[Wgcp-whc] Wg/CP--O'Hara Minutes, Palmer session this Friday

richard.deming at yale.edu richard.deming at yale.edu
Wed Oct 8 13:22:16 EDT 2008

Dear fellow contemporary poetics seminarians,

On Sept. 26, the WG/CP met for the first time of the new academic year in order
to discuss the work of Frank O?Hara.  In the more than forty years since his
death, the poet has become one of the most important and influential figures of
post-War American poetry. As several members of the group testified,
O?Hara?s reputation is not simply local (though it can be represented as
regionalist writing, given the specific emphasis on the particularities of the
social and aesthetic environment of New York City and its effects on its
inhabitants).  O?Hara has been translated into many different languages and
in Poland there are even a group of poets who identify themselves as being
invested in ?O?Haraism,? obviously a play on O?Hara?s famous
non-manifesto ?Personism.?

A passage from the introduction to Marjorie Perloff?s important study of the
poet ?Frank O?Hara: Poet Among Painters? helped frame two important
questions in thinking about O?Hara and the approaches that help open up his
work.   Perloff writes:

In a recent essay for American Literary History, for example, Caleb Crain
examines what he takes to be O'Hara's deep-seated aggression--an aggression
that doubles back upon itself since, in the "regime of homophobia" of the
"pre-gay liberation 1950s," it cannot direct itself outward-- through the lens
of D. W. Winnicott's object-relations psychology. One needs such an explanatory
mechanism, we are told, because, taken in themselves, the "constituent elements
[of the poems] can seem trivial, and their structure as cavalier and casual as
telephone gossip or lunch conversation. . . The poems' elements do not seem
amenable to analysis and a new synthesis in the classroom."

We took the last claim as a beginning point.  That is, we asked, if O?Hara?s
poems resist the traditional ideas of form and poetic diction?resist close
reading?how might one teach the work?  Those members who teach O?Hara
indicated that students respond very positively to his work and see it as a
respite or escape from the high modernism of Pound, Stevens, Moore, and others.
 The poems are accessible and students can have a more direct experience of the
work. This set off a long discussion then of the ways that O?Hara does create
a kind of persona that is both accessible and yet seems at some distance because
of his dense set of allusions to both his immediate social circle, the politics
and milieu of the art world in New York in the 1950s and 60s, and elements of
pop culture specific to his time period.  Certainly, this establishes the terms
for asking whether or not what is appealing about O?Hara is the pose that he
constructs, a pose that makes such elements desirable.  Via this pose that
strangely familiar yet exotic (hipness as a kind of operant poetics, perhaps)
that makes the obscurities something many readers may not know into things they
want to discover in order to feel a part of things, part of that fashionable
world.  In that way, some members had reservations about the nostalgia that
O?Hara?s work facilitates and upon which his poetry?s reputation might be
based.  It would follow, the 1950s are a time of misogyny and elitism (as well
as complexly homophobic?in such a way that homosexuality becomes repressed
and only in that way maintains an exoticized allure?or alluring
exoticization) and that O?Hara becomes metonymic of such a time.  Interest in
the work might disguise a desire, however unconscious, to return to that moment.

Others felt that O?Hara?s references and his insistence on representing his
social milieu presented the means by which one can reclaim that fraught social,
aesthetic, and political concerns of life in the 50s and 60s, by means of
O?Hara?s intimate reconstructions of his personal and professional
relationships.  These become sites (and cites) by which one can trace the
social negotiations and circulations of O?Hara?s experience.  In that way,
the openness of O?Hara?s voicing queer poetics and sociability (and
therefore politics) is revelatory.

However, this brought the conversation back to Perloff?s essay and that
passage previously mentioned in that all such discussion seems to locate an
interest in O?Hara in history and politics and poetics of identity rather
than talking about the poems as formal constructions.  Given O?Hara?s
insistence on people and persona, and with surfaces as a viable (perhaps only)
place open or available for interpretation or encounter, the work seems to
court such a response. As one could imagine, the issue is of the apparent ease
of O?Hara?s poetry.  It just doesn?t sound hard.  This then shifted the
conversation to two areas:  1) That O?Hara presents a persona as a much a
constructed, artificial thing as a poem and 2)  to a consideration of what one
looks for in poetry?what are the criteria for poetry, or at least ?good

Several members talked about the craft of O?Hara?s poems, that his work in
its accessibility belies the complex and surprising ways that O?Hara
constructs his poems.  The claim suggests that the poems are more difficult
than they seem. The references were again mentioned as things that open up more
possibilities for interpretation.  Interestingly, this was set against the
possibility that they may be as simple as they seem to be.  In that way, the
simplicity makes them unparaphrasable because they already say what they mean
to say (rather than the dizzying ambiguities of some other poets).  Of course,
this then is a concern of poetics that brings into question what it is that one
looks for in poetry, the very features and elements that make for ?good
poetry.?  Is difficulty one such criterion so that readers seek to legitimize
their reading by discovering difficulty and complexity where none is to be

We contextualized these questions against O?Hara?s contemporaries such as
Charles Olson, one of the prime inheritors of Pound?s poetics, and his calls
for a poetry that is densely allusive, steeped in complex regional histories,
and that has an epic ambition. In that light, ?O?Hara offers a counter-epic
and much more localized set of reference that can move outward from the poet and
his or her circle.  Rather than trying to speak universally, it speaks to a
given circle or community, creating and reflecting community and seeing the
self as a constructed, formal structure that is recognizable by its language. 
This wouldn?t necessarily mean that O?Hara?s work escapes charges of
elitism, as some members pointed out.  On the other hand, those poetics are
communicable to others (Ted Berrigan would be a useful example of a poet not
steeped in privilege who gained a great deal from O?Hara?s poetry of
community and coterie).  Thus, O?Hara?s poetry, and showed a way out of the
inheritance of Romantic diction or Modernist ambition, offering a poetics open
and available to everyone. In the opening of the poem ?A Step away from
Them,? O?Hara writes:

It's my lunch hour, so I go
for a walk among the hum-colored
cabs. First, down the sidewalk
where laborers feed their dirty
glistening torsos sandwiches
and Coca-Cola, with yellow helmets
on. They protect them from falling
bricks, I guess. Then onto the
avenue where skirts are flipping
above heels and blow up over
grates. The sun is hot, but the
cabs stir up the air. I look
at bargains in wristwatches. There
are cats playing in sawdust.

The reference to Coca-Cola is a liberating, inclusive moment that seemed
unimaginable not long before O?Hara?s generation came of age (hard to
imagine Stevens allowing such a thing into his poetry). And as one member
noted, Warhol insisted on Coca-cola?s democracy?no matter who drank
it?from Queen Elizabeth to Elizabeth Taylor to the average person on the
street, coke is the same. Be that as it may, O?Hara?s poetry is a challenge
to the dominant, epic, vatic, universalist poetics of his contemporaries and

Obviously, this was a stimulating, thoughtful, provocative opening to the
semester that indicated a great range of approaches and possibilities for
considering this poet.  This was the first of many terrific meetings that that
will follow this semester.

We turn from the difficulty simple poetry of Frank O?Hara to the simply
difficult (though no less rewarding) poetry and poetics of Michael Palmer.  We
meet this Friday from 3-5 in Rm 116 of the Whitney Humanities Center to discuss
Palmer?s work.  Palmer has bee called on of the finest and most influential
poets of his generation.  The books we will be discussing will be his most
recent collection of poems ?Company of Moths? as well as his just released
book of essays ?Active Boundaries.?

Palmer is one of the foremost poets of his generation and is recent winner of
the prestigious Wallace Stevens Award and was recently shortlisted for the
Griffin prize.  I quote from the judges citation for the Wallace Stevens Award:
?Michael Palmer is the foremost experimental poet of his generation and
perhaps of the last several generations. A gorgeous writer who has taken cues
from Wallace Stevens, the Black Mountain poets, John Ashbery, contemporary
French poets, the poetics of Octavio Paz, and from language poetries. He is one
of the most original craftsmen at work in English at the present time. His
poetry is at once a dark and comic interrogation of the possibilities of
representation in language, but its continuing surprise is its resourcefulness
and its sheer beauty.?

Palmer will join us for the second session on his work, to be held on Oct 17th. 
This is a tremendous opportunity to talk about this very challenging work with
the poet himself, whose work has been described as being ?the analytic
lyric.?  Two sources for examples can be found at these sites.  These are
soundfiles and video of Palmer reading his work.



This will be the first of two sessions? devoted to palmer?s work.  The poet
will join us on Oct 17th.

Until Friday,
Richard Deming

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