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On "Today"

John Lowney

O'Hara's poem "Today" answers . . . Williams' demand for "No ideas / but in things," with a motley assortment of objects, such as "kangaroos, sequins," and "chocolate sodas," "stuff" that "still makes a poem a surprise." This collection of objects seems to be related only randomly; what initially makes this poem a surprise is the fact that this "stuff" is hardly the "things" to which Williams refers, and certainly not things that make a poem a "small machine made of words." Yet what ultimately makes this short poem a surprise is its concluding shift in tone, as O'Hara's objects are located on "beachheads" and "biers." The association of this "stuff" with war and death compels us to reconsider their significance, as the poem's title, "Today," refers to the immediate postwar years. Rather than defamiliarizing the everyday, "Today" foregrounds the ephemerality of everyday "stuff," including everyday language; the objects seem to be linked as much by the sonorous sequence of names as by appeal to any readily apparent semantic codes. The poem affirms the meaning of things , but refuses to imose a recognizable order
on them. The use of "stuff" to summarize these objects seems to flant the lack of specificity involved in using colloquial language. It raises the question of whether these objects are the "stuff" of which this poem is made or the "stuff" from which a poem may yet be made, engaging readers to question their role in producing the poem's meaning. The semantic range of "stuff" itself recalls the war, but its connotations of drugs, other forms of contraband, and even of literary or journalistic copy call into question the rhetorical function of the poetic image. As if in direct response to [Williams'] "A Sort of Song"--through metaphor to reconcile /
the people and the stones"--"Today" exerts no demonstrative control over readers' interpretations of the sequence of objects. In relinquishing the will to power--Williams's metaphor of "saxifrage," which "splits / the rocks" (idid.)--"Today affirms not things in themselves, but the dialogue inherent in interpreting the codes that inform this surprising network of names and our conceptions of poetry's relation to the world of "today."

from Lowney, The American Avant-Garde Tradition (Bucknell University Press, 1997). Copyright 1997 by Associated University Presses. Reprinted by permission of the author.

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