Saturday, April 16, 2005

Revisiting Frank O'Hara's "To the Harbormaster"

To the Harbormaster

I wanted to be sure to reach you
though my ship was on the way it got caught
in some moorings. I am always tying up
and then deciding to depart. In storms and
at sunset, with the metallic coils of the tide
around my fathomless arms, I am unable
to understand the forms of my vanity
or I am hard alee with my Polish rudder
in my hand and the sun sinking. To
you I offer my hull and the tattered cordage
of my will. The terrible channels where
the wind drives me against the brown lips
of the reeds are not all behind me. Yet
I trust the sanity of my vessel; and
if it sinks it may well be in answer
to the reasoning of the eternal voices,
the waves which have kept me from reaching you.

(O'Hara, 217)


Frank O'Hara's poem "To the Harbormaster" was among the first poems I read as a teenager growing up in New York, then newly enamored of poetry. I happened upon it in the New York Times as part of his obituary in 1967. I had already read Keats, Rimbaud, and Ginsberg but this poem deeply stirred me unlike any other. For years, I remained haunted by the poem's heartbreak and courageous tenor, the authenticity of its feeling tone with its underscore of trieste but with verve. Before search engines on the Internet, I looked for this poem for decades-- it remaining but a half-realized memory from a chance newspaper encounter, the obituary long discarded and the poem too.
Some 37 years later, I remain equally affected by O'Hara's honest declaration of sadness and wisdom.

At its heart, "To the Harbormaster" serves as an apology for the perceived imperfections of mortal life and one's own limitations. Ginsberg in his introduction to "Howl" refers to the "secret or hermetic tradition of art 'justifying' or 'making up' for defeat in worldly life, to the acknowledgement of an "Unworldly love/That has no hope/Of the world/And that/Cannot change the world /To its delight--" (William Carlos Williams from "Rain")" Ginsberg further likens this compensation to the "imagination of art to reveal our deepest natural ground": love, hopeless yet permanently present to the heart, unalterable." (Ginsberg ix )

For Ginsberg, this strategy is played out through filial loyalty to his mother's mental distress and his poetics of empathy radiating out from his sense of sacramental relationships. For Keats, one sees a different strategy, for instance, in "Ode to a Grecian Urn." Who can not remember those words--beauty is truth, truth beauty? For Keats, the beauty of art is but the foster-child of silence and slow time and yet, that is all there is --the truth of our human condition.

O'Hara in "To the Harbormaster" achieves his justification of art compensating for life, primarily by means of the extended metaphor the speaker uses in addressing the Harbormaster while equating himself with the vessel with the emphasis on body = boat, the sea as life and journey, and the waves as a force of nature driving the vessel but also hindering its final arriving. It does not really matter who the Harbormaster is--God, a Lover, the lover as god, the Muse? For O'Hara, the Harbormaster is simply that omniscient presence overseeing the forces of life and death--not the navigator of these realities. This poem is about the journey itself which the speaker knows, like Keats, is already enroute for untimely death or lack of fulfillment. This knowledge is not philosophically abstract or adolescent but keenly, almost humorously, assented to. The speaker, after all, is "hard alee with my Polish rudder/in my hand" going head-on--"toward the sinking sun." toward the harbor, the shore where he is not yet arrived. Although self-deprecating in his apology (I am unable/to understand the forms of my vanity), this speaker is living life to the fullest while he can. Those lines, "hard alee with my Polish rudder/in my hand" are among the sexiest ever written with a candor almost unrivalled. Here the speaker's courage leaps out at one with the word "alee" with its onomatopoetic resonance with glee, his sheer joy in the face of inexorable mortality. One thinks, too, of the rudder as the vessel's innate energetics, the life force of the speaker, not just his libido/cock of which the imagery so graphically suggests. He may also be referring to his creative impulses, not just the more obvious allusion to sex. What is clear here is that the speaker contains a high degree of certainty in his own self-assessment although he is less clear about his destination and the Harbormaster, be that presence lover, muse or the most unlikely--deity.

O'Hara employs a brilliant technical strategy in his irregular metrical scheme alternating at times between tetrameter and pentameter lines which seem to mirror the broken vessel in troubled waters but still buoyed up by the steady, at times, majestic gait of the poem's tempo.

I want/ed to be /sure to /reach you
though my /ship was/ on the /way it /got caught

The poem simply does not scan well and this serves a purpose because the theme of the poem is really about how various forces, both inner and outer, disrupt the voyage of the boat.

The poem's almost total lack of end stops (only 3 out of 17 lines) often proceeded by a caesura and then followed by phyrric feet (in bold above & below) in some of the lines to follow, simulates the pitch of a boat in stormy waters (waves) --break, pitch, then diminish. In any case, whether consciously or intuitively, the lines are halting and broken metrically and this seems to mirror the rocking motion of the boat itself.

The next few lines following the opening lines cited above illustrate how the feminine endings and almost excessive passivity in the language contributes to the tone of self-reflection and egolessness in the face of some larger oceanic feeling:

in some moorings, I am always tying up
and then deciding to depart. In storms and
at sunset, with the metallic coils of the tide
around my fathomless arms, I am unable


Needless to say, beginning and ending a line with "and" is not the stuff of great poems. However, O'Hara gets away with it precisely because of the clarity of the speaker's presence in the midst of so much uncertainty.
Another notable feature of this poem is that O'Hara chooses not to break the
poem into stanzas, a more likely strategy given the three or four distinct statements. Instead, O'Hara merges these distinct thoughts into one another which serves to build up a well-spring of feeling--primarily of sadness culminating in the emotional arc of the poem in the speaker's humble offering, "To /you I offer my hull and the tattered cordage of my will.

The choice of the word, "cordage" in line 10, of course, is reminiscent of Hart Crane whom O'Hara must have held in great sympathy. This line is an exquisite figurative declaration of the speaker's real intent in this poem. The journey may be disrupted continually through the speaker's own lack of will, his distractions and forces beyond his control, yet he is unencumbered in his offering of his imperfect body (hull) and soul (will). This is like a marriage vow to one's beloved. Thus, "To the Harbormaster" is a poem tinged with the arrows of Eros, of an unrequited love, although we do not have any such information beyond the speaker's offering to the anonymous but present harbormaster.

Unlike many O'Hara poems, "To the Harbormaster" does not exhibit the bon vivant hedonism or camp observations of a removed spectator but deep emotional involvement shaped by the extended metaphor which does indeed serve to "carry" forth (like a boat) the speaker's poignant sensibility. What saves this poem from out right sentimentality is the speaker's innate wisdom of acceptance and bold honesty:
…Yet,
I trust the sanity of my vessel; and
if it sinks it may well be in answer
to the reasoning of the eternal voices,
the waves which have kept me from reaching you.


The extended metaphor finds its final release in the image of the waves which are an even a greater presence than the Harbormaster. The waves function as the oxygen of the poem, an elemental state of being as natural and rhythmic as breath itself. The notion of the water element as the province in which the extended metaphor takes place is paramount to understanding the essential attitude of the speaker's healthy state of mind--his "sanity." It is precisely the waves, the speaker tells us which are empowered "with the reasoning of the eternal voices" and therefore the strength of humanity. So what seems to be the overall meaning conveyed its that there simply are cycles and forces of life which have their own natural wisdom--whether in the end they disrupt our journey, as they most surely will, or not. The eternal voices are non-other than than all of us, mortal voyagers, on each our own journey back home from whence we came.

I love this poem. I wouldn't recommend it as a study in lineation or for its many weaknesses which, like the speaker himself, pale before the greater forces at work and which might have been delivered in more muscular lines. However, it is the receptive and feminine qualities of the poem's language which serve to create the calm atmosphere of acceptance underlying the speaker's artful compensation for his ship wrecked vessel:

…The terrible channels where
the wind drives me against the brown lips
of the reeds are not all behind me.

These lines are ominous--especially the heavily stressed spondees jumping out so uncharacteristically and so beautifully executed --like a doomed Ophelia. Nevertheless, the speaker declares, "I trust the sanity of my vessel" as we all must too-- our bodies the ephemeral yet equally powerful counterpoint to the eternal voices of our humanity.


O'Hara, Frank, The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara, edited Donald Allen,
University of California Press, Berkeley, 1995.

by Jacqueline Gens, 2005

5 comments:

  1. This poem is also one of my favorites. I read it over 20 years ago in an Intro to Poetry course, and it has always stuck in my mind. I think, for me, the subtext of gracious acceptance -- of his mortality, an unrequited love, the inevitability death -- still resonates within. Thank you for your thoughtful essay.

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  2. Thank you, rroselavy ( a kindred spirit in cyberspace) for your appreciation of the poem and the essay. I wrote it in my last semester of the MFA Program in Poetry at New England College. Good luck on your own journey...

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  3. Anonymous2:41 PM

    What a unique, wise poem.

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  4. I love this poem! And your blog is very interesting. :)

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