Saki and Frank O’Hara

Tuesday 26 May 2015

It wasn’t planned, but somehow both these pieces related to the theme of children’s relationships with adults. We’re at the end of the Marcus Coates exhibition, Dawn Chorus, and for me it’s been one of the most relevant and well thought through installations at Fabrica in Brighton. Probably every visitor has been waking up in the morning to the sound of the real dawn chorus this month – I have.

So to even temporarily imagine becoming a bird, surrounded by the screens and the singers – surely most of us wanted to when we were children? – was to be immersed in spring and new life. Saki’s story, ‘The Lumber Room’, makes connections like that between childhood, imagination and vitality. Yes, it has darker undertones, too, because satire is never entirely innocent. But the way Saki describes a boy’s immersion in his own imagination made links for me with the immersion that Marcus Coates enables in his installation.

Hector Hugh Munro (1870-1916) used the pen name Saki. He was brought up by strict aunts and grandmother because his mother was killed when he was young. He was gay but never came out – it was illegal. His life was cut short at 46 in WW1. The story we read is one of several involving tyrannical aunts. One biography suggests,”his stories reveal a vein of cruelty in their author and a self-identification with the infant terrible”.

Frank O’Hara’s poem, ‘Ave Maria’, is blatant in its call for total immersion in the world of the imagination. In fact, the poem sees immersion as a prerequisite for the soul, for development, for happiness and for relationships between adults and children. A manifesto, a satirical reflection of those moral panics that litter every era, particularly the 1960s, the poem warns of the consequences of stifling imagination and freedom – hatred.

O’Hara (1926 – 1966) died at 40, a similar age to Saki. He became one of the best known poets in the New York school, worked with painters such as Jackson Pollock and Jasper Johns. Even during the McCarthyite era in the US, O’Hara was openly gay, publishing the poem ‘Homosexuality‘ in 1954.

His work has had a profound influence on contemporary writing, for its dedication to the moment and celebrating being alive. Read John McCullough’s tribute to O’Hara on the Texts page of this blog. Marvel at the coincidence of how much birdsong there is in the poem.


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