O Harashbery!

C.K. Stead

  • The Selected Poems of Frank O’Hara edited by Donald Allen
    Carcanet, 233 pp, £18.95, October 1991, ISBN 0 85635 939 4
  • Flow Chart by John Ashbery
    Carcanet, 213 pp, £16.95, September 1991, ISBN 0 85635 947 5

I remember the pleasure of my first reading of Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems when it came out in 1964 in a City Lights edition uniform (except that it was blue and red, not black and white) with Ginsberg’s Howl, Kaddish and Reality Sandwiches. Two years later O’Hara was dead, killed by a dune buggy at an all-night party on Fire Island. There was something Keatsian about his poetry, its vividness and particularity, and its spontaneity, though there might be difficulties for a critic who wanted to argue, as Matthew Arnold did when he tried to rescue Keats from the aesthetes, that ‘there was flint and iron in him.’

In Keats, thought and poetry were neither identical nor simultaneous. Contemplation preceded composition, which replaced it and was a kind of action. Poetry had to come ‘as naturally as the leaves to the tree or it might as well not come at all’. There is a difference in process, and consequently in product, between hard work poems, such as Yeats’s were almost without exception, and the headlong tradition in which Shakespeare (who ‘never blotted a line’) and Keats are pre-eminent. It is not a question of merit, nor of density, but of pace. If you read attempts by 19th-century English poets (Byron is something of an exception) to write poetic drama, and compare their lines with Shakespeare’s, the difference is all the more surprising because it’s so clear that Shakespeare was their model. Their lines are static where Shakespeare’s are dynamic. There is an ambulant feel, eyes down, one foot placed in front of the other, deliberately. In Shakespeare, even at his most clotted, his eyes and his mind, like those of a runner are set well ahead of his feet.

Many poets work sometimes in one mode, sometimes in the other. The parts of The Waste Land that survived Pound’s surgery had been composed in blocks, fast, usually straight onto the typewriter, and the ‘frightful toil’ Eliot spoke of was not composition but disposition. In Four Quartets Eliot went over into the mode of deliberation, thus completing his accommodation in a British literary scene where, for most of this century, hard work has been considered proper, and the other tradition, at least as an explanation of how poetry happens, has been ignored, discounted or disbelieved. Consequently, among the American poets, Lowell and Berryman, whose work shows in every line, have had the attention they deserve, while William Carlos Williams has been slighted or ignored.

Frank O’Hara, like Eliot, inherited two traditions, one American, the other French. Although he says, half-serious, ‘of the American poets only Whitman and Crane and Williams are better than the movies,’ O’Hara, unlike Ginsberg, couldn’t use the rolling self-importance of Whitman – any more than Keats could use the ‘egotistical sublime’ of Wordsworth. Like Keats, he rejected poetry that had ‘a palpable design’ on us. But he could learn from Williams’s relaxed intimacy with places and things; and he found his own voice in Pierre Reverdy, as surely as Eliot found his in Jules Laforgue:

                   My heart is in my
pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.

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