Bibliotherapy and TV’s Mad Men: Frank O’Hara’s ‘Mayakovsky’ and Meditations in an Emergency

Mad Men has quickly become a favourite television show of mine, and I loved the reference to Frank O’Hara in episode one of the second series.

O’Hara is not a poet that I know well, although I love the passage that Don Draper reads from ‘Mayakovsky‘ (found in Meditations in an Emergency):
Now I am quietly waiting for
the catastrophe of my personality
to seem beautiful again,
and interesting, and modern.

The country is grey and
brown and white in trees,
snows and skies of laughter
always diminishing, less funny
not just darker, not just grey.

It may be the coldest day of
the year, what does he think of
that? I mean, what do I? And if I do,
perhaps I am myself again.

Don sees another man reading Meditations in an Emergency in a bar, and asks if it is any good. The man replies that Don “would not enjoy it”, which inevitably influences Don to read it for himself and find out. Don appears to see something of himself in the book, but he is also reminded of somebody else. He writes a dedication to this person in the book’s inlay pages, and walks to the postbox to send it. Meanwhile, we hear Don’s recital of the verses above (you can watch this scene here on Youtube).

While the scene is so beautiful produced, I think this poem is a fitting choice for Mad Men for various reasons. There’s the obvious mention of modernity that reflects the nature of the show, but there’s also the connection between Don’s personal struggle and that of the poem’s speaker. Don is struggling with issues that regard family, love, and identity, and we can only wait for the inevitable culmination of his anxiety and anguish. In other words, for the “catastrophe of [his] personality”. Perhaps Don’s reading of this poem marks the peak of his troubles, and everything will soon be “beautiful again”, although I’m not convinced. I’m sure those of you who also watch Mad Men will have more insight.

I’d like to memorise the first stanza of the passage that I have quoted above: I think it would help me during difficult moments, and reminds me of the proverb “this too shall pass”. The second stanza, in its description of laughter and beauty “always diminishing” is such an accurate depiction of depression, and I’m sure many can find familiarity in it. As for the final stanza, I’m sure we can all relate to the confusion of who we are and what we think. This is a reading very centred on bibliotherapy, but I think the inclusion of the poem in Mad Men has a similar purpose. Don, having felt confused and divided for some time, finds reassurance in a poem.

After some research, I’ve found that O’Hara’s book reappears at various points throughout the second series. I’m looking forward to this, and I’ll be sure to post any other reflections I have. Why didn’t I start watching Mad Men before?!

As always, do comment if you have anything to agree with, disagree with, or add. Mad Men appreciation will certainly be accepted in the comments box. Also, I always enjoy hearing about poems and books that have helped you through similar situations.

If you liked this post, do check out Angeliki’s post “What do Mad Men read” over at Reading Psychology. If you’re anything like me, it’ll fill up your to-read list!

Don Draper and Frank O'Hara's Meditations in an Emergency
Don Draper reading Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency.
Lucy
It's good to meet you! I started Tolstoy Therapy back in 2012 to share my healing journey through anxiety and PTSD with books. I also climb mountains, go on solo adventures, and write over at livewildly.co.