Sunday, May 30, 2004

Memorial Day



You arrive like General Custer, outlaw this gunslinger
and buckle some infidel pact
to my shoulder blades as if it were football Saturday.

It isn’t and the helmet I am carrying is a fishbowl
full of stasis, a deliberate kitty of knots.
Here, strap it on. If you didn’t jerk so, they

wouldn’t call you Whiplash. Each morning
I set cream on your porch and some malingering tomcat
licks it clean as a new bayonet. A recruit’s

thin smile. The sky is a fish belly up, love is
like this or that, the war isn’t over. They’ll never
design a commemorative stamp big enough to patch it.


Written in the midst of another immoral and illegal war, offer’d up with its inadequate anger, inadequate to the barely contain’d anger “one” holds today, tight in clench’d fists.




Readings of two poems—one by O’Hara, one by Ashbery. How is such thinking—postmodern—apparent in each. First is an early (1950) poem by O’Hara titled “Les étiquettes jaunes”:

I picked up a leaf
today from the sidewalk.
This seems childish.

Leaf! You are so big!
How can you change your
color, then just fall!

As if there were no
such thing as integrity!

You are too relaxed
to answer me. I am too
frightened to insist.

Leaf! don’t be neurotic
like the small chameleon.

Marjorie Perloff asserts that the “mode” of the poem is “clearly derived from William Carlos Williams” in being “natural, colloquial, whimsical, light-hearted” and opposes it to “the clotted, somewhat mannered mode of Oranges: 12 Pastorals.” (One of Perloff’s main arguments is that it is in the synthesis of the two modes that O’Hara’s achievement lies.) She asserts that here, though the poem is “comically absurd” and “no more than a charming slight poem,” O’Hara’s “aesthetic of attention” is seen emerging: “the falling of a single leaf . . . is worthy of notice.” I would argue that the poem is somewhat more complex.

Where Perloff sees in the French title only a “note of mock elegance.” I would argue that there is therein implied a sense of the way words themselves, like leaves, “fall”—that is, change, refusing any “integrity,” anything beyond a provisional “neurotic” truth. Just as the poet himself exhibits a neurosis, a “chameleon”-like insistence, constantly reacting, changing, gaining a skittish definition only within language, constantly taking “color” within it, in self-conscious response to it. An étiquette jaune is (can be translated as) a “yellow label”—what is affixed to something to indicate its nature, “what it is.” The word étiquette also carries, in French, its English connotations of protocol, of prescribed forms of behavior, of decorum and orderliness. The word jaune (“yellow”), when applied to a label, evokes something old, paper yellowing with age, perhaps about to come unglued. In the idiomatic expression rire jaune, jaune can also refer to something unnatural—a “forced laugh.” The leaf O’Hara picks up, then, is, metaphorically, a kind of label or mark, a sign—not unlike a word. It is a sign denatured, no longer affixed, “too relaxed to answer”; it can only signify itself. It is not unlike the work of art, which, as Eco notes in The Open Work, “releases itself from the bonds which previously claimed to define and circumscribe it.”

O’Hara’s imperative “don’t be neurotic”—exhibiting a longing for order, stability, signifiers affixed—is untrustworthy. It is undercut throughout by what Eco calls “plurivocality.” Through voice and self-reflexivity, O’Hara here is alerting us to the presence of the poet’s own multiple “neurotic” stances, or stories. To pick up a leaf off the sidewalk “seems childish”—that is one of O’Hara’s stories. To write “I picked up a leaf / today from the sidewalk”—that is another, one that seemingly contradicts the first in its un-”childish” reflection on the act. The voice enacts the writing’s neurosis by moving then to the mode of “childish” exclamation (“Leaf! You are so big!”) and immediately disrupting that mode through the sophisticated use of the conditional subjunctive (“As if there were”) and the “adult” mention of “integrity.” What the poem insists on—while paradoxically claiming that it is “too frightened to insist”—is the impossibility of anything beyond “neurotic coherence,” any truth beyond the “makeshift” (Barthes) and provisional. (O’Hara’s “Ode on Causality” begins “There is the sense of neurotic coherence / / you think maybe poetry is too important and you like that.” Writing—”sweet scripts to obfuscate the tender subjects”—is important precisely to the degree that it “in asserting [is] beginning to be more of the opposite,” that is, “neurotic,” refusing coherence, putting into question its own code.) In The Pleasure of the Text Barthes sees clearly the paradox of the neurosis that says “don’t be neurotic”:

Neurosis is a makeshift: not with regard to “health” but with
regard to the “impossible” Bataille speaks of (“Neurosis is the
fearful apprehension of an ultimate impossible,” etc.); but this
makeshift is the only one that allows for writing (and reading).
So we arrive at this paradox: the texts, like those by Bataille—
or by others—which are written against neurosis . . . contain
within themselves, if they want to be read, that bit of neurosis
necessary to the seduction of their readers. . . Thus every writer’s
motto reads: . . . neurotic I am.

In the interest of investigating parallel and opposing postmodern strategies in the work of another member of the New York School, I’d like to examine a short poem of roughly the same period by John Ashbery. The poem is titled “Le livre est sur la table.” It appears as the final poem in Ashbery’s 1956 collection Some Trees, a volume selected by W. H. Auden as winner of that year’s Yale Series of Younger Poets prize. In introducing the volume Auden sees Rimbaud as precursor to Ashbery’s “calculated oddities” of (as David Lehman notes in Beyond Amazement) “logic and imagery,” to “the perceived rupture ‘between reality and meaning’” and to “the conviction that a language of congruities could only falsify the imaginative experiences that matter most.” Here is the poem:

All beauty, resonance, integrity,
Exist by deprivation or logic
Of strange position. This being so,

We can only imagine a world in which a woman
Walks and wears her hair and knows
All that she does not know. Yet we know

What her breasts are. And we give fullness
To the dream. The table supports the book,
The plume leaps in the hand. But what

Dismal scene is this? the old man pouting
At a black cloud, the woman gone
Into the house, from which the wailing starts?

The young man places a bird-house
Against the blue sea. He walks away
And it remains. Now other

Men appear, but they live in boxes.
The sea protects them like a wall.
The gods worship a line-drawing

Of a woman, in the shadow of the sea
Which goes on writing. Are there
Collisions, communications on the shore

Or did all secrets vanish when
The woman left? Is the bird mentioned
In the waves’ minutes, or did the land advance?

Next to O’Hara’s capricious and giddy turnings, the opening lines of Ashbery’s poem seem staid. Ashbery is presenting an intellectual argument regarding the limits of representation—how “truth” (“beauty, resonance, integrity”) is always partial, existing only “by deprivation.” It is a problem Ashbery returns to often—this realization that something is always “left unsaid.” In “The New Spirit,” one of the three prose pieces in Three Poems, Ashbery writes: “At last there is the sense of destiny, the one thing that never could have happened, but even as its word fills your mouth you realize the terrible things that are left unsaid: what happens after that”? What happens is precisely what happens when a leaf falls: there is no longer any “such thing as integrity” and the “plume [what is writing the poem] leaps in the hand.” Polyvalence invades the writing (reading)—”we give fullness to the dream”—filling its gaps with ever-new versions of the “Dismal scene” in, as Eco says in The Open Work, a “permanent transformation of the past.” Hence, the “world in which a woman / Walks and wears her hair and knows / All that she does not know” becomes known only in terms of our knowing that we do not know the world but can only provide it, construct it in an endless succession of provisional replacements—now “the old man pouting / At a black cloud,” now “the woman gone / Into the house.” Barthes (in The Pleasure of the Text): “That is what representation is: when nothing emerges, when nothing leaps out of the frame: of the picture, the book, the screen.” I would argue that the first part of “Le livre est sur la table” makes the same argument—here, though, the leaping “plume” suggests representation is not possible. However, for the most part, the poem fails to enact that argument, preferring to “represent” it. (One could make the counter-argument that the eruption of questions at the end signals an enactment and a sudden failure of intellection. After “hand,” the body is writing, what Barthes calls “figuration” is occurring and the intellect can only note it, the questions all versions of the same “what happens after that?”)

The second part of the poem begins with lines recalling these opening lines to Wallace Stevens’s “Anecdote of the Jar”:

I placed a jar in Tennessee
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

It is interesting to note that O’Hara, reviewing the book for Poetry, made the Stevens connection. He called Some Trees “the most beautiful first book to appear in America since Harmonium. “ Much, of course, has been made since of Stevens’s influence on Ashbery, particularly by Harold Bloom, who, in Figures of Capable Imagination, declares: “In Some Trees, Ashbery was a relatively joyous ephebe of Stevens.” I would disagree. If that “jar in Tennessee” is seen to pacify the “slovenly wilderness,” to offer an image of order and “dominion everywhere,” a modernist image of the writing subject (entirely un-ruptured, un-”neurotic”) subjecting, Ashbery’s “bird-house” (a ridiculous thing) does nothing of the sort. Ashbery’s version can only be read as parody: even in its refusal of Stevens’s lilting and tidy iambic music (compare “The jar was round upon the ground” with the clipped, direct “ugliness” of “Now other / Men appear, but they live in boxes”) Ashbery points to (and enacts) the perceived failure of man’s will to order through representation. Here, “the blue sea” “against” which the “bird-house” is placed refuses to be quelled, but “goes on writing.” Here, too, “communications” are not different from “collisions,” and what is worshipped in the absence of the woman of the first part (that partial representation that proved unstable, merely provisional) is “a line-drawing / Of a woman,” a text of a text, a simulacrum. The poem enacts the unraveling of the belief that any “logic / Of strange position” is possible any longer. As Ashbery himself has written (in “The Recital,” Three Poems):

No longer is there any question of adjusting a better light on things,
to show them ideally as they may never have existed, of taking
them out from under the sun to place them in the clean light that
meditation surrounds them with.

What we have in lieu of the shown (and shining) ideal, result of the “clean light” of meditation, is “mention”—a momentary act of attention, a trace—”In the waves’ minutes.” Mention is not unlike the bird itself (notice how it appears out of nowhere—as do the “young man,” the “men,” and “the gods”—and as quickly disappears). Those “minutes” (like those of any meeting, or “collision”) can only be incomplete and can only repeat as each wave repeats, each a little parody of itself and the wave that preceded it. (I think of Derrida’s “supplement”: addition and replacement.) The movement of Ashbery’s poem’s only logic is parodic: Men live in boxes because of a (boxy) bird-house; in imitation, the sea becomes a wall; the sea’s writing is aped in (or apes) the line-drawing. If Auden (quoted in Lehman) sees in the poems in Ashbery’s Some Trees “a succession of unique moments, each of which is novel and will never recur,” he is refusing, perhaps, to see exactly what is always already there on Ashbery’s postmodern table. It is a book. It is not a world. It is full of “already said” moments that are no longer novel and can only recur—as “the gods” know, those who now “worship a line-drawing of a woman.”


Here, I want to entangle O’Hara in a different scrim (or scrims)—that (those) of my own O’Hara-esque readings and writings, that (those) of O’Hara’s own shiny emergence (as a new thing, like postmodernism itself, difficult and mischievous by turns and more than a little suspect). A Bird in Space like Brancusi’s own, poised, anchored, and liable, like a reputation, to be “tarnished.”


I have a clear memory of sitting on a couch facing a wall of magazines displayed face-out in the Pioneer High School library in Ann Arbor, Michigan: I am reading a copy of Poetry magazine. I am thinking I should remember the names of some of these poets. So I do. And now I forget the names of any of those poets I planned that day to remember and remember only planning not to forget. This could have been in February 1969. The February 1969 issue of Poetry contained a number of O’Hara poems, as did the May 1970 issue. There were also (of magazines readily available to me at the time) large selections in both the Winter 1968 and Summer 1970 issues of the Paris Review. I still own a copy of the Fall 1970 Paris Review purchased around that time, so it seems likely I was in the habit of looking at it as it appeared. However, I can’t reconstruct a moment—even a year—in which I became aware of Frank O’Hara. What I know is that by the time O’Hara’s Collected Poems, edited by Donald Allen, was published by Knopf in the late months of 1971, I was eagerly awaiting it. I made an immediate request for the book from Olin Library at Cornell University, checked it out—a big, off-white, virginal brick of a book—carried it back to my dormitory room and began a kind of awed, reverential, and unsystematic reading of it, a reading that continued for months. (I remember carrying that book with me to Florida that spring—some mad twenty-hour dash in Nick Rorick’s Datsun; he had an ex-high school sweetheart living in a hippie-filled bungalow there; I had a longing to see the ocean [or anything]. The book went with me; I snuck away with it when the scene at the bungalow [Nick’s unhappy entanglements with the ex- under black lights, and amongst cockroaches, and a whole colorful palette of drugs] got too crowded. I read it on the beach, or one morning in the Datsun where I awoke having been driven out of the bungalow by the sound of strangers fornicating on the floor next to me.) That, back in Ithaca, nobody else seemed interested in the book (it was not recalled by the library) is not something that interested me one way or another then. It was just not something that occurred to me.


The “unlocatable” line returns. I find it in Ron Padgett’s Great Balls of Fire, a collection published in 1969. “After Reverdy”:

I would never have wanted to see your sad face again
Your cheeks and your windy hair
I went all across the country
Under this humid woodpecker
Day and night
Under the sun and the rain

Now we are face to face again
What does one say to my face

Once I rested up against a tree
So long
I got stuck to it
That kind of love is terrible

This brings back two memories. One: how what attracted me to O’Hara—the surrealism, the chattiness, daily offhand despair parceled out with a kind of self-conscious deprecation and high / low all-inclusive diction, the refusal to act in a serious manner in face of the poem—all this attracted me also to the second-generation New York School of poets (the ones someone—John Ashbery it was—once jokingly called [so Padgett notes in An Anthology of New York Poets] the “soi-disant Tulsa School” since Padgett, Dick Gallup, the collagist Joe Brainard, and Ted Berrigan had all come [variously] from there to New York in the early 1960s). Padgett had started a magazine called the White Dove Review while still in high school in Tulsa, after having discovered poetry in Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry: 1945-1960. As Brad Gooch, author of City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara, writes: “Because of the Allen anthology, teenage poets all around the country, who would eventually gravitate to New York and to O’Hara [this is a little excessive, an overstatement], were given their first tantalizing, if sometimes baffling, exposure [to the new poetry].” Gooch also quotes Padgett’s response to first reading O’Hara as a teenager in Tulsa: “There was a certain high pitch in some of those poems that scared me, a certain kind of diction and intensity that I hadn’t seen before.” If Padgett got to O’Hara through Allen, I got to the whole scene through a tangled web of forces, readings and writings that remain ineluctably intertwined.


I remember how Tom Clark, Ted Berrigan, and Ron Padgett came to read at the University of Michigan (invited, oddly enough, by Donald Hall, editor of New Poets of England and America, the very anthology that fired the first salvo, in 1957, in the famous “anthology wars.” Allen’s response had come in 1960, but there had obviously been some relenting in the antagonisms by 1968 or so when this reading occurred. Clark had been a student of Hall’s, had won a major Hopwood award. So the battle lines drawn up earlier between the poetries of the “cooked” and the “raw,” between the New Criticism-inspired “closed” academic verse and the “open” poetries of its attackers, were obviously being ignored, then, at least by Hall.) I was in the ninth grade and had for a teacher one Andrew Carrigan, a friend of Hall’s (who had come to our class a couple of times; he would read his “Self Portrait as a Bear” and grin genially through a full wild beard, roll back his long-haired head, lumber his big body around, very “hip,” very much the jovial entertainer, like nothing I would have associated with the word “academic” had I bothered to think about such distinctions then.) Carrigan announced the readings to us: Clark, Berrigan and Padgett were there for about a week and would be doing several. I went to one reading late in the week, accompanied by my father, who seemed less alarmed than merely curious that his son wanted to go hear a poetry reading. Besides, we lived on the outskirts of town; my father had to drive if I was going to get there.

What I remember is this: terrific mod-rocker (English-style, Carnaby Street, for the most part) outfits, loud paisley and polka dots—Ted Berrigan in baby blue patent leather boots with a matching belt about four inches wide; Clark in a wide-lapel’d and striped suit with bellbottom trousers. They read mostly collaborations that night, having enormous fun, the audience (I peeked at my father) laughing hard, with them on every word. I remember a lengthy story full of bawdry and sexual innuendo and advancing by homilies and clichés—things like “she put all her eggs in one basket.” Much of it I missed, but I was on to something: what words could do. I started paying attention to names, to “schools.” I found The World Anthology, edited by Anne Waldman, a collection of poems first published in The World, the mimeographed magazine supported by the St. Mark’s Poetry Project. At the same time I was reading through Hall’s own Contemporary American Poetry, a tiny Penguin paperback published in 1962. Carrigan had suggested it, or required it, for that ninth grade English class. (I don’t, frankly, remember reading or writing anything besides poetry in that class.) The anthology shows Hall beginning to break down the split between himself and Allen that had been evident in the earlier “anthology wars” publications, though Contemporary American Poetry still leans heavily toward the academic poets Hall had touted previously. He manages, in the introduction, to both praise (condescendingly) and dismiss the Beats while focusing his interest on the New York School. The passage is interesting:

I have not mentioned another group of poets who are sufficiently
separate. (I have not mentioned the Beat Generation, incidentally,
because it is an invention of weekly news magazines. Insofar as
it has made several good lines of poetry, it has belonged to the
colloquial tradition.) These are a group of New Yorkers who have
been associated with Action Painting . . . and whose poetry
attempts a similar vitality. Their closeness to modern French
poetry seems obvious. Frank O’Hara, with his Second Avenue,
comes closest to Action Writing. But the best of these poets,
it seems to me, is John Ashbery, whom I print here.

Which poets do I remember reading out of this anthology? Stafford, Hecht, Dickey, Levertov, Logan, Simpson, Bly, Creeley, James Wright, Snyder. I also remember several classmates singing (for Hall’s pleasure, on a visit) X. J. Kennedy’s “In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus One Day” to the tune of “Sweet Betsy from Pike.” Fussy distinctions were ignored, then: poetry was the thing. But then memory is a feeble thing, and inventive.


“After Reverdy,” the Padgett poem I am still, however tenuously, “stuck to.” And Hall’s offhand remark regarding the “New Yorkers”: “Their closeness to modern French poetry seems obvious.” As I construct things now my own Francophile leanings have their roots in that New York School. Memory two: translating Pierre Reverdy’s poems in college. Why Reverdy? Because I loved the lines in Frank O’Hara’s “A Step Away from Them”:

A glass of papaya juice
and back to work. My heart is in my
pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.

Or that other mention O’Hara makes, in “Adieu to Norman, Bon Jour to Joan and Jean-Paul”: “I love Reverdy for saying yes, though I don’t believe it.” Again the construction is trifled with, made less than certain by the presence of a number of other stories (presences) in the form of second-generation New York School borrowings. Padgett’s poem above, the obvious one. Also something called “Going to School in France or America” in Tom Clark’s Stones (1969) that I might maintain jump-started my interest in things French. It begins:

Drugs are a tuition,
and tuition is teaching,
but in French tuer is to kill,
and so in France drugs are killing

I can remember this leading pretty directly to a poem I began in high school, (though I suspect I finished it somewhat later), a poem titled “Basketball in France and America.” It begins:

Je suis un hôtel muttering
a steady slap through these stark,
rain-slick streets like the skin
of a giant basketball lost
years before. Some kid back home
keeps the bounce and the sphere
of air that no longer fits me
so like an innertube of dreams!

I tried to teach myself French in high school by bringing home French “Living Language” records from the Ann Arbor Public Library (an easy thing to do: I worked there; I cleaned returned records with some kind of anti-static solution and reshelved them.) I practiced by inventing idiotic simple sentences like the one in the poem. Later my French trajectory took a more normal course: failing French 102 in college, moving to Paris because a girlfriend was studying at the Sorbonne. A year or so later, back in school, I decided to translate a number of Pierre Reverdy’s poems for a directed reading / independent study project. And did.


Frank O’Hara wrote a poem called “Ode to Michael Goldberg(‘s Birth and Other Births).” It is, arguably, the most autobiographical poem he wrote.


I don’t care about placing myself in a tradition. That sounds like wanting to be dead. Reading around about O’Hara, about the New York School, and about the “anthology wars,” I am struck by how the publication of the Allen anthology suddenly focused energies for so many. Here’s Ted Berrigan, responding in an interview (reprinted in Bill Berkson and Joe LeSueur’s Homage to Frank O’Hara) to the question, “When did you first read works by Frank O’Hara?”

That’s a good question, actually. I don’t . . . it seems to me that
I first read them in about 1959. Though the Don Allen anthology,
which is where I first read them, came out presumably in 1960 . . .
The first one I remember reading is “Why I Am Not a Painter.”
I remember it because it’s almost like the first poem I remember

That sounds right to me. And do we then write “to” that first poem we remember reading? I finally read straight through O’Hara’s Collected Poems, all in one amphetamine-lit night in the spring of 1972. I wrote a short paper (now lost, and one the professor who directed the reading and writing was ill-convinced had any business being written, such was his opinion of O’Hara; he was, however, a friend, and since I did work for him at the small poetry publishing house he had established—Ithaca House, he relented) explicating one of the “On Rachmaninoff’s Birthday” poems, the one that begins “Quick! a last poem before I go” and ends “You’ll never be mentally sober.” It appealed, I suppose, to my lingering adolescent giddiness. And does still. I presume I noticed how it comments on itself as it constructs itself, too—self-deprecatingly, humorously. Or maybe I didn’t.

I don’t want to place myself in a tradition, but I do want to be able to know that tradition I end up finding myself in—one way to place myself against it, to avoid the tawdriness of a simple self-explication fueling every writing. That’s what leads to “academic” verse, the kind that knows its own rules and follows them, thinkingly. And there are “Language” poets who do it as well as “Iowa” (a designation now, it seems, interchangeable with “academic”) poets do it—by the “rules.” Formula. Earnest self-caricature that cannot recognize itself as such. Complacency. Perhaps it’s silly to argue O’Hara as a brave Janus-figure, he no more that any “strong” poet, those capable of looking back and looking forth, “yonder,” over the distant hill, say, preternaturally, and beyond the distant days (through “yon”: derived from the Greek ene, meaning day after tomorrow), looking through space and time. As O’Hara (in “Meditations in an Emergency”) writes:

Destroy yourself, if you don’t know.

It is easy to be beautiful; it is difficult to appear so.

Rejecting the obvious self-knowledge (as old as Keats) of beauty. So knowing, then, must we read and write unendingly against the first poem we remember reading, against the beautiful ease of that remembering, and for the difficult “appearance” where uncertainty resides? We must.


poetry and how it “does not attack the [—any—] establishment,” but “merely ignores its right to exist, and is thus a source of annoyance to partisans of every stripe.” The area “between” refuses the binarism of problem and solution not by problematizing that binarism (thus setting a binary system up anew), but by that “merely ignoring.” That combined with an othering of self that allows for agency as “other.” (I am thinking of Rimbaud again here: can Je est un autre free one to work unfettered, to forage equally in the “open” and the “closed,” in the “contestatory” and the “accommodationist” modes, that “I” now acting not as totalizing, universal, essentialist self, but as a provisional site of “I”-ness? Think of that “I” as a centering figure constantly aware of its liability to decenter, to become “other,” or vice-versa, letting the emphasis fall whence it may, letting the mischief of tension in the “I-denying I” structure the poem, maintaining allegiance to neither, not to “I,” not to “other”?) “Between-ness” may well be a completely untenable position, attained only by constant, systematic inconstancy, denial, acceptance, denial’s acceptance and acceptance’s denial. Binaries again. Figure and ground. Fragment and whole. “A Poetics” with its clumsy interspersals—rupturing—of “note” and “not,” its obvious alternating fonts. [Something lost here in the ragged encyclic—though I’ve tried to indicate “swiches” via floating ~’s.] (Too obviously, “A Poetics” wants to enact the position it attempts to claim and finds it cannot. Spilled out between its Palatino beginnings and its Helvetica interruptions, it desires most a text of pure interpenetration, commingling, weave, of equal and arbitrary readings and writings, use and measure gained from whatever is “at hand.” It is [oddly] limited in its commingling, the “amongness” it seeks. It, too, settles for an active “between-ness.” Limited by technology: how, for example, avoid the sans serif Helvetica field’s being always already “note” and “secondary” appendage to the serif’d Palatino woods’ “origin,” its “primary” claim? How collapse the too simple binary? Even whole cloth is always made of warp and woof. Between woods and field is the edge of woods—always already the edge, too, of the field . . .)

The metaphors turn to ecology, to natural spaces. I have a brother who spends the winter months high in the coffee plantations of the west central part of the Dominican Republic studying, among the migratory neo-tropicals and other things, the small West Indian kingfisher-like bird called the tody. He recently completed a paper titled “An Experimental Study of Nest Predation in a Wet, Subtropical Forest Following Hurricane Disturbance.” I like what he writes about it in a letter: “The take home message? There are even longer term effects of hurricanes in the form of increased nest predation—because nest predators favor edge habitat and hurricanes create more edge habitat.” The implication is clear: on the edges of things is where action is—nesting and predation, life and death. If you want to see birds, work that margin, not open field, not thick wood. Go between, unnoticed in the intersection. Hurricanes are necessary, cyclic, admirable, even heroic—and it may well be that each one of us must needs experience the lash and fury of one, to periodically obliterate whatever we had been doing just before the storm broke. But not as a solution in and of itself, not as the exemplary perpetual crisis that makes of crisis a stasis, but as that determined turning away that offers whole new areas, new landscapes to work, avoiding anew both thicket and opening, working invisibly all over the edges where the count is apt to be highest.

In “The Invisible Avant-Garde” (in Reported Sightings), a May 1968 lecture at the Yale Art School, one of a series of talks by writers and critics organized by the painter Jack Tworkov to explore the question of the role of the avant-garde, John Ashbery confronts the phenomenon of the “tradition of the new,” the seemingly endless and now nearly immediate assimilation of the experimental into a tradition of experimentation. Ashbery does so with the example of the obscure German-Italian composer Ferrucio Busoni who, circa World War I, disapproving of “Expressionists like Schönberg” and of “Neoclassicists like Reger,” “managed to avoid these extremes by taking what was valid in each.” Ashbery quotes Busoni: “One follows a great example most faithfully if one does not follow it, for it was through turning away from its predecessor that the example became great.” The remark seems similar to Bloom’s subsequent formulation, in The Anxiety of Influence—that of the clinamen, the “swerve,” misprision, misreading, “perverse, wilful revisionism”—though without Bloom’s Freudian emphasis on such a move’s being “indeliberate and almost unconscious.”

I am beginning to feel like Elvin Jones, looking for that door,—[the irony of Jones’s having just found that final exit is not lost on me: so long, drummer . . .]—the way out of a too-long solo (with many voices impinging). “A Poetics” is endless, in pieces, furious, untidy, ongoing, ever inadequate and ever redundant in its inadequacy. A fragment: “The redundancy of the postmodern poetic. The poem does enough talking about itself. Who needs the tidier field of a prose justification?” Justified lines “allowing” the consequential slippage, the exfoliations within. Another fragment: “How balance the self-consciousness of the poem with the unabashedly received nature of its arrival? Even our trances are self-reflexive.” The work goes on, the poetic entanglements get less tangible and more usefully complex just as the poetry, in O’Hara’s words, “brings forth the intangible quality of incidents which are all too concrete and circumstantial” and lest we forget that it is the inspecific ache and bliss of discovery that matters, lest we settle for a too simple formula that cauterizes the wound, sealing it off to a finish however scarred, we must constantly—forgetting—remember this: we mustn’t . . .


Friday, May 28, 2004

Minutiae Bagged


What sentence was that? A capacity for minutiae? The bagger’s doing some labially complex thing, accompany’d by mumbling? Recrudescence of fraught moiety? “I’ll give you half of what I’m owed”?

May winds down pickled, June retches forth—month of ambivalence and haught.




In a short poem of 1955 titled “My Heart” O’Hara defies Barthes’s dictum to “never explain” and offers an apology (in the form of a defense, a poetics), chatty and informal, marked by irony and a willful indifference to the forms of logically consistent argument. Here is the poem:

I’m not going to cry all the time
nor shall I laugh all the time,
I don’t prefer one “strain” to another.
I’d have the immediacy of a bad movie,
not just a sleeper, but also the big,
overproduced first-run kind. I want to be
at least as alive as the vulgar. And if
some aficionado of my mess says “That’s
not like Frank!”, all to the good! I
don’t wear brown and grey suits all the time,
do I? No. I wear workshirts to the opera,
often. I want my feet to be bare,
I want my face to be shaven, and my heart—
you can’t plan on the heart, but
the better part of it, my poetry, is open.

In the immediacy, openness, and vitality of O’Hara’s project—“seeing,” that “duty to be attentive”—preference—with its implication of a “self” making choices, of intentionality—becomes moot. The word “strain” is wonderfully overdetermined in the context, as O’Hara indicates, ironically putting it in quotation marks. Oddly enough, through a sort of false etymology, “strain” can be linked to “poet”—“strain” going back to the Latin struere to heap up (related to “structure”), and “poet” going back to the Sanskrit cinoti he heaps up. The word carries a number of useful associations here that work, as much else in the poem does, to link the poet’s body to the poet’s writing in a Barthesque gesture, thus freeing the project of the notions of intent, tradition, even individual style (or “expression”). The lack of preference of “one ‘strain’ to another” here rejects lineage, ancestry, the poem continuing the physiological traits of its putative kin or forebears; it also rejects any inherent characteristic or disposition (style) in a poetics in favor of “embodied” improvisation (“cry” or “laugh”) of the moment (“not . . . all the time”). O’Hara will not stop, not even for “beauty”; in a poem titled “In Favor of One’s Time” he writes of the danger of seeing time as anything “spent,” time as anything but “tempestuous,” and loving “conflict.” Anything else is a diminishment. He writes:

an angel flying slowly, curiously singes its wings
and you diminish for a moment out of respect
for beauty then flare up after all that’s the angel
that wrestled with Jacob and loves conflict

In everyday usage “strain” also points to disease—a new strain of virus, the poem as evidence of one of the body’s infections. Barthes, too, in a tiny fragment in Roland Barthes, points to a poetics of “Le texte symptomal—The text as symptom”: “How can I mange to keep each of these fragments from never being anything but a symptom”? Also in the language of disease, Barthes (in The Grain of the Voice) offers a version of the problem of the open work (the text of bliss)’s tendency to “close,” to turn to the “comfortable” text of pleasure: “Culture recuperates. Recuperation is the great law of history.” The word “strain” also introduces the notion of music—a (light) tune, an air, “a stream or outburst of forceful or impassioned speech” (Webster’s), implying ease, “naturalness” (O’Hara’s linking of music and vitality can be seen in “A Quiet Poem”—“When music is far enough away / the eyelid does not move / / and objects are still as lavender / without breath or distant rejoinder”—and later—“the heart breathes to music.”) Finally, “strain” also implies various opposing counter-notions of exertion, physical or mental tension, excessive force, filtering out, retaining.

The self-conscious overdetermination of “strain” in the context of O’Hara’s poem points to the very sense of variousness and contradiction and openness O’Hara is claiming. Life is not something singular, or capturable in a single statement. It is ongoing and changeable. As he put it most famously (in “In Memory of My Feelings”—the line is also inscribed on O’Hara’s grave marker): “Grace / to be born and live as variously as possible.” In “[Statement for Paterson Society]” O’Hara recognizes, too, how provisional any writing, any statement of poetics must be: “I can’t think of any more than one poem at a time, so I would end up with a ‘poetics’ based on one of my poems which any other poem of mine would completely contradict.” Here, O’Hara is not, I think, being disingenuous or difficult (in spite of the wisecrack “as they say in the Café Flore, it’s better to tas gueule”); he is “not giving up responsibility for the poems,” but admitting that he refuses “to make up a lot of prose about something that is perfectly clear in the poems.” O’Hara is again calling for the poem as a perception, a “seeing” of its own occasion, that is both autonomous and self-conscious. As he remarks: “you can’t have a statement saying ‘My poetry is the Sistine Chapel of verse . . . what would poetry like that be? It would have to be the Sistine Chapel itself. . . Impossible.”

In “My Heart” O’Hara’s emphasis on that “heart”—“you can’t plan on the heart”—returns to the body, what “pursues its own ideas” (Barthes). Intention is found in the body’s immediacy, vitality, openness: the body is “vulgar” (a mob, le corps pluriel); it (its writing) is a “mess” (it places, it offers; it is a jumble of offerings). O’Hara’s assertion that intention’s site is the body, what “you can’t plan on,” is also a reminder of Eco and the manifesting of intention in organic form, in the modo di formare. For O’Hara, the determination to let the work itself declare its intention, to let form form ‘open’-ly, without the intrusions of intention, consistency, or style, is in evidence early. In 1948 in a journal (in Early Writing), O’Hara says:

I must take pains not to intend anything but the work itself, to let
the work take shape as it comes . . . and develop into an entity
without interruptions or stumble-posts; I must think only of and
for the emergent work and not allow messages or ideas as such to
displace the validity of the work with their sham importance and
subtle derangements of emphasis . . .

The other enemy: style.
. . .
The artist works and his preoccupations appear in the work
inadvertently; only the inferior artist, or the non-artist, needs the
artificial stimulus of intent.

It is fortuitous in considering “My Heart” and matters of intentionality to come across these lines in Henry Miller’s study of Rimbaud, The Time of the Assassins: “The place of renewal is the heart, and there the poet must anchor himself. The scientist, on the other hand, is utterly concerned with the world of illusion, the physical world in which things are made to happen.” What Miller is noting in that “world of illusion” is exactly what O’Hara refers to as “sham” and “derangements”—the results of ignoring the heart. (That O’Hara was an enthusiastic reader of Rimbaud is clear. The prose poems of “Oranges: 12 Pastorals” show the influence in lines like “Around the windows morning glories screech of rape as dreadful bees, consummately religious, force their way in the dark. The tin gutter’s clogged by moonlight and the rain barrel fills with flesh. Across the river a baboon blesses cannibals.” And in “The Muse Considered as a Demon Lover” O’Hara, while evoking Baudelaire [“Suis-je belle, ô nausée?”] ends with the final imperative [“trouvez Hortense!”] of Rimbaud’s prose poem titled “H.”)


Two related concerns. What prevents the open work, the poem-as-process, from becoming mere self-expression? What evidence can be mustered for O’Hara’s works exhibiting features of Eco’s opera aperta—plurivocality, demand for “public” collaboration (the Barthesque “writerly” text), and the attributes of “serial thought”?

The inescapable question of intention haunts the project of the open work and it is mainly there—in the infinitely regressive intention to avoid the intellection of intention—that the claim to avoid self-expression resides. Harold Rosenberg, in a footnote to “The American Action Painters,” quotes himself:

Action Painting has to do with self-creation or self-definition
or self-transcendence; but this dissociates it from self-expression, which
assumes the acceptance of the ego as it is . . . Action Painting is not
“personal,” though its subject matter is the artist’s individual

In the essay itself Rosenberg also notes the “the big moment came when it was decided to paint . . . just TO PAINT. The gesture on the canvas was a gesture of liberation, from Value—political, esthetic, moral.” The remarks are startlingly close to O’Hara’s more tongue-in-cheek formulation in “Personism”: “Personism has nothing to do with philosophy, it’s all art. It does not have to do with personality or intimacy, far from it!” (O’Hara also emphatically rejects the “confessional manner,” particularly as it appears in Robert Lowell’s work, saying it lets Lowell “get away with things that are really just plain bad but you’re supposed to be interested because he’s supposed to be so upset.”)

Eco, too, in The Open Work, sees the dilemma of inescapable intentionality in the gestural traces of the action painters and tries to link it less to “self-expression” (Eco’s “communication”) than to form as a “field of possibilities”:

This sort of painting tries to retain the freedom of nature, but of a
nature whose signs still reveal the hand [note the emphasis, again,
on “body”] of a creator, a pictorial nature that . . . is a constant
reminder of the original act of Creation [O’Hara, Early Writing:
“Whether he wants to or not the artist usurps the prerogative of
the Primary Mover”]. This sort of painting is, therefore, still a
form of communication, a passage from an intention to a reception.
And even if the reception is left open—because the intention
itself was open, aiming at a plural communication [Rosenberg’s
rejection of “the ego as it is”]—it is nevertheless the end of an
act of communication . . . the organization of a certain form. [It]
does not proclaim the death of form . . . it proposes a new, more
flexible version of it—form as a field of possibilities.

What continues to trouble the project of the open work is O’Hara’s old enemy intention (in the form of its refusal). If other artists of the period turned to aleatory procedures in a effort to escape the seemingly inevitable self-expressiveness of (even) “non-intentionality”—I am thinking of Cage’s and Jackson Mac Low’s systematic-chance operations using sources like the I Ching or random number tables, work O’Hara was certainly aware of (as Ashbery remembers in the introduction to the Collected Poems: “We were both tremendously impressed by David Tudor’s performance at a concert on New Year’s Day 1952 of John Cage’s ‘Music of Changes’”)—, O’Hara’s own relation to chance appears closer to Antonin Artaud’s “I am chance.” In “Personism” he writes (apropos “reception” of poems, though it obviously applies to “the writing poems part” too): “you just let all the different bodies fall where they may, and they always do may . . . you have to take your chances and try to avoid being logical.”

Two impulses, only seemingly contradictory, both bearing on O’Hara’s insistence on the open work and shaping the nature of that work, can be delineated. One is the “childish” impulse toward play, attentive distractedness. (Ashbery notes the quality in identifying O’Hara’s poems with “the inspired ramblings of a mind open to the point of distraction.”) In a collaborative mock-manifesto written with Larry Rivers titled “How to Proceed in the Arts” O’Hara writes “Pick up the adult and throw it out of bed . . . Think of a big color . . . Release your childhood.” The maneuver is akin to Barthes’s answer to the question of how one avoids “the text as symptom,” that one particular “strain”: “—Easy: let yourself go, regress.” Barthes also nods in the direction of the Cagean alternative: “What then, confronting [“unmasterable”] reality, can one do who rejects mastery? . . . [A]ccept systematics as writing.” In an admiring piece titled “Larry Rivers: A Memoir” O’Hara approvingly points to Rivers’s own “regressive,” childlike qualities, saying he “veers sharply, as if totally dependent on life impulses, until one observes an obsessively willful insistence on precisely what he is interested in.” Rivers himself, in What Did I Do?, identifies the quality—a refusal of adult “composure”: “I don’t believe in composition . . . I have desires and seeking to satisfy them gives birth to composition.”

The other impulse shaping O’Hara’s (and Rivers’s, and others’) work, however, is the willful nurturing of what Ashbery calls a “reservoir of inspiration: words and colors that could be borrowed freely from everywhere” or what O’Hara himself identifies (in the Rivers memoir) as a “barrage of technical gifts,” gifts acquired “through practice . . . through work rather than intellection.”

As Perloff notes in the preface to Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters, “the problem of influence is a major topic, for O’Hara assimilated an astonishing variety of styles.” What Eco labels “historical codes” in the postmodern concept of “serial thought” are thus readily available to O’Hara, whose “open” works (polyvalent and plural—Eco: “a clustered constellation offering a field of infinite possibilities and multiple choice”) will be (in part) an investigation of those codes. Perloff also notes O’Hara’s tendency (particularly in “Personism”) to “assume the role of Poetic Innocent.” Here is where the regressive (“childlike”) response to that “astonishing variety” is seen. The works of the past are there to be investigated, “borrowed,” parodied, subsumed, not in order to uncover any absolute, any (Eco) “original foundational code,” but because history (in the form of texts; history is all text) is part of, as O’Hara says, “the world as I experience it,” is “what is happening to me.”

It is beyond the scope of my project [hoo! that’s rich! “project”! and (basso profoundo) “how furrow’d be my scrutinizing illustrious brow” . . . ] here to detail the full extent of that “astonishing variety.” In the pages of the Collected Poems alone, a completely random quick fossicking digs up—just sticking to writers—the following names: Gottfried Benn, D. H. Lawrence, Hart Crane, Brendan Behan, William Carlos Williams, Jean Genet, René Char, Verlaine, Pierre Reverdy, Samuel Beckett, Blake, Charles Olson, Balzac, Ed Dorn, John Weiners, Boris Pasternak, Mallarmé, Kenneth Koch, Jane Bowles, Wyatt, Thomas Mann, Rilke, LeRoi Jones, Guillaume Apollinaire, Diane di Prima, “Franck O’Hara,” Terry Southern, Coleridge, Mayakovsky, Tu Fu, Po Chü-i, John Ashbery, Jean Cocteau, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ronald Firbank, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Pirandello, Eugene O’Neill, T. S. Eliot, Voznesensky, Evtushenko, John Keats, Antonio Machado. There are certainly others. I don’t mean to suggest that the fact of mention indicates influence by these writers (some are “merely” O’Hara’s friends) in any conventional way—that is, the names do not point to “authority.” They are generally simply there as fragments of O’Hara’s experience. As Perloff remarks, they make O’Hara’s “poetic world . . . one of immanence rather than transcendence . . . [They are] named because they are central to O’Hara’s particular consciousness, but they have no ‘inner reality.’”

(Perloff also points to the immanence of number in O’Hara: “when one says ‘It is 12:20 in New York’ [the opening words of “The Day Lady Died”—the gesture is much imitated, directly by writers of the “second-generation” New York School, as in Ted Berrigan’s “Sonnet XXXVI”— “It’s 8:54 a.m. in Brooklyn it’s the 28th of July”—and indirectly, as in Charles Wright’s “Three Poems of Departure”—“28 August and first frost”], one is recognizing that numbers no longer have any mystical significance.” O’Hara himself recognizes the immanent quality of the gesture in remarks on Pollock’s [and others’] turning to numbers as titles. If each painting or poem, O’Hara writes, “is its own subject and the occasion for its expression[, t]here is no need for titles . . . most of the painters simply used numbers for identification of canvases.” And Barthes, in The Pleasure of the Text, linking number [indirectly, via “mathesis,” literally the “action of learning” but with echoes of mathematics] with “words which are not Names,” speaks of the text of “bliss” as that which “undoes nomination”: “[the text] is fragmented into practices, into words which are not Names. Bringing itself to the limits of speech, in a mathesis of language . . . the text undoes nominations, and it is this defection which approaches bliss.”

In an essay that links O’Hara’s practice to that of Baudelaire’s [in The Painter of Modern Life] “flâneur— . . . the painter of the passing moment and of all the suggestions of eternity that it contains,” Eleanor Honig Skoller argues rather contradictorily that in O’Hara’s naming of exact time “the vibrance of the passing moment is pitted against the finality, the stillness of death”—making of the practice something intimating Romantic transcendence, while in O’Hara’s naming of exact place—“515 Madison Avenue”—“number is an abstraction that allows the city to be erected stone after stone.” Her homological identification of the city [a built and numbered New York] with O’Hara’s poems seems finally too neatly systemic, ignoring O’Hara’s emphasis on process and its occasions, what Baudelaire called “the daily metamorphosis of external things, [in which] there is a rapidity of movement which calls for an equal speed of execution from the artist.”)


The notion of the “anti-literary” is evoked often in considerations of O’Hara’s poetry and its precursors and it is here that O’Hara’s importance to contemporary American poetry may lie. Ashbery remarks early that O’Hara’s “poetry is anything but literary,” claiming it as “part of a modern tradition which is anti-literary and anti-artistic, and which goes back to Apollinaire and the Dadaists, to the collages of Picasso and Braque with their perishable newspaper clippings, to Satie’s musique d’ameublement which was not meant to be listened to.” And even as early as 1968, Paul Carroll points to O’Hara’s refusal to “step away” from “‘unpoetic’ experiences” and labels O’Hara a writer of “impure” poems, indeed, as “the first to write such poems in American literature.” The “impure” poem—Carroll’s example is “The Day Lady Died”—documents “mundane and ho-hum events,” and is “just plain ugly: its language dull chatter; its imagery non-existent; its description bad prose; its rhythms graceless.” Early critical reception of O’Hara’s work often pointed to the same reading (not always with Carroll’s recognition, however, that the poem “is excellent because of its trivia and ugliness.”) This is evident in reviews collected in Jim Elledge’s Frank O’Hara: To Be True to a City. Kenneth Rexroth points to the “flat, dead-pan colloquialism” of the poems; W. T. Scott to the lack of “devices traditionally superimposed on poetry” and the excess of “pièces d’occasion”; Francis Hope sees only “the puppyish charm of occasional good impromptus”; Raymond Roseliep only “the wearisome cataloging of personalia” and “naughty-little-boy sayings”; Gilbert Sorrentino calls the poems “messages to a personal cosmopolitan elite . . . all fun and games, laughter, la dolce vita”; and Marius Bewley compares O’Hara’s lines to “streamers of crepe paper fluttering before an electric fan.”

Ashbery’s assessment of the sources of the “anti-literary” gets reiterated both by David Antin in a seminal essay in 1972 on modernism and postmodernism in American poetry and by Marjorie Perloff in a 1981 piece titled “‘Alterable Noons’: The ‘poèmes élastiques’ of Blaise Cendrars and Frank O’Hara.” Antin argues that the modernists Pound and Eliot “living in American time” missed “the fundamental direction of French (or European) poetry, a growing hostility to and finally hatred of literature.” Noting the modernists’ “idea . . . that the genteel and the trivial would fall by the wayside, and that a tough literary stance would result in [American] literary masterpieces,” he sees Pound and Eliot as unable to “read . . . the Laforgue of Hiver or Dimanches, the casual tossed-off lines, lightweight and ridiculous.” And Antin points to the modernist suspicions of Whitman “because of the anti-literary impulses embodied in the great catalogues.” Perloff reiterates and broadens Antin’s argument, claiming that “what we call ‘postmodernism’ in American poetry may be less the revolution its proponents claim it to be than an injection of French ‘modernism’ [what the American modernists missed], the mode of Cendrars, of Apollinaire, later of Dada, into the native American stream that comes down to us from Emerson and Whitman.”

There is ample evidence in O’Hara’s work of the “anti-literary”—overt strains of Dada and Surrealism. One example: the “unplayable” play “What Century?” (in Selected Plays) whose opening “stage directions” read:

Waves breaking like bees on the shelf of Armorica, while
the scent of burning almond leaves fills the nippled sky. All
elegance seems to have set aside its mask so that the wandering
troubadour in his coat of many colors, unlike the sunset, feels
at home across the several seas and stays everywhere semi-
permanently. This buzz-saws into the mind as indifferently
as the line of the horizon and as precipitously. Which of us
has not cried “Bearings? what bearings?” at one time or another
when disaster seemed to be gathering its bouquet for the maiden
toss? To be alert is to be decorative. Winter.

And the same applies to O’Hara’s “poetics” (an anti-poetics): in, for example, the rejection of “elaborately sounded structures”—“As for measure and other technical apparatus, that’s just common sense: if you’re going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you. There’s nothing metaphysical about it.” Even in titling poems, O’Hara’s practice is often anti-metaphysical. In the Collected Poems alone fifty-seven of the poems carry simply the title “Poem,” exhibiting what Gregory L. Bredbeck calls “a gesture of detranscendence: the name of the gesture becomes the thing itself.” As O’Hara says in “Memorial Day 1950”: “naming things is only the intention / to make things.” Or in “As Planned”:

they are words that you know and that
is all you know words not their feelings
or what they mean and you write because
you know them not because you understand them
because you don’t

The anti-literary (anti-metaphysical) tradition seems to culminate (for now) in the predominantly French (European) poststructuralist thinking of writers like Barthes and Eco and (as Bredbeck argues) in the homegrown American version of it called “camp.” (Bredbeck notes camp’s

ability to collapse the depth of field and sign . . . to make the
sign “mean” primarily in the present tense . . . For while in
conventional semiotics the sign makes meaning by placing an
utterance within a recognizable history or tradition of signification,
camp uses signs to invoke histories and create meanings through
a jarring distance between these histories and the current context.
The present makes sense of the past, not vice versa . . . Camp [is]
a “cruisy” restatement of Saussure’s assertion that there is no
natural meaning, only conventional meaning.)

As such, it is no accident that readings of O’Hara flourish in a climate that emphasizes play, différance, and the provisionality of “truth” as opposed to “natural” meaning. Of the “birth” of “Personism” O’Hara writes that, while writing a poem, he “was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem.” The point being, of course, that it is the demands of the present moment (the here and now) that make meaning (provisionally) “mean.” As Bredbeck puts it: “meaning functions only as the differentiation of the present moment.” As Barthes puts it, suggesting the way the present moment “moves” and “encroaches” so that that differentiation becomes “plural, sensual, and textual”:

difference is the very movement of dispersion, of friability, a
shimmer; what matters is not the discovery, in a reading [or
writing] of the world and of the self, of certain oppositions
[the “literary” text and its “worldly” referent] but of encroach-
ments, overflows, leaks, skids, shifts, slips . . .

And as Eco puts it in defining “serial thought”: “series is not an investigation of history aimed at uncovering absolute axes of communication [Barthes’s “discovery . . . of certain oppositions”], but simply the permanent transformation of the past.”


Thursday, May 27, 2004

Lithesome Hint


Mad scramble of days continue under sheer weather: a lithesome white light and hint of a chill. One day will see the “end of poetics” and th’unleashing of the dogs of fury into other, more pertinent realms. One does hope. Then the miscellaneous missiles’ll fly, then the scorn begins . . . It’s a tawdry, made-up time.




Jameson’s practice of pastiche is, as noted, “devoid of laughter.” To consider the reason, it is necessary to read Jameson’s reading of two texts: Vincent Van Gogh’s Paar Bauernschuhe (Peasant Shoes) and Andy Warhol’s Diamond Dust Shoes. Jameson’s argument depends both on a separation of form and content in each instance, and on a subsequent reading that essentially discards the former in its determination, variously, to savor or debunk the latter. Indeed, Jameson goes so far as to suggest that Van Gogh’s work is “somehow a response” to an “initial situation,” to an “initial content,” to “initial raw materials”—all of which Jameson—in an out-Marxing Marx maneuver—in a rhetorical burst describes “simply as the whole object world of agricultural misery, of stark rural poverty, and the whole rudimentary human world of backbreaking peasant toil, a world reduced to its most brutal and menaced, primitive and marginalized state.” One longs to ask of Jameson: what about canvas? what about paint? But Jameson clearly sees form as an afterthought, content’s accessory—here he reads what he calls “the most glorious materialization of pure colour in oil paint” as “a Utopian gesture,” and as “an act of compensation.” Form takes part, oddly enough for Jameson, in a “division of labor.”

Eager to debunk the “postmodern” Warhol painting Diamond Dust Shoes (admitting that he is “tempted to say it does not really speak to us at all”), Jameson again, deftly, separates form and content in reading the painting. First, he locates the painting not as a “copiously reproduced image” (as he did the Van Gogh, implying a kind of universal availability, an object speaking for and to the masses), but as a work available only “at the turning of a museum corridor or gallery.” Here the shoes (“on the level of content”) are “fetishes . . . a random collection of dead objects, hanging together on the canvas like so many turnips.” (The agricultural metaphor is sadly out of place, recalling more precisely Van Gogh’s shoes.) Jameson: “There is in Warhol no way to complete the hermeneutic gesture, and to restore to these oddments that whole larger lived context . . . the world of jetset fashion or of glamour magazines.” When Jameson finally gets around to noticing form in the Warhol work, he can see only “a new kind of flatness or depthlessness, a new kind of superficiality in the most literal sense,” and in “the glitter of gold dust . . . which seals the surface of the painting,” only “gratuitous frivolity,” evidence of the “waning of affect.” What Jameson is refusing to see, of course, is Warhol’s formal and ironic troubling of the notion of commodity fetishism. Warhol is playfully quoting the shoe drawings he himself did in early career as a commercial illustrator. Painting, he is in painting, painting painting. One could argue that the “larger lived context” that is restored by the painting is the play of the image-process itself—how a text’s desire to represent the object world wars constantly and inevitably with its own ineffable textuality, how a text is, in Saussurean terms, both signified and signifier, how—as Jacques Derrida notes—“il n’y a pas de hors-texte.” What Jameson fails to see is how—as Eco puts it in The Open Work—art’s “main way of speaking is as form”: “the real content of a work is the vision of the world expressed in its way of forming (modo di formare). Any analysis of the relationship between art and the world will have to take place at this level.”

Warhol’s Diamond Dust Shoes does not “speak innocently”; as Eco puts it in the Postscript: it accepts “the challenge of the past, of the already said.” But through irony, laughter (what could be more ironic than gold dust itself, sign of the meretricious, the “made-up,” so obviously “false” in the context, not paint made to look like glitter, but the material glitter itself?) it critiques both the world of glamour as image, and the image as glamour. Jameson is taking the game of postmodernism seriously indeed, without understanding it, and suffering, as it appears he does, from a peculiar nostalgia for some imaginary lost innocence. Jameson laments the “waning of the great high modernist thematics of time and temporality, the elegiac mysteries of durée and of memory” and—in the essay’s numerous rhetorical flourishes—seems to long for a gone time of “real history”—of class-struggle and radical politics, history unsullied by “omnipresent, omnivorous and well-nigh libidinal historicism,” back before “the disappearance of the historical referent.” Jameson’s main problem lies in an inability to read form as “revelation” (the word is Denise Levertov’s) of content, its “main way of speaking.” Because Jameson insists on the separation of inside and outside, on form acting as content’s outer (invisible) garment—he writes: “the very concept of expression presupposes indeed some separation within the subject, and along with that a whole metaphysics of the inside and the outside”—, he cannot see in the postmodernist emphasis on textuality anything but a denigration and discarding of the world and history. However, as Linda Hutcheon argues in A Poetics of Postmodernism: “The view that postmodernism relegates history to [obsolescence] is simply wrong. History is not made obsolete: it is, however, being rethought—as a human construct . . . [I]n arguing that history does not exist except as text, it [postmodernism] does not . . . deny that the past existed, but only that its accessibility to us now is entirely conditioned by textuality.”


In Postscript to The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco, speaking of Max Ernst’s collages, notes that “they can be read as fantastic stories, as the telling of dreams, without any awareness that they amount to a discussion of the nature of engraving, and perhaps even of collage.” If postmodernism is a way of reading, as Eco’s remark suggests, is every text (somehow) plausibly postmodern? Eco admits that “in the same artist the modern moment and the postmodern moment can coexist, or alternate, or follow each other closely.” If “irony, metalinguistic play, enunciation squared” is central to postmodernism, can one not also—besides taking the ironic seriously as Jameson does—take the serious ironically? It is here, I think, that Eco’s own writings about “the open work” in the volume so titled propose (provisionally) some “ways of operating” in the mess and morass, that contradictory field of reading the postmodern. Some features of texts do encourage particular (postmodern) readings, it seems, whilst others act to hinder such readings. My argument is that in the works of a loose grouping of (mostly) poets and painters in New York in the 1950s, those “open work” features begin to evolve into what later becomes the dominant cultural aesthetic of postmodernism.

In The Open Work, Eco is quick to recognize that “a work of art is never really ‘closed,’ because even the most definitive exterior always encloses an infinity of possible readings.” He makes a number of important distinctions though, between conventional works of art and the opera aperta. Briefly, those distinctions include notions of univocality versus plurivocality; of increased “information” (and attendant ambiguity) as a product of the way new forms contravene traditional conventions of expression; of a shift in the relationship between artist and public, one requiring of the public (reader, viewer, listener) a greater degree of collaboration with the artist via the work; and of “serial thought” (a term and idea he borrows from Claude Lévi-Strauss’s “Ouverture” to The Raw and the Cooked) and the ways it leads to self-reflexivity, polyvalence, and an ongoing (process-oriented) identification and transformation of historical codes in lieu of any insistent search for origin or foundation.

Eco’s concern is aesthetic value and its resultant pleasure, the “condition” of which, he argues, is “openness.” As such, of necessity, he must argue for artistic intentionality in the open work: “openness is intentional, explicit, and extreme—that is, based not merely on the nature of the aesthetic object and on its composition but on the very elements that are combined in it.” It is (at least partially) by means of such maneuvers that Eco is able to separate the “openness” of conventional works from that of the opera aperta. It is also through claiming for the open work “organic form.” Eco: “The open work assumes the task of giving us an image of discontinuity. It does not narrate it; it is it.” And elsewhere:

Th[e] tendency toward disorder, characteristic of the poetics of
openness, must be understood as a tendency toward controlled
disorder . . . toward a freedom that is constantly curtailed by
the germ of formativity present in any form that wants to remain

And still elsewhere Eco argues:

[R]ather than submit to the “openness” as an inescapable element
of artistic interpretation, [the artist] subsumes it into a positive
aspect of his production, recasting the work so as to expose it to
the maximum possible “opening.”

Several things begin to coalesce here. “Pure formativity”—as Eco says elsewhere—relates to “the concept of form as organism” and must be “read in the fading light of the eternal opposition between form and content and form and matter.” What Eco seems to be suggesting then is that artistic intention is manifested in the open work’s organic form, that it is there—in form—that intention is read. This leads one to a problem noted by David Robey (in the introduction to The Open Work). It is that “in [Eco’s] view . . . the intention implicit in a work must be the determining factor in its interpretation.” We are, perhaps, back to Eco’s concern in the Postscript regarding “the quality (the risk) of irony”: how does one insure a reading of openness as intention, (“explicit, and extreme”) rather than as simply unintentional (clumsy, non-“artistic”) disorder, randomness, loss of control? Or how does one pursue and maintain a “way of forming” (a performance, a process, an openness) dependent on intentionality, implicit within which is an individual subjectivity along with accompanying conventional concepts of aesthetic originality and inevitable textual limitation and closure? Isn’t it the case that by identifying the “open work” as particular to postmodernism one is liable to relapse into a new brand of certainty—that of perpetual uncertainty, indeterminacy, rupture? It is necessary here to consider some examples of the “open work” itself.


Some statements to begin.

In a symposium titled “What Abstract Art Means to Me” (excerpted in Herschel B. Chipp’s Theories of Modern Art) at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1951, Robert Motherwell says:

One of the most striking of abstract art’s appearance [sic] is
her nakedness, an art stripped bare. How many rejections on the
part of her artists! Whole worlds—the world of objects, the world
of power and propaganda, the world of anecdotes, the world of
fetishes and ancestor worship . . . [A]bstract artists don’t like any-
thing but the act of painting . . . [A]bstract art is stripped bare of
other things in order to intensify it, its rhythms, spatial intervals,
and color structure. Abstraction is a process of emphasis, and
emphasis vivifies life, as A. N. Whitehead said.

In John Cage’s Silence is reproduced an article titled “Experimental Music: Doctrine” which first appeared in 1955. Therein he writes:

A sound does not view itself as thought, as ought, as needing another
sound for its elucidation, as etc.; it has not time for any consideration—
it is occupied with the performance of its characteristics: before it has
died away it must have made perfectly exact its frequency, its loudness,
its length, its overtone structure, the precise morphology of these
and of itself.

Susan Sontag, in the 1964 essay “Against Interpretation” (in the book of that title):

Abstract painting is the attempt to have, in the ordinary sense, no
content; since there is no content, there can be no interpretation. Pop
Art works by the opposite means to the same result; using a content
so blatant, so “what it is,” it, too, ends by being uninterpretable . . .
Ideally, it is possible [to make] works of art whose surface is so
unified and clean, whose momentum is so rapid, whose address is
so direct that the work can be . . . just what it is. (The second
ellipsis is Sontag’s.)

And Frank O’Hara in “[Notes on Second Avenue]”—Second Avenue being a long experimental poem O’Hara wrote in 1953 (first published in its entirety in 1960):

[T]he remarks are explanatory of what I now feel my attitude was
toward the material, not explanatory of the meaning which I don’t
think can be paraphrased (or at least I hope it can’t) . . . [T]he
verbal elements . . . are intended consciously to keep the surface
of the poem high and dry, not wet, reflective and self-conscious.
Perhaps the obscurity comes in here, in the relationship between
the surface and the meaning, but I like it that way since the one is
the other (you have to use words) and I hope the poem to be the
subject, not just about it.

I put these rather lengthy statements together in order to suggest the emergence in a brief period of time (roughly the decade of the 1950s) and in a number of arts (and criticism) of some singular (though paradoxical) concerns pertinent to what comes to be called postmodernism. One is the notion of art as process—Motherwell’s “act of painting”; Cage’s “performance of [sound’s] characteristics”; Sontag’s “momentum”; O’Hara’s “attitude”—a kind of tendency, or motion—toward “material,” an interaction. One is a notion of form, a new emphasis on form (in its enactment) as content, with conventional content, reference “beyond” to Motherwell’s “world of objects,” denied (or, in the case of Pop Art, made so “blatant”—so much the form of a form—as to, it, too, resist reference). Here evidence is noted in Motherwell’s “art stripped bare”; in Cage’s “precise morphology . . . of itself”; in Sontag’s “no content”; and in O’Hara’s “unparaphraseable” “surface,” the poem itself as “subject” (and object). Another concern noted in the statements (though perhaps less explicitly) is that of the self-consciousness of the formal emphasis and how that predicates a self-conscious art object, one that is both “what it is” and “knows” it, primarily through “knowing” its art-historical place. As Harold Rosenberg describes it, such an art object is “anxious.” In The Anxious Object (1964) he declares: “Consciousness of art history rules the art of our time . . . It affects not only the objective status of new works, the conditions under which they are valued and acquired, but the impulses that enter into their creation, their esthetic meaning, in fact, their very existence as works of art.” Here, clearly, is a paradox—one of several that make of postmodernism the rather unstable, conditional, non-totalizing thing it is. The paradox is obvious in O’Hara’s statement on Second Avenue: in the conscious intent to make a “surface” object—something autonomous—rather than something “reflective, and self-conscious.” How is it possible to reconcile such opposing claims for the “conscious”? It may be here that O’Hara is caught looking “back” to modernism’s autonomous object at the same time he looks “forward” to the postmodern “self-conscious” text.

In a 1954 essay, “Nature and New Painting” (in Standing Still and Walking in New York), O’Hara tangles with the issues of self-consciousness in art. O’Hara begins with the argument that “Great art . . . is seldom about art, though frequently its insights are so compelling and so pervasive they can be applied to art as well as to their subject” and proceeds to note that “from the impressionists through the cubists to the present, art has been involved with nature.” However, O’Hara then goes on to call attention to another kind of art, that “which looks to be about nature but is lacking in perceptions of it.” Here is where a number of (subsequently) postmodern concerns get spelled out in O’Hara’s thinking. In the new kind of art, the artist “utilizes his visual experience for subject matter, but his experience is the subject, nature is not, and therefore the structure we observe is that of his experience rather than of what he has experienced.” This equating of “structure” and “experience” is akin to the process-orientation of the open work. As O’Hara later notes—“the artist is of necessity present” as “narrator,” as “medium,” to the “violence” of experience itself. That experience-as-structure tends toward fiction—toward, that is, less a representation of the object world (nature) than toward our ongoing storied identifications with that world (art)—is implied in that “narrator.” O’Hara says that in the abstractions of Willem de Kooning “we perceive structures of classical severity: the implacable identifications of man with nature. This is not symbolized. It is painted . . . [De Kooning’s] great Excavation shows us what we do to the earth just as his Woman shows us what we do to women.” What is painted (shown) is not, it is important to note, “earth” or “women,” but the structures (“classical,” “severe”), the “symbolizations” we have previously made of them. This is akin to Eco’s twice-removed “already said”—de Kooning’s paintings thus becoming investigations of history and its codes of representation in a move reminiscent of Eco’s art of “serial thought.”

The problem, of course, lies in O’Hara’s insistence that the work “is not symbolized,” but “painted.” O’Hara’s “[Notes on Second Avenue]” longing “to keep the surface of the poem high and dry” is here translated into “painting”—into de Kooning’s work’s desire to eschew reference, to reduce itself to object status. What Susan Sontag calls the “curse of mediacy”—the inevitable insertion (presence) of particular value, truth, reference into any created (constructed) work is pertinent here. We have just seen how de Kooning’s paintings—even in putting into question prior art-historical codes—nevertheless assert a new code, that recognition (and critique) of the “already said.” This is, certainly, one of the major stumbling blocks to any “definition” of postmodernism, or to any final claim that “here is a postmodernist work.” (Even that statement—with that totalizing “certainly”—asserts a code, ends the endless paradox of the postmodern, its ongoing “open” process of putting all codes into question.) The problematic of any narrative—always mediated by a provisional “self”—of postmodernism has been noted by a number of commentators. As Hutcheon asks: “From what position can one “theorize” (even self-consciously) a disparate, contradictory, multivalent, current cultural phenomenon”? The infinite regress of the “master narrative” whose claim is for the necessity of a thorough and systematic incredulity as regards the veracity of the “master narrative” (see Jean-François Lyotard) is always in danger of becoming the order of the day. Hutcheon’s answer to her own question is not entirely satisfactory. She suggests that it is self-conscious questioning that prevents the “open” postmodern text (or theory) from assuming the status of the meta-narrative. Hutcheon:

[Postmodern theorists] seem to imply that any knowledge cannot
escape complicity with some meta-narrative, with the fictions that
render possible any claim to “truth,” however provisional. What
they add, however, is that no narrative can be a natural “master”
narrative: there are no natural hierarchies; there are only those we
construct. It is this kind of self-implicating questioning that should
allow postmodernist theorizing to challenge narratives that do
presume to “master” status, without necessarily assuming that
status for itself.


In a somewhat different maneuver, one that seems to bear directly on O’Hara’s work (and on that of a number of “postmodern” artists of the 1950s), Roland Barthes (in Roland Barthes) proposes another solution to the problem. Barthes, ever the etymologist (he is kin to Heidegger here, another poet-philosopher of the radical logic of words), identifies postmodernism’s paradox within the word paradox itself: “a Doxa (a popular opinion) is posited, intolerable; to free myself of it, I postulate a paradox; then this paradox turns bad, becomes a new concretion, itself becomes a new Doxa, and I must seek further for a new paradox.” What follows then is a short history of Barthes’s own stops in a trajectory through the “Doxa / paradoxa”: the “demystification” of “the opacity of social relations” (Mythologies); “semiological science” with its “rational image-repertoire”; and “the texture of desire, the claims of the body,” which “is the Text, the theory of the Text.” It is here—where the desiring body becomes text—that Barthes’s (provisional) solution comes closest to O’Hara’s (and others’) poetics and practices. The “texture of desire” is always provisional, always changeable, just as the body is always plural (Barthes: “Le corps pluriel . . . ‘Which body? We have several.’”) Importantly, the effect of making the body the mediating measure for what Mutlu Konuk Blasing calls a “physiology of writing” is that that writing remains ever-transgressed, ever-immediate, and anti-heroic, constantly liable to rupture, shift, breakage, contradiction, evading the totalizing “death” of closure, or of removal (distance) from its own inhabited processes. Barthes: “my body is not a hero. The light, diffused character of pain or of pleasure . . . keeps the body from constituting itself as an alien, hallucinated site, seat of intense transgressions. . . [Pain and pleasure] are merely coenesthesias, whose function is to individuate my own body, without its being able to glorify itself with any danger: my body is theatrical to itself only to a mild degree.”

The body is what chastens (castus pure + -igare [fr. agere to drive, to act]) the self—pure action, movement, attention working to keep the self (and the writing) off balance, questioning, to keep the self (and its constructions) plural, indeterminate, not “boring” (“boredom” is O’Hara’s bête noire—he writes of the “esthetic athleticism” needed “to beat the bugaboos of banality and boredom” and when asked in an interview whether “it’s important to be new” replies “No, I think it’s very important not to be bored though”) rather than singular, monumental, concrete, “dead.” The “alien, hallucinated site” is the totalized self. In a curious untitled fragment written in 1953 (collected in Poems Retrieved), O’Hara sees the self as what escapes “into history . . . that punishment” (a kind of death, “facing blackness”) once it denies itself (bodily, the image is of a kind of auto-lobotomy) body-as-experience (the “infinite breaths” and “golden plains” of “my country,” the “intimacies”). Here is the poem:

My country, leafy and blue with infinite breaths,
somehow I shall escape into history, the valor of a heart
shall not refuse that punishment, I would burn
all characteristics, all intimacies, from a forehead
already too lofty; scoop out the golden plains, not
to feed the multitudes but to create vast sea beds
of the future, into which all mountains eventually must
relinquish their monuments, their thoughts of air.
Then, facing total blackness, I am at last my self.

There is, here, a recognition of the fate of the body-in-experience (and, one could argue, of the work-as-process, relinquishing its “thoughts of air”)—the fate of event becoming art, the body’s action stilled to self. In a letter in 1961 to Donald Allen wherein he talks about the process of writing the long poem “Biotherm (For Bill Berkson),” O’Hara again refers to “air,” here in terms of the “open”: “I don’t know anything about what it is or will be but am enjoying trying to keep going and seem to have something . . . I seem to have been able to keep it ‘open’ and so there are lots of possibilities, air and such.” In “[My Country, Leafy and Blue with Infinite Breaths]” there is also recognition of the limits to a poetic of pure action, of denying (through constant attention to the body-in-experience) the self any singular “self-ness.” (Barthes, too, in the same passage cited previously, recognizes the limits: “the Text [of “the claims of the body”] risks paralysis; it repeats itself, counterfeits itself in lusterless texts . . . tends to degenerate into prattle.” (Those “lusterless texts,” that “prattle” is evident, perhaps, in countless poems appearing today—poems of the present-tense “I” (self) attending to its surroundings and its memories, seemingly wholly ignorant of the “claims of the body” and its contradictory prerogatives . . .) There is some measure of relief in the final line of O’Hara’s poem—that “at last.” The positing and questioning of the “physiology of writing”—of constant motion, action, doing against death, or any stoppage that leads to “poetry” rather than “life” (as O’Hara notes in “[Statement for Paterson Society],” “it’s a pretty depressing day, you must admit, when you feel you relate more importantly to poetry than to life”)—appears regularly in O’Hara’s writings. Constant movement, change, doing—these are, perhaps, particularly American phenomena. (I think of Satchel [Leroy] Paige’s 1953 remark “Don’t look back. Something may be gaining on you.” Or I think of the Ralph Waldo Emerson of “Experience”—“We live amid surfaces, and the true art of life is to skate well on them . . . our office is with moments.”) Also oddly American is the ever-threatening siren song of ordinary boredom, and the subsequent odd relief death—as an end to endless doing—presents. As such, it is no accident that O’Hara’s poem begins “My country” and toys with (subverts, processes) that country’s most inadequate and famous representations—the “golden plains” and monumental “mountains” recalling “amber waves of grain” and “purple mountains’ majesty.”

O’Hara strikes a range of attitudes toward the fate of the body-in-experience (and its writings). In “For the Chinese New Year & For Bill Berkson” he exhibits a defiant (rather modernist) rejection of history and an embrace of the “office” of the “moment” as being exactly what defers death:

no there is no precedent of history no history nobody came before
nobody will ever come before and nobody ever was that man

you will not die not knowing this is true this year

In “Five Poems” O’Hara offers a number of provisional selves in motion, a sense of endless possibility, no version preferred over another, but the defiance diminishes, the work of constant improvisation, of the self’s manic subversions of any unified “true” self, seems to be wearing O’Hara down and is questioned in the poem’s final line:

maybe I won’t go to sleep at all
and it’ll be a beautiful white night
or else I’ll collapse
completely from nerves and be calm
as a rug or a bottle of pills
or suddenly I’ll be off Montauk
swimming and loving it and not caring where
. . .
I seem to be defying fate, or am I avoiding it?

In “Memoir of Sergei O. . . .” the two final lines seem self-reflexive, referring to the “way of writing” of the poem itself. A kind of doubt, an American fatigue at what Harold Rosenberg in the book so titled calls “the tradition of the new” (“Whoever undertakes to create soon finds himself engaged in creating himself. Self-transformation and the transformation of others have constituted the radical interest of our century”) seems to leak into O’Hara’s lines (spoken—oddly for O’Hara, who mostly avoids the dramatic monologue or the “persona poem,” though a welter of rather disembodied “other” voices invade some of the later “TV watching” poems—in the voice [admittedly tongue-in-cheek, parodic] of an “other,” that of the Russian émigré Sergei O. . . .):

where am I what is it
I can’t even find a pond small enough
to drown in without being ostentatious
you are ruining your awful country and me
it is not new to do this it is terribly
democratic and ordinary and tired

Finally, in “Rhapsody” the door to a building located at “515 Madison Avenue” (or, as Bill Berkson reports “‘off’ Madison on 53rd,” something “Frank would have passed . . . every day to and from the Museum” [of Modern Art, where he worked]) is the starting point to an “action poem” that blends fantasy (“your marble is bronze and your lianas elevator cables”) and a kind of empirical reportage (“I am getting into a cab at 9th Street and 1st Avenue / and the Negro driver tells me about a $120 apartment”) at high velocity so that the result is what Charles Altieri calls a “landscape without depth,” presence “demystified [and] stripped of [its] ontological vestments.” As Altieri notes: “if the present is without depth, whatever vital qualities it has depend entirely on the energies and capacities of the consciousness encountering it . . . [and] value depends entirely on the vitality with which one engages his experiences.” It is also important to note in this context the lack of hierarchy in the details of “Rhapsody”—as O’Hara himself puts it in the poem: “you know all about these things / as indifferent as an encyclopedia.” The “fantasy” lines engage as do the “reportage” lines and even the “look” of the poem (blocky stanzas, lines of similar, rather long, length except for one—“I would join”) suggests an indifference to prioritizing any one facet of experience over another. Experience of the moment is all; the reckoning of it leads no further than to Sontag’s “what it is,” not to transcendence, epiphany, clarity, or beauty. As O’Hara admits in “[Statement for The New American Poetry]”:

I am mainly preoccupied with the world as I experience it . . . What
is happening to me, allowing for lies and exaggerations which I try
to avoid, goes into my poems. I don’t think my experiences are
clarified or made beautiful for myself or anyone else; they are just
there in whatever form I can find them.

Altieri also links O’Hara’s sense of “demystified,” “depthless” presence to the city—New York: “City details . . . have neither meaning, hierarchy, nor purpose not created absolutely by man.”

“Rhapsody” ends (in a gesture recalling that single, short, emphasized line “I would join”) with O’Hara’s “joining” of the fantastic and empirical gestures (“the Niger joins the Gulf of Guinea near the Menemsha Bar / that is what you learn in the early morning passing Madison Avenue”) and asserting that he “always want[s] to be near” light, “lying in a hammock on St. Mark’s Place sorting my poems / in the rancid nourishment of this mountainous island.” Two lines later he ends: “I historically / belong to the enormous bliss of American death.” It seems pertinent that the final declaration follows so quickly after the image of “sorting my poems,” those “things made.” The “bliss” here comes in the form of a reprieve: the anxiety of continual process, of the “claims of the body,” of the “physiology of writing,” of the surface kept “high and dry,” of the self consciously reflecting on itself (in “Essay on Style” O’Hara says “I was reflecting the other night meaning / I was being reflected upon”) is always in danger of “winning out” in the open work; as such, every poem must needs end in death, and only poetry continues. (I think of “The Day Lady Died” where a multitude of little deaths occur in the final “Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing.” There is O’Hara’s “death” (in the “present”) in the Ziegfeld Theatre tobacconist’s on seeing Billie Holiday’s face on front of the New York Post; O’Hara’s (in the “past”) in the 5 Spot on hearing Holiday whisper that “song along the keyboard / to Mal Waldron”; Mal Waldron’s (and everyone’s) on hearing Holiday at that moment; O’Hara’s (and the poem’s) “death” in the act of ending the poem (also in “Essay on Style”: treating / the typewriter as an intimate organ why not? / nothing else is (intimate)”); and the reader’s “death” in completing a reading of it. The problem of action becoming art (what it seeks to defy) seems irremediable. As Harold Rosenberg puts it in the “Preface to the Second Edition” of The Tradition of the New:

The Action Painter . . . may not intend . . .to produce an art object
but “to abolish art” in favor of the meaningful gesture. Painting,
however, is in the “realm” of things made, not of deeds done; and
art wins against the painter by changing his “act” back into a picture.


Back to Barthes. What exactly is this thing I am calling the “body-in-experience” and how does it become text? How does the “body-in-experience” deny or avoid a unified “self”? Where is such a stance made manifest in O’Hara’s (and others’) works? In The Pleasure of the Text, Barthes speaks of “that moment when my body pursues its own ideas—for my body does not have the same ideas I do.” Barthes also declares that “the pleasure of the text . . . can say: never apologize, never explain. It never denies anything: ‘I shall look away, that will henceforth be my sole negation.”

In a famous 1947 statement (quoted in O’Hara’s Art Chronicles) Jackson Pollock, explaining why he works with unstretched canvas that he nails to the floor, says it is so he can “literally be in the painting”:

When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing . . .
I have no fears about making changes, destroying the image, etc.,
because the painting has a life of its own. . . It is only when I
lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess.

And O’Hara himself notes that in Pollock’s “all-over ‘drip’ paintings of 1948-50 . . . the scale of the painting became that of the painter’s body, not the image of a body.” He adds that on the “canvas surface . . . the physical energies of the artist operate in actual detail . . . ; the action . . . traces its marks . . . with no reference to exterior image or environment.” In an interview (in Standing Still and Walking in New York) O’Hara makes it clear that he sees a possibility for a poetry that enacts the same “claims of the body” as text. O’Hara: “measure . . . comes from the breath of the person just as a stroke of paint comes from the wrist and hand and arm and shoulder and all that of the painter . . . certain poets have been very much inspired by American painting . . . in the ambition . . . to be the work yourself.” (The lines recall Charles Olson’s emphasis on “breath” in “Projective Verse.” In the same interview, however, O’Hara distances himself somewhat from Olson, calling him a “great spirit” but rejecting the [modernist] heroics of Olson’s project: “I don’t think that he is willing to be as delicate as his sensibility may be emotionally and he’s extremely conscious of the Pound heritage and of saying the important utterance, which one cannot always summon up and indeed is not particularly desirable most of the time.”)

There are numerous manifestations in O’Hara’s work of what could be labeled a poetics of the body—including, most famously, the admonition in “Personism: A Manifesto” that “You go on your nerve. If someone’s chasing you down the street you don’t turn around and shout ‘Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep.’” The aim is not “thoughts,” but moments of experience—“light,” “presence” and “clarity,” the seemingly “chemical” interaction of the body “breathing” in the world. In a short poem titled “Poem” O’Hara begins—“Light /// clarity /// avocado salad in the morning”—and ends:

mere presence
changes everything like a chemical dropped on a paper
and all thoughts disappear in a strange quiet excitement
I am sure of nothing but this, intensified by breathing

(A similar gesture is evident in lines that appear twice in the Collected Poems, once as a poem titled “Poem,” once as epigram to a poem titled “Two Variations”:

Suddenly that body appears: in my smoke
while someone’s heavily describing Greece,
that famous monotonous line feels white
against the tensile gloom of life
and I seem intimate with what I merely touch.

Here the body, like smoke, insinuates its presence against “someone’s heavily describing,” against, too, “tensile gloom.” The body’s appearance seems to be associated with writing, with the “line,” “white,” revivifying life itself, allowing presence in the form of “touch.”)

Marjorie Perloff, in Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters, the first book-length study of O’Hara’s work, refers to O’Hara’s “aesthetic of attention.” Here we return to Barthes’s formulation that the “sole negation” consists in looking “away.” O’Hara’s references to “attention” are numerous. Bill Berkson quotes O’Hara regarding David Smith’s sculptures (O’Hara talked about Smith’s work for a National Educational Television Association broadcast in 1964):

[The sculptures] present a total attention and they are telling you
that that is the way to be. On guard. In a sense they are benign,
because they offer themselves for your pleasure. But beneath that
kindness is a warning: don’t be bored, don’t be lazy, don’t be trivial
and don’t be proud. The slightest loss of attention leads to death.

In “Meditations in an Emergency,” O’Hara writes: “it’s my duty to be attentive, I am needed by things.” (Note the “in” of the title—like Pollock’s “in”—as opposed to the more conventional “Meditations on . . .” The point is not Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquillity” but Pollock’s “contact,” immediacy, experience rather than the interpretation of it, the processes of the here and now, which, like O’Hara’s eyes in the poem, “change all the time [and] are indiscriminate but fleeting, entirely specific and disloyal.”)

Other O’Hara-esque attentions to “attention.” In “Nature and New Painting” O’Hara writes of art’s demand for a “poise” (on the part of the artist) of “the most gigantic energies,” a “poise” that is “the passionate attention of natural forces.” And he notes that such attention means a “turning away from styles whose perceptions and knowledge are not their own occasion.” In a review of John Ashbery’s Some Trees written in 1957 for Poetry, O’Hara again calls for attention and process rather than the “looking away” of interpretation: “[Ashbery] attempts to look deeply into the actual matter of natural events, rather . . . than risk an interpretation which might only be a comfortable means of looking away.” And in “Ode on Causality,” a poem evoking Pollock’s presence (at Pollock’s grave “a child, says running / away hand in hand ‘he isn’t under there, he’s out in the woods’”) and art (the line “make my lines thin as ice, then swell like pythons” recalling O’Hara’s own notice of Pollock’s “amazing ability to quicken a line by thinning it, to slow it by flooding, to elaborate . . . to change, to reinvigorate, to extend”), O’Hara makes attention a prehensile (bodily) thing, whilst admitting to the loneliness (to be so ever-changing) of the stance: “the bang of alertness, loneliness, position that prehends experience.”

The open work is “uncomfortable” and “lonely” precisely due to its insistence on constant attention. This is where Barthes’s dictum “never apologize, never explain” comes in. As Barthes notes, attention (in the form, here, of the reader’s attention) “abolishes . . . all barriers, all classes, all exclusions, not by syncretism but by simple discard of that old specter: logical contradiction; [it] mixes every language, even those said to be incompatible; [it] accepts every charge of illogicality, of incongruity.” (I realize that Barthes’s main argument in The Pleasure of the Text is to distinguish between the texts of “pleasure” and “of bliss”—the former consistent, unbroken, “linked to a comfortable practice of reading” and the latter “untenable,” impossible,”—“you cannot speak ‘on’ such a text, you can only speak ‘in’ it.” I am considering O’Hara’s works [in general] as exempla of texts “of bliss”—as I think O’Hara, using other terms, considers Ashbery’s, Pollock’s, and others’ works of the same place and period. Barthes’s emphasis is on the reading [as writing] of such texts. My emphasis is—using Barthes’s terms—more on the writing [as reading, as attention] of such texts.) In considering O’Hara’s “Digression on Number 1, 1948” (the title refers to a Pollock painting—as O’Hara says: “not about
sight . . . [but] about what we see, about what we can see”), Perloff notes: “Contradiction becomes the proper condition for ‘seeing.’ O’Hara’s poem itself is splendidly inconsistent—bearing quite nonchalantly the marks of Barthes’s “simple discard of that old specter: logical contradiction.” O’Hara:

I am ill today but I am not
too ill. I am not ill at all.
It is a perfect day, warm
for winter, cold for fall.

A fine day for seeing.