Why do poets say “O”? What’s wrong with the normal way of writing it? Isn’t O some kind of archaic holdover? I could swear it gives off a faint whiff of mildew.
Maybe it’s precisely its strangeness that that attracts poets, our task being mainly a making-strange. Since O is so seldom used outside poetry, it remains relatively untarnished by humdrummery. “O” exclaims; “Oh” expresses. The h, though unvoiced, brings connotations that the solitary O doesn’t carry. It’s like a little chair pulled up next to an otherwise unadulterated expression of pure emotion. And it’s a well-used chair, accommodating everything from sudden understanding to disappointment to orgasm.
Unlike O, Oh can be a question: Oh? It can be paired with its opposite — Oh ho! — or with its fraternal twin for an expression beloved of those who are just learning to talk: Uh-oh!
But a cursory survey suggests that O is far from obsolete among practitioners of contemporary poetry. In the latest Copper Canyon Reader, which is what Copper Canyon Press is now calling its paper catalog, Laura Kasischke’s “Miss Brevity” ends, “O, // you swear you’ll remember us forever, / but you won’t.” And Emily Warn has a poem titled “O My Soul.” In the latter case, the use might be semi-ironic, since the text of the brief poem reveals that the narrator doesn’t believe in the soul in a conventional sense. (“I forged you with my speech. / No longer bereft, you blaze.”) But Kasischke’s use seems completely unironic.*
I just happened across another instance of “O” in a blog post from a writer and photographer I admire, the author of Paula’s House of Toast:
O, who has set the water table ?
O, who has caused
these strange patties to rain down from the sky
into the nooks and crannies of our cravings ?
Here I think O serves as a signifier of the self-consciously poetic; nothing says “serious poetry” like “O.” Given that the next line following the part I quoted is “Selah,” I think it’s likely that Paula was being a bit tongue-in-cheek.
Aside from such ironic uses, though, I’m not sure what prompts contemporary poets to continue using what has always struck me as an affectation. I prefer “Oh” precisely because it is impure and vernacular. But it occurs to me also that since I’m kind of emotionally repressed, I may not be the best person to judge the appropriateness of using an expression of concentrated emotion, in a poem or otherwise.
Have you ever used “O” in a poem? If so, why?
*A Google search reveals that an earlier draft of the poem published on Poetry Daily in 2006 and reproduced in a couple of blogs did have “Oh.” That version is otherwise identical to the poem in the catalog. So at some point Kasischke decided that “O” was better suited to the task. I wonder why?