical amount.

Michael Leddy said...

Yes, Meditations was reissued in 1967 and again in 1996. Even the 1957 and 1967 paperbacks are pretty expensive.

Matt Thomas said...

Advertising Age reports (scroll down) that sales of Meditations in an Emergency have skyrocketed since the show.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for the link, Matt. The book is now out of stock at Amazon. I'm planning to teach "Meditations in an Emergency" (the poem) this fall; I better teach "Mayakovksy" too.

Scott Gunsaullus said...

Everybody keeps saying that "sales are skyrocketing." Duh. I bet sales of lucky strikes and old golds are "skyrocketing" too. Such focus, I believe, belies the significance of the reference itself.

There are three themes in 'Mayakovsky' that I think relate directly to the arc of Don Draper; frailty of the human condition, futility of the creative soul, and the falsehood of the American dream.

If you take the title, mayakovsky, as in Vladimir Mayakovsky, as the literal subject of the poem, O'Hara may have been lamenting the loss of a mentor, hero, friend, father figure, or lover. O'Hara was only 4 years old when Mayakovsky died. It's well documented that he counted Mayakovsky as an influence but the first passage longs for the return of a physical relationship.


My heart's aflutter!
I am standing in the bath tub
crying. Mother, mother
who am I? If he
will just come back once
and kiss me on the face
his coarse hair brush
my temple, it's throbbing!


Perhaps O'Hara was writing a sort of eulogy to someone, who for him, was his personal Mayakovsky. In that context I think I might know who Don sent the book to. Notice that he didn't sign his full name but simply "-D". Lest we forget that Don has another name that starts with D. In which case, it could have been Dick Whitman sending a cathartic package to his dead brother Adam.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for sharing your ideas, Scott. I wrote this post as someone interested in FOH's poetry and as a newcomer to Mad Men. Would Don Draper make so impractical a gesture as sending a package to the dead? I don't know enough about his character to judge.

The television use of "Mayakovsky" elides the poem's sexual content, and I wondered about that in relation to Don Draper. The last two sections of the poem seem to suggest suicide and a return to life — which sounds like Don's back story.

I suppose I'll keep watching Mad Men at least until the USPS delivers (or returns?) that package.

By the way, I find the increased sales of Meditations remarkable. Too bad the same didn't happen for Yeats with "The Second Coming" and The Sopranos. (Or if it did, I missed it.) I'm hoping to cash in on the Mad Men connection when my intro poetry students read some O'Hara poems this fall (which they were going to read anyway).

Michael Leddy said...

Oops: going to be reading anyway.

Scott Gunsaullus said...

There is more than one angle on the poem's allusion to suicide, as it relates to the backstory in Mad Men. When Dick Whitman switched places with his dead commanding officer, Don Draper, he left his younger brother Adam behind, to think he was dead.

Years later, in mid season 1, Adam and Dick (Don) have a chance reunion. Adam was overjoyed to to know his brother was alive and eager to see him and be part of his life. Not eager to mix his present with his past, Don scorned his brother, gave him a large sum of money and told Adam never to speak to him again. Shortly thereafter, Adam hung himself in his one room apartment. Don didn't learn about the suicide until the season 1 finale. Feeling guilty and lonely, he tried to call Adam on Thanksgiving and learned the news.

In this context, the poem would clearly have made Don think of Adam and thats what makes me think that Adam was the recipient of the package. To answer your question, yes, Don is a dreamer and would probably make such a gesture.

Michael Leddy said...

The only speculation I've seen concerned Don's beatnik friend Midge — your alternative seems much more interesting. It'll be interesting to see what happens (and if this parcel stays an enigma).

Jeff Hussein Strabone said...

The episode title of the finale of season two is 'Meditatons in an Emergency'. As for the observation above that he signed the book 'D', which could stand for Don or Dick, the character placed a mysterious telephone call from California at the end of this week's episode and identified himself as Dick Whitman. stay tuned.

Scott Gunsaullus said...

Yes. Don was clearly signed "-D", as Dick Whitman. As for my previous theory about him sending the book to his dead brother Adam, I no longer think that's the case. Whoever it was that he called at the end of 'the Jet Set' was the likely recipient. I'm going to re-watch 'the Hobo Code' for clues about Dick's extended family.