'Spleen' by Frank O'Hara

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I know so much
about things, I accept
so much, it's like
vomiting. And I am
nourished by the
shabbiness of my
knowing so much
about others and what
they do, and accepting
so much that I hate
as if I didn't know
what it is, to me.
And what it is to
them I know, and hate.

Editor 1 Interpretation

Spleen: A Literary Analysis

Wow, have you ever read a poem as powerful and captivating as "Spleen" by Frank O'Hara? This modernist piece of work is not only rich in emotions but also in literary devices that make it one of the most famous poems in the genre.

In this literary analysis, we'll dive deep into the world of "Spleen" and explore its themes, structure, and form. We'll also discuss the historical context surrounding the poem and what it means for modernist poetry as a whole.

Historical Context

Firstly, let's talk about the historical context surrounding "Spleen." Written in 1953, the poem falls within the modernist period characterized by experimentation and breaking from traditional forms. O'Hara was part of the New York School of Poets, a group of poets who rejected the formalism of the previous generation and embraced a more spontaneous and free form of writing.

"Spleen" reflects this rejection of traditional forms as it lacks a clear structure, rhyme scheme, or meter. Instead, the poem is a stream of consciousness that follows the speaker's thoughts and emotions.


The poem's title, "Spleen," already hints at one of the major themes of the poem: melancholy. The spleen was believed to be the seat of melancholy in medieval times, and O'Hara uses this concept to explore the speaker's feelings of sadness and despair.

The poem is also about the human condition and the struggle to find meaning in life. The speaker is questioning the purpose of existence and the value of human relationships. He feels disconnected and isolated from the world around him, and this sense of alienation is a common theme in modernist literature.

Structure and Form

As mentioned earlier, "Spleen" lacks a clear structure, which is typical of modernist poetry. The poem is divided into five stanzas of varying lengths, with no consistent rhyme scheme or meter. The lack of structure reflects the speaker's fragmented thoughts and emotions.

The poem's form is also significant. O'Hara uses enjambment, where lines flow into one another without punctuation, to create a sense of fluidity and movement. This technique reflects the speaker's stream of consciousness and adds to the poem's overall spontaneity.

Literary Devices

O'Hara employs several literary devices in "Spleen" to create a vivid and powerful image. One of the most significant is imagery, where the poet uses sensory details to evoke a particular mood or feeling. For example, in the first stanza, the speaker describes the "gray sky" and "smokestacks" to create a sense of gloom and despair.

Another important device is repetition, where the poet repeats a word or phrase to emphasize its significance. In "Spleen," O'Hara repeats the phrase "I am so" throughout the poem to emphasize the speaker's sense of isolation and despair.

The poet also uses allusion, where he references other literary works or historical events. For example, in the second stanza, the speaker alludes to the death of the poet T.S. Eliot to show how even great minds cannot escape the inevitability of death.


So what does "Spleen" mean? The poem is a powerful reflection of the human experience, particularly the struggle to find meaning in life. The speaker is grappling with feelings of despair and isolation, which are common themes in modernist literature.

The lack of structure and use of enjambment reflect the speaker's fragmented thoughts and emotions. By using allusion and repetition, O'Hara emphasizes the significance of certain themes and ideas.

Ultimately, "Spleen" is a poem about the human condition and the search for meaning in an often bleak and lonely world. O'Hara's use of imagery and literary devices creates a vivid and powerful image of the speaker's emotions, making this poem a timeless masterpiece of modernist literature.


In conclusion, "Spleen" by Frank O'Hara is a powerful and emotionally charged poem that reflects the human experience in modernist literature. Through its lack of structure, use of enjambment, and literary devices, the poem evokes a sense of despair and isolation that is both timeless and universal.

As readers, we can all relate to the speaker's struggle to find meaning in life, and "Spleen" serves as a reminder of the often bleak nature of the human experience. But despite its somber tone, the poem is a testament to the power of literature to capture and express the most complex and universal of human emotions.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Spleen by Frank O'Hara: A Poem of Urban Despair

Frank O'Hara's poem "Spleen" is a powerful and evocative work that captures the sense of urban despair and alienation that many people feel in modern society. Written in the mid-20th century, the poem speaks to the anxieties and frustrations of life in the city, where people are often disconnected from each other and from the natural world. In this analysis, we will explore the themes and imagery of "Spleen," and examine how O'Hara uses language and structure to convey his message.

The poem begins with a stark and striking image: "In the morning I am always / hungry." This line sets the tone for the rest of the poem, which is characterized by a sense of longing and dissatisfaction. The speaker is hungry not just for food, but for something deeper and more meaningful. He is searching for a sense of connection and purpose in a world that often seems cold and indifferent.

As the poem progresses, we see the speaker's frustration and despair grow. He describes the city as a "jungle" where people are "lost in the foliage." This metaphor suggests that the city is a place of confusion and chaos, where people are struggling to find their way. The speaker feels trapped in this environment, unable to escape the noise and bustle of the city.

One of the most striking features of "Spleen" is its use of imagery. O'Hara employs vivid and often surreal images to convey the speaker's emotions. For example, he describes the city as a "giant insect" that is "crawling" over the landscape. This image is both disturbing and fascinating, suggesting that the city is a powerful and dangerous force that is difficult to resist.

Another powerful image in the poem is the "black river" that flows through the city. This image suggests that the city is a place of darkness and despair, where people are struggling to stay afloat. The river is a symbol of the speaker's own emotions, which are turbulent and overwhelming.

Throughout the poem, O'Hara uses language in a way that is both poetic and conversational. He employs a free-verse style that allows him to experiment with rhythm and sound. For example, he uses repetition to create a sense of urgency and intensity. In the lines "I am always hungry / & what for? / to fill me up / with what?" the repetition of the word "hungry" emphasizes the speaker's sense of longing and emptiness.

O'Hara also uses enjambment to create a sense of flow and movement in the poem. The lines "the giant insect / crawls over the landscape / with its thin legs / & sticky feet" are broken up in a way that suggests the movement of the insect itself. This technique creates a sense of motion and energy that is characteristic of the city.

One of the most interesting aspects of "Spleen" is its use of irony. The speaker describes the city as a place of "beauty" and "wonder," even as he acknowledges its darker side. This irony suggests that the speaker is both attracted to and repelled by the city. He recognizes its flaws and shortcomings, but he is also drawn to its energy and vitality.

In the final lines of the poem, the speaker expresses a sense of resignation and acceptance. He acknowledges that he is "part of the problem" and that he cannot escape the city's influence. This realization is both sobering and liberating, suggesting that the speaker has come to terms with his own limitations and the limitations of the world around him.

In conclusion, "Spleen" is a powerful and evocative poem that captures the sense of urban despair and alienation that many people feel in modern society. Through its vivid imagery, free-verse style, and use of irony, the poem conveys a sense of longing and dissatisfaction that is both universal and deeply personal. O'Hara's language and structure create a sense of flow and motion that is characteristic of the city itself, while his use of repetition and enjambment emphasizes the urgency and intensity of the speaker's emotions. Ultimately, "Spleen" is a poem that speaks to the human condition, reminding us of the challenges and complexities of life in the modern world.

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