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The first episode of Season 2 finds Don Draper at the doctor's for a physical. After being admonished for drinking and smoking, Don heads to a midtown bar to drink and smoke. Seated next to him is a man reading Frank O'Hara's Meditations in an Emergency. Don remarks, "Makes you feel better about sitting in a bar at lunch. Makes you feel like you're getting something done." To which the man replies, "Yeah, it's all about getting things done."
The conversation pretty much ends there, but O'Hara's poetry follows Don, literally and metaphorically, throughout the season. To enlighten us all, I consulted David Lehman, leading Frank O'Hara scholar, author, poet, and editor of The Best American Poetry to offer his expert opinion:
"The phrase 'meditations in an emergency' beautifully governs the themes of the second season in which virtually all the characters go through an emergency," Lehman explains. "Some of them meditate on it; and of course the whole season ends with the grave national emergency that was, in retrospect, one of the most dangerous moments in the entire cold war: the Cuban Missile Crisis."
Indeed, Don spends much of this season meditating on his own "emergency," namely the dissolution of his idyllic home life. As Lehman puts it: "Don is the quintessentially American male, a loner, something of a maverick, who might just take the afternoon off to see a French movie." When asked if Don's "soulful loner" behavior is is ultimately just a way of escape, Lehman counters, "I like Don's forays into bohemia. They seem genuine to me, but 'ways of escape' are OK, too...John Ashbery [an O'Hara contemporary] once observed that 'We need all the escapism we can get, and even that isn't going to be enough.'"
So then I asked about Don's infamous voiceover. For the uninitiated, at the end of the second season's first episode, Don reads from O'Hara's poem "Mayakovsky," a excerpt that has spurred many a faithful Maddict to speculate what this passage might signify.
"'Mayakovsky' has the phrase 'the catastrophe of my personality,'" Lehman explains. "It is part of O'Hara's charm that he uses such self-deprecatory humor, and I think that charm extends to the voiceover. Also, the ending of that poem implies a split in the speaker's personality: '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.' Note the difference between 'I' and 'he.' Does Don 'feel like' himself?"
An intriguing question and possibly an unanswerable one for those without a philosophy degree. To further explore your inner poet or to search for hidden messages in literary motifs in the series, watch the encore presentations of Season 2, every Sunday at midnight on AMC.