“My Beautiful Never-Nevers”: Yoko Ono’s Poetry Revisited

By Austin AllenApril 4, 2022

“My Beautiful Never-Nevers”: Yoko Ono’s Poetry Revisited
I FOUND IT on a shelf marked Contemporary Poetry, but was it either of those things? The subtitle was “A Book of Instruction and Drawings”; it had been published in ’64, reprinted in ’70. The title was Grapefruit and the author was Yoko Ono.

Everyone knows Yoko the artist, the musician, the icon, but Yoko the poet? Was this Celebrity Poetry, the kind of fluff actors and presidents churn out sometimes, as if on a drunken dare? I’m not from the generation that scorned Ono, but I’ll admit I was prepared to smirk.

Instead, after a few pages, I was smiling — really smiling, as I rarely do in bookstores. Ten minutes in, I was an enamored reader and an envious writer. I didn’t buy the book, but to my great surprise, it was my favorite discovery on that shelf.


Years later, in an interview for a teaching job, I named Ono among the poets I might put on my syllabus. The reaction — reflexive and quickly stifled — was the kind of snicker dreaded by every poet, and every job applicant.


As I was researching this essay, a strange thing happened: Ono appeared on TV screens all over the world. Peter Jackson’s documentary The Beatles: Get Back — a fresh cut of the footage from the Beatles’s Let It Be sessions — premiered as a smash hit in 2021. There she was, aged 35, sitting with the lads at Twickenham and Apple Studios, the footage clear as yesterday.

Two weeks later, Amanda Hess published an essay in The New York Times: “The Sublime Spectacle of Yoko Ono Disrupting the Beatles.” While rejecting the myth that Ono broke up the band, Hess celebrates her “obtrusive” presence in the studio, arguing that Ono was “staging a marathon performance piece” for the cameras:

She refuses to decamp to the sidelines, but she also resists acting out stereotypes; she appears as neither a doting naïf nor a needling busybody. Instead she seems engaged in a kind of passive resistance, defying all expectations of women who enter the realm of rock genius.

That piece led me to one by Lindsay Zoladz from 2015, called “Yoko Ono and the Myth that Deserves to Die.” The subtitle is a long sigh: “Why is it such a perennial youthful rite of passage to misunderstand, to underestimate, even to hate her?”

That piece led me to other defenses of Ono, and still others.

I’d been prepared to rehash the decades of prejudice she’s faced, the paranoid charges hurled by Beatles obsessives, the smears contrived by tabloids — in other words, to mount a defense against further snickers.

But this work has been done. Anything I could add to it would be dull, and Grapefruit is a protest against dullness. “Men have an unusual talent,” Ono wrote, “for making a bore out of everything they touch.”

I’ll take it as a given that Ono is a marvelous artist. So what makes her a great poet?


She studied music first: classical piano, between the ages of four and 13. According to biographer Alexandra Munroe (YES Yoko Ono), her father “was an accomplished pianist who had dreamed of a career on the concert stage but whose family required him to become a banker.” Ultimately, he discouraged Yoko from both piano and composition, declaring that she personally wouldn’t succeed at the first and that women in general couldn’t succeed at the second. Rock fans who disdain Ono’s “screeching” at microphones might note, per Munroe, that she “took up vocal training and became a fine singer of lieder.”

She studied philosophy at Tokyo’s elite Gakushūin University, where she was the first female student in the program. This side of her training has attracted little comment, although she later wrote in Grapefruit: “I know a professor of philosophy whose hobby is to quietly crush biscuit boxes in a supermarket.” Her family resettled in New York, where, after studying at Sarah Lawrence, she moved to lower Manhattan and enrolled in the avant-garde.

She was affiliated with the neo-Dada movement called Fluxus, hosted happenings at her loft, hobnobbed with Marcel Duchamp and La Monte Young and John Cage. She fell hard for Cage’s work and performed with him in Japan, sprawling across a piano while he banged the strings. Cage’s most famous composition is 4’33”, a “silent piece” in which the musician sits back, plays no notes, and lets the crowd soak in ambient sounds.

One of the earliest compositions in Grapefruit, “Secret Piece” (1953), is dated a year after 4’33” premiered. It instructs the reader to play a note of their choice “with the following accompaniment: / The woods from 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. / in summer.”


From the early ’60s on, Ono staged a variety of performance pieces, my favorite of which is Cut Piece. This one has a way of converting skeptics. Even people still convinced that Ono is a hack, a flake, and a Beatles-wrecker can watch the footage of the Carnegie Hall performance from 1965 and find themselves swept up in the human drama.

She sits center stage, unmoving, with a pair of scissors. Audience members are invited to approach one by one and cut off a piece of her clothing.

The film is grainy, unsteady. A woman cuts a stylish slit up Ono’s sleeve. A man paces around her to the sound of male laughter. A young guy tells the crowd, “It’s very delicate, it might take some time,” then shears off her blouse and severs both her bra straps. Ono tries to stay impassive, but no human being can be a blank canvas.

The piece is about many things: trust, trauma, vulnerability, grace under siege. To the crowd, it poses a silent question: how do you handle power? Some volunteers seem aware of this silent question and others don’t, and that is the beginning of each individual answer.

Ono later said of the piece: “[I]t’s fantastic, beautiful music, you know? Ba-ba-ba-ba, cut! Ba-ba-ba-ba, cut!

4’33” is sometimes treated as the last word in minimalist music. Ono went a step further: she knew the crowd can always take something else from you.


She studied poetry, too: one of her professors was the Scottish poet Alastair Reid. Here’s how Reid’s poetic voice sounded in his early 30s, a few years after Ono took his class at Sarah Lawrence. The full seven-stanza poem, which appeared in Poetry, is titled “Living in Time”:

Looking becomes a question.
Thought glooms the day.

Then, unexpectedly,
she is waiting in the doorway,
ready with something to say,
so much herself, so beautifully
occupying her body

that I am all wonder
beyond mind and words.
She wears the day about her.
The dark ones disappear, and birds
reclaim the particular air.

Here’s how Ono’s voice sounded at age 30, in “Bell Piece,” which also involves quiet domestic contemplation:

Listen to a bell for an hour.
Diminish the sound to piano
by ringing it over in your head.
Diminish the sound to pianissimo
by ringing it over in your dream.
Diminish the sound poco a poco
troppo pianissimo by forgetting.

Try other sounds
             i.e., mother’s voice
                 baby cry
                 husband’s hysterics

1963 autumn

I’d argue the student has outdone the teacher. But what has she done, exactly? Most of the pieces in Grapefruit, including this one, are Ono’s “event scores”: instructions for performance art to be performed by you, the audience. This particular score uses the language of musical composition, though most do not. And in theory, you could perform “Bell Piece,” but who would? What would it mean to listen calmly — for an hour — to a baby’s or a husband’s distress? What would it mean to forget those sounds? The text only truly makes sense as a lyric poem, but the genre sneaks up on you as stealthily as the ending.

Why “baby cry” and not “baby’s cry,” in parallel with “mother’s voice” and “husband’s hysterics”? The book quickly trains you not to read it this way.


In 1962, after divorcing a musician, Ono spent a few months in a mental hospital. Some sources say she went there voluntarily; others claim she was committed. She married an artist who helped her get out of there, had a daughter, and divorced again six years later, before marrying a musician.


Grapefruit contains no table of contents or page numbers. Its 1970 “Introduction” is two lines long: “Hi! My name is John Lennon / I’d like you to meet Yoko Ono.” It was designed by Yoko Ono, edited by the ’60s, and fact-checked by the moon.

Munroe writes that Ono “chose the title because she liked grapefruit as a child and — believing this fruit to be a hybrid of an orange and a lemon — [stated that] it reflected her sense of herself as ‘a spiritual hybrid.’” Grapefruits began as hybrids of the sweet orange and the pomelo, but the title lets Ono invoke her childhood belief without precisely declaring it right or wrong. The book contains a “True or False” survey full of poetic half-truths, including this couplet: “Grapefruit is a hybrid of lemon and orange. / Snow is a hybrid of wish and lament.”

The book itself is a hybrid, blending poems, prose, images, and miscellanea. Writing for Dazed in 2020, Ashleigh Kane maps its shifting boundaries:

The original 1964 edition featured instructions, poems, and drawings categorised under five headings; Music, Painting, Event, Poetry, Object. It was expanded for its 1970 reprint to include Film, Dance, and Architecture Pieces, as well as a Letters section, which publishes correspondence with gallerists and Ono, and Information, to provide details on when, where, and how Ono herself performed the event scores.

Most of the pieces are labeled “pieces.” They’re dated by year and season (“1961 winter”), and their arrangement is defiantly nonchronological. When multiple pieces share a title, they’re generally marked with Roman numerals (“Room Piece I,” “Room Piece II,” and so on), though the “Clock Piece” sequence, which tells the reader to tamper with time, is numeral-free.

One illustrated piece is dated “London 1967.” Beneath the date, in Ono’s witty penmanship, dances the phrase “Tra la la . . . . . . .” In fact, she signs many of her drawings with nonsense syllables, often just after a mock copyright claim: “Copyright Yoko Ono + Wind shshshsh . . .”

The 1964 edition was self-published with a print run of 500 copies. The 1970 edition, by the world-famous Yoko Ono, was published by Simon and Schuster. In the interim, she seems to have prevented any wretched proofreader from “cleaning it up.” Who, by 1970, was going to tell Yoko Ono she couldn’t write about dicks and dismemberment and diarrhea? Or that she shouldn’t spell Andy’s name “Warhole” without a good reason? Or that she had to make the fonts agree, or put the pieces in order? Who could force her to be any more rigid about language than she was about genre?

Of her writing process, Ono recalled: “Grapefruit was like a cure for myself without knowing it. It was like saying, ‘Please accept me. I am mad.’”

Sometimes the book leans toward the gnomic and spiritual, sometimes toward the anarchic and radical, sometimes toward the dandyish and devil-may-care. The jacket on my edition calls it “whimsical, delightful, subversive, startling.” It is all those things, as well as insouciant, beguiling, and wry. It’s another close synonym, too — a word that now strikes me as obvious, but that took a while to surface in my mind.


The word wasn’t “mischievous,” but that’s how the author once described her project. “It’s important to be mischievous,” she advised The Guardian in 2013. “I think Grapefruit is very much a mischievous book for now.”

Some of the book’s assignments are trivially easy (“Hit a wall with your head”). Some are more like the weird feats required of fairy-tale heroes (“Step in all the puddles in the city”). At least one, “Wind Piece,” is addressed to the wind (“Blow hats all over the city”). Quite a few ask the impossible, as when the two-part “Announcement Piece” begins, “Give death announcements each time you / move,” and ends, “Give a moving announcement each time / you die.”

That request is followed by this one:

From multiple deaths to sudden flight — are we supposed to be angels now? Is that too square a reading? Later in the book, Ono explains how she staged this impossibility:

[“Fly Piece”] was first performed in Tokyo, Naiqua Gallery, 1964. Each person who attended the night flew in his/her own way. It was performed again in London at Jeanette [sic] Cochrane Theatre, by the audience who came up on the stage and jumped off the different leveled ladders prepared for them.

I like how this progression brings the concept down to earth, from pure imagination to free interpretation to physical demonstration bordering on slapstick.

Still, I prefer the first version — the poem — which the book sets up expertly, through dozens of pages of unflappable deadpan. By the time you reach “Fly Piece,” your apprenticeship has advanced; the instructor has won your trust; you could casually rise to her most capricious challenge. A secret runway has been cleared. Flight isn’t too much to ask. It’s the shortest poem that has ever actually moved me.


By the time Ono sat in on the Let It Be sessions, she wasn’t just a Beatles observer — or a Beatles “disrupter,” either. Whether anyone liked it or not, she was a Beatles collaborator.

During the White Album sessions, she’d sung backup on “Birthday.” She’d sung a line solo on “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill,” becoming the only non-Beatle lead vocalist in Beatles history. (Her line: “Not when he looked so fierce.”) She’d worked with Lennon on the lyrics to “Julia.” Most notably, she’d helped compose “Revolution 9”: a track conceived by George and John, credited to John and Paul, and unmistakably stamped by Yoko.

Like her, the “Revolution” was often mocked or ignored. It channels her longtime interests in collage and Cage and musique concrète — interests Lennon and Harrison were starting to share. When he heard Ono’s recorded “word pieces,” Lennon recalled, “I wanted to do one.” She didn’t break up the Beatles, but she stretched them before they broke.

The track mashes together improvised speech and “found sounds” from a tape archive: mantra-like repetitions, lilting melodies, a baby’s cry, a buzzing fly. Screams, bombs. It loops tapes and runs them backward, comes unstuck in time. It’s a summation of the ’60s and an event in the ’60s: it spawned those fan theories about Paul being dead, darkly obsessed Charles Manson. It tantalized and infuriated and baffled. Near the end, Ono’s voice appears: “Maybe it’s nothing … Maybe even then, exposure could be a difficult thing … Because it’s so much like being naked … If you become naked…” The piece wasn’t solely hers, but it wasn’t solely the Beatles’, either. It exposed her sensibility, uncredited, to the world.


You could read Ono’s career as a long thesis on exposure and concealment. Now you see her, now you don’t; now she’s silent, now she’s screaming. Lennon famously called her “the world’s most famous unknown artist.”

One piece in Grapefruit, “Film Script 5,” asks a movie audience “not to look at Rock Hudson, but only Doris Day.” Zoladz reads this as a feminist gesture, a sidelong comment on Yoko’s own invisibility. It’s that and more; the ending urges viewers:

not to look at blue but only red — if blue comes
out close eyes or do something so you do not see,
if you saw it, then make believe that you have not seen
it, or punish yourself.

So the piece is also about repression and self-loathing, the mingled desire to see and not to see. (What might happen if you did look at Rock Hudson?)

Ono’s art plunged early into the kind of self-exposure now endemic to social media. She and Lennon appeared nude on the cover of their first joint album; her first album cover after his death featured his blood-stained glasses. Yet Grapefruit itself is silent or oblique about personal pain. (“Walk all over the city with an empty / baby carriage,” one piece instructs.)

She’s on Twitter these days and sometimes posts lines from Grapefruit.

She’s spent long hours in front of cameras and long hours behind them. In her art film Fly (1970), made with Lennon, a housefly crawls on a naked woman. The score is high-pitched, nervous, flylike, full of Ono’s ululations. The first fly meets a second on the woman’s belly, strikes up a wordless dialogue. The encounter is hypnotic. The woman becomes invisible.

In Ono’s film Rape (1969), a male cameraman follows a random, unnerved woman around London. The ethics are hair-raising. “Nevertheless it was shot,” writes Ono, who’d been stalked by paparazzi for months. Her cameraman “is a gentle-man,” she assures the reader. The woman has no way of knowing that. The woman is hyper-visible.

The best-known Ono film — No. 4, a.k.a. Bottoms (1966–’67) — was banned by UK censors. It’s a close-up study of 365 bare backsides, including hers and her second husband’s. The owners of the backsides walk on a treadmill, flesh pulsing in a rhythm Ono likened to the heartbeat. Grapefruit comments: “This film, in fact, is like an aimless petition signed by people with their anuses.”

As Kane reminds us, Ono has often been visible or invisible at others’ convenience:

In a 1980 interview with the BBC two days before his death, Lennon had said “Imagine” “should be credited as a Lennon-Ono song, because a lot of it, the lyric and the concept, came from Yoko,” especially from Grapefruit. He continued: “But those days I was a bit more selfish, a bit more macho, and I sort of omitted to mention her contribution. But it was right out of Grapefruit, her book.” It would be 46 years until Ono received her songwriting credit.

Now you don’t see her; now you do.

As a grad student, I saw the poet Mary Ruefle give a lecture in a library. When she finished, she pressed play on a recording of “Imagine” and disappeared into the stacks.


Kane also quotes Lennon’s assessment of Grapefruit: “I think this is an important book to help people act out their madness. If you do some of the things in it, you stop going crazy in a way.”


At age 12, Ono survived the firebombing of Tokyo, which killed 100,000 people and incinerated much of the city. Sixty-two years later, she recalled:

[O]ne day I had high fever because of just a cold. You know, I had a cold. And so, my family all went down into the basement to make sure that, you know, they’re alright. It’s a kind of shelter that they created in the garden actually. But I couldn’t go. And I was just sort of in my bed, and I saw that all the houses next to us and all the places around me were just all fire. I go, “Oh.” But, you know, when you’re young, and that’s the only reality you’re working through, you don’t really get totally scared or anything. You know, you’re just looking at it like an objective film or something like that. “Oh, this is what’s happening,” you know?

It was the deadliest air raid of World War II, and it featured a weapon — napalm — that didn’t trouble Americans until many years later. Forced to flee the city, Ono’s family nearly starved, pulling their remaining possessions in a wheelbarrow and bartering them for rice.

After the testimony above, Ono draws a clear link with her anti-war work: “Because of that memory of what I went through […] it embedded in me how terrible it is to go through war.” But Americans who know her as a peacenik still don’t know, by and large, what she went through. Even Americans who could tell you something accurate about Hiroshima or Dresden would, by and large, stare blankly if you asked about the firebombing of Tokyo.


What is Grapefruit’s literary tradition? Is this a question it has any use for?

It nods explicitly to Buddhist philosophy, quoting Shen-hsiu and Hui-neng of the Chan school (Zen in Japanese). Its use of paradox and minimalism has some clear roots in classical Japanese poetry.

Its drawings make me think of the great doodlers at the back of poetry class: the Edward Lears, the Stevie Smiths.

Midway through the collection, out of a different left field than usual, comes a mysterious riff on Rilke.

And there are essays to be written about the kinship between Ono and Sylvia Plath — about postwar dread and feminism and “madness” and dark humor and taboo-smashing. Incidentally, Ono and Plath once dated the same boy in college, a certain Mel Woody, who dished to Plath’s biographer Heather Clark:

By then Mel had started dating Yoko Ono, whom he met at a Sarah Lawrence mixer. (“She was clearly the most beautiful girl, but she was Japanese so no one was dancing with her.”) Mel […] ended things with Yoko before they got too serious. She was shy, and told him she had attempted suicide at fifteen. He did not want to hurt her. In a last bid for his affection, Yoko invited him to visit her at Cambridge University […]. He declined, but later reflected, “I might have introduced Sylvia and Yoko.”

The two women never crossed paths, though both would later form partnerships (artistic and domestic) with gifted, troubled Englishmen.

I think, too, of Kurt Vonnegut, whose novels teem with doodles and dark light verse, and who, as an Allied soldier, survived the firebombing of Dresden. In Yoko’s “Tra la la,” I hear something like Vonnegut’s “So it goes,” the refrain from his “Dresden book,” Slaughterhouse-Five. Both books scramble chronology, as if dissociating from the laws of time. Both display a stoic whimsy, a thousand-yard stare disguised as comic deadpan. Both authors began, after years of silence about what they saw in war, to campaign adamantly for peace. (And Ono wasn’t a soldier but a 12-year-old kid, and the city she saw devastated was her own.)


In 1969, Ono and Lennon celebrated their honeymoon by performing their first “Bed-In for Peace.” Thronged by reporters in their Amsterdam hotel room, they staged the preferred protest of lovers and depressives: staying in bed all day.

They held court surrounded by flowers. They bantered, cuddled, grinned. They did it all again in Montreal two months later, this time debuting the song “Give Peace a Chance.”

One skeptic at the first event asked how the two pacifists would have defeated Hitler. Ono’s answer was worse than the question: “If I was a Jewish girl in Hitler’s day, I would approach him and become his girlfriend. After ten days in bed, he would come to my way of thinking. This world needs communication. And making love is a great way of communicating.” True, this may have been a joke gone wrong; she framed the whole Bed-In as a tension-dissolving “laugh.” Still, the comment is fair warning against mistaking her for a movement leader.

Her wisdom as an activist has remained a mixed bag. In 2007, she sounded jaunty about solving the climate crisis: “We are going to quickly make sure that we are not dependent on oil. Isn’t that great? And that’s going to happen, of course.” She suggested that the Imagine Peace Tower, which she designed as a monument to John and nonviolence, might have been prophesied by a long-dead clairvoyant.

But she knows the crucial thing — the thing that a million realists, even now, are busy refusing to learn:

[M]ost people say, “Oh, you’re so optimistic. I mean, what’s wrong with you?” I’m not really that optimistic. I am trying to make us survive. And in the course of survival, we don’t have the luxury to be negative. That’s a luxury that we can’t afford. And we just have to do what we can do.

She joined anti-fracking protests in her 80s.

Among her many accolades, she holds the honor of having infuriated a right-wing president. For years, Richard Nixon tried to deport Lennon, knowing that success would mean ousting two agitators for the price of one. He failed, but at the height of the fuss, Ono and Lennon declared themselves — as lovers do — a separate country.


After the release of “Give Peace a Chance,” Gloria Emerson of The New York Times reproached Lennon about his activism:

Emerson: But you’ve made yourself ridiculous!
Lennon: To some people. I don’t care.
Emerson: You’re too good for what you’re doing.
Lennon: If it saves lives —
Emerson: You don’t think you — oh, my dear boy, you’re living in a never-never land.

In Grapefruit, Ono says that one of her discarded ideas, which sounds a little like Instagram, would probably have “remained as one of my beautiful never-nevers.”

She calls for peace frequently on social media. She turned 89 this year.


Some artists never risk looking silly; Ono risks this always. She’s produced her share of bullshit over the years, but like “Warhole,” she’s proved that a bullshit artist is something a great artist may sometimes be. I gather, too, that for an activist, a survivor, a woman in a world of men and guns and bombs, silliness isn’t just a risk. It can be misdirection, plausible deniability.


Disarming. That’s the word it took me a while to think of.


I was technically on spring break. I was in bed. My third-year graduate exams were looming. A fascist was in the White House and had been for three years. After a federal probe into the fascist’s crime ring, his attorney general had just preempted the final report by announcing that the fascist was exonerated. He wasn’t exonerated, but he was out of danger. There was little left for the planet to do but find out whether democracy or the ice caps would vanish first. I was in bed, and I wasn’t leaving bed. A day later, I still wasn’t. The lamp was still off at 7:00, 8:00 p.m. I picked up a book I’d assigned myself: Grapefruit, which I’d remembered from that bookstore visit years before. I had to study it for one of my self-inflicted exam topics: Comic Literature. I leafed through pages, sat up straight, kept leafing. I read the sentence about anuses and laughed out loud for the first time all spring.

Later, I noticed that it was 50 years to the week since the first Bed-In.

The ice caps are still melting; democracy’s still sweating. Ono keeps making stuff and protesting. I keep making stuff and protesting. You keep making stuff and protesting. It’s unclear what most of our petitions are achieving. Hers from 50 years ago reached me at the right time. Tra la la.


I like Hess’s theory that Ono is doing performance art in Get Back, but that’s not the genre her “performance” made me think of.

Throughout the film, McCartney plays the harried bandleader and perfectionist composer. Lennon is the rock star, the camera-courting movie star. Michael Lindsay-Hogg, the Let It Be director, is the swaggering auteur.

In a moment I loved, Ono sits opposite the camera with the band rehearsing around her. As viewers worldwide — including me, including her as an older woman — soak in this long-awaited footage, this precious glimpse of the boy wonders at work, she spreads a newspaper in front of her face. We’re watching her not watching. We’re watching her read through this.

John may be, as he jokes, the “literary Beatle,” but it’s clear to me that Ono is the resident poet.


Grapefruit compares people with too many ideas to people with too many things: “Didn’t Christ say that it was like a camel trying to pass through a needle hole, for John Cage to go to heaven?” It suggests abandoning both “mental possessions [and] physical ones, as they clutter your mind.”

Ono’s estimated net worth is $700 million. She’s known to be a shrewd businesswoman and investor. She managed finances in her marriage with Lennon, who is said to have had no financial sense at all. As a philanthropist, she has a particular, decades-long investment in anti-hunger campaigns. “I remember being hungry,” she has explained.

She’s been a well-heeled banker’s daughter. She’s been starving on the roadside. She’s been a “starving artist,” refusing family support. She’s been staggeringly rich.

Early in her career, as an art piece, she offered shares of stock in herself.

Grapefruit includes a piece called “Ono’s Sales List,” featuring such items as poems, paintings, a “DANGER BOX” (“we cannot guarantee your safety in its use”), and whatever one imagines this to be:

1. a) special defects underwear for men — designed to accent your
special defects.........................................in cotton.........$10-
                                                                  in Vicuna......$175-

I don’t believe anyone, even Ono, should possess $700 million. In this, I agree with Grapefruit. But Grapefruit isn’t interested. The 1970 edition is the work of an artist who knows she won’t starve again. It doesn’t need anyone’s praise or fear anyone’s censure. That’s what makes it disarming. That’s what makes it a danger box.

When I approach it as a reader, it meets me on free and friendly terms. When I approach it as a critic or political commentator, it puts me out of its mind. It abandons me like clutter.


After the Tokyo bombing, Ono cheered up her depressed brother by telling him to imagine ice cream; she has called this her first art piece.

“When John fell right beside me,” she recalled after Lennon’s murder, “I felt like we were in a guerrilla war, not knowing who or where the enemy was. I kept telling my staff, who were hiding razors and newspaper articles from me, to show me everything: every telegram, every letter and every message.” Those words are from “In Gratitude,” her letter of thanks to a grieving public, written after she learned that her husband’s death had made some fans suicidal.


Hers is a career of giant contradictions. She’s one of the most public artists of all time, yet much of her work involves solo meditation. She’s a pacifist who broke from the cerebral style of the atonal composers because, she said, “I wanted to throw blood.” She’s an anti-materialist who could buy a private island. Her book is a paean to spontaneity assembled over decades, a set of “instructions” that flings hierarchy to the winds.

Few artists have received more hate or love, or faced them with more composure.

For me, Ono’s work cuts to the heart of the mystery of “authority” — the kind that stems from authorship. Her poems don’t seem to play the same games other poems play. Conversely, they play where other poems don’t. I don’t think she sweated every comma. I don’t think she sees herself primarily, or even secondarily, as a poet. She wrote one book that matters to me, over 50 years ago, and I keep thinking I’ll get bored of it. Each time I open it, I fall under its sway.

That this 89-year-old artist who survived a bombing, survived attempted suicide, survived fame, survived addiction and miscarriages and the murder of a husband at her side; who dated one of Plath’s beaus, hung out with Duchamp and Warhol, collaborated with Ornette Coleman and Questlove and the Beatles; who pissed off rock snobs and Richard Nixon; who’s dreamed up books and films and albums and conceptual art and drawings and designer menswear and beautiful never-nevers; who’s been honored by the Grammys and the Venice Biennale, yet may have done her best work on the page — that this artist could remain, to some, an outsider, a punch line, seems her grandest joke of all. For such an artist, every snicker is a victory.


I’ll close by saying, courtesy of one of Grapefruit’s questionnaires, what any student should say to a good instructor:

2022 winter


Austin Allen is the author of Pleasures of the Game (Waywiser Press, 2016), winner of the Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize. His poetry has recently appeared in The Yale Review, The Sewanee Review, The Missouri Review, Verse Daily, and The Hopkins Review. His essays and criticism have appeared via Poetry Foundation, Parnassus, 32 Poems, and other outlets.

LARB Contributor

Austin Allen is the author of Pleasures of the Game (Waywiser Press, 2016), winner of the Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize. His poetry has recently appeared in The Yale Review, The Sewanee Review, The Missouri Review, Verse Daily, and The Hopkins Review. His essays and criticism have appeared via Poetry Foundation, Parnassus, 32 Poems, and other outlets. He was a Fellow in poetry at the 2017 Sewanee Writers’ Conference and has taught creative writing at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Cincinnati.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!