Poet's Choice By Robert Pinsky

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, December 24, 2006

The poet Frank O'Hara (1926-1966) loved New York, and he crowded its speed, insouciance and exhilarating readiness for more of everything into his poetry. He deployed spontaneity of language to lead readers away from the ponderous excesses of close reading and exquisitely ponderous interpretation. His art offers the pleasure of listening as primary.

O'Hara's Christmas poem is as secular as can be -- personal, artfully irreverent and saucy. The poem is also a sincere celebration of the holiday and his city. It is a passionate, good-humored embrace and a love song to Manhattan. The poem is also what it says it is, a loving seasonal greeting to his friend, the abstract expressionist painter Grace Hartigan:


There's no holly, but there is

the glass and granite towers

and the white stone lions

and the pale violet clouds. And

the great tree of balls in

Rockefeller Plaza is public.

Christmas is green and general

like all great works of the

imagination, swelling from minute

private sentiments in the desert,

a wreath around our intimacy

like children's voices in a park.

For red there is our blood

which, like your smile, must be

protected from spilling into

generality by secret meanings,

the lipstick of life hidden

in a handbag against violations.

Christmas is the time of cold air

and loud parties and big expense,

but in our hearts flames flicker

answeringly, as on old-fashioned

trees. I would rather the house

burn down than our flames go out.

The one-syllable adjectives in the last stanza -- "cold" and "loud" and "big" -- generate an offhand, contagious exuberance. It is as if the poet has had enough of his earlier meditation on the general and the private, or generality and intimacy, a few stanzas earlier. Like the traditional green and red, those abstractions are a challenge for the spirit of improvisation and discovery, sporting here with the traditional adjective for the holiday: O'Hara's tone is merry.

(Frank O'Hara's poem "Christmas Card to Grace Hartigan" can be found in "The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara." Knopf. Copyright 1971 by Maureen Granville-Smith.)

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