Frank O’Hara, “Windows” … and my own commentary on the poem…

Frank O’Hara


This space so clear and blue
does not care what we put

into it         Airplanes disappear
in its breath and towers drown

Even our hearts leap up when
we fall in love with the void

the azure smile the back of a
woman’s head and takes wing

never to return         O my heart!
think of Leonardo who was born

embraced life with a total eye
and now is dead in monuments

There is no spring breeze to
soften the sky         In the street

no perfume stills the merciless
arc of the lace-edged skirt


Frank O’Hara was notorious for writing, then misplacing or losing interest in drafts. “Windows,” a work not included in Collected Poems, didn’t surface until later – in American Poetry Review and in O’Hara’s Poems Retrieved (1977). I don’t really know – or need to know – the story behind this poem, but the lines do affect me in ways that aren’t easily explained. That’s part of the poem’s greatness.
The opening is powerful: a space that can hold everything we place in it. I like the fact that the window is not judgmental about what becomes part of its field, but is very accepting. The scope of the poem’s imagery is magnificent – an endless sweep through windows (note the plural) into an infinity of sorts: (the universal or object/non-human oriented) space so clear, airplane, tower, monuments, window’s breath, no breeze, taking wing, the void; (and the specific and very human – mostly in the poem’s second half) azure smile, a woman’s head, Leonardo’s eye, no perfume, the arc of a skirt). I read drowning towers as a city’s skyline – appropriate to a poet firmly rooted in every aspect of New York – an urban view that swallows great buildings and people in its own striking beauty.

Two specific references – “our hearts leap” and “O my heart” – may focus more on O’Hara himself, or at least his view of himself as a writer. Unlike the impressive window that opens the poem, urging the reader to become lost in that space, the artist (Leonardo, O’Hara, you, me) dies in monuments, a more disturbing window, leaving no wind to “soften the sky.” “Monuments” could stand for the view that imposes limits – of any kind – on the artist or the art.

In this short poem, the reader is pulled from a secure place and made to “fall in love with the void” – the unreachable, the unsayable. The poem ends with the sweep of the “merciless arc of the lace-edged skirt,” taking the reader into a void of a different kind. “Lace-edged skirt” implies society, time, restrictions, human physicality, desire. “Merciless” is an effective word choice here. O’Hara could intend the reader to take this as time’s relentless force – even Leonardo, great embracer of life, came to dust. He also could be making a statement about sexuality – and here read society’s restrictions and expectations, a different sort of window – the lace boundaries of conformity and roles. Either way, the poem ends with an upward sweep into a puzzling but fecund unknown.

I drift… I disappear …

~ by samofthetenthousandthings on June 15, 2016.

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