‘Easter’ by Frank O’Hara is an eight stanza poem that is separated into sets of lines that greatly vary in length. The longest section reaches thirty-nine lines, while the shortest, only eight. ‘Easter’ is a poem that has been written without regard for consistent connections, narratives, or discernible plot points. It can be read as if the speaker is letting a flood of his most powerful, inappropriate, and descriptive words come forth musically from his head without editing them down or back.
There are a number of motifs that run through ‘Easter’ and do provide some consistency for a reader. They are the most important elements of this poem and some of the only aspects which hold together this surreal text. Some of these motifs include sex, life, death, the sea, power, movement, and sound.
This poem traces one speaker’s thoughts about what it is to live and die, and how these two things are related, throughout its eight stanzas. There is no consistent narrative, theme, or tone. All in all the poem reaches no particular conclusion or understanding of life. It is left open-ended and without any kind of resolution.
O’Hara touches on images of sex and the sexuality of black bodies, the movement, and the act of sailing, as well as the strangeness of death and decay and the power of life.
Analysis of Easter
Before embarking on an understanding of this work by Frank O’Hara it is important to take note of the themes mentioned above in the introductory section. O’Hara’s poems especially works like ‘Easter’ and ‘Second Avenue’ are known for their densely surrealistic subject matter which is often separate from any discernible reality.
As a whole, this poem can be read as a deep dive into the vibrant contrasts between life and death, and the images that the poet associates with each state of being. While reading this piece it is important that a reader does not attempt to associate every image and statement, described and made by the poet. The majority of the text has been written without regard for those phrases which proceed or follow it.
In the first section of ‘Easter’, which is made up of eleven, quite different, lines of text, the poet lays out his first points of contrast and comparison. The poem begins with the phrase, “The razzle dazzle maggots are summary.” They are, the speaker states, “tattooing my simplicity on the pitiable.” This is the perfect example of the surrealistic, often unrelated, word choices the poet makes in this piece.
He begins by speaking of maggots, a type of larva that is closely related to human ideas of what death looks like. He throws this word together with the phrase, “razzle dazzle.” This striking combination is what is referred to as a “summary.” It is what life is made up off, the good and the bad, death, and life.
The following lines describe a world that is made from the “mountains of my saliva.” These lines could be interpreted as his words being able to, “open” cities and leave them exposed and “pale.” It seems as though the next lines do come together to make up a short and almost cohesive point in this poem.
The narrator speaks of a town, perhaps the same one mentioned above, as being “fucked by yaks.” While it might be a modern reader’s impulse to relate this word to the large furry animal, it can also be attributed to a person, or people, who talk a lot. Someone who “yaks.” This is backed up by the word “quite” which appears in the following line, another example of the poet’s use of opposites. Another opposite appears with the use of the word, “chaste” in reference to a “bird,” in the seventh line of this stanza.
The bird that was mentioned is crossing a street of “falling stars.” This is not meant as a beautiful and warm image, in fact, is immediately described as being “cold in the dull heavens.” The heat has gone out of these stars.
The first section is concluded with the speaker stating that it is nights like this, ones that are full of contradictions, that he loves. They are all “cruisy and nelly,” or leisurely and silly. The night is chaotic and full like a “boskage,” or mass of trees.
The second section is much longer than the first. It contains thirty-nine lines and continues in the same vein as the first. Once more, a reader should accept that much of this text will not relate to that which proceeded it. There are purposefully many disparate images that work together in their seeming randomness to create a larger picture of the chaos of life.
The speaker begins by once more describing the world. This time he speaks of the times in which it “strips down and rouges up,” two more contrasting phrases. He has related all of the following verses so they come in succession. As one thing finishes happening, the next is stimulated. In this case, when the world “rouges up / like a mattress’s teeth” which have been “brushed by love’s bristling sun,” (note the related words “teeth” and “brush”), then the “marvellous heart” got up.
These things happen one after another and continue to spiral down through these musical sounding lines. They are rhythmic in their progression but still surreal in their strange juxtapositions. There are a number of words that can be connected, though. These include “sun” which can symbolically represent “love,” and “mattress” which is associated with “love.”
The next lines begin a period of sea-related imagery. The speaker delves back into his unrelated phrases and images by describing “self-coral” and how it wraps around “an arm with no jujubes.” This phrase runs into the next which describes how pleasures, like that of “driving / shadows of prairie pricks,” that appear to be “dancing / of roses,” all arrive at the “head of science.” While seemingly completely unrelated, there is another theme to these words. Once more the reader is confronted with sex, but this time with the human mind. All this chaos that the poet describes, all stems from and comes to the “eyes noses and ears / …at the head of science.”
The next section of the second stanza continues to musically introduce phrase after phrase that relates to the motifs of life, death, sex, and the sea. The poet contrasts “dirty blonde mermaids” and “rigor mortis” with “iron” and “tears.” These odd juxtapositions are followed by those of the “smutty” world and the “sea’s come.” Sex remains an important motif in this piece, and in the following line,s as a number of the words can be read as innuendoes, these include: “hardon,” “mast,” “deflowered,” “orifices,” and “sucked.”
It is also important to take note of the ways the poet is crafting his tone and rhythm. The poem, especially when read aloud, is deeply musical. He makes use of many instances of alliteration, in which one sound is repeated. Such as in the line, “all the powdered and pomaded balloon passengers.”
This section also makes clear the fact that there is not going to be a conclusion to these phrases. There is no answer to the questions that this poem raises, just as there is no answer to life and death. It is a cycle. The second stanza concludes with an image of the ocean crushing “pebbles / too eager for the appetites of little feet,” a good example of the passion and longing that is also present in ‘Easter.’
This section of ‘Easter’ is much shorter than the previous one. It is made up of only eight lines which again vary greatly in length and contain no rhyme scheme or discernible pattern.
The first line is another prime example of the balance the poet is hoping to establish with the contrasting words. There is a “Giving and getting” in this piece which is then directly juxtaposed with “pubic foliage.” The poem does not stray long from its motifs of sex, life, and death. These lines also continue on the motif of the sea. There are more mentions of the lives of sailors, ships, and water.
The fourth stanza is made up of eighteen lines and once more pushes images surrounding sex, the sea, and life. There are a number of references to movement, in the words, “dancer” and “push-ups,” as well as transportation, with the words “telegrams,” “camel” and “dodo.” These are all juxtaposed with more words related to sex: “coupling,” “buttocks,” and “cocks.”
There are only a few moments in this section that could be sewn together to make a kind of disparate narrative. One of these is made through the speaker using the second person pronoun, “you.” This “you” is observing a number of surrealistic sights. “You” can see a “dancer practicing push-ups” on top of the mast of a ship, as well as an “army of frigates…cocks…[and] wounds.” This could be a general depiction of what it is to live amongst power, coupling, and death.
This is followed by the sight of a “detonation…in leaves” and the crushing of “an army of hair / in” the “rampant jaws” of a “tea ship.” The speaker makes use of the word “hair,” and words related to it, throughout this section. One can find the word “hair” three times in the last few lines, as well as the words “brushing” and “blowing.” This poem almost acts as a puzzle in which a speaker must look hard to find the connections.
The fifth stanza is composed of twenty lines and follows the same motifs as the previous sections, but with an emphasis on death, weather, and depressive conditions.
The first lines describe a “birdie, birdie” on a train into town. This character is living in the mundane, perforated by the surrealistic, as “bread…butters the rain.” This is the first mention of weather in this section, but far from the last. The speaker also describes “wind of diamonds” and “gardens of …rainbow.”
The earth appears to be on the brink of something, perhaps a great loss or death. The world is in chaos; as is evident through the choice to mention the “antichrist,” (said to herald the end times) and the “walking” of “the tightrope.” The world is said to be “stretched,” and like a “cluttered box for your cluttered box.” This appears to cast the blame for whatever calamity is occurring on whomever the speaker is directing this piece to.
The sixth stanza picks up where the fifth left off and within its twenty-nine lines provides the reader with a slightly more cohesive narrative. This section of the poem is once more filled with sexual references and innuendos. O’Hara was known for his sexual imagery, especially when it came to the black body, as is evident in these lines.
He speaks of a “black princess” who “in the clear heart of summer sucks her flower / and honey drowns her in a green valley.” Before this connection of lines occurs there are a number of disparate phrases that speak of sexuality and the earth. The speaker mentions the “white furry sky,” “night without eyelids” and the “retreating flood of night.” He also adds in words to support the motif of sex with: “breast,” “bitten,” “lidded eyes,” and “sucks.”
The “princesses” narrative continues farther along in the poem when the speaker puts himself into the surrealist landscape. He states that he “sunk [his] tongue in the desperation of her blood.” He sees her features as being “strangely…Easter.” This relates back to the poet’s preoccupation with the sexuality of the black body and the need that he saw black people as having for sexual experiences.
These features of O’Hara’s writing are seen today as being deeply problematic, as are all his characterizations of black people. The narrator sees this woman as being desperate, a fact which is emphasized when he states that she is his “tongue’s host.”
This section of the poem ends with more sea imagery, using the words “surf,” “shore,” “nausea,” and “islands.”
The seventh stanza is another which is shorter in length, containing only ten lines.
These lines speak of “pregnant hillsides” which are “awash with urine” and the “thighs of the Sun.” Aside from these obvious connections to the motif of sex, there are some new connections to sound. These come with the words, “tambourine” and “pronunciamento,” (proclamation), and the images of fingers tapping.
The last stanza of ‘Easter’ is the most racially problematic and sexually charged. O’Hara’s personal history is scattered with stories of rendezvouses with black men, a fact which is on full display in the first line when he writes, “Black bastard black prick black pirate whose cheek / batters the heavenly heart.” In these lines, he is once more relating the black body to a need for emotionally powerful sex. This is followed by the phrases, “nightly explosion” and “Sun boom,” further demonstrating the power he sees in these moments.
As the poem continues he speaks of “sleep” as being “trooped,” or controlled, by “paid assassins” who are “mad for kisses,” continuing the narrative of sex. The following lines could be interpreted as meaning the speaker is attempting to “quit” this “race” like a “salamander quits the flame.” This doesn’t seem to work though as the following lines speak of a long embrace that makes the day pass quickly.
The embrace is described as being like “an Alaskan desert of the basket of Mexico.” But only before “the coming of the Spics.” This is a racially derogatory term for a Spanish speaking person. It is as if the speaker is saying that the embrace was good, until these other people intruded.
The poem concludes with a few more references to all the motifs thus far examined, from the sea, to life, death, sound, and the state of the world. The final lines return to the initial ideas of birth, life, death, and decay. One can relate this line, describing the “flood” of stars “like a breath” to the initial line describing the “razzle dazzle maggots.”