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Frank O'Hara Now

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Table of Contents

List of illustrations Abbreviations Acknowledgements Introduction - Robert Hampson and Will Montgomery 1 City `Housing the Deliberations': New York, War, and Frank O'Hara - Geoff Ward Gesture in 1960: toward Literal situations - Lytle Shaw French Frank - Rod Mengham Distraction and Absorption on Second Avenue - Andrea Brady Stepping Out with Frank O'Hara - David Herd `A Certain Kneeness': the Boring and the New in Frank O'Hara's Poetry - Tadeusz Pioro 2 Selves `Where Air is Flesh': the Odes of Frank O'Hara - John Wilkinson Close Writing - Keston Sutherland Naming the seam: On Frank O'Hara's `Hatred'- Richard Deming `A Gasp of Laughter at Desire': Frank O'Hara's Poetics of Breath - Josh Robinson 3 The Work of Others Frank O'Hara, Alfred Leslie and the Making of The Last Clean Shirt - Daniel Kane Kites and Poses: Attitudinal interfaces in Frank O'Hara and Grace Hartigan - Redell Olsen `In Fatal Winds': Frank O'Hara and Morton Feldman - Will Montgomery `Footprints of a Wild Ballet': the Poem-Paintings of Frank O'Hara and Norman Bluhm - Brian Reed Memory Pieces: Collage, Memorial and the Poetics of intimacy in Joe Brainard, Jasper Johns and Frank O'Hara - Nick Selby Index of Works by Frank O'Hara General index

About the Author

Robert Hampson is Professor of Modern Literature, at Royal Holloway, University of London. Will Montgomery is RCUK Research Fellow in Contemporary Poetry and Poetics at Royal Holloway, University of London


A very well-conceived and well-structured book. I highly commend the conception of this collection, its careful structure and its pertinence to the contemporary understanding of avant-garde writing. -- Professor Tim Woods It is an unusual pleasure to have to begin a book about a poet by dealing with their popularity. Several reasons are offered; O'Hara as postmodernist, avatar of the art world, representative of 1950s New York, and more recently as queer pioneer (p. 1), but the lasting impression from this excellent collection is of the generosity of O'Hara's poetry, and of its particular ability to foster certain conditions for the reader's experiences. The central questions of this collection of essays: what is the poem, where and when does the poem happen, and how does it happen? Frank O'Hara Now publishes 15 new essays from writers most of whom are British apart from the Polish Tadeusz Pio'ro, the Americans Brian Reed, Richard Deming, and Lytle Shaw, and the British-based Americans Andrea Brady and Daniel Kane. Almost all contributors are also practising poets, which perhaps accounts for the collection's welcome attention to prosodic as well as semantic detail (we could attempt to read the negative of this collection, rifling through the published poetry of the contributors for the influence of O'Hara). The origins of the essays are testament to the influence of O'Hara on poetry in the UK since the breach from the deathly conservatism of the Movement poets on the turn of 1960, though the epithets 'British Poetry Revival' and 'Cambridge' ('nexus' or not) still do more harm than good in describing this shift - the 'New York School', after all, was a joke after a joke, the New York School following the Paris School (which was largely not French) following the Paris School of medieval manuscript illuminators. The book is divided into three sections ('City', 'Selves', and 'The Work of Others'), perhaps unnecessarily considering how urbanity (Geoff Ward describes O'Hara as 'metrophiliac' (p. 27)), lyric intimacy, and companionship charge all the essays. Both Lytle Shaw and Brian Reed, for example, consider O'Hara's collaborations with Norman Bluhm, but are at opposite ends of the collection (the editors are 'making a distinction/well, who isn't'). The essays tend to refer to O'Hara's longer poems and odes, more often than his short lyrics; most often (not surprisingly) 'In Memory of My Feelings' and (perhaps surprisingly) 'Ode: Salute to the French Negro Poets'. A brief list of flaws, either errors or matters of opinion to be conceded or not: John Wilkinson's article on Odes helpfully references pages in the Collected Poems, but oddly fails to give full publication details of Odes itself (and, can the Odes be reprinted now please?). Redell Olsen's essay, 'Kites and Poses: Attitudinal Interfaces in Frank O'Hara and Grace Hartigan' makes deft use of posing, but I find 'attitudinal interfaces' a little too discourse-heavy to be as helpful as 'the pose'. Josh Robinson's prose plays conviction (statement and re-statement) against the hesitations of a reading calibrated by subjective feeling; his concern however inaugurates a flurry of 'almosts': the 'almost flippant concessive clause' meets the 'almost formulaic praise', is 'almost rescued', and it is 'almost as if the words flow out one after another', but 'perhaps' our response is 'initially almost one of bewilderment' (which precedes an 'almost paraliptic' account), and this taken only from page 155. It isn't that there is 'something erotic' about the lines 'kiss me again/I'm still breathing': these lines are erotic, or lusty, lusting for the kiss that will leave the speaker breathless. More intrusive editing would have been helpful, too, for Richard Deming's otherwise successful essay 'Naming the Seam: On Frank O'Hara's Hatred': 'How the self is designated within that field is what is at stake in the point of contact that forms between the public and the private (that conception necessary for there even to be a self)' (p. 137) could be more elegant, and some of the examples of hesitation could have been discarded. Nick Selby describes the 'killing of the serpent in the last line' (p. 246) of 'In Memory of My Feelings', when it is the serpent who is saved: 'save the serpent in their midst'. Otherwise, the essays are hugely helpful. Andrea Brady's essay is the most critical of O'Hara, at least the O'Hara of 'Second Avenue' (and perhaps for that reason the most helpful at understanding one strain of ethical commitment in recent British poetry), because she asks a good deal of us as readers, and wants a good deal for us that might be incompatible with the lengths we are prepared to go to recuperate such a convoluted text. Brady argues that O'Hara's 'strategies of distraction - pulling the text, poet and reader, apart' are not best understood as anti-Romanticist absorption, but a defence mechanism to 'protect the autonomy of the poet' (p. 59). For Brady the 'problem with a poetics of absorbed distraction, or distracted absorption' is that it provides a model of freedom not available to the 'fragments' in their original formations, that is, 'associated with argument, complicity, social or political signification' (p. 69). Our freedom to read without these burdens is too much the reading of a 'distracted consumer of alienated situations and contexts'. We need other forms of 'advanced attention', and it would be good to know where or whether Brady finds models for that, too, elsewhere in O'Hara's work. Daniel Kane (whose research stems from his We Saw the Light from Iowa University Press) considers O'Hara's collaboration with Alfred Leslie on The Last Clean Shirt, a film, as Kane points out, remarkable for its ability to be derided by an Avant-Garde New York audience - its aesthetics are too bright and clean for the new cinema in thrall to murk. Kane's article is the most adept of all collected here in its consideration of race in O'Hara's work, as well as the most explicit in his naming of O'Hara's socialist leanings. The bulk of the essays are implicitly about the status of the art object. The recognisable critical way-stations are Clement Greenberg's 'Towards a Newer Laocoon', Michael Fried's critique of minimalism as theatrical, Allan Kaprow's conception of the happening, and Lucy Lippard's 'dematerialization of the art object'; the best of the writing here understands how poetry and prosody encourage instability in assumptions about art and our separation from the world, without condemning aesthetics to formlessness. The central contradiction of American art-making in this period is that between the art object within the material implications of its own medium, and art as a performance attempting to broach alienation from 'life'. It is no wonder O'Hara is so useful with his constant arrivals, hasty farewells, his elegant disappearances, and his pleasurable (and pleasured) physicality. He is too quick to be minimalist and too funny to be an Abstract Expressionist, too weepy to be Pop, and too cool to be happening. We can see a different emphasis on where the artwork resides in each of the essays, and how each seeks to move between locations with different third terms; from metre, music, the factura of painting, and the meeting of bodies. RodMengham (in 'French Frank' - geddit? it's nigh on unavoidable) demonstrates how the cult of immediacy of O'Hara criticism is a vivid displacement, New York mapped onto the Paris of O'Hara's revery. This O'Hara is for or of immediacy not because of his narration, but because the experience of the poem is ours. Mengham is one of a number of critics to cite Serge Guilbaut's rigorous but hostile work on the New York art scene (Florence will be shocked to hear that wealth and power may procure art). Mengham's helpful comparison of O'Hara with Reverdy (a comparison fervently supported and critiqued by Keston Sutherland) speaks to David Herd's essay on poetry and walking. By recalling Simon Jarvis's theory of 'prosody as cognition', Herd moves through a Heideggerean reading of thought as the 'leap' in contrast to O'Hara's 'gesture of the step'. Pio'ro, too, foregrounds the immediacy of attention: he presents a modernist argument, that the 'new' is exemplary of 'perpetual sameness' in the commodified world, in order to describe O'Hara's commitment to overcome boredom with attention (his attention, our attention). Robinson's essay provides very precise readings of possible breathpatterns when reading O'Hara's poetry. His argument is a good one, that a poem by establishing certain breath-patterns does not merely represent affective states, but effectively instals them. This could develop into intriguing interdisciplinary conversation with music, an example of which is provided by Will Montgomery's essay on Morton Feldman. O'Hara's music training is still underplayed in criticism, and Montgomery helpfully quotes from some of the harder to find texts O'Hara composed for Feldman. The connection to John Cage and to Feldman is, I think, crucial if we are to negotiate the shift between the heroics of Pollock out to the quietude of (for example) Jasper Johns. Montgomery finds a shared 'vocabulary of transcendence [...] a place beyond language and representation' from which O'Hara doubles back to immerse 'not in higher things but in the material' (pp. 209-10), a bathetic vulgarity we see proposed elsewhere, though in markedly different constructions. For Olsen, O'Hara is a forerunner of happenings and other performance pieces. Though Grace Hartigan's use of photography in composing her paintings is of great interest, I think photography causes more problems for an ethos of performance than it does solutions, and might be considered as the manufacture of a memorial, which is so deftly avoided by O'Hara's fluidity (see Wilkinson's reading of 'In Memory'). Olsen's reading of Hartigan's gender dissidence (for instance, her exhibiting as George Hartigan) leads productively (and makes complex) a queer reading of O'Hara's poses, 'in which the self is both subject and object' (p. 194); such poses 'might eclipse the work of art altogether' by redefining their 'cultural, social and artistic boundaries' (p. 194). Where Olsen sees self-conscious pose, Brian Reed sees phenomenological acuity. His discussion of intermedia (a term we can connect back to happenings via Dick Higgins) reads O'Hara and Bluhm'gesturally', that is 'to mark amoment and a place as constituting embodied expression' (p. 213).Reed's phenomenological approach is one I too find productive, though I favour the stronger interpretation of a phenomenological critique of semiotics that Reed, ultimately, disavows. Reed concludes that O'Hara's works are less autonomous objects than kinetic art, and opens a hugely productive field of enquiry into the relation of poetry to dance (and reminds us of the arguments of Olsen and Herd). Shaw's 'Gesture in 1960: Toward Literal Situations' critiques the mystificatory use of the 'poetic' by the Situationists.The parallel reading is an intriguing one, and the first of its kind as far as I know. After citing Michael Fried's dismissal of those (such as O'Hara, supposedly) 'who are in no way qualified for the profession [of art historian]', Shaw considers O'Hara to have developed a 'critical language for gestural painting that has no parallel among other critics', a language that included the Cold War, the rhetoric of freedom, and of masculinity (p. 31). According to Shaw, O'Hara 'loved' the Abstract Expressionists, for a kind of 'camp spectacle' (p. 31). I'm not sure the term camp helpsmore than it hinders, here, but a kind of gaudiness and vulgarity is apposite, and calibrates the movement from the painterly gesture as, in Paul Schimmel's words, quoted by Shaw, '"pure and unencumbered, and reveal[ing] nothing but itself and the action of making a picture"' to a stance in which 'that existential freedom' soon began to be 'caricatured, copied, reproduced, appropriated, synthesized, and finally drained of conviction' (p. 37); hence the connection to Situationism, in which the supposed isolation from ideology of the gesture will be mocked, and an overtly political conviction will be advertised. Shaw argues that whilst Debord 'idealized poetry' as a kind of pre-emption of a future society, O'Hara 'productively debased poetry' (p. 47). For Debord 'poetry' is the excess that cannot be recuperated by the spectacle, whereas 'poetry' for O'Hara can be the 'literalizing, socializing, and debasing of gesture'. O'Hara's poetry is, then, Abstract Expressionism as 'queer Hollywood cowboy' parody, a sociability made of the heroic struggle of gestural expression necessarily traduced by 'heretical' (p. 148) concerns for livable friendship. The jumping off point here, as it is for Reed and Selby, is Pollock. Like Olsen, Selby takes O'Hara's 'sense of his poetry - and indeed of his body' as a 'self-aware performance' (p. 230), referencing Pollock's description of being 'in' his paintings. In this essay a great deal of subtle exposition is undermined by a too general use of collage (the lengthy, serpentine syntax of the close of 'InMemory ofMy Feelings' is hard to conceive in terms of 'collaged textual surface' (p. 233)). For O'Hara's collaborations with Brainard, the term is good, but I'm not convinced that O'Hara's texts always foreground the intercutting of material fragments. Eddie Wolfram's definition of collage as 'the sticking [of] bits and pieces of random and miscellaneous bric-a-brac [can] stir the imagination to release hidden associations' (p. 231) is a flattened interpretation of the graces and falls of O'Hara's more fluid prosody. Selby's discussion of 1950s masculinity, however, and in particular the evocation of touch and tactility as subtly radical acts, is crucial to understanding first-to-second generation New York schools. Geoff Ward's essay opens with a brilliant reading of 'Ode: Salute to the French Negro Poets'; his description of the way '[w]ords 'become' your mouth' as a supplement of 'grace' is set against the way 'you are instantly in language already used and therefore loaded, in danger, in the political, in 'categorically the most difficult relationship', a compulsion to seek the other which is an ineluctable part of 'our nature' and yet one fraught with the potential for misunderstanding or violence' (p. 13). I think unnecessarily Ward revokes some of the power of this claim, arguing that the poem turns inwards, 'in order ultimately to address interpersonal frustrations' (p. 14), but again, the poem, its experience, and the experience of expression in-between bodies demonstrates O'Hara's genius for the artwork's deference to its real existence between people. Criticism of O'Hara has too frequently been deferent to the star-power of his Rolodex. References to celebrity, the editors argue, draw readers 'towards a mode of vicarious involvement in the events, moods and encounters of the remarkably dynamic circle that the texts memorialize', though much of the criticism here (including Ward's work) rightly discounts the 'cancerous'memorial (of the self, of the artwork). One of the most animated essays here isWilkinson's brilliant treatment of the 'rapturous' Odes (the narrative of which runs in reverse from death to birth) and in particular 'In Memory of My Feelings'. Emphasis is placed on the 'expense in real pain' required of O'Hara to give birth to these works, and such natal dilemmas are reflected back on the task of the reader: ifO'Hara's poems are Promethean in their 'anti-monumentalism', Wilkinson asks, 'how to read these poems without turning them into monuments?' (p. 104). The challenge is most explicit in the close of 'In Memory' with the 'cancerous statue' a death-inlife memorialisation; instead the 'artwork lives and dies only in encounter' (p. 105), making of O'Hara's struggle for the vulgarity of flesh our struggle too, a theory of empathetic reading I'd be grateful to see Wilkinson develop. Like Shaw, he emphasises Pollock's 'machismo [...] the contrived but persistent mythology' (p. 109), structuring it vertically as the sublime ('far limit of spiritual risk') contradicted by the bathos of 'rudeness', chastening the self 'from primitive authority to a mortal, social humanity' (p. 109). Such contradictions of vulgarity and risk 'dismember' any prospect of O'Hara raising 'phallic monuments' to and of the self. As is the crucial insight of O'Hara's poetry, it is fidelity to the encounter that provides bearing, Wilkinson writing beautifully of the culmination of 'Ode: Salute to the French Negro Poets' 'compacting flesh, spoken words and print' (p. 118): the only truth is face to face, the poem whose words become you and dying in black and white we fight for what we love, not are If being 'in' the artwork, in a fashion after Pollock, is not to make of the artist a statue, the artwork too must 'look out at the world' (O'Hara, quoted p. 119) in encounter. One of the grace-notes of the collection is Keston Sutherland's 'Close Writing'. Sutherland speaks of the smallest of the poems under consideration, 'For Grace, After a Party', which is O'Hara's call to closeness, a call to 'you' who are 'forever the limit of my own solitude' (128). The essay is exquisite as a corrective to famehungry criticism, concentrating on O'Hara's poetry as love poetry and the love that is friendship, and the proffering of that intimacy to you, the anonymous reader. For Sutherland, O'Hara's intimacy occurs by charging 'the confession of excessive sensibility' against the 'theatrical attempt to claim an impossible new possession of it'; his lyric is both excessive in its feelings (a common complaint for lyric poets), and impossible in its demand to bear those feelings (the 'excess of lust for that life') (p. 127). Sutherland concludes that the poem is a kind of revenge drama, it 'knocks into you in love, discovers that you are the limit of its excessive longing', and by discovering the limitation of solitude not in exactness (by touching exactly the limit), but by 'wound[ing] itself by wounding you', that is by going too far into the 'circumference of my reaching' (p. 128) as an act of harm which rebounds as self-harm. By this wounding as excess of intimacy (telling someone who loves you, or who you love, that they 'do not always know what I am [or you are] feeling' is wounding) the poem acts out the love in excess of particularity. Sutherland concludes that 'For Grace, After a Party' 'discovers that you are the limit of its excessive longing' and wounds 'you into anonymity, not even into someone I love but, in fixated indefiniteness, into someone you love' (p. 129). The turns between you and I here are compacted (and the close of the essay could do with another more aired restatement), but to conclude: by injurious intent 'you' become just 'someone you love', and that anonymity is a kind of limit-point, the far limit of love. This anonymity might be a defence of intimacy unwilling to be named, specified, accounted for; it might be an anonymity of some blessed relief, a forgetting of particularity, of being who you are supposed to be all the time; or the anonymity not of the intimate you love, but the someone who is loved by someone else. And of course we swing between the room in which the poem resides and the room in which we might be interrupted by the love who enters the room with some eggs. Its account of anonymity I hope will be revisited. What else would I like to see in O'Hara criticism? I'd like to see more work on O'Hara's Africa. His references are always treated as opportunistic, but was his attention more directed towards the poetic and political movements of the time? I'd like to see more explicating O'Hara's reception in Poland, or other countries in which he has proved popular. One last wish is not easily answerable from O'Hara criticism alone, though some help is provided in this collection (and in a recent book by Maggie Nelson), which is that O'Hara's affection for a number of women of the New York School of painting has not been supported (at least in the UK) by significant representation in exhibitions: it is quite hard, from here, to judge the work of Hartigan, Elaine de Kooning or Helen Frankenthaler. The question of the status of the art object is a question of the status of the kind of object who is a person, and the essays here present O'Hara's poetry against statuary, for the body walking in the world, for the theatrical or performative, for the self existing only in dynamic relation to others and, finally, as 'the poem whose words become you'. Most of the essays here understand O'Hara to have a politicised sensibility contradicting many of his early interpreters. Ward describes O'Hara's 'radiant and enabling optimism' held amidst the 'pressure and aggression along the whole personal/political spectrum' (p. 16): such virtues of radiance and enablement feel pointed at a time of such callous political violence. -- Sam Ladkin Textual Practice 25(3), Despite being a driving force for so many of the modernist innovations in New York in the 1950s, Frank O'Hara has nevertheless remained a relatively obscure writer for many British readers. This very well-conceived and well-structured volume seeks to rectify this omission. The Introduction positions the volume very clearly in terms of its contribution to scholarship on O'Hara's poetry, as well as providing an excellent analysis of the history of the reception of O'Hara's work. Arguing that the distinctive contribution of this book from among its competitors lies in its treatment of the variety of O'Hara's personae and poses, Hampson and Montgomery aim to focus on the complexity of O'Hara's work rather than "calcifying around the urbane and charming persona" (3). In this respect, the perception of the editors that O'Hara's work requires a good deal more thorough investigation and that, in so doing, one can learn new things about the interrelationship of the various arts in the New York modernist environment of the 1950s and 1960s is highly persuasive. Written in a readable yet succinct style, the Introduction also offers a good juxtaposition of the UK contributions to knowledge of O'Hara alongside the transatlantic scholarship. The book is intelligently structured into three thematic sections - "City," "Selves," and "The Work of Others." These three sections allow the editors to ensure that essays that cover a wide range of ideas, events and relationships are coherently organized and intellectually apposite. O'Hara is probably best known as the witty metropolitan poet and the first section - "City" - covers this aspect of his work, albeit without falling into cliches or well-trodden areas of O'Hara's work. Geoff Ward's essay is a stylishly written and keen meditation on what it is to be a "city-poet," defining the urban environment, especially New York. Allusive, referential and tightly argued, Ward opens up a set of issues that are then recurrently addressed in the subsequent essays that initiate a whole set of innovative ideas: Lytle Shaw's investigation into O'Hara's relationship with abstract expressionists opens up new comparisons with the situationists, Andrea Brady offers an unusual and interesting comparison between O'Hara's poetic practice and Charles Bernstein's "anti-absorptive" poetics, David Herd's incisive essay presents an excellent reading of the cognitive issues in O'Hara's poetry that also addresses itself to larger issues in poetry itself, while Rod Mengham and Tadeusz Pioro offer good explorations of the international dimensions of O'Hara's work. In addition, all these essays also consider the role of the poet-artist in useful cross-linked ways that give the section and the collection more generally a tightness of conception. The section entitled "Selves" addresses the romanticism of O'Hara's poetry and manifesto statements, tackling in particular the different notions of self - subjectivity, selfhood, self-identity, body and physicality. O'Hara's treatment of emotions also features in this section, and the essays by John Wilkinson, Keston Sutherland, Josh Robinson and Richard Deming are very astute readings of aspects of selfhood. However, in many ways, it is the third section, entitled "The Work of Others," that is the most innovative. Although it continues many of the aforementioned issues, it extends our understanding of the context of O'Hara's work by positioning it within aesthetic modernism in all of its forms - cinema, art, poetry, technology, music and dance. Essays by Daniel Kane, Redell Olsen, Will Montgomery, Brian Reed and Nick Selby present us with significant new insights into O'Hara's working practices as well as extending our understanding of the aesthetic milieu of New York during O'Hara's heyday. This collection gathers together many of the leading British scholars on O'Hara and, consequently, one is getting cutting-edge ideas and scholarship. The essays are theoretically and methodologically informed, and the book offers work at two levels. In the main, the book is focussed on opening up issues related to O'Hara's work and practice. However, the essays also address many of the pressing concerns of reading, writing and interpreting the wider sphere of avant-garde poetic exploration as well. Consequently, the collection is not a narrowly focussed book and it appeals to a range of potential different readerships in different disciplines. All in all, the volume seems a model of editors' reenergizing debate on a writer who is highly pertinent to the contemporary understanding of avant-garde writing; and it is to the credit of Liverpool University Press that it perceives a need to support such debates in academic publishing. Journal of American Studies ... the volume seems a model of editors' reenergizing debate on a writer who is highly pertinent to the contemporary understanding of avant-garde writing; and it is to the credit of Liverpool University Press that it perceives a need to support such debates in academic publishing. Journal of American Studies Frank O'Hara Now: New Essays on the New York Poet, is a welcome contribution to the discipline and is the first collection of essays dedicated to O'Hara. Years Work in English Studies, vol 91, no 1

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