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.

The other influences were music (he trained as a concert pianist) and painting. He was assistant curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art when Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Robert Rauschenberg were making Action Painting famous; and he and John Ashbery, his friend and contemporary, must have felt their poetry belonged in tandem with that school. O’Hara’s ‘Why I am not a painter’ doesn’t tell us why he is not a painter, but shows how the process of making a painting and making a poem can be similarly oblique. The painter begins with sardines, but these get painted out, remaining only in the title; and in writing a poem, which becomes 12 poems, about ‘orange’, the poet never finds a way to mention the colour, except belatedly, by giving his sequence the title ‘Oranges’. But what distinguishes ‘Why I am not a painter’ is its tone of camp inconsequence, subverting all notions of the Sublime which attach themselves to talk about writing poems and painting pictures.

There are two O’Hara’s, one intelligible and still popular with anthologists, the other the composer of the kind of poem Ashbery writes, in which every sentence has a meaning but is designed, by discontinuity and lack of placement, to frustrate understanding. With diligence one could tease sense out of such poems, but that would not be a profitable exercise and is not, I’m sure, how they are meant to be read. O’Hara’s in Memory of my Feelings’ begins:

My quietness has a man in it, he is transparent
and he carries me quietly, like a gondola, through the streets.
He has several likenesses, like stars and years, like numerals.

A fleeting impression of sense is intended here. To read it, however, as if it were another kind of poem, the ‘man’ is not the poet (persona), since ‘he carries me’; but he is ‘in’ the poet’s ‘quietness’, and himself moves ‘quietly’. He is like stars, years and numerals, specifically in having ‘several likenesses’. This must mean that stars, years and numerals are alike in having ‘several’ (in fact, innumerable) stars, years and numerals which are like them, but distinct; and this is so also of men. So ‘meaning’ in such writing tends to be an abstract and tautological circuit, denied connection with anything that precedes or follows; and the ‘poetry’ exists in tone, colour, flavour, rather than sense – a flow of language disconnected, if not from reality, then from any particular reality. It is a pattern, a model, a blueprint of how language works, rather than language at work. This is the mode in which Ashbery has made himself famous and much honoured.

In a review of Ashbery published in the London Review of 2-15 September 1982 and subsequently included in a Yale collection of essays on Ashbery edited, and one-third written, by Harold Bloom, John Bayley sees the critical question ‘in terms of the contrast between Englishness and Americanness in the contemporary poetic voice’ – the ‘English voice’ dealing in ‘robust reality’ (which he concedes can sometimes be ‘a fatal over-presence’), while Ashbery ‘avoids definition as America does’. And Bayley quotes some Ashbery lines which he suggests describe the poet and this American quality:

             Behind the mask
Is still u continental appreciation
Of what is fine, rarely appears and when it does is already
Dying on die breeze that brought it to the threshold
Of speech

My difficulty here is that I can’t see how Ashbery can represent more than one branch (sub-branch) of contemporary American poetry. It’s true he is somewhere down a track that leads off from Wallace Stevens: but Stevens can’t be held responsible for the distance Ashbery travels. O’Hara, who began where Ashbery began, showed that theirs was a point of departure which could lead into the thick of time and place as readily as away from it:

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shocshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me
I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly New World Writing to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
                               I go to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance ...

The strangeness comes cumulatively from a deliberate overload of ‘robust reality’ – detail undifferentiated and unstructured.

An illustration of the two paths – one towards realism, the other away from it – can be seen in two O’Hara poems with the same name, ‘On Rachmaninoff’s Birthday’. One (‘Quick a last poem before I go ... ’) is Ashbery’s territory, but with O’Hara’s unique dash and charm. ‘Rachmaninoff’ here is a word, not a man, leading to other words (‘off my rocker’) and thus to a frame of language. In the other (‘Blue windows, blue rooftops’) Rachmaninoff is the composer, imagined as O’Hara’s piano teacher.

In Bloom’s Yale collection of essays on Ashbery, Helen Vendler, with typical forthrightness, considers the question of the poet’s ‘subject-matter’: ‘it is popularly believed, with some reason, that’ his style is ‘impenetrable, that it is impossible to say what an Ashbery poem is “about”.’ Professor Vendler argues that, for all their evasiveness, Ashbery’s poems do have subjects and make statements: but she makes a case only by not letting it be seen that all such passages as she quotes are placed in such a way as to give them no support fore and aft, so that any general resonance they may have in isolation is diminished in context. Worse, her argument forces her to isolate what seems most commonplace in Ashbery, and might be taken as a measure of the lack of real distinction which his obscurity obscures – for example:

But I don’t set much stock in things
Beyond the weather and the certainties of living and dying:
The rest is optional. To praise this, blame that,
Leads one subtly away from the beginning, where
We must stay, in motion.

Or again:

                                People
Are either too stunned or too engrossed
In their own petty pursuits to bother with
What is happening all around them, even
When that turns out to be extremely interesting ...

Is this significantly different from the kind of pretentious pub-chat that has you glancing at your watch?

But it is Professor Bloom who has made out the most determined case for Ashbery. I respect Bloom’s passion, his intellectual energy, his seriousness, his knowledge. What I distrust in him is something like taste: and more to the point (but not unconnected) I wince at the damage he does to the language of criticism. Here is the centre of his argument for Ashbery, with some of the weeds pulled out:

A strong poem, which alone can become canonical for more than a single generation, can be defined as a text that must engender strong misreadings ... Texts that have single, reductive, simplistic meanings are themselves already necessarily weak misreadings of anterior texts ... Confronted by Ashbery ... the weak reader is defeated by the energy of the Sublime (which is] available only to the agonist striver, not to the reductionist ... Strong, canonical, Sublime poetry exists in order to compel the reader to abandon easier literary pleasures for more difficult satisfactions ...

I set aside the fact that some poems survive by their simplicity, and concede, at least in part, what I think Bloom wants us to understand: that ‘difficulty’ is not always an obstacle to poetic survival, and may even aid it. It’s reported that chimpanzees in the Auckland Zoo have enjoyed their lunches much more since keepers began to hide the food instead of just handing it out; and ‘the fascination of what’s difficult’ operates for readers as well as for Yeats and the chimps. The bardic mode favoured mysteries. Traditions attaching themselves to words like ‘oracular’, ‘Orphic’, ‘Delphic’, ‘arcane’, ‘hermetic’ are reminders of how much the human primate likes secrets, puzzles, hints, tricks and magic. They should remind us also of how open this aspect of the mind is to deception, and self-deception.

Bloom’s exaltation on reading Ashbery is clear enough, and genuine. That the same lines when I read them engage one part of my mind, leaving the rest free to wander and think other thoughts (ultimately a sleep-inducing division) is only of interest if it makes a critical point. I suggest, then, that Bloom’s mind also wanders, and that in doing so it creates the half of the poem which Ashbery has left uncomposed. A needs B, which is why B is exalted; and the poet’s brow is wreathed in the donated sweat of his critic’s labour.

Poetry claims its pre-eminence among the verbal arts by using to the full all essential functions of language, one of which is to point beyond itself – to name, to designate, to describe, to make real. Whether what it brings into being was already in some sense there, in history, like Keats’s Hampstead garden and Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey, or was conjured like Coleridge’s Xanadu, is unimportant. The prime function of language is one half of an equation, the realist half, which in the finest poetry is matched and to a degree opposed by the stamp of uniqueness that belongs to the particular poet – an eye, an ear, a voice, a style. It is the object part of this subject/object duality which Ashbery declines to use. His language is half-language, and by this measure his poetry is half-poetry. ‘Shadwell,’ Dryden tells us, ‘never deviates into sense.’ There are 213 pages in Flow Chart, and it is the randomness from one passage to the next, the refusal of firm designation, of continuity, of structure, of narrative, which makes each passage even more obscure and abstract-seeming in context than out of it. There is consistency of tone and language, but the language is seldom distinguished by compression, wit or eloquence. I can see no reason why Professor Bloom should admire this book less than others by Ashbery he has praised; nor why I should be won over.

As for O’Hara: no doubt he belongs to his time. There had to be some kind of break-out from the egg-bound neo-Metaphysical academic poetry that went with the coldest years of the Cold War; and at a time when Ginsberg and the Beats were making the running. O’Hara showed a way which managed to be personal but not confessional, free but not unconfined. He is perhaps a minor figure, but I think an important one. For me the charm and vivacity of his best poems persist.