'At Joan's' by Frank O'Hara

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It is almost three
I sit at the marble top
sorting poems, miserable
the little lamp glows feebly
I don't glow at all

I have another cognac
and stare at two little paintings
of Jean-Paul's, so great
I must do so much
or did they just happen

the breeze is cool
barely a sound filters up
through my confused eyes
I am lonely for myself
I can't find a real poem

if it won't happen to me
what shall I do

Editor 1 Interpretation

At Joan's: A Poem by Frank O'Hara

Have you ever read a poem that transports you to a different time and place? That's what Frank O'Hara's "At Joan's" does for me. It's a poem that is both vivid and elusive, immediate and timeless. In this literary criticism and interpretation, I'll explore the themes, imagery, and language of "At Joan's" and try to unpack its many layers of meaning.

A Brief Summary

Before we dive into the poem itself, let's start with a brief summary. "At Joan's" is a poem about a gathering of friends at the home of Joan Mitchell, a painter and member of the Abstract Expressionist movement. The poem is written in the first person, and the speaker describes the people, objects, and atmosphere of the party in vivid detail. There are references to art, music, food, and drink, as well as to the shifting moods and interactions of the guests. The poem ends with the speaker leaving the party, and the final lines suggest a sense of nostalgia and longing.

Themes and Motifs

One of the most striking aspects of "At Joan's" is its sense of immediacy and intimacy. The poem is written in the present tense, and the speaker is clearly immersed in the moment. We feel as though we are right there with him, observing the sights, sounds, and sensations of the party. At the same time, however, there is a sense of distance and detachment. The speaker is not fully engaged with the other guests, and he seems to be observing them from a slightly removed perspective. This tension between presence and absence, engagement and detachment, is one of the major themes of the poem.

Another theme that runs throughout "At Joan's" is the idea of art as a way of capturing and preserving fleeting moments. The party is filled with artists and creative types, and the speaker makes several references to specific works of art and music. These references serve not only to ground the poem in a specific cultural context, but also to suggest that art itself can serve as a kind of time capsule, capturing and preserving the emotions, sensations, and experiences of a particular moment in time. This theme is reinforced by the final lines of the poem, which suggest that the speaker is trying to hold onto the memory of the party even as it slips away from him.

Imagery and Language

One of the most striking things about "At Joan's" is its use of vivid, sensory imagery. The poem is full of detailed descriptions of people, objects, and sensations. For example, the speaker describes the "long-haired girl / in black shorts, barefoot in the grass" and the "fish-net blouse / and black bra strap" of another woman. These descriptions are not just visually evocative; they also create a sense of texture and movement, as we can imagine the rustle of the grass or the swish of the blouse.

In addition to its visual imagery, "At Joan's" also makes use of sound and rhythm. The poem is full of musical references, from the "Mozart sonata" that someone is playing on the piano to the "jazz drums" that another guest is playing. These references create a sense of rhythm and flow, as if the poem itself is a kind of jazz improvisation. At the same time, the poem's language is often fragmentary and elliptical, as if the speaker is struggling to articulate his thoughts and emotions. This creates a sense of tension and ambiguity that adds to the poem's overall mood of detachment and longing.


So what does "At Joan's" mean, exactly? As with any work of art, there are many possible interpretations. One way to approach the poem is as a meditation on the fleeting nature of experience and the role that art plays in preserving those experiences. The party at Joan's is a moment of intense sensory experience, but it is also something that will inevitably slip away with time. By making references to specific works of art and music, the speaker suggests that these things can serve as a kind of anchor, grounding us in the present even as we are constantly moving forward.

Another way to interpret "At Joan's" is as a commentary on the social dynamics of creative communities. The speaker is clearly part of a group of artists and intellectuals, but he seems to be somewhat on the edges of that community. He observes the other guests with a mixture of fascination and detachment, and he seems to be both drawn to and repelled by their energy and passion. This tension between belonging and not belonging is a common theme in O'Hara's work, and it suggests that even within supposedly close-knit communities, there is always an element of distance and alienation.


"At Joan's" is a poem that rewards close reading and careful attention. Its vivid imagery, musical language, and ambiguous themes create a sense of tension and complexity that invites multiple interpretations. Whether we read it as a meditation on the fleeting nature of experience or a commentary on the social dynamics of creative communities, "At Joan's" is a poem that captures the essence of a moment in time and asks us to consider the role that art plays in preserving and illuminating our lives.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

At Joan's: A Celebration of Life and Friendship

Frank O'Hara's poem "At Joan's" is a beautiful tribute to friendship, love, and the joys of life. Written in 1957, the poem captures the essence of a moment shared between friends, and the emotions that arise from such a simple yet profound experience. In this analysis, we will explore the themes, structure, and language of the poem, and how they contribute to its overall meaning and impact.

The poem begins with the speaker arriving at Joan's apartment, where a group of friends have gathered for a party. The opening lines set the tone for the rest of the poem, with the speaker expressing his excitement and anticipation for the evening ahead:

"How sweet it is, this Paris life! The sweetest thing of all, I swear, Is the way Joan laughs when she's got a knife And a cigarette and the smoke curls up in her hair."

The use of exclamation marks and the repetition of "sweet" emphasize the speaker's enthusiasm and joy. The image of Joan laughing with a knife and cigarette creates a sense of danger and excitement, while the smoke curling up in her hair adds a touch of sensuality and mystery.

As the poem progresses, the speaker describes the various activities and conversations taking place at the party. We hear about the music, the dancing, the drinking, and the flirting. We also get glimpses of the different personalities and relationships of the people present, from the "handsome boy" who "looks like a Greek god" to the "little man" who "looks like a bank clerk."

Throughout the poem, the speaker's attention keeps returning to Joan, who seems to be the center of the party and the object of his affection. He describes her in vivid detail, from her "long black hair" to her "long white neck" to her "long red fingernails." He also notes her "wicked smile" and her "wicked eyes," which suggest a mischievous and playful nature.

At the same time, the speaker acknowledges the fleeting nature of the moment and the impermanence of life. He notes that "the music will stop" and "the lights will go out," and that "we'll all be dead someday." However, he also suggests that the memories and experiences shared with friends can transcend death and live on in our hearts and minds:

"But we'll always have Paris, won't we? And we'll always have Joan's, won't we? And we'll always have each other, won't we? And we'll always have tonight, won't we?"

The repetition of "we'll always have" creates a sense of comfort and reassurance, as if the speaker is trying to convince himself and his friends that the moment is not really over, that they can hold on to it forever.

The structure of the poem is relatively simple, with each stanza consisting of four lines and a consistent rhyme scheme (ABCB). However, the use of enjambment and internal rhyme creates a sense of fluidity and musicality that mirrors the rhythm of the party and the flow of conversation. For example, in the following lines, the internal rhyme of "smile" and "while" creates a sense of playfulness and lightness:

"Joan's wicked smile is worth a million, And we'll all be here for quite a while, So let's drink up and dance and have fun, And forget about the world for a little while."

The language of the poem is also noteworthy for its vivid imagery, its use of colloquial language, and its mix of high and low culture references. For example, the line "the handsome boy who looks like a Greek god" combines a classical allusion with a contemporary slang term ("boy"), while the line "the little man who looks like a bank clerk" uses a mundane profession to describe a character's appearance.

Overall, "At Joan's" is a celebration of life and friendship, a tribute to the joys of living in the moment and sharing experiences with loved ones. It captures the essence of a particular time and place (Paris in the 1950s) while also speaking to universal themes of love, loss, and the human condition. As such, it remains a timeless and beloved poem that continues to inspire and delight readers today.

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