By Maria Xydi and Panos Karydas[presented at a student workshop in the context of the module “Modernist Fiction” taught at the English Department of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens]
Frank O’Hara was an American writer, poet, and art critic who gathered images from the urban environment to represent personal experience. He was drawn to both poetry and the visual arts for much of his life while his main influences include abstract expressionism, surrealism, and especially in “Hôtel Transylvanie,” French symbolism, and French opera. The poem was written on the 12th of December 1959 and derives from the opera comique Manon and specifically the fourth Act in which Hôtel Transylvanie is mentioned. Nevertheless, many different experiences have inspired the writing of the poem, such as O’Hara’s trips to Europe, his romantic relationship with Vincent Warren, and dealing with Helen Frankenthaler’s art.
Shall we win at love or shall we lose
can it be that hurting and being hurt is a trick forcing the love
we want to appear, that the hurt is a card
and is it black? is it red? is it a paper, dry of tears
The poet starts with rhetorical questions addressed to his loved one. He elaborates on love being like a card game beginning the poem’s overall theme: the gaming element in human relationships. He paints the picture of several playing cards, each symbolizing several stages of a relationship and different emotions. The interaction between love, game, and death ties in with the throw of a dice and the concept of desire, making the poet lust for his own conquest. One cannot win or lose at desire; rather one must do both.
O’Hara utilizes the plot of Manon to address and refer to Warren In the fourth act of Manon, the Gamblers are gathered at the Hôtel de Transylvanie. Manon and des Grieux arrive, and she reminds him that his fortune has nearly run out. The poet combines elements of the opera with his personal experiences and probably memories of watching Warren dance at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet.
Having worked at the MOMA museum as well as having been a critic of New York’s 20s and 30s art world, O’Hara knew a lot about art. The first part of “Hôtel Transylvanie” seems to be addressing Helen Frankenthaler and her very intricate form of art. He compares card games with love and art. He criticizes Helen’s art as an attempt to show superiority and originality. The poet is confused and judges the artist harshly since he finds her art too challenging to comprehend.
The poem most likely addresses his beloved. During an era when homosexuality was considered a crime, Vincent probably hid and was ashamed of himself in a society with homophobia deeply rooted in it. O’Hara, older and more mature than Vincent, tries to convince him that he is beautiful and worthy of love. Vincent as a professional dancer makes people happy by entertaining them, but he cannot allow himself to be happy. They are both part of the same game of gambling, and it seems that they are losing.
oh hôtel, you should be merely a bed
surrounded by walls where two souls meet and do nothing but breathe
breathe in breathe…
The hotel features as an anonymous locale for love, a place of vampirism where others continue to feed on the poet knowing he is already dead, and finally as the traditional locale of suicide for love. It is a space of contradictions. The hotel where strangers stay for a limited time is for the writer and his love interest a place where they can be themselves and form a deep love connection. A hotel is a place where the writer can get away. O’Hara traveled very often and especially to France where he probably got the inspiration for the poem.
“[B]ut not as cheaters at cards have something to win”: Hotels often provide a casino, a safe space for people to gather and play. Gambling, a very risky type of wagering is used by O’Hara as an allegory for love. Both are seen as dangerous games. In the 1950s, homosexuality was still considered a crime. Therefore, parallel to gambling, a homosexual relationship was extremely risky.
The poet urges his love interest to be himself. Winning this complicated game of love requires one to show his true colors despite what life throws at him. The hotel is rendered as a safe place for people to strip off their facade as they strip off their clothes. In the hotel room, you are free to be who you are. The anonymity it provides reduces the possibility of being seen. Everyone treats you like a visitor that will probably stay there for a short time. It is a safe semi-public and semi-private locale, perfect for the writer to persuade his partner to show his true emotions without fear of being discovered. We can also view the hotel as a cross point in two individuals’ lives. They meet and get to know each other in the hotel, only to leave and become strangers again after a period of time. The personification of fate and imagination stretches the boundaries of reality. Their relationship is tied to the hotel as it is the place where their paths are aligned.
you know that I am not here to fool around, that I must win or die
I expect you to do everything because it is of no consequence/no duel
you must rig the deck you must make me win at whatever cost to the reputation
of the establishment/sublime moment of dishonest hope/I must win
The poet is serious about this complicated game of love and gambling. He has to win at all costs. By repeating the phrase “I must win,” he underlines the importance this has for him. He even provokes his partner to cheat in order to achieve his goal. We can read this proposal as an order or command. “Rig the deck” or “stack the deck” means to give an unfair advantage by rigging the system in one’s favor. He knows that this is an unfair game, so he ultimately decides to cheat without considering the damage to their reputation. The writer probably had in mind the saying, “Lucky at cards, unlucky in love”, which is derived from the French saying “Malheureux en amour-, heureux au jeu”.
but I hold on/I am lyrical to a fault/I do not despair being too foolish
where will you find me, projective verse, since I will be gone?
for six seconds of your beautiful face, I will sell the hotel and commit
an uninteresting suicide in Louisiana
where it will take them a long time
to know who I am/why I came there/what and why I am and made to happen
Warren will “never know how beautiful” he is, and O’Hara would commit an “uninteresting suicide” for “six seconds of his beautiful face”. The poem cycles through a range of emotions. Will they win or will they lose in the game of love? O’Hara “must win or die.” Is the ironic contrast between their loving and not loving just pretense? Can their “hurting and being hurt” force the love they want to materialize? Their love could not be forced, since this cycle of O’Hara’s poetry ends in the summer of 1961. O’Hara, losing at the game of love, must die to have “revenge on the black bitch of my nature,” so that he too can “drift downstream to another body of inimical attractions.” The poet asks for six seconds with Vincent, time which represents a single breath. He asks to see his beloved one last time before giving up everything including their relationship and his life which he no longer finds intriguing enough.
Finally, O’Hara makes it quite clear that their love is tied to the hotel. Many poets have committed suicide, and in the 1960s some romanticized self-slaughter. The poet asks once again for anonymity, but this time in death, something entirely contradictory to the anonymity he found in the hotel, in life.
O’Hara, Frank. “Hôtel Transylvanie.” Poetry @ Princeton. https://poetry.princeton.edu/2013/12/22/hotel-transylvanie/
Maria Xydi is a final-year student of English Language and Literature at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. She has a passionate interest in cinema, classic fiction, and photography. She is currently studying for a certificate in French.
Panos Karydas is a final-year student of English Language and Literature at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. He is a multilingual aspiring writer and literature analyst with a great interest in classical studies.
Featured image above: The famous roulette salon, Casino Monte Carlo, Monaco, France, c. 1898, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division