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Beloved Object: The “You” in Richard Brautigan’s and Frank O’Hara’s poetry

Poetry has always served the purpose of clarifying the abstract in my life. The same way one would carefully observe an abstract painting for form and content, meaning is buried in the poem’s structure and formal language. A unique pattern I have noticed in some of my favorite poets’ work is that the poetry directly addresses a “you” and is conversational. This pattern has provoked further study in what the poet’s address of the “you” signifies and how new meaning is produced through a direct conversation with the “you”. Two notable American poets who incorporate the use of the addressee are Richard Brautigan and Frank O’Hara. Brautigan’s treatment of the Beloved Object suggests that he is mourning the death of his self or documenting deterioration whereas O’Hara’s address of the Beloved Object memorializes ephemeral moods and moments by means of conversation. The poets’ unique address modernizes the conversational tradition that is found in the address of the Beloved Object.

Characteristics of this pattern include the speaker addressing the “you” in second person narrative. The “you” can be self-reflective and refer to the speaker or a person, place or thing. The “you” is regarded as something treasured that inspires poetic thought and has been attributed personal value. The “you” shares similar traits with the lyric subject but distinguishes itself through its unique manipulation by formal elements and style in second person narrative that invites a closer reading and interpreted meaning. For the purposes of this paper I will refer to the regarded “you” in the referenced poems as the Beloved Object.

Other characteristics unique to the aforementioned pattern are the poems being lyric-like by expressing the speaker’s intimate thoughts or feelings in the present tense. These poems also utilize the conversational structure. Poems that use the conversational structure “appropriate ordinary conversation” and “base their structure upon some non-literary analogue.”[1] The conversation poem’s success as natural is dependent on the authority of the voice and the authenticity in its testimony. For the reader to believe they are overhearing a conversation there needs to be an element of intimate detail that gives insight to the speaker’s experiences yet “transcends the narrowly personal” so the speaker’s words in their poetry does not receive the same significance as a journal entry.[2]

John Lowney writes there are two types of conversation poems: the prose lyric and the discursive or meditative[3]. The prose lyric or “prosody”, is anecdotal, free verse or narrative whereas discursive is digressive and abstract acting on the speaker’s “ability to manipulate analogies.”[4] Despite the poet trying to mimic conversation in their writing it must be superior to mundane conversation to avoid cliché. The voice in a conversation poem can easily teeter on the edge of a Confessional poem but the construction of the poem remains offhand and does not focus on the “I” voice in the poem. For example, in Frank O’Hara’s poem “Having a Coke with You” he writes in first person,

I look

at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world

except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally and anyway it’s in the Frick

which thank heavens you haven’t gone to yet so we can go together the first time [5]

In this poem the ”I” voice is present but this conversation poem, like many of Frank O’Hara’s is about personal connection with surroundings and people rather than inward reflection.

Frank O’Hara’s postmodern poetry continues the tradition of addressing the Beloved Object present in 20th century lyric poet Pablo Neruda’s work. Neruda’s sonnets are embedded with intimate reference to a “you” that he also is memorializing and cherishing with his picturesque words. In Neruda’s sonnet “XVII” he writes:

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.

I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;

so I love you because I know no other way [6]

Unlike O’Hara who writes in concrete references to specific people and places Neruda measures the depth of his affection by describing his love as limitless and unaffected by abstract concepts of time, place or feasibility. There is a sweet simplicity that O’Hara’s poem conveys through the casual and conversational quality his lines emit via lack of punctuation, specificity and its distinct temporal position in the present. Neruda’s work reads closer to that of a monologue or letter whose metaphorical references are universal and timeless. Both poets’ style of addressing the Beloved Object achieves a similar effect of celebrating the Beloved Object using different structures and metaphors.

Frank O’Hara’s style of directly addressing the Beloved Object, sometimes by name, changes how the reader interprets his work. O’Hara mentions this in his mock manifesto Personism. In Personism he states that a phone call with a person could substitute for a poem, putting the poem between the poet and the person reading. O’Hara describes the method of addressing someone in his poems: “…one of its minimal aspects is to address itself to one person (other than the poet himself), thus evoking overtones of love without destroying love’s life-giving vulgarity, and sustaining the poet’s feelings towards the poem while preventing love from distracting him into feeling about the person.” [7] By addressing the Beloved Object directly rather than indirect reference O’Hara avoids abstraction and personal removal while enriching his words.

Frank O’Hara wrote about his subjective experiences in his poetry. He used a conversational style that has been compared to journaling because of its obscure references, engagement with sexuality and break from poetic tradition. I was prompted to do further research on Frank O’Hara because of how warmly regarded and how innovative his candid writing style felt.

In Robert Hampson and Will Montgomery’s Frank O’Hara Now: New Essays on the New York Poet they compile essays that explain O’Hara’s appeal and why he is still pertinent to this day. One of the descriptions that the authors use for O’Hara is that, “…at least 60 people considered O’Hara their best friend.”[8] This simple detail of specificity is telling of the kind of man who addressed his best friends in his poetry. The authors note that the sociability of O’Hara’s writing steers readers into a particular style of reading.[9] O’Hara’s style of writing and addressing a Beloved Object is much like overhearing a conversation. Events are described with the details the speaker wants the receiver to experience if not only through description but also mood and setting. O’Hara pulls his readers into the events he describes with specificity and references to his friends’s names, involving the reader in the dynamic he is experiencing. An example of this is O’Hara’s poem “To John Ashbery” where he describes a world where he and Ashbery would read poems to each other on a mountain, “You can be Tu Fu, I’ll be Po Chü-i/and the Monkey Lady’ll be in the moon,/smiling at our ill-fitting heads”[10] The conversational address of the Beloved Object allows the reader to gain insight into O’Hara’s friendship with John Ashberry while being able to experience a sense of history and trust between them.

The common concepts found in O’Hara’s writing are his intense love for New York (all positive and negative aspects of it), his playful and witty conversational style and the biographical quality of his work. As mentioned earlier, O’Hara wrote in his Personism Manifesto that poems should be between two people rather than two pages, and wrote in a manner that would have critics thinking his work was only to be read by those addressed in it.

O’Hara’s poem “Steps” is a prime example of his signature style. O’Hara starts off the poem by greeting the city he loves: “How funny you are today New York/like Ginger Rogers in Swingtime/and St. Bridget’s steeple leaning a little to the left” addressing New York as the Beloved Object.[11] He compares the Beloved to the fluid dancing of Ginger Rogers and the flawed, but distinguished, beauty of a piece of architecture. In the second stanza O’Hara implies his only desire is to be physically close with the Beloved Object followed by the description of congestion in New York as a necessary human interaction.

all I want is a room up there

and you in it

and even the traffic halt so thick is a way

for people to rub up against each other

and when their surgical appliances lock

they stay together

for the rest of the day (what a day)

I go by to check a slide and I say

that painting’s not so blue [12]

He continues in each stanza listing examples of groups or pairs in varying situations that need each other and share something only they understand. In the last stanza the speaker reflects on the Beloved Object as they are the speaker’s pairing that they have been describing as necessary for intimacy throughout the poem.

oh god it’s wonderful

to get out of bed

and drink too much coffee

and smoke too many cigarettes

and love you so much [13]

The specificity and vividness of the scenes captured in offhand conversation are maintained by use of line breaks. This gives immediacy and meaning to the words he has counted and shared with the Beloved Object. O’Hara writes to share the details he finds important and includes the Beloved Object by drawing them into these observations through comparison. Like the predictable or mundane things the speaker can count on seeing in their New York City life, the speaker seeing the Beloved Object as a routine that is worth looking forward to. This poem, like many of O’Hara’s others is an ode to his Beloved Object with which he attempts to immortalize and celebrate through the beauty of fleeting moments.

Another poet who personally influenced me who followed the tradition of addressing the Beloved Object is Richard Brautigan. Researching Brautigan has been a journey, as there is a critical desert for his work. Currently more is still being discovered and written about who he was and why a man in the midst of the counterculture revolution wrote about loneliness. Because Brautigan’s writing reached renown during the Summer of Love of 1967 it became aligned with a movement Brautigan showed no personal connection to. Brautigan has become permanently associated with a period that some critics think produced few great works making his work susceptible to superficial readings and yielding little positive literary criticism.

Brautigan’s first novella Trout Fishing in America published in 1967 became an international best seller and received immense critical success. His later novels and books of poetry received mostly negative reviews and he was largely dismissed. Brautigan’s fall from favor can be attributed to several factors. Unlike O’Hara, Brautigan did not write reviews or issue manifestos to keep himself in the public eye. He had no real alliance with other writers and thus had few defenders of his work. After the critical failure of his later novels in America he refused to do any interviews. According to Keith Abbott, Brautigan was a stray as well as “both a popular and west coast writer” whose career could not be sustained on what few critical literary journals there were “and so, to attack his work risked no reply.”[14]

Along with what Keith Abbot adds was the burden of “a ridiculed sociological movement attached to his work” Marc Chenetier notes that the American critic’s dismissal of Brautigan’s work can be attributed to his work falling outside of the scope of traditional American scholarship and less to do with the quality of writing. [15] [16] Boyer suggest that because Brautigan’s prose was post-modernist and detailed, “isolation, incapacity, the solitariness of the human experience” rather than the individualist protagonists in Western American writings “seeking the uncorrupted frontier” and an honorable way of living, he also did not fit the critical climate. [17]

In addition to his prose, Brautigan’s poetry had been written off as childish and generalized as possessing a naiveté that offers very little to the reader. Though his poetry received less than favorable attention there is sophistication in his form with manipulation of metaphor and structure that is integral in interpreting his address of the Beloved Object. Brautigan’s treatment of the Beloved Object suggests that he is mourning the death of his self or documenting deterioration whereas O’Hara’s address of the Beloved Object memorializes ephemeral moods and moments by means of conversation. The poets’ unique address modernizes the conversational tradition that is found in the address of the Beloved Object.

As a writer fixated on the use of lush descriptions to create richer pieces I immediately was pulled in by Brautigan’s minimalist poems that had a bigger impact on me than reading long, descriptive free verse poems. I was curious as to how he concisely achieved this effect in such few words. Reading Keith Abbott’s review “Shadows and Marble” on Richard Brautigan sheds light on the strategic use of line breaks. Abbott notes “By controlling the colloquial sound of his prose, Brautigan developed a strategy for releasing emotion while utilizing the anarchic and comical responses of his imagination.”[18] This is to say; minimal rhythms and plain language help to bolster the effect of Brautigan’s abnormal metaphors and calculated use of emotion.

In Brautigan’s poem “ 30 Cents, Two Transfers, Love”[19] he follows this format:

Thinking hard about you

I got on the bus

and paid 30 cents car fare

and asked the driver for two transfers

before discovering

that I was


Brautigan uses plain language to change how the reader initially regards the work. The reader is lured into thinking they are reading a journal entry detailing Brautigan’s day. The first four lines read as purely factual statements deterring deeper reading. As the poem progresses the rhythm stays neutral and even insists on sounding like a repetitive list in the lines “and paid 30 cents fare/and asked the driver for two transfers.” The poem steadily leaves the factual and lets emotion penetrate the surface starting with the fifth line, “before discovering”, carefully maintaining neutral rhythm and slowly diminishing in syllables before interrupting the reader with the impact of the last line of the singular word “alone” which stands alone as well, adding to the emotional impact. Brautigan subverts the set logic and pattern by disrupting the poetic structure with the emotion of loneliness. Suddenly the false sense of security the reader was lulled into has turned into a dead end that leaves the reader asking when they made this sharp turn. In addition, compared to O’Hara, Brautigan’s lack of flashy or distracting imagery allows the reader to trust in the ethos of his voice and remain concerned with the rhetoric of voice rather than the rhetoric of image.

In this piece Brautigan’s address of the Beloved Object is to inform of the routineness of his day. In contrast to O’Hara’s description of an exciting routine in New York, Brautigan’s is mundane, uneventful and expresses loneliness. The loneliness is implied to be a result of the Beloved Object’s absence as its only presence manifests in the speaker’s thoughts and not list of transpired events. Though the poem is addressing the Beloved Object it primarily documents the “I” of the poem. This differs from O’Hara whose “I” is not the focus of his poems but rather the “I”’s relationship with the Beloved Object. This documentation through line breaks reflects deterioration in form and the speaker’s self. Addressing the Beloved Object incites honesty in the speaker that implies he is lonely and bored without the Beloved’s presence.

Brautigan’s poetry is saturated with personal associations and the prevalent pattern that Abbott lists as, “Accept A, accept B, therefore accept off-the-wall C.”[20] This strategic pattern conceals the way the speaker outright feels about the Beloved Object; partaking in the playful manner Brautigan has described his poetry as doing.[21] In Brautigan’s “The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster”[22] is a prime example of the pattern:

When you take your pill

it’s like a mine disaster.

I think of all the people

lost inside you.

Brautigan starts the poem with factual “A” and a removed simile or “B” that retains rhythm, preventing the reader from having rising suspicion. It is with the third line where the “I” makes its entrance that the poem makes a significant shift from the impersonal to personal. This shift allows the off wall “C” to “usurp the factual prose’s function with Brautigan’s signature imagination.”[23] Time is distinctly present in the poem, situating the speaker in between present and past. The speaker acts as a witness to the Beloved’s routine and loss of possible prior children, adding a dynamic of history as well.

By comparing the ingestion of a pill, possibly birth control or anti-psychotic medicine, with tragedy Brautigan makes his address of the Beloved Object intimate through personal association. In the fourth line Brautigan is containing the loss inside the Beloved Object, possibly attributing blame through the repeated address of “you”. In the first line he writes, “When you take your pill” and the next mention of the Beloved is to place loss. Brautigan’s equates feelings of loss with the Beloved object through this address.

Brautigan’s poetry modernizes the conversational tradition by mixing the candidness of the conversation poem with the careful constructed form of a lyric poem. Brautigan’s address changes how the reader interprets his poems because they, like Frank O’Hara’s readers, are at the receiving end of the poet’s words instead of between two pages. Jay Boyer notes that Brautigan’s tight control of voice and tone in his work, “...invites a sense of intimacy. This is the voice I only use with you.”[24] This form of private conversation forces reader involvement and emotional response that prompts the reader to closely analyze cause and effect, chronology of events and stitch together the fragments of Brautigan’s story and decipher how the final image was achieved. This structure of interpretation differs from O’Hara’s conversation poems that follow a more linear structure.

Brautigan’s writing is a minor deposit in the history of poetry but is a potent one. His style of poetry modernizes the tradition of addressing a “you” through use of plain language, humor and approachability. Brautigan’s style of poetry reads similar to the notebook of a standup comedian. He is personally removed during the set up of his joke then catches the reader off-guard with the punch line that gives insight to the dark, sad and tender place that has shaped his sense of humor and ideas of what death, love, loneliness, nostalgia and attachment feel and look like. While modernizing the lyric tradition Brautigan’s writing style subverts and challenges the prosody and conversational tradition through its oddities and inability to be classified under one genre.

In Brautigan’s poem “The Beautiful Poem” he affectionately reminisces about a lover after being reminded of them by looking at his penis while “pissing”.

I go to bed in Los Angeles thinking

about you.

Pissing a few moments ago

I looked down at my penis


Knowing it has been inside

you twice today makes me

feel beautiful.

3 A.M.

January 15, 1967 [25]

Under the superficial lens that Brautigan’s critics have interpreted his works through, the reader could identify his word choice as casual, even crude when considering this poem references the Beloved Object and Brautigan’s penis in the same constructs and overall immature. Superficial readings like this miss the carefully constructed humor and fleeting memories embedded in Brautigan’s work.

In this poem Brautigan describes parts of himself reminding him of the Beloved Object and the sensual sensation it gives him to know he has been intimate with his Beloved. In this poem he geographically pinpoints this feeling adding to the nostalgia shrouding the piece.

He situates these events on a timeline by documenting the date and time adding specificity and a journal-feel, enhancing the intimacy of this piece. He also lists rituals and describes the act of intercourse other than by the name of sex, making it highly personal and less commonplace. Brautigan does all this while using language that is true to his setting making the work an authentic expression of the feelings he is describing.

Brautigan’s style is different but should not be overlooked or written off as shallow because this poem, like many of Brautigan’s, achieves an effect similar to its lyric predecessors in encapsulating and clarifying feelings the poet has surrounding the Beloved Object in a playful manner. Brautigan’s poetry plays out comically. His poems attempt to lead readers one way but beneath the ruse tells a story of despair, loneliness, sensuality and nostalgia as a coping method. Brautigan’s work is important for this reason: it subverts what a poem is supposed to look like while contributing to the evolution of the conversational form.

Brautigan’s and O’Hara’s address of the Beloved Object is significant because it forces reader involvement. The reader occupies the “I” in their poems and engages in the speaker’s words giving the poem its meaning. This “I” is inextricably linked with the Beloved Object and motivates the language and determines the emotion behind it. The address of the Beloved Object allows the reader to be part of the conversation and experience instead of simply reading about it between two pages from a removed perspective. Whether the reader has shared the experiences or perspective the poet writes about or from does not matter because through reading these poems that utilize the Beloved Object we are sharing the process of discerning the words that have created the voice that recreated the history.

In conclusion O’Hara and Brautigan utilize voice, structure and the Beloved Object to guarantee different experiences. Both poets cement stories, relationships and histories through their address. O’Hara memorializes his Beloved Object while Brautigan uses his to express deterioration or feelings about himself. Both poets modernize the tradition of addressing the Beloved Object through their individual style.

Works Cited

Abbott, Keith. "Shadows and Marble: Richard Brautigan." Review of Contemporary Fiction 8, no. 3 (1988): N.p. (accessed November 27, 2013).

Barber, John F.. Richard Brautigan: essays on the writings and life. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2007.

Barnet, Sylvan. A short guide to writing about literature. Boston: Little, Brown, 1968.

Baronian, Jean Baptiste. "Loufoque [Loony] Brautigan." Magazine Litteraire, May 1983. N.p. (accessed November 22, 2013).

Blasing, Mutlu Konuk. Lyric poetry the pain and the pleasure of words. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2007.

Boyer, Jay. Richard Brautigan. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University, 1987.

Brautigan, Richard. "30 Cents, Two Transfers, Love." In Rommel drives on deep into Egypt. New York: Delacorte Press, 1970. 43.

Brautigan, Richard. "The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster." In Richard Brautigan's Trout fishing in America ; The pill versus the Springhill mine disaster ; and, In watermelon sugar. Boston: Houghton Mifflin/Seymour Lawrence, 19891968.

Chenetier, Marc. Richard Brautigan. London: Methuen, 1983.

Gooch, Brad. City poet: the life and times of Frank O'Hara. New York: Knopf, 1993.

Hampson, Robert, and Will Montgomery. Frank O'Hara now: new essays on the New York poet. Liverpool [England: Liverpool University Press, 2010.

O’Hara, Frank. Lunch poems. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1964.

O’Hara, Frank. "Having a Coke With You." In The collected poems of Frank O'Hara. ed Donald Allen [1st ed. New York: Knopf, 1971. 360.

O'Hara, Frank. "Personism." In Postmodern American poetry: a Norton anthology. ed Paul Hoover New York: Norton, 1994. 634.

Hjortsberg, William. Jubilee hitchhiker: the life and times of Richard Brautigan. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2012.

Kern, Robert. "Williams, Brautigan, and the Poetics of Primitivism." Talking American Poetry 27, no. 1 (1975): 47-57.

Lowney, John. "The Contemporary Conversation Poem." In The American avant-garde tradition: William Carlos Williams, postmodern poetry, and the politics of cultural memory. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell university Press ;, 1997. 33-44.

Mills, Joseph. "Debauched by a Book": Benjamin Franklin, Richard Brautigan, and "The Pleasure of the Text." California History 79, no. 1 (2000): 10-17.

Neruda, Pablo. "XVII by Pablo Neruda." (accessed January 15, 2014).

Perloff, Marjorie. Poetic license: essays on modernist and postmodernist lyric. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1990.

Perloff, Marjorie. Frank O'Hara: poet among painters : with a new introduction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Stauffer, Donald A.. "The Reading of a Lyric Poem." The Kenyon Review 11, no. 3 (1949): 426-440.

[1] Lowney, John. "The Contemporary Conversation Poem." In The American avant-garde tradition: William Carlos Williams, postmodern poetry, and the politics of cultural memory. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press ; 1997. 33.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid. 35.

[4] Ibid.

[5] O’Hara, Frank. "Having a Coke With You." In The collected poems of Frank O'Hara. ed. Donald Allen [1st ed. New York: Knopf, 1971. 360, lines 13-16.

[6] Neruda, Pablo. "XVII by Pablo Neruda." lines 9-11.

[7] O'Hara, Frank. "Personism." In Postmodern American poetry: a Norton anthology. ed Paul Hoover New York: Norton, 1994. 634.

[8] Hampson, Robert, and Will Montgomery. Frank O'Hara now: new essays on the New York poet. Liverpool [England: Liverpool University Press, 2010.1

[9] Hampson, Frank O'Hara now: new essays on the New York poet. Liverpool. 2

[10] O’Hara, Frank. "To John Ashberry." In The collected poems of Frank O'Hara. 211, lines 6-7.

[11] O’Hara, Frank. “Steps”.In The collected poems of Frank O'Hara. 370, lines 1-3.

[12] O’Hara, Frank. “Steps”. In The collected poems of Frank O'Hara. 370, lines 7-15.

[13] O’Hara, Frank. “Steps”. In The collected poems of Frank O'Hara. 371, lines 41-45