“To The Harbormaster” by Frank O’Hara

“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.”

“To The Harbormaster” opens Frank O’Hara’s 1957 book of poetry, “Meditations in an Emergency.” At the time of its release, O’Hara had become a pronounced literary figure in New York, paving the way for the Abstract Expressionist movement. Although he was highly regarded as an acute intellectual in the elite New York art scene (as well as being a professor at The New School in New York), O’Hara never embraced the academic evaluation of art. O’Hara publically denounced formal structure in the literary arts, as well as deplored poetry’s over emphasis on form. “I don’t … like rhythm, assonance, all that stuff. You just go on your nerve. If someone’s chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don’t turn around and shout, ‘Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep. As for measure and other technical apparatus, that’s just common sense: if you’re going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you. There’s nothing metaphysical about it.”

Ironically enough, O’Hara’s poetry – specifically “To The Harbormaster” – is remembered today for being some of the most technically sound poetry ever written. O’Hara consistently employed brilliant technical strategy in his irregular metrical scheme, frequently alternating between tetrameter and pentameter lines which would mirror the thematic content of his poetry. An example of this occurs in “To The Harbormaster,” and helps serves the rhythmic perimeter of the poem:

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

The poem simply does not flow well. 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 said boat, which serves as a metaphor for the narrators being 

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

I could scrutinize this damn poem forever, but analyziation aside this poem is simply a beautiful piece of art. It’s my favorite poem of all time, and I am continuously haunted by it’s tragic heartbreak, it’s courageous tenor, and the authenticity of its tone. It is an honest declaration of sorrow and wisdom; a self-acknowledgement that things may not turn out the way they were planned.

In some ways, “To The Harbormaster” serves as an apology for the perceived imperfections of mortal life and one’s own self imposed limitations. While love may be hopeless, it is always permanently present to the heart. The poem is also confident in its romantic feelings, as fanatical as those feelings may be, and accepts the fact that desolation may ensue.  Although self-deprecating, the narrator is living life to the fullest while he can, and while the narrator does contain a high degree of certainty in his own self-assessment, he is uncertain of his potential destination and the Harbormaster – his sought out after lover or muse. In my eyes, what seems to be the overall meaning conveyed in the poem is 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 none other than all of us, mortal voyagers, on each our own journey back home from whence we came. Therefore, the most important thing that we can do is to seek out happiness or love and pursue it. The success of our pursuit is contingent on lives path for us, so for better or for worse all we can do is follow our hearts and dreams, wherever that may lead us.

The first time I read this poem I felt as though it was written specifically for me, and the situation that I was in at that point in time. The words reverberated with me more than anything I had ever read in the past, and I felt a sense of comfort and security knowing that someone else had not only felt the exact same way as I did, but was also able to put it into words that hit me on both an emotional and spiritual level.

I would highly recommend checking out “Meditations in an Emergency” by Frank O’Hara, as well as any other collection of poetry with his name on it.


One Response to ““To The Harbormaster” by Frank O’Hara”
  1. Richard Fanshawe says:

    Excuse me E., but have you ever heard of Jacqueline Gens? Check this out E.


    Maybe Gens should have been another ‘tag’.

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