First Impressions

To get our feet wet analyzing Frank O’Hara’s poetry, we are starting with his poem “For the Chinese New Year.” To get us going we thought it would be helpful to start with a simple word cloud. We used Wordle because it is simple, accessible, and pretty customizable. Looking at the word cloud gives us a general overview of some of the textual concerns of this poem just at a glance.Wordle1

Having removed the standard English stop words (simple grammatical or functional words like articles, of, the, etc.), immediately the word “LIKE” stands out. Looking back at the actual word counts? Whoa! 17 occurrences! The question then becomes: In what context does O’Hara use this word? Is it an expression of enjoyment (e.g. I like pie)? Or is it an expression of similarity (e.g. They were like two peas in a pod)?
*puts on deerstalker hat*

like

Going back into the text itself, we set out to find all of the occurrences of the word “like.” This gives us an initial question to start with to dive into the text. Using Voyant Tools to speed up this hunt, we were then able to look at the words in context: 16 of the 17 uses were in a comparative manner: “like a Paris afternoon” (17), “restful like a bush” (26), “a noise like a Chinese wind-bell” (104); the only remaining usage is when he says he would “like to die smiling” (109). Alright, well, Frank O’Hara seems to be a big fan of the simile. That’s something stylistic to look out for I suppose. But what happens if we remove “like” from our list?

Wordle2

As you can see, this evens out the distribution a bit more. Now we’re looking at “strange” with six appearances and “think,” “going,” and “love” each appearing five times. These words can give us some clues more or less when we go into the poem looking for help with content or interpretation.

At first glance we might perhaps expect a balance of thought and action, considering the equal presence of thinking and going. However, looking back at the poem itself and finding the occurrences of these words, it seems to actually be more cerebral. Even his uses of going throughout the poem are less about movement and more about futurity  — with the single expression that he is “tired of going down” (49). From a stylistic and thematic perspective, this would suggest a departure from O’Hara’s more notable “I do this I do that” poems of quotidian life and movement. Instead, I think what we get in this poem is an O’Hara looking to the New Year with futurity and timeliness on his mind.

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