Frank O’Hara

Meditations in an Emergency by Frank O’Hara

‘Meditations in an Emergency’ appears in the book of poetry by Frank O’Hara, first published in 1957. This bitterly humorous piece deals with the theme of unrequited love.

Though the poem, ‘Meditations in an Emergency’ sounds like a person’s deep thoughts emerging from a spiritual resort, it is about the poetic persona’s state of mind in an emergent situation. What is that emergency, is a question that lies embedded in the text. After reading the title of the poem, it seems Frank O’Hara is going to dive deeper into the spiritual realm. In actuality, it is quite different from the reference. This work presents a self-effacing speaker, talking about the day-to-day thoughts, appearing in his mind, concerning simple to abstract, and piercing to epigrammatic ideas.

Meditations in an Emergency by Frank O'Hara



‘Meditations in an Emergency’ by Frank O’Hara describes a speaker’s thoughts circling himself, the city life, and his beloved.

In this poem, the speaker represents the poet himself. It speaks on his nature concerning how he feels and thinks. His thoughts are embedded inside the poem in a manner that it seems he is like the clouds. Never engrossed in a single object or thought. On top of that, the thoughts regarding his unrequited love get depicted in the text. He feels as if the lady whom he loved the most, was not dedicated at all. Her heart belonged to someone else. Now, when he thinks about her, several thoughts keep him in a state of mental emergency. Thoughts come rumbling down his mind. What this poetic self encounters, gets depicted in this piece.

You can read the full poem here.



O’Hara’s poem does not conform to any norms. Even the lines are not in the conventional order. The structure reflects a text that fuses prose and poetry in one place. This fusion becomes more engaging as the internal rhythm plays the part. The underlying rhyming between the sounds creates a chain that represents the poet’s mind. In the case of the structure of the poem, to be specific, it is in free verse. There is no set rhyme scheme or metrical scheme inside the body of the text. The poet imitates the form of confessional poetry. Besides, this poem is in parallel with the dramatic monologue. The main speaker is the poet, and he converses with himself.


Literary Devices

This poem consists of several literary devices. To begin with, the title of the poem is a metaphor for an internal crisis. In the first few lines, readers come across some rhetorical questions and exclamations. In a conversational tone, O’Hara poses such interrogations throughout the text. This device helps readers to easily connect with the poet’s thought process. After scanning the text further, one can find the use of hyperbole. For instance, the lines, “I am the least difficult of men. All I want is boundless love,” contain such hyperbolic epithets. This list does not end here. Readers can find several other poetic devices too that will be discussed in the analysis section below.


Detailed Analysis

Lines 1–10

Am I to become profligate as if I were a blonde? Or religious as if I were French?


Even trees understand me! Good heavens, I lie under them, too, don’t I? I’m just like a pile of leaves.

The beginning of the poem is unconventional. Readers have seen in other texts, that the first line primarily provides a hint regarding the subject or theme. In this case, it rather confuses the readers. As the speaker asks two ironic questions in the very beginning. He is a bit unsure regarding whether a blonde person like him is prone to profligacy. Or, if he were French, he would be religious.

In the next few lines, it becomes clear that he is heartbroken. Despite being swiped away in catastrophic emotions, he feels more adventurous in such mentally trying times. A chain of names keeps recurring in his mind’s “interminable list.” The fact makes him amazed. But, sometimes he is left with nothing to venture forth.

That’s why he asks himself why he is liable to share that lady’s memory. Why he could not get rid of those thoughts, he is not sure about it. Being “the least difficult of men”, he had been misunderstood. All he wanted was boundless love. Even the trees understand the emotions of the speaker. Whenever he lies beneath the trees, he feels to be a pile of leaves, unburdened and free. It is important to note that, in the line, “I’m just like a pile of leaves,” readers can find a simile.


Lines 11–16

However, I have never clogged myself with the praises of pastoral life, nor with nostalgia for an innocent past of perverted acts in pastures.


Do they know what they’re missing? Uh huh.

In the next few lines, the speaker informs the audience about his personality. According to him, he bever clogged himself with the praises of pastoral life. Even he is not “nostalgic for an innocent past of perverted acts in pastures.” In the quoted section, readers come across a repetition of the “p” sound. It is a use of alliteration.

The speaker is of the view that one does not need to leave New York for the sake of enjoying the greenery. The reason is he feels satisfied with the city life. He can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless there is a subway handy, a record store, and some other sign. There is nothing less in the urban landscape that one needs to regret.

In the following lines, the poet talks about the clouds. They are the least sincere of all. Yet they get enough attention, despite their transience. He is suffering for the absence of a lady he loved but the clouds don’t even care about such things.


Lines 17–26

My eyes are vague blue, like the sky, and change all the time; they are indiscriminate but fleeting, entirely specific and disloyal, so that no one trusts me.


Now there is only one man I love to kiss when he is unshaven. Heterosexuality! you are inexorably approaching. (How discourage her?)

Thereafter, the poet compares his vague blue eyes to the sky by using a simile. According to him, the color of his eyes changes all the time like that of the sky. They are indiscriminate but fleeting. Using an oxymoron, he says his eyes are at times fixated on a particular person. While in some cases, he is disloyal to them. For this reason, nobody trusts him. So, he should look away as he does not want to dishearten others.

Sometimes, the restlessness of his eyes makes him unhappy. But, it is his inherent nature. If only he had grey, green, black, brown, or yellow eyes, he would try to keep himself busy in meaningful things. Later, the speaker remarks it’s not that he is curious. He is on the contrary. However, he is bored with such norms. As he knows others take him for granted just like people take the sky for granted. Therefore, the poet sarcastically remarks that for other’s curiosity in him, he can spare himself a little sleep.

Lastly, the speaker informs readers about his sexuality. Due to social norms at that time, he had to behave like a heterosexual. In reality, he liked to be with both genders. To be specific, there is a particular person in his life. He likes to kiss him when he is unshaven.


Lines 27–32

St. Serapion, I wrap myself in the robes of your whiteness which is like midnight in Dostoevsky.


Destroy yourself, if you don’t know!

At the beginning of this section, using an apostrophe the poet refers to St. Serapion. Saint Serapion of Algiers was a priest and martyr. He was the first of his Order to be crucified. In this section, the speaker expresses his wish to wrap himself in the white robes of Serapion. The attire seems to him as dim as the midnight in Dostoevsky. Here, the poet uses an allusion to the works of Dostoevsky.

The speaker sorrowfully says how he can be a legend in love when he sees his beloved in someone else’s arms. His love was as expressive as a lotus. He always brings forth his truthfulness like the flower. Like a hyacinth, he keeps his filth away. At the bottom of his heart, he knows, there are negative emotions. Therefore, he accepts how he is.

Later, the speaker refers to a greenhouse. It is a metaphor for the world of love. In the last line, the poet uses enjambment to connect the idea of the next section with the last line of this part.


Lines 33–40

It is easy to be beautiful; it is difficult to appear so.


I wish She had a good Whipping and 10,000 pounds.” —Mrs. Thrale.

At the very beginning, O’Hara presents an epigram. He says it is easy to be beautiful. At the same time, it is difficult to appear so. In the next line, he ironically reminds the readers of the fact by referring to his beloved’s inconstancy. For the trap the lady has set, he admires (ironically) her. It put an end to the poet’s love story and none wants to know what happened next in the story.

In the next lines, there is an allusion to John Keats’ fiancee Fanny Brown. She scampered off with a “Cornet of Horse.” Cornet is the fifth-grade commissioned officer in a cavalry troop. However, in this section, the speaker’s tone is sarcastic and expressive of his underlying agony. After referring to the next lines, it becomes clear.

The speaker remarks he loved that little “Minx” and hopes for her happiness. She has vexed his spirit with her coquettish nature. That’s why he wishes if somebody whips her and in compensation gives her 10,000 pounds, he can feel quite pacified.


Lines 41–46

I’ve got to get out of here.


Turning, I spit in the lock and the knob turns.

In the last section of this piece, the speaker expresses he has to get out of such meaningless thoughts. He gets ready to go outside of his room and wander in the valley nearby. The lady did not allow him to do so. As she is no more in his life, he can go out without any pressure. For the first time, the speaker refers to the time here. He is engrossed in this mediation on an afternoon and he thinks there’s a lot ahead. There won’t be any mail downstairs to remind him of his worldly affairs. But, the time of opening the door, interestingly, the doorknob turns.

The last line is open-ended. As a reader is not sure who has opened the door, the poet or someone else.


Historical Context

‘Meditations in an Emergency’ belongs to Frank O’Hara’s poetry collection by the same name. It was first published in 1957 and the title poem was printed in the November 1954 issue of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse. The name of this poem is derived from the prose, “Devotions upon Emergent Occasions” by John Donne. Whatsoever O’Hara is one of the renowned members of the New York School of poets. His works are impressionistic and mostly influenced by abstract expressionism. In this poem, one can find several themes that were popular in the postmodern period. Through these themes, the poet tries to depict how he visualizes modernity.


Similar Poetry

Here is a list of a few poems that similarly showcase the themes present in O’Hara’s poem.

You can also read about these memorable unrequited love poems and the emotional “I miss you” poems.

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Sudip Das Gupta Poetry Expert
A complete expert on poetry, Sudip graduated with a first-class B.A. Honors Degree in English Literature. He has a passion for analyzing poetic works with a particular emphasis on literary devices and scansion.
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