Friday, September 02, 2011


Poems of a Stockbroker

Biography of John Myers O'Hara, from the Newberry Library's Inventory of the John Myers O'Hara Papers:
Lawyer and stockbroker, but notably a writer of poetry, prose and literary translations.

Born into a wealthy family of Chicago in 1870, John O'Hara was educated and then practiced law in that city until he moved permanently to New York in his early thirties. He worked on Wall Street as a broker and although he and his whole family lost their fortunes in the 1929 crash and the subsequent depression, O'Hara continued not only to work in a brokerage house but carried on his life-long activity of writing and publishing poetry. Much of O'Hara's output was entirely his own, including volumes of sonnets and rather creative translations of Greek, Roman and French authors. He also produced poetical works purported to be translations of foreign literature but which actually were completely original works like Poems of Ming Wu (1941) and Xochicuicatl (1940).

When O'Hara's interpretation of the Poems of Sappho appeared in 1907 it was a critical success and later his own poetry collections, such as Pagan Sonnets, Manhattan, Threnodies and his last book Embers in 1921, received favorable notice. He was well-known and active in the poetical circles of his day, which is evident in his lengthy correspondence with several women writers, most notably Sara Teasdale.

John Myers O'Hara died in 1944.
Perhaps O'Hara's poem A Faun in Wall Street, published in The Smart Set 42.1 (January 1914) 142, is a self-portrait:
What shape so furtive steals along the dim
  Bleak street, barren of throngs, this day of June;
  This day of rest, when all the roses swoon
In Attic vales where dryads wait for him?
What sylvan this, and what the stranger whim
  That lured him here this golden afternoon;
  Ways where the dusk has fallen oversoon
In the deep canyon, torrentless and grim?

Great Pan is far, O mad estray, and these
  Bare walls that leap to heaven and hide the skies
Are fanes men rear to other deities;
  Far to the east the haunted woodland lies,
And cloudless still, from cyclad-dotted seas,
  Hymettus and the hills of Hellas rise.
Chief among the "other deities" (line 11) is doubtless Mammon.

I'm interested in forgotten minor poets, and I've read several of O'Hara's poems. Many exude a hothouse, perfervid atmosphere and probably deserve to be forgotten, but The Hearth, from his collection Embers (Portland: Smith & Sale, 1921), p. 13, seems better than most, if I am any judge:
In cynical seclusion from the world,
    The storm has made me hermit for the night,
While the mad gust against the pane is hurled,
    And all the ways are lost in blinding white.

I snatch a fair communing hour from life,
    A gracious respite from the venal plan,
And shielded by the elemental strife,
    I live a little space the finer man.

I prod the coals and rake the ashes thin,
    Adjust me snugly in my easy chair,
And breathe a sigh of vast contentment when
     I take the cherished book and banish care.

Ah, not with sparing zeal the Roman fought
    For hearth and altar in the ancient days;
I feel the dual comfort that he caught
    Beside the bright religion of the blaze.

And what benigner comrade could I claim,
    With rarer wisdom for the sheltered glow,
Than he who pondered by the crackling flame,
    While round his Sabine villa fell the snow.
In line 6, "the venal plan" may refer to the business of stockbrokering, and in line 12, the "cherished book" is of course Horace's Odes, whose manner O'Hara here imitates, not unsuccessfully.

Perhaps O'Hara is most famous for Atavism, published in The Bookman (November 1902) 229:
Old longings nomadic leap,
  Chafing at custom's chain;
Again from its brumal sleep
  Wakens the ferine strain.

Helots of houses no more,
  Let us be out, be free;
Fragrance through window and door
  Wafts from the woods, the sea.

After the torpor of will,
  Morbid with inner strife,
Welcome the animal thrill.
  Lending a zest to life.

Banish the volumes revered.
  Sever from centuries dead;
Ceilings the lamp flicker cheered
  Barter for stars instead.

Temple thy dreams with the trees,
  Nature thy god alone;
Worship the sun and the breeze,
  Altars where none atone.

Voices of solitude call,
  Whisper of sedge and stream;
Loosen the fetters that gall.
  Back to the primal scheme.

Feel the great throbbing terrene
  Pulse in thy body beat,
Conscious again of the green
  Verdure beneath the feet.

Callous to pain as the rose,
  Breathe with instinct's delight;
Live the existence that goes
  Soulless into the night.
Jack London quoted the first stanza of Atavism in Call of the Wild (1903).

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