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Hyperscapes in the

Poetry of Frank O’Hara


Liverpool Music Symposium 1

Hyperscapes in the
Poetry of Frank O’Hara
Difference/Homosexuality/Topography

Hazel Smith

LIVERPOOL UNIVERSITY PRESS


First published in 2000 by
LIVERPOOL UNIVERSITY PRESS
4 Cambridge Street, Liverpool L69 7ZU

Copyright © 2000 Hazel Smith

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a


retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic,
mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the prior
written permission of the publishers.

British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data


A British Library CIP record is available.

ISBN 0 85323 994 0 hardback


ISBN 0 85323 505 8 paperback

Typeset in Sabon with Gill Sans by


Northern Phototypesetting Co. Ltd, Bolton, Lancs.
Printed and bound in the European Union by
Bell & Bain Ltd, Glasgow
Contents

Preface vii
Introduction 1

1 Resituating O’Hara 9
2 The Hyperscape and Hypergrace: The City and the Body 54
3 In Memory of Metaphor: Metonymic Webs and the
Deconstruction of Genre 80
4 The Gay New Yorker: The Morphing Sexuality 102
5 The Poem as Talkscape: Conversation, Gossip,
Performativity, Improvisation 136
6 Why I Am Not a Painter: Visual Art, Semiotic Exchange,
Collaboration 166

Coda: Moving the Landscapes 195


Appendix: More Collaboration 197
Select Bibliography 200
Index 226
Preface

Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara: Difference, Homosexual-


ity, Topography results from my long and ongoing fascination with the
work of Frank O’Hara. This began when I first came across O’Hara’s
work in 1980 in Donald’s Allen’s anthology, The New American Poetry.
My admiration for the poetry has remained constant, though its pri-
mary focus has changed over the years. This book is a testimony to the
many different aspects of Frank O’Hara’s work which have delighted
and stimulated me, ranging from the technical through to the cultural.
Initially I approached O’Hara as a poet, musician and general
reader, but subsequently I wrote about him as an academic. This nexus
of different perspectives informs my writing about him and I feel it has
broadened my view of his work. The reading, application and exten-
sion of cultural theory grew out of my academic research and forms
the backbone of this book. However, my interest in technical aspects
of O’Hara’s work, his creative processes, and his relationship to the
other arts stem, in part, from my own preoccupations as a poet and
practising musician. Some of the theoretical frameworks I have con-
structed also arose, in part, out of my enthusiasm for applying creative
procedures to academic writing.
My work on O’Hara began with a Ph.D. thesis, completed in 1988,
‘The Sense of Neurotic Coherence: Structural Reversals in the Poetry
of Frank O’Hara’. However, most of the material in the current book
is new, and that which remains from the original thesis has been sub-
stantially rethought and rewritten. A small amount of the material in
the book has been published in much earlier forms. Chapter 3
appeared originally as an article (Smith 1995) and two sections of
Chapter 6 as a book chapter (Smith 1989). Both have been substan-
tially reworked. Chapter 2 developed out of a conference paper
which inspired the framework for the whole book (Smith 1997).
viii Preface

In preparation for writing the thesis I perused many of O’Hara’s


letters and manuscripts in libraries in the USA. I also talked to several
of his colleagues and friends. They were often very generous with
their time and in some cases gave me, or directed me towards,
relevant material. Some of these meetings, particularly those with
Bill Berkson and Kenneth Koch, significantly extended my apprecia-
tion of O’Hara’s poetry and its literary and social context, but all
were useful. I would like to express my warm thanks to the following
people for granting me interviews: Donald Allen, John Ashbery,
Bill Berkson, Morris Golde, John Gruen, Barbara Guest, Grace
Hartigan, Kenneth Koch, Joe LeSueur, Alfred Leslie, Ron Padgett,
Waldo Rasmussen, Larry Rivers, David Shapiro, the late Alexander
Smith and the late Morton Feldman. I am also extremely grateful to
Maureen O’Hara for allowing me to read unpublished material.
I am indebted to the Humanities Research Programme of the Fac-
ulty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales
for granting me a Writing Fellowship in order to complete the book.
The time made available by this was invaluable. My thanks also to
Professor Clive Bush, King’s College, University of London, for my
stay there in 1996 as a visiting fellow.
Many other people have given me assistance or advice. In particu-
lar, I am indebted to David Murray for his solicitous and stimulating
supervision of my original Ph.D. thesis on O’Hara. Without Dave’s ini-
tial encouragement, I doubt whether I would have continued to work
on O’Hara and produce this book. My thanks also to Don Anderson,
Department of English, University of Sydney; Bruce Gardiner, Depart-
ment of English, University of Sydney; and Heather Neilsen, Depart-
ment of English, Australian Defence Force Academy, University of
New South Wales; for reading and commenting on the manuscript.
Thanks also to Roger Dean for reading the entire text more than once;
and to Sonia Mycak, School of English, University of New South
Wales, for commenting on an earlier version of Chapter 2. Coralie
Venus, Sarah Gleeson-White, Peter Cook and Fiona Probyn gave me
invaluable research assistance while I was working on the project.
Engaging with this book has convinced me, more than ever, that
O’Hara’s achievement is comparable with that of any other poet of
the twentieth century. The emotional intensity, linguistic complexity,
intellectual range and cultural relevance of his poetry are dazzling.
But so are his wit, effervescence, and sheer entertainment value.
Despite all the republication of his poems, the growth of dedicated
Preface ix

critical writing, and pockets of fond O’Hara fans all over the world,
his reputation still seems to me to lag considerably behind his achieve-
ment. I have read and written about many of the poems numerous
times and am extremely familiar with them, but they always remain
fundamentally unresolvable. Perhaps the strongest tribute one can pay
to the work is to say that any book about O’Hara ultimately registers
the impossibility of writing about him. That is because the subtleties
and implications of his work can never be totally captured in any
words other than his own, even though they extend far beyond.

Hazel Smith
University of New South Wales
Introduction
Michael Talbot

The Aims and Argument of the Book


Travelling through one of Frank O’Hara’s poems involves taking a
direct route but also diverging from it. His poetry evokes a specific
era and location: New York in the 1950s and early 1960s. This is
a pre-computer age of typewritten manuscripts, small shops,
shoeshines and lunch hours: it is also an age of gay repression, accel-
erating consumerism and race riots. But the poetry dislocates this
cityscape into a postmodern landscape which is discontinuous, highly
volatile and constantly changing. This landscape anticipates the world
of multinational companies, hypermedia, and polymorphous sexual
and racial identities we live in now.
In this book I will argue that this location and dislocation of the
cityscape creates hyperscapes in the poetry of Frank O’Hara. The
hyperscape is a postmodern site characterised by difference: it breaks
down unified concepts of text, city, subject and art, and remoulds
them into new textual, subjective and political spaces. I have con-
structed the term hyperscape with clear connotations of the visual arts
(landscape), urban environments (cityscape), contemporary forms of
textuality (hypertext) and new forms of virtual space (hyperspace).
The hyperscape is distinguished by the co-presence of opposites: it
straddles low and high culture, sexual and racial difference, the local
and global, modernist innovation and postmodernist appropriation.
This book theorises the process of disruption and refiguration which
constitutes the hyperscape, and celebrates its radicality.
Not every O’Hara poem is a hyperscape in every respect, but they
are all marked by difference. In fact, the process of difference-
in-becoming is the poetry’s only all-defining feature and makes it
particularly relevant to contemporary readers and critics. Through-
out this book, I explore difference in O’Hara’s work, particularly in
2 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

terms of textuality, sexuality, the politics of location and mixed-media


endeavour. For O’Hara’s poetry, both within his whole oeuvre, and
within individual poems, is characterised by the coexistence of seem-
ingly contradictory elements. Where this difference proliferates most
intensely, the hyperscape emerges to the full. In fact, the whole body
of his work is itself a labyrinthine hyperscape, in which we, as read-
ers, continually lose and find ourselves.
Throughout the book I argue that Frank O’Hara is a forerunner of
postmodernism, for the many faces of difference have been intensively
theorised and actualised in postmodern theory and practice. The
book, therefore, implements a wide range of post-structuralist theory
including literary deconstruction, postmodern geography, queer and
gender theory and semiotic theory. It draws on theories which address
difference, and develops, through them, the hyperscape and other rel-
evant concepts. The direction of this book, then, is largely theoretical
and analytical, but it also historicises O’Hara in terms of the cultural
contexts of his poetry: it deals with how he is both ahead of, and part
of, his time. Perhaps it is also important to say here what the book is
not trying to do. It is not attempting, primarily, to discuss O’Hara’s
relationship to the European and American literary tradition – this has
already been done, at least to some extent, by others (Perloff 1979,
Ward 1993). The approach is not biographical or developmental,
though I briefly summarise biographical details in this introduction.
The book is not ‘an introduction to the work of Frank O’Hara’, but
builds on the work of others about him. In fact, I have tried not to
tread too much well-worn ground about O’Hara or repeat too many
overfamiliar quotations. In so doing, I have approached O’Hara’s
work from many different angles. I have also taken the unusual step
of re-entering the same poem several times over from different points
of view. This is a good way of unpicking the complexity of some of the
poems and highlighting the way diverse meanings jostle together
within them. In particular, ‘In Memory of My Feelings’ is such a multi-
layered poem that it amply repays repeated attention from varying
perspectives.
The landscape of American poetry from which O’Hara’s poetry
emerges has been well discussed elsewhere. The New York Poets
(including Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch), the Black
Mountain Poets (including Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Robert
Creeley, Gregory Corso) and the Beats (including Allen Ginsberg, Jack
Kerouac and Gregory Corso) positioned themselves as an avant-garde
Introduction 3

antidote to the academic and traditional poetry of poets such as


Richard Wilbur and Randall Jarrell, and the confessional poetry of
Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell. They also rebutted the New Critical
orthodoxy of the poem as a ‘well-wrought’ urn fashioned through
paradox, ambiguity and metaphor. This has been documented in Gray
1990, Lehman 1998, Molesworth 1979, Perloff 1979 and many other
volumes, and is also the satirical focus of Kenneth Koch’s ‘Fresh Air’,
which might be seen as a comic manifesto for the New York School
(Koch 1985, pp. 37–43). These same books document the poetry
anthology wars of the 1950s and 1960s in which Donald Allen
‘anthologised back to’ the traditionalists by promoting these anti-
establishment poets in The New American Poetry (Allen 1960) –
Allen’s selection of O’Hara’s work in this volume still seems to me to
be extremely astute. Charles Olson’s essay ‘Projective Verse’ (Olson
1973), which conceptualises poetry as an open field rather than a close
regurgitation of preconceived forms, was highly influential during the
period. It speaks for a poetics of juxtaposition rather than symbolism,
driven by ‘high energy’ rather than the poet’s ego, and is discussed in
Christensen 1975, Molesworth 1979 and elsewhere.
My emphasis throughout the book is also on O’Hara rather than
the New York School of poets. (This name, coined by John Bernard
Myers, arose out of the social and artistic connection between the
poets and the New York School of painters, Larry Rivers, Grace
Hartigan, Michael Goldberg, Norman Bluhm, Alfred Leslie, Jane
Freilicher, Joan Mitchell, Fairfield Porter and others, sometimes
known as the second-generation Abstract Expressionists). Since this
book is primarily an exploration of O’Hara’s work, the other New
York poets are considered here only in relation to their existence
within O’Hara’s lifetime. I mainly focus on the ‘core’ poets O’Hara,
Koch and Ashbery, and I do not discuss the work of the second-
generation poets, on whom O’Hara was very influential, such as Ron
Padgett or Ted Berrigan. The focus of Lehman (Lehman 1998) and
Ward (Ward 1993), who are both writing about the New York School
poets, is inevitably substantially different, and they include work
which was written long after O’Hara’s death. Ward puts little empha-
sis on Koch’s contribution, and both Ward and Lehman include a
chapter on James Schuyler’s work. Beyond mentioning them here I do
not discuss Schuyler – or Barbara Guest, who could also be legiti-
mately considered part of the group, and was published in Donald
Allen’s anthology. Schuyler’s first collection appeared two years after
4 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

O’Hara’s death, and both Schuyler and Guest do not seem to me to


have had such a major impact on O’Hara as Koch or Ashbery. But to
call any group of poets a ‘school’ is to immediately beg the question
of the identity of such a group and not only in terms of membership
(who is in or out). For the unity and stability of that identity is con-
tinually disrupted by personal growth, travel and rivalries. Insofar as
I discuss other New York School poets, it is to show how similarities
between them tend to splinter into differences. The friendship of Ash-
bery, Koch and O’Hara, the support and stimulation they gave each
other, and their collaborations, were obviously very important. They
also shared, broadly speaking, an all-pervasive iconoclasm, formal
radicalism, and a camp sensibility. But Ashbery’s flatter landscapes,
and Koch’s comic allegories and list structures, lend themselves much
less readily to the concept of the hyperscape (though they include
some of its elements), and I refer to their poetry here mainly as a
means of comparison.
The body of literary criticism about O’Hara, notable for quality
rather than quantity, has been very important to me. Any work on
Frank O’Hara owes a great deal to Perloff ’s pioneering book (Perloff
1979). Her achievement, in focusing critical attention on O’Hara’s
work just over a decade after his death, seems even more impressive
now. Her book maps O’Hara’s development, and the literary and
artistic contexts of his work, and is still an important starting point
for students. It has been republished with a new useful introduction
which takes account of recent developments in O’Hara studies, and
charts Perloff ’s own changing perspective on the work (Perloff 1998).
Alan Feldman’s book was also a timely and valuable contribution
(Feldman 1979). But no major book solely on O’Hara has been writ-
ten since then: Alice Parker’s book engages in convincing readings of
the poems, but does not theorise its position (Parker 1983). However,
during the 1990s, there was an acceleration of sophisticated critical
work on O’Hara. Deserving of special mention is Geoff Ward’s elo-
quent and highly perceptive study of the New York School of Poets,
which is a major contribution to the area and includes a chapter on
O’Hara (Ward 1993). David Lehman’s account is less theorised, but
readers will find the cultural and biographical information in his book
(as well as the readings of poems) very valuable. There have been a
number of extremely insightful essays (Blasing 1995, Bredbeck 1993,
Lowney 1991, Ross 1990) and the collection of new and old essays
edited by Jim Elledge in one volume has also proved most useful
Introduction 5

(Elledge 1990a). All this work has greatly stimulated and challenged
me, and has been what O’Hara would call ‘a useful thorn to have in
one’s side’ (from ‘Statement for The New American Poetry’, O’Hara
1979, p. 500).
The book is organised in such a way that the first chapter paves the
way for the remaining chapters. Chapter 1 resituates O’Hara in the
light of the theoretical and cultural landscape of the late 1990s and
the changing critical perspective on his work. It raises some funda-
mental issues and suggests conceptual frameworks which underpin
other chapters: hypertextuality, splintered subjectivity, personalised
hyperpolitics, the interplay between modernist experimentation and
postmodern appropriation, and the relationship of real life and text
life. It also relates O’Hara’s ‘personalised hyperpolitics’ to the politi-
cal landscape of the 1950s and 1960s. Chapter 2 focuses on the
topography of the city, but also the dislocation and reconstitution of
the city and the body as a fundamental aspect of the hyperscape. It
suggests ‘hypergrace’ as a way of negotiating the emergent landscape
and raises the issue of community in New York during the period
when O’Hara was writing. Chapter 3 returns to the linguistic, literary
and intertextual basis of the poems. It demonstrates how the interface
between surreal, symbolic and anti-symbolic genres creates complex
metonymic/hypertextual webs which form the textual ground of the
hyperscape. Chapter 4 introduces the concept of a non-essentialist
gay identity and a ‘morphing’ sexuality: it also revisits the concept of
hypergrace. It suggests that until recently O’Hara’s non-essentialist
gay identity did not seem politically charged because in the 1950s
and 1960s a more direct political stance was needed to rebut a homo-
phobic society. Chapter 5 argues that the poems create unique
‘talkscapes’, and links performativity, conversation and gossip in
the poetry to O’Hara’s writing process through the concept of
improvisation. It also engages with the significance and influence of
improvisation in jazz, painting and theatre contemporary with
O’Hara’s work. Chapter 6 engages with the ‘complementary antago-
nism’ between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art in O’Hara’s
poetry and collaborations. It focuses on the way O’Hara precipitates
semiotic exchange between poetry and painting, foreshadowing
hypermedia in visual–verbal hyperscapes.
It is fascinating to see how critics with totally different interests
regard O’Hara’s work as pivotal. While few books about O’Hara
have emerged, many critics have written a chapter on him: his poetry
6 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

lends itself to many different approaches. A poet of appropriation


himself, O’Hara is easily appropriated by others. But situating
O’Hara is difficult because his poetry evasively shifts the kinds of cat-
egories within which we try to encapsulate it. As this book will show,
O’Hara’s poetry inhabits a mutable, ‘hypertextual’ site.

Lives and Biographies


Frank O’Hara was both a writer and a highly influential figure in the
literary and art worlds. He was by all accounts, a dynamic and charis-
matic person whose wit, intelligence, genuine interest in other
people, enthusiasm for the arts, heavy drinking and early death have
elevated his life to the status of myth. This book does not seek to sup-
port or deconstruct the narratives surrounding Frank O’Hara’s life:
readers in search of detailed biographical information are advised to
consult Berkson and LeSueur 1980, Gooch 1993, Lehman 1998 and
Perloff 1979. All these volumes participate (sometimes repetitively) in
the closed economy of stories about his life, but are likely to enrich a
sense of the context of O’Hara’s work. Some recordings and film of
O’Hara (O’Hara 1964b, 1964a, 1966, 1972), very engaging even to
the myth-resisting, are also available.
However, it is certainly useful to be familiar with some aspects
of O’Hara’s life and its rich cultural context. O’Hara fans will proba-
bly be already conversant with this trajectory, but the following
biographical outline (most of which is summarised in ‘A Short
Chronology’ in the Collected Poems ) may be useful to those to whom
O’Hara is a stranger, and who have not yet consulted the previously
mentioned volumes.
Frank O’Hara was born in Baltimore in 1926 and educated at
St John’s High School in Worcester. He served as a sonarman third
class during the war on the destroyer USS Nicholas, was stationed at
Norfolk, Virginia, in California, and sailed in the South Pacific and to
Japan. Early on he dreamt of becoming a concert pianist and subse-
quently went to Harvard, where he majored first in music, changed
his BA to English and graduated in 1950.1 He was also one of the

1. In his youth O’Hara also wrote some musical compositions. An early tonal
effort, ‘Elegy’ (O’Hara 1947), composed for Burton Aldrich Robie, and signed
Francis O’Hara, is rudimentary, but he also composed some (more sophisticated)
incidental music for John Ashbery’s play Everyman, a Masque (O’Hara 1951a).
Introduction 7

founders of the Poet’s Theatre, Cambridge. He gained an MA at the


University of Michigan, Ann Arbor in 1951, after which he moved to
New York. He worked briefly as a private secretary to Cecil Beaton,
and was then employed on the front desk of the Museum of Modern
Art (MOMA). In 1952 A City Winter, and Other Poems, his first book,
was published by the Tibor de Nagy Gallery.
In 1955 he became special assistant in the International Program at
MOMA, in 1960 Assistant Curator of Painting and Sculpture Exhibi-
tions for the Museum, and in 1965 Associate Curator. During this
period he organised many important exhibitions, particularly by
Abstract Expressionists and painters of the New York School. Exhibi-
tions into which he had a major input included New Spanish Paintings
and Sculptures; Robert Motherwell; Reuben Nakian; Magritte-
Tanguy; Abstract Watercolours by 14 Americans; Drawings by Arshile
Gorky; Drawings by David Smith; Franz Kline; Recent Landscapes by
8 Americans; Robert Motherwell: Works on Paper; and Drawings by
David Smith. During his time at the museum O’Hara travelled in
Europe but never visited England. His published volumes from 1957
to 1965 were: Meditations in An Emergency (Grove Press, 1957);
Odes, with five serigraphs by Mike Goldberg (Tiber Press); and
Second Avenue (Totem/Corinth Press, 1960); Lunch Poems (City
Lights Books, 1964) and Love Poems (Tentative Title) (Tibor de Nagy,
1965). O’Hara also wrote a number of plays, including Try!Try!, ini-
tially performed at the Poet’s Theatre, Cambridge; and Awake in
Spain, produced by the Living Theatre.
His position at MOMA, a healthy rebuttal of the idea that the artist
has to be single-minded, also brought him into contact with the
Abstract Expressionists Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Barnett
Newman, Mark Rothko and Robert Motherwell, sculptor David
Smith, and painters of the New York School. He wrote a substantial
body of art criticism, including a perceptive monograph on Jackson
Pollock, and his art criticism was collected after his death in two vol-
umes: Art Chronicles (O’Hara 1975) and Standing Still and Walking
in New York (O’Hara 1983b). An enthusiastic collaborator, his joint
works include poems with Kenneth Koch and Bill Berkson, a series of
lithographs with Larry Rivers, poem-paintings with Norman Bluhm,
and a film, The Last Clean Shirt, with Alfred Leslie. Passionately inter-
ested in all the arts (he was also a ballet fan), O’Hara often attended
several films, concerts and dance performances in the course of a
week (or day) and formed many friendships with musicians and
8 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

dancers such as Virgil Thomson, Morton Feldman, Ben Weber and


Merce Cunningham.
O’Hara was homosexual, but he also pursued intense friendships
with women, most notably Bunny Lang, Jane Freilicher, Grace Harti-
gan and Patsy Southgate. These women – and also male friends and
lovers including Larry Rivers, Joe LeSueur, Vincent Warren and Bill
Berkson – figure prominently in groups of poems (sometimes a mix-
ture of eulogy and critique) dedicated to, or named after, them.
O’Hara died when he was struck by a beach-buggy on the beach of
Fire Island in 1966. His Collected Poems (O’Hara 1979) and Selected
Poems (O’Hara 1974) were edited by Donald Allen and published
posthumously. Later his early work and unpublished work, again
edited by Donald Allen, was collected in Early Writing (O’Hara
1977a) and Poems Retrieved (O’Hara 1977b).
My own research into O’Hara’s work began with the poems them-
selves, but the numerous interviews I conducted with his friends and
colleagues in the USA produced an unexpected intensification of
interest in the life. My awareness, however, that this was, in many
respects, a ‘dead end’ for me came with force when friends of the
poet suggested I visit his grave, and my interest in the life lessened
considerably when I returned home. But the sense I received in the
interviews of the contradictions in the life of the man, and the eclec-
ticism of his interests, have nevertheless made a big impact on this
book. It validated and counterpointed my interest in difference in his
poetry. And in a typically O’Hara-esque paradox, it contributed many
years later to the development of the theoretical frameworks in this
book and, in particular, to the notion of the hyperscape.
1

Resituating O’Hara
The ends are not tied up
everything is open fields. (‘Un Homme
Respectueux’; O’Hara 1977b, p. 207)
There is the sense of neurotic coherence. (‘Ode on Causality’;
O’Hara 1979, p. 302)

The purpose of this chapter is to resituate and reconceptualise O’Hara


as a forerunner of postmodernism, whose poems are hyperscapes
characterised by textual and cultural difference. Using literary and cul-
tural theory as a springboard, the chapter negotiates the breakdown of
unities in O’Hara’s poetry, the emergence of a hypertextual web, and
a splintered subjectivity. The chapter also repositions the poet in terms
of a personalised hyperpolitics, postmodern eclecticism, and paral-
lelism between real life and text life.

From Difference to Hypertext


O’Hara’s poetry thrives on the unrestrained reconstitution of textu-
ality, subjectivity and representation. Within the poems the distinc-
tions between the metaphoric and the metonymic, the self and the
non-self, the humorous and serious, are constantly overthrown and
reworked. Consequently, the hallmark of O’Hara’s poetry is reversal,
eclecticism and the celebration of the marginal.
In O’Hara’s poetry, then, everything differs from itself and this is
always an ongoing process. Ways of being and modes of writing are
constantly deconstructing themselves and sliding into their opposites,
as they swing athletically between the poles of difference and identity.
This coexistence of opposites, and their reciprocal transformation,
is fundamental to the work and is the essence of the hyperscape.
Therefore, nobody with even a passing acquaintance with Derridean
deconstruction could be blind to its relevance to O’Hara’s work, for
O’Hara is the arch-deconstructionist. His poems anticipate Derrida’s
concept of ‘the play of differences’ in which ‘Nothing, neither among
10 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

the elements nor within the system, is anywhere ever simply present
or absent’ (Derrida 1987, p. 26). Through this process text becomes
‘textile’ and meaning is constantly deferred. The embrace of dif-
férance generates similarities, coincidences and identities which then
immediately fall back into difference. As Geoff Ward says, ‘The dif-
ferential play of language which literary theory strives to expose in
texts … is so much to the fore in an oeuvre such as O’Hara’s that it
needs no special argument or exposure’ (Ward 1993, p. 68). Never-
theless, it is useful to examine this différance systematically, if only
because it underpins the whole psychological, political and artistic
fabric of O’Hara’s work. Here I begin a process of analysis which is
intensified in Chapter 3.
One of the most fundamental forms différance takes in O’Hara’s
poetry is of semantic choices which habitually imply the converse of
what they seem to mean, ‘each in asserting beginning to be more of
the opposite’ (O’Hara 1979, p. 303). ‘Poem: Hate is only one of
many responses’ (O’Hara 1979, pp. 333–34) is an excellent example
of O’Hara’s deconstructive style:
Hate is only one of many responses
true, hurt and hate go hand in hand
but why be afraid of hate, it is only there
think of filth, is it really awesome
neither is hate
don’t be shy of unkindness, either
it’s cleansing and allows you to be direct
like an arrow that feels something
out and out meanness, too, lets love breathe
you don’t have to fight off getting in too deep
you can always get out if you’re not too scared
an ounce of prevention’s
enough to poison the heart
don’t think of others
until you have thought of yourself, are true
all of these things, if you feel them
will be graced by a certain reluctance
and turn into gold
if felt by me, will be smilingly deflected
by your mysterious concern
Resituating O’Hara 11

This poem is about the value of total abandonment to feelings in all


their muddy complexity. While conceding that love can never be
entirely free of aggression and self-interest, it affirms that negative
feelings can be positively channelled. Hate releases love, meanness
lets love breathe, unkindness is cleansing and direct. But the poem
speaks strongly to us because it is not structured round a logical argu-
ment. Rather it hinges on a fertile series of reversals and near-rever-
sals which kinetically reconsider the kinship of hate and love.1 These
reversals are produced by a number of subtle linguistic moves. First,
syntactic ambiguity, a term used by Perloff with respect to O’Hara’s
work (Perloff 1979, p. 131), destabilizes the meaning and creates an
overlaying of different meanings. For example, ‘true’, on the second
line, can be seen to relate both to the first and second lines. The first
juxtaposition implies that hate can cohabit with other more positive
feelings, the second shifts the ground by implying that hurt can make
us hate. This fuels a wrap-round (but not wrap-up) of meanings which
modify each other: hate is only one of a spectrum of emotions, hate
is one of the most sincere emotions, hate is the result of hurt. Sec-
ondly, grammatical incongruity also aids and abets a rampant unde-
cidability. For example, the conjunction ‘neither’ in ‘think of filth, is
it really awesome/neither is hate’ both implies that hate is, and also is
not, awesome. Thirdly, discontinuities and non sequiturs abound: in
the fourth stanza, the command ‘don’t think of others’ seems to rebut,
rather than confirm, the observation that ‘an ounce of preven-
tion’s/enough to poison the heart’. Some sense of progression is cre-
ated by the increasingly personalised focus, and confident
anticipation that the addressee will heed the poet’s warnings. But the
poem is largely non-progressive in structure, so that the ending drives
us back to the beginning.2
The poem therefore encourages a non-linear reading, though it
spins round a single subject. But non-linearity is even more striking in
some of the longer poems such as the ‘Ode on Causality’ (O’Hara

1. O’Hara’s friends and colleagues, in interviews with me, stressed his openness
to his own feelings, but also his sharp changes of mood which they attributed
to near-alcoholism. Larry Rivers said O’Hara gave everybody ‘a slightly shaky
feeling’ (Rivers 1986) and famously referred to him at his funeral as ‘a dream of
contradictions’. An interesting aspect of O’Hara’s letters is their surface quality:
they tend to be about events more than moods and emotions. In other words the
letters are far from being ‘confessional’.
2. The performative aspect of this poem is discussed in Chapter 5.
12 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

1979, pp. 302–03) or ‘Ode to Michael Goldberg(’s Birth and Other


Births)’ (O’Hara 1979, pp. 290–98). At the beginning of ‘Ode on
Causality’, for example, the first seven lines can almost be read in any
order (this is also true of different sections of the poem). This direc-
tional ambiguity foreshadows the contemporary electronic hypertext,
in which discontinuous texts can be instantly juxtaposed, forming
links between very disparate materials and distant nodes (Delany and
Landow 1991, Snyder 1996). Such formation of continuities out of
discontinuities, as an ongoing process, is central to O’Hara’s work
and is explored in considerable detail in Chapter 2. It produces a vein-
like network in which differences coalesce, only immediately to fall
asunder again: it is the ground of the hyperscape. Relevant here also
is Deleuze’s and Guattari’s concept of a rhizomatic structure, which
seeks to ‘extirpate roots and foundations, to thwart unities and break
dichotomies, and to spread out roots and branches, thereby pluraliz-
ing and disseminating, producing differences and multiplicities,
making new connections’ (Best and Kellner 1991, p. 99). Yet this
process is taken to its absolute extreme in hypertext; the text becomes
what Ted Nelson calls ‘intertwingled’: that is, a mixture of inter-
twined and intermingled (quoted in (Snyder 1996, p. 25). This type
of metonymic/hypertextual structure is most pronounced in poems of
the middle period such as ‘In Memory of My Feelings’, and in the
later poems such as ‘Biotherm’. These poems pivot on an inter- and
intra-textual web in which everything links to everything else.

The Splintered Subject


‘Poem: Hate is only one of many responses’ hinges not only on tex-
tual différance, but on an ambivalent and decentred subjectivity
which has to negotiate between the extreme dichotomies of the
hyperscape. According to Derrida not only language, but the subject,
is constructed through différance:
the subject, and first of all the conscious and speaking subject, depends
upon the system of differences and the movement of différance, that the
subject is not present, nor above all present to itself before différance,
that the subject is constituted only in being divided from itself, in
becoming space, in temporizing, in deferral. (Derrida 1987, p. 29)
The split self can also be conceptualised through the Lacanian idea
of the mirror stage in which infants first catch sight of themselves in
Resituating O’Hara 13

the mirror. This is a moment characterised by the joy of recognition,


but marred by the shadow of misrecognition under which the subject
will continue to struggle because lived experience and mirror image
will never absolutely coincide (Lacan 1977, p. 2; Mycak 1996,
pp. 38–39).
O’Hara’s poems swing between a focused, idiosyncratic voice and
personality, and a sense of a fragmented, dispersed subjectivity. This
subjectivity presents itself through a high degree of ambivalence, and
contradictory attitudes and behaviour. So the mirror is particularly rel-
evant here because it enshrines the reversal at a linguistic, emotional
and intellectual level which is fundamental to O’Hara’s poetry. This
reversal is never-ending or resolving: the relationship between self and
mirror always collapses into the play of reflection. Consequently, the
split self becomes the splintered self of the hyperscape: a self which
often seems more variegated than the Freudian split between con-
scious and unconscious. In ‘Poem: All the mirrors in the world’
(O’Hara 1979, p. 39), the poet cannot find himself in his own reflec-
tion for ‘it is not/I who appears or imagines’. Rather, the distinction
between self and other becomes lost in the proliferation of images:
and my eyes in, say, the glass
of a public bar, become a
depraved hunt for other re-
flections.
This is very different from Sylvia Plath’s ‘silver and exact’ mirror
which speaks to us in her poem ‘Mirror’. In that text the mirror,
which is personified, suppresses multiplicity – ‘Whatever I see I swal-
low immediately/Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike’ (Plath 1981,
p. 173) – whereas in the O’Hara poem it releases it. But there are
different types of multiplicity. The splintered self in O’Hara’s poetry
is more conflicted and restless than the multivalent subjectivity
posited by Charles Olson’s in ‘The Kingfishers’: ‘Around an appear-
ance, one common model, we grow up/many’ (Olson 1960, p. 8).
At the same time it is a different kind of subjectivity from that in
John Ashbery’s ‘The Grapevine’, where the self appears in a more
collective, depersonalised form, and is elusive because subject to con-
tinuous grammatical displacements and transformations:
Of who we are and all they are
You all now know. But you know
14 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

After they began to find us out we grew


Before they died thinking us the causes
Of their acts.
(Ashbery 1987, p. 9)
The splintered self, then, can be pushed and pulled in a number of
different directions and has many different identifications. The result
is a state of hypersensitivity, a state of super-emotional awareness
which is nevertheless infinitely flexible. This highly charged state is
one of the abiding values in O’Hara’s poetry, and has its roots in both
joy and despair. For example, in ‘Joe’s Jacket’ (O’Hara 1979, pp.
329–30), the poet is caught between two competing impulses. These
are the wish to stifle experience in order to shelter himself, and the
more compelling need to open himself up to the full flame of the
experience, however threatening. He wants to drink to ‘smother (my)
sensitivity for a while’ but he also fights against the reduction of expe-
rience to a monolithic symbol, ‘a precaution I loathe’. This dilemma
causes extreme anxiety which must not be denied. Instead it must be
worked through until a state of self-possession arises which is able to
contain it:

and soon I am rising for the less than average day, I have coffee
I prepare calmly to face almost everything that will come up I am calm
but not as my bed was calm as it softly declined to become a ship
I borrow Joe’s seersucker jacket though he is asleep I start out
when I last borrowed it I was leaving there it was on my Spanish plaza back
and hid my shoulders from San Marco’s pigeons was jostled on the
Kurfürstendamm
and sat opposite Ashes in an enormous leather chair in the Continental
it is all enormity and life it has protected me and kept me here on
many occasions as a symbol does when the heart is full and risks no speech
a precaution I loathe as the pheasant loathes the season and is preserved
it will not be need, it will be just what it is and just what happens

Implicitly the poet also fights against the need to stabilise textual-
ity in a symbol, ‘a precaution I loathe’, rather than surrendering him-
self to the play of signifiers.
Here, then, as in so many O’Hara poems, the poet moves beyond
modernist angst and alienation, and a sense of ultimate loss, to a cel-
ebratory postmodernist embrace of surface, transience, sensation and
the unknown. So in the poem ‘In the Pearly Green Light’, despite the
Resituating O’Hara 15

‘characteristic rote/of personal anxiety’ which accompanies waking


up, the poet declares:
Yet I never wholly fear the romance
of my interior self no matter
how asleep I am, how nearly dead.
(O’Hara 1977b, p. 141)

Life is ‘full of anxious pleasures and pleasurable anxiety’ and


‘when the tears of a whole generation are assembled/they will only fill
a coffee cup’ (O’Hara 1979, p. 406). This cocktail of anxiety and
optimism creates a personal poetry of extreme emotional intensity
which, nevertheless, diverges significantly from the confessional, and
sometimes self-absorbed, poetry of Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell.
In fact, O’Hara strongly distanced himself from this kind of writing.
In an interview with Edward Lucie Smith he said, ‘I think Lowell has
… a confessional manner which (lets him) 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’ (O’Hara 1983, p. 13). Impressively, the
poems avoid the ‘lyrical interference of the ego’ which Charles Olson
warned against, largely because of their self-parodying, self-effacing
style:
so I will be as unhappy as I damn well
please and not make too much of it because I am
really here and not in a novel or anything or a jet plane
as I’ve often gone away on a ladder, a taxi or a jet plane
‘The “Unfinished”’ (O’Hara 1979, p. 317)

This is a poet who, in ‘A True Account of Talking to The Sun at Fire


Island’, reminds us that he is not ‘the greatest thing on Earth’;
(O’Hara 1979, p. 306).
Subjectivity in O’Hara, however, is always an embodied subjectiv-
ity, which walks the city, performs variegated sexual identities, and
‘writes the body’. Vulnerability is physical: this is a poet for whom
‘a talent/for poetry’ is a ‘wounded beauty’ (‘Mayakovsky’; O’Hara
1979, p. 201). The poet is also not afraid of the abject, carnivalesque
body that we find in the poem ‘Easter’ (O’Hara 1979, p. 96). The
concept of an embodied subjectivity is developed further in Chapters
3 and 4.
16 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

From Apolitical to Political


The Politics of Difference and Hyperpolitics
The question which inevitably arises from the previous section is
whether the loss of a unified subjectivity results in political impotence
or evasiveness. Is it possible to adopt a radical political position in
negotiating the hyperscape? O’Hara certainly shies away from what
he calls ‘the terrible systems /of belief ’ (‘Ode to Willem de Kooning’;
O’Hara 1979, p. 285) or ‘the philosophical reduction of reality to
a dealable-with system’ (‘Notes on Second Avenue’; O’Hara 1979,
p. 495). That is, he evades the pressure to encapsulate experience
permanently in institutionalised or straitjacketed forms of religion,
politics, art or love. In ‘Art Chronicle’, O’Hara distances himself from
both capitalism and communism (O’Hara 1975, pp. 5–6). This
unwillingness to toe a particular political line, together with his
campy, throwaway style, and his highly transgressive ‘take’ on ethical
questions, has often led to the misconception that he is a political
lightweight. This has been the case despite the fact that cultural and
historical reference in his poems is dense and wide-ranging.
In fact, O’Hara’s poetry projects a politics of difference which, in
some respects, is more comprehensible in the light of 1980s and
1990s postmodernist politics than in terms of a 1960s conception of
what it means to be political. This is a politics of surface, contradic-
tion and the personal, rather than of cohesive and objective state-
ment. It is also what I will call a personalised politics: this bears a
family resemblance to the feminist slogan ‘the personal is the politi-
cal’. But most significantly, O’Hara’s discontinuous style – composed
of rapid transitions and non-linear logic rather like hyperlinks – lends
itself to a politics of linkage between the personal and more global
issues. This emphasis on linkage means that the personal and political
are ‘intertwingled’ in a way that allows for change and adaptability.
This is a personalised hyperpolitics, the politics of the hyperscape.
Such a politics is an ‘all-over’ politics – adapting the language of
Abstract Expressionism – in which political ideas branch out from
each other and are continuously self-generating.
It is not my aim here to ascertain the political views of the man
other than the views that permeate the poems. However, in inter-
views with me most of O’Hara’s friends, such as Joe LeSueur, claimed
O’Hara was a liberal. But opinions varied from Grace Hartigan’s
‘completely apolitical’ (Hartigan 1986), to David Shapiro’s ‘radical’
Resituating O’Hara 17

(Shapiro 1986), to John Ashbery’s ‘as far to the left as you can get in
American politics’ (Ashbery 1986). Brad Gooch’s biography suggests
that O’Hara was much more interested in politics than has often been
assumed to be the case (see Gooch 1993, pp. 129–30).

O’Hara, Politics and the Critical Heritage


I will be discussing O’Hara’s personalised hyperpolitics shortly, but
first we need to review the critical heritage about the status of politics
in O’Hara’s poetry. Early criticism tended to disregard O’Hara’s pol-
itics or position him as apolitical. In some cases (Feldman 1979;
Perloff 1979), this was because there was a timely preoccupation with
analysing his work stylistically and relating him to the wider poetic
tradition – it was also symptomatic of a critical climate in which dis-
cussion of politics was less prominent. However, the idea that O’Hara
was apolitical tended to be linked, in the work of other critics, with
misconceptions which centred on his apparent lack of any kind of
value system. For example, Molesworth regards O’Hara’s all-inclu-
siveness as uncritical: ‘But central to O’Hara’s poetics is the absence
of any idealizing impulse, or any clash of opposing values; all is lev-
eled into an even more inclusive “yea,” and the meretricious mixes
easily with the meritorious’ (Molesworth 1990, p. 222).
Helen Vendler similarly claims: ‘The anarchic elasticity of O’Hara’s
poetry depends entirely on his athletic effort to make the personal the
poetic – the personal divested of religion, of politics, of mysticism, of
patriotism, of metaphysics, even of idealism (Vendler 1990, pp.
238–39).
These remarks are representative of an era of criticism still domi-
nated by the after-effects of the New Criticism, but they are also open
to the charge of indirect homophobia, since O’Hara’s campy inver-
sion of accepted values severely challenges the white, heterosexual
grids of the literary canon.
Although David Lehman still argues that O’Hara – and the work
of the other New York poets – is apolitical (Lehman 1998), a number
of critics in the 1990s have argued against the idea that O’Hara’s
work is depoliticised. Blasing, whose close analysis of the poems
demonstrates their political efficacy, claims that: ‘Unfortunately, his
aversion to “important utterances” and his insistence that meanings
and values are historically and personally specific have tended to
encourage critical readings that trivialize and depoliticize his work’
(Blasing 1995, p. 43).
18 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

Ross, to whose work on O’Hara I will refer in more detail shortly,


argues for the significance of a particular kind of micropolitics in
O’Hara’s work which can be more readily appreciated in the 1990s
(Ross 1990, p. 390). Ward is more guarded in the claims he makes for
the political efficacy of O’Hara’s poetry, and poetry in general. He
raises the pertinent question (which he never entirely answers)
whether O’Hara’s ‘taste’ is ‘merely a dandified training in con-
sumerism, complicit at last with the bourgeois appetites it pretends to
have superseded’ (Ward 1993, p. 138). Nevertheless, Ward positions
O’Hara roughly on the left: ‘O’Hara was no polemicist, but it is hard
to see what political line could be implicit in these poems other than
one in favour of black style and self-expression, social equality and
“civil rights”’ (Ward 1993, p. 136). Marjorie Perloff, in her introduc-
tion to her republished book on O’Hara (Perloff 1998), engages more
directly with the political aspect of his work than she did twenty years
earlier, while giving a salutory warning against reductive readings of
the poems.
A number of critics, notably Elledge, Bredbeck, Kikel and Byron,
have also resituated O’Hara as a gay poet, and some of these studies
will be discussed more fully in Chapter 4. They have been crucial in
politicising O’Hara and in drawing attention to the impact his sexual
orientation had on his writing. However, they do not necessarily
address every aspect of his political outlook. For as Eve Kosofsky
Sedgwick points out, there are different types of oppression and a
person may be oppressed in some respects, but not in others (Sedg-
wick 1990, p. 32).
The evolution of the critical debates on the political content of
O’Hara’s poetry has followed a similar trajectory to that on the
Abstract Expressionists with whom O’Hara has been closely identi-
fied. Although the Abstract Expressionists often made claims for the
political and ethical significance of their work – for example, Barnett
Newman, in a television interview with O’Hara, said that he hoped
that his work was both ethical and moral (O’Hara 1964b) – their
work was initially often seen as free from political content. This idea
partly arose out of formalist criticism by Clement Greenberg, though
this criticism has itself been partially misread, decontextualised and
dehistoricised. Greenberg was making out a case for abstraction in an
era when it was considered unacceptable, and often seems to imply
that he is not arguing for form per se:
Resituating O’Hara 19

I do not wish to be understood as saying that a more enlightened con-


noisseurship will hold that what, as distinct from how, Rembrandt
painted is an indifferent matter. That it was on the noses and foreheads
of his portrait subjects, and not on their ears, that he piled the juiciest
paint of his last manner has very much to do with the aesthetic results
he obtained. But we still cannot say why or how. Actually, my own hope
is that a less qualified acceptance of the importance of sheerly abstract
or formal factors in pictorial art will open the way to a clearer under-
standing of the value of illustration as such – a value which I, too, am
convinced is indisputable. Only it is not a value that is realized by, or as,
accretion. (Greenberg 1961, p. 138).
In fact, Greenberg distinguished carefully between subject matter
and content: ‘every work of art must have content, but … subject
matter is something the artist does or does not have in mind when he
is actually at work’ (Greenberg 1990, pp. 65–66). Greenberg here
seems to be arguing against the idea of pre-conceived content, rather
than no content at all.
In the 1980s, Eva Cockcroft and Serge Guilbaut proposed that lack
of overt political content exposed the Abstract Expressionists to
exploitation by the government and the CIA as anti-communist
propaganda to promote the liberal consensus idea of freedom. Eva
Cockcroft stressed the involvement of the Rockefellers in MOMA,
and the collusion of MOMA with USA foreign policy during the war.
According to Cockcroft, MOMA’s subsequent promotion of art inter-
nationally went hand in hand with the CIA’s desire to ‘influence the
foreign intellectual community and to present a strong image of the
United States as a “free society” as opposed to the “regimented” com-
munist bloc’ (Cockcroft 1985, pp. 128–29). Guilbaut proposed that
the Abstract Expressionists’ lack of an overt political position meant
that they were used by the political establishment to further the lib-
eral consensus idea of freedom. He argued that ‘abstract expression-
ism was for many the expression of freedom … Freedom was the
symbol most actively and vigorously promoted by the new liberalism
in the Cold War period’ (Guilbaut 1983, p. 201).
In the 1990s, however, Doss argued that Guilbaut’s view is too crit-
ical and reductive and ignores the cultural content of the Abstract
Expressionists’ painting.3 For her the work of Abstract Expressionists,

3. These various critical trends overlapped, however. Kuspit, as early as 1980,


argued for the social relevance of Abstract Expressionism and its fusion of the per-
sonal and political (Kuspit 1980). And all these critical trends are foreshadowed
20 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

especially Pollock, opens up alternative states of consciousness,


embodies the tensions of post-war America, and suggests a mode of
empowerment against alienation and conformity (Doss 1991, p. 350).
She claims that Greenberg and Rosenberg wanted to depoliticise the
avant-garde to safeguard it from what they feared to be the trivialis-
ing effects of mass culture, but that their objectives were not the same
as the Abstract Expressionists. Anfam has also pointed out that the
politics of the painters were never as simple, or as conservative, as
they were sometimes considered to be:
Few Abstract Expressionists began as doctrinaire radicals and those
nearest to that description like Smith and Reinhardt did not abandon
their socialist principles afterwards. Newman remained a lifelong anar-
chist, Still intensely anti-authoritarian, and Pollock, so far as it is
known, kept his youthful leftist views. None ever believed in ‘art for
art’s sake.’ What did burgeon during the late 1930s was a conviction
that meaning could be conveyed through the physical primacy of the
medium. (Anfam 1990, p. 55).
This retrieval of the politics of the Abstract Expressionists, then,
parallels critical discussion about O’Hara’s work. Throughout this
chapter I not only assert the political efficacy of O’Hara’s work but
theorise it more fully in terms of a personalised hyperpolitics which I
believe informs O’Hara’s work. This is a hybrid of a personalised pol-
itics, and a broader global politics (hyperpolitics) which interface with
each other. In its blend of the global and the personal the politics of
O’Hara’s poetry seem to me to differ from that of Ashbery or Koch
in the same period. Ashbery’s poems are notable for the fact that they
do not refer to named political events (though this does not necessar-
ily make them apolitical), while Koch’s satirical-political attacks (par-
ticularly evident in ‘Fresh Air’; Koch 1985, pp. 37–43), seem to be
more directed towards the literary establishment and academy.

Postmodernism, Positioning, Ethics


Important for situating O’Hara politically is an examination of the
relationship between postmodernism and politics. Postmodernism is
characterised by a critique of universalising and authoritarian politi-
cal and moral codes, though it is sometimes also complicitous with

by O’Hara’s own comment about the Abstract Expressionists: ‘Belief in their


personal and ethical responses saved them from estheticism on the one hand and
programmatic contortion on the other’ (O’Hara 1975, p. 69).
Resituating O’Hara 21

them. Important here is the postmodern redefinition of what it means


to be political, one which can incorporate cultural and political
change and contradiction. The concept of positioning, then, which
suggests a fluid stance – or even a set of stances – replaces the concept
of one fixed political position.
Also significant in postmodern political theory is the idea that the
loosening of ideological certainties allows for a more fluid subjectiv-
ity which can engage with the world in novel ways. Although
Jameson (1991) argues that the decentred postmodern subject has lost
the ability to map him or herself politically, other theorists suggest
that losing one’s bearings is a way of redrawing the political map.
Judith Butler proposes that the very fact that subjects are produced in
discourses which are contradictory and constantly changing means
that they can also reformulate those discourses: ‘Perhaps also part of
what dialogic understanding entails is the acceptance of divergence,
breakage, splinter, and fragmentation as part of the often tortuous
process of democratization’ (Butler 1990, p. 14).
Postmodernism has also redrawn the relationship between the per-
sonal and the political in a way which makes them more symbiotic,
resulting in the possibility of a personalised politics. Raymond
Williams’s concept of a ‘structure of feeling’ seems particularly applic-
able here as a concept which bridges the gap between the social and
the personal (Williams 1977). It is fascinating to see that O’Hara
actually uses the term ‘structure of feeling’ himself in discussing
Kline’s work: ‘The strokes and linear gestures of the painter’s arm
and shoulder are aimed at an ultimate structure of feeling rather than
at ideograph or writing’ (O’Hara 1975, pp. 47–48).
Discussing emergent changes in the social formation, Williams
argues that the notion of a structure of feeling deals with those ele-
ments of experience which are present and ‘in solution’ (Williams
1977, p. 133), without reducing them to fixed forms or the purely
institutional. But the expression ‘structure of feeling’ has a broader
application than simply monitoring the emotional climate of a
period; it is also used by Williams to characterise those elements of
feeling which have not yet been fully articulated because they are at
‘the very edge of semantic availability’ (Williams 1977, p. 134). In this
way a structure of feeling may be an index of wider patterns to
emerge in the social formation.
There is, however, no one structure of feeling. Williams also talks
about ‘structures of feeling’ just as we now refer to feminisms,
22 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

postmodernisms and masculinities. For, as Williams points out, the


social formation is itself extremely diverse and contains many inner
contradictions and counter-currents:
A lived hegemony is always a process. It is not, except analytically, a
system or a structure. It is a realized complex of experiences, relation-
ships, and activities, with specific and changing pressures and limits. In
practice, that is, hegemony can never be singular … We have then to
add to the concept of hegemony the concepts of counter-hegemony and
alternative hegemony, which are real and persistent elements of prac-
tice. (Williams 1977, pp. 112–13).
Also relevant to any consideration of a personalised hyperpolitics is
the role of ethics, since ethics and politics are inextricably related in
ways which link public and personal responsibility. Drawing a dis-
tinction between ethos and polis, Bernstein argues that the two are
intertwined:
Ethics is concerned with ethos, with those habits, customs and modes
of response that shape and define our praxis. Politics is concerned with
our public lives in the polis – with the communal bonds that at once
unite and separate us as citizens. The essential link between ethos and
polis is nomos. Although we can distinguish ethics and politics, they are
inseparable. For we cannot understand ethics without thinking through
our political commitments and responsibilities. And there is no under-
standing of politics that does not bring us back to ethics. (Bernstein
1991, p. 9).
The same question of positioning arises in postmodern ethics as it
does in postmodern politics. Jacques Derrida, confronting the question
of ethical issues, tries to negotiate the possibility of taking a sceptical
position which avoids the limitations and traps of dogmatism. It is sig-
nificant that Derrida uses the metaphor of gesturing (we can gesture with
two hands) to conjure up the complex superimposition of positions:
the difficulty is to gesture in opposite directions at the same time: on
the one hand to preserve a distance and suspicion with regard to the
official political codes governing reality; on the other, to intervene, here
and now in a practical and engaged manner whenever the necessity
arises. This position of dual allegiance, in which I personally find
myself, is one of perpetual uneasiness. (Bernstein 1991, p. 214).
Relevant here, too, is Tim Woods’s idea of an ethics of poetry as a
‘poetry of interruption’ (Woods 1996). Woods argues that an ethical
Resituating O’Hara 23

use of language can be seen as the attempt to empty oneself of an ego-


tistical subject position; to open oneself to other language uses; to
substitute oneself for another; to translate. I suggest that the idea of a
poetry of interruption is, paradoxically, the flipside of a hypertextual
poetry in which disparate ideas ‘intertwingle’. Wood’s concept of a
‘poetry of interruption’ perhaps foreshadows the notion of an ‘ethics
of hypertext’.
All these issues lead to, or intersect with, the broader question of
what a political poetry is, and in what way poetry can be political
given its tendency towards semantic complexity. For politics in poetry
(or art more generally) is not necessarily about reducible take-home
messages which exist as entities outside the poem itself. Any poem
therefore, though it implicitly encodes political attitudes, disrupts its
own political programme. Ross uses the concept of the ‘protopoliti-
cal’ to discuss O’Hara’s politics and to encapsulate the way in which
any poem exceeds a transparent political position:
Indeed most of the cultural texts we encounter are protopolitical – they
express an imaginary relation to real conditions of oppression or resis-
tance, a relation that is often difficult to read, not least because of its
contradictions, but more generally because it is expressed in a symbolic
form. Texts, in other words, speak more than they say, even where they
seem to be about ‘surface things’. (Ross 1990, p. 382).
Ross prefers the term protopolitical to the term ideological because
it implies that such texts can be positively influential and generative:
‘Protopolitical … suggests submerged activity, while ideological sug-
gests unremitting passivity; protopolitical suggests embryonic, or
future forms, while ideological suggests the oppressive weight of the
past extending into the present’ (Ross 1990, pp. 382–83).
Similarly, Geoff Ward engages in a very bracing discussion around
the issues of politics, art and individuality in which he suggests that
‘the concept of Postmodernism has tended to neglect the relative
independence of the particular painting or text, a sensation of which
accompanies even the most contextualised understanding’ (Ward
1993, p. 152). For Ward, Pollock’s ‘Shimmering Substance’, however
much it may recall other works, is also ‘distinctly itself, and not some
other painting’ (Ward 1993, p. 152). He argues (and I find myself in
broad agreement with him) that a new discourse for discussing the
political in art is required which does not reduce the artistic work to
a bland political message: ‘What is needed at this point in the debate
24 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

about Postmodernism is a vocabulary which can propose for art a crit-


ical edge and a moral dimension, without at once swerving into some
political master-narrative to which art can only play handmaiden’
(Ward 1993, p. 156).

Uptown and Downtown, Local and Global, Symbols and Surbols


The political basis of O’Hara’s hyperscapes arises out of the two con-
flicting faces of New York in the 1950s and early 1960s. On the one
hand is the uptown New York of post-war Fordist, Keynesian-based
economics (Harvey 1990; Mamiya 1992). This equates consumption
and consumerism with patriotism, and suppresses a violent undertow
of racial intolerance and homophobia within the liberal consensus
of the 1950s, which Andrew Ross refers to as ‘a kind of prepolitical
age’ (Ross 1990, p. 383). This consensus held that American capital-
ism could bring about social change; that economic growth was an
indisputably necessary goal; and that the USA was a classless society.
Furthermore, it used all these reasons as a way of avoiding real
change.
The consensus was largely endorsed by the intellectual community
which moved sharply to the right of politics:
In 1932 those who endorsed the Communist Party’s candidate for Pres-
ident of the United States included Ernest Hemingway, John Dos
Passos, James T. Farrell, Langston Hughes, Theodore Dreiser, Erskine
Caldwell, Lincoln Steffens, Richard Wright, Katherine Anne Porter,
Edmund Wilson, Nathanael West and Malcolm Cowley. Twenty years
later, scarcely an intellectual with a shred of reputation could be found
even to raise a voice against the outlawing of that same party. The
change is measured, too, by the trajectory, in hardly more than a
decade, of Partisan Review, the most admired highbrow periodical of
the time, from dutiful Stalinism through Trotskyite heresy to the bleak-
est Cold War anti-communist orthodoxy. (Hodgson 1978, p. 94).
In contrast to the consensus was the downtown oppositional ethos
of Greenwich village, home of the artists’ community. This was a
counter-site, or heterotopia, as Sally Banes – following Foucault – calls
it, characterised by avant-garde experimentation, sexual transgres-
sion, celebration of ‘the wisdom of the body’, and socialist politics,
which eventually erupted in the counter-culture of the 1960s of which
the beat movement was a part (Banes 1993). This oppositional ethos
arose partly as a result of the consensus which, paradoxically, was
contradictory and created discontent. Americans were encouraged to
Resituating O’Hara 25

be consensual but also to be individuals. Consequently, ‘it was impos-


sible to be both an authentic individual and a team player in postwar
America’ (Doss 1991, p. 337). The erosion of the New Deal reform
tradition, and the fact that domestic wealth was only maintained
through an aggressive policy of containment, also created disillusion-
ment. As Ross points out, the post-war consensus suppressed differ-
ences by seeming to encourage them: ‘For the easiest way to contain
potential antagonisms in society and legitimize the maintenance of
existing inequalities is to construct or create differences, in order to
signify pluralism, and thereby advertise social diversity’ (Ross 1989,
p. 56).
O’Hara’s poetry emerges from the intersection of the uptown and
downtown milieu, and both participates in, and maintains some dis-
tance from, each. He worked in uptown New York as an assistant
curator at the Museum of Modern Art but lived in Greenwich village.
As an employee of the MOMA (he was employed by Porter McCray
as part of the international programme) he was implicated in the
Establishment Cold War policy of pushing American art internation-
ally as a symbol of American values. In stark contrast, as a homosex-
ual he was part of a social group against which there was severe
discrimination. And as a writer, O’Hara was rejected by the literary
establishment but well recognised in his own circle. So O’Hara was
both integrated into, and outlawed by, the power structures of New
York society. His poetry engages sexual fluidity, racial difference, and
resistance to commodification, even as it participates in some aspects
of the status quo. Yet its campy surfaces and oblique political gestur-
ing make it distinct from the pot-smoking, mystical, politically polem-
ical stance of the Beats, particularly Ginsberg.
One of the outcomes of these warring attitudes – the liberal and the
transgressive – in O’Hara’s poetry is the ‘personalised politics’ which
pervades his work. This personalised politics is very different from
the blending of the political and personal in the work of Sylvia Plath.
In ‘Daddy’, for example, Plath inflates her own personal problems to
the status of the genocide of Jews in the Second World War.
An engine, an engine
Chuffing me off like a Jew.
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.
I began to talk like a Jew.
I think I may well be a Jew.
(Plath 1981, p. 223)
26 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

In contrast, the political is not subordinated to the personal in


O’Hara’s poetry in this way. Characterising O’Hara as ‘a man of
taste’, the very characteristic which trivialised him in the eyes of
former critics, Andrew Ross draws attention to the way everyday
choices in O’Hara’s work shape social attitudes. Ross goes on to argue
that this is all part of a ‘micropolitics’ in O’Hara’s work, a code of
detailed personal responsibility but one which is to be differentiated
from unfettered individualism.4

4. Ross says: ‘O’Hara’s poetry rejects the big, global questions of politics and eco-
nomics, even the big “artistic” questions of aesthetics. His is certainly not a
heroic poetics of self-reliance or self-making in the transcendent, Emersonian
tradition, nor does it make a pragmatic religion out of individualism, in the
American grain. Instead it subscribes to the micropolitics of personal detail,
faithfully noting down dates, times, events, feelings, moods, fears, and so on,
devoting a bricoleur’s disciplined attention to details in the world and in the
people around him. O’Hara’s is a code of personal politics, which says that at
some level you have to take responsibility for your own conduct in the everyday
world and towards others; you can’t rely on organized politics or unorganized
religions to change that. It is a code that starts from what we find lying,
unplanned, around us, rather than from achieved utopias of the body and mind.
In 1959, well before the coming riots of self-liberation, this was a mannered way
of saying take things into your own hands’ (Ross 1990, pp. 389–90).
Similarly, Geoff Ward says: ‘In general, the poems are insistently libertarian
precisely because of their basis in personal encounters, feelings, friendships and
tastes. If the poems do not finally succeed in the “attacks” they mount, that may
be a result not of the apolitical stance alleged by Ashbery, but of the social impo-
tence of poetry ab initio’ (Ward 1993, pp. 136–37). Here Ward is referring to
Ashbery’s ‘defence’ of O’Hara’s politics in a letter to Louis Simpson (Ashbery
1967). He upbraids Simpson for taking exception (in his article, ‘Dead Horse
and Live Issues’) to Ashbery’s remarks about the lack of explicit program in
O’Hara’s poetry. In response to Simpson Ashbery quotes from the article of his
own which he says Simpson has misrepresented. The quotation is as follows:
‘Frank O’Hara’s poetry has no program and therefore it cannot be joined. It does
not advocate sex and dope as a panacea for the ills of modern society; it does not
speak out against the war in Vietnam or in favour of civil rights; it does not paint
gothic vignettes of the post-atomic age; in a word it does not attack the estab-
lishment, it merely ignores its right to exist, and is thus a source of annoyance
to partisans of every stripe … it is not surprising that critics have found him
self-indulgent; his culte-du-moi is overpowering; his poems are all about him
and the people and images who wheel through his consciousness, and they seek
no further justification; “This is me and I’m poetry, Baby”, seem to be their mes-
sage, and unlike the message of committed poetry, it incites one to all the pro-
grams of commitment as well as to every other form of self-realisation:
interpersonal, dionysian, occult or abstract.’ After quoting this Ashbery goes on
to comment: ‘It should be evident from the foregoing that I am not “sneering at
Resituating O’Hara 27

Just as important, I would suggest, is the implied, but never fully


explicated, linkage between these personal details and the broader
global, historical and cultural spectrum, the hyperpolitics with which
they are continually juxtaposed. In this sense, perhaps even Ross
underestimates the extent to which O’Hara does take on the big
global issues, and the way in which his micropolitics points outwards
to the macrostructures of politics and history. It is perhaps what
O’Hara himself means when he talks of the work of the Abstract
Expressionists as ‘the traumatic consciousness of emergency and crisis
experienced as personal event, the artist assuming responsibility for
being, however accidentally, alive here and now’ (O’Hara 1975, p.
67). In fact, O’Hara’s poetry is as saturated with cultural and histori-
cal references as T. S. Eliot’s, and most of the poems interweave per-
sonal and political allusion. However, they do so by treating these
cultural references as slippery surfaces rather than in-depth symbols.
A good example of this is ‘Poem: Khrushchev is coming on the right
day!’ (O’Hara 1979, p. 340).
Khrushchev is coming on the right day!
the cool graced light
is pushed off the enormous glass piers by hard wind
and everything is tossing, hurrying on up
this country
has everything but politesse, a Puerto Rican cab driver says
and five different girls I see
look like Piedie Gimbel
with her blonde hair tossing too,
as she looked when I pushed
her little daughter on the swing on the lawn it was also windy
last night we went to a movie and came out,
Ionesco is greater
than Beckett, Vincent said, that’s what I think, blueberry blintzes
and Khrushchev was probably being carped at
in Washington, no politesse
Vincent tells me about his mother’s trip to Sweden
Hans tells us
about his father’s life in Sweden, it sounds like Grace Hartigan’s

the conscience of other poets” but praising Frank O’Hara for giving a unique
voice to his conscience, far more effective than most of the protest poetry being
written today … poetry is poetry. Protest is protest. I believe in both forms of
action.’
28 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

painting Sweden
so I go home to bed and names drift through my head
Purgatorio Merchado, Gerhard Schwartz and Gaspar Gonzales, all
unknown figures of the early morning as I go to work
where does the evil of the year go
when September takes New York
and turns it into ozone stalagmites
deposits of light
so I get back up
make coffee, and read François Villon, his life, so dark
New York seems blinding and my tie is blowing up the street
I wish it would blow off
though it is cold and somewhat warms my neck
as the train bears Khrushchev on to Pennsylvania Station
and the light seems to be eternal
and joy seems to be inexorable
I am foolish enough always to find it in wind
The allusions to Khrushchev’s arrival in New York are inserted in
a poem about a windy day in New York, ‘New York seems blinding and
my tie is blowing up the street/I wish it would blow off ’, one in which
the poet recalls fragments of conversations about European culture
and food. No single metaphor unifies the nodes of the poem, and their
juxtaposition is casual and apparently chaotic. Here the metaphor of
the hyperlink is illuminating: the poem juxtaposes disparate ideas
which are brought together into a constellation, and the link is one
forged partly by the reader who will construct the poem slightly dif-
ferently each time. The effect is to create a hyperscape in which the
Russian Prime Minister’s visit, ‘Khrushchev is coming on the right
day!’ is intertwined with allusions to New York daily life. These range
between food, ‘blueberry blintzes’; friendly intellectual fist-fighting:
‘Ionesco is greater/than Beckett, Vincent said’; personal revelation:
‘Hans tells us/about his father’s life in Sweden’; and friendships with
painters: ‘Grace Hartigan’s/painting Sweden’. In this hyperscape, Cold
War ideology, the possible winds of change that Khrushchev’s visit
indicates, and the irreducible historical influence of Europe on Ameri-
can culture are ‘intertwingled’ with personal irritations and pleasures,
the urban environment (at once both humanising and depersonalising)
and the weather. This raises, in a subtle way, questions of the extent of
the freedoms which American propaganda boasts, ‘this country/has
everything but politesse, a Puerto Rican cab driver says’.
Resituating O’Hara 29

Reading the poem in this way, however, we can see how the objects
and events hover between surface and symbol. They are not just
surfaces which turn out to be symbols after all, rather, their status is
undecidable. As such we might call them surbols. Much critical
mileage has been made in the past of the idea that the O’Hara poem
consists of surfaces which do not point beyond themselves. For exam-
ple, Charles Molesworth says, ‘O’Hara flattens his words into a scrap
heap of nonsyntactical, nondiscursive fragments that can do little
beyond record – or reify – a world of objects and objectified sensa-
tions’ (Molesworth 1990, p. 222). However, this view of the surface
as only a surface (perhaps necessary in early O’Hara criticism to
distinguish him from more symbolic writers) now seems somewhat
inadequate.
Surbols are an important feature, not only of O’Hara’s poetry, but
of that of the other New York School poets. Both Kenneth Koch
(Tranter 1985) and Bill Berkson, in interview with me (Berkson
1986b), suggested that an attraction to surface was a main distin-
guishing feature of the group.5 However surface is itself a slippery
concept – it automatically suggests something underneath. The New
York Poets adopted an ambiguous position whereby they denied there
was anything beyond surface, and at the same time, turned the surface
into a kind of depth. In practice a surface was different from a symbol
because it did not stand for a particular emotion or idea, but it
inevitably carried resonances beyond itself. The concept of surface

5. Berkson said: ‘A few years ago I hit on this sort of rule about the New York
School. There was this insistence on energetic surface and it’s hard to talk about
surface but the rule I ended up with was, surface is the great revealer. Surface is
where you really find anything, and anybody who is trying to tell you “here I am
and deep inside me is all this other stuff ” really the sensible thing is to say forget
it’ (Berkson 1986b).
Similarly Koch has said: ‘I’d say some things our poetry had in common were
that we were all interested in the surface of the language and in the language
being lively. We were certainly interested in using, at least part of the time, a
spoken language. We were all interested in the allusiveness that we found in
Pound and Eliot, but not so much in the historical accuracy of our allusions –
more in the atmosphere of having a whole lot of things there at once. At least I
know I was. And the excitement that one got from that. We knew French poetry,
particularly the modern tradition starting with Baudelaire. And there were other
poets we read with enthusiasm: Mayakovsky and Pasternak in translation,
Lorca, Rilke – particularly the Duino Elegies – and a whole lot of French poets:
Reverdy, Perse, Michaux. Paul Eluard I liked a good deal, I don’t know if my
friends did’ (Tranter 1985, p. 178).
30 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

was very non-specific and included the concrete and the abstract. It
ranged from the quotidian surfaces of O’Hara’s ‘I do this I do that’
poems to the much more abstracted surfaces of Ashbery’s early poems
or O’Hara’s ‘Second Avenue’.
The preceding discussion, then, has argued for the political efficacy
of O’Hara’s poetry as a preliminary to the discussion of the hyper-
scape in Chapter 2. Next I wish to draw attention to the role of
consumer society and race relations in O’Hara’s work, both to under-
pin my argument that O’Hara’s poetry inscribes attitudes which have
contemporary political relevance, and to prepare for further discus-
sion of the hyperscape.

The Consumer Writes Back


O’Hara’s hyperscapes feed on both popular culture and high art, and
are economically ambivalent, since consumerism both propels and
limits the postmodern landscape. O’Hara’s poems were written
during the Fordist post-war era which was strongly influenced by Key-
nesian economics based on consumption rather than production.
Keynesian economics work from the assumption that the gross
national product and employment are determined by spending, so
consumption has to be stimulated. Fordism was, therefore, grounded
in the idea that workers should be given enough leisure time and
money to also consume. During the 1950s consumerism soared,
along with the mass consumption of services and goods and the
growth of recreational activities. The government disseminated the
idea that consumption was patriotic and, fuelling a national obsession
with material wealth, ideologically pitted American affluence against
communism (Chafe 1986, pp. 117–22).
Fordism also had a less benign face. Although unions had some
power and the state intervened in social security, education, health
care and housing, workers had to put in long hours of automated
labour with no say in the design of the product or opportunities to use
traditional skills. In addition, Fordism produced social inequalities.
Wage bargaining was limited to sectors of the economy where
demand could be matched by heavy investment in mass-production
technologies. This created employment inequities, exacerbated by
racial, gender and ethnic differences. Many were therefore not afflu-
ent enough to take advantage of the benefits of the consumer society,
and this created widespread unrest (Harvey 1990, pp. 125–40). As
Mamiya points out, consumption extends beyond issues of money to
Resituating O’Hara 31

issues of power and the distribution of wealth, since ‘as consumption


increases, so, too, do profits’ (Mamiya 1992, p. 4).
O’Hara’s poems might sometimes seem to be uncritical representa-
tions of a consumer society but their relationship to consumerism is
‘double-coded’. The celebratory allusions to shopping, fast food and
mass media are often accompanied by an undertow of sadness which
suggests that material goods do not ultimately satisfy, or allay, loneli-
ness. In ‘Music’ it is ‘so meaningless to eat’, and the ‘terribly late’
opening hours of the stores before Christmas seem oppressive
(O’Hara 1979, p. 210). Similarly, In ‘The Day Lady Died’ (O’Hara
1979, p. 325), the shopping trip induces sleepiness from ‘quandari-
ness’, and it is the memory of the singing of Billie Holiday which is
really meaningful:
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 on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness
and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it
As Andrew Ross says, the last stanza suggests ‘that there are some
cultural experiences that are literally priceless’ (Ross 1989, p. 66).
At the same time, the poet does not adopt a typically anti-
consumerist stance. The poems are ambivalent on the issue of
consumerism, but partly foreshadow the more pro-consumerist
stance prominent amongst cultural theorists in the 1990s. This stance
(which rebuts the Marxist critique of commodity fetishism) is that
consumerism is not necessarily psychologically and socially wasteful,
32 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

but can instead be creative, active and generative.6 For in O’Hara’s


work everyday objects (which include consumer goods) can become
what Iain Chambers calls ‘sites of meaning’ (Chambers 1993, p. 194).
Here Chambers is arguing against the Marxist and Baudrillardian cri-
tique of the sign, and the idea that ‘surfaces and appearances are
simply the deceptive, seductive and mystifying manifestations of an
underlying reality: the alienation of the human condition’ (Chambers
1993, p. 194). Similarly, the presents which the poet buys for his
friends in ‘The Day Lady Died’ are tokens of his affection for them.
The poems, then, emphasise how immersion in the quotidian, what
Mike Featherstone calls ‘the aestheticisation of everyday things’, can
be a way of opening up, sensually and emotionally. This immersion in
everyday objects, Featherstone argues, is characteristic of postmod-
ernism.7 Rather than blunting sensibility, surfaces can become sites of
meaning which are also multi-layered. Featherstone claims that the
raising of trivial objects to the status of art – the celebration of the
quotidian – involves de-distantiation:8 ‘the capacity to develop a
de-control of the emotions, to open oneself up to the full range of
sensations available which the object can summon up’ (Featherstone
1992, p. 275). This seems to have considerable relevance to O’Hara’s
poetry. In ‘A Step Away from Them’ (O’Hara 1979, pp. 257–58), for
example, the responsiveness to mundane details in the immediate
environment, such as the lady in foxes, the negro standing in the
doorway, and the labourers drinking Coca-Cola, induces an elegiac
meditation on the value and meaning of individual lives:

6. Peter Jackson argues that consumption is too often conceptualised in narrow


terms as a momentary act of purchase. Jackson refers to Dick Hebdige’s idea that
consumption has been conceived through notions of passivity and waste, diges-
tion and disappearance. Hebdige stresses the way commodified objects move
between different stages of design and production into use where they are
‘appropriated, transformed (and) adapted’: this is a multi-faceted, ‘multi-accen-
tual’ process (Jackson 1993, p. 211).
7. Here Featherstone invokes Scott Lash’s argument (Lash 1998) that postmod-
ernism is orientated towrd the figural, that is, ‘primary processes (desire) rather
than secondary (the ego); images rather than words; the immersion of the spec-
tator and investment of desire in the object as opposed to the maintenance of
distance’ (Featherstone 1992, p. 272).
8. In his discussion, Featherstone refers to the concept of de-differentiation in the
work of Lash. This favours ‘the de-auraticization of art, and an aesthetics of
desire, sensation and immediacy’ (Featherstone 1992, p. 272), and reverses the
differentiation of aesthetic forms from the real world favoured by Weber and
Habermas.
Resituating O’Hara 33

First
Bunny died, then John Latouche,
then Jackson Pollock. But is the
earth as full as life was full, of them?
The ambiguous celebration of consumerism in O’Hara’s work
relates his poetry to the emergence of pop art as a counter-aesthetic
discussed in Chapter 6, and also to debates in the 1950s about mass
culture. On the one hand, intellectuals espousing liberal pluralism
were eager to purge themselves of Marxist ideology which, in the
early 1930s, had included the idea that popular culture was a means
to educate the masses. Clement Greenberg, for example, seeking to
defend high art from mass culture, argued that kitsch induced a pas-
sive, unthinking and shallow response. On the other hand, liberals,
such as David Riesman, saw popular culture as having beneficial
effects because linked to a capitalist culture which they endorsed.
Nevertheless, there were limits to their enthusiasm: popular culture
had to be contained at acceptable levels (Ross 1989, p. 54).9
O’Hara’s embrace of popular culture, consumerist culture and the
quotidian can therefore, in some respects, be seen to be linked to the
liberal consensus. But it also anticipates the attitudes of the 1980s and
1990s, for example de Certeau’s suggestion that the public can use
the spaces and products of everyday life in a creative, even subversive
way (de Certeau 1984). Yet high art in O’Hara’s work is never super-
seded by popular culture. Rather it interfaces with it, sometimes, as in
‘To The Film Industry in Crisis’ (O’Hara 1979, pp. 232–33), in an
ironic, parodic way. O’Hara straddles the divide between high and
low culture in his multi-directional travels through the hyperscape,
but he does not ultimately privilege popular culture over high art:
consumption in ‘The Day Lady Died’ (O’Hara 1979, p. 325) leads to
the purchase of literary texts.

Race, Performativity, Difference


In Chapter 2 we will see how the hyperscape is marked by racial and
sexual difference. Here I want to show how O’Hara’s attitude to racial

9. The central metaphor in these debates, Ross argues, was sickness. They were
‘conducted in a discursive climate that linked social, cultural, and political dif-
ference to disease’ (Ross 1989, p. 43), and were associated with ‘the Cold War
culture of germophobia’ in which ‘fears about the failure of the national immune
system ran strong.’ (Ross 1989, p. 45).
34 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

difference is marked by contradictions symptomatic of the period.


Racism itself was, of course, a huge problem, but those who defended
black equality often adopted views that were implicitly racist or, at the
very least, insensitive to racial difference. The liberal view that assim-
ilation was the solution to racial conflict denied the unassimilable
differences between black and white culture, and could only mean the
subordination of black culture to Western values. On the other hand,
the more radical hipster celebration of black culture, in particular of
the black jazz musician, often resulted in a romanticisation of black
culture which stereotyped the black body as closer to nature, unin-
hibited and sexual: Banes calls this ‘essentialist positive primitivism’
(Banes 1993, p. 206). These two stances converge in Mailer’s concept
of the white negro, the white man who could become a black man,
despite his skin colour (Mailer 1981, pp. 294–300).
Both these stances are marred by racial reductiveness. The first
denies difference, while the second stereotypes it. As Homi Bhabha
says:
What is denied is any knowledge of cultural otherness as a differential
sign, implicated in specific historical and discursive conditions, requir-
ing construction in different practices or reading. The place of other-
ness is fixed in the west as a subversion of western metaphysics and is
finally appropriated by the west as its limit-text, anti-west. (Bhabha
1990, p. 73).
A regard for difference is needed, then, which is not based on same-
ness so that the other is subordinated in terms of an uncontrollable,
diseased or aberrant body and inferior intellectual ability. Yet the
difference produced by a black essentialist position can produce a
polarisation which is also dependent on stereotypes and is locked in
rigid binary oppositions. A way out of this problem can be found in
postmodern critiques of essentialism which, bell hooks argues, ‘chal-
lenge notions of universality and static over-determined identity
within mass culture and mass consciousness (and) can open up new
possibilities for the construction of self and the assertion of agency’
(hooks 1991, p. 28). On the other hand, to insist on identity as
absolute difference would erode the basis of a stable political identity.
Steering a path between the two extremes of absolute sameness and
absolute difference, hooks suggests combining a critique of essential-
ism with ‘the authority of experience’ (hooks 1991, p. 29). She points
out that, ‘There is a radical difference between a repudiation of the
Resituating O’Hara 35

idea that there is a black “essence” and recognition of the way black
identity has been specifically constituted in the experience of exile
and struggle’ (hooks 1991, p. 29). Through such critiques it becomes
more obvious how black identity is lived out in multiple, diverse ways
(hooks 1991, p. 29).
Sensitivity to racial difference is present in O’Hara’s poetry, but
it is also difficult to disentangle from some racist stereotyping typical
of the period. This complex mix of attitudes is reflected in the differ-
ent stances critics take towards O’Hara on race. Geoff Ward, as
mentioned earlier, sees a favourable attitude to ‘black style and
self-expression’ in the poems (Ward 1993, p. 136). On the other
hand, Aldon Nielsen finds O’Hara is guilty of both primitivism and
exoticism, and accuses the poet of ‘wholesale adoption’ of racial
stereotypes, though he concedes that O’Hara is less stereotypical
when dealing with individuals he knows or whose work he has read
(Nielsen 1988, pp. 156–57).
Nielsen’s allegations certainly have some credence since the poems
sometimes gesture in a stereotypical manner. Particularly glaring, as
Nielsen points out, is the way a black skin seems to be associated with
a rampant mega-sexuality. This is blatant in such lines in ‘Easter’ as ‘O
sins of sex and kisses of birds at the end of the penis/cry of a black
princess whose mouth founders in the Sun’ and ‘Black bastard black
prick black pirate whose cheek/batters the heavenly heart’ (O’Hara
1979, pp. 98–99). However, Neilsen does not seem entirely at home
in the genre of the surrealist poem which he treats it as if it were
linear, sequential and syntactical. If the poem is read through the anti-
conventions of the surrealist poem, however, the penis and black
princess can be viewed as not necessarily logically connected.
Similarly, Nielsen often interprets passages in ways which underes-
timate their multi-dimensionality. When O’Hara in ‘Answer to Voz-
nesensky and Evtushenko’ talks of ‘our Negro selves’ (O’Hara 1979,
p. 468), Nielsen takes this to mean that he is claiming a black identity
for himself, but here ‘our’ could be seen to refer more generally to
America as a nation. He also asserts, in response to the line ‘race
which is the poetic ground on which we rear our smiles’ (in ‘Ode:
Salute to the French Negro Poets’; O’Hara 1979, p. 305), that it is ‘as
if O’Hara were seeking some white equivalent of Cesaire’s poetics of
“negritude,” forgetting for the moment that negritude arises in his-
tory in response to the white man’s having first declared it as an orga-
nizing principle’ (Nielsen 1988, p. 157). But Nielsen has taken this
36 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

line out of context since it is preceded by the line, ‘for if there is for-
tuity it’s in the love we bear each other’s differences’.
Nielsen’s discussion of race in O’Hara’s work is important for the
issues that it raises, and because it reminds us of the lack of sensitiv-
ity towards racial difference which characterised the period in which
O’Hara was writing. But O’Hara’s attitude to race in these passages
is more complex than Nielsen allows, since it comprises a non-
essentialist concept of race. Here racial identity is performative – that
is it is a cultural construct reinforced by repeated role-play, rather
than a matter of skin colour – and ‘cultural identity … is a matter of
“becoming” as well as of “being”’ (Hall 1994, p. 394). Of course, the
concept of race as performative is itself ideologically loaded and, if
used to suggest that white people are able to successfully perform a
black identity, can be a racist way of effacing racial difference. How-
ever, the value of performativity in this context is that it undercuts the
stereotype, because the stereotype is fixed and static, while perfor-
mance can vary widely.10
The concept of performativity, then, is important for an under-
standing of O’Hara’s racial attitudes because it allows for greater flex-
ibility in how we conceive racial identity. In ‘Day and Night in 1952’;
(O’Hara 1979, pp. 93–95), the allusion to ‘kissy people who are
of/the darker race’ could be seen as racist stereotyping, but is imme-
diately followed by a suggestion that racial identity is relative rather
than fixed:
Did I say Dark? of
what comparative device may I avail myself of
pretending to be the Queen of Africa and of
Suez.
This performativity is different from the unproblematic assertion of
black identity by a white man, which Nielsen sees as symptomatic of
racism in O’Hara. O’Hara does not talk of being a black man but of
inhabiting or availing himself of darkness, ‘the darkness I inhabit in the
midst of sterile millions’ (‘Ode: Salute to The French Negro Poets’;
O’Hara, 1979 p. 305). These allusions suggest a changing and indefinite
relationship to racial identity which is distinct from racist subjugation.
That O’Hara is not unaware of the dangers of racial essentialism is
born out by the way he tends to debunk it in others. In ‘Answer to

10. The concept of performativity is discussed more extensively in Chapter 5.


Resituating O’Hara 37

Voznesensky and Evtushenko’; (O’Hara 1979, p. 468), railing at the


poets for ‘your dreary tourist ideas of our Negro selves’ and ‘the obvi-
ousness/of your colour sense’, he satirises romanticised, and ulti-
mately denigrating, notions of race as colour. He again suggests that
race is performative, ironising the way the poets ‘insist on race’.
Racist stereotyping does rear its head again in the image of ‘the
strange black cock’, but there is some ambiguity about whether this
reflects the poet’s own attitude or his perception of the stance of the
Russian poets.
Racial identity is also fundamental to European and American colo-
nialism which O’Hara heavily satirises. In ‘The Image of The Buddha
Preaching’ (O’Hara 1979, p. 323), he sends up the colonialist–
capitalist attitudes in which the Indian ambassador is caught and
which he replicates.
I am very happy to be here at the Villa Hügel
and Prime Minister Nehru has asked me to greet the people of Essen
and to tell you how powerfully affected we in India
have been by Germany’s philosophy, traditions and mythology
though our lucidity and our concentration on archetypes
puts us in a class by ourself
Similarly, ‘A Terrestrial Cuckoo’; (O’Hara 1979, pp. 62–63), satirises
the white tourism in which the poet and his companion are engaged:
‘What will the savages/think if our friends turn up? with/sunglasses
and cuneiform decoders!’
O’Hara treads a fine line, then, between invoking and undercutting
primitivist essentialism, and this is apparent in ‘The Day Lady Died’;
(O’Hara 1979, p. 325; quoted above). This might seem a stereotypi-
cal tribute to the soulful black singer, but the title is double-edged –
since ‘lady’ is Billie Holiday’s pet name it could also signify the day
that public images of her die. Andrew Ross makes the point, also
raised by Larry Rivers in conversation with me (Rivers 1986), that
O’Hara was not a strong jazz enthusiast. Ross likes to read the end of
the poem as ‘an ironic, even parodic, gloss on the stereotyped Beat
devotee of the more “authentic” world of jazz culture’ (Ross 1989,
p. 67). Blasing does not ‘detect such a note’, but ‘want(s) to believe
that O’Hara’s consciousness of his cultural complicity absolves him of
romanticized racism’. She argues that O’Hara portrays himself in the
poem ‘as a discriminating consumer of tokens of cultural outsiders’
(Blasing 1995, p. 50). In a sense this is a non-issue for me because I
38 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

do not particularly find the passage a romanticisation of the black


singer (whispering is not a racial stereotype). Rather, I see another
form of romanticisation at work here – the romanticisation of the
artist-as-performer – in the assumption that there can be unmediated
communication in performance.
Despite some stereotypical allusions, then, O’Hara’s poetry is per-
meated by a strong regard for racial difference. When, in ‘Ode: Salute
to the French Negro Poets’; (O’Hara 1979, p. 305), the poet says:
for if there is fortuity it’s in the love we bear each other’s differences
in race which is the poetic ground on which we rear our smiles
he is asserting that recognition of difference creates mutual respect.
Our identities cannot, and must not, be reduced to the colour of our
skins, or to racial stereotypes such as ‘cool jazz’, hence ‘dying in black
and white we fight for what we love, not are’.11

Ethical Gymnastics
Until now I have been discussing a form of hyperpolitics, the politics of
the hyperscape. But in considering O’Hara’s poetry, and its particular
brand of personalised hyperpolitics, it is probably useful to think in terms
of ethics as much as the purely political. Certainly some of O’Hara’s
most transgressive poems are concerned with directly challenging
ethical norms. As such, these poems form part of a gay ethic which harks
back to the work of Oscar Wilde. In them perversion is employed as a
way of debunking the ethical basis of a society which privileges white
heterosexual activity and the seriousness of high art. This is related to
O’Hara’s sexuality, which will be discussed in Chapter 4.
Some of O’Hara’s poems are a deliberate ‘take’ on ethical questions
and are highly transgressive. More generally, O’Hara’s tendency

11. Debates about race in O’Hara’s work bear some similarity to those surrounding
the work of Gertrude Stein. Writing about Stein’s work, critic Lorna Stedman
suggests that signifiers to do with race are the signifiers which most resist word-
play. Such signifiers, she argues, carry with them a huge amount of racist baggage
which can never be fully expunged from them (Smedman 1996). This is partic-
ularly true of the word ‘nigger’ which has historically been the focal point of
American racist ideology. She says that ‘the word “nigger” can be read as a focal
point … where the materiality of the word is suddenly grounded in the materi-
ality of the body’ (Smedman 1996, p. 578). The converse view is that it depends
how the word is used (for example, it might be used satirically or ironically, or
in such a way that it deconstructs its own meaning).
Resituating O’Hara 39

towards inversion, humour, parody and surface make Oscar Wilde


seem, in some respects, a precursor, an impression reinforced by
Jonathan Dollimore’s work on Wilde. Dollimore argues that Wilde’s
satirical reversals have profound ethical consequences: turning round
a binary opposition is never just a mere reversal, but abuts on a much
wider cultural context, encouraging types of behaviour which are
normally repressed and disrupting those that are conventionally
accepted (Dollimore 1991, p. 66). He also draws attention to Wilde’s
tendency to satirise the society from the inside:
the outlaw turns up as inlaw, and the other as proximate proves more
disturbing than the other as absolute difference. That which society for-
bids, Wilde reinstates through and within some of its most cherished
and cultural categories – art, the aesthetic, art criticism, individualism.
At the same time as he appropriates those categories he also transvalues
them through perversion and inversion, thus making them now signify
those binary exclusions … by which the dominant culture knows itself
(thus abnormality is not just the opposite, but the necessarily always
present antithesis of normality). (Dollimore 1991, p. 15).
O’Hara’s ‘manifestos’ exhibit a similar inversion of values to
Wilde’s as he disclaims the role of moral/ethical seer for the poet. In
‘Statement for The New American Poetry’ (O’Hara 1979, p. 500), he
refuses to be concerned about ‘bettering (other than accidentally)
anyone’s state or social relation’. And in ‘Personism: A Manifesto’
(O’Hara 1979, pp. 498–99), he sends up the whole idea of literature
as a form of moral guidance:
But how can you really care if anybody gets it, or gets what it means, or
if it improves them. Improves them for what? For death? Why hurry
them along? Too many poets act like a middle-aged mother trying to get
her kids to eat too much cooked meat, and potatoes with drippings
(tears). I don’t give a damn whether they eat or not. Forced feeding
leads to excessive thinness (effete). Nobody should experience anything
they don’t need to, if they don’t need poetry bully for them. (O’Hara
1979, p. 498).
Elsewhere he implies that political impotence is an advantage in the
production of art: ‘No American committee of writers is going to get
anyone out of jail. Few Americans consider a great artist a source of
national pride, and certainly the government is not going to reward
him. This is all a great advantage which has been put to use’ (O’Hara
1983b, p. 97).
40 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

In O’Hara’s poetry, inversion sometimes arises in the form of a spe-


cious argument supporting an act which society sees as immoral. But
(as in Wilde’s case) the poet speaks from the position of an insider
who seems to be at ease in that society. In ‘Ave Maria’ (O’Hara 1979,
pp. 371–72), he chooses a highly controversial topic, paedophilia,
which would have been even more taboo in the 1950s than it is now.
This poem suggests that the movies are good for children and that
they may even benefit from being picked up in the cinema. It con-
structs a pseudo-argument round perverse connections (the fact that
a movie is good for a child does not necessarily mean that a sexual
encounter in the cinema would be, or that the two should be corre-
lated). It also depicts a potentially casual sexual experience with an
adult as harmless and pleasant, and suppresses any notion that it
might be exploitative and abusive. Urging parents to let their children
go to the movies, the poem ‘argues’:

they may even be grateful to you


for their first sexual experience
which only cost you a quarter
and didn’t upset the peaceful home
they will know where candy bars come from
and gratuitous bags of popcorn
as gratuitous as leaving the movie before it’s over
with a pleasant stranger whose apartment is in the Heaven on Earth Bldg
near the Williamsburg Bridge
oh mothers you will have made the little tykes
so happy because if nobody does pick them up in the movies
they won’t know the difference
and if somebody does it’ll be sheer gravy
and they’ll have been truly entertained either way
instead of hanging around the yard
or up in their room
‘Ave Maria’ (O’Hara 1979, p. 372).

Here O’Hara really is gesturing (à la Derrida) in more than one


direction at once. One way of reading the poem is as a warning to par-
ents about what will happen to their children if they do send them to
the movies. At the same time the poet is making light of potentially
abusive and exploitative adult behaviour. He is also severely chal-
lenging ethical norms by suggesting that if the children are picked up
this may result in an entertaining, even useful, sexual initiation for
Resituating O’Hara 41

them. And he is also raising, facetiously, the whole issue of the respon-
sibility that parents have to their children and how far they should
regulate their behaviour. He implies that parents often have ulterior
motives in whether or not they give the children freedom, ‘get them
out of the house so they won’t know what you’re up to’ and per-
versely raises the rights of children who are entitled to ‘dark joys’.
Throughout the poem, O’Hara works from the position of outlaw
as inlaw (all he is doing, the poem seems to say, is suggesting a cosy
afternoon at the movies), but this masks a challenge to conventionally
accepted norms in child–adult relationships. This is a highly trans-
gressive move which undercuts conventional liberal attitudes.

Modernist Experimentalism or Postmodernist Pastiche?


The New York poets both perceived themselves, and were perceived
by others, as a literary avant-garde which ran parallel to the avant-
garde of Abstract Expressionism and set itself up in opposition to the
traditional and academic poetry of the 1950s. The New York poets
have many of the credentials for an avant-garde – they were formally
experimental, they had group status, they resisted the current ideas of
what poetry should be like, and they encountered heavy resistance to
their work (Lehman 1998, p. 289). However, in their work modernist
experimentation goes hand in hand with a cannibalisation of past
styles, and this is particularly pronounced in O’Hara’s hyperscapes.
Until recently critics tended to regard O’Hara as part of the experi-
mental avant-garde, but more recent criticism has emphasised his
poetry’s postmodern eclecticism. My own view is that O’Hara’s
poetry is highly eclectic, drawing on numerous different styles of
writing, but that it is also innovative in pushing these forms beyond
their apparent limits.12 An important concept here is that of the post-
modern avant-garde.
This immediately begs the question of where his work lies in rela-
tion to postmodernist culture. In discussing this we need to consider
one of the major characteristics of postmodernism, its tendency to be

12. While O’Hara seems to have been interested in breaking new ground, he was also
wary of avant-garde posturing. Of Kline he says that he ‘was never consciously
avant-garde. He had none of the polemical anxiety which must establish itself for
a movement or style and against any or all others’ (O’Hara 1975, p. 45).
42 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

eclectic and to draw on past styles, most notably in architecture. The


issue is somewhat complicated by the fact that a certain type of
avant-garde writing is itself now frozen into a set of conventions
which can themselves be cannibalised. But the main question is
whether postmodernism still allows for technical innovation, or
whether postmodernism constitutes the dead-end point of innova-
tion, the point at which there are no new further technical possibili-
ties. I consider that innovation has been, and still is, possible, though
this often involves considerable technical changes, for example,
through the adoption of new technologies. The position of critics
such as Peter Bürger and Fredric Jameson, on the other hand, is that
postmodernism is a reaction against modernist experimentation and
is heavily parasitic on past styles. For them the concept of the avant-
garde is dead.13
Taking a position which is congruent with my own, Nicholas Zur-
brugg argues that an avant-garde still exists in the sense of work
which is technically original, and he brings together the postmodern
and the avant-garde in the term ‘postmodern avant-garde’ (Zurbrugg
1988). However, such work mainly takes the form of multimedia or
performance, and/or is technologically based. Work can also be inno-
vative in terms of conceptual shifts which ‘generally simplify, amplify,
or systematize the formal innovations of Modernism’ (Zurbrugg
1988, p. 65). This category of a conceptual shift is important because
it allows us to distinguish between, for example, two types of linguis-
tic experimentation: that which merely apes the experiments of
the modernist avant-garde, and that which builds on modernist
experimentation. According to Zurbrugg, discernible conceptual or
technological shifts do constitute forms of innovation, but this is
often not fully recognised by some cultural theorists who bury new
endeavours with an antiquated intellectual framework which will not
allow them to see anything as artistically innovative. Instead, Zur-
brugg suggests, they should be formulating new categories to deal

13. Other critics posit the coexistence of modernist and postmodernist characteris-
tics. Charles Jencks, for example, proposes that modernism and postmodernism
are ‘double-coded’. Huyssen contends that in the 1960s postmodernists were
rebelling not so much against modernism but against a particular type of high
modernism which had become part of the liberal consensus. In fact, he posits,
the avant-garde had always tried to merge art and life in a way which was
contrary to modernist ideals of the autonomy of the work of art and the special
status of the aesthetic (Huyssen 1986, pp. 188–95).
Resituating O’Hara 43

with cultural innovation. In other words, formal innovation has not


ceased to exist and postmodernism is not inhospitable to it.
An important point which arises out of Zurbrugg’s analysis is
that new technical means of making artworks are always appearing,
and this is more true in the contemporary technological era than
ever before. This means that formal innovation is still possible. Such
innovation has never been absolute in any era because there are
always precedents for any new-seeming development: for instance,
the concrete poetry of the 1950s and 1960s has precursors in
medieval pattern poems. But there can always be an adaptation or
transformation of any established style which is innovative. Postmod-
ernism foregrounds this by an appropriation of past styles, sometimes
in a parodic way, but that does not mean that it never utilises new
technical means.
Although the web-like associations of O’Hara’s poetry anticipate
the forms of hypertext, O’Hara was writing in the 1950s and 1960s
before the current burst of technological experiment. But I would
argue that linguistic experimentation in his work does extend, rather
than simply replicate, modernist experimentation – it shows the
conceptual shifts which Zurbrugg talks about. Chronological devel-
opment in O’Hara’s work is also important in this respect because he
becomes less modernist and more postmodern as his work progresses:
a work such as ‘Second Avenue’ is more influenced by modernist
experimentation than the middle period odes, or walk poems, or
poems of the late ‘Biotherm’ period. Furthermore, the conjunction of
oral and literary – and the verbal and visual – converts these into new
dimensions for writing and foreshadows some of the hybrid aspects
of the postmodern avant-garde (performance and multimedia instal-
lations). For O’Hara all the arts are interdependent, and he had a
considerable interest in enlarging the literary through contact with
the other arts. However, O’Hara mainly creates new possibilities by
extending established forms. In many of his poems he takes a well-
known genre such as the occasional poem, the pastoral, the lyric, or
the surreal poem, and rewrites it, often with a high element of parody
which comically distances the poem from the original.14 He also

14. Hutcheon argues that parody is central to postmodernism: ‘Parody … contests


our human assumptions about artistic originality and uniqueness and our capi-
talist notions of ownership and property. With parody – as with any form of
reproduction – the notion of the original as rare, single, and valuable (in aes-
thetic or commercial terms) is called into question. This does not mean that art
44 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

sometimes consciously writes back to modernist writers such as


Stevens and Williams. It is not my purpose here to discuss the way in
which these forms are appropriated and transformed, but some of the
mechanisms by which this occurs are extensively discussed in Chap-
ter 3. In addition, other less established genres are developed or
inverted by O’Hara. One example is the genre of the walk poem
which Roger Gilbert argues to be a distinct and contemporarily rele-
vant genre with historical precursors in the work of Spenser,
Wordsworth, Clare and others (Gilbert 1991). But the genre is
urbanised and consumerised by O’Hara, who metonymises the
metaphorical organic style of the romantic landscape poem through
the time frame of the lunch-hour walk.
John Lowney is most effective in situating O’Hara’s work in rela-
tion to postmodernist appropriation and the modernist avant-garde
(Lowney 1991). As a starting point for his argument Lowney takes
Jameson’s premise that postmodernist art is imprisoned in the past
and therefore dependent on pastiche. Lowney suggests that
‘Jameson’s formulation accurately describes the play of allusion and
quotation on the textual surface of a writer like O’Hara’ (Lowney
1991, p. 247), but modifies this in two ways. First, he claims that
O’Hara’s writing represents less a sense of being locked in the past
than a recognition that history is only available through representa-
tion. Secondly, he points out that postmodernist practices often retain
the avant-garde oppositional impulse while rejecting formalist
notions of textual autonomy. This oppositional impulse is in fact less
necessary because post-war American capitalism encourages (though
it also contains) opposition in the market-place. Of greater signifi-
cance is how a writer situates himself with regard to the past by mod-
ifying modernist innovation. Lowney argues that O’Hara’s poetry
invokes a ‘non-destructive, non-adversarial attitude to the past’
(Lowney 1991, p. 253), which combines modernist technique with
popular culture. Lowney’s essay is particularly significant for the way
in which it stresses O’Hara’s historical awareness. This manifests
itself, he argues, in terms of his ‘general project of rewriting modern
literary history’ (Lowney 1991, p. 248). But Lowney, drawing on

has lost its meaning and purpose, but that it will inevitably have a new and dif-
ferent significance. In other words, parody works to foreground the politics of
representation.’ Hutcheon maintains that in postmodern discourse the terms
parody, ironic quotation, pastiche, appropriation and intertextuality are often
used interchangeably (Hutcheon 1989, pp. 93–94).
Resituating O’Hara 45

both O’Hara’s art criticism and the poetry, also contends that O’Hara
believed in combining the aesthetic and social in a way which dis-
tances him from the modernist position of the autonomy of art
(Lowney 1991, p. 251).
It is probably also useful here to stress the importance of the comic
aspect of parody in O’Hara’s work, this being one of the ways in
which he ‘rewrites modern literary history’ but at the same time
ironises it. Jameson argues that in postmodernism parody has become
pastiche which is blank parody, divorced from humour (Jameson
1991, pp. 16–19). O’Hara, however, is a good example of a post-
modernist who, in the process of rewriting, appropriating and quot-
ing from literary texts, has retained the traditionally humorous and
creative aspects of parody.15 In fact parody was a New York School
speciality. For example, Kenneth Koch’s poem ‘Variations on a Theme
by William Carlos Williams’ is a comic reinvention of Williams.
I chopped down the house that you had been saving to live in next
summer.
I am sorry, but it was morning, and I had nothing to do
and its wooden beams were so inviting
(Koch 1985, p. 51)

Cultural Intersections: The Hyperscape and the


Literary and Artistic Milieu
As the previous section suggested, O’Hara’s hyperscapes arise through
a complex network of cultural ‘intersections’. In fact, O’Hara’s poetry
is so eclectic that charting his literary predecessors can seem a wild
chase in which O’Hara’s precursors are everyone and no one: the
complete opposite of a Bloomian struggle with a particular literary
forefather. In fact precursors appear in droves, though only after cos-
metic surgery, or partial amputation, or in an embrace with unlikely
bedfellows. Rather than viewing O’Hara’s intertextuality as a solely
historical, diachronic and vertical lineage underpinned by the idea of
‘influence’ and ‘inheritance’, I suggest that it is more meaningful to
think in terms of a ‘neo-hypertextual’ network between O’Hara and
other literary figures in which the diachronic dissolves into the syn-
chronic, and vice versa, and which creates vertical, horizontal and

15. See Rose 1993, pp. 195–274, for a discussion of postmodern uses and theories
of parody.
46 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

diagonal ‘links’ between apparently contradictory and irreconcilable


elements.
For O’Hara’s poetry emerges from literary landscape which is sim-
ilarly contradictory and variegated, itself a site of difference. In fact
that landscape is so heterogenous as to call into question any straight-
forward notion of literary heritage or linear descent: rather it consists
of literary echoes, ghosts and revisitations which are continually
transmuting and crossing over each other so that the poet takes a walk
in New York and finds that ‘Poems by Pierre Reverdy’ are in his
pocket (‘A Step Away from Them’; O’Hara 1979, pp. 257–58). This
is not to argue that O’Hara’s poetry is somehow out of the literary
tradition: on the contrary, it is extraordinarily intertextual, eclectic,
and suggestive of multiple historical origins. But its precursors –
which include Apollinaire, Mallarmé, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Reverdy,
Whitman, Crane, Ronald Firbank, Gertrude Stein, e. e. cummings,
Rilke, Proust and Mayakovsky (to summon up an extremely selective
list) – are so diverse that we must abandon the diachronic model of
the family tree for the synchronic model of the hypertextual web: any
connection between O’Hara and a precursor tends to splinter into dif-
ferences, as a similarity emerges elsewhere. To read O’Hara’s walk
poems, via Whitman’s ‘Mannahatta’, is to be struck by the way in
which the heritage is anything but completely vertical and exclusive.
Whitman’s stated position, ‘Just as any of you is one of a living crowd,
I was one of a crowd’ (‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’; Whitman 1973,
p. 151), is enacted within O’Hara’s walk poems such as ‘The Day
Lady Died’. Here the legacy of Whitman converges with the Baude-
larian flâneur who ‘set(s) up house in the heart of the multitude, amid
the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and infi-
nite’ (but is still a spectator who is ‘hidden from the world’) (Baude-
laire 1964, p. 9). And in turn the flâneur transmutes into the
poet–consumer–shopper for whom spectator and spectacle become
one. Similarly, O’Hara’s position as a gay poet takes and diverges
from Whitman and Crane, nods in the direction of Verlaine, Rim-
baud, Wilde and Stein, and ‘bends’ the heterosexual love lyric of poets
such as Wyatt (see Mottram 1995, p. 162).16

16. Bill Berkson wrote in Answers for Hazel Smith: ‘I think it’s French poetry (Apol-
linaire, Desnos, and then Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Racine, Villon …) that provided
one gold mine, and then of course there’s a Russian vein, the German (Rilke and
Hölderlin) etc.’ Berkson also said that O’Hara told him that when he first started
Resituating O’Hara 47

Stylistically the impact of European symbolism and surrealism on


O’Hara is enormous and has been documented by Perloff (Perloff
1979). But within American poetry, O’Hara’s poetry similarly stands
at the crossroads of different lines of development, and gestures fre-
netically in several directions at once. It shows the impact of imagism,
objectivism and Olson’s ‘objectism’.17 This line of development,

writing he wrote some early e.e. cummings imitations which he threw away.
In an interview with me (LeSueur 1986) Joe LeSueur mentioned the French
Symbolists, Gertrude Stein and W. H. Auden as writers O’Hara particularly
esteemed and Yeats, Lowell and Dylan Thomas as writers he did not particularly
care for. He also said that O’Hara liked to read the great Russian novels like
Anna Karenina.
In the Frank O’Hara Archive in the Butler Library, University of Columbia,
amongst the papers of Burton Aldrich Robie, a childhood friend of O’Hara’s, is
A New Anthology of Modern Poetry, ed. Selden Rodman (The Modern Library,
New York, 1938), which belonged to O’Hara, and there is a note in it: ‘Hope
you like this-couldn’t resist my favourites.’ Poems selected and marked include
ones by James Joyce, Yeats, Pound, T. S. Eliot, Hart Crane, C. Day Lewis, Ogden
Nash, Stephen Spender, a large section of Auden and all of the e.e. cummings
poems in the volume (O’Hara undated a).
O’Hara in a letter, New York City, 15 July 1959, to Jasper Johns, gives a list,
with comments, of poets and novelists about whom he is currently enthusiastic,
including John Wieners, Mike McClure, Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen,
Gregory Corso, Jack Kerouac, Willliam Burroughs, Kenneth Koch, James
Schuyler, John Ashbery, Herb Gold, James Baldwin, Laura Riding, Jane Bowles,
Doulglas Wolff, Allen Ginsberg, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, Michel
Butor and André Pieyre de Mandiargues. He expresses interest in, though reser-
vations about, Olson and Levertov and says ‘he can’t stand’ Robert Duncan. He
also says ‘you said you liked PATERSON; all the book of poems of WCW have
great, great things in them, I don’t believe he ever write an uninteresting poem;
the prose poems KORA IN HELL have recently been reprinted and are very
good, interesting because very early and ambitious’; and he also says ‘I think
everyone should read all of Samuel Beckett’ (O’Hara undated b). (Part of this
letter is reproduced in Perloff 1979, p. 203).
Interestingly, films, operas and ballets seem to be mentioned more than poetry
or novels in O’Hara’s letters, but there are frequent allusions to Williams,
Beckett and Gide, as writers O’Hara was particularly interested in, enthusiastic
mentions of other young poets such as Frank Lima and John Wieners, and of the
great Russian writers such as Pasternak, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy.
17. Olson describes objectism as ‘the getting rid of the lyrical interference of the
individual as ego, of the “subject” and his soul, that peculiar presumption by
which western man has interposed himself between what he is as a creation of
nature (with certain instructions to carry out) and those other creations of nature
which we may, with no derogation, call objects. For a man is himself an object,
whatever he may take to be his advantages, the more likely to recognize himself
48 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

which stretches from Pound, to Williams, emphasises the object itself,


rather than the object as symbolic vehicle for emotion, idea or event.
The ideology behind such poetry was most imaginatively expressed in
William Carlos Williams’s ‘no ideas but in things’ (a view which was
diametrically opposed to T.S. Eliot’s idea of the objective correlative
in which an object or event was an equivalent or reification of a pre-
ceding object or idea). But O’Hara’s poetry is also born out of a line
of experimental writing which stems from Dadaism, Surrealism,
Futurism and Cubism, epitomised in the work of Gertrude Stein.
In such poetry the focus is upon the ability of language to create its
own objects, and the remaking of language becomes (at least in
theory) a political act. The emphasis on the signifier – the aural and
visual manifestation of the word – also opens up the possibility of an
intersection with the visual and aural arts. Such poetry is charac-
terised by rampant metonymy, syntactical disruptions, lexical innova-
tion and unexpected juxtapositions. While some of O’Hara’s poems
seem to be more ‘object-orientated’ and others more ‘language-
based’, many of O’Hara’s poems have a foot in both camps. Although
O’Hara is not alone in straddling these two lines of development –
indeed Williams and Pound did, too – his ability to simultaneously
embrace these apparently incompatible historical developments and
to make their interconnection the subject of his poetry seems unique
and is one of the foundations of the hyperscape. Add to this the more
speech–based contemporary poetics of the Beats and Black Mountain
Poets – in which the breath rather than conventional metrics create a
poetic unit – and O’Hara’s own humorous ‘manifesto’, Personism
(O’Hara 1979, pp. 498–99), which writes back to objectivism and
objectism through the idea of the poem as a telephone conversation –
and you have a very eclectic, synchronic/diachronic mix.
Even within the territory of Frank O’Hara’s Collected Poems many
different types of writing exist in rapid juxtaposition. In one sense
there is a recognisable evolution from the early surrealist poems,
through the Odes to the more representational lunch poems, culmi-
nating in the collage poems such as ‘Biotherm’. There are definite
trends which amount to a progression, for example, O’Hara’s work
‘thins out’ considerably from the early density of ‘Second Avenue’.
But there is also a simultaneity about O’Hara’s production which

as such the greater his advantages, particularly at that moment that he achieves
an humilitas sufficient to make him of use (Olson 1973, p.156).
Resituating O’Hara 49

works against the idea of an evolution of style, because he often dex-


terously moved from one type of writing to another. For example
both ‘In Memory of My Feelings’ and ‘A Step Away From Them’ were
written in 1956 but are very different types of poem stylistically. And
many of the poems draw together a number of different modes of
writing, as the analysis in Chapter 3 shows.
The cultural landscape from which O’Hara’s work arises is also
intermedia. It crosses over different art forms and combines both
pre- and post-twentieth-century art and popular culture. O’Hara’s
well-known enthusiasms – to which both his letters and his poems
bear witness – include many which are considered low or middle-
brow: Saint-Saëns, Verdi, Glazunov, Rachmaninoff. But his poetry
also arose in intimate proximity with the contemporary avant-gardes
of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art; the jazz improvisations of
Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman; the experimental
music of Morton Feldman, John Cage and Earle Brown; the avant-
garde performances of the Living Theatre and the Open Theatre.
Here again the concept of a hypertextual network seems extremely
relevant. While the idea that Miles Davis directly influenced O’Hara
would seem to be rather exaggerated (and O’Hara’s interest in jazz
was quite limited), it seems reasonable to propose the idea of a hyper-
textual and contingent link to Davis’s work through the idea of
improvisation, discussed more fully in Chapter 5.
O’Hara’s poetry is not fully ‘intermedia’ in the way that Jackson
Mac Low’s texts, which juxtapose music and words, are (Mac Low
1986), though his collaborations with artists Larry Rivers and
Norman Bluhm combine the visual and verbal. But we cannot under-
stand the poetry, or the processes that produced it only in terms of a
literary tradition, but must see it as a cultural hybrid, a form of artis-
tic ‘cross-dressing’. Furthermore, although O’Hara was extremely
involved with the art world as a curator of the Museum of Modern
Art and as art critic, the hybrid aspect of the poems needs to be taken
now beyond the idea that the poems are ‘painterly’, into a framework
which links many different components. In fact experimental artists,
writers and musicians in the 1950s had many common goals and aspi-
rations. The idea of a work of art as a process, of form as generative
rather than a container for content, was shared by writers, musicians
and painters alike.
50 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

Real Life and Text Life


Throughout my discussion of O’Hara’s poetry I refer to the first
person of the poetry as ‘the poet’ but I am aware of the theoretical
problems this raises. My use of the word poet seems less laboured
than talking about the ‘first person of the poem’ or ‘the persona’ –
now a somewhat dated term – and is in line with current practice. It
also seems more appropriate in discussing O’Hara’s poetry than it
might in the case of other poets, because O’Hara inserts himself into
the poems which draw us towards their autobiographical sources.
The person in the poem both coexists with, and is different from, the
poet who wrote the poem. The relationship between the real life and
text life is another complex binary which the poems negotiate, and
another dividing line which O’Hara regularly blurs.
This removal of a clear–cut line between art and life was charac-
teristic of avant-garde art of the period, particularly in the 1960s. For
example, Joseph Chaikin, director of the Open Theatre, questioned
the whole notion of the actor playing a role. Chaikin posited that the
actor should cease ‘putting on a disguise’ (Chaikin 1972, p. 6). When
actors performed, according to Chaikin, they needed to retain their
own subjectivities; and who they were, and what they believed,
should become part of the performance. In consequence, in Open
Theatre productions the actors also became creators whose own ideas
and sensibilities could contribute directly to the evolution of a the-
atrical piece or script. The Happenings of the 1960s also turned
everyday events into theatre and minimised the boundaries between
audience and performers. And in the visual arts the work of Jasper
Johns and Robert Rauschenberg (discussed in Chapter 6) tended to
blur the dividing line between real and art objects.
The relationship between the writer and his or her life is obviously
highly complex. Even when a writer uses autobiographical material as a
source, the degree of transformation involved in producing the text from
the life often renders fidelity to the life irrelevant. And the events, even if
‘true to life’, acquire a metaphorical significance in the poem which is
often not enhanced by knowing the real-life source. In general, literary
studies have steered away from autobiographical explanations as a source
of literary interpretation. Yet most of us would readily concede that social
context and psychological make-up impact on the way writers write, and
feel the need for a theoretical position which allows us, where relevant,
to take some interest in the life without feeling boxed in by it.
Resituating O’Hara 51

In the case of O’Hara, the relationship between real life and text
life is particularly suggestive. For O’Hara reduces the distance
between art and life by bringing real life events and people into his
poems, in ways which are stylised, but not necessarily highly fic-
tionalised, and which contrast strongly with the much more anony-
mous landscapes of John Ashbery’s poetry, where real names are
generally held at bay. In interviews with me, O’Hara’s friends and
colleagues often alluded to the strongly autobiographical nature of
the poems. For example, Donald Allen (Allen 1986) revealed that
‘Hôtel Transylvanie’ was written one day when O’Hara had had a
row with Vincent Warren. Grace Hartigan (Hartigan 1986), said
that the passage in the poem ‘Day and Night in 1952’ (O’Hara 1979,
p. 93), ‘Grace may secretly distrust me but we are both so close to
the abyss that we must see a lot of each other, grinning and carrying
on as if it were a picnic given by somebody’s else’s church’ was a
very accurate description of their relationship. ‘At a certain point’,
Hartigan said to me ‘I felt his rage and his criticism and I feared it.’
Many other instances of the biographical sources of the poems are
given in (Gooch 1993). In an interview with me Joe LeSueur said
that the details in ‘The Day Lady Died’ were ‘completely accurate’
(LeSueur 1986).
The use of autobiographical material as source, however, is not
necessarily identical with confessionalism. In O’Hara’s poetry autobi-
ographical reference is married to an awareness of the way language
mediates experience, sometimes distancing or displacing it. O’Hara’s
camp ‘Statement for The New American Poetry’, like all O’Hara’s
statements of poetics, humorously gestures in opposite directions.
Having said that he doesn’t ‘care about clarifying experiences for
anyone’ he goes on to say:
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. What is clear to me in my work is
probably obscure to others, and vice versa. (‘Statement for The New
American Poetry’; O’Hara 1979, p. 500)
Here O’Hara takes the stance that his life is source material for the
poetry. But his remarks beyond that are highly ambiguous: the object
of the exercise is not necessarily to elucidate, or directly express, cer-
tain experiences but to use them as elements in the poem where they
52 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

take on their own significance, may become more abstracted, and will
be read through readers’ own experiences.
Nevertheless, to read the poems is to be drawn into a cast of play-
ers and to develop an inevitable voyeuristic curiosity about them as
‘real people’. This inquisitiveness is further fuelled by the fact that
real-life events and people figure in the poems in ways which tease
expectation. Friends of the poet, such as Joe or Kenneth, make cameo
appearances which hint (often with an affectionate sting) at their per-
sonal qualities or traits, but certainly do not amount to sustained
portraits or three-dimensional character studies. In addition, some of
the cast of characters, such as Willem de Kooning, may be known to
readers in their own right and in other contexts. And because the poet
proffers his self in ways which explore a continuum between intimate
revelation and mundane detail, the curiosity of the reader is aroused
but is always insatiable, a point made by Bill Berkson in an interview
with me:
It is peculiar with writers like Williams, O’Hara, and Kerouac, they tell
you a tremendous amount about themselves in their writing yet you
always want to know more, you want to read all the correspondence,
you want to see the notebooks, you want to get into it all. The reason
is there’s always something left unanswered – you are given all this
information and you always want to know more. And there are the
writers who tell you next to nothing about themselves or their lives,
Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot – and you don’t miss it. (Berkson 1986b)
Readers of O’Hara’s poetry may even feel an urge to ‘relive’ some
aspects O’Hara’s world, but this cannot fulfil its promise, since that
world has a historical and social basis which the reader cannot repeat,
and because the reader’s desire has been aroused by a fiction which
will always differ from the reality. Meeting O’Hara’s friends does not
recapture his interaction with them, which retains its own reality but
remains essentially private. And a place such as 515 Madison Avenue,
which features in the poem ‘Rhapsody’, may not necessarily appear
special beyond the context of the poem. Individual readers will vary
in how much they know about the ‘real life’ of the poet and his
friends, and how much they seek to familiarise themselves with the
‘factual’ underpinning of the poems. But knowing more about the life
inevitably changes the way the poems are read. At the same time,
using the poet’s life to unlock the poems can lead to an impasse,
because O’Hara’s life does not (fortunately) explain the poems which
Resituating O’Hara 53

have a happy and unassailable resistance to solution. Real life and text
life in O’Hara’s work are intertwined in a way which is quite differ-
ent from the idea of one as prior to the other.
The reader of the O’Hara poem is therefore both an outsider and
insider. But any attempt to totally subsume the poems as documents
of the life, or to negate the impact of life on the poems, is probably
false. Much more appropriate is a concept of uneven and unstable
parallelism between the two which allows for the fact that they might
sometimes converge. It is in the spirit of such parallelism that I offer
biographical information at a number of different points in the text,
and it is often pertinent to see how the theoretical concept (splintered
subjectivity, morphing sexuality) lines up with a biographical equiva-
lent – O’Hara’s emotional ambivalence, his unusual sexuality.
O’Hara’s, life, then should be seen as a counter-melody to the poetry,
or as yet another series of links in the hypertextual web.
2

The Hyperscape and Hypergrace:


The City and The Body
I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy,
or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret
life. (‘Meditations in An Emergency’; O’Hara 1979, p. 197).

Although O’Hara is a city poet, his poems also involve dislocation,


even disintegration, of the cityscape. On the one hand, O’Hara’s
are the most topographical of poems and represent a highly delin-
eated locus. The grids, landmarks and routines of New York
become the poem-as-map filtered through the consciousness of the
poet. On the other hand, O’Hara’s poetry also involves a radical
questioning of place through a decentred subjectivity. At the basis
of this location/dislocation of the city is the poet’s simultaneous
celebration and repudiation of its values. He aestheticises and
eroticises the everyday aspects of the city and turns them into sites
of meaning, but also suggests that these shining surfaces repress
other spaces.1
This chapter will argue that this simultaneous location and disloca-
tion of the city in O’Hara’s poetry opens up a radical reformulation
of the cityscape as hyperscape. This reformulation occurs through
the interface between the embodied subject and the city, in which
each continuously remoulds the other, revealing new political and
subjective spaces. It is possible because neither embodied subject
nor city is static, unified nor impermeable. The result of this recon-
figuration, in its most radical form, is the hyperscape. This is the
term I used in the introduction for a postmodern site which is
discontinuous, contradictory, heterogeneous, economically uneven
and constantly changing. In the hyperscape time and space are

1. Elizabeth Wilson suggests that a simultaneously utopian and dystopian view of


the city is characteristic of postmodernism (Wilson 1995, p. 74).
The Hyperscape and Hypergrace 55

compressed, and both subject and city are continually dismembered


and reconstituted.2
Negotiating the hyperscape adroitly requires what I will call ‘hyper-
grace’. Grace is an important and recurring concept in O’Hara’s
work, epitomised in the phrase ‘Grace/to be born and live as variously
as possible’ (‘In Memory of My Feelings’; O’Hara 1979, p. 256). It
invokes Christian grace, while at the same time challenging its reli-
gious and transcendental connotations by emphasising bodily rather
than spiritual grace. It implies bodily and mental composure, media-
tion between emotional intensity and campy self-irony, and a femi-
nised conception of movement which relates to O’Hara’s own gay
sexuality. My hypergrace extends this notion of grace to a way of
being within the postmodern world: the ability to move discontinu-
ously between different places, histories and sexual identities without
fear, while simultaneously resisting the invasion and appropriation of
place and personal space by others. Hypergrace, therefore, relates to
both the activities and mindset of the embodied subject, and is the
courage to accept ‘the gasp of a moving hand as maps change and
faces become vacant’ (‘Ode on Causality’; O’Hara 1979, p. 302).
In the following, I will relate this reformulation of place in
O’Hara’s work briefly to developments in postmodern theory, and to
the analysis of some major poems, particularly ‘Rhapsody’ and ‘In
Memory of My Feelings’.

Postmodern Geographies, Topographies and Hyperspaces


O’Hara’s poems are always tilting ahead of themselves and their time,
and the interrogation of place is now a central issue in postmodern
geography. In such theory, the idea that a place is never circumscribed,
unidirectional or apolitical is highly influential. Doreen Massey, for
example, argues that a place does not have a single identity and is not
absolutely definable within certain boundaries, but always links and
merges with other places beyond its apparent limits (Massey 1993,
pp. 65–68). Any place consists of constantly shifting social and eco-
nomic inter-relationships between people and institutions, both
within that place and other places.

2. Neal Bowers says of O’Hara, ‘he took the step that carried him beyond Mod-
ernism to Postmodernism, from a preoccupation with self in its surroundings to
a focus on the surroundings as they interact with the self and both are transmo-
grified’ (Bowers 1990, p. 328).
56 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

In order to emphasise this fluidity of place, postmodern geogra-


phers often draw attention to the limitations of the map, since
mapped space, like Cartesian subjectivity, tends to be static and self-
enclosed. Kirby asserts, for example, that mapping excludes much of
the flux and adaptability of postmodernism (Kirby 1996, p. 54). Iain
Chambers draws attention to everything the map suppresses within
the city. He argues that the ‘contexts, cultures, histories, languages,
experiences, desires and hopes that course through the urban body …
pierce the logic of topography and spill over the edges of the map’
(Chambers 1993, p. 188).
The lack of absolute definition of place, however, creates a crisis of
mapping. This crisis has been used as an allegory of postmodernism,
and as a way of raising questions about the politics of inhabiting spaces
in which clear direction has been removed. David Harvey asks the
question: ‘if no one “knows their place” in this shifting collage world,
then how can a secure social order be fashioned or sustained?’
(Harvey 1990, p. 302). Similarly, Fredric Jameson argues that subjects
need mappable space in which to orientate themselves politically.
Postmodern space, the result of late capitalism and increased global
multinational communications, is for Jameson a hyperspace, an
unmappable space in which he claims the decentred subject cannot get
his or her bearings and adopt a stable political position. It is symbol-
ised for him by the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, which also
becomes a metaphor for the whole city (Jameson 1991, pp. 38–54).
The hotel is characterised by entrances which do not give immediate
access to the main space of the hotel, a lobby in which it is difficult to
maintain a sense of direction, elevators which have replaced walking
as the main means of traversing the space, and a glass reflective
surface which repels the world outside the hotel. For Jameson this
multidirectional space is depthless, disorientating, populist and self-
enclosed, epitomising the postmodern condition.
However, Jameson’s use of the Bonaventure Hotel is, in many
respects, reductive of the complexities of postmodern space. In
particular, Jameson is perhaps too embedded in antiquated modes
of exploration and travel: as Paul Patton says, ‘this is someone who
gets lost in large department stores’ (Patton 1995, p. 114). Steve
Pile also argues that Jameson’s cognitive map is profoundly exter-
nalised and static. For Pile, cognitive maps need to be concerned with
a dynamic relationship between the Lacanian real, imaginary and
symbolic spaces, and the ways in which these are ‘constitutive of, and
The Hyperscape and Hypergrace 57

constituted by, subjectivity, space and power’ (Pile 1996, p. 249).


Relevant here also is the idea, influential in much postmodern theory,
that the concept of a predetermined subject – operating within famil-
iar territory – may hinder, rather than help, political change. As Judith
Butler says, ‘The power relations that condition and limit dialogic
possibilities need first to be interrogated’ (Butler 1990, p. 15). The
readiness to map-en-route, rather than survey-in-advance, is the
necessary correlate to political flexibility. Viewed in this light, Jame-
son’s conceptualisation of postmodern hyperspace as a depoliticised,
dehistoricised space seems overly apocalyptic.
My construct of the hyperscape overlaps with Jameson’s hyper-
space in the sense of creating a type of postmodern space which is not
easily traversed or mapped. However, it differs from Jameson’s space
in being much less self-contained, limited or totally subsumed by
commercial pressures, and is more positive in the opportunity it
offers for radical change. It scrambles Jameson’s amorphous space
into the highly structured scape, and mediates between the cityplace
and other distant, or less tangible, places. In this way it embraces what
David Harvey describes as the essential paradox in postmodernism,
whereby the compression of time and space characteristic of contem-
porary life coexists with an increased sense of locality and place. This
paradox, Harvey argues, is characteristic of modernity but is intensi-
fied in postmodernism. Relevant to the concept of the hyperscape is
also the hyperspace of the computer age – in which different sites can
be accessed and made contiguous, creating new relationships – and
which O’Hara’s pre-computer texts seem to pre-empt. In the hyper-
scape, then, despite economic and social pressures to the contrary,
alternatives emerge which might remain hidden in more clearly
defined, uniform spaces.
O’Hara’s hyperscape, however, is historically situated in the 1950s
and 1960s and is a product of what Sally Banes calls the ‘postmodern
dilemma, a world of logical paradoxes’ (Banes 1993, p. 8), a world
both tightly enclosed and part of a huge invisible network. This world
was one which was renegotiating space, distance and communication:
If the United States was expanding, then the world, it was proclaimed,
was shrinking. If national life was increasingly sophisticated and
bureaucratized, the world was increasingly primitivised as a global vil-
lage. If suburbia was a wasteland, then urban rather than rural space
was utopia. Machines, Marshall McLuhan asserted, were in fact part of
nature: extensions of the human body. (Banes 1993, p. 8)
58 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

The New York of the 1960s emerges here as a city of huge contrasts
in wealth, race, political motivation and technology, in which high
energy and waste, stability and discontinuity, excess and deprivation,
existed side by side.

Walking the City


O’Hara’s poems vary in the degree to which they dislocate the city
and many of the poems retain a coherent cityplace. Poems such
as ‘The Day Lady Died’ (O’Hara 1979, p. 325), marked by road
grids, architectural landmarks and time checks, could be said to be
the ultimate in mapping it, and to register the kind of legibility of
the city which city planner Kevin Lynch aimed to produce (Lynch
1960).3
It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
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
The poem celebrates a circumscribed and local walk dominated by
quick dipping and quick tasting (with the caveat that some of the con-
sumer goods are literary goods). The poet-consumer feels simultane-
ously stimulated and exhausted by the possibilities in the shops
‘practically going to sleep with quandariness’, and the quick-fix of fast
food, ‘a hamburger and a malted’. In ‘The Day Lady Died’ (O’Hara
1979, p. 325) – a poem which both throws up and throws away the
connection between New York and Paris – the walk becomes a parody
of the medieval quest, in which the holy grail takes the form of
consumer goods. The poem as travelogue and timetable also delin-
eates a particular type of cityscape characteristic of the 1950s. This is

3. In an interview with me Bill Berkson said of O’Hara: ‘As child he was fascinated
by maps and geopraphy … and then you realise that it is all over the poems and
that in poems like “The Day Lady Died” and “A Step Away From Them” you can
chart—it’s like a ship’s line—the movements block by block. And that is a very
interesting thing to do, even though many of the places in New York are gone,
you could take that walk that he took in “The Day Lady Died”. So it is a poem
of a map—it’s interesting to think of those things in terms of earlier poetry, like
the Cantos of Pound suggested a voyage. These are voyages except they are
walks’ (Berkson 1986b).
The Hyperscape and Hypergrace 59

a consumer society dominated by small shops, personal banking and


the availability of a shoeshine:
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 on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness
and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it
But even these poems show some signs of dislocation and refor-
mulation: they represent a New York which hovers between
modernism and postmodernism, a city in flux, constantly inventing
and renewing itself, ‘throwing away its previous accomplishments and
challenging the future’ (de Certeau 1984, p. 91). This is epitomised in
the rise and fall of buildings. In ‘A Step Away From Them’ (O’Hara
1979, pp. 257–58), the poet begins his walk alongside a building site.
But as the poem draws to a close he passes the Manhattan Storage
Warehouse, just down the road from the contruction site. This will
soon be demolished, erasing both real and imagined histories. It is
worth quoting this poem in full:
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
60 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

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.
On
to Times Square, where the sign
blows smoke over my head, and higher
the waterfall pours lightly. A
Negro stands in a doorway with a
toothpick, languorously agitating.
A blonde chorus girl clicks: he
smiles and rubs his chin. Everything
suddenly honks: it is 12:40 of
a Thursday.
Neon in daylight is a
great pleasure, as Edwin Denby would
write, as are light bulbs in daylight.
I stop for a cheeseburger at JULIET’S
CORNER. Giulietta Masina, wife of
Federico Fellini, é bell’ attrice.
And chocolate malted. A lady in
foxes on such a day puts her poodle
in a cab.
There are several Puerto
Ricans on the avenue today, which
makes it beautiful and warm. First
Bunny died, then John Latouche,
then Jackson Pollock. But is the
earth as full as life was full, of them?
And one has eaten and one walks,
past the magazines with nudes
and the posters for BULLFIGHT and
the Manhattan Storage Warehouse,
which they’ll soon tear down. I
used to think they had the Armory
Show there.
A glass of papaya juice
and back to work. My heart is in my
pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.
The Hyperscape and Hypergrace 61

Here we can see that the poet re-presents and mobilises the city by
means of the route he takes through it, and the walk and text are
almost synchronous. Roger Gilbert – who classifies the walk poem as
a genre – designates it as transcriptive rather than descriptive. He
argues that while Coleridge tends to view the landscape as an organic
analogue, or more simply as metaphor for some inner condition, the
walk poem approaches the external world metonymically rather than
metaphorically (Gilbert 1991, pp. 8–9). However, transcription sug-
gests reproduction and does not fully capture the sense of creative
renewal which the walk brings in O’Hara’s poems. I prefer, therefore,
to construct the term performative-inscriptive, using Austin’s defini-
tion of a performative as an illocutionary act which achieves what it
says, while it says it. Seen in this light, the walk poem has a perfor-
mative, improvised and creative aspect which is closely allied to the
poem as generative speech act, to be discussed in detail in Chapter 5.
This link between walking and linguistic creativity is also made by de
Certeau, who describes walking as ‘a space of enunciation’ (de
Certeau 1984, p. 98). Relevant here is also the notion of topograph-
ical writing. This is used by Bolter to describe hypertextual writing,
but he also concedes that much pre-hypertextual writing is also simi-
lar: ‘Whenever we divide our text into unitary topics and organise
those units into a connected structure and whenever we conceive of
this textual structure spatially as well as verbally, we are writing topo-
graphically’ (quoted in Snyder 1996, p. 36).
The walk, then, shakes up the static ‘map’ into what de Certeau
calls the ‘tour’, the dynamic realisation of the map: ‘First, down the
sidewalk … Then onto the/avenue’.4 For de Certeau, walking
mobilises paths in the city which he describes in terms rather like
those of the hypertext, ‘networks … of these moving, intersecting
writings’ which ‘compose a manifold story that has neither author nor
spectator’ (de Certeau 1984, p. 93). Walking therefore creates asso-
ciative links which forge new spaces and relocates mapped space. Yet
the paradox is that ‘to walk is to lack a place’ (de Certeau 1984,
p. 103), in other words, walking is associative rather than stabilising.

4. It also restores to the map its lost functionalism. For as de Certeau points out,
the map, which in the fifteenth century marked out routes for pilgrimages,
became progressively disengaged from the tour (de Certeau 1984, pp. 118–22).
However, in ‘The Day Lady Died’ this functionalism reappears, in somewhat
battered form, as the shopping trip.
62 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

For to walk from place to place is to subjectively recast the city in


ways which both intensify and disrupt it. Roger Gilbert argues that
walking and thinking are closely related in the Western tradition, and
walking induces certain types of mental process which ‘cease to be
wholly cognitive’ and ‘become instead a process of wandering as
wayward and impulsive as the walk itself ’ (Gilbert 1991, p. 11).5
Gilbert’s argument lacks a psychoanalytic dimension, but in fact the
walk is propelled by the contrary motions of desire and lack. Steve
Pile argues that de Certeau is constantly drawing on Lacanian notions
of language and the real, and that the real city is for him lost, hidden,
unreadable and therefore unconscious (Pile 1996, p. 226). It is this
unconscious life of the city which walking can trigger and which ‘car-
ries out a guerrilla warfare with attempts to repress it’ (Pile 1996,
p. 227). In the poem ‘A Step Away From Them’ the surfaces of the city
– the ‘dirty/glistening torsos’ of the workers and the skirts
‘flipping/above heels’ – become aestheticised and eroticised sites of
meaning. But they also make the poet question the density and pres-
ence of the city as he thinks of his absent, dead friends: ‘But is the
/earth as full as life was full, of them?’6
Furthermore, the ‘long poem of walking’ (de Certeau 1984, p. 101)
carries its own particular brand of personalised politics which mob-
ilises resistant meanings beneath the city’s smooth surface. Walking is
a way of subverting the city-concept, the all-controlling rationalised
city which must ‘repress all the physical, mental and political pollu-
tions that would compromise it’ (de Certeau 1984, p. 94). The
walk poems register, though often indirectly, exclusions from, or

5. Gilbert argues that ‘From Parmenides’s “road of discourse” to Heidegger’s “Weg


zum Sprache” walking has been a key trope for the progress of thought’ (Gilbert
1991, p. 10). He suggests that ‘the walker’s thinking differs from the philoso-
pher’s in that it always takes place within the context of the walk. The particu-
lars of time, place, weather and landscape continually inform the walker’s
consciousness, stimulating thoughts and associations which might not otherwise
have arisen’ (Gilbert 1991, p. 11). However, Gilbert does not theorise the body
as a useful link between walking and consciousness (indeed, he seems to see
thinking as rather detached from the body). In fact, in O’Hara’s poetry, bodily
reactions, such as hunger and coldness, are markers of the experience of the
walk and triggers for thought.
6. As Wirth-Nesher, writing about the modern urban novel suggests: ‘Modern
urban life … is a landscape of partial visibilities and manifold possibilities that
excludes in the very act of inviting … Cities intensify the human condition of
missed opportunities, choices and inaccessibility’ (Wirth-Nesher 1996, p. 9).
The Hyperscape and Hypergrace 63

alternatives to, the power structures of the city, even though superfi-
cially they might seem to acquiesce to them. In ‘A Step Away From
Them’ it is the Puerto Ricans who make the street ‘beautiful and
warm’. In ‘The Day Lady Died’ the cityplace is unobtrusively femi-
nised when the poet goes on a shopping trip during his lunch hour: it
is, as Andrew Ross says, ‘an account of a lady’s day, played out by a
man through an imagined lunch hour that is the very opposite of the
power lunches being eaten … by the men who make real history’ (Ross
1990, p. 389). Furthermore, the seemingly innocuous books the poet
browses in the shops include plays by Genet (Les Nègres involves a
sophisticated non-essentialist exploration of the relationship between
racial identity and skin colour); a play by Brendan Behan; and a New
World Writing volume from Ghana. Widening the scope of the poem
beyond New York-as-text, these casually listed titles resonate as sexu-
ally transgressive and revolutionary counter-sites. As such they fore-
shadow the capitulation to drugs and death of Holiday, victim of
exploitation by white (and black) men. But the nodes along the route
of the poem open up racial difference by retaining the complexities of
place and culture. The differences between Holiday, the poets in
Ghana and the characters in the Genet play are not reduced to one
African ‘other’, though they are placed on multi-layered planes which
project into the same place. The climax of the poem (the memory of
the reduction of the singer’s voice to a whisper) involves another shift
of location, this time to The Five Spot, a jazz club in New York which
temporarily becomes superimposed upon the immediate environment:
and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing
The process of dislocating the city is taken considerably further,
however, in the poem ‘Rhapsody’ (O’Hara 1979, pp. 325–26).
‘Rhapsody’ consists of a series of walks or journeys which are cut up
and superimposed on each other. These are not only walks round
New York, but imaginary incursions into Europe and Africa. Images
of New York, as historical, mythical, literary and vertical Manahatta,
also coexist with the social and economic realities of ground-level
New York City. For as Graham Clarke says:
New York remains a double city. As Manhattan it retains its mythic
promise and remains an image at once familiar and inviting. As New
64 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

York city it becomes part of a different urban process: denied its mythic
energy, its transcendent base, it moves into an historical reality in which
social, political and economic questions are prominent. It becomes, in
other words, a city of people rather than images – of social contingen-
cies rather than mythic projections. (Clarke 1988b, p. 39)
In the poem, this urban environment interfaces with the natural
environment. But while Emerson and Whitman sought to reconcile
the city and nature, O’Hara plays one off against the other, giving his
own idiosyncratic twist to the concept of ‘urban pastoral’.7 The shifts
and juxtapositions produce a multivalent sense of place as local and
global, familiar yet exotic, real but surreal.8 The spatial and temporal
compression also creates a discontinuous, multi-layered text of nev-
ertheless recognisable elements. It is a form of interrupted mimesis:
the scaffolding of the hyperscape. The result is disorientating because
the reader cannot travel in a direct line. But the text instead creates a
strong sense of an open-ended writerly space which the reader can
continuously reshape. Again it is worth quoting the poem in full:
515 Madison Avenue
door to heaven? portal
stopped realities and eternal licentiousness
or at least the jungle of impossible eagerness
your marble is bronze and your lianas elevator cables
swinging from the myth of ascending
I would join
or declining the challenge of racial attractions
they zing on (into the lynch, dear friends)
while everywhere love is breathing draftily
like a doorway linking 53rd with 54th

7. James Machor’s definition of urban pastoral is a genre in which the city blends
harmoniously with the countryside, enabling the urban dweller to maintain his
‘spontaneous, natural self ’ while remaining ‘a member of society, of the city, in
a word, of civilisation’ (Machor 1987, pp. 3–23). O’Hara’s particular brand of
urban pastoral is quite different, however, since it seems to suggest that we could
dispense with the countryside altogether. Nevertheless, the degree to which
O’Hara, particularly in his earlier poems, uses natural imagery to describe the
city and the ways in which, even in the most city-centred poems, nature is still
an important force (in the form of weather), is often overlooked.
8. Hana Wirth-Nesher suggests that modern urban novels are marked out by four
types of codes, those dealing with natural, built, human and verbal environments
(Wirth-Nesher 1996, p. 11). All these permeate the O’Hara poem, but they tend
to appear in multiple, rather than singular, form.
The Hyperscape and Hypergrace 65

the east-bound with the west-bound traffic by 8,000,000s


o midtown tunnels and the tunnels, too, of Holland
where is the summit where all aims are clear
the pin-point light upon a fear of lust
as agony’s needlework grows up around the unicorn
and fences him for milk- and yoghurt-work
when I see Gianni I know he’s thinking of John Ericson
playing Rachmaninoff 2nd or Elizabeth Taylor
taking sleeping-pills and Jane thinks of Manderley
and Irkutsk while I cough lightly in the smog of desire
and my eyes water achingly imitating the true blue
a sight of Manahatta in the towering needle
multi-faceted insight of the fly in the stringless labyrinth
Canada plans a higher place than the Empire State Building
I am getting into a cab at 9th Street and 1st Avenue
and the Negro driver tells me about a $120 apartment
‘where you can’t walk across the floor after 10 at night
not even to pee, cause it keeps them awake downstairs’
no, I don’t like that ‘well, I didn’t take it’
perfect in the hot humid morning on my way to work
a little supper-club conversation for the mill of the gods
you were there always and you know all about these things
as indifferent as an encyclopedia with your calm brown eyes
it isn’t enough to smile when you run the gauntlet
you’ve got to spit like Niagara Falls on everybody or
Victoria Falls or at least the beautiful urban fountains of Madrid
as the Niger joins the Gulf of Guinea near the Menemsha Bar
that is what you learn in the early morning passing Madison Avenue
where you’ve never spent any time and stores eat up light
I have always wanted to be near it
though the day is long (and I don’t mean Madison Avenue)
lying in a hammock on St. Mark’s Place sorting my poems
in the rancid nourishment of this mountainous island
they are coming and we holy ones must go
is Tibet historically a part of China? as I historically
belong to the enormous bliss of American death
‘Rhapsody’ (O’Hara 1979, pp. 325–6)
Different points in time and space in the city are filtered through
the agency of the poet. Here the twentieth-century remake of the
Baudelairian flâneur takes cabs, swings in hammocks and chews over
66 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

gossip. But he actively participates in the city, and rubs shoulders with
the crowd. This is unlike his nineteenth-century predecessor, who
wanted ‘to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden
from the world’ (Baudelaire 1964, p. 9).9 He both shapes and is
shaped by the city, eroticising and mythologising the doorway and
turning it into an urban sublime, a parodic gateway to heaven which
also transforms into a jungle of luxuriant growth.
The poet, however, does not expect or desire the city to produce
a sustainable social or transcendental unity, and in this sense the
poem both engages with, and ‘writes back’ to, Crane and Whitman,
who were nostalgic for such a unity.10 Travelling through the city
does not mean seeing it panoramically and there is no ‘summit where
all aims are clear’. But as de Certeau points out, a panoramic view-
point can be misleading since it produces only the ‘city-concept’, the
totalised, rationalised and politically controlled city (de Certeau
1984, pp. 93–95). Everything the poet hears, sees and thinks is a
fragment, but the connections between the bits and pieces freewheel
to generate new sensations, insights and moments of intense illumi-
nation. The poet is not a fly on the ceiling but he does have the
‘multi-faceted insight of the fly in the stringless labyrinth’. This
reveals not just the smooth surface of the city, but its network
of interconnections and exploitative underside: the way ‘you’ve
got to spit like Niagara Falls on everybody’. Talking to the African-
American cab driver, for example, produces a story of a landlord
who tries to extract an exorbitant rent for an apartment ‘“where you
can’t walk across the floor after 10 at night/not even to pee, cause it
keeps them awake downstairs”’. This throws into relief the white,
middle-class poet’s own freedom to gracefully stroll the city, make it
his own, and turn the day’s encounters into humorous anecdotes to

9. See Burton 1994; Pile 1996; Tester 1994 and Watson and Gibson 1995 for dis-
cussion of the flâneur and his relevance to postmodernity. These accounts usu-
ally stress the way the flâneur maintained his distance from the crowd, as well as
mingling within it.
10. Neal Bowers discusses transcendence and incandescence in the work of Crane
and O’Hara: ‘The fundamental difference between Crane and O’Hara is philo-
sophic rather than aesthetic, for while Crane believed language could empower
him to transcend the present and arrive at a vison of unity, O’Hara believed,
more modestly, that language could render the moment incandescent. For
Crane, there was something beyond the bridge and the city that produced it, but
for O’Hara, the city was profoundly important in and of itself at the very
moment he was experiencing it’ (Bowers 1990, p. 327).
The Hyperscape and Hypergrace 67

relate to his equally privileged friends, ‘a little supper-club conversa-


tion for the mill of the gods’. But it also resonates with the rag-bag,
throwaway references to the Tibetan uprising in 1959 (’is Tibet
historically a part of China?’) and to Irkutsk, site of counter-
Bolshevik resistance. These are territories which have been invaded
and appropriated, but their inclusion also draws attention to ways of
countering that appropriation through resistance, not only en masse
but also – as in the case of the cab driver – through personal guerrilla
warfare. In other words, to allow oneself to be moulded by the city
can also be to try to mould it, take control, and adopt personal
responsibility, to the degree which is possible.
‘Rhapsody’, therefore, suggests the refiguration of embodied sub-
ject and city, but it is not as yet a hyperscape in the fullest sense,
because both city and subject still retain a degree of unity and pres-
ence, which the hyperscape – in its radical remoulding of subject and
city – totally deconstructs. But in ‘In Memory of My Feelings’
(O’Hara 1979, pp. 252–57), the opening out of the space of the city
is much more radical: the poem is not set in New York, though the
city is ever present in snatches of gossip, in reminiscence and in other
cities. Ironically then, the most radical reformulation involves the
breakdown of the city and the dismemberment of subjectivity into a
huge network of parts and wholes which are endlessly on the move,
splitting apart and rejoining. Particularly relevant to this is Elizabeth
Grosz’s model of the interface between body and city:
What I am suggesting is a model of the relations between bodies and
cities that sees them, not as megalithic total entities, but as assemblages
or collections of parts, capable of crossing the thresholds between sub-
stances to form linkages, machines, provisional and often temporary
sub- or micro-groupings. This model is practical, based on the produc-
tivity of bodies and cities in defining and establishing each other. It is
not a holistic view, one that would stress the unity and integration of
city and body, their ‘ecological balance’. Rather, their interrelations
involve a fundamentally disunified series of systems, a series of dis-
parate flows, energies, events, or entities, bringing together or drawing
apart their more or less temporary alignments. (Grosz 1995, p. 108)

From Landscape to Hyperscape


In Chapter 3 I will analyse how metaphorical cohesion is constantly
broken down at a textual level in ‘In Memory of My Feelings’ through
68 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

metonymic/synecdochal substitution and rearrangement (see also


Smith 1995). Here I want to show how the breakdown of a unified self
and a totalised city allows for greater penetration between the two. For
example, the evocation of subjectivity as fluid, multiple and spatial (the
splintered subjectivity of Chapter 1) pushes to extremes, even exceeds,
the psychoanalytic framework which the poem invites.11 The poet’s
self becomes the splintered subjectivity discussed in Chapter 1, the
‘many selves’ of the poem which are both separate and part of him.
Here we could be in the Lacanian imaginary where consciousness
submit(s) to a discontinuity of aspect through continuous qualitative
changes … the Imaginary is everything in the human mind and its
reflexive life which is in a state of flux before the fixation is effected
by the symbol, a fixation which, at the very least, tempers the incessant
sliding of the mutations of being and of desire. (Lemaire 1977,
pp. 60–61)
Selves endlessly spawn, seem to come from no originating point, and
slide between different identifications. But they are also transparent,
that is, rather than reflecting back they can be seen through. Similarly,
the poem might be interpreted as evoking the Lacanian real, imaginary
and symbolic, but these realms are never discrete, sequential or stable:
they are constantly shifting, dividing and collapsing into each other.
Likewise the city proliferates into cities, such as Venice, Chicago
and Paris, and countries, such as Borneo and Persia; it also transforms
into sea and desert.12 However, these places are often conveyed only
through synecdochal substitution, for example by a racetrack, or a
snatch of gossip, or a street. The cities are also both internalised and
external, crossing between the imaginary and symbolic orders.

11. Breslin says: ‘“In Memory of My Feelings” shows what happens to the autobio-
graphical poem when the writer can no longer find any vantage point from
which to construct a sequential narrative or stable identity out of his experience.
The myth of psychoanalysis provided Lowell with an external perspective by
means of which he could detach himself from himself, resolve the series of losses
he records in Life Studies, disengage himself from the past, strip away projec-
tions, and, in “Skunk Hour” enter the disintegrating but substantial ground of
the present. No such things available for O’Hara, who always remains both
inside and outside himself, his past, his feelings, his present, his poem’ (Breslin
1990, p. 296).
12. Jonathan Rutherford suggests that ‘The desert as a metaphor of difference
speaks of the otherness of race, sex and class, whose presence and politics so
deeply divide our society’ (Rutherford 1990, p. 10).
The Hyperscape and Hypergrace 69

Not only are subjectivity and the city eroded as unified concepts,
but they interpenetrate each other. This is well illustrated by the
opening of the poem:
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.
My quietness has a number of naked selves,
so many pistols I have borrowed to protect myselves
from creatures who too readily recognize my weapons
and have murder in their heart!
‘In Memory of My Feelings’; (O’Hara 1979, pp. 252–53).
Here the poet inhabits the city but he has also introjected it. The
man in the gondola seems to be part of an imaginary city, but he also
carries the poet through the streets of the Venice of the symbolic
order. Constituted of differences, he is solid and transparent, single
and multiple, and has ‘likenesses’ which may, or may not, be the
poet’s selves. The quietness suggests the Lacanian real, the raw, inac-
cessible continuum of the psyche. But the man inhabits the poet’s
quietness and so do the poet’s selves: the real dissolves into the Lacan-
ian imaginary in which each term becomes its opposite and is lost in
the play of reflections. The selves totter between being ‘likenesses’ –
that is, aspects of the poet which resemble each other – or ‘identifica-
tions’, the poet’s assimilation and transformation of external models.
The poem, therefore, consists of an interface between mind, body
and city in which each can mould the other because each is multiple,
divisible and penetrable. But there is a difference here between the
reciprocity of remoulding and the threat of invasion. The reformula-
tion of embodied subject and city is therefore offset by the problems
which such invasions and appropriations create for that reformula-
tion. Numerous historical references to conquest pervade the poem,
though often inserted in passing in a campy, humorous manner. For
example, there are references to:
the mountainous-minded Greeks (who) could speak
of time as a river and step across it into Persia, leaving the pain
at home to be converted into statuary. I adore the Roman copies.
to the arrival of Columbus:
and my pony is stamping in the birches,
and I’ve just caught sight of the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria.
What land is this, so free?
70 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

to the Napoleonic wars:


For every seaman
with one eye closed in fear and twitching arm at a sigh for Lord Nelson
‘In Memory of My Feelings’ (O’Hara 1979) pp. 254–56.
and to the Second World War:
the German prisoners on the Prinz Eugen
dappled the Pacific with their sores, painted purple
by a Naval doctor.
‘In Memory of My Feelings’; (O’Hara 1979, p. 255).
These references to colonialism and invasion are also linked
through spatial metaphors to the attacks and defences of the psyche.
The selves have to use pistols to defend themselves and are continu-
ally on the alert for an attack; cities are desecrated or violently
changed for the better, as in the case of the French Revolution. In
addition, throughout the poem, hunts, races, migrations and wars
take the form of collusion with, and resistance to, competing mas-
culinities. These various different forms of aggression and defence
interconnect mind, body and place. So the race in which the selves
compete transforms into the hunt, and then into the Second World
War in which the poet fought:
One of me rushes
to window #13 and one of me raises his whip and one of me
flutters up from the center of the track amidst the pink flamingoes,
and underneath their hooves as they round the last turn my lips
as scarred and brown, brushed by tails, masked in dirt’s lust,
definition, open mouths gasping for the cries of the bettors for the lungs
of earth.
So many of my transparencies could not resist the race!
Terror in earth, dried mushrooms, pink feathers, tickets,
a flaking moon drifting across muddied teeth,
the imperceptible moan of covered breathing,
love of the serpent!
I am underneath its leaves as the hunter crackles and pants
and bursts, as the barrage balloon drifts behind a cloud
and animal death whips out its flashlight,
whistling
and slipping the glove off the trigger hand. The serpent’s eyes
redden at sight of those thorny fingernails, he is so smooth!
My transparent selves
The Hyperscape and Hypergrace 71

flail about like vipers in a pail, writhing and hissing


without panic, with a certain justice of response
and presently the aquiline serpent comes to resemble the Medusa.
2
The dead hunting
and the alive, ahunted.
My father, my uncle,
my grand-uncle and the several aunts. My
grand-aunt dying for me, like a talisman, in the war,
before I had even gone to Borneo
her blood vessels rushed to the surface
and burst like rockets over the wrinkled
invasion of the Australians, her eyes aslant
like the invaded, but blue like mine.
‘In Memory of My Feelings’; (O’Hara 1979, pp. 253–54).
In this way the poem becomes a hyperscape in which space is con-
tinually won and lost in the push and pull13 between interpenetration
and invasion of place. If this space is partially the product of violence
it also feeds on change, adaption and reversals: it is a parodic inver-
sion of Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ in which ‘the arid stretch is often the
richest’, the past has no greater claims than the present, and self
merges with city rather than being alienated from it.14 In many
respects it is the opposite of Jameson’s hyperspace, open-ended rather
than closed, structured rather than chaotic, a dynamic scape rather
than a space. Here mapping becomes the courage to keep redrawing
the map at every moment, often in ways which no one would recog-
nise as a place. It is perhaps what Steve Pile has in mind when he talks
about a form of mapping which is ‘not about putting clearly identifi-
able bodies or precisely defined power relations into their proper
place, but instead about a constant struggle to find a place which is not
marked by the longitude and latitude of power/knowledge’ (Pile
1996, p. 249). But it is also a text which hinges on the intersection
between signification and undecidability, metaphorical substitution
and metonymic displacement.
Fundamental to the whole poem is the passage in which the poet

13. See Chapter 6 for an exposition of the relevance of push and pull.
14. Richard Lehan discusses the way that postmodern novelists such as John Barth,
Robert Coover and Don DeLillo ‘undo the “wasteland myth,” the search for
meaning in the historical past, and the belief in a subject—that is, a conscious-
ness that centers meaning’ (Lehan 1998, p. 266).
72 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

plays on the name of his close friend, the painter Grace Hartigan, to
whom the poem is dedicated:
Grace
to be born and live as variously as possible. The conception
of the masque barely suggests the sordid identifications.
I am a Hittite in love with a horse. I don’t know what blood’s
in me I feel like an African prince I am a girl walking downstairs
in a red pleated dress with heels I am a champion taking a fall
I am a jockey with a sprained ass-hole I am the light mist
in which a face appears
and it is another face of blonde I am a baboon eating a banana
I am a dictator looking at his wife I am a doctor eating a child
and the child’s mother smiling I am a Chinaman climbing a mountain
I am a child smelling his father’s underwear I am an Indian
sleeping on a scalp
and my pony is stamping in the birches,
and I’ve just caught sight of the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.
What land is this, so free?
‘In Memory of My Feelings’; (O’Hara 1979, p. 256).
In this section grace transmutes into hypergrace, which I defined
earlier as the ability to move discontinuously and without fear between
different places, histories and sexual identities: a way of being in the
postmodern world. For the passage pushes Whitman’s ‘I contradict
myself … I contain multitudes’ to its postmodern conclusion. Here the
poet celebrates both cross-dressing and cross-cultural dressing: the bal-
ancing act of hypergrace becomes the performative adoption of a
plethora of sexual and racial identities which are not mutually exclu-
sive. The poet achieves a utopian hybridity, transforming effortlessly
from any era, race or sex to another, without one identity cancelling
any other out, and without any loss of social belonging. Furthermore,
the races and hunts in which nations, masculinities and selves compete,
dissolve into other forms of non-combative movement: walking,
falling and climbing. This is, however, an idealised state – or series of
states – which can never be perfectly realised because of physical and
cultural restrictions. At the end of the poem the lines:
and I have lost what is always and everywhere
present, the scene of my selves, the occasion of these ruses,
which I myself and singly must now kill
and save the serpent in their midst.
‘In Memory of My Feelings’; (O’Hara 1979, p. 257).
The Hyperscape and Hypergrace 73

suggest that there is an irreconcilable conflict between the serpent


and the scene of the selves. For the enigmatic serpent who appears
throughout the poem as phallic yet feminised, erect but coiled, single
but also multiple, is a symbol of ultimate difference. In order to
secure this difference it is necessary to kill ‘the scene of my selves’,
that is, a fixed sexual identity, an absolute sense of place, and writing
as closure.
The undulations of O’Hara’s hyperscapes are thrown into relief by
a comparison with Ashbery’s ‘Street Musicians’.
One died, and the soul was wrenched out
Of the other in life, who, walking the streets
Wrapped in an identity like a coat, sees on and on
The same corners, volumetrics, shadows
Under trees. Farther than anyone was ever
Called, through increasingly suburban airs
And ways, with autumn falling over everything:
The plush leaves the chattels in barrels
Of an obscure family being evicted
Into the way it was, and is. The other beached
Glimpses of what the other was up to:
Revelations at last. So they grew to hate and forget each other.
So I cradle this average violin that knows
Only forgotten showtunes, but argues
The possibility of free declamation anchored
To a dull refrain, the year turning over on itself
In November, with the spaces among the days
More literal, the meat more visible on the bone.
Our question of a place of origin hangs
Like smoke: how we picnicked in pine forests,
In coves with the water always seeping up, and left
Our trash, sperm and excrement everywhere, smeared
On the landscape, to make of us what we could.
‘Street Musicians’; (Ashbery 1987, p. 215)
This poem also disrupts the idea of a clearly mapped space, involves
discontinuities of time and place, and blurs the boundaries of self and
place. But there is also a fundamental difference, because there is not
the same dynamic tension in Ashbery’s poem between a sense of place
and non-place, between dislocation and reformulation, that there is
in O’Hara’s poetry. ‘Street Musicians’ involves a greater removal
from a specific sense of place and identity into a psychological
74 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

continuum without beginnings or ends, in which ‘Our question of a


place of origin hangs/Like smoke’. This psychological continuum –
which we might cast as the Lacanian real – is less polarised and dif-
ferentiated than that we find in ‘In Memory of My Feelings’. The
figure or spectre who walks the streets sees an unchanging, if elusive
landscape, ‘the same corners, volumetrics, shadows’, rather than one
that is subject to minute-by-minute transformation. Put another way,
the hyperscape, like virtual reality, is three-dimensional, whereas Ash-
bery’s landscapes are flatter and two-dimensional, like the written
page on which they rest.

Communities: A Community of Difference


So far we have seen how O’Hara’s poetry radically reformulates the
cityscape by allowing the embodied subject and city to continuously
remould each other. But to reach the extremes of the hyperspace in
O’Hara’s work is also to be propelled back into a sense of place again,
in one of the reversals which I have argued characterise O’Hara’s
poetry. The poet returns to a sense of place for the stability it brings,
even though he knows that this can never be sustained. In ‘Adieu to
Norman, Bon Jour to Joan and Jean-Paul’ (O’Hara 1979, pp. 328–9),
he rejoices that despite considerable change places remain:
the Seine continues
the Louvre stays open it continues it hardly closes at all
the Bar Américain continues to be French
‘Adieu to Norman, Bon Jour to Joan and Jean-Paul’;
(O’Hara 1979, p. 329)
This is, however, a fragile continuity since the closing hours of the
Louvre, or the existence of the bar, could easily change. In ‘Joe’s
Jacket’, likewise, the sleeping city is ‘bathed in an unobtrusive light
which lends things/coherence and an absolute’, though this is a tem-
porary state: the ‘penetrable landscape’ of the early part of the poem
cannot be sustained. Other poems are about the necessity of return-
ing to the city, even though being suspended from it can bring
temporary relief. In ‘Sleeping on the Wing’ (O’Hara 1979; pp. 235–
36), dreaming, which involves ‘soaring above the shoreless city’,
means liberation from urban confines and responsibilities so ‘Fear
drops away’ and the pull of gravity is suspended. But to soar above
the city is also to find oneself in an ‘impersonal vastness’ which is cold
The Hyperscape and Hypergrace 75

and isolating. It is necessary to descend both to the body and the city,
even though in swooping there is a certain loss:
you relinquish all that you have made your own,
the kingdom of your self sailing, for you must awake
and breathe your warmth in this beloved image
whether it’s dead or merely disappearing,
as space is disappearing and your singularity.
The poem suggests that in order to return to the city it is necessary to
begin to relate to others again. Consequently, it raises another way in
which the city can provide continuity: through a sense of community.
Yet this has to be a community in which difference and sharing coex-
ist. There is no one community but multiple overlapping communities.
The work of Iris Marion Young can act as a starting point for theo-
rising the concept of communities in O’Hara’s work. Young has
pointed out that a sense of community, which is often proposed as a
rebuttal to liberal individualism, is based on ideas of transcendental
unity – the transparency of subjects to each other and mutual sharing
– which need to be rethought. People are different from each other and
are also internally different: consequently nobody can totally under-
stand another person. The ideal of face-to-face community can often
be a way of avoiding politics and of excluding those experienced as
different. Young proposes instead an alternative ideal of city life: a
form of social relations which she defines as ‘a being together of
strangers’ (Young 1990b, p. 240). This includes difference as expressed
in the overlapping and intermingling of different social groups, and
public spaces as multi-functional. It also invites the eroticisation of the
city, that is, contact with a set of meanings that is different and unfa-
miliar. This brings a form of public life in which ‘differences remain
unassimilated, but each participating group acknowledges and is open
to listening to the others. The public is heterogeneous, plural, and
playful, a place where people witness and appreciate diverse cultural
expressions that they do not share and do not fully understand’ (Young
1990b, p. 241).
Sally Banes argues that an ideal of community, based on the myth-
ical Puritan model of tight religious, work-based and family bonds,
has been fundamental to American society (Banes 1993, p. 37). She
draws on the work of Bender, who reconceptualised community by
suggesting ‘that it is not a static social form that is disappearing, but
rather that new, dynamic, overlapping forms of small-scale networks
76 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

have arisen; that people’s lives have increasingly become mosaics


combining both communal and more impersonal associations
(gemeinschaft and gesellschaft, in standard social science terms)’
(Banes 1993, p. 37).
However, she posits that Greenwich Village in 1963 offered the
possibility for alternative forms of community, not entirely formu-
lated by Bender, ones which could include relationships forged from
choice rather than family. An urban environment was all-important:
Unlike the utopian back-to-the-land communitarians of the later Six-
ties, and equally unlike the generation of Abstract Expressionists of the
Fifties (who had moved out to the country to escape the city), their
visions for the most part were not pastoral, but urban. These artists
reinvented the village, but squarely in the city. For them, to find a
utopian feeling of communitas was perhaps only possible in the city, in
the forest of gesellschaft – with its system of relationships built on
choice – that in fact creates gemeinschaft by defining it as its own oppo-
site. Thus, it is not surprising that the conservative aspects of family and
small-town gemeinschaft dropped out of the progressive vision of the
community of Greenwich Village life. (Banes 1993, p. 39).
For Banes this change in how artists viewed the concept of
community was an important aspect of the postmodern revaluation of
the past.
Brad Gooch documents ideas about community in the work of Paul
Goodman, a therapist and gestalt psychologist who strongly influ-
enced O’Hara. Goodman’s advice to artists to create their own com-
munity, by writing for and about their friends, seems very similar to
O’Hara’s own practice:
O’Hara did not particularly need encouragement in writing about his
friends. But Goodman, in an article titled ‘Advance-Guard Writing,
1900–1950’ in The Kenyon Review of Summer 1951, argued that the
wisest move for the avant-garde in the present ‘shell-shocked’ society
was to reestablish a community of friends through art. ‘In literary terms
this means: to write for them about them personally,’ as Goodman put
it. ‘But such personal writing about the audience itself can occur only
in a small community of acquaintances … As soon as the intimate com-
munity does exist – whether geographically or not is relevant but not
essential – and the artists writes about it for its members, the advance-
guard at once becomes a genre of the highest integrated art, namely
occasional poetry – the poetry celebrating weddings, festivals, and
so forth. “Occasional poetry,” said Goethe, “is the highest kind.”’ A
The Hyperscape and Hypergrace 77

perfect example of such occasional poetry was O’Hara’s 1957 epithal-


amion, ‘Poem Read at Joan Mitchell’s,’ a form, according to Goodman,
that ‘heightened the everyday’. (Gooch 1993, p. 187).15
Different types of city-as-community permeate O’Hara’s poems,
providing a postmodern mix of communities which are nevertheless
largely alternatives to mainstream notions of community. One such
community is that of the coterie, the ‘face-to-face’16 community who
support each other, share in-jokes, gossip, and certain cultural tastes.
Membership of the coterie is fluid: people come and go. It is an elite
(you have to share certain values and interests to belong), which is
also a counter-elite (it consists largely of artists who talk about their
work, sometimes collaborate, and see themselves, at least partly, in
opposition to the mainstream). But other types of community emerge
in the poems: the sense of transient community with strangers we find
in the walk poems (rather like ‘the being together of strangers’ that
Young envisages); the gay community (a radical alternative to the
community of family); Greenwich Village as a community; and – in
contrast to the preceding – the more affluent entrepreneurial ethos of
the Museum of Modern Art. In O’Hara’s world these communities all
overlap.
The artistic community/coterie is a potent creative force because it
provides opportunities for the writing of poems, ‘It is 12.10 in New
York and I am wondering/if I will finish this in time to meet Norman
for lunch’ (O’Hara 1979, p. 328), and guarantees an audience for
their reception. In an interview with me Bill Berkson said, ‘The audi-
ence that Frank had was so tiny … Frank did publish poetry in
Evergreen Review and in Partisan Review, but the years when he pub-
lished in the Evergreen Review were the years before it became a kind
of mass-market magazine. He did publish in little magazines and give
poetry readings, there were just fewer of them. He never read at
St Marks – St Mark’s didn’t start until the year after he died’
(Berkson 1986b).
In fact, the way in which O’Hara creates his own reading commu-
nity, by sending or giving his poems to friends who are often the
subject of them, is a fascinating phenomenon in itself. We see here
how text life and real life cross over as friends become the occasions

15. O’Hara’s regard for Goodman’s work is documented in Gooch 1993, p. 186.
16. See also O’Hara, ‘the only truth is face to face’; ‘Ode Salute To the French Negro
Poets’ (O’Hara 1979, p. 305).
78 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

for poems but feature in them, and the poems themselves make or
break relationships. In interview Bill Berkson said that the ‘New York
School principle’ was that ‘you can’t maintain a friendship with some-
one whose work you don’t admire … you don’t just like someone’s
work because they are a friend of yours, those friendships broke up
on aesthetic grounds’ (Berkson 1986b).
The city-as-community, then, is multi-layered, fragile and open to
change: strangers in the street pass by, friendships split up, artists
come and go. The community has its excesses, like the host who com-
mits suicide in ‘Poem: The eager note on my door’ (O’Hara 1979, p.
14), as a form of hospitality. It also has its hostilities and hierarchies:
and Joe has a cold and is not coming to Kenneth’s
although he is coming to lunch with Norman
I suspect he is making a distinction
well, who isn’t
‘Adieu to Norman, Bon Jour to Joan and Jean-Paul’;
(O’Hara 1979, p. 328)
For there can be no ideal, monolithic city because that cannot, by
definition, exist. In ‘Ode To Joy’ (O’Hara 1979, p. 281), an appar-
ently utopian cityscape arises from extreme interpenetration of body
and city and results in an orgy of materialism and sexual excess:
Buildings will go up into the dizzy air as love itself goes in
and up the reeling life that it has chosen for once or all
while in the sky a feeling of intemperate fondness will excite the birds
to swoop and veer like flies crawling across absorbèd limbs
that weep a pearly perspiration on the sheets of brief attention
and the hairs dry out that summon anxious declaration of the organs
as they rise like buildings to the needs of temporary neighbours
pouring hunger through the heart to feed desire in intravenous ways
like the ways of gods with humans in the innocent combination of light
and flesh or as the legends ride their heroes through the dark to found
great cities where all life is possible to maintain as long as time
which wants us to remain for cocktails in a bar and after dinner
lets us live with it
No more dying
Evoked in a camp style which contrasts sharply with the apocalyp-
tic tone of Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’, this Dionysian and ecstatic landscape is
also self-defeating. It results in ‘no more dying’: suggesting that it is
the end, not only of physical death, but also of sexual satisfaction. At
The Hyperscape and Hypergrace 79

the opposite extreme is the city in ‘Ode to Michael Goldberg(’s Birth


and Other Births)’ (O’Hara 1979, pp. 290–98), which is a city ‘of
poverty and sweetness’ founded by slaves, but existing outside time,
place and history, removed from the urban hub. What does remain,
however, is the ground of negotiation between hyperspace and city,
and also hypergrace: mediation between the dream of liberty, an
economy of the familiar, and the anxieties of unknown spaces.
3

In Memory of Metaphor: Metonymic Webs


and the Deconstruction of Genre
each in asserting beginning to be more of the opposite (‘Ode on
Causality’; O’Hara 1979, p. 303).

In Chapter 1 I argued that the intensification and proliferation of


difference within O’Hara’s poetry produces a metonymic web of
association which is hypertextual in essence. This hypertextual/
metonymic network is the ground of the hyperscape discussed in
Chapter 2. In Chapter 1 I also discussed the way the hyperscape
engages modernist innovation and postmodern appropriation so that
O’Hara adopts genres, and then extends them beyond their apparent
limits. This chapter will amplify and cohere both of these lines of
inquiry. It will analyse how O’Hara’s poems explore difference at a
structural/technical level to such an extent that they produce intricate
webs of association similar to those of the hypertext. At the same
time, it will show how this hypertextual web arises from the disman-
tling of modernist genres and their subsequent recombination into a
postmodern synthesis.
More specifically, this chapter analyses the cohabitation within
certain O’Hara’s poems of three genres which might seem to be mutu-
ally incompatible: the anti-symbolic, symbolic and surreal. This
produces a literary hybridity which displaces the boundaries between
these different genres and calls into question their dissimilarity from
each other. Consequently, O’Hara’s poetry rocks the foundations of
any given genre, but at the same time bestows continuity between
what might seem to be radically different ones. My particular focus
will be the crossing over or ‘cross-dressing’ of the symbolic and the
surreal, which re-emerge not as binary opposites (one centripetal and
the other centrifugal), but as different sides of the same coin. I argue
that this cross-dressing can occur because of the deconstruction
within O’Hara’s work of figures of analogy (metaphor/symbol/simile)
In Memory of Metaphor 81

into part–whole relationships (synecdoche).1 The result is exchange


and inversion: symbolism in O’Hara’s poetry often disseminates
meaning, while surrealism assumes the unifying force which symbol-
ism lacks. But the breakdown of metaphorical cohesion results in
the release of a huge metonymic/synecdochal network of associa-
tions, forged through near and distant links as they are in hypertext.
This ‘intertwingling’ is neither completely surreal nor symbolic, but
arises out of the interface of anti-symbolic, surreal and symbolist
genres.
Over this discussion of the symbolic, surreal and the anti-symbolic
lie the shadows of the three modernist movements: French Symbol-
ism, French Surrealism and Imagism.2 The impact of these move-
ments on O’Hara has already been well discussed by Marjorie Perloff
(Perloff 1979) and is not my subject here. Rather, this chapter analy-
ses the technical means by which O’Hara combines these genres. In
this sense it also supports the argument of Chapter 1, that the exper-
imental postmodern aspect of O’Hara’s work has its basis in the
appropriation and parody of modernist modes.

Metaphor, Synecdoche
The crossover of symbolist and surrealist genres in O’Hara’s poetry
has important theoretical correlates. Several critics, most notably Paul
de Man, have pointed to the historical privileging of symbol over alle-
gory (de Man 1979; 1983). This partly occurred because the symbol
was thought to have unifying and transcendental powers, which
de Man argues are illusory. The deconstruction of the symbol has
mainly been applied by post-structuralist critics to analysis of roman-
tic poetry. But it is highly relevant to contemporary poetry where
symbolist modes have often been favoured, both by poets and critics,

1. Throughout this chapter I use the terms ‘synecdoche’ and ‘synecdochal’ to define
a particular type of metonymic relationship. That is, I use them to discuss part-
whole relationships and members of the same class (see subsequent discussion).
2. John Ashbery has said: ‘I never thought that I was a Surrealist and I doubt that
Frank would have either … But we were certainly very much influenced and
were “fellow travelers” of Surrealism. There were people like Charles Henri
Ford and Parker Tyler in the thirties and forties who wrote rather heavy-handed
approximations of French Surrealism. And there were undoubtedly others who
I think actually wanted to be thought of as Surrealists’ (quoted in Gooch 1993,
p. 146).
82 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

over surreal ones, because surrealist modes were semantically and


syntactically transgressive. The crossover of genre in O’Hara’s poetry,
therefore, parallels the post-structuralist overturning of symbolic
supremacy.
The poets of the New York School, the Beats and Black Mountain
poets all set themselves up in opposition to the technical aspects of
more traditionally conceived poetry. The most important aspect of
their stance was the downgrading of figures of analogy. (By figures of
analogy I am referring to metaphor, symbol and simile, all of which
involve a process whereby one object is viewed through another, so
that the similarities are foregrounded.) For these poets figures of anal-
ogy comprised ‘a language of disguise’ (Quartermain 1992, p. 100),
because they conveyed one idea only through the expression of
another. Analogy, it was felt, suppressed linguistic directness, but it
also inhibited semantic multiplicity. In Olson’s ‘Projective Verse’,
metaphor was subordinated to a poetics of metonymy. In the work of
the poets of the New York School metaphor often became submerged
or attenuated in a welter of multiple and hyperbolic comparisons, for
example, ‘I love you as a sheriff searches for a walnut/That will solve
a murder case unsolved for years’ (‘To You’; Koch 1985, p. 8); ‘Ter-
rific units are on an old man/In the blue shadow of some paint cans’
(‘Two Scenes’; Ashbery 1987, p. 3); and ‘This thoroughness whose
traditions have become so reflective,/your distinction is merely a quill
at the bottom of the sea/tracing forever the fabulous alarms of the
mute’ (‘Second Avenue’; O’Hara 1979, p. 139).
It is, however, impossible to excise metaphor altogether, for lan-
guage is intrinsically metaphorical: words always stand for other
things. In much conventional poetry, then, language-as-metaphor is
foregrounded and the poem proceeds through analogy or a series of
analogies. Yet the ground of the metaphor, similarity, is itself open to
deconstruction. Structuralist theory demonstrated that metaphor is
based on synecdochal transfer connections, that is, part–whole rela-
tionships. Thus the basis of metaphor is one of contiguity rather than
similarity.
This point is well illustrated by Jonathan Culler. As Culler puts it,
‘Metaphor is a combination of two synecdoches: it moves from a
whole to one of its parts to another whole which contains that part,
or from a member to a general class and then back again to another
member of that class’ (Culler 1975, pp. 180–81). Using the expres-
sion ‘Tired of the oak, I wandered’, Culler maps out diagrammatically
In Memory of Metaphor 83

the way in which the decoding of the metaphor will involve this kind
of movement for the reader:
member → class → member
oak → tall things → any tall person or object
strong things any strong person or object
whole → part → whole
oak → branches → anything with branches (banks?)
roots anything with roots
(Culler 1975, p. 181)
We can see this same operation at work in any metaphor: for exam-
ple, Sylvia Plath’s image of her bleeding thumb as ‘pink fizz’ in the
poem ‘Cut’ could be decoded by the operation member (champagne)
→ class (red liquids) → member (blood) (Plath 1981, pp. 235–36).
Paul de Man makes a similar point when he talks of the ‘general pat-
tern of substitution that all tropes have in common’, and when in his
analysis of a passage from Proust he says, ‘The synecdoche that
substitutes part for whole and whole for part is in fact a metaphor’
(de Man 1979, pp. 57–78).
This insight can be extended considerably further than it has been
by Culler and Paul de Man, because their comments mainly apply to
individual metaphors taken in isolation. In contrast, I want to analyse
the way synecdoche drives the structural dynamic within any given
poem. Where a poem comprises several different metaphors these
usually nod in the direction of an overall signified. But, at the same
time, the synecdoches which form the basis of the metaphors also
forge their own lines or chains of association which thread through
the poem.3 We can see this process at work in Sylvia Plath’s poem
‘Morning Song’ (Plath 1981, pp. 156–57):
Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.
Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue.
In a drafty museum, your nakedness
Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.
I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.

3. In discourse analysis these would be referred to as lexical strings. See Eggins


1994, p. 103.
84 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

All night your moth-breath


Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.
One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s. The window square
Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.
In this poem a plethora of metaphors (such as the child as a new
statue in a museum, or the mother as ‘cow-heavy and floral’) con-
tribute to the overall signified of the baby’s arrival and the emotions
of the parents. However, intratextual lines of association also run
between the metaphors, constituted of part/whole relationships or
members of the same class. For example, we can trace lines linked by
sound (echo, notes, cry); emptiness (blankly, effacement) and parts of
the body (mouth, footsoles, hand). It is also possible to pull some of
the other more distant elements in the poem into these chains, for
example, the gold watch in ‘Love set you going like a fat gold watch’
could be worn on a hand. These threads then intersect into a web of
association within the poem which pulls against the unifying and
externalising claims of metaphor. This contributes to the multi-
layered effect of the poem, and reinforces on a structural level the
tension between the centred emotions of joy, and the decentred feel-
ings of disturbance, experienced by the parents.
Synecdoche, then, is the bedrock of metaphor, but it is also the
foundation of all figures of analogy. Symbol, metaphor and simile can
be differentiated by the degree to which they make apparent the
ground of their comparison: symbol makes this least, and simile most,
explicit (Stephens and Waterhouse 1990, pp. 218–20). In addition a
symbol tends to infuse the whole poem, while metaphor and simile
tend to be more local.4 Crucial to my argument here, however, is not
so much the differences between metaphor, symbol and simile (and in
fact it is almost impossible to consistently retain a clear-cut distinc-
tion), but their similar roots in synecdoche.
The push and pull between metaphor and synecdoche, and the

4. ‘What then differentiates symbol from metaphor is that while metaphor has only
a local existence within the poem, the symbol informs the whole poem and can
subsume it, rather as a title does’ (Scott 1990, p. 209).
In Memory of Metaphor 85

degree to which synecdochal dispersal is subordinated to, or pre-


dominates over, metaphorical unity produces, in formal terms, the
differences and similarities between anti-symbolic, symbolic and sur-
real genres. In the following I will examine these genres, their basis in
synecdoche, and the way they intersect. To do this we need to look at
each genre in turn, and the way in which it is constantly exceeding its
own limits.

The Symbolic, Surreal and Anti-Symbolic


Paradoxically, the great poems of the symbolist movement, such as
Baudelaire’s ‘Correspondances’ and Mallarmé’s ‘Un Coup de Dés’,
show extreme looseness in their symbolic schemes. A symbolic poem
is, on the face of it, one that is marked by substitution and analogy:
its components usually lock into a symbolic scheme which unifies the
poems and points to an absent signified (e.g. a rose might point to
love). However, in most poems of this type, the symbolic scheme is
actually quite vacillatory, and the poem is always on the brink of dis-
persing into a web of synecdochal connections. In Wallace Stevens’s
poem ‘A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts’ (Stevens 1984, pp. 209–10),
neither the symbols nor the symbolic scheme are really so fixed, or so
clearly differentiated, as might first seem to be the case. At the begin-
ning of the poem the cat seems to signify sensual pleasure, the rabbit
the imagination. However, the cat’s appearance is inconsistent. Its
tongue is described as red, but it also has a green mind: this signifies
that the animal part of the self is capable of thought. In addition, the
rabbit and cat change places in the course of the poem. Whereas at the
beginning it is the cat who is large, ‘monumental’, and who finds har-
mony with the environment, ‘slopping its milk all day’, at the end it
is the rabbit who is humped up high ‘like a carving in space’ and who
subsequently moulds with the environment, ‘The grass is full/And full
of yourself ’. The apparent differences between cat and rabbit are
offset by similarities (both are members of the animal kingdom, furry,
and dwell in the natural environment).
In fact a synecdochal network, meshed by colour and shape, allows
the exchange between the cat and rabbit to take place. First, there is
a line of synecdochal association based on the colour green (green
mind, green cat), and one based on red (red tongue, red cat), with an
obvious intersection and exchange between the two: the cat is both
red and green. Secondly, there is a line formed from shape (‘shapeless
86 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

shadow’, ‘monument of cat’, ‘humped up high’) which again creates


an exchange between cat and rabbit: the rabbit becomes the monu-
mental one. Thirdly, there is a line concerned with thought (‘the
difficulty to think at the end of the day’, ‘green mind’, ‘there is noth-
ing to think of ’) which crosses over between the rabbit and the cat.
The synecdochal network which results pulls against the symbolic
import of the poem. It produces exchange between features of the cat
and the rabbit, and deconstructs the symbolic relationship between
mind and body.
Unlike symbolism, French Surrealism aimed, in both the visual and
verbal arts, to dislocate normal ways of viewing the world through
unexpected juxtapositions. When poets engaged with surrealism lin-
guistically, they generally maximised the arbitrary relationship
between signifiers and signifieds in order to set new signifieds in
motion. The effect was a drastic yet liberating pulverisation of the
poem as a unified object into localised, heterogeneous images. The
result, however, is not total anarchy. Rather, an archetypal surrealist
poem consists of a complex network of synecdochal association
where the relationships between whole and part become increasingly
distant, creating what we might call ‘new metonymies’, new forms of
association. The breathtakingly unexpected juxtapositions character-
istic of surrealist poems are often the result of synecdochal sequences
in which the intervening terms are absent, or spring up elsewhere
in the poem. For example, in the opening of André Breton’s ‘The
Spectral Attitudes’:
I attach no importance to life
I pin not the least of life’s butterflies to importance
I do not matter to life
But the branches of salt the white branches
All the shadow bubbles
And the sea-anemones
(Germain 1978, pp. 117–19)
the words life and branch could arise out of the synecdochal
sequence life–nature–tree–branch. In fact, the tree (the missing part
in the synecdochal line) shoots up elsewhere in the poem: ‘I cut and
cleave the wood of this tree that will always be green’, and is affiliated
to several other synecdochal strings. These structural continuities
counterbalance the dispersal of meaning as part/whole relationships
proliferate in the synecdochal web.
In Memory of Metaphor 87

In a poem which hinges on surrealist images, then, the relation-


ship between part and whole is generative and transformative; there
is an abundance of intersecting synecdochal lines; parts and wholes
pair off in non-hierarchical conjunctions; and no whole is priori-
tised over the parts. A synecdoche does not stand in for one whole
but several, and parts and wholes form short-term polygamous
liaisons both within and across synecdochal paths. This means that
in a surrealist poem, almost anything can be connected with any-
thing else.5
However, the poem still retains the vestiges of continuity. For
example, in the passage:
The wolves are clothed in mirrors of snow
I have a boat detached from all climates
I am dragged along by an ice-pack with teeth of flame
snow and ice (types of weather) are linked by synecdochal associa-
tion. This localised continuity is not sustained; if it was the poem
would draw closer to a symbolic synthesis. But it indicates that the
possibility of unification is ever present. A poem which might seem to
be a scrap heap of random juxtapositions is, in fact, an interlocking
network in which non-logical, non-sequential continuities can be
traced through synecdochal association.
Reacting against Symbolism and Surrealism, Imagism focused on
the object itself rather than possible symbolic overtones. For William
Carlos Williams this concentration on the object was epitomised in
the maxim ‘no ideas but in things’, the essence of the anti-symbolic
poem. Such a poem courts minimalism: it suppresses symbolic over-
tones by focusing on a single action and/or a series of actions which
does not suggest a symbolic design or evoke traditional symbolic con-
notations. But this suppression can only be partial because the part
always hints at an absent whole. We can see this operation at work in
William Carlos Williams’s ‘Poem’ (Williams 1976, p. 70):

5. For an excellent discussion of the non-hierarchical nature of the surrealist image


see Ward 1993, pp. 73–74. Ward says: ‘In Surrealist metaphor, two terms are
juxtaposed so as to create a third which is more strangely potent than the sum
of the parts. This happens because the different sources of the terms are paraded
as such flagrantly, rather than smoothed over by context or familiar usage. It
could be said that a Surrealist metaphor is a collage in minature … Surrealist fig-
uration achieves its strange resonances by oscillating undecidably between
metaphor and metonymy, between implications of deep and layered space.’
88 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

As the cat
climbed over
the top of
the jamcloset
first the right
forefoot
carefully
then the hind
stepped down
into the pit of
the empty
flowerpot
This poem is anti-symbolic in the sense of cinematically imaging
the mundane behaviour of a cat. In spite of this the reader will still
read the text somewhat metaphorically, and is likely to transfer cer-
tain human characteristics, such as control and care, to the cat’s
behaviour. In fact, the nostalgia for the absent whole is hard to
repress. Even Williams’s famous ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ begins with
the words ‘so much depends’, suggesting that the wheelbarrow
implies more than just itself (Williams 1976, p. 57).
Symbolic, surreal and anti-symbolic genres are, therefore, not self-
contained but ‘cross-dress’. In the following we will see how O’Hara’s
poetry uniquely locates the limits of the anti-symbolic, symbolic and
surreal, and activates the point at which each opens out into the other.
As a result intertextuality transforms into intra-textual hybridity. The
poems which will be the focus of the discussion are ‘Chez Jane’, ‘In
Memory of My Feelings’ and ‘Easter’.

‘Chez Jane’
‘Chez Jane’ (O’Hara 1979, p. 102), which is based on a single inci-
dent (a cat urinating into a pot), is, in one sense, anti-symbolic. It cen-
tres on the behaviour of the domestic pet or ‘puss’ who nonchalantly
disregards the human values of privacy and propriety. Many of the
images can be explained in purely practical terms, e.g. the white
chocolate jar was one of a type of dutch cocoa jar normally used as a
vase; it was customary to drop aspirin into vases to make flowers last
longer; and four o’clocks are a type of flower of variegated colour.6

6. Information about the origin of these details is given in Perloff 1979, pp. 63–65.
In Memory of Metaphor 89

But in fact the poem, in a camp larger-than-life fashion, elevates the


cat to symbolic status: the tiger becomes an example of a surbol, char-
acterised in Chapter 1 as part surface, part symbol. The symbolic
effect is attained by aggrandizing him. He becomes a tiger with
stripes, he is reflective, ‘mentally flexing’ and temperamental, ‘mar-
vellously striped and irritable’. Consequently the cat/tiger can be
viewed as a symbol of the creative artist and his conflicting character-
istics: he is down to earth and sophisticated, reflective and active,
human and animal, Pop Artist and Abstract Expressionist painter. An
amusing incident takes on deeper implications. At the same time the
poem satirises the romantic idea of artistic genius and parodies sym-
bolism.
But the tiger’s conflicting characteristics are pushed to breaking
point and ultimately disrupt his symbolic status. The symbol veers
from one extreme to another, disallowing any peaceful New Critical
reconciliation of opposites. One moment the tiger is mentally flexing,
the next moment he is a ‘brute beast’. In fact, the characteristics he
signifies are so contradictory, and the effects of his actions so disen-
gaged from their causes, that he could signify almost anything.
Not only does the poem undermine the symbolic stability of the
tiger, but it also fails to differentiate him from everything else in the
poem so that he has a fixed position in a symbolic scheme. The white
chocolate jar is as active as the tiger himself:
The white chocolate jar full of petals
swills odds and ends around in a dizzying eye
of four o’clocks now and to come.
Similarly, music scratches its ‘scrofulous/stomach’ (merging here with
the image of the cat himself) and the flowers dazzle with their ‘breath-
less attention’. The jar transforms into the pot, and the room into the
studio. As the poem progresses it becomes more and more difficult to
attribute agents to actions, or causes to effects. In a dizzy succession
of interpenetrating and highly entertaining images it is unclear who
dropped aspirin in this sunset of roses, who throws a chair in the air,
and what or who the exact peril is:
the brute beast emerges and stands,
clear and careful, knowing always the exact peril
at this moment caressing his fangs with
a tongue given wholly to luxurious usages;
which only a moment before dropped aspirin
90 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

in this sunset of roses, and now throws a chair


in the air to aggravate the truly menacing.
The passage is a maelstrom of grammatically ambiguous, undiffer-
entiated possibilities. The agent of the aspirin could be the tongue,
luxurious usages or the exact peril; the chair could be thrown in the
air by the exact peril, luxurious usages or the sunset of roses; the exact
peril could be the tiger’s mistress or his internal dilemma. No partic-
ular interpretation of any passage would be any more viable than its
opposite; any interpretive decision would depend on previous deci-
sions which were equally arbitrary. The exact peril, for example,
could be either practical or psychological; throwing a chair in the air
a destructive act or a creative discovery; dropping aspirin into this
sunset of roses the attempt to either subdue or intensify experience.
A radical undecidability pervades the poem which could be seen to
signify creativity or destructiveness, order or chaos. As the poem
erupts into surrealism, it is impossible to pull it in any consistent
direction without being pushed by other possibilities.
This disruption of the symbolic import has two causes: the break-
down of the whole into parts, and the substitution of one member of
a class for another. Synecdochal substitution is so abundant here that
synecdoche start to join with synecdoche to create new conjunctions,
and everything becomes potentially connected to everything else.
Thus the poem illustrates the interdependence of metaphor/
symbol/simile and synecdoche discussed above. As the symbolic
scheme is pushed to an extreme where similarity becomes more and
more promiscuous, synecdochal associations start to predominate.
Synecdochal connective lines can be traced through the poem:
eye–stomach–tongue–fangs–nuts (parts of the body); Saint-Saëns-
music (Saint-Saëns is a member of the general class, music);
petals–roses–four o’clocks (the class of flowers); jar, pot (the class of
container); four o’clocks and eternally fixed afternoon (parts of the
day); tiger–puss (members of the animal family). These lines cross
over each other, creating conjunctions which are humorous, because
unlikely. For example, the body and musical lines intersect as music
which scratches its scrofulous stomach, and the urine which whispers
Saint-Saëns. ‘Four o’clocks’, because it suggests both a time and a
flower, belongs to both connective lines.
This intersection of the synecdochal lines creates a complex inter-
nal hypertextual/metonymical web which pulls mercilessly against
In Memory of Metaphor 91

the symbolic cohesion of the poem. The text hangs between signify-
ing the incident and signifying itself, between representation of a
room and a mini-hyperscape in which time and place are dislocated.
As a result the poem does not merely point to its meaning but
enacts it, pushing us as readers in and out of difference and similarity,
structure and subject. It ultimately comments on the creative process
itself, which it projects as a combination of accident, conscious
procedure and unconscious outpouring. Such a process cannot be
conveyed through a static symbolic scheme, because it is improvised
and of the moment, not fixed and transcendental. So the poem also
makes us creative, as we assemble synecdochal sequences as symbol-
ism, and then allow them to fall apart again into surrealism. We must
be actors in the writing process, rather than merely readers. For ‘Chez
Jane’ demonstrates that life has to be experienced in the present,
rather than being merely witnessed, written about, or recollected in
tranquillity.

‘In Memory of My Feelings’


In the previous chapter ‘In Memory of My Feelings’ was analysed as
a hyperscape which arises at the interface of body and city, but here I
want to demonstrate the technical basis of the hyperscape. Important
to this analysis is the difference between a surreal landscape and the
hyperscape: the hyperscape includes the ‘real’ as well as the surreal.
‘In Memory of My Feelings’ (O’Hara 1979, pp. 252–57) could be
said to take the symbolic poem to its extremes, since symbols appar-
ently proliferate within it. But the non-symbolic and surreal impinge
upon the symbolic, and the poem moves between, and interrelates, all
three modes. Throughout the poem this ‘cross-dressing’ is all-perva-
sive. While some passages, such as the opening of the poem, might
strike us as heavily figurative, other passages appear less so:
I’m looking for my Shanghai Lil.
Five years ago, enamored of fire-escapes, I went to Chicago,
an eventful trip: the fountains! the Art Institute, the Y
for both sexes, absent Christianity.
At 7, before Jane
was up, the copper lake stirred against the sides
of a Norwegian freighter; on the deck a few dirty men,
tired of night, watched themselves in the water
as years before the German prisoners on the Prinz Eugen
dappled the Pacific with their sores, painted purple
92 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

by a Naval doctor.
(O’Hara 1979, p. 255)
Throughout O’Hara mixes metaphor, symbol and simile and
deconstructs the difference between them. The notion of what figu-
rative language is, and how it functions, is constantly reworked. For
example, in the passage:
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.
(O’Hara 1979, p. 252)
quietness contains the man, rather than the man signifying quietness.
Similarly, in the strings of similes such as ‘he has several likenesses,
like stars and years, like numerals’, the sharpness of one to one com-
parison is lost.
In fact, in their promiscuous similarity and consequent non-speci-
ficity, the symbols are self-deconstructing. In particular, the serpent is
not sketched in with the explicit detail or consistency which would be
needed for him to form the basis of an analogy. He flashes in and out
of the poem in fragmentary images which do not add up to an over-
all picture: his eyes redden at the sight of thorny fingernails, he is
aquiline and comes to ‘resemble the Medusa’, he leaves ‘a globe of
spit on a taut spear of grass’, at the end he survives amidst a tangle of
selves. When a comparison is made between him and anything else it
is inexplicit:
And now it is the serpent’s turn.
I am not quite you, but almost, the opposite of visionary.
(O’Hara 1979, p. 256)
or
When you turn your head
can you feel your heels, undulating? that’s what it is
to be a serpent.
(O’Hara 1979, p. 256)
The serpent also produces highly contradictory reactions. Section
One alludes to ‘love of the serpent’ but the serpent also comes ‘to
resemble the Medusa’, implying that he can turn those who look at
him to stone. The serpent cannot be said to represent anything con-
sistent and continually casts the shadow of its opposite: it could stand
In Memory of Metaphor 93

for god or the devil, art or chaos. Embodying difference but not sim-
ilarity, it is simultaneously both mythical symbol and its parodic
deconstruction.
Similarly, the selves, who are the poetic realisation of the splintered
self discussed in Chapter 1, do not form a consistent metaphor. They
are sometimes implied to be alike since they are all transparent and
‘flail about like vipers in a pail’. At other times they dress up in their
differences:
I am a Hittite in love with a horse. I don’t know what blood’s
in me I feel like an African prince …
(O’Hara 1979, p. 256)
The poem also moves between the voice of the self, the ‘I’ of the
poem, and the splintered selves. Sometimes, as in the above passage,
the first person is used but subjectivity seems divided. The ultimate
conjunction of singularity and multiplicity is to be found in the word
‘himselves’ in Section Three.
In fact the poem, like ‘Chez Jane’ but on a much larger scale, is con-
structed round a number of synecdochal chains.7 These intersect with
each other as a neo-hypertextual web and are the basis of the hyper-
scape discussed in Chapter 2. They include the serpent chain; the
selves chain; the hunt chain (‘the hunter crackles and pants/and
bursts’, ‘animal death whips out its flashlight’, ‘The dead hunting/and
the alive, ahunted,’ ‘fleeing a hunter’); the war chain (‘the barrage bal-
loon’, ‘My/grand-aunt dying for me, like a talisman, in the war’, ‘war
hero’, ‘the German prisoners’, ‘the bush full of white flags’, ‘a guer-
rilla warrior’); the race chain (‘the center of the track’, ‘my trans-
parencies could not resist the race!’, ‘racing into sands’, ‘as runners
arrive from the mountains’); the desert chain (‘in the desert/taste of
chilled anisette’; ‘the most arid stretch is often richest’; ‘his mistress
will follow him across the desert’). However, these chains are contin-
ually merging then diverging.
Again the cross-dressing between symbolism and surrealism occurs
because the poem activates the interdependence of symbol/
metaphor/simile and synecdoche. Synecdoche continually substitutes
for the whole; for example, the serpent is mainly presented in terms
of body parts (his eye, his tail, his spit). A synecdoche in one chain can

7. Alan Feldman uses the concept of image chains to discuss the poem, but he does
not analyse the poem in terms of wholes and parts (Feldman 1979, pp. 92–97).
94 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

therefore join together with a synecdoche in another. Unexpected


conjunctions of parts form new wholes and the hierarchy of whole
and part is itself questioned: for example, each self is a new whole and
at the beginning of the poem an apparent ‘whole’, a man, is contained
within ‘my quietness’. In addition one member of a class is sometimes
substituted for another, so the serpent resurfaces as vipers, plate of
devils and the Medusa.
This breakdown of wholes into parts creates a vast network of asso-
ciation in the poem which keeps it incessantly mobile. The synec-
dochal network functions in a number of ways, as follows.
1 Different parts are substituted for each other within a particular
chain, so that the chain itself is always transforming. For example,
the tongue and tail in Section Four seem to substitute for the ser-
pent. In addition, some of the parts belong to more than one
chain; for example, the guns or weapons are also part of the hunt
and the war chain.
2 Parts from different synecdochal chains are juxtaposed, creating a
quick transition from one to the next. For example, in the passage:
I am underneath its leaves as the hunter crackles and pants
and bursts, as the barrage balloon drifts behind a cloud
and animal death whips out its flashlight,
whistling
and slipping the glove off the trigger hand. The serpent’s eyes
redden at sight of those thorny fingernails, he is so smooth!
(O’Hara 1979, p. 253)
there is a rapid transition from hunt to war, to hunt to serpent.
This transition creates a merging of the hunt, war and serpent
image chains.
3. A part in one chain may be transferred to another where its sig-
nificance is transformed: so the trigger hand in Section One turns
into ‘the hand lifting towards a fig tree from hunger’ in Section
Three. Similarly, the tails of the horse in Section One become the
tail of the (implied) serpent in Section Four:
Beneath these lives
the ardent lover of history hides,
tongue out
leaving a globe of spit on a taut spear of grass
and leaves off rattling his tail a moment
to admire this flag.
(O’Hara 1979, p. 255)
In Memory of Metaphor 95

4 A part which might seem to belong to one image chain is included


in another: for example when guns and weapons from the hunt
and war chains are used to attack and defend the selves:
My quietness has a number of naked selves,
so many pistols I have borrowed to protect myselves
from creatures who too readily recognize my weapons
and have murder in their heart!
(O’Hara 1979, p. 253)
5 Members of the same class form connecting links between differ-
ent chains, e.g. water vehicles such as a gondola, a rusted barge
and a Norwegian freighter.
6 The chains are linked by analogy; for example, in Section One,
where ‘My transparent selves/flail about like vipers in a pail’ (with
the added complication that here the word ‘vipers’ substitutes for
serpent as a member of the same class). These comparisons often
obscure more than they elucidate, as in the following passage,
where the serpent seems both like and unlike the ‘I’ of the poem:
And now it is the serpent’s turn.
I am not quite you, but almost, the opposite of visionary.
(O’Hara 1979, p. 256)
7 Finally, the implied whole of any particular part can be referred to
as such in other contexts in the poem. For example, the hooves
and tails in Section One become the horse on the frieze, and the
horse that the Hittite is in love with, in Section Four.
In sum, there is an internal network of synecdochal association which
means that anything can be joined to, or substituted for, anything else,
in an endless process of displacement. This means that new conjunc-
tions are continually being forged and the poem opens out into sur-
realism. Names, places and historical allusions do not produce a fixed
sense of time or topography. Nevertheless, the poem never disrupts
into total surrealism for, when it seems as if it might, the recurring
symbols bring it back nearer to symbolism. The poem culminates in a
simultaneous assertion and cancelling of all the possibilities. For the
speaker has both lost his selves and must kill them, must create art but
cannot remember it:
And yet
I have forgotten my loves, and chiefly that one, the cancerous
statue which my body could no longer contain,
against my will
against my love
96 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

become art,
I could not change it into history
and so remember it,
and I have lost what is always and everywhere
present, the scene of my selves, the occasion of these ruses,
which I myself and singly must now kill
and save the serpent in their midst.
(O’Hara 1979, p. 257)
The effect of this movement between symbolism and surrealism
and the anti-symbolic in the poem, is that we repeatedly lose and
regain a sense of an overall signified and an absent whole. Yet the
open-ended, dispersing aspect of the poem engages us in the process
of creating meaning. In this way structure becomes meaning, for
memory is not a container which holds a quantifiable number of
memories, but a stream to which we are continually adding and sub-
tracting. Memory is the means by which the past lives on in the
present and continuously interacts with it, and past fantasies and feel-
ings may be as real as events in the way they influence the present. The
poem becomes the unconscious, in which memories, events and feel-
ings bond, fall apart and re-form. The poem-as-memory consequently
becomes a large hypertextual web in which historical and personal
memory are inextricably linked. The serpent is coiled round the cen-
tral figure (who is only mentioned once almost as if by accident) in an
image which ambiguously implies both hugging and strangulation.
The poem suggests there is no goal, endpoint or object of desire
which can be reached: moments of intense feeling, understanding and
erotic pleasure give meaning to our lives but these ebb and flow, just
as the words of the poem resist continuous and unified interpretation.
Therefore, ‘In Memory of My Feelings’, like ‘Chez Jane’, both sig-
nifies and embodies its meaning. Its structure takes us into the activ-
ity of emotion: we participate in how it feels to feel.

‘Easter’
In some respects ‘Easter’ (O’Hara 1979, pp. 96–100) is an archetypal
surreal poem. Whereas Breton in ‘The Spectral Attitudes’ normally
creates one unexpected conjunction in a single line, O’Hara some-
times brings together several, thereby creating a very dense and
accumulative effect. For example, in the lines ‘slowly bleeding a quiet
filigree on the leaves of that souvenir’ or ‘a self-coral serpent wrapped
round an arm with no jujubes’ or ‘a mast of the barcantine lost
In Memory of Metaphor 97

flaming bearer of hurricanes’, a rapid refocusing takes place several


times. This quick succession of unusual images creates a powerful
impression of accumulation and density.8 In ‘Easter’ bodily and envi-
ronmental objects and events are torn from their contexts and joined
together in new carnivalesque combinations such as ‘The perforated
mountains of my saliva leave cities awash’ or ‘floods of crocodile piss
and pleasures of driving’ to create a dense tumultuous landscape of
environmental and human parts. These conjunctions retain the non-
hierarchical basis typical of surrealism. Difference permeates ‘Easter’:
even where there is repetition, immediate transformation of one of
the terms of the conjunction resists the consistency that repetition
might create:
an army of frigates
an army of cocks
an army of wounds
an army of young married couples’ vanilla hemorrhages
(O’Hara 1979, p. 98)
Yet at the same time as pushing surrealism to its furthest extreme,
O’Hara also exposes its limits. For despite the heterogeneity of the
images they nearly all contain bodily parts or functions. Despite the
continual transformations throughout the poem, a strong impression
of the physical dominates it: all the bodily and natural parts are
involved in compulsive dynamic activity which explicitly (‘shadows of
prairie pricks dancing’) or implicitly (‘the sea swallowing tumultuous
islands’) suggests sexual and excretory activity. Thus a perverse cohe-
sion arises, which is contrary to the project of surrealism and is akin
to symbolism, in that it suggests the possibility of an overall but absent
signified. This signified is the relationship of physical and spiritual
existence suggested both by the title and the reference to Easter near
the end of the poem:

8. O’Hara’s remarks about Pollock’s painting ‘Male and Female’ are relevant to my
argument that surrealism in O’Hara’s work arises through non-specificity and
multiplicity: ‘The sexual imagery is extraordinarily complex in that it seems to
be the result of the superimposition of the protagonists at different stages of
their relationship. They are not double-images in the routine Surrealist sense,
but have a multiplicity of attitudes. At different times one sees them facing each
other, then both facing in the same direction (to the left), then with their backs
to each other but the memory of the confrontation vivid in their appearance’
(O’Hara 1975, p. 20).
98 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

I have sunk my tongue in the desperation of her blood


strangely her features are Easter
and the balm of Easter floods, my tongue’s host
a rivulet of purple blood runs over the wise hands
of sobbing infants.
(O’Hara 1979, p. 99)
Read in this way ‘Easter’ seems to invert the traditional idea of
Easter as resurrection of the body through the spirit, and to set into
motion images whose physicality suggests the resurrection of the
spirit through the body, the rehabilitation of the world through bodily
excess.9 In this way Easter celebrates and anticipates the ‘effervescent
body’ – characterised by ‘digestion, excretion, procreation, and
death’ – which Sally Banes argues is a strong feature of avant-garde
art in the early 1960s (Banes 1993, p. 191).10
‘Easter’, therefore, suggests a symbolic unity which arises in the
midst of surrealist conjunctions, but which is a parody of symbol as a
form of transcendental unification. Again this occurs because of a
synecdochal network within the poem. The landscape of:
floods of crocodile piss and pleasures of driving
shadows of prairie pricks dancing
of the roses of Pennsylvania looking in eyes noses and ears
(O’Hara 1979, p. 97)
with its:

9. Kenneth Koch’s comments on ‘Easter’, in Koch 1980, p. 27, show a perception


of the poem which is similar to my own: ‘Another of his works which burst on
us all like a bomb then was “Easter”, a wonderful, energetic, and rather obscene
poem of four or five pages, which consists mainly of a procession of various
bodily parts and other objects across a vast landscape. It was like Lorca and
Whitman in some ways, but very original. I remember two things about it which
were new: one was the phrase “the roses of Pennsylvania”, and the other was the
line in the middle of the poem which began “It is Easter!” (Easter, though it was
the title, had not been mentioned before in the poem and apparently had noth-
ing to do with it.) What I saw in these lines was 1) inspired irrelevance which
turns out to be relevant (once Frank had said “It is Easter!” the whole poem was
obviously about death and resurrection); 2) the use of movie techniques in
poetry (in this case coming down hard on the title in the middle of a work); 3)
the detachment of beautiful words from traditional contexts and putting them
in curious new American ones (“roses of Pennsylvania”).’
10. The discussion of the relationship between camp and the carnivalesque in Chap-
ter 4 is also relevant to this poem.
In Memory of Metaphor 99

Boom of pregnant hillsides


awash with urine
(O’Hara 1979, p. 99)
is a conglomeration of parts and wholes; of the countryside, the city
and bodies. Parts and wholes are joined on a non-hierarchical basis,
since everything is potentially a whole made up of parts, and a part of
the whole. The whole world, consequently, is seen performing a
single act ‘when the world has walked the tightrope that ties up our
eyes’. The different parts are joined in widely variegated ways but the
sources are the environment or the body. So the phrase ‘the perfo-
rated mountains of my saliva’ moves from mountains (nature) to
saliva (human) to cities (man-made). The synecdochal landscape
therefore hovers on the brink of forming a new whole which is sym-
bolic. On the one hand, unconventional synecdochal conjunctions or
‘new metonymies’ continually pull the poem towards the surrealist
pole. On the other hand, body parts (flesh, orifices, asses, buttocks,
cocks, breast, pricks, cunts, scrotum, testicles); bodily secretions
(saliva, piss, urine, blood, come, shit) and bodily activities (fucked,
swallowing, appetites, relieving, pelted) are so persistent that they
begin to fit together and to congeal with each other, reasserting them-
selves as part of a unified whole, a dynamic landscape which is also a
heaving, abject and grotesque body. This poem then, demonstrates
the reverse movement to that of ‘In Memory of My Feelings’.
Whereas in the latter poem symbolism turns over into surrealism, in
‘Easter’ surrealism turns over into symbolism, locating and activating
the potential for the synecdochal network to become unified and
cohesive.
Such an analysis, I think, helps us to understand in more detail the
dynamic interplay which we find in the hyperscape between significa-
tion and its breakdown, absence and presence, metaphor and
metonymy, representation and abstraction. This is reflected in the
movement between the promise of unity in symbolism, its breakdown
in surrealism, or abandonment in the anti-symbolic mode. Readers
are caught between deconstruction and reconstruction: they are con-
tinually propelled by the disintegration of meaning towards another
possibility of meaning, and, as such, they actively participate in the
construction of the poem.
This is very different from the sensation of reading one of Ash-
bery’s early poems, ‘“They Dream Only of America”’:
100 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

They dream only of America


To be lost among the thirteen million pillars of grass:
‘This honey is delicious
Though it burns the throat.’
And hiding from darkness in barns
They can be grownups now
And the murderer’s ash tray is more easily—
The lake a lilac cube.
He holds a key in his right hand.
“Please,” he asked willingly.
He is thirty years old.
That was before
We could drive hundreds of miles
At night through the dandelions.
When his headache grew worse we
Stopped at a wire filling station.
Now he cared only about signs.
Was the cigar a sign?
And what about the key?
He went slowly into the bedroom.
“I would not have broken my leg if I had not fallen
Against the living room table. What is it to be back
Beside the bed? There is nothing to do
For our liberation, except wait in the horror of it.
And I am lost without you.”
(‘“They Dream Only of America”’; Ashbery 1962, p. 33)
In this poem there is one very obvious metonymic string (burns/ash
tray/cigar) and the possibility of one or two others (sign/key), but on
the whole new metonymies proliferate, constantly pushing the poem
outward. There is therefore considerably less sensation of the poem
being pulled back into metaphorical cohesion than there is, for exam-
ple, in ‘Chez Jane’. A number of critics have attempted to read this
poem metaphorically, but the poem does not lend itself as a whole to
metaphorical interpretation. ‘“They Dream Only of America”’ inhab-
its the extremes of deconstruction; it does not move in and out of
deconstruction and reconstruction.
This is different from the sensation of reading a poem like ‘Chez
Jane’ where the reader is constantly pulling the poem into different
In Memory of Metaphor 101

shapes. In fact the process of reading O’Hara’s poems, and moving


through their metonymic webs, is rather like that experienced by the
reader of a hypertext. In a sophisticated hypertext different links
suggest alternative pathways so that the reader assembles a new text
each time. In addition, there is no beginning or end and no absolute
totality: the whole work can never be absolutely grasped and it is rare
that a reader reaches every section. While O’Hara’s poetry sits on the
page in a linear fashion, and has a definite beginning and end, its
format is in fact topographical. For, as I have shown, there are numer-
ous overlapping links in the poem. These not only send the reader
down different possible experiential and interpretative pathways, but
also create meanings which circle round the reading space and disrupt
its horizontal dimension. It is this process which forms the mechanics
of the hyperscape, and which forces readers not only to bear witness
to difference, but to become implicated in that difference themselves.
4

The Gay New Yorker:


The Morphing Sexuality
Grace/to be born and live as variously as possible (‘In Memory of My
Feelings’; O’Hara 1979, p. 256)

In Chapter 2 we saw how sexual difference and sexual adaptability are


important components of the hyperscape. In fact, sexual identity in
O’Hara’s poetry is characterised by difference: it loops, bends and
splinters but never crystallises. In this chapter, I propose that O’Hara
is a non-essentialist gay poet whose work presents a ‘morphing’ sexu-
ality, in which one type of sexuality continuously turns into another.1
This produces an ongoing reworking, fundamental to the hyperscape,
of the ontological categories masculine/feminine, friendship/sexuality,
sex/gender, homosexual/heterosexual.
These reversals are constitutive of an adaptive sexuality which inhab-
its unusual spaces and is a form of the hypergrace discussed in the
previous chapter. In this context, grace is redefined as a more feminised
way of conceiving masculinity, and the adoption of different sexual
identities. It also takes the form of emotional juggling; poise amidst
emotional complexity, ‘bicycling no-hands’ (O’Hara 1979, p. 297);
and the embrace of the body as a carnivalesque site of sensual pleasure
rather than sexual sin.2 Grace, then, is receptiveness to all the varie-
gated possibilities which an adaptive sexuality can produce.3

1. Morphing is a term used in digital media for a process in which one image or
sound is turned into another, gradually and continuously.
2. Gooch says that O’Hara’s use of a saint’s name in ‘St. Paul And All That’
(O’Hara 1979, pp. 406–7) as an alias for Vincent Warren ‘was partly O’Hara’s
dig at Roman Catholicism, which he considered synonymous with the repression
of homosexuality’ (Gooch 1993, p. 373).
3. In a complete reversal of the Christian meaning of the word, grace is also person-
centred in O’Hara’s work. As Hillis Miller points out, in Christian theology,
The Gay New Yorker 103

O’Hara’s poetry is part of an impressive ‘tradition’ of American gay


writing which has had to deal, sometimes evasively, with the penalties
of disclosure in a highly homophobic society. It includes Whitman,
Crane and Stein but also – contemporary with O’Hara – John Ashbery,
Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg and John Wieners. At one pole is
Whitman’s open and brave declaration of homosexuality and his doc-
trine of adhesiveness – ‘manly attachment’ (‘In Paths Untrodden’;
Whitman 1973, p. 188) as a means to democratic egalitarianism (and
the metaphorical implications of the term morphing seem in direct
contrast to those of adhesiveness). At the other pole is Stein’s lesbian-
ism, which emerges in semantic playfulness, elaborate coding, and sly
reversals (for example the use of the word husband for lesbian part-
ner) rather than through clear themes and declarations. In this way
Whitman and Stein might be seen to represent two absolute extremes,
one essentialist and the other non-essentialist, but as Diane Fuss points
out, these are always intertwined; one exists in the other (Fuss 1989).
Therefore, while Ashbery and O’Hara might seem to be gay in a non-
essentialist sense and Duncan and Ginsberg in an essentialist sense,
this distinction is inevitably somewhat blurred. Nevertheless, both
types of gay identity are a way of responding to an environment which
was hostile to homosexuality, an issue I discuss later in this chapter.

A Non-Essentialist Gay Identity


A non-essentialist gay sexuality is one that embraces the instability of
sexual choice and identity. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick mounts a vigorous
attack on the binary opposition heterosexuality/homosexuality and
the way it suppresses sexual difference. For Kosofsky Sedgwick any
sexual choice is relatively insecure, locked into position only by
discourse. She argues for a whole range of sexual differences, between
and within people, in terms of desire and choice (Sedgwick 1990,
pp. 25–26).
Judith Butler also brings a radical, anti-essentialist re-think to the
conundrum of sexuality. She claims that gender and sexual orienta-
tion are unstable, but take on the appearance of solidity through the
repetitive performance of acts commensurate with a particular sexual
identity. For her gender is performative:

‘Almost all the work of grace, changing man from less to more Christlike, comes
from God’s side’ (Hillis Miller 1995, p. 155).
104 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

Gender ought not to be construed as a stable identity or locus of agency


from which various acts follow; rather, gender is an identity tenuously
constituted in time, instituted in an exterior space through a stylized
repetition of acts. The effect of gender is produced through the styliza-
tion of the body and, hence, must be understood as the mundane way
in which bodily gestures, movements, and styles of various kinds
constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self. This formulation
moves the conception of gender off the ground of a substantial model
of identity to one that requires a conception of gender as a constituted
social temporality. (Butler 1990, p. 141).
The discourses of both Butler and Sedgwick are congruent with
the idea of a morphing sexuality, since they address the same issues
of adaptability and changeability. Also highly pertinent is the distinc-
tion between an essentialist and non-essentialist gay identity, drawn
very persuasively by Jonathan Dollimore. In terms of the literary
tradition Dollimore views the first as Gidean, the second as Wildean.
For Dollimore a non-essentialist gay identity hinges on a ‘perverse
dynamic’ which is ‘not an identity, a logic, or an economy, so much as
an anti-teleological dialectic producing knowledge in opposition to
destiny’ (Dollimore 1991, p. 229), but which ‘exploits the inextrica-
ble connections between perversity, proximity, paradox, and desire’
(Dollimore 1991, p. 230). The perverse dynamic is an attack on the
humanist values of truth, unity and self; it is linked to alternative
modes of sexual identity; and is highly transgressive:
(It) transvalues sameness, abandoning self-identity for the unstably
proximate; it discloses not an underlying unity in the name of which
social division can be transcended, but a radical interconnectedness
which has been and remains the unstable ground of both repression and
liberation; the ground from which division and discrimination are both
produced and contested. (Dollimore 1991, p. 229)
One of the definitions of the proximate is ‘adjacent and there-by
related temporally or spatially’ (Dollimore 1991, p. 33); in other
words, the proximate is a kind of metonymy. The proximate ‘enables
a tracking-back of the “other” into the “same”’. Dollimore calls this
‘transgressive reinscription … (if) the perverse dynamic generates
internal instabilities within repressive norms, reinscription denotes an
anti-essentialist, transgressive agency which might intensify those
instabilities, turning them against the norms’ (Dollimore 1991, p. 33).
For Dollimore transgressive reinscription is ‘a turning back upon
The Gay New Yorker 105

something and a perverting of it typically if not exclusively through


inversion and displacement’ (Dollimore 1991, p. 323).
Dollimore perceives much in Wilde that prefigures the postmodern
and argues that Wilde’s gay non-essentialism is an aspect of his anti-
humanist stance. This stems from a decentred conception of subjec-
tivity and the privileging of surface over subjective depth; the use of
inversion to subvert cultural norms; and a transgressive aesthetic
which subverts the real because it stands for the existing social order.
For Wilde a decentred identity based on style, insincerity, inauthen-
ticity and unnaturalness is liberating. He had a strong investment in
individualism, but as Dollimore points out this, nevertheless, went
hand in hand with an acute political awareness and an intense regard
for cultural difference and diversity (Dollimore 1991, pp. 8–10).
Dollimore’s discussion is important for the way it defines a gay
identity as a series of styles and stances which are intertwined but
never immobile. The idea that one position can morph into another
is implicit in this. Similarly, Dollimore emphasises modes of writing
rather than paraphrasable content: gay writing is as much a matter of
style as content. Dollimore’s framework of perverse dynamic, radical
interconnectedness and transgressive reinscription also points to ways
in which social subversion can be indirect, through the inversion and
displacement of societal norms and literary conventions. Implicit in
Dollimore’s argument, therefore, is the link between gay writing and
a radical attack on representation.
This impinges on another issue: whether there is an ‘écriture gaie’
which subverts the norms of representation. Or, to put it another way,
whether there is a homosexual style of writing which allows for a
morphing signifier. The concept of an ‘écriture gaie’, and its origins in
the work of Roland Barthes, is negotiated by Robert Martin (Martin
1993). Martin discusses how Barthes’s work points to the way one
can write ‘homosexually without writing homosexuality’ (Martin
1993, p. 282). Barthes argues for the radical political potential of
texts which are multiple rather than unitary, and which free language
from conventional structures. Such texts can empower homosexual
discourse because they liberate the phallus from teleology in the form
of narrative closure. The text becomes plural and is open to writerly
reconstructions by the reader. Although this is typical of postmodern
texts, it is particularly relevant to a gay aesthetic because the ‘homo-
sexual is by his/her nature, or rather lack of nature, contra naturam,
never simple, never fixed’ (Martin 1993, p. 291).
106 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

Martin’s argument certainly seems to address the matter of the


morphing signifier which undergoes continual transformation. But
the problem with this kind of argument, as he partly points out, is that
there may be many cultural reasons why people adopt a transgressive
or experimental writing style. An unconventional approach to lan-
guage, or literary genre, has often been reclaimed by minority or
oppressed groups, such as those marginalised by their racial back-
ground. This is not to deny that these groups may be more prone to
transgressive styles as a way of overwriting hegemonic discourse.
However, it does point to the difficulty of characterising specific types
of transgressive writing at a purely linguistic level, a problem which
is graphically presented by Ashbery’s poetry, where grammatical
instabilities might seem to point to an ‘écriture gaie’ but a lack of
homosexual subject matter makes the link rather tenuous. Perhaps a
more precise way in which the matter of an écriture gaie can be
addressed, rather than the overall polysemy of the text, is that of a
homosexual lexis, since it is obvious that certain words such as ‘trick’
or ‘cruise’ have distinctive connotations in the gay community
(though both the words and their connotations are likely to be at least
partly period-specific).
Less specifically, camp, as a style rather than a particular type of
content, is often one of the dynamics of a non-essentialist gay identity.
This seems to have a considerable relevance for O’Hara’s work, which
has often been described as ‘camp’, though this element of his style has
not usually been fully theorised. But camp forms the means for the
performance of different kinds of sexual identity and therefore,
arguably, hinges on morphing. Susan Sontag’s ‘Notes On Camp’
(Sontag 1983) was one of the first attempts to formulate camp
through characteristics such as aestheticism, making the trivial serious,
theatricality and humour. Her essay is particularly pertinent because it
is contemporaneous with O’Hara’s work, but camp has also resur-
faced as highly significant in recent postmodern discourse, both in
contemporary life but also in pre-1969 Stonewall culture. It is a slip-
pery concept, but definitions of it tend to overlap, usually invoking, in
formulations similar to Sontag’s, theatricality, artifice, aestheticism
and exaggeration. David Bergman attempts to pin down the elusive:
First, everyone agrees that camp is a style (whether of objects or of the
way objects are perceived is debated) that favors ‘exaggeration’, ‘arti-
fice,’ and ‘extremity.’ Second, camp exists in tension with popular cul-
ture, commercial culture, or consumerist culture. Third, the person
The Gay New Yorker 107

who can recognize camp, who sees things as campy, or who can camp
is a person outside the cultural mainstream. Fourth, camp is affiliated
with homosexual culture, or at least with a self-conscious eroticism that
throws into question the naturalization of desire. (Bergman 1993a,
pp. 4–5)
Camp, then, can ‘morph’ sexual identity through role-playing. In
this sense, it seems to have some common ground with the carniva-
lesque. Bergman posits, however, that camp is distinct from the
carnivalesque. The carnivalesque always works within the dominant
culture; while camp tends to separate gay culture from straight cul-
ture. The carnivalesque celebrates the natural while camp favours
artifice. Consequently, the carnivalesque stresses reproduction while
camp inverts reproduction (Bergman 1993b, p. 100). Nevertheless,
for Bergman, camp and the carnivalesque do occupy many of the
same cultural spaces, such as the drag show, the queeny repartee, and
the gay put-down. And both camp and the carnivalesque play with
notions of the classical and grotesque body: camp in the form of drag
shows and gay photography (Bergman 1993b, pp. 100–02).
Important, also, is the degree to which camp style, and the mas-
querading it involves, is the adoption or evasion of a political
position. Sontag saw camp as basically apolitical, and more recently
Ross has contended that, although camp is a cultural economy in its
own right, it has often been too easily integrated into capitalist polit-
ical machinery. However, Ross acknowledges that its presence in both
gay and straight culture has changed perceptions of hegemonic mas-
culinity. He also concedes that camp works to destabilise sexual roles,
and norms of gender identity, and addresses the historical significance
of camp when he says ‘camp could be seen as a much earlier, highly
coded way of addressing those questions about sexual difference
which have engaged non-essentialist feminists in recent years’ (Ross
1989, p. 161). Other recent writers have reappropriated camp as
highly political, though in different ways at different times. Bergman,
for example, points out that camp provided a non-aggressive means
for communication and solidarity amongst gay men and women in
the midst of a hostile pre-Stonewall society. Bergman also argues, in a
similar formulation to Dollimore’s ‘the outlaw as inlaw’, that camp is
a way of shaking up the social formation from the inside:
a style can be destabilizing without being overtly oppositional. Gay
people have recognised that they can achieve their rights not by becom-
ing the majority, but by finessing the entire issue of power. Or to put it
108 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

another way, were gay culture to develop a discourse of power in parity


to the dominant society’s discourse, it would only end up reproducing
the machismo which has oppressed it. The aggressive passivity of camp
has been among its most potent tools in giving gay people a voice that
we ourselves could hear and then use to speak to others. (Bergman
1993b, pp. 106–07)
The perverse dynamic, ‘écriture gaie’, camp: these are all prisms
of a gay non-essentialist identity which morphs between different
possibilities. In the following, I use the idea of a non-essentialist gay
identity as a way of coaxing many of the different aspects of O’Hara’s
sexual identity into a constellation. Previous work on O’Hara lacks
such a concept, and consequently critics have often found it difficult
to discuss sexuality in his work. Early criticism, written before the rise
of queer and gay studies, failed to confront fully the gay aspect of
O’Hara’s work, or did not see it as an important part of his self-
definition. This was true even of homosexual critics, such as Robert
Martin, who did not include O’Hara in his pioneering and very valu-
able early study on gay poetry. Referring to O’Hara, Martin says, ‘He
is not included, not because he attempted to conceal his homosexual-
ity (it was a frequent subject of his poetic conversation) but because
he does not seem to me to use his homosexuality as an element of self-
definition in the way, say, that Whitman or Crane does’ (Martin 1979,
p. xix). Such a view of sexuality, however, did not allow for a de-
essentialised gay identity.
More recently, critics such as Rudy Kikel and Stuart Byron, whose
work will be discussed in more detail later in this chapter, have car-
ried out important work on O’Hara as a gay poet, demonstrating how
many aspects of his writing are attributable to his sexuality. It is typi-
cal of the work of such critics, however, to partially deconstruct their
own framework, and include a proviso that the label ‘gay poet’ does
not fully encapsulate the range of O’Hara’s sexuality. It seems to me
that what these critics lack is the construct of the non-essentialist gay
identity. My own stance is to build on their work, but in such as way
as to incorporate this concept.

Gay Oppression and Self-Determination: The Historical Context


A morphing sexuality is slippery and volatile and this raises the
issue of its political efficacy. In the context of the 1950s and 1960s,
before the rise of gay liberation, it could be argued that essentialist
The Gay New Yorker 109

homosexuality (like that adopted by Allen Ginsberg) was politically


imperative in order to achieve gay self-determination. However, in
the present era, a non-essentialist stance is seen to have subversive
political potential, because it refuses the division into heterosexual
and homosexual which has resulted in heterosexual identities always
being privileged.4 One of the peculiarities of sexuality in O’Hara’s
poetry, then, is that it is politically at odds with the time in which it
was written. The gay non-essentialism of the present time is possible
because society is more gay-friendly. O’Hara died three years before
the Stonewall riots, which signalled the beginning of a radical turn-
around in the position of homosexuals.
The period in which O’Hara was writing was highly repressive, but
it marked a turning point in the social position of homosexuals. In
1950, homosexuality was categorised by the medical profession as an
illness, and in all but two states homosexuality was still a felony.
These entrenched attitudes persisted, despite transformations in the
perception of sexuality resulting from the influence of Freud. The
Second World War, however, had created more opportunities for men
and women to enjoy gay relationships:
The sex-segregated nature of the armed forces raised homosexuality
closer to the surface for all military personnel. Soldiers indulged in
buffoonery, aping in exaggerated form the social stereotype of the
homosexual, as a means of releasing the sexual tensions of life in the
barracks. Such behaviour was so common that a towel company used
the image of a GI mincing with a towel draped around his waist to
advertise its product. Army canteens witnessed men dancing with one
another, an activity that in peacetime subjected homosexuals to arrest.
Crowded into port cities, men on leave or those waiting to be shipped
overseas shared beds in YMCAs and slept in each other’s arms in parks
or in the aisles of movie theaters that stayed open to house them. Living
in close quarters, not knowing whether they would make it through the
war, and depending on one another for survival, men of whatever
sexual persuasion formed intense emotional attachments. In this
setting, gay men could find one another without attracting undue atten-
tion and perhaps even encounter sympathy and acceptance by their
heterosexual fellows. (D’Emilio 1983, p. 25)

4. In this sense O’Hara’s poetry shows what Joseph Chadwick calls ‘a need to resist
the institutionalised discourses, codified categories, and redemptive or essential-
ising interpretations that continue to play an inescapably constitutive but also
deeply oppressive role in the shaping of gay identities and desires in a virulently
homophobic social order’ (Chadwick 1991, p. 41).
110 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

The publication of the Kinsey reports in 1948 and 1953 (Sexual


Behavior in the Human Male and Sexual Behavior in the Human
Female, respectively) made the pervasiveness of homosexual behav-
iour public knowledge. For gays this was highly significant, because it
increased their sense of community, but the heterosexual majority
perceived it as a threat to their supremacy. The greater visibility of gay
men and women as a result of the war, the Kinsey reports, and the
growth of gay bars, also meant that during the 1950s they were vul-
nerable to large-scale police harassment. The House UnAmerican
Activities Committee persecuted not only communists, but also gay
men and women.
Problems were compounded because homosexuals and lesbians
also tended to suffer from low self-esteem and generic self-hatred. But
the 1950s gave birth to an extremely important homosexual move-
ment: the Mattachine Society, founded by Henry Hay in Los Angeles
in 1951. The early Mattachine Society veered strongly to the left
(with many of its key members including Hay active members of
the Communist Party) and positioned homosexuals as an oppressed
cultural minority. However, as the organisation flourished, some
members within it were keen to play down sexual difference, and
took the ideological stance that homosexuality was not inherently dif-
ferent from heterosexuality. This stance bore a family resemblance to
that of racial assimilation in the way it stressed integration. It was
appealing to some gays who felt marginalised by mainstream society
and wished to be accepted into it. It was, however, a thorn in the side
of homosexual self-determination, because it eradicated the whole
notion of difference. In time, the organisation rejected its leftist ori-
gins and Hay’s views, but this was partly because the new leaders
were extremely wary of the pathologically anti-communist bias of
American society.
The growth of the Mattachine Society was enchanced with the
appearance of the magazine ONE in January 1953. ONE retained
independence from the Mattachine Society but held tightly to its
previous militance. Other branches of the society, which began in Los
Angeles, sprang up in Chicago and New York. By 1960 the New York
branch had outshone San Francisco as the largest of the society’s off-
shoots. It quarrelled with the San Francisco branch, and developed an
independent identity. The lesbian organisation, the Daughters of Bili-
tis, also evolved in the 1950s and co-operated with the Mattachine
Society. However, gay people found it difficult to admit to their
The Gay New Yorker 111

sexual orientation for fear of a homophobic backlash. For example,


despite the rise of organisations such as the Daughters of Bilitis and
the Mattachine Society, many homosexuals were frightened to sub-
scribe to the journals which the societies sponsored and the public
discussion groups they organised.
During the 1960s, however, texts which represented gay life (as
well as gay pornography) started to infiltrate the literary scene and the
mass media. This brought a transformation of attitude: ‘A significant
minority of opinion began to view lesbians and homosexuals not as
isolated, aberrant individuals but as members of a group’ (D’Emilio
1983, p. 129). A number of Supreme Court decisions loosened
the grip of censorship, and more openly gay material was produced
and consumed.
There was also some progress down the long, slow road of decrim-
inalisation of homosexual acts between consenting adults. In 1962, the
American Law Institute recommended the elimination of the sodomy
statutes. Two years later, the International Congress on Penal Law
endorsed their position (D’Emilio 1983, p. 144). But the decriminali-
sation of sodomy was defeated in New York State, and homosexuals
were still heavily prosecuted.
Nevertheless, the mood of the gay movement in the US during the
1960s was upbeat. On the East Coast a militant wing of the gay
movement emerged, spearheaded by Frank Kameny, who said: ‘I take
the stand that not only is homosexuality … not immoral, but that
homosexual acts engaged in by consenting adults are moral, in a
positive and real sense, and are right, good, and desirable, both
for the individual participants and for the society in which they
live’ (D’Emilio 1983, p. 153). Kameny targeted the discriminatory
policies of federal government: he also swung the support of the
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) (D’Emilio 1983, p. 155). At
its national convention in 1964, the ACLU took the position that
sexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should be
decriminalised. Militant gays dismissed the idea that homosexuality
was a pathological condition, and asserted pride in gay identity
(D’Emilio 1983, p. 174).
The Beats, for whom homosexuality was part of a broad dissension
from the prevailing norms of Cold War society, and the traditional
family structure, also gave a voice to the gay movement. In 1957
copies of Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems were confiscated, and as
a result the volume became a bestseller. In order to bring about social
112 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

change it was necessary to assert gay identity openly, and Ginsberg


played a more direct role than O’Hara in the gay movement in the
1960s, through direct revelation of homosexuality in his poems.
Ginsberg’s allusions to his own homosexuality, in poems such as
‘Many Loves’, are quite unequivocal and belong to a much more
essentialist line of gay writing:
our bellies together nestling, loins touched together, pressing and know-
ledgeable each other’s hardness, and mine stuck out of my underwear.
(Ginsberg 1987, p. 157)
So, in one sense, I suggest that sexual identity in O’Hara’s poetry
was too radical for its time, since what was required politically was
the overt and unambiguous assertion of gay identity and gay power.
The message, that homosexuality was a matter of pride rather than
shame, needed to be spelt out loud and clear.
O’Hara’s poetry, then, espouses sexual fluidity rather than sexual
transparency, but maybe it can speak to us more now about gay iden-
tity than it could when it was written. Nevertheless, as I said earlier,
essentialism and non-essentialism are not necessarily mutually exclu-
sive. Ginsberg and O’Hara should perhaps be seen as complementary
to each other, as different sides of the same coin. And perhaps, as I
argued in Chapter 1, politics in poetry, in any era, has a distinct role
and does not necessarily have to be unequivocal to be effective.
Likewise sexual identity is not a monolithic concept but has a
number of different aspects. My exploration of sexual identity in
O’Hara’s poetry will therefore begin with a discussion of masculinity,
and then proceed to gender, the sexed body and homosexuality.

Masculinities: There I Could Never Be a Boy


O’Hara was writing during a period in which masculinity was chang-
ing: male and female roles were still very clearly delineated in the
nuclear family and the man was the breadwinner, but two world wars
had eroded the heroism of war and its attendant ideals of masculinity.
As David Buchbinder points out, the traditional model of masculinity
has been gradually dying since the end of the Second World War
(Buchbinder 1994, p. 8).
In O’Hara’s poetry images of an aggressive hegemonic masculinity
abound in the form of images such as wars, guns and hunting – in
‘Washington Square’ (O’Hara 1979, p. 83), for example, the guns
The Gay New Yorker 113

ejaculate. The poems suggest that to live within a male body (espe-
cially a gay male body) produces certain effects, expectations and
roles which cannot be entirely escaped but can be transgressed. But
they constantly pulverise hegemonic masculinity into a proliferation
of masculinities, some of which are highly feminised, some recognis-
ably ‘gay’ (Connell 1995). Conventional male models of heroism,
virility and rationality are undercut by drawing on alternatives:
‘graceful’ activities such as riding, dancing, swimming and walking.
Male spheres of interest are feminised so that the man of action is
refigured as the man of talk. The poems court gossip, shopping, art,
friendship and displays of intense feeling (traditionally female
domains). In fact, ‘sissiness’ is reappropriated as a positive quality: in
‘Day and Night in 1952’ the poet says: ‘We do not know any more the
exquisite manliness of all brutal acts because we are sissies and if
we’re not sissies we’re unhappy and too busy’ (O’Hara 1979, p. 93).
O’Hara’s poetry, then, explores a different kind of masculinity
which, in some respects, foreshadows changes in male roles and atti-
tudes in the 1980s and 1990s. This is a point which is eloquently
made by Ross in his discussion of ‘The Day Lady Died’. Ross argues
that although O’Hara’s poem ‘accepts a stereotype of gay masculin-
ity, itself based upon a sexist stereotype of female character traits and
mannerisms’, it ‘begins to imagine a different relation to everyday life
for men in general’ (Ross 1990, p. 389).
The masculinity he imagines here has increasingly become familiar,
along with the steady erosion, since 1959, of the sexual division of
labour and the gradual softening of the contours of social masculinity
to incorporate more attention to style, feeling, taste, desire, consumer
creativity, and sexual toleration. It marks the beginning of a whole
chapter of sexual politics that will come to learn almost as much from
the redefinition of masculinity articulated by gay males as from the
struggle against everyday oppression mounted by feminists. (Ross
1990, p. 389)
Recent masculinity studies have explored the way in which male
stereotypes have dogged the construction of masculinity.5 To disman-
tle masculinity is to appreciate the variety of masculinities which exist,
and the way that these intersect with differences in age, appearance,

5. Hearn and Collinson rightly contend, therefore, that the study of masculinity is
paradoxical because it deconstructs the concept on which it is based (Hearn and
Collinson 1994, p. 98).
114 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

class, ethnicity, place, and religion. There are black middle-class


masculinities, white gay masculinities, and so on. Different masculini-
ties may cause tensions between different men, or within the same
individual (Hearn and Collinson 1994, pp. 111–12). And a man’s mas-
culinity may ‘morph’ between different forms of masculinity.
Masculinity studies have also drawn our attention to the way in
which masculinity has been constructed as primarily rational, objec-
tive and competitive.6 But the problems created by the cultural con-
struction of masculinity are particularly acute for gay men. David
Fernbach (as quoted in Buchbinder 1994, p. 60) has suggested that in
a binary-driven culture the only models available to gay men are those
of the dominant masculinity (which by definition precludes and pro-
hibits homosexuality) or femininity. He argues that many gay men
therefore behave in a feminine manner because this is the only option
they perceive.
The presence of non-hegemonic masculinities which undercut
the male values of competition, heroism, rationality and virility is
a central dynamic in O’Hara’s poetry. In ‘Ode to Michael Goldberg
(‘s Birth and Other Births)’ (O’Hara 1979, pp. 290–98), a poem
partly about adolescent sexuality, hegemonic masculinity appears as
sexual chauvinism:
at the clattering cutter-bar
of the mower ridden by Jimmy Whitney
‘I’d like to put my rolling-pin to her’ his brother Bailey
leaning on his pitchfork, watching
‘you shove it in and nine months later
it comes out a kid’
(‘Ode to Michael Goldberg (’s Birth and Other Births)’;
O’Hara 1979, p. 291)

6. Seidler points out that men feel confronted by the emotional demands of friend-
ship even with other men (Seidler 1992, p. 17). Buchbinder argues that male
anxieties about self-expression result in unarticulated emotion re-emerging as
aggression (Buchbinder 1994, pp. 34–35). Buchbinder emphasises the way in
which competitiveness is inculcated in men at a very early age: ‘the young male
learns early that all other males are potential rivals and enemies and that if he
wants a place in the patriarchal sun, he must outdo or conquer those others. We
might think of this state of affairs as the Masculinity Stakes, a race or competi-
tion in which only winners count’ (Buchbinder 1994, p. 35). At the same time,
a man needs the approval of other men to confer his masculinity upon him. He
is worried that his peers will not find him masculine, and this can result in over-
compensation in the form of hypermasculinity (Buchbinder 1994, p. 36).
The Gay New Yorker 115

and
a man in a convertible puts his hand up a girl’s skirt
(‘Ode to Michael Goldberg (‘s Birth and Other Births)’;
O’Hara 1979, p. 292)
But there is also a rebuttal of this stereotypical virility: the hero in
the film has his legs cut off somewhat unheroically, and the ‘lack of a
hardon’ becomes a sign of sincerity. A colonial has ‘his balls sewn into
his mouth/by the natives’ for sexually dallying with their women: the
natives have their own code of masculine behaviour. There are also
hints of alternatives to heterosexuality:
‘up your ass, Sport’
(‘Ode to Michael Goldberg (‘s Birth and Other Births)’;
O’Hara 1979, p. 292)
For the poet the most comfortable time is soon after birth, when
his masculinity and consequent sexuality are not yet open to rigid
typecasting: ‘I wasn’t proud of my penis yet, how did I know how to
act?’ (O’Hara 1979, p. 291).
In some of the poems hegemonic masculinity is heavily, if affection-
ately, satirised. Captain Bada, for example, espouses a hypermasculine
image: he is a military man, and fully steeped in male culture – ‘No
privacy in the Army!’ In terms of physique, he is hairy-chested, proud
of his sexual equipment, and obsessed with ‘thrusting’ heterosexual
sexual activity:
Captain Bada thinks
of the day he saw the zebras fucking. ‘Much more powerful than a Picabia,’
he thinks, ‘with that big black piston plunging and exuding from
the distended grin of its loved one’s O,’
(O’Hara 1979, p. 273)
In fact, Bada is dangerous because he is obsessed with power and
possession. But, as so often in O’Hara’s poetry, humour is used as a
way of deflating those in privileged positions: here it undermines
Bada’s hypermasculine pretensions. Bada cuts an unappetising image,
his hairy chest is greasy and sweaty, his face is swarthy. He does not
move gracefully, rather he struts and is clumsy. As a result his penis
becomes tangled in the vegetation in a somewhat ‘unmanly’ way.
There is, of course, the problem of finding alternatives to hege-
monic masculinity because gender expectations are enforced at an
116 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

early age. Some of O’Hara’s poems deal with an emerging masculin-


ity which is ambivalent in its simultaneous identification with, and
distancing from, the male world. ‘Poem: There I could never be a boy’
(O’Hara 1979, pp. 216–17) plays on varying senses of the word ‘boy’,
and the differences they project in terms of age and gender.

There I could never be a boy,


though I rode like a god when the horse reared.
At a cry from mother I fell to my knees!
there I fell, clumsy and sick and good,
though I bloomed on the back of a frightened black mare
who had leaped windily at the start of a leaf
and she never threw me.
I had a quick heart
and my thighs clutched her back.
I loved her fright, which was against me
into the air! and the diamond white of her forelock
which seemed to smart with thoughts as my heart smarted with life!
and she’d toss her head with the pain
and paw the air and champ the bit, as if I were Endymion
and she, moonlike, hated to love me.
All things are tragic
when a mother watches!
and she wishes upon herself
the random fears of a scarlet soul, as it breathes in and out
and nothing chokes, or breaks from triumph to triumph!
I knew her but I could not be a boy,
for in the billowing air I was fleet and green
riding blackly through the ethereal night
towards men’s words which I gracefully understood,
and it was given to me
as the soul is given the hands
to hold the ribbons of life!
as miles streak by beneath the moon’s sharp hooves
and I have mastered the speed and strength which is the armor of the world.

The poet’s insistence that he cannot be a boy suggests that he feels


feminine and has the desires of a ‘girl’ rather than a ‘boy’. But it
also implies that he wishes to assert himself as an adult rather than a
child. His mother’s expectations are very different and impossibly
The Gay New Yorker 117

contradictory: she wants him to show manly potential by riding the


horse while still remaining ‘her little boy’. This impossible wish pre-
cipitates his fall: ‘At a cry from mother I fell to my knees!’ But the poet
learns to ride in his own way, on the back of a horse which does not
meet his mother’s expectations of manliness because it is female and
‘frightened’. The masculinity he acquires is quite equivocal. He mas-
ters speed and strength, typical male attributes, and they initiate him
into ‘men’s words’. But these paradoxically belong to alternative male
(gay) discourse, one in which grace and understanding are more
important than action:
riding blackly through the ethereal night
towards men’s words which I gracefully understood,
In this context, riding is an ambivalent image. It is identified with
manly pursuits such as hunting, but it also requires poise and balance,
coping with the world in a ‘graceful’ way. Similarly, although riding
the mare might seem superficially to encode a heterosexual relation
to her, it can also suggest that the horse as phallus is female.
The poem, then, can be read as the forging of a sexual identity
through the rebuttal of male stereotypes, but it also replays and sub-
verts the drama of the Oedipal separation from the mother. In
Freudian terms, the male child relinquishes the mother as a sexual
object, because he fears castration by the father, who is his sexual
rival. The male child identifies with the father but realises he must
look for another woman; he cannot share the mother.
The poem, however, implies that the poet’s severance from the
mother is incomplete. Consequently, she is both onlooker and partic-
ipant, identical to, and yet different from, the mare that the poet
rides. Furthermore, the father remains conspicuously absent from the
poem. In this sense the Oedipal drama is not fully completed. Yet the
socially unacceptable outcome is liberating, ‘clumsy and sick and
good’, leading to the initiation of the poet into transgressive forms of
masculinity and sexual orientation.
Alternative masculinity also produces a different form of writing.
‘Poem: I ran through the snow like a young Czarevitch!’ (O’Hara
1979, p. 60) involves a similar subversion of the Oedipus complex,
and hegemonic masculinity, tied to an emerging alternative masculine
and textual identity. Here the mother and father become also cultural
forefathers: they have to be shot for the young poet to find his iden-
tity. The killing of the parents allows a different kind of masculinity
118 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

to emerge, aggression is channelled into writing, and the poems are


catapulted into existence:
Then I ran through paper
like a young Czarevich, strong in the white and cold,
where the shots hung glittering in air like poems.
Less directly, but just as pertinently, ‘In Memory of My Feelings’
(O’Hara 1979, pp. 252–57) can be read as a poem about competing
masculinities, and the need to stay within these different masculinities
rather than capitulate to hegemonic masculinity. The poet’s quietness
(the Lacanian real) has a man in it, but he is only part of the poet who
is not necessarily completely male. This man has several likenesses
which could be different kinds of masculinity.
Hegemonic masculinity abounds in the poem in the war hero, Lord
Nelson, the hunter, the circumcised Arabs, Manfred and others, but
the poet does not necessarily respond to their call:
Manfred climbs to my nape,
speaks, but I do not hear him,
(‘In Memory of My Feelings’; O’Hara 1979, p. 253)
Furthermore, he both identifies with the serpent (the male body),
and yet sees the serpent as being distant from himself.
If we follow through this reading we can interpret the threat of ‘the
creatures who ‘too readily recognize my weapons/and have murder in
their heart!’ as societal pressure to conform to conventional male
behaviour. This is signalled by the firing of the gun, which suggests
both the threat of death and the start of a race. The race creates, para-
doxically, a scattering of the selves in a number of different directions,
suggesting the reluctance of some of the masculinities to succumb
to male competitiveness. During the poem, the poet is both an
integrated self who is trodden underfoot, and the many selves who
race off in different directions: this implies that the male body is
both necessary to the diverse identities and alien to them. The selves
encode different kinds of masculinity, from the feminised to the sado-
masochistic:
One of me rushes
to window#13 and one of me raises his whip and one of me
flutters up from the center of the track amidst the pink flamingoes,
and underneath their hooves as they round the last turn my lips
are scarred and brown, brushed by tails, masked in dirt’s lust,
The Gay New Yorker 119

definition, open mouths gasping for the cries of the bettors for the lungs
of earth.
(‘In Memory of My Feelings’; O’Hara 1979, p. 253)
The shifting, performative nature of gender identity is taken up
further in the passage which implicitly celebrates morphing as an ideal
of existence. Again the attainment of ‘grace’ is central:
Grace
to be born and live as variously as possible. The conception
of the masque barely suggests the sordid identifications.
I am a Hittite in love with a horse. I don’t know what blood’s
in me I feel like an African prince I am a girl walking downstairs
in a red pleated dress with heels I am a champion taking a fall
I am a jockey with a sprained ass-hole I am the light mist
in which a face appears
and it is another face of blonde I am a baboon eating a banana
I am a dictator looking at his wife I am a doctor eating a child
and the child’s mother smiling I am a Chinaman climbing a mountain
I am a child smelling his father’s underwear I am an Indian
sleeping on a scalp
and my pony is stamping in the birches,
and I’ve caught sight of the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria.
What land is this, so free?
(‘In Memory of My Feelings’; O’Hara 1979, p. 256)
Masculinity, then, can adopt many different guises in the form of
masculinities. But the huge range of possible masculine identities can
only be experienced through the body, which is both liberating and
constraining. Liberating because it is pre-discursive, constraining
because it has certain apparent sexual characteristics which mean it is
inevitably caught in a particular position in discourse. It is necessary,
therefore, for the serpent-as-male-body to be preserved as a site in
which these different masculine identities can intersect. Paradoxically,
though, preserving the serpent means killing the scene of the selves,
the social construction of masculinity:
and I have lost what is always and everywhere
present, the scene of my selves, the occasion of these ruses,
which I myself and singly must now kill
and save the serpent in their midst.
120 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

Gender and the Body


In discussing masculinities in the previous section it became apparent
that deconstructing a hegemonic masculinity in O’Hara’s work
involves not only the creation of alternative masculinities, but also
morphing across gender boundaries, through cross-dressing and
transsexuality. As Dollimore points out, to cross means ‘not only to
traverse, but to mix (as in to cross-breed) and to contradict (as in to
cross someone)’ (Dollimore 1991, p. 288).
Gender itself can be highly ambivalent:
hanging between breasts
or, crosslike, on a chest of hairs
the center of myself is never silent
(‘Ode to Michael Goldberg (’s Birth and Other Births)’;
O’Hara 1979, p. 293)
One of the consequences of this is that personal change can occur
across gender boundaries as well as within them. For example, in ‘To
a Friend’ (O’Hara 1979, pp. 125–26), cross-dressing (a man putting
on a dress) is a way of responding to rejection – the speaker is silenced
as a man so he must now ‘wear dresses in public places’. The speaker
decides to wear or ‘perform’ the gender of the opposite sex.
In ‘Two Dreams of Waking’ (O’Hara 1979, pp. 277–78), even gen-
itals are not seen to be a reliable index to gender:
‘You think,’
Larry says, ‘that you’re safe
because you have a penis. So
do I, but we’re both wrong.’
(‘Two Dreams of Waking’; O’Hara 1979, p. 278)
Here the conventional relationship between biological sex and
gender is unhinged: a penis does not necessarily guarantee that the
two men (Larry and the speaker) are men, or that they are privy to
male privilege.
The relationship between gender and the body, however, is at its
most radical in the Vincent Warren love poems, where gender is inde-
terminate. Elledge argues that, although lack of gender definition in
these poems is probably partly induced by the difficulties of being
outwardly gay, it is mainly due to O’Hara’s wish to transcend
gender (Elledge 1994). The essay contains many important insights.
However, Elledge speaks within a humanist vocabulary in which the
The Gay New Yorker 121

universal overrides gender distinctions. Moreover, he does not fully


pursue the political ramifications of indeterminate gender. Rather, he
seems to see it as a way of transcending political exigencies.
As an alternative means of approaching the matter, I want to suggest
that at least two of these poems, ‘Poem: When I am feeling depressed
and anxious sullen’ (O’Hara 1979, p. 349), and ‘Poem: Twin spheres
full of fur and noise’ (O’Hara 1979, pp. 405–06) reconfigure the sexed
body. That is, they re-create the body of the lover in a way which
cannot be categorised in either/or terms as man or woman. The body
of the lover is, therefore, not an unproblematic pre-discursive site. On
the contrary, O’Hara ‘re-produces’ the body through discourse.
Judith Butler maintains that one of the ways in which gender roles
can be challenged is by deconstructing the category of sex as biologi-
cal essence. She suggests that sex is as culturally constructed as
gender. Arguing against common-sense perceptions, Butler questions
whether there really is a body prior to discourse:
Is there a ‘physical’ body prior to the perceptually perceived body? An
impossible question to decide. Not only is the gathering of attributes
under the category of sex suspect, but so is the very discrimination of
the ‘features’ themselves. That penis, vagina, breasts, and so forth, are
named sexual parts is both a restriction of the erogenous body to those
parts and a fragmentation of the body as a whole. Indeed the ‘unity’
imposed on the body by the category of sex is a ‘disunity’, a fragmen-
tation and compartmentalization, and a reduction of erotogeneity.
(Butler 1990, p. 114)
For Butler, sex ‘imposes an artificial unity on an otherwise discon-
tinuous set of attributes’ (Butler 1990, p. 114).
Though Butler’s ideas are somewhat extreme they are still very per-
tinent to the poems under discussion. O’Hara challenges the notion of
a particular type of body: he presents anatomical features in a way
which does not conjure up a total male or female body. For example, in
‘Poem: Twin spheres full of fur and noise’ (O’Hara 1979, pp. 405–06),
the synecdochal and semi-abstracted presentation of body parts, which
are neither exclusively male nor female, ghost the poem. The twin
spheres could be breasts or testicles or buttocks; fur could be chest or
pubic hair. Similarly, although we would tend to visualise the passage:
and then my mouth is full of suns
that softness seems so anterior to that hardness
that mouth that is used to talking too much
122 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

as oral sex, the sun could be either the penis or the mouth, and the
act, fellatio or a homosexual/heterosexual kiss. This is not simply an
alternative way of viewing the body but a novel way of linguistically
constructing it: logically the twin spheres would not contain fur but
be adjacent to it. There is no attempt to create a total picture of a
recognisable male or female body: its status is undecidable.
Nevertheless, one of the effects of this is to call into question ways
that men and women’s bodies are normally viewed. If we take the
focus of the poem to be a male body, it is viewed as soft and penetra-
ble. Buchbinder’s discussion of social constructions of men’s and
women’s bodies suggests that this is the antithesis of the norm:
Woman’s body is in general culturally constructed as open to men,
potentially anyway, and in that openness both vulnerable and incom-
plete … Moreover, woman’s body is seen as only weakly defining the
boundary between inside and outside: men may pass through her body
sexually from outside, infants and menstrual blood and matter from the
inside. Man’s body, by contrast, is understood as closed and thus more
complete than woman’s body. (Buchbinder 1994, p. 42)
Women’s bodies are also seen as soft and round, whereas men’s are
seen as hard and ‘sharply defined and powerful’ (Buchbinder 1994,
p. 43).7
O’Hara’s mode of depicting the body, then, is highly transgres-
sive, based on inversion of stereotypes, and calling on an intersexual
conception of the body in which female and male characteristics
morph into each other. It is striking to compare this poem with
Robert Duncan’s eloquent poem ‘The Torso’ (Duncan 1968,
pp. 63–65), which also deals with an act of fellatio, but in which the
parts of the male body are clearly delineated and mapped in a linear
descent:

7. The same idea is also taken up by Flannigan-Saint-Aubin who argues that mas-
culinity is usually equated with the ‘phallic genitality of the male’, and with
closely linked ideas of the ‘aggressive, violent, penetrating, goal-directed, linear’.
He argues that what he calls the ‘testicular and ‘testerical’ aspects of male sexual
anatomy have different metaphorical implications from the penis which include
the ‘passive, receptive, enclosing, stable, cyclic’ (Flannigan-Saint-Aubin 1994, p.
239). Flannigan-Saint-Aubin contends that the penis is overplayed in psychoan-
alytic theory at the expense of the clitoris and vagina for the woman and the
testes for men. In his account this is linked to a wider socially accepted myth
about sexuality: that penetration by the man of the woman is ‘real sex’ and other
forms of penetration are not real.
The Gay New Yorker 123

the clavicle, for the neck is the stem of the great artery
upward into his head that is beautiful
At the rise of the pectoral muscles
the nipples, for the breasts are sleeping fountains
of feeling in man, waiting above the beat of his heart,
shielding the rise and fall of his breath, to be
awakened
At the axis of his mid hriff
the navel, for in the pit of his stomach the chord from
which first he was fed has its temple
At the root of the groin
the pubic hair, for the torso is the stem in which the man
flowers forth and leads to the stamen of flesh in which
his seed rises

Sexual Orientation, Friendship, Heterosexual Discourse


So far we have mainly discussed sex and gender in O’Hara’s poetry,
but it is obvious that these are inextricably linked to sexual orienta-
tion and behaviour, which will be discussed in the next section. A
further complexity, however, is the sliding scale between friendship
and sex which many of poems engage, so that friendships are some-
times inscribed within an erotic or romantic discourse. Friendships
can morph into sexual relationships and back again: no absolute line
is drawn between the two.8

8. Here real life and text life run parallel and intertwine. O’Hara seems to have had
a complex sexual orientation which involved intense relationships with men,
such as Bill Berkson, as well as with women, which were technically non-sexual
but defy absolute definition. In an interview with John Gruen, Bill Berkson says:
‘I guess a lot of people would categorise Frank as a homosexual. I don’t believe
he was. I think he was supersexual … In his poems for example there isn’t the
constant relish of the idea of sex. Sex doesn’t always seem like such a great thing.
Frank just had an affection for people and this affection became a super, or
superlative thing’ (Gruen 1972, p. 42). John Button also says: ‘three of his pro-
foundly engaged love affairs were platonic and with men who did not share
Frank’s erotic interests. If, in these cases, there was little or no sex, there surely
was all the passion of love’ (Button 1980, p. 42). See also Berkson’s account of
his relationship with O’Hara: ‘When I think of everything that was going on
between us and how attached I really was to him and in some way dependent,
124 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

The poet’s friendships with women sometimes call on heterosexual


discourses of romantic love.9 In the poem ‘Jane Awake’ (O’Hara
1979, pp. 72–73), the language is that of a somewhat offbeat con-
ventional love poem:
The opals hiding in your lids
as you sleep, as you ride ponies
mysteriously, spring to bloom
like the blue flowers of autumn
The poem to Grace Hartigan, ‘For Grace, After a Party’ (O’Hara
1979, p. 214), draws on a discourse of heterosexual tensions, jeal-
ousies and resolutions. The poem uses a well-worn heterosexual form
of persuasion: ‘I was temporarily attracted/distracted but it is really
you I love’. The sex of the third person in the poem is indeterminate,
though to read the poem in terms of real life rather than text life (see
Chapter 1) is to assume that the third party is male. The poem ends
with an image of ‘breakfast in bed’ conventionally associated with
heterosexual marriage:
You do not always know what I am feeling.
Last night in the warm spring air while I was
blazing my tirade against someone who doesn’t
interest
me, it was love for you that set me
afire,
and isn’t it odd? for in rooms full of
strangers my most tender feelings
writhe and
bear the fruit of screaming. Put out your hand,
isn’t there

feeding on, thriving on this affection between us, I think “Why not just go make
it?” But it just wasn’t in me. It just wasn’t where my body was going. The more
I think about it the weirder it seems. In a way it casts a perverse light on the rela-
tionship. Like why not? But it was a not’ (Gooch 1993, p. 385). Correspondence
between Joe LeSueur and Bill Berkson after O’Hara’s death also alludes to his
unusual sexuality (Berkson various dates).
9. O’Hara’s affection for his women friends and admiration for their work reveal
a distinct difference from the misogynist culture of the Beats. On the other hand,
certain aspects of these relationships – O’Hara’s pride in the good looks of his
female companions, and the way in which the relationships with Freilicher and
Hartigan were disrupted by their marriages – are at least partially symptomatic
of a pre-feminist mid-twentieth century.
The Gay New Yorker 125

an ashtray, suddenly, there? beside


the bed? And someone you love enters the room
and says wouldn’t
you like the eggs a little
different today?
And when they arrive they are
just plain scrambled eggs and the warm weather
is holding.
Here grace becomes not only Hartigan’s name but the ability to
regain psychological composure among emotional and sexual com-
plexities, a balancing act of love, sex and friendship.
In other poems heterosexual stereotypes are operative but are par-
odied or displaced. ‘A Pastoral Dialogue’ (O’Hara 1979, p. 60), for
example, seems to set up an idyllic heterosexual scene typical of the
traditional pastoral. But there is some uncertainty about the motiva-
tion and response of both lovers, suggesting frigidity on the part of
the female, and impotence on the part of the male:
‘My hands beneath your skirt don’t find weathers,
charts. Should my penis through dangerous air
move up, would you accept it like a torch?’
Friendships with men which function non-sexually are also some-
times eroticised. Relevant to this is Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s concept
of the homosocial, which she uses to hypothesise the potential unbro-
kenness of a continuum between homosocial and homosexual – a
continuum whose visibility, for men, in our society, is radically dis-
rupted (Sedgwick 1985, p. 2). In the Bill Berkson poems (where the
subject is heterosexual) the poet tends to take a stance towards his
subject which is a mixture of flirtatious and wistful. In fact, ‘Biotherm’
(O’Hara 1979, pp. 436–48) can be viewed as an attempted act of
seduction and a rehearsal of friendship and affection:
favourites: going to parties with you, being in corners at parties with you,
being in gloomy pubs with you smiling, poking you at parties when
you’re ‘down’, coming on like South Pacific with you at them,
shrimping with you into the Russian dressing, leaving parties with
you alone to go and eat a piece of cloud
(O’Hara 1979, p. 447)
The tenuous relationship between friendship and sexual relation-
ships is satirised in ‘John Button Birthday’ (O’Hara 1979, pp. 267–68),
which addresses the way friendship can morph into love:
126 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

you find a birthday greeting card with violets


which says ‘a perfect friend’ and means
‘I love you’ but the customer is forced to be
shy. It says less, as all things must.
Friendships themselves can also gendered in subtle ways. Drury
Sherrod argues that friendships between men tend to be based more
on activity rather than – as in the case of female-to-female relation-
ships – disclosure.10 In O’Hara’s poems, friendships between men also
sometimes take the form of models of friendship more normally asso-
ciated stereotypically with women, centring round talk, gossip, emo-
tional disclosure and artistic collaboration.

O’Hara as a Gay Poet


So far we have considered masculinity, gender and friendship in
O’Hara’s poetry, and all these factors impinge on the concept of a gay
non-essentialist identity. Now, however, I want to look more specifi-
cally at the issue of gay orientation in O’Hara’s poetry, and the ways
in which O’Hara might be described as a gay poet. For, as we will see,
even the critics most eager to characterise O’Hara in this way seem to
have reservations about totally circumscribing him as such.
The difficulty here seems to be defining what it is that makes O’Hara
a gay poet and not reducing it to one particular factor (while also bear-
ing in mind that homosexuality is not itself a unilateral, circumscribed
concept). O’Hara’s gay sexuality overlaps, then, with the carniva-
lesque, the campy, the humorous, the linguistically inventive, the
deconstructive, and the ethically subversive in his work. His homo-
sexuality is not just one of these things, and all these things are not only
components of homosexuality. Rather, O’Hara’s sexual identity lies in
the ‘radical interconnectedness’ of all these characteristics.
Because O’Hara’s poetry does not confront homosexuality as
directly as Ginsberg’s, it has sometimes been thought to be evasive
about it. Evasiveness, or wariness of outright disclosure, has been part
of the tradition of American gay writing mainly because of fear of
reprisal. In Hart Crane’s ‘Episode of Hands’, for example, the ban-
daging of the bleeding hand by the factory owner’s son is erotically

10. Sherrod’s research indicated that men are less satisfied with their friendships
than women, and felt they experienced less support from their friends (Sherrod
1987, p. 221).
The Gay New Yorker 127

charged: ‘The unexpected interest made him flush’. The poem ends
with the two young men smiling into each other’s eyes but falls well
short of any more blatant consummation (Crane 1984, p. 127). How-
ever, the charge that O’Hara’s poetry is evasive does not really hold
water, because many of O’Hara’s poems engage quite directly with
gay sexuality, gay social environments, gay culture, and the gay ethos
of the 1950s and 1960s. So cruising, ‘all the dopes you make demands
of in toilets’; and extravagant dressing-up, ‘you who dresses in pumps
for the routine, shorts, a tuxedo jacket and a sequin tophat’; put in an
appearance (‘Day and Night in 1952’; O’Hara 1979, p. 93). An
explicit homosexual encounter is also cited/sited in Grand Central
Station:
He unzipped the messenger’s trousers
and relieved him of his missile, hands
on the messenger’s dirty buttocks,
the smoking muzzle in his soft blue mouth.
(O’Hara 1979, pp. 168–69)
while ‘Homosexuality’ (O’Hara 1979, pp. 181–82) refers to casual
sexual encounters and to homsexuality as masking:
So we are taking off our masks, are we, and keeping
our mouths shut? as if we’d been pierced by a glance!
In ‘Returning’ the poet again alludes to homosexual activity:
it’s only your cock or your ass.
They do what they can in gardens and parks,
in subway stations and latrines,
as boyscouts rub sticks together who’ve read the manual,
know what’s expected of death.
(O’Hara 1979, p. 246)
‘At the Old Place’ is set in a gay bar and features male dancing, in a
parodic enactment of grace:
Joe is restless and so am I, so restless.
Button’s buddy lips frame ‘L G T T H O P?’
across the bar. ‘Yes!’ I cry, for dancing’s
my soul delight. (Feet! feet!) ‘Come on!’
Through the streets we skip like swallows.
Howard malingers. (Come on, Howard.) Ashes
malingers. (Come on, J.A.) Dick malingers.
128 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

(Come on, Dick.) Alvin darts ahead. (Wait up,


Alvin.) Jack, Earl and Someone don’t come.
Down the dark stairs drifts the steaming cha-
cha-cha. Through the urine and smoke we charge
to the floor. Wrapped in Ashes’ arms I glide.
(Its heaven!) Button lindys with me. (It’s
heaven!) Joe’s two-steps, too, are incredible,
and then a fat rhumba with Alvin, like skipping
on toothpicks. And interminable intermissions,
we have them. Jack, Earl and Someone drift
guiltily in. ‘I knew they were gay
the minute I laid eyes on them!’ screams John.
How ashamed they are of us! we hope.
(O’Hara 1979, pp. 223–24)
There are also numerous mentions of gay archetypes, for example,
as in ‘Dido’ (O’Hara 1979, pp. 74–75): ‘Somebody’s got to ruin the
queen, my ship’s just got to come in.’
Homosexual contexts, therefore, flit in and out of the poems. But,
more fundamentally, the emotional and social tenor of the poetry is
also affected by the poet’s sexual orientation. Both Rudy Kikel (Kikel
1990) and Stuart Byron (Byron 1990) have suggested that O’Hara’s
poetry engages with a particular gay conception of love, or particular
problems attached to gay love. Kikel claims that O’Hara’s interest in
‘the moment’ is characteristic of ‘the nature of gay love in general’
(Kikel 1990, p. 345). Similarly, Byron argues that O’Hara’s distinctive
way of depicting relationships between males results from his sexual
orientation. ‘Like other male gay artists of the century, his major
theme stemmed from the conflict between promiscuity and
monogamy – wanting to be loved by the whole world vs. wanting a
deep relationship with one person’ (Byron 1990, p. 67).
This is, of course, also a major theme in some heterosexual litera-
ture, but it may be that the more institutionalised nature of heterosex-
ual relationships, and the negotiation they involve between male and
female desires, make it less prominent. Be that as it may, it is certainly
the case that, within O’Hara’s poetry, the fleeting nature of a sexual
encounter is celebrated and aestheticised: ‘There’s nothing more
beautiful/than knowing something is going/to be over’ (O’Hara
1977b, p. 178). And sexual love in the poems is marked by a deep-
seated ambivalence which sometimes mocks the love it is expressing.
The Gay New Yorker 129

‘Poem: When I am feeling depressed and anxious sullen’ is addressed


to Vincent Warren, the dancer with whom O’Hara had a relationship,
although he is not mentioned in the poem because he wanted the poem
kept anonymous (LeSueur 1986). In the poem the attempts of the
speaker to imply that love stabilises and strengthens him so that he
knows what is important to him:
above the intrusions
of incident and accidental relationships
(O’Hara 1979, p. 349)
result in an exposure of his anxiety about the limits and instability of
that love. Throughout the poem, the poet’s declaration of love seems
to be in excess of its object. So the line ‘all you have to do is take your
clothes off ’ reads two ways: while the poet seems to be describing his
lover’s power, the active nature of his love (he is writing a poem about
it) strongly contrasts with his lover’s passivity (all he has to do is take
his clothes off). Similarly, it is the lover’s presence rather than any of
his particular actions which make the poet feel ‘life is strong’.
Throughout, the poet only seems to be able to describe his intense
love for his lover by practically annihilating him. His overpowering
claims parody metaphysical conceits and also renaissance ideals of the
perfect body:
sick logic and feeble reasoning are cured
by the perfect symmetry of your arms and legs
spread out making an eternal circle together
creating a golden pillar beside the Atlantic
(O’Hara 1979, p. 349)
These descriptions undercut themselves by trying to use physical
characteristics to convey the spiritual. The statement that ‘all is wiped
away’ also suggests not only bad but good things are excised by the
lover’s presence, and assertions of the eternal nature of their love are
followed by statements about mortality: ‘together we always will be
in this life come what may’, while it is the air which is infinite.
Attempts to assert the power of love to unite, by defeating its enemies,
result in an awareness of separateness ‘and all of yours and yours in
you and me in mine’.
Perhaps more difficult to define is the extent to which O’Hara’s
poems are reflective or constitutive of a gay sensibility. These issues
are well summarised by Rudy Kikel:
130 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

How much do some of O’Hara’s early reading preferences (for Rim-


baud, Auden, Djuna Barnes, Ronald Firbank, Gertrude Stein, Virginia
Woolf) reflect a developing gay consciousness? How much does his
gayness have to do with his aversion to ‘the unbearably right,’ with his
tendency to parody his literary model ‘or at least to subvert its
“normal” convention’ (Perloff, p. 139)? How much does his interest in
Surrealism, with its potential for handling private anxiety in a veiled
way, his rejection of ‘confessional’ poetry, originate in cultural homo-
phobia? His sense of the ‘present,’ the ‘immediacy’ of his work, his
concern for the ‘commonplace’ and for Action Painting, in which ‘the
canvas becomes an arena upon which to act rather than a space in
which to reproduce’ (p. 85): how essentially are these characteristic
outgrowths of an accepted gay self? (Kikel 1990, p. 336)
Kikel suggests that O’Hara’s style is rooted in a gay impulse to
reject social convention, or ‘normalcy’, a term used in a journal entry
in O’Hara’s Early Writing (Kikel 1990, p. 337). He emphasises vari-
ous strategies which demarcate O’Hara as a gay poet, and ways in
which the poetry can be seen to be a response to a homophobic soci-
ety. These include ‘camp’, a tendency towards ‘gay doom’ and the
parodying of literary conventions concerning love.
Kikel’s and Byron’s essays are extremely useful in bringing to light
some of the qualities which make O’Hara a gay poet. But both, para-
doxically, show a desire not to allow their discussion of O’Hara as
‘gay’ poet to totally circumscribe his work. Byron, for example, says:
‘But O’Hara’s genius, the thing that both justifies and condemns
“reducing” him to a gay poet, is that this conflict became an all-
encompassing worldview: living for the moment as against living for
something larger’ (Byron 1990, p. 67).
Both seem to lack an adequate framework for exploring this para-
dox fully, or relating it to O’Hara’s textual practice, and it seems useful
here to return to Dollimore’s ideas of a perverse dynamic, in which
radical interconnectedness and transgressive reinscription play a major
part. I have already suggested that an interconnectedness which does
not have the stability of unity is fundamental to the interlinking of dif-
ferent gay aspects of O’Hara’s work. Furthermore, it is closely related
to the concept of identity-in-difference we have found to be particu-
larly relevant to O’Hara, and the metonymic/hypertextual networking
discussed in Chapter 2. Radical interconnectedness is itself the ground
of the hyperscape: as O’Hara says in ‘Returning’, ‘there are so many
similarities you have forgotten’ (O’Hara 1979, p. 246). It makes
The Gay New Yorker 131

morphing possible, because if everything is potentially connected, then


anything can turn into anything else. Dollimore’s transgressive rein-
scription, with its emphasis on inversion and displacement, is also
central to O’Hara’s textual practice. All these ideas seem to point to
the idea of style, of ‘grace’ in the writing, and the kind of radical attack
on representation, through inversion and displacement, which is so
fundamental to O’Hara’s work. In accordance with this Dollimore also
says, ‘A principal medium of transcriptive reinscription is fantasy – but
again, not the fantasy of transcendence so much as the inherently per-
verse, transgressive reordering of fantasy’s conventional opposite, the
mundane’ (Dollimore 1991, p. 324). Again this suggests correspon-
dences with O’Hara’s textual practice, where surrealism and the
quotidian merge into the hyperscape. In fact, much of Dollimore’s dis-
cussion of Wilde is applicable to O’Hara, particularly the importance
of surface over depth, the use of inversion to subvert cultural and
ethical norms (discussed in Chapter 1), and the importance of a decen-
tred subjectivity. Both writers employ humour as a means of social and
psychological transgression. But there are some major differences:
O’Hara is much less bound up with insincerity as an ‘authentic’ pose,
but he is still concerned with humorously debunking the idea of a cen-
tred and authentic self.
Camp also permeates the stance, voice and subject matter of
O’Hara’s poetry, stamping it with a specific gay identity which is nev-
ertheless characterised by reversals and role-playing. The camp
tendency to trivialise the serious, but at the same time to assume the
significance of the trivial, is central to O’Hara’s poetry. (A good exam-
ple of this is his use of the cat pissing in the pot in ‘Chez Jane’ as a
metaphor for artistic creation, discussed in Chapter 3). Campiness also
manifests itself in cross-dressing, stylized mannerisms – such as the
chatty voice characterised by posturing and exclamation – and bound-
less enthusiasm for show-biz gossip. The latter is epitomised in the
loving but satirical shopping list of Hollywood film stars in ‘To the
Film Industry in Crisis’, in which the masks of Hollywood also become
the masquerades of constructed femininities and masculinities:11

11. The relevance of certain film stars to the subversion of sexual identity is
discussed by Andrew Ross: ‘To non-essentialist feminism and to the gay camp
tradition alike, the significance of particular film stars lies in their various chal-
lenges to the assumed naturalness of gender roles. Each of these stars presents a
132 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

Richard Barthelmess as the ‘tol’able’ boy barefoot and in pants,


Jeanette MacDonald of the flaming hair and lips and long, long neck,
Sue Carroll as she sits for eternity on the damaged fender of a car
and smiles, Ginger Rogers with her pageboy bob like a sausage
(O’Hara 1979, p. 232)
Camp asserts itself in gender exaggeration, the way in which
women (such as Bunny Lang) sometimes become larger-than-life but
ironic figures:
and you float regally by on your
incessant escalator, calm, a jungle queen.
Thinking it a steam shovel. Looking
a little uneasy. But you are yourself
again, yanking silver beads off your neck.
Remember, the Russian Easter Overture
is full of bunnies. Be always high,
full of regard and honor and lanolin. Oh
ride horseback in pink linen, be happy!
and with your beads on, because it rains.
(‘V. R. Lang’; O’Hara 1979, pp. 18–19)
in a tendency towards self-debunking or self-deprecation:
so I will be as unhappy as I damn well
please and not make too much of it because I am
really here and not in a novel or anything or a jet plane
as I’ve often gone away on a ladder, a taxi or a jet plane
(‘The “Unfinished”’, O’Hara 1979, pp. 317)
in theatricality, exaggeration and parody:
Not you, lean quarterlies and swarthy periodicals
with your studious incursions toward the pomposity of ants,
nor you, experimental theatre in which Emotive Fruition
is wedding Poetic Insight perpetually, nor you,
promenading Grand Opera, obvious as an ear (though you

different way, at different historical times, of living with the “masquerade” of


femininity. Each demonstrates how to perform a particular representation of
womanliness, and the effect of these performances is to demonstrate, in turn,
why there is no “authentic” femininity, why there are only representations of
femininity, socially redefined from moment to moment. So, too, the “masculine”
woman, as opposed to the androgyne, represents to men what is unreal about
masculinity, in a way similar to the effect of actors whose masculinity is over-
done and quickly dated’ (Ross 1989, p. 161).
The Gay New Yorker 133

are close to my heart), but you, Motion Picture Industry,


it’s you I love!
(‘To the Film Industry in Crisis’; O’Hara 1979, p. 232)
in sudden lapses into near-sentimentality (a characteristic that
O’Hara often comments on in himself):
in a world where you are possible
my love
nothing can go wrong for us, tell me
(‘Song’; O’Hara 1979, p. 361)
and in the carnivalesque celebration of the grotesque body:
when those trappings fart at the feet of the stars
a self-coral serpent wrapped round an arm with no jujubes
without swish
without camp
floods of crocodile piss and pleasures of driving
shadows of prairie pricks dancing
of the roses of Pennsylvania looking in eyes noses and ears
those windows at the head of science.
(‘Easter’; O’Hara 1979, p. 97)
Fundamental is also the overturning of conventional ethical ideas
discussed in Chapter 1 and implicitly celebrated in ‘Ode To Joy’:
We shall have everything we want and there’ll be no more dying
on the pretty plains or in the supper clubs
for our symbol we’ll acknowledge vulgar materialistic laughter
over an insatiable sexual appetite
and the streets will be filled with racing forms
and the photographs of murderers and narcissists and movie stars
will swell from the walls and books alive in steaming rooms
to press against our burning flesh not once but interminably
as water flows down hill into the full-lipped basin
and the adder dives for the ultimate ostrich egg
and the feather cushion preens beneath a reclining monolith
that’s sweating with post-exertion visibility and sweetness
near the grave of love
No more dying
(O’Hara 1979, p. 281)
This poem strikes at accepted values of self-control and self-
regulation through Dionysian dizziness rather than logical argu-
ment. Like many of the poems it hits hard, though humorously, at
134 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

middle-class, heterosexual values. In fact their campiness may be one


of the reasons why O’Hara’s poems were often lightly dismissed: we
can read this critical response now as implicitly homophobic.
Also relevant here is the degree to which O’Hara’s work does
inscribe an ‘écriture gaie’, how far it courts the morphing signifier. One
of the first critics to argue for O’Hara’s work as écriture gaie was Bruce
Boone, who claimed that O’Hara used a gay language and words
which are homosexually coded (Boone 1979). This is undoubtedly
true, but, more recently, Bredbeck has taken the issue on to an even
more detailed theoretical level (Bredbeck 1993). Basing his argument
on Barthes’s The Pleasure of the Text, Bredbeck suggests that O’Hara’s
poetry posits a homosexual semiotics, and that ‘the primary reason
O’Hara’s poetry has been simultaneously lauded and marginalized is
that it centralizes homosexuality as a linguistic rather than a thematic
practice – although the subject is often a theme’ (Bredbeck 1993,
p. 268). Bredbeck also constructs the concept of a homosexual male
symbolic expressed through two organs, the penis and the anus. He
claims that homosexual semiotics has yet to theorise the importance of
this potential doubleness. For Barthes the text is a site; for O’Hara a
trick (a short-term partner). The text as trick ‘straddles the binaries of
object and agent, of inertia and activity … the trick … foregrounds the
otherness of everything except difference itself ’ (Bredbeck 1993,
p. 279). The way in which Bredbeck uses a specific homosexual lexis
to describe the activity of the text is particularly suggestive: ‘Barthes’s
text lies passively beneath jouissance like woman in the missionary
position, but O’Hara’s “cruises” and “does” and “is done,” both tabula
rasa and stylus’ (Bredbeck 1993, p. 272). According to Bredbeck, sig-
nification for O’Hara is ‘not a space marked off by difference but is
difference itself, the phenomenon that erases truth and reserve and
that “means” only in the present tense, deprivileging the totalising
inscriptions of tradition’ (Bredbeck 1993, p. 279).
Although Bredbeck does not engage in detailed linguistic analysis to
support his ideas – and there is clearly work by a linguist which could
be usefully done here – his argument is striking. I would like to push
the matter even further and suggest, as a conclusion to this chapter, the
idea of the ‘all-over body’ in O’Hara’s work. The ‘all-over body’ is one
of which any part can be eroticised and any part has as much erotic
potential as any other. It is also a deterritorialized space across which
gender and sexual orientation are all constantly morphing. This term
has clear connections with Abstract Expressionism (the ‘all-over’
The Gay New Yorker 135

paintings of Jackson Pollock, and the all-over politics mentioned in


Chapter 1). But in his poetry, O’Hara writes the ‘all-over’ body. Here
writing is hypergrace, a style which involves juggling, balancing and
exchange between disparate materials or styles. Writing and sexuality
are interconnected: ‘it’s the property of a symbol to be sexual’ (O’Hara
1979, p. 246), but in both cases the signifier exceeds the signified. On
the one hand, there are specific sexual acts, but on the other hand, sex-
uality breaks down the fixed limits of the sexed body, gender, sexual
orientation. The sexual act is a site of celebration, but it also fails to
fully satisfy because it closes off other possibilities which call to be
explored: ‘I am always tying up/and then deciding to depart’ (O’Hara
1979, p. 217). Similarly, texts tend to close off meaning into final
signifieds and the straitjacket of specific genres. But the hypertextual
metonymic web discussed in Chapter 2 resists this because neither
meaning nor genre ever finds a final resting place. Only through the
metonymic web and the labyrinthian possibilities of ‘all-over’ writing
is it possible to glimpse the radical interconnectedness of this textual-
sexuality: the ground of the hyperscape.
5

The Poem as Talkscape: Conversation,


Gossip, Performativity, Improvisation
the only truth is face to face, the poem whose words become your mouth
(‘Ode: Salute to the French Negro Poets’; O’Hara 1979, p. 305)
Tonight we improvised a conversation
between two drunkards with lisps and afterwards
made jello but it had pineapple in it.
(‘The Weekend’; O’Hara 1977b, p. 111)

In Chapter 3 we examined the linguistic basis for the hyperscape in


literary terms but we largely ignored the function of talk. In this chap-
ter I will be discussing a distinctive feature of O’Hara’s poems, the
way they inhabit spoken, performative and improvised modes to
create ‘talkscapes’. These modes are often marginalised in poetry, but
they are quite central to O’Hara’s hyperscapes where casual conver-
sation and literariness, informality and form-ality are threaded
together. Consequently most poems slide imperceptibly between
spoken and written modes.
Talk, improvisation and the performative are not identical but they
often stalk the same space. In O’Hara’s work the confluence of these
modes relates to the poet’s commitment to the immediate, the tran-
sient and the provisional; his desire to present rather than represent;
and his need to transmit an embodied presence in language. A style
emerges which challenges the limits of the poem-as-text but does not
supersede it. An O’Hara poem is not a multimedia event or a slice of
a chat show, and O’Hara is not a talk-poet who improvises in perfor-
mance like contemporary talk-poet David Antin (Antin 1976; 1984).
But O’Hara’s work can be seen to be a precursor to some of these
other modes, to point towards creative processes and modes of pro-
duction beyond the purely literary, while negotiating, simultaneously,
a high degree of ‘literariness’.
The Poem as Talkscape 137

This chapter analyses the role of talk in O’Hara’s poetry, and also
contextualises it in terms of community, camp, gossip and gayspeak.
But it also links the talkscape to O’Hara’s creative process, his mode
of writing, through the concept of improvisation. The way writers
write is often neglected in studies of their work, as if the product
could be completely divorced from its conception. But even where
the creative process is heavily concealed, it still has a graphic effect on
the end result. In O’Hara’s poetry the connection between product
and process is overt, but has usually been discussed in terms of his
relationship to Abstract Expressionism. Here I theorise a new way of
conceiving the relationship through the concept of improvisation (see
also Smith and Dean 1997).

Poetry, Orality, Breath


Our culture is becoming increasingly oral and visual, and contempo-
rary cultural media such as TV, film and video rely heavily on
non-written verbal modes. According to Walter Ong, twentieth-
entury culture has left behind primary pre-literacy orality and is now
in the stage of secondary orality produced by a technological society
in the form of the telephone, radio, television and computerisation
(Ong 1982, p. 11). More specifically, our society is saturated by forms
of what we might call ‘secondary talk’, from the television chat show
and the gossip column to ‘talks’ between heads of states and political
debate (now heavily broadcast and televised). The telephone creates
a disembodied talking community which is being partially replaced
now by electronic extensions of talk, in the form of the internet ‘chat
room’ and the e-mail message. The computer age also makes it easy
to combine the oral and the written in many different ways. For
example, in multimedia, texts on the screen may be accompanied by
the sound of the same, or different, words.
O’Hara’s poetry predates some of these developments, but his
social milieu was marked out by talk (and not only at the famous
lunches). As a museum employee, and painting aficionado, O’Hara
was also habitually immersed in professional talk: he engaged in
discussion with artists and conducted published or televised inter-
views with them (see, for example, O’Hara 1964a, b). The gay
milieu in which he participated was also marked by certain stylised
and feminised forms of talk, which will be discussed later. And
poetry as talk was a way of reacting against the more academic
138 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

poetry of Lowell or Wilbur, and resisting the closure of traditional


poetic forms.
O’Hara is clearly not an oral or performance poet, and his talk-
poetic bears as many differences as similarities to Ginsberg and
Kerouac, who were committed to orality in poetry but in the form of
sonic exploration. O’Hara’s orality was more speech-based but, like
Kerouac, Ginsberg and Olson, he put himself behind the idea of the
breath as measure:
Because it seemed to me that the metrical, that the measure let us say,
if you want to talk about it in Olson’s poems or Ezra Pound’s, 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. So
therefore the point is really more to establish one’s own measure and
breath in poetry, I think, than – this sounds wildly ambitious since I
don’t think I’ve done it but I think that great poets do do it – rather than
fitting your ideas into an established order, syllabically and phonetically
and so on. (O’Hara 1983b, p. 17)
Blasing argues that for O’Hara breath is similar to the body of the
painter as a compositional instrument (Blasing 1990, p. 303). The
poet talks, rather than writes, the body. However, the concept of
breath is tinged by ideological mystification. The Black Mountain
poets, The Beats and the New York School all turned to the metaphor
of breath in order to transmit their break with metronomic metres.
Olson, for example, stated that ‘breath allows all the speech-force of
language back in’ (Olson 1973, p. 152), while Ginsberg described
each line of ‘Howl’ as a ‘single breath unit’ (Ginsberg 1973, p. 319).
But, in fact, breathing is mostly regular and monotonous. The breath
as measure signified the desire to create new rhythms in poetry, but
was not particularly specific beyond this.
Nevertheless, a speech–based poetics was a very important feature
of The New York School. Kenneth Koch has drawn attention to the
way these poets wanted to use talk in their poetry in an inclusive and
eclectic way: ‘I would say that if Williams was using plain American
speech, what we wanted to use was plain American speech, fancy
speech, comic-strip talk, translation talk, libretto talk, everything, we
wanted all kinds of speech’ (Tranter 1985, p. 178). But Koch also per-
ceptively draws a distinction between the tone and role of talk in
O’Hara’s work and in Ashbery’s:
I would say in general that in most of Frank O’Hara’s poems the tone
– the main tone, the one he most always comes back to – is conversa-
The Poem as Talkscape 139

tional, very quick, very colloquial; and that he makes ascents into more
sublime tones. I’d say that John’s basic tone is a little more classical,
even prophetic sometimes. With Frank O’Hara one is in a world of con-
versation, when suddenly in this conversation one finds oneself in the
presence of the Parthenon, or of a De Kooning or a Rembrandt or
something extraordinary. With John, I think, one is in the realm of
noble discourse, and suddenly one finds oneself holding a Grape Soda
in one’s hand, or with a firecracker going off. (Tranter 1985, p. 182)

Performativity, Conversation and Gossip


Speech in poetry, and the issues which abut on it, remain somewhat
under-theorised. However, Derrida’s thesis that speech does not pro-
vide an unmediated presence has considerable application for poetry.
As we will see, in O’Hara’s work talk does not guarantee the poet as
presence: talk is recycled as discourse and woven into ‘textile’. Much
of the talk is recirculated and recontextualised, so that it becomes
a form of citation in which the original ‘intention’ is displaced.
Furthermore, in O’Hara’s poetry the illusion of a speaking voice is
signified through the textual production of speech mannerisms which
make readers hear the written poem in their heads.1
One of the ways we can explore this mediation of speech, and also
its relevance to other aspects of O’Hara’s work, is through the con-
cept of performativity. Because this is now a widely and loosely used
term, I will distinguish between four types of performativity: as per-
formance, as speech act, as process, and as sexual identity.

1. The term ‘voice’ in poetry criticism is sometimes used to describe the tone of a
poem conveyed through metaphor and image. In performance theory, on the
other hand, the body is often emphasised at the expense of the voice. Blasing dis-
cusses speech and the body as if the two are continuous. Obviously the voice
emanates from the body, but it seems to me that the voice-as-body has to be the-
orised in a different, if overlapping way, from other aspects of the body, since it
is the vehicle of language, while the body itself is often a site for non-verbalis-
able expression. Butler tries to reinstate the connection between speech and
body by arguing that the body conveys signs over and above what is said, ‘the
simultaneity of the production and delivery of the expression communicates not
merely what is said, but the bearing of the body as the rhetorical instrument of
expression. This makes plain the incongruous interrelatedness of body and
speech … the excess in speech that must be read along with, and often against,
the propositional content of what is said’ (Butler 1997, p. 152). This is obviously
pertinent in many contexts, but not completely relevant to poetry, where the
body is still absent and a partially disembodied ‘voice’ infiltrates the words.
140 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

The concept of performativity originated from Austin’s idea of the


speech act as performative: this has now been largely superseded in
linguistics by discourse analysis. For a speech act to be performative it
can either be illocutionary: ‘I name this ship’, i.e. it achieves what it
says as it says it, or perlocutionary: ‘let this day be a new beginning’,
i.e. it aims to make something happen in the future (Denney 1987,
p. 39). Yet the use of performatives does not ensure straightforward
communication. Derrida has argued that there is no pure performative
which directly communicates, and that ‘the intention animating the
utterance will never be through and through present to itself and to its
content’ (Derrida 1988, p. 18). For Derrida, all speech acts are a form
of citation, are mediated, and involve différance. However much they
seem to rely on repetition, this always involves recontextualisation and
change. While Austin did not categorise poetry as performative (he did
not believe that poetry could really make anything happen), Denney
has recently demonstrated how performatives within a lyric can be
used to break the mimetic frame of a poem because the performative
in a lyric poem makes it ‘necessary for the reader to know who is
speaking to whom on what terms – while at the same time it actually
confuses that matter’ (Denney 1987, p. 42).
The idea of performativity as speech act has been developed by Judith
Butler in her theorization of sexual identity as a form of regulated and
repeated performance (see Chapter 4). For Butler, the performance of
a particular gender, like the speech act, makes a recognisable sexual
identity happen. Conversely, this identity may also be subverted by a
refusal of repetition. In more recent work, Butler has returned directly
to the idea of the performative as speech act to discuss ‘linguistic injury’
in the form of racism and homophobia and its rebuttal. She maintains
that speech acts are not immobilised by predetermined meanings, but
can transform the contexts in which they operate. For example, words
like ‘queer’, which bear the mark of oppression, can be reappropriated
as a way of speaking back to it. Here, then, the performative becomes a
site for political disruption and possible reform (Butler 1997, p. 161).
In the following discussion, I will be linking both talk as the perfor-
mance of gender, and as linguistic injury, to O’Hara’s work.
In critical discussion about poetry, performativity has become
largely synonymous with performance.2 It is usually used to describe
2. Despite the large amount of literature on performativity and performance there
has been little attempt to theorise the relationship between them, even in a
volume ostensibly devoted to the topic (Parker and Sedgwick 1995).
The Poem as Talkscape 141

poetry in which the performer – who may or may not be the same as
the poet – either invents, modifies or completes the text in perfor-
mance (or changes its import by idiosyncratic delivery). However,
the term performative is more relative and less transparent than per-
formance, and suggests a continuum which poems with varying
degrees of a performance element might inhabit. Performativity-as-
performance can also be linked to performativity-as-process: the poet
performs as he or she composes the poem. This type of performativ-
ity is, in its most fundamental form, a kind of improvisatory process,
and is discussed with regard to O’Hara’s work later in this chapter.
The interface between different types of performativity, and the
poetry of the 1950s, is perceptively made by Michael Davidson. He is
referring mainly to the Black Mountain poets, but his conceptual
framework seems applicable to the New York School. It is highly
relevant that Davidson meshes performativity-as-speech-act to per-
formance and process:
While never alluding to Austin’s theory of the performative, poets
of the late 1950s nevertheless thought of their work as capable of
effecting change – of ‘doing’ rather than ‘representing’ – by the sheer
authority vested in the speaker. This authority is purchased not by
establishing ironic distance or by invoking institutional or cultural
precedents. Rather, authority derives from an ability to instantiate
physiological and psychological states through highly gestural lineation
and by the treatment of the page as a ‘field’ for action. In the rhetoric
of Black Mountain poetics, the poet ‘scores’ the voice – and by exten-
sion the body – through lines that monitor moment-to-moment
attention. The poem’s authenticity resides not so much in what the
poem says as paraphrasable content but in the ways the poem displays
its own processes of discovery. Many of the terms for such performance
(gesture, field, action) derive from abstract expressionist painting, for
which the heroic ideal of physicality serves as aesthetic as well as com-
munal precedent. (Davidson 1995, p. 198)
These different ‘performativities’ are linked to sexual identity
in the rest of the essay, through Davidson’s assertion that the oral
poetics of the 1950s and 1960s went hand in hand with a macho, het-
erosexual, misogynist and even homophobic aesthetic. Davidson,
however, does not discuss the New York School, and O’Hara’s camp,
talking style seems to have been quite the opposite: a genuine alter-
native to a heterosexual, hegemonic poetics.
Talk as conversation allows power struggles to be played out at
142 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

both the private and public level. This type of power play is all-
pervasive even in casual conversation, which Eggins and Slade argue
is ‘a critical site for the social construction of reality’ (Eggins and
Slade 1997, p. 16). They suggest that casual conversation is, para-
doxically, extremely revealing about our social values. Kress also
argues that conversation is one of the main ways in which difference
is negotiated: ‘Most speech genres are ostensibly about difference:
argument (differences of an ideological kind), interview (differences
around power and knowledge), “gossip” (differences around infor-
mal knowledge), lecture (difference around formal knowledge),
conversation’ (Kress 1985, p. 25).
Kress suggests that people bring their own discursive histories to
conversation: when others do not share this same discourse, differ-
ence occurs. As we will see, in O’Hara’s poetry the reader is in a
complex insider–outsider position which swings between sharing and
not sharing the discourse.
Much of the conversation in O’Hara’s poetry is about other people
and straddles the domain of gossip. Gossip is usually regarded as having
both a positive and negative aspect. Eggins and Slade, for example,
define it as ‘talk which involves pejorative judgment of an absent other’
(Eggins and Slade 1997, p. 278), but also argue that it confirms and
reaffirms relationships. Spacks, whose subject is gossip in literature,
suggests that there is a gradient of gossip which, at one end of the con-
tinuum, takes the form of ‘distilled malice’. As such it ‘plays with repu-
tations, circulating truths and half-truths and falsehoods about the
activities, sometimes about the motives and feelings, of others’ (Spacks
1985, p. 4). At the other end of the continuum is serious gossip, ‘which
exists only as a function of intimacy’ (Spacks 1985, p. 5), and which can
be a vehicle for both self-expression and the expression of community.
Eggins and Slade argue that gossip is a means of exerting social con-
trol. For them it is a way of ‘asserting collective values and increasing
group cohesion’ (Eggins and Slade 1997, p. 283). Gossip censors
departures from convention and deviations from group values.
‘Hence gossip can be seen to reflect and maintain social structures and
social values and “to keep people in line’’’ (Eggins and Slade 1997,
pp. 283–84). Spacks, however, sees gossip as potentially subversive.
According to her, gossip as a phenomenon ‘raises questions about
boundaries, authority, distance, and the nature of knowledge; it
demands answers quite at odds with what we assume as our culture’s
dominant values’ (Spacks 1985, p. 12).
The Poem as Talkscape 143

Gossip in poetry is an odd phenomenon, for it assumes an element


of privacy and confidentiality which cannot possibly be present in a
published poem because it is a public event. But by straddling the
realm of the intimate, gossip encourages voyeurism, which becomes a
unique way of absorbing the attention of the reader.3 The reader
becomes caught up in an erotics of gossip, and participates in its value
judgements, while at the same time being removed from its sources
and effects.

Talk, Performativity and Gossip in O’Hara’s Work


O’Hara’s meaningful joke in ‘Personism: A Manifesto’ (O’Hara 1979,
p. 499), that he could talk on the telephone instead of writing a poem,
suggests how much he saw a correlation between poetry and live talk.
In fact, talk becomes increasingly important in the O’Hara poem,
reaching its peak in ‘Biotherm’ (O’Hara 1979, 436–48). Not only do
the poems pivot (at least in part) on a talk style of writing, they also
engage numerous different types of recontextualised talk. Here talk is
not ‘pure speech’ but functions as recirculating currency. One-sided
conversations, arguments, discussions, quotations, telephone calls
and gossip: all these forms of private and public talk make up the
weave and warp of O’Hara’s talkscape. Talk is a means of power play
– not only in friendships, with their ‘innuendos and desirable hostili-
ties’ (O’Hara 1979, p. 444) – but also in public life: Khruschchev is
coming on the right day for ‘talks’ with Nixon over the chasm of the
cold war (O’Hara 1979, p. 340). Talk is also the coinage of artistic
and intellectual exchange (O’Hara 1979, p. 340).
The talkscape includes colloquialisms and is punctuated with inter-
jections, questions, exclamations, redundancies and asides. These are
not essential to the semantics of the poem and would normally be
excised from it, but create the ambience of live talk. This distinguishes
the poems from those by other poets which may adopt an informal
speaking tone, but do not mimic the mannerisms of speech. The
emergent voice is campy, breathless, theatrical, chatty, informal and
ironic: an example of what Hayes calls gayspeak (Hayes 1981). The

3. Spacks compares gossip’s fascination to that of pornography and says that gossip
has a ‘faint flavour of the erotic’ (Spacks 1985, p. 11) and is ‘a relatively inno-
cent form of the erotics of power’. Spacks also stresses the narrative excitements
of gossip and the way gossip ‘claims other people’s experience by interpreting it
into story’ (Spacks 1985, p. 11).
144 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

exclamation mark is the favoured mode of address, and the poems are
speckled with the gay slang (e.g. ‘cruisy’ and ‘nelly’). Significantly, in
‘Homosexuality’ the poet says, ‘It is the law of my own voice I shall
investigate’ (O’Hara 1979, pp. 181–82). In other words, he must find
a different way of speaking from that enforced by hegemonic hetero-
sexuality. Yet the poet’s own voice is subject to no single law, since talk
is one of the means by which the splintered subjectivity manifests
itself. The self-in-transition creates the speech surface which resonates
with conflicts, passions, humour and self-doubt. If the voice is dis-
tinctive, it is also humorously self-questioning, self-correcting and
self-parodying. The self-parody is both part of the distinctive voice
and a challenge to the concept of ‘personality’ with its attendant aura
of consistency, intentionality and self-regulation:
I’m having a real day of it.
There was
something I had to do. But what?
There are no alternatives, just
the one something.
(‘Anxiety’; O’Hara 1979, p. 268)
The poet adjusts his view of himself as he talks to us, sliding between
different forms of self-recognition and misrecognition in a balancing
act which sometimes leaves him dangling from the tightrope:
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.
(‘Digression on Number 1, 1948’; O’Hara 1979, p. 260)
Also bubbling to the surface of the talk are associative patterns of
thinking, in which one mental image triggers another:
the apartment was vacated by a gay couple
who moved to the country for fun
they moved a day too soon
even the stabbings are helping the population explosion
though in the wrong country
(‘Steps’; O’Hara 1979, pp. 370–71)
Talk in these poems, then, often takes the form of what Goffman
calls self-talk (Goffman 1981, pp. 78–122). This is a mixture of talk-
ing and thinking, so that talk becomes an access to psychological
The Poem as Talkscape 145

processes, to internal functioning. It is a form of self-dialoguing rather


like self-mirroring, in which the voice which bounces back is marked
by conflicting signals, both recognition and misrecognition.
Although some of the poems involve self-dialoguing, many others
imply conversations: in interview with Edward Lucie-Smith O’Hara
said: ‘what really makes me happy is when something just falls into
place as if it were a conversation or something’ (O’Hara 1983b, p. 21).
Particularly relevant to this is the role of the addressee, which changes
from poem to poem and is sometimes multiple. The poet often seems
to be conversing with his audience, for example, by asking rhetorical
questions. But there is often a more specific addressee to the poem, a
lover, a friend, or even a particular social group or organisation, such
as the film industry in ‘To The Film Industry in Crisis’ (O’Hara 1979,
pp. 232–33), or the broadcasting corporation in ‘Radio’ (O’Hara
1979, p. 234).
It is the superimposition of all these different addressees which
turns talk into a very complex form of conversation.4 For O’Hara
plays off the addressees, and the attendant levels of intimacy, against
each other. When the addressee is both a lover and the reader, the
difference in the degree of intimacy is very great. The poet draws on
the partially hidden store of knowledge which intimates share, and
this turns the reader into a voyeur who wants to know more, espe-
cially since the poems are about ‘real people’, without the usual
forms of fictional intervention. The two addressees, the friend/lover
and the reader, are interpellated in different ways. The friend or
lover is spoken to in such a way as to seduce, cajole, praise or per-
suade, while the reader becomes susceptible vicariously across the
boundaries of a world in which s/he is a stranger. On the other hand,
the critical edge of the poem may be more apparent to the anony-
mous reader than to the intimate, who will read the poem less objec-
tively. In between the extremes of lover and reader are a continuum
of ghost addressees who stalk the poem, such as other members of
the coterie. Here O’Hara’s play with the outsider/insider role of the
reader might be seen to be linked to his own insider–outsider posi-
tion as a gay man, a writer, and yet (in some respects) a member of
the art establishment.

4. A similar ambiguity between addressees is remarked upon by Denney with


regard to Ashbery, where it is linked to the use of performatives (Denney 1987,
pp. 42–43).
146 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

Poems written for the intimate addressee are sometimes highly


performative, geared towards a desired outcome. For example, in
‘Hate is only one of many responses’ (see Chapter 1) the poet
exhorts the addressee to use a negative mindset (hate) to trigger emo-
tional openness and potentially positive feelings. The poem inter-
laces argument, commands and instructions, positing grace as the
ability to redirect (rather than stabilise) difficult feelings.5 (Perhaps,
however, this poem is also a graphic reminder that the personal
cannot always be the political, since to encourage people to hate on
a national scale might be to ignite widespread racial or homophobic
prejudice.)
‘Primary talk’ of this type is, however, only one component of the
talkscape. In addition, many of the poems pivot around ‘secondary
talk’: recirculated talk which undergoes a ‘respeaking’. In ‘Biotherm’
talk dresses up as reported talk, interjections in foreign languages,
translations, quotations, gossip, innuendo, flirting, teasing, linguistic
hybridisation and sound association. The sources of the talk range
from parodies of Wyatt and Williams, to Hollywood films featuring
Dietrich and Monroe.6 Furthermore, menus or recipes are camped up
into an oral dimension.
An economy of talk emerges from this process in which the cur-
rency undergoes considerable fluctuations in a chain of communica-
tors and communicatees. This calls into question the immediacy and
truthfulness of talk which is filtered through different perspectives.
Such talk does not give access to a pure subjectivity but creates what
I call a ‘polylogue’ of multiple voices superimposed upon the distinc-
tive voice of the poet. The fragments are torn from their original con-
texts and disembodied from their speakers. They are then relocated
nomadically in the ‘body of the text’ in ways which can seem arbi-
trary, do not necessarily illustrate particular points, are non-specific
with regard to point of view, and are not fully integrated with the rest
of the poem. In this way they parody the literary collages of Pound
and Eliot, where the relationship between original and new context is
much more highly rationalised.

5. Eggins defines the basic speech functions as ‘offer (Would you like another
chocolate?), command (Pass the chocolates, please), statement (I love choco-
lates), question (Which chocolates do you like best?)’ (Eggins 1994, p. 109).
6. The sources of a number of the quotations and insertions in ‘Biotherm’ are doc-
umented in Gooch 1993, p. 383.
The Poem as Talkscape 147

bent on his knees the Old Mariner said where the fuck
is that motel you told me about mister I aint come here for no clams
I want swimmingpool mudpacks the works carbonateddrugstorewater hiccups
fun a nice sissy under me clean and whistling a donkey to ride rocks
‘OKAY (smile) COMING UP’
‘This is, after all,’ said Margaret Dumont, ‘the original MAIN CHANCE’
(fart) ‘Suck this,’ said the Old M, spitting on his high heels
which he had just put on to get his navel up to her knee
(‘Biotherm’; O’Hara 1979, p. 437)

‘Biotherm’ demonstrates a gradual shift in O’Hara’s work to lin-


guistically flatter poems which are more orientated towards
surface. The grapevine becomes a metonymic web, and the text
creates an ‘unedited’ sprawling effect. The poem consists of hori-
zontal shifting planes which evade continuous vertical movement.
As Blasing says, ‘Biotherm … cannot be resolved into a rational
metatext of explainable sequences’ (Blasing 1990, pp. 308–09).
This does not mean, however, that the surface does not have depth:
‘The distinction between the surface and what hides behind it
becomes untenable, for the surface is now a depth … Biotherm is
full of verbal improvisations that deepen its surface, for O’Hara’s
verbal play always has an emotional, psychic, and/or sexual under-
tow’ (Blasing 1990, 922 p. 309). Again the concept of surbols
which combine surface and symbol (discussed in Chapter 1) is rele-
vant here.
The void, though, is also the silence of the unspeakable, which is
constantly there in the interstices of the spoken, ‘it seems that every-
thing’s merely a token/of some vast inexplicable feeling’ (‘Flag Day’;
O’Hara 1979, p. 369). In ‘Biotherm’, and poems of the late period,
the spacings on the page seem to suggest these gaps where talkscape
becomes talk space. In this space the emotional power of the voice can
function instead of, or over and above, what words say:

He says hello
this is George Gordon, Lord Byron, then he just
listens because he didn’t call to talk, he wanted
to hear your voice.
(‘Those Who Are Dreaming, A Play About St. Paul’;
O’Hara 1979, p. 374)
148 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

Over the void, talk is often creative, therapeutic,7 entertaining and


playful. But it can also be threatening, particularly when it moves
beyond the containment of ‘innuendos and desirable hostilities’, and
takes the form of ‘linguistic injury’ as racist or homophobic invective:
then too, the other day I was walking through a train
with my suitcase and I overheard someone saying ‘speaking of faggots’
now isn’t life difficult enough without that
and why am I always carrying something
well it was a shitty looking person anyway
better a faggot than a farthead
(‘Biotherm’; O’Hara 1979, p. 441)
At the other end of the spectrum talk takes us back to the sense of
community discussed in Chapter 2. Talk colours the cultural world of
the poem and it is a powerful catalyst of homosociality, friendship,
intellectual debate and artistic exchange.8 Through talk, differences
are negotiated and opinions challenged.
So talk is a means of finding ideological common ground, of
expressing group solidarity, and of arriving at a coterie taste con-
sensus:
we don’t like Lionel Trilling
we decide, we like Don Allen we don’t like
Henry James so much we like Herman Melville
(‘Personal Poem’; O’Hara 1979, p. 336)
It is a thermometer of the social climate, in this case racial discrim-
ination:
Le Roi comes in
and tells me Miles Davis was clubbed 12
times last night outside BIRDLAND by a cop
and poverty

7. In ‘Joe’s Jacket’, talk is seen as therapeutic: ‘Joe is still up and we talk/only of the
immediate present and its indiscriminately hitched-to past’ (O’Hara 1979, p.
330).
8. In interview with me Grace Hartigan (Hartigan 1986) said artistic interaction
took the form of metaphors and jokes rather than analytical discussion. See also
Geoff Ward: ‘The Collected Poems gives us a more completely rounded evoca-
tion of the artist’s milieu than any body of verse since Alexander Pope. The
poems are themselves, to use the title of O’Hara’s selected criticism, Art Chron-
icles’ (Ward 1993, p. 61).
The Poem as Talkscape 149

a lady asks us for a nickel for a terrible


disease
(‘Personal Poem’; O’Hara 1979, p. 335)
Yet refusing to talk is also a form of power, a way of asserting dif-
ference from others:
and Allen is back talking about god a lot
and Peter is back not talking very much
and Joe has a cold and is not coming to Kenneth’s
although he is coming to lunch with Norman
I suspect he is making a distinction
well, who isn’t
(‘Adieu to Norman, Bon Jour to Joan and Jean-Paul’;
O’Hara 1979, p. 328)
Here we can see how talk feeds gossip, the ‘little supper-club con-
versation for the mill of the gods’ (‘Rhapsody’; O’Hara 1979,
pp. 325–26). While this gossip masquerades as inconsequential, it is
often a way of making and passing on value judgements in a relatively
unaggressive way – both to other members of the coterie and to the
reader. It often blends affection and criticism, like the double-edged
reference to Kenneth Koch as ‘excitement-prone’ in ‘Adieu to
Norman’ (for excitement-prone read hyperactive). But gossip in the
poem can also be a way of airing grievances: the poem ‘Day and Night
in 1952’ draws attention to the undertow of distrust, secrecy and
aggression which destabilises even the closest friendship:
Are you still listening, cutie? you who dresses in pumps for the routine,
shorts, a tuxedo jacket and a sequin tophat? you are delicious I don’t
mind letting you know. If we were some sort of friends I might have to
bitch you; as it is you can have whatever you want from anyone else and
whatever somewhat inaccurate cooperation you may care to have from
me. I’m not this way with people I know. And they’re not with me. John,
for instance, thinks I am the child of my own old age; Jimmy is cagey
with snide remarks while he washes dishes and I pose in the bathroom;
Jane is rescuing herself at the mercy of her ill temper towards me which
is expressed only in the riddles of her motival phantasies; what am I to
say of Larry? who really resents the fact that I may be conning him
instead of Vice and Art; Grace may secretly distrust me but we are both
so close to the abyss that we must see a lot of each other, grinning and
carrying on as if it were a picnic given by somebody else’s church; Ken-
neth continually goes away and by this device is able to remain intensely
friendly if not actually intimate; but the other John catches everyone of
150 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

my innuendi the wrong way or at the very least obliquely and is never
mistaken or ill-tempered, which is what I worry about the most.
(‘Day and Night in 1952’; O’Hara 1979, pp. 93–95)
Yet here the domain of gossip seems itself to shift ground since gossip
is usually about an absent third person, and O’Hara knew his friends
would read the poem. The poem-as-gossip, then, may sometimes
transform into a strategy for regulating relationships: a way of bring-
ing out into the open, and at the same time containing, tensions which
it might be difficult, even dangerous, to verbalise in private.9
But gossip, often regarded a feminine discourse, is also part of the
camp world of O’Hara’s poetry. As such it can be regarded as a subver-
sive strategy for challenging the binary of trivial and serious. One aspect
of this is gossip about film stars – the cult of cinema-as-glamour – which
sometimes centres on film stars who have been appropriated by the gay
scene (e.g. Bette Davis, mentioned in ‘Cornkind’; O’Hara 1979, p. 387)
because of their androgynous style (Hayes 1981). Mimicking gossip
column hype, the cult is forged on a feigned competition to know more
inane or imagined facts about celebrities than anyone else:
when I see Gianni I know he’s thinking of John Ericson
playing the Rachmaninoff 2nd or Elizabeth Taylor
taking sleeping-pills
(‘Rhapsody’; O’Hara 1979, p. 326)

9. David Trotter posits that gossip was a way for O’Hara to regulate and objectify
his relationship with others: ‘Gossip becomes a way of ensuring a certain fluid-
ity in his relationships with other people, and then a specific practice of writing.
To gossip about someone is, after all, to distance oneself from them and from
one’s feeling for them, to view them temporarily as the objects of an impersonal
curiosity. We do it to our closest friends as well as to our enemies, and so recog-
nise that we always have at least the capacity to erase our feelings for other
people’ (Trotter 1984, p. 157).
Trotter suggests that gossip prevents relationships from becoming ossified: the
function of gossip may be to guarantee the circulation of subjectivities. This was
important for O’Hara because of his great number of friendships. ‘For these rela-
tionships to be kept going, it was essential that there should be no hierarchy, no
pair of subjects for whom everyone else was always an object, no permanent
alignments. Gossip ensured a continuous redistribution of roles, whereby the
object of one curiosity was always becoming the subject of another’ (Trotter
1984, pp. 157–58). Reva Wolf, commenting on Allen Ginsberg’s reference in
‘City Midnight Junk Strains’ to O’Hara’s poetry as ‘deep gossip’, says: ‘Perhaps
O’Hara’s gossip is “deep” principally for the simple reason that he used it often
and boldly in his poetry, and thereby acknowledged – even took for granted –
that gossip is deep’ (Wolf 1997, p. 18).
The Poem as Talkscape 151

O’Hara, therefore, interjects gossipy asides in ways which both


‘send up’ gossip and hint at its importance as a vehicle for social com-
ment, regulation. Gossip is yet another way in which surface reveals
itself as depth, as surface becomes surbol.
Talk, however, is intertwingled in the poems with poetic language
in deft transformations between the two. Tannen suggests that spoken
language has many of the properties we identify with written lan-
guage, for example, word patterning, repetition, variation, musicality,
rhythm, metaphor and metonymy (Tannen 1988, pp. 90–91). She is
raising the matter from the perspective of conversation, and the liter-
ary effects she talks about are relatively simple. However, in O’Hara’s
poetry literary modes are naturalised, while spoken figures may be
metaphorised or metonymised. So in ‘Biotherm’, the throwaway
phrase, ‘but I better be quick about it’, becomes a passing ostinato,
while in ‘Anxiety’ (O’Hara 1979, pp. 268–69), neurotic chattiness
unfolds into rich rhetoric as the poet plays on the metaphorical pos-
sibilities of darkness. This co-presence of talkscape and textscape is a
fundamental feature of the hyperscape.

Talk, Process and Improvisation


Performativity is a currently popular term in cultural studies, but the
concept of improvisation may be even more relevant to O’Hara’s
work. Improvisation links performativity as speech act and perfor-
mance, to performativity as process. In other words, it bonds the talk
style of the poems, to the process of generating material. Not all of
O’Hara’s poems are improvisations; some were heavily revised. But
improvising was an important element of his creative process.
O’Hara’s poems have often been called improvisational, but there
has been little attempt by those who have written about him to define
improvisation, or to analyse the ways in which he is an improviser. To
do this, we need to consider the essence of improvisation as a form of
creative process (Smith and Dean 1997). In its most fundamental form
improvisation is performance-based, takes place in real time, and
involves the simultaneous production and reception of the work. The
improviser creates in a limited time-frame, at speed, and without revi-
sion. Improvisation, however, is not to be confused with a Wordswor-
thian ‘spontaneous overflow of feelings’, nor is it necessarily
well-served by the phrase coined by Allen Ginsberg, ‘first thought, best
thought’. Improvisations derive from definable creative procedures,
152 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

and improvisers juggle a whole armoury of techniques gleaned from


previous improvisations (or compositions) by themselves and others.
An improvisation therefore demands a complex mixture of conscious
and unconscious processes, and improvisations always have a medi-
ated, intertextual basis. Furthermore, there is a continuum from impro-
visation to composition, with different types of creative process falling
at different points along it (Smith and Dean 1997, p. 26). To argue that
O’Hara employed improvising techniques, and achieved improvisatory
effects, is not to maintain that he was an improviser in the same way,
or to the same degree, as a contemporaneous jazz musician.
The most radical form of verbal improvisation is an act in which the
poet or performer talks afresh to the audience as talk-poet David
Antin does: this is ‘pure’ improvisation (Smith and Dean 1997, p. 27).
However, the idea of performance has not, in the post-Renaissance
Western tradition, been integral to the conception of poetry, at least
until quite recently. But many writers have engaged in applied impro-
visation: this takes place in private, but still involves working at speed
with self-imposed limits on revision. O’Hara is clearly not an impro-
viser in the sense of actually generating his material live in front of an
audience (in which case we would have to work from recordings and
transcriptions of recordings rather than written texts). But his writing
process sometimes involved applied improvisation, in the sense that it
hinged on speed and lack of revision.
Improvisers have an extensive palette of improvisatory processes
available to them which I have analysed in detail in (Smith and Dean
1997, pp. 29–33). To summarise briefly, these processes exploit a
number of different continua, including referent to non-referent,
associative to non-associative, and sensory to non-sensory improvis-
ing. Referent improvising is based on prearranged structure, proce-
dure, theme or objective which dictates some features of the work.
Associative improvising occurs when the improvisers work
metonymically. Sensory improvisation utilises input from the envi-
ronment, or from other improvisers, and is therefore the most con-
text driven. A range of different textual effects can be produced by
these processes, though they are difficult to gauge. Associative
processes and working at speed maximise the possibility that the
improviser partially bypasses rationalising procedures and the drive
towards semantic completeness: this is more likely to produce
unconscious patterns and logical discontinuities. Sensory improvis-
ing means that the improviser is also likely to collage external events,
The Poem as Talkscape 153

which occur as he/she improvises, into the improvisation (Smith and


Dean 1997, pp. 29–33).
Improvisation is part of a postmodernist aesthetic which celebrates
process, change and transience, and a gradual shift from ‘the produc-
tion of goods … to the production of events’ (Harvey 1990, p. 157).
In modernist texts time is spatialised, and this seems to guarantee the
unchanging permanence of a work of art. Postmodernism courts flux,
the passage of time, and the work of art as process. Improvisation,
then, can be seen to be a primary postmodern mode. However, to
position improvisation in relation to postmodern consumer society is
to be caught in contradiction. It might be seen to be the result of a
throwaway society and a rebuttal to commodification. Nevertheless,
it is an important means of production in the hyperscape because it
allows for the maximum flexibility.

Improvisation in Music, Theatre and the Visual Arts


Improvisation was common as a technique in the 1950s and 1960s,
particularly in jazz but also, more widely, in experimental music, the
visual arts, theatre and dance (Smith and Dean 1997). It was an
important tool for breaking out of formal constraints, and for
revamping the relationship between audience, performer and creator
in ways which made performer and creator synonymous. In the
following I outline some of the important developments in improvi-
sation during the period, to give a stronger impression of the context
in which O’Hara’s improvisatory processes arose, and the degree
to which improvisation was an important aspect of avant-garde cre-
ativity during the period.
Jazz has always been a fundamentally improvised medium, but in
the 1950s and 1960s major jazz musicians freed themselves from self-
imposed restraints which limited their improvisatory role, to allow
for much freer improvisation. The result of this development, in
which Lennie Tristano, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor,
Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra were major figures, was the erosion of
melodic, harmonic and rhythmic constraints, more formal experi-
ment, a greater emphasis on equality of improvising roles, and new
developments in instrumental technique. The jaded theme-improvi-
sation-theme format, in which the chord progressions and metrical
scheme implied by the theme were used as the basis of the improvisa-
tion, was replaced by modal improvising, of which the landmarks
154 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

were the recording by Miles Davis of Milestones (Davis 1958) and A


Kind of Blue (Davis 1959); atonality, already present in Cecil Taylor’s
In Transition (Taylor 1955, 1959); and melodic and motivic impro-
vising, exemplified in Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz, (Coleman 1960).
At the same time a much greater degree of rhythmic freedom devel-
oped, so that players either adhered to a set pulse but disguised it with
complicated cross-rhythms and accentuation, or disregarded the idea
of a set pulse altogether. One of the results of the break-up of these
musical constraints was the development of highly energetic playing,
of which Cecil Taylor was a major exponent.
In experimental music, full-blown improvisation was less common
but the emphasis on what John Cage called pieces ‘indeterminate of
(their) performance’, in the work of composers such as Cage, Morton
Feldman, Christian Wolff and Earle Brown, left some of the compos-
ing of the music up to the performers and meant that the evolution of
the composition took place at least partly during the performance.
Some parameters of the piece might be ‘fixed’, others might be free;
the degree of freedom for performers could be very great, so that they
had to generate a good deal of their own material; or might be quite
limited, so that they only had to rearrange or permute the elements of
the composition. For example, in Cage’s ‘Concert’ for Piano and
Orchestra (Cage 1960) the player has a largely notated part, but any
part of it can be played and at any speed. On the other hand, in Earle
Brown’s ‘Four Systems’, for piano(s) and/or other instruments or
sound-producing media, the graphic score consists of horizontal lines
of varying length and thickness and the instructions on the score say
that it ‘may be played in any sequence, either side up, at any tempo(i).
The continuous lines from far left to far right define the outer limits
of the keyboard. Thickness may indicate dynamics or clusters’ (Brown
1961). Some compositions direct performers to make certain deci-
sions before the performance; others force them to make decisions
during it. Christian Wolff ’s ‘Duo for Pianists 11’ uses a cueing system,
so that what and when the performers play depends on what they
hear, forcing them to respond during the course of the performance.
In either case the composition would be different and unpredictable
(in most cases very substantially) from performance to performance
(Wolff 1958).
In the theatre the collectivity of improvised work appealed to the
Living Theatre – with whom O’Hara had contact and who performed
one of his plays, Awake in Spain. Under the leadership of Judith
The Poem as Talkscape 155

Malina and Julian Beck, the Living Theatre were dedicated to social-
ist ideals of political equality and co-operation, strongly opposed to
the policies of the US government, and influenced by the ideas of Paul
Goodman. Improvisation in their work was quite limited but often
arose in interactions with the audience in pieces such as Paradise
Now, where the audience actively interrogates the actors. In the work
of the Open Theatre (which began towards the end of O’Hara’s life
under the direction of Joseph Chaikin), improvisation was a means of
rethinking theatrical conventions and the relationship between acting
and the self:
To express the fragmentation and multiplicity of experience, and the
inconsistency of internal and external ‘truth’ about character or events
… to break down the actor’s reliance upon rational choices, mundane
social realism and watered-down Freud, and to release his unconscious
through non-rational, spontaneous action celebrating the actor’s own
perceptions about modern life. (Peter Feldman in Croyden 1974,
pp. 174–75)
Abstract Expressionism is often looked upon as a movement which
employed improvisation, but the question of how improvisatory the
Abstract Expressionists were in their processes is quite controversial.
Abstract Expressionism was sometimes known as ‘action painting’, a
term introduced by Harold Rosenberg. His famous statement, that
the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an
arena in which to act – rather than a space in which to reproduce, re-
design, analyze, or ‘express’ an object, actual or imagined. What was to
go on the canvas was not a picture but an event
stressed the painting as activity and duration (quoted in Anfam 1990,
p. 9–10). The idea of not working from preconceived notions was
fundamental to Abstract Expressionism, and artists often said they did
not know when they started to paint where the painting would lead
them. For Robert Motherwell, starting a painting was ‘the feeling, not
that “I’m going to paint something I know’’, but “through the act of
painting I’m going to find out exactly how I feel, both generally and
about whatever is specific” ’ (Ross 1990, p. 111), while Jackson Pol-
lock said, ‘My opinion is that new needs need new techniques … I
don’t work from drawings … and colour sketches into a final paint-
ing’ (Ross 1990, pp. 140, 145). The Abstract Expressionists also
tended to stress process rather than product. For example, Mother-
well said, ‘The French Painters have a real finish in that the picture is
156 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

a real object, a beautifully made object. We are involved in process


and what is a finished object is not so certain’ (Mackie 1989, p.76).
And Barnett Newman stated, ‘I think the idea of a “finished” picture
is a fiction. I think a man spends his whole life-time painting one pic-
ture or working on one piece of sculpture’ (Mackie 1989, p.76). The
techniques which the painters used – for example, Pollock’s procliv-
ity for putting the canvas on the floor and dripping, throwing or
rolling the paint on to it, the techniques of all-over painting – were
also conducive to the improvisatory process because the details of the
outcome could not be preconceived.
Recently, however, Mackie (Mackie 1989), Leja (Leja 1993) and
others have pointed out that a mythology has grown round the
genesis of Abstract Expressionism which has occluded what really
happened. They argue that the paintings sometimes arose very slowly
and with revision. It is well known that Rothko and Newman some-
times did plan their images beforehand. Leja has recently been at
pains to point out that many of Pollock’s paintings were preceded by
drawings. He also points out that while Pollock maintained that he
was painting from his unconscious, he was really representing his
unconscious and this was far from automatic (Leja 1993, p.127).
I have argued elsewhere that in fact it is a theorised notion of
improvisation which can fill the gap here:
The involvement of conscious control does not undermine the perti-
nence of applied improvisation in some of the work of these painters.
In fact the idea of improvisation as a procedure which combines free-
dom and control is just what these accounts of action painting lack;
they either neglect to consider the concept of improvisation, or use an
undefined and romantic view of it. There is tendency in such accounts
to see the creative act as either/or: e.g. if the painter made sketches then
s(he) could not be spontaneous. The accounts also rely on a flimsy con-
cept of spontaneity, at the same time as deriding it … spontaneity is not
a usefully precise concept, and improvisation is not the same as automa-
tism. Furthermore, improvisation is a conscious process, and not an
appeal to the supremacy of the unconscious in creative activity … By
using the idea of improvisation, one avoids the inappropriate concept
of passive unmediated creativity which the concepts of spontaneity and
automatism tend to induce. In fact the painters’ accounts of their
processes show that sometimes they worked quickly, sometimes more
slowly. Kline stated that he liked to do paintings right away but that he
could not do that all the time (Ross, 1990, p. 101). Rosenberg distin-
guished between de Kooning’s ‘short and long’ paintings on the basis of
The Poem as Talkscape 157

how long they took to do (Mackie, 1989), while the film of Pollock
shows him working from start to finish. (Smith and Dean 1997, p.111)
For a poet, improvisation opens up talk as a medium: David
Antin, whose talk-poetry is an idiosyncratic mixture of lecture,
stand-up comedy, oral storytelling and poetry, was most responsible
in the 1980s and 1990s for developing this genre (Antin 1976).
However, improvisation in poetry can also take applied forms and,
to varying degrees, was a technique used by the Beats, most notably
Kerouac and Ginsberg. Also relevant is Olson’s polemical ‘Projec-
tive Verse’, which could be read as a manifesto for improvisatory
technique:
And I think it can be boiled down to one statement (first pounded into
my head by Edward Dahlberg): ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDI-
ATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION. It
means exactly what it says, is a matter of, at all points (even I should
say, of our management of daily reality as of daily work) get on with it,
keep moving, keep in, speed, the nerves, their speed, the perceptions,
theirs, the acts, the split second acts, the whole business, keep it moving
as fast as you can, citizen. And if you also set up as a poet, USE USE USE
the process at all points, in any given poem always, always one percep-
tion must must must MOVE, INSTANTER, ON ANOTHER (Olson
1973, p. 149)
For many artists improvisation as a process was linked to the need
for social and spiritual renewal. The gestalt theory of Paul Goodman,
the work of Freud (which emphasised the role of the unconscious in
creativity), Reich and Marx, and the altered states of consciousness
suggested by Eastern religions, were all influential. Zen Buddhism
was particularly significant because it suggested that all time was ever
present, that poetry and irrationality were ways of accessing the
unconscious, and stressed the ‘illuminated commonplace’. In fact,
improvisation was part of a utopian ideology of creativity, itself some-
times shrouded in mystification (Smith and Dean 1997, p. 19). While
improvisation does not guarantee unmediated ‘spontaneous’ access to
the unconscious, it was sometimes viewed as doing so by improvisers
of the period and their followers.
Given O’Hara’s extreme interest in the here-and-now, it is not
surprising that writing by improvisation should have attracted him.
The idea of immediacy and spontaneity was fundamental to the aes-
thetic of the New York School, and was one of the reasons Koch,
158 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

Ashbery and O’Hara enjoyed on-the-spot collaboration – to this day


Ashbery claims that he revises very little. O’Hara never identified as
an improviser, but he often alludes to writing at speed and surrender-
ing to the demands of the moment: ‘The frail/instant needs us’
(O’Hara 1979, p. 322). Bredbeck’s analysis of the importance of the
trick or short-term partner in O’Hara’s poetry (see Chapter 4), could
also suggest a link – if somewhat tenuous – between his homosexu-
ality and his inclination to transience and ‘high turnover’. Histori-
cally, the automatism of the surrealists peered over O’Hara’s
shoulder, and as we have seen, improvisation was ‘in the air’ during
the period when O’Hara was writing. However, the influence of
improvisation may have been quite indirect. O’Hara’s interest in
improvisation does not seem to have been linked with a strong inter-
est in jazz, as it was for Kerouac. Larry Rivers, himself a jazz musician,
said in interview with me that Frank ‘wasn’t keen on jazz’ (Rivers
1986). Furthermore, O’Hara does not seem to have been as suscepti-
ble as Ginsberg and Kerouac to the ‘hippy’ ideology of improvisation
linked to Eastern religion and spiritual transcendence.

The Poet-Improviser: Working Processes and Manuscripts


According to numerous reports, O’Hara wrote most of his poems
extremely quickly and usually in one draft although, in interview,
Grace Hartigan suggested longer poems were probably written over a
more extensive period and revised, and Joe LeSueur said that ‘Second
Avenue’ was written bit by bit (Hartigan 1986; LeSueur 1986). In an
interview with Edward Lucie-Smith O’Hara says, ‘I don’t believe in
reworking – too much’ (O’Hara 1983b, p. 21). In conversation he
apparently also used the term ‘staying on the boards’ (Berkson
1986b). Many of the poems, most notably the lunch poems, were
written during a predetermined and/or short time-frame, important
criteria for improvised work. If O’Hara wanted to explore a particu-
lar topic or style more extensively, he tended to write a new poem
rather than revise pre-existing material.
In an interview with me, Kenneth Koch recalled that O’Hara would
sometimes dash off several poems, one after the other, on the same
piece of paper. He also said that O’Hara ‘wasn’t one to write one line
and then wait for the next day for the next one – he wrote very fast’
(Koch 1986). Koch remembered how O’Hara and himself once wrote
together in competition on two typewriters in the same room and
The Poem as Talkscape 159

how O’Hara wrote extremely fast on that occasion.10 In ‘Four Apart-


ments’ Joe LeSueur, the close friend with whom O’Hara shared
various apartments, has related how O’Hara wrote quickly and with-
out revision, ‘Not that he needed much time, because he usually
got what he was after in one draft, and he could type very fast, hunt-
and-peck fashion’ (LeSueur 1980, p. 48). LeSueur documents the
well-known story about O’Hara writing the poem ‘Lana Turner has
collapsed’ within minutes on the Staten Island Ferry on his way to
read with Lowell. He also tells of how he rang O’Hara less than an
hour before they were due to meet Norman Bluhm for lunch: since
Norman was leaving for Paris, LeSueur suggested writing a poem for
him. O’Hara produced ‘Adieu to Norman, Bon Jour to Joan and Jean-
Paul’ within the hour (LeSueur 1980).
James Schuyler and Joe Brainard recall similar incidents:
One Saturday noon I was having coffee with Frank and Joe LeSueur …
Joe and I began to twit him about his ability to write a poem any time,
any place. Frank gave us a look – both hot and cold – got up, went into
his bedroom and wrote ‘Sleeping on the Wing’ a beauty, in a matter of
minutes. (Schuyler 1980, pp. 81-2)
I remember seeing Frank O’Hara write a poem once. We were watch-
ing a western on T.V. and he got up as tho to answer the telephone or
to get a drink but instead he went over to the typewriter, leaned over it
a bit, and typed for four or five minutes standing up. Then he pulled the
piece of paper out of the typewriter and handed it to me to read. Then
he lay back down to watch more T.V. I don’t remember the poem except
that it had some cowboy dialect in it. (Brainard 1980, p. 168)11
Even when longer poems were written over a period of time,
O’Hara’s approach generally seems to have been to leave a piece of
paper in the typewriter and return to it intermittently (Gooch 1993,
p. 283). This again suggests lack of revision: he would continue the
poem from where he had left off.
O’Hara also often wrote poems in contexts normally considered

10. In a letter to me Bill Berkson also said: ‘From 1957 on, I’d say, “improvisation”
was central to his technique’ (Berkson 1985).
11. The speed with which O’Hara wrote his poems was in marked contrast to his
speed in writing his art criticism. Manuscripts of his articles on Motherwell, for
instance, bear witness to extensive rewriting and cutting (O’Hara various
dates e). In an interview with me Waldo Rasmussen, who worked with O’Hara
at MOMA, recalled his difficulty in writing prose (Rasmussen 1986).
160 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

unsuitable for creativity, for example, with other people in the room.
Grace Hartigan told me how he would write in a bar while she was
talking to painters and how he wrote one poem on a paper bag (Har-
tigan 1986). Similarly, Kenneth Koch related how O’Hara would
write a poem in the middle of a group of people at a party (Koch
1986). Elsewhere Koch says:
One of the most startling things about Frank in the period when I first
knew him was his ability to write a poem when other people were talk-
ing, or even to get up in the middle of a conversation, get his typewriter,
and write a poem, sometimes participating in the conversation while
doing so. This may sound affected when I describe it, but it wasn’t so
at all. The poems he wrote in this way were usually very good poems.
I was electrified by his ability to do this and at once tried to do it myself
– (with considerably less success). (Koch 1980, p. 26)
Many poems, then, were written while other people were present
in ways which challenge the romantic ‘privatisation’ of the creative
process. For instance, ‘Second Avenue’ was written in Larry Rivers’s
studio on Second Avenue (Rivers 1986). In the film U.S.A. Poetry:
Frank O’Hara and Ed Saunders (O’Hara 1966), O’Hara is seen dis-
cussing the dialogue for a film he is going to make with Alfred Leslie
and typing at the same time. Leslie explains, as he talks to O’Hara,
that one of the aspects of the scenario is that ‘it’s nobody else’s busi-
ness what people do when they are alone’, and when O’Hara reads
back the script he has just written it includes Leslie’s sentence. In the
same film O’Hara is also shown typing as he talks on the telephone.
O’Hara’s manuscripts do not give evidence of extensive revision.
There are often several slightly different copies of the same poem, but
in manuscripts available at the University of Connecticut at Storrs
(Allen various dates; Berkson various dates) there are no changes in
several poems such as: ‘Adieu to Norman and Bon Jour to Joan and
Jean-Paul’, ‘Thanksgiving’, ‘Aggression’, ‘Beer for Breakfast’, ‘Easter’,
‘Getting Up Ahead of Someone (Sun)’, ‘Hôtel Particulier’, ‘A Little
Travel Diary’, ‘“L’Amour Avait Passé Par Là”’, ‘My Heart’, ‘Naphtha’,
‘Poem: I don’t know as I get what D. H. Lawrence is driving at’,
‘Poem en Forme de Saw’, ‘Poem Read at Joan Mitchell’s’, ‘Present’,
‘Saint’ and ‘Savoy’. In some other poems there are slight changes with
words written in usually in hand: ‘Ode: Salute to the French Negro
Poets’ was changed from ‘Ode en salut aux poètes nègres françaises’;
‘Poem: Hate is only one of many responses’ was changed from ‘For
The Poem as Talkscape 161

Another’s Fear’. The title of ‘To You’ has the title ‘Painting’ crossed
out; the penultimate line ‘as long as our strengthened time allows’ is
also crossed out and at the side are the words ‘like a couple of painters
in neon allowing’, written in hand. In ‘Personal Poem’, the last two
lines, ‘it would probably be only the one person/who gave me a blue
whistle from a crackerjack box’, are cut.
The photocopies of manuscripts made available as part of the exhi-
bition Art with the Touch of a Poet: Frank O’Hara create a similar
impression, though some of these manuscripts were presumably
chosen for the exhibition because they did show signs of changes
(O’Hara 1983a). There are no changes in ‘A Step Away from Them’;
in ‘Poem: Khrushchev is coming on the right day’ the words ‘deposits
of light’ are inserted in hand (the rest is typewritten) after the words
‘ozone stalagmites’. ‘To Gottfried Benn’ is written in hand with only
one small crossing-out: ‘Poetry is not (an) instruments’ in the first
line. In ‘Radio’ the words ‘week’, ‘from’ and ‘you’ which begin lines
five, six and seven were originally each on a previous line. In ‘Little
Elegy for Antonio Machado’ there are larger alterations: a passage of
five lines is removed between ‘negotiable ambitions’ and ‘we shall
continue’; there are several rewritings of ‘colder prides’ (the previous
words, instead of ‘colder’, were ‘lurid’ and ‘vaster’); and the last line,
originally ‘in the night and enveloping ours in praise like salt’,
becomes after several changes ‘in the night and developing our own
in salt-like praise’ (the sonic connection between enveloping and
developing seems particularly interesting here). In ‘With Barbara in
Paris’ (published as ‘With Barbara Guest in Paris’), couplets at the end
of the first and second stanza, ‘we will ever/ with a sweet distemper’
and ‘neither modest/ nor identifiably west’, are cut (though there is
more than one version of this poem).
In general, then, O’Hara seems to have made only small changes
when he was editing, and these were handwritten and retrospective:
most commonly the changes would involve cutting of the poem or a
change of title. (Documentation by Donald Allen in the Collected
Poems, for example, shows that the ‘Ode on Causality’ went through
several changes of title; O’Hara 1979, p. 542.) O’Hara’s editing is
incisive and sometimes, for example, in ‘With Barbara (Guest) in
Paris’, he cuts weak lines to make the poem tighter. The changes he
makes, however, do not seem to radically change the overall structure
or import of the poem.
One major difficulty of using the manuscripts as evidence, however,
162 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

is establishing whether their content is the same as the first draft, or


whether they were the end-product of a considerable amount of
reworking now invisible to us. Since there are several manuscripts of
some of the poems, O’Hara obviously typed them more than once,
and it is likely that some alterations were made that are not apparent
to us. In an interview with me, however, Donald Allen, who had
access to O’Hara’s papers for the purposes of editing, said that he
believed there were no papers other than the manuscripts. He also
disclosed that O’Hara sometimes left mistakes as they arose in his
poems, for example, ‘a certain kneeness’ in ‘Ode to Mike Goldberg(’s
Birth and Other Births)’ was originally supposed to be keenness, but
when O’Hara hit the wrong keys on the typewriter and it turned out
to be kneeness he just left it (Allen 1986). Bill Berkson, when asked
by me whether he thought the manuscripts were the ‘full story’ said,
Nobody knows, but given the surprising amount that he saved I think
yes. Though he made a remark to me one time, ‘because you don’t
throw it away it’s a poem’. So there may have been work that he just
threw in the wastepaper but it does seem as if he saved the odd thing
that had something: they are all among the papers, those poems which
are false starts, even parts of poems that didn’t come together as whole
poems. (Berkson 1986b)
It seems, therefore, taking the evidence of some of the manuscripts
in conjunction with eyewitness reports and ancillary information, that
improvisatory methods played a significant part in the writing of the
poems. O’Hara does not seem to have been averse to making some
changes, sometimes in response to comments from friends. Kenneth
Koch suggested a change for the title of ‘Meditations on an Emer-
gency’ to ‘Meditations in an Emergency’ (Koch 1986) ; amusingly, the
change suggests the process of improvisation. However, in the main
changes were either non-existent or small.

Improvisation Makes its Mark


O’Hara’s poems sometimes expose, even advertise, their own impro-
visatory processes. In ‘Adieu to Norman and Bon Jour to Joan and
Jean-Paul’ (O’Hara 1979, p. 328), which we know was written in
time to meet Norman for lunch, the poet reminds us he is clock-
watching as he writes: ‘It is 12:10 in New York and I am wondering/if
I will finish this in time to meet Norman for lunch’. In other poems,
The Poem as Talkscape 163

O’Hara weaves the immediate environment (and his responses to it)


into the warp of the talkscape, thereby challenging any outer/inner
binary, both in the poem itself, which transforms real life into text life,
and the process of writing it. In ‘On Rachmaninoff ’s Birthday #158’
(O’Hara 1979, pp. 418–19), the Rachmaninov on the radio is trans-
formed from background music to foregrounded subject:
I am sad
I better hurry up and finish this
before your 3rd goes off the radio
or I won’t know what I’m feeling
(‘On Rachmaninoff ’s Birthday #158’; O’Hara 1979, p. 418)
Sensory improvisation, then, enables the poet to bring whatever is
happening to him while it is happening into the poem and build it into
a verbal collage. In ‘Ode (To Joe LeSueur) on the Arrow that Flieth by
Day’ (O’Hara 1979, p. 300), the poet uses the immediate context as
a starting point:
To humble yourself before a radio on a Sunday
it’s amusing, like dying after a party
“click”/and you’re dead from fall-out, hang-over
or something hyphenated
and then weaves material, ranging from political satire to semi-lyric
passages on personal vulnerability, into the talkscape. Joe LeSueur has
described the evolution of the poem on Mother’s Day 1958:
Frank was struck by the title of a Times book review, ‘The Arrow that
Flieth by Day’ and said he’d like to appropriate it for a poem. I agreed
that the phrase had a nice ring and asked him for a second time what I
should do about Mother’s Day, which I’d forgotten all about. ‘Oh, send
your mother a telegram’, he said. But I couldn’t hit upon a combination
of words that didn’t revolt me and Western Union’s prepared messages
sounded too maudlin even for my mother. ‘You think of a message for
my mother and I’ll think of one for yours,’ I suggested. We then pro-
ceeded to try to top each other with apposite messages that would have
made Philip Wylie applaud. Then it was time to go and hear a perfor-
mance of Aaron Copland’s Piano Fantasy by Noel Lee. ‘It’s raining, I
don’t want to go’, Frank said. So he stayed at home and wrote ‘Ode on
the Arrow That Flieth by Day’ which refers to the Fantasy, Western
Union, the rain, and Mother’s Day. (LeSueur 1980, p. 52)
A reading of the poem shows how the immediate context (the radio
is on, it is raining and Joe is at a concert where Copland’s Piano
164 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

Fantasy is being played) provides a starting point for things which


have literally ‘flown’ by the poet that day. These – the Times book
review, the Western Union messages and the improvised playful mes-
sages – were floating fragments until pulled by the poet into the orbit
of the poem where their surfaces resonate as ‘surbols’. In fact, the
improvisation sets into motion (and keeps in flight) a mini-talkscape.
This consists of a mock telephone call: ‘hello, Western Union?’; the
improvised message, ‘SORRY/NOT TO BE WITH YOU ON YOUR DAY LOVE
AND KISSES TELL THE CZAR LA GRANDE/JATTE WASNT DAMAGED IN THE
MUSEUM OF MODERN ART FIRE/S/’; implied conversations with Joe,
‘you’re right to go to Aaron’s Piano PIANO FANTASY’; and self-talk, ‘if
Jan says I’m wounded, then I’m wounded’.12
This poem also demonstrates the centrality of associative/
metonymic processes in building the improvisation: the word damage
suggests wounding suggests missiles. Association dovetails with trans-
formation: the arrow that flieth by day becomes ‘for God’s sake fly
the other way’. This metonymic-transformational process is rather
like the motivic development used by jazz improvisers such as Ornette
Coleman and Sonny Rollins, the device which Ekkehard Jost calls
‘motivic chain association’, and which has been extensively analysed
(Jost 1974, p. 50; Schuller 1964, pp. 239–53 and Dean 1992,
pp. 48–68). It is also strongly evident in transcriptions of David
Antin’s talks (Smith and Dean 1997, pp. 84–103). The associative
process, then, is a very important element in the production of
O’Hara’s metonymic/hypertextual networks analysed in Chapter 1.
One of the effects of improvising in O’Hara’s poems is the dizzy
effect of the poem exuberantly propelling itself forward. In ‘Adieu to
Norman, Bon Jour to Joan and Jean-Paul’ (O’Hara 1979, p. 328), the
images of reeling seem to both derive from, and refer to, the impro-

12. In interview with me Kenneth Koch said: ‘One thing that Frank O’Hara did was
change somewhat the concept of what the subject of a poem could be. That’s one
of the most interesting things about his work, the whole idea of what a proper
subject for a poem is. Take Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”: Shelley is com-
paring himself as a poet to the west wind and there is a really recognisable theme
and there aren’t any irrelevant thoughts that come into Shelley’s head. But in
Apollinaire’s “Zone” the theme is whatever comes into Apollinaire’s head as he
is taking a walk and so it is also in certain poems by William Carlos Williams. So
the subject comes close to what is in Frank’s poems which is whatever is in a
person’s mind or whatever happens to come in front of a person in a certain span
of time becomes the subject of the poem. It’s very interesting in Frank’s work,
he takes it quite far’ (Koch 1986).
The Poem as Talkscape 165

visational process of keeping going, of continuing, of ‘staying on the


boards’:
I wish I were reeling around Paris
instead of reeling around New York
I wish I weren’t reeling at all
Improvisatory techniques, thus, generate the sense of talk as high
energy which is akin to the high-energy playing of the free jazz musi-
cian. Witness the strong rhythmical propulsion of ‘You are Gorgeous
and I’m Coming’ (O’Hara 1979, p. 331):
Vaguely I hear the purple roar of the torn-down Third Avenue El
it sways slightly but firmly like a hand or a golden-downed thigh
normally I don’t think of sounds as colored unless I’m feeling corrupt
Or the sheer exclamatory exuberance of the opening of ‘Blocks’
(O’Hara 1979, p. 108):
Yippee! she is shooting in the harbor! he is jumping
up to the maelstrom! she is leaning over the giant’s
cart of tears which like a lava cone let fall to fly
from the cross-eyed tantrum-tousled ninth grader’s
splayed fist is freezing on the cement! he is throwing
up his arms in heavenly desperation, spacious Y of his
tumultuous love-nerves flailing like a poinsettia in
its own nailish storm against the glass door of the
cumulus which is witholding her from these divine
pastures she has filled with the flesh of men as stones!
O fatal eagerness!
This chapter has theorised, analysed and contextualised talkscapes
in O’Hara’s poetry and related them to his creative process. We have
seen how talk may be primary or secondary, and how the talkscape
consists of a mixture of both. We then related the talkscape to the cre-
ative process through the process of improvisation: we have also
located O’Hara’s improvisatory techniques within the period in
which he was writing. The talkscapes are part of the hyperscape
which consists of both literary and oral elements. In this way,
O’Hara’s poetry stretches the definition of the poem as written text
and this leads into the discussion in the next chapter of the poem as
visual–verbal object.
6

Why I Am Not a Painter: Visual Art,


Semiotic Exchange, Collaboration
You are worried that you don’t write?
Don’t be. It’s the tribute of the air that
your paintings don’t just let go
of you.And what poet ever sat down
in front of a Titian, pulled out
his versifying tablet and began
to drone? Don’t complain, my dear.
You do what I can only name.
(‘To Larry Rivers’; O’Hara 1977b, p. 140)
‘The City Summers of Hartigan and O’Hara’ would be an ideal thesis
for some graduate student at Millstone University, I should think.
About 1980. (O’Hara, letter to Grace Hartigan; O’Hara 1951b)

So far the concept of the hyperscape has been mainly restricted to the
verbal landscape (whether spoken or written), but here I want to
expand it to embrace visual media. That is, I want to move from the
concept of hypertext to hypermedia, for the hyperscape is both visual
and verbal and involves the hybridization of forms which is charac-
teristic of postmodernism. In this chapter I will be arguing that in
O’Hara’s hyperscapes text and image, poetry and painting, and rep-
resentation and abstraction do not simply coexist but also cross over
or ‘cross-dress’. This, like O’Hara’s adoption of the talk mode in
Chapter 5, enormously extends the possibilities of what poetry can
do. It also points the way towards contemporary multimedia work in
which the visual is more predominant, and the visual and verbal are
increasingly interdependent.
This cross-dressing of text and image in O’Hara’s work is part of
alternative tradition in American poetry in which verbal and non-
verbal semiotic systems become intertwined in a non-hierarchical
Why I Am Not a Painter 167

relationship. The modernist precursors were the Dadaists, Surrealists


and Futurists: the work of Hugo Ball, Kurt Schwitters, Filippo Tom-
masso Marinetti, Tristan Tzara and others frequently straddled the
visual, verbal and sonic, and also included numerous collaborations
between musicians, painters and poets. Such movements re-emerged
in the 1960s and 1970s internationally in visual and sound poetry. But
the impact of the visual arts on O’Hara’s poems is distinct from the
concrete poetry of Dick Higgins, Emmett Williams (USA), Ian Hamil-
ton Finlay (Scotland) and Dom Sylvester Houédard (England), where
the word becomes an iconic sign in which form and meaning become
fused. The relationship of verbal to visual in O’Hara’s poetry is more
like that in the work of Gertrude Stein, some of whose technical pro-
cedures run parallel to those of cubist painting. For example, Stein’s
engagement with textual repetition with variation, and semantic or
syntactic ambiguity, as a way of viewing an object from different
angles, can be conceptualised as the verbal ‘equivalent’ of cubist
simultaneity. Similarly, O’Hara’s poetry bears technical and thematic
connections with both Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, but does
not attempt to become a visual object itself.
Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art and the work of the New York
School of artists had a very significant impact on all the New York
poets. In Koch’s poem ‘Fresh Air’ the art student is a potent antidote
to the stuffiness of the literary establishment ‘Blue air, fresh air, come
in, I welcome you, you are an art student’ (Koch 1985, p. 41). The
artists provided an aesthetic stimulus, but social contact with them
(often at venues such as The Club and San Remo) was also important
because they were a willing audience for the poetry. In an interview
with Edward Lucie Smith O’Hara said:
When we all arrived in New York or emerged as poets in the mid 50s
or late 50s, painters were the only ones who were interested in any kind
of experimental poetry and the general literary scene was not. Oh, we
were published in certain magazines and so on, but no-body was really
very enthusiastic except the painters. (O’Hara 1983b, p. 3)
However, this relationship may have been less one-way than it is
often depicted. In an interview with me with me, Kenneth Koch
drew attention to the reciprocal nature of the relationship between
poets and painters: ‘I would guess that the painters were more
inspired by Frank than he was by the painters. The usual story is that
we poets were very inspired by the painters, that’s just because the
168 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

painters got famous first and made lots of money the way painters
do’ (Koch 1986).
A number of critics have made major contributions on the connec-
tion between O’Hara’s poetry and painting: most notably Perloff, but
also Moramarco (Moramarco 1976), Breslin (Breslin 1987) and
Libby (Libby 1990). I wish to extend these observations by develop-
ing a theoretical and contextualised basis for discussion of O’Hara’s
‘painterly’ poems and visual–verbal collaborations. In this chapter,
therefore, I develop the idea of semiotic exchange (whereby text
becomes image, image, text) to O’Hara’s poetry and collaborations. I
also contextualise this analysis by demonstrating how O’Hara’s
poetry uniquely interfaces with the semiotic, semantic and ideologi-
cal elements of two highly contrasting contemporaneous art move-
ments, Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. In this respect, I deviate
from previous commentators in two ways. First, I stress O’Hara’s
relationship to Pop Art as much as his connection with Abstract
Expressionism, and conceptualise it in terms of pop camp. Secondly,
I emphasise his connection with Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art
in terms of subject matter as well as technique.

Poetry and Painting: Icons and Symbols


In order to consider the visual–verbal interface in O’Hara’s work, we
need to explore the theoretical relationship between poetry and paint-
ing. Fundamental to any comparison of painting and poetry is their
differences and similarities as visual–verbal semiotic systems. Wendy
Steiner, following C. S. Peirce, has argued that painting is richer in
iconic signs (that is, signs that resemble their referents) and poetry in
symbolic signs (signs which are disjunct from their referents) (Steiner
1982, pp. 19–32). However, all sign types have a common basis in
convention (iconicity is relative), and both poetry and painting con-
sist of mixed signs. But Steiner’s argument produces difficulties at the
lowest level of analysis, since the basic elements of a painting (a brush-
stroke, for example) are not necessarily particularly iconic. They are
not even indisputably signs at all, due to their lack of differentiation.
For, as Goodman points out, in terms of systems language is more
continuous, and differentiated, while painting is more discontinuous
and undifferentiated. He characterises language as ‘digital’ and paint-
ing as ‘analogue’ (discussed in Mitchell 1986, pp. 63–74). From this
we can extrapolate that there is more flexibility in a visual system:
Why I Am Not a Painter 169

consequently paintings can be both more representational (iconic) or


more abstract (symbolic) than poems. The important factor here is the
process: how iconic the result will be depends on the way these basic
elements are built up, the degree of transformation. Language lends
itself better to analysis as a sign system, but again the result depends
on how linguistic signs are used. They can be employed in description
to maximise iconicity, or, as in some avant-garde writing, to minimise
or dislocate the impression of a continuous referent.
In fact, the terms icon or symbol may not be very useful, because, as
Kress and Van Leuven point out, they tend to imply that a particular
type of sign has a fixed effect (Kress and Leeuwen 1996, pp. 5–12).
This is misleading because signification occurs through semiotic muta-
tion in the process of usage. I am only retaining the terms iconic and
symbolic here because they line up usefully with my discussion of
abstraction and representation in art, and with the caveat that they are
relative. The crucial point is that within both poetry and painting there
is a continuum between non-iconicity and iconicity, or representation
and non-representation. To return to Steiner’s mode of analysis, both
poetry and painting consist of ‘mixed signs’, with either the iconic or
the symbolic predominating at different times. Therefore, although a
painting has the intrinsic capacity to be more representational or more
abstract than a poem, both paintings and poems have representational
and abstract capacities which emerge to different degrees at different
times. Furthermore, representation and abstraction exist in each other,
they are not absolutes.
A consequence of the shared properties of text and image is the
possibility for semiotic exchange between the two, so that each devel-
ops some characteristics of the other. That is, a poem can be made to
behave rather like a painting, either in the way it ‘represents’ or
‘abstracts’ its subject matter. Or alternatively, text and image can be
merged in a collaboration in such a way that text becomes image,
image becomes text.
This breaking down of the distinction between painting and
poetry is also relevant to the spatial aspect of the two arts. Tradition-
ally painting was thought of as a spatial form and poetry a temporal
one. Both Mitchell and Steiner have pointed out, however, that
although painting is more spatial, and poetry more temporal, both
are spatio-temporal media (Mitchell 1986, pp. 95–115; Steiner
1982, pp. 33–50). But the debate is further complicated by the fact
that spatial is not the converse of temporal (which is atemporal). I
170 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

therefore prefer to see the issue in terms of successiveness and simul-


taneity and their interdependence. In fact, although all the elements
of a picture are simultaneously available, a complex configuration of
signs must to some degree be successively perceived. Similarly, read-
ing a poem from beginning to end involves successive stages but also
some simultaneous perception of discrete elements. Moreover, both
art forms require simultaneous perception of disparate elements.
‘The intricate structuring of art, with its redundancy and over-deter-
mination, is designed … to enlarge our ability to turn sequence into
simultaneity, to allow us to form ever larger temporal flows into uni-
fied, atemporal structures’ (Steiner 1982, p. 37).
The terms abstraction, representation, spatial and temporal are not
value-free and do not only encompass artistic concepts. As W. J. T.
Mitchell has pointed out, the poetry–painting comparison has itself
often been used ideologically, to privilege one form over another
(Mitchell 1986, pp. 95–115). This is also true, as we will see, of the
terms ‘representation’ and ‘abstraction’, which are far more than
simple descriptions of technical features. Representation in art has
been central to social realism, but also to Pop Art, where the status
of the representation is more politically equivocal. While it can be
a way of highlighting social problems, representation can also sup-
press political aspects of the text by giving the illusion that the
medium is a transparent window on the world. Abstraction has some-
times been condemned on the grounds that it negates political
content by reducing the presence of social reality. But it has also been
regarded (in different forms and to different degrees, by writers from
the surrealists to the American language poets), as a route to political
radicalism, because it remakes the way we see the world by perturb-
ing conventional sign systems.

Why I Am Not a Painter: Theory and Practice


The relevance of the preceding discussion to O’Hara’s work is appar-
ent in ‘Why I Am Not a Painter’ (O’Hara 1979, pp. 261–2), which
enacts the relationship between painting and poetry as semiotic,
social and artistic exchange:
I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,
Why I Am Not a Painter 171

for instance, Mike Goldberg


is starting a painting. I drop in.
‘Sit down and have a drink’ he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. ‘You have SARDINES in it.’
‘Yes, it needed something there.’
‘Oh.’ I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. ‘Where’s SARDINES?’
All that’s left is just
letters, ‘It was too much,’ Mike says.
But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven’t mentioned
orange yet. It’s twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike’s painting, called SARDINES.
‘Why I am not a Painter’ at first appears to be about the differences
between painting and poetry, but by the end of the poem seems to be
about the similarities. In fact, the poem is about the shared differences
within both poetry and painting. The painting mainly hinges round a
word, while the starting point of the poem is an image. The painter
can represent sardines, while the poet can only begin by talking about
orange. But the poem plays on the ambiguities between word and
image, since the word SARDINES is also image, while orange is an
image which becomes words. In both cases the poet and painter com-
bine representation and abstraction. They each start with the concept
of an object, but the painter needs to abstract the word into ‘just let-
ters’, while the poet writes for days but never mentions orange. And
both poet and painter have to negotiate between the formal aspects of
the work and the subject matter. When the painter is asked about the
painting he responds in terms of formal arrangement, structure, ‘it
172 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

needed something there’. Similarly, the poet concentrates on the


medium of language – words, not lines, pages of words and finally
prose – to convey ‘how terrible orange is/and life’. Both poet and
painter, therefore, move between the depiction of an object and the
structural arrangement of their material. And in both cases the initial
subject matter is very different from the resulting content.
Crucial here is the creative process, which is not one of working
towards known ends. Although both poet and painter have a starting
point, nothing about the resultant poem or painting is predetermined;
the process is improvisatory in the sense outlined in Chapter 5. The
poem and painting keeps changing and the product is found in the
process. To arrive at the final product may involve a process of extrac-
tion or obliqueness. Mike has to take things out of the painting
(‘It was too much’), while the poet can only write the poem by not
talking directly about orange. Furthermore, the development of
the poem and painting are interdependent: the artistic and social
interaction between the two artists promotes semiotic exchange. The
poem stresses the highly intertextual, collaborative nature of the
creative process.
The poem also demonstrates how any poem or painting is created
from, and can fall back into, difference. Paradoxically, building up a
poem or painting may mean breaking down or subverting its individ-
ual constituents. In the painting, the word becomes letters, while the
poet’s poem becomes prose. The relationship here is between parts
and wholes and their shifting relationship. Another way of putting
this is that both painter and poet work in a way which is metonymic.
The poem itself demonstrates the interdependence of abstract and
representational modes. It hinges on real names, characters and
events (Michael Goldberg was a painter and a friend of O’Hara’s and
did paint a picture called Sardines).1 It also represents the incident
through social conversation and colloquialisms in a way which is actu-
ally quite filmic and also humorous and informal. At the same time,
the poem fails to close off its meaning, which is constantly deferred,

1. Michael Goldberg’s painting ‘Sardines’ (reproduced in Schimmel et al. 1984,


p. 67) is the subject of ‘Why I am not a Painter’. It dislocates the image of a room
(with possibly table and chairs and a figure-like shape in it) and includes the
words SARDINES and EXIT. The words both add to the representational ele-
ment of the picture (they hint at what is represented in the painting) and at the
same time, because they are fractured and overlaid with paint, participate in the
painting as structural arrangement.
Why I Am Not a Painter 173

making it more abstract. For example, the initial statement, ‘I am


not a painter, I am a poet’, which seems to be quite definite, is imme-
diately modified by a statement which neither completely follows
on from the first, nor completely negates it: ‘Why? I think I would
rather be/a painter, but I am not.’ The whole poem hinges on a not-
quite-parallelism which makes it difficult to capture. It is also largely
circular in structure; its only conclusion is to send us back to the
beginning again. In fact, its organisation is highly spatial: the second
and third stanzas could be laid out opposite each other on the page,
since the effect of the poem will be to move us backwards and for-
wards between them, to make us view them simultaneously rather
than to progress through them. In this way the poem deconstructs its
temporal dimension through simultaneity.
The reader, therefore, participates in the structural arrangement of
the poem which moves us in and out of difference and similarity. This
movement between difference and similarity is a form of ‘push and
pull’, a term used by teacher and abstract painter Hans Hofmann,
who was very influential on the New York School of painters. Hof-
mann’s theory of push and pull is that the structure of a painting arises
from the way strong colours compete with each other. But push and
pull, in a verbal form, is a very prominent technique in O’Hara’s
poetry. In some respects it is even more effective in poetry than it is
in painting, due to poetry’s temporal, quasi-narrative dimension
which allows for each pull to be followed by a push sequentially: it
was an important aspect of the poem ‘Chez Jane’ analysed in Chapter
2, created by ‘narratives’ which conflict but do not exclude each
other. Readers experience push and pull in O’Hara’s poetry in the
almost physical sensation of being unable to keep the poem in one
position. As they start to interpret the poem in one way, it ‘springs
back’ in another. Push and pull, then, is a major factor in the poem’s
openness to multiple interpretations, and its accessibility to writerly
intervention by the reader.
In this respect it is pertinent to compare O’Hara’s work to that of
Ashbery which, as we have seen, tends further to the pole of abstrac-
tion. This is thematically registered in a comparison between ‘Why I
Am Not a Painter’ and Ashbery’s poem ‘The Painter’. In ‘Why I Am
Not a Painter’ the subject matter (oranges and sardines) of both poet
and painter is elided and abstracted creating a push and pull between
representation and abstraction. But in ‘The Painter’ the subject matter
disappears altogether:
174 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

Finally all indications of a subject


Began to fade, leaving the canvas
Perfectly white.
Here the utopian artistic ideal is a complete erasure of the difference
between the representation and what is being represented:
he expected his subject
To rush up the sand, and, seizing a brush,
Plaster its own portrait on the canvas.
(Ashbery 1987, pp. 20–21)
While ‘Why I Am Not a Painter’ raises issues about the alliance
between poetry and painting, it also probes the relationship between
Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, usually regarded as highly
polarised opposites. The methods which both poet and painter use are
those of action painting (O’Hara creates an action poem), but the sub-
ject matter is that of commodities, sardines and oranges. The poem
and the painting are the result of an implicit and subtle negotiation
between these two art movements. So I now want to contextualise and
historicise the relationship between poetry and painting in O’Hara’s
work with reference to the contemporaneous art movements Abstract
Expressionism and Pop Art.

Complementary Antagonism: Abstract Expressionism,


Pop Art and O’Hara’s Poetry
O’Hara’s relationship to Abstract Expressionism has been well cov-
ered in previous criticism but, as Reva Wolf points out, his relationship
to Pop Art has been underplayed (Wolf 1997). My argument differs
from previous criticism in suggesting that O’Hara’s poetry can be
productively read against the semiotic, semantic and ideological
landscapes of both Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, and that the
shadows of these two art movements hover in a ‘complementary
antagonism’ within the hyperscape of O’Hara’s Collected Poems. I also
extend previous discussion of O’Hara’s relationship to the painting of
the period by arguing that abstraction is created by ‘new metonymies’
in O’Hara’s poems; conceptualising O’Hara’s relationship to Pop Art
as ‘pop camp’; and emphasising similarities in subject matter as much
as technique.
In contextualising O’Hara with regard to Abstract Expressionism
and Pop, however, my intention is not to imply straightforward
Why I Am Not a Painter 175

appropriation by him of techniques or ideas from either movement.


In fact, many of O’Hara’s pop poems were written before the rise of
Pop Art. O’Hara’s work is never absolutely ‘like’ an Abstract Expres-
sionist or Pop Art painting: there are important differences. However,
various factors seem to legitimise discussion of his poetry in relation
to painting: his position as curator at the Museum of Modern Art; his
work as an art critic; his many documented relationships, interactions
and collaborations with painters such as Willem de Kooning, Larry
Rivers, Grace Hartigan, Michael Goldberg and Andy Warhol; and his
own documented appropriation of painterly terms to talk about his
work. But the exchange of ideas between artists and poets in the
1950s and 1960s was an endless process of feedback: a huge web of
linkages in which the original idea or direction became lost. It is
therefore important to avoid too much dependence on reductive
analogies or the concept of direct influences. Instead, I want to focus
on the visual–verbal contexts, networks and interfaces, which pro-
duce overlaps, parallelisms and simultaneities within the hyperscape.
In order to consider how the complementary antagonism between
Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art interfaces with O’Hara’s work, it
is necessary to reflect on the relationship between the two art move-
ments. The rise of Pop Art in the 1960s, in the work of Andy Warhol,
Roy Lichtenstein, Tom Wesselman and James Rosenquist is usually
seen as, and in many respects was, a huge reaction against the Abstract
Expressionism of the 1940s and 1950s. Pop Art’s embrace of popular
culture and the mass media was also a rebuff to the elitism of high cul-
ture and good taste. The ‘new realism’ of Pop Art often focused on flat
outlines of consumer objects, or images from the mass media. This was
radically different from the painterly canvases of the Abstract Expres-
sionists characterised by lack of overt subject matter; overlaid, thrown,
spattered and dripped paint; and lack of differentiation between figure
and ground. Pop Art employed mass-production techniques,2 while

2. The use of mass-production technique is discussed by Lucy Lippard: ‘Lichten-


stein and Warhol did not even “invent” their images, and it was generally agreed
that they did nothing about them once they had selected them. The former used
a projector to enlarge his sources, filled in the Ben Day dots with a screen, and
had his baked-enamel paintings produced in multiple editions. Warhol hand-
painted his “products” at first but then began to silk-screen them by commercial
techniques, hiring others to duplicate and even execute his work; it too has
appeared in editions. Wesselmann has a carpenter to complete his constructions,
and Oldenburg’s wife still does all the sewing, though now she has helpers’
(Lippard 1985, p. 82).
176 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

mass products, consumer goods and services, advertising and the mass
media formed the basis of its iconography. This often resulted in
images which could be a replica, or near-replica, of the original, some-
times in highly repetitive sequences. Pop Art’s depersonalised, ironic,
cool, mass-produced imagery was a rebuttal of the high modernist
psychological depth, angst and macho-seriousness3 of Abstract Expres-
sionism, and its links with mythology, primitivism and psychoanalysis.
Yet the extreme differences between Pop Art and Abstract Expres-
sionism can also obscure some of the continuities between them. Both
the Abstract Expressionist and Pop Art artists, in their very different
ways, inhabit the region of the protopolitical, discussed in Chapter 1.
Pop Art abides within the protopolitical through its undecidable sur-
faces which make it ambiguous whether it is celebrating or critiquing
consumer society. Abstract Expressionism inhabits the protopolitical
through its abstract canvases which do not directly address political
issues but produce interpretative possibilities with political relevance.
Both Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism wish to create a particular
kind of American art which is distinct from European modernist art.
Both, in their very different ways, are reactions against social realism,
but Abstract Expressionism is not entirely abstract, just as Pop Art is
not completely representational. Pollock’s paintings, for example, can
be, and usually are, experienced in a way which is partly referential.
The abstraction here comes from the multiplicity of possible inter-
pretations the painting creates: the dense movement in a painting
such as ‘Autumn Rhythm’ (1950), or ‘Blue Poles’ (1953) (Bozo 1982;
Busignani 1971), might be interpreted as organic process, psycholog-
ical turmoil or cultural change. Abstract elements can also be found
to be present in Pop works, for example, Lichtenstein’s ‘Woman with
Flowered Hat’ (1963; reproduced in Lippard 1985, p. 89) is a mix-
ture of cartoon and cubist form reminiscent of Picasso.
Furthermore, while Pop Art is usually seen as devoid of expressivity,
and Abstract Expressionism to be the ultimate in personal expression,
this seems something of a simplification. The use of highly deperson-
alised images, or repetitive series of images, is often offset in Warhol’s

3. Leja argues: ‘The functions served by Abstract Expressionism’s aura of mas-


culinity have also come into clearer focus: it was a crucial component of cold
war U.S. national identity, differentiating the nation politically and culturally
from a Europe portrayed as weakened and effeminate. In some contemporary
aesthetic theory it served to distinguish avant-garde painting from kitsch, also
strongly gendered as feminine’ (Leja 1993, p. 256).
Why I Am Not a Painter 177

work, for example, by an intensive ‘colouring in’.4 This is superim-


posed on the mass-produced image and re-aestheticises the image in a
new way. My argument here coincides with that of Reva Wolf, who
suggests that Warhol’s work was much less depersonalised than has
often been considered to be the case, though her work is mainly bio-
graphical and sociological (Wolf 1997). This position also departs
somewhat from that of Jameson, who argues that Warhol’s work
demonstrates the ‘waning of effect’ in postmodernism: he contrasts
the surface of Warhol’s shoes with the depth of the shoes painted by
Van Gogh (Jameson 1991, pp. 6–16). For Jameson, Van Gogh’s shoes
are imbued with high modernist expressivity, and he doubts whether
Warhol really ‘speak(s) to us at all’ (Jameson 1991, p. 8). However,
Jameson ignores the re-aestheticisation of the depersonalised image in
Warhol, in paintings such as ‘Four Campbell’s Soup Cans’ (1965;
reproduced in Lippard 1985, p. 93); ‘Blue Liz as Cleopatra’ (1963) –
a kind of Kleinian blue reworking of showbiz pictures of Elizabeth
Taylor – (reproduced in McShine 1989, p. 231); and a highly coloured
‘Marilyn’ (1967; reproduced in McShine 1989, p. 220). Conversely,
the high expressivity of Abstract Expressionism was itself mediated by
a huge concentration on the importance of the medium (the structural
and textual possibilities of paint).
In O’Hara’s work the ethos of Abstract Expressionism is often
modified by that of Pop, and vice versa, creating a dynamic and
deconstructive tension. This can produce a parodic ‘take’ on the
philosophical or psychological ideas which preoccupied some of the
Abstract Expressionists. In particular, Jungian psychoanalysis and
primitivism, both of significance to Pollock, sometimes reappear in

4. O’Hara was initially antagonistic towards Warhol and his work: see Gooch 1993,
p. 396. Gooch sets the antagonism in context: ‘O’Hara’s antagonism toward
Warhol was mixed with art politics and sexual politics. Warhol was relegating the
Abstract Expressionists to the past. By threatening O’Hara’s allies, he was threat-
ening O’Hara’s own vanguard status, a position he had enjoyed since he was a
teenager. He offended O’Hara as well by rejecting the brushstroke, with its
touching, personal, humanistic implications, in favor of silkscreening and
mechanical reproduction.’ Gooch also quotes the painter Wynn Chamberlain:
‘There was a complete division between the Warhol-Geldzahler camp and the
O’Hara–Rivers–de Kooning camp. Frank was at the Museum of Modern Art, and
that Museum was the thing to be overcome by the younger Pop painters’ (Gooch
1993, p. 396). However, O’Hara became much more favourable with time and
recognised that Warhol’s work was of importance. The relationship between
O’Hara and Warhol is also documented in Wolf 1997, pp. 15–27.
178 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

O’Hara’s work, but with an ironic twist which undercuts them. ‘In
Memory of My Feelings’, for example, can be read as a poem which
deconstructs the Jungian idea of the collective unconscious. For Jun-
gian theory the unconscious was characterised by opposites. Jungian
theory is based on the reconciliation and unification of opposites
through symbols: the collective unconscious posits the possibility of
historical and cross-cultural unification and stresses the importance of
archetypes. In ‘In Memory of My Feelings’ different histories and
places are linked, but the linkage always falls back into difference.
Symbols emerge and some of these, such as the serpent, are arche-
typal, but their differences regather as metonymic pathways. Simi-
larly, the anthropological reference which we find in the work of, for
example, Pollock and Gottlieb, is also there in O’Hara, but often with
an ironic twist which sidesteps primitivism:
in New Guinea a Sunday morning figure
reclining outside his hut in Lamourish langour
and an atabrine-dyed hat like a sick sun
over his ebony land on your way to breakfast
he has had his balls sewed into his mouth
by the natives who bleach their hair in urine
and their will; a basketball game and a concert
later if you live to write, it’s not all advancing
towards you, he had a killing desire for their women
(‘Ode to Michael Goldberg (’s Birth and Other Births)’;
O’Hara 1979, p. 294)
The hyperscape of O’Hara’s Collected Poems, then, can be read as
a play-off between Abstract Expressionist holism and Pop deconstruc-
tion. But in order to consider the complementary antagonism of
Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art in the hyperscape, it is necessary
to consider the relationship of each in turn to O’Hara’s work. ‘Second
Avenue’ is usually described as the most abstract of O’Hara’s poems
and one of the most influenced by Abstract Expressionism. The means
by which O’Hara induces abstraction through the bleeding of one
image into another, through syntactic dislocation, and the accumula-
tion of images, has already been discussed effectively by both Libby
(Libby 1990) and Perloff (Perloff 1979). Here I would like to suggest
a novel way of analysing that abstraction: as the proliferation of new
metonymies discussed in Chapter 3. Where new metonymies pre-
dominate the text becomes highly self-generative, and there is minimal
Why I Am Not a Painter 179

attempt to pull it back into a metaphorical unity. If we look at the


beginning of ‘Second Avenue’, each line makes two or three new con-
nections and the movement is always centrifugal rather than cen-
tripetal (whereas in ‘In Memory of My Feelings’ the centripetal
movement counterbalances the centrifugal). The opening of ‘Second
Avenue’ demonstrates this centrifugal motion:
Quips and players, seeming to vend astringency off-hours,
celebrate diced excesses and sardonics, mixing pleasures,
as if proximity were staring at the margin of a plea …
This thoroughness whose traditions have become so reflective,
your distinction is merely a quill at the bottom of the sea
tracing forever the fabulous alarms of the mute
so that in the limpid tosses of your violet dinginess
a pus appears and lingers like a groan from the collar
of a reproachful tree whose needles are tired of howling.
One distinguishes merely the newspapers of a sediment,
since going underground is like discovering something in
your navel that has an odor and is able to fly away.
(‘Second Avenue’; O’Hara 1979, pp. 139–40)
In this passage we see how metaphors and similes proliferate as
ways of extending the metonymical network rather than for making
specific comparisons.5 Overall, the impression is one of accumulation,
density, non-linearity and excess. This parallels the labyrinthian ‘all-
over’ quality of a Pollock painting such as ‘Autumn Rhythm’ (1950),
including its lack of a central focus, the merging of figure and ground,
the overlaying, and lack of beginning or end.6 However, it diverges
from Pollock’s ‘all-over’ paintings because of its closer links with Sur-
realist figuration and retention of the higher degree of referentiality
inevitable in language. The presence of normal grammatical con-
struction, and images such as ‘a quill at the bottom of the sea’ – which

5. In discourse analysis terms, this amounts to considerable disruption of taxo-


nomic and expectancy relationships (Eggins 1994, p. 101).
6. In ‘Notes on Second Avenue’ O’Hara draws some painterly comparisons: ‘As I
look this over, it seems quite a batty way to give information about the poem,
but the verbal elements are not too interesting to discuss although they 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 rela-
tionship between the surface and 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’ (O’Hara 1979, pp. 495–97).
180 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

can be clearly visualised, even if they are bizarre – produces a very dif-
ferent effect from that created by a Pollock. The density of the poem
also creates an ‘unreadability’ which is distinct from the effect of den-
sity in Pollock’s work. In a Pollock of the ‘all-over’ period, the lack of
figuration makes it easier for us to engage with the gestural aspect of
the canvas. It also shifts our sense of the kind of meaning which is
being conveyed as more affective and less cognitive. In ‘Second
Avenue’ the density of the words still produces the desire to construct
meaning in the normal way (and some frustration at not being able
to), despite the poet’s attempts to make us bypass this process.
Contrary to common belief, abstraction tends to create more mean-
ing rather than less because, as I have already said, it often multiplies
the possibilities of interpretation. Abstraction is also a way of express-
ing ideas or emotions which cannot be expressed in language, in other
words, it is a way of exploring the limits of language. The problem for
the poet is how to travel down the road of abstraction without reach-
ing the point of diminishing returns. O’Hara took the journey but
stopped at different points on the way: in ‘Second Avenue’ he reached
one of its furthest outposts. However, abstraction is, of course, not a
monolithic concept, and O’Hara’s mode and degree of abstraction
vary from poem to poem. (Similarly, O’Hara’s mode of abstraction in
‘Second Avenue’ differs from abstraction in the works of other poets.
For example, in some of the work of language poet Ron Silliman the
abstraction arises from the inversion of ‘normal’ grammatical func-
tion (Silliman 1986).) In other O’Hara poems, abstraction is less acute
and is combined with more representational modes, and it is this
intertwining of abstraction and representation which is so unique in
O’Hara’s work and so characteristic of the hyperscape. The analysis
of ‘In Memory of My Feelings’ in Chapter 2 can be read in terms of
this tug-of-war between the representational and abstract elements of
the hyperscape. The centripetal effect of metaphor draws the poem
nearer to the representational pole, while the centrifugal effect of
metonymy takes it nearer to the abstract.
The creative tension between representation and abstraction
(figuration and gesture), which can also be found in the work of de
Kooning,7 and also in the work of Grace Hartigan and Larry Rivers,

7. Sandler quotes de Kooning in a lecture at the Museum of Modern Art in 1950


(published the following year). De Kooning said that in the past art had: ‘meant
everything that was in it – not what you could take out of it … For the painter to
Why I Am Not a Painter 181

was a common theme in O’Hara’s parodic ‘manifestos’ and art criti-


cism. His tongue-in-cheek pseudo-definition of personism as ‘a move-
ment which I recently founded and which nobody knows about,
interests me a great deal, being so totally opposed to this kind of
abstract removal that it is verging on a true abstraction for the first
time, really, in the history of poetry’ (O’Hara 1979, p. 498), plays
humorously on what abstraction comprises. The same tension
between abstraction and representation was implicit in other state-
ments O’Hara made about his own work. When in ‘Statement for The
New American Poetry’ O’Hara says, ‘It may be that poetry makes life’s
nebulous events tangible to me and restores their detail; or con-
versely, that poetry brings forth the intangible quality of incidents
which are all too concrete and circumstantial. Or each on specific
occasions, or both all the time’ (O’Hara 1979, p. 500), he seems to be
alluding to the tension between representation and abstraction.
O’Hara also characterises Pollock’s work in terms of an ongoing con-
flict between representation and abstraction, ‘the crisis of figurative as
opposed to nonfigurative art pursued him throughout his life’
(O’Hara 1975, p. 13). He calls ‘potentially dangerous’ the contem-
porary attitude which claims ‘that the return to figure and to nature
in American painters signifies a falling away from passion, from pro-
fundity’ (O’Hara 1983b, p. 47). In the same essay, he applauds the
dislocation and structural rearrangement of figurative elements in
Hartigan’s current paintings (O’Hara 1983b, p. 45).
Pop Art mainly figures in the poems through specific pop iconogra-
phy, such as the references to mass-produced food, shopping trips,
cigarette brands, the mass media and Hollywood stars. This iconog-
raphy litters the landscape of two poems already extensively discussed
in this book, ‘A Step Away From Them’ and ‘The Day Lady Died’.
Even in ‘Second Avenue’ the landscape scintillates with pop iconog-
raphy in the form of household goods, Hollywood movies, and so on.

come to the ‘abstract’ … he needed many things. These things were always things
in life – a horse, a flower, a milkmaid, the light in a room through a window made
of diamond shapes maybe, tables, chairs, and so forth … But all of a sudden, in
that famous turn of the century, a few people thought they could take the bull by
the horns and invent an esthetic beforehand … with the idea of freeing art,
and … demanding that you should obey them … The question, as they saw it,
was not so much what you could paint but rather what you could not paint. You
could not paint a house or a tree or a mountain. It was then that subject matter
came into existence as something you ought not to have’ (Sandler 1978, p. 3).
182 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

As we saw in Chapter 1, the portrayal of consumer society in


O’Hara’s poetry shares some of the ambiguity of pop in seeming to
both critique and celebrate the urban-consumer environment. Never-
theless, there are important differences. Overall, O’Hara’s poetry
seems more concerned with the aestheticisation of everyday life than
Pop Art (although I have already argued that this was possibly more
significant in Pop Art than has been admitted); is not so bound up with
commodification and advertising; and is more heterogeneous, less
minimalist in style. The pop iconography in O’Hara’s poetry is juxta-
posed with lyric reflections on death, love and high art: ‘My heart is
in my/pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy’ (O’Hara 1979, p. 258).
More appropriate to O’Hara’s poetry is perhaps the label of pop
camp. Pop camp, according to Ross, ‘offered a negotiated way by
which this Pop ethos could be recognised by more sceptical intellec-
tuals’ (Ross 1989, p. 150). Ross discusses the relationship between
Pop and camp sensibility:
When Sontag associated the camp sensibility with the principle of ‘the
equivalence of all objects’ … she is making claims for its ‘democratic
esprit.’ What Sontag means, however, is that camp declares that any-
thing, given the right circumstances, could, in principle, be redeemed
by a camp sensibility. Everything thereby becomes fair game for the
camp cognoscenti to pursue and celebrate at will. This is a different
thing from the democratic, ‘no-brow’ proposition of Pop philosophy,
which simply accepts or complies with, rather than exploits, the prin-
ciple of general equivalence. Sontag no doubt acknowledges this dif-
ference when she characterizes Pop as ‘more flat and more dry’
(‘ultimately nihilistic’) than Camp, and when she describes Camp, by
contrast, as ‘tender,’ ‘passionate,’ and nurtured ‘on the love that has
gone into certain objects and personal styles’. (Ross 1989, p. 152).
In fact, the term pop camp would seem to serve O’Hara’s poetry
admirably. The subject matter of Pop – fast food, consumer goods and
film stars – populates the landscape of O’Hara’s poems. But these
icons have a somewhat different role in his poems. O’Hara’s refer-
ences are perhaps nearer to Sontag’s definition of camp than Pop:
they are more loving, less flat. They are the ‘surbols’ which I charac-
terised in Chapter 1: surfaces which resonate with a just-short-of-
symbolic potential. They also evoke, more fully than the icons of Pop,
the broader cityscape of which commodities are only a part. The ref-
erences to film stars are more whimsical:
Why I Am Not a Painter 183

having mistakenly thought that Bebe Daniels was in I Cover the Waterfront
instead of Claudette Colbert
(‘Poem: Now the violets are all gone, the rhinoceroses, the cymbals’;
O’Hara 1979, p. 346)
while the poem ‘For James Dean’ is a fairly sentimental eulogy of
the film star, which expresses outright regret at his commercial
exposure rather than cynicism about the film industry (O’Hara 1979,
pp. 228–30).
Moreover, the humour and parody, which are vital features of
camp, are arguably less pronounced in Pop Art. Lippard argues that
‘Parody in Pop Art largely seems to depend upon the viewer’s
response, and is seldom the artist’s intention; or if the satirical humour
is intentional, it may be secondary to the point of the painting’ (Lip-
pard 1985, p. 86). She also quotes Lichtenstein, who says, ‘In parody
… the implication is perverse, and I feel that in my own work I don’t
mean it to be that. Because I don’t dislike the work that I’m parody-
ing … The things that I have apparently parodied I actually admire’
(Lippard 1985, p. 87). There is here perhaps something of a confusion
about what constitutes parody: parody is not necessarily to be equated
with satire or disliking something. However, parody in the form of
satirising prior texts seems to be more a feature of camp than pop.
While some of O’Hara’s poems are more pop camp and others
more abstract, poems like ‘Rhapsody’ (O’Hara 1977a, p. 325) com-
bine the two. This mixture of Pop Camp and Abstract Expressionism
is also to be found in the work of Larry Rivers. Rivers worked on the
edges of the New York School of painters who included Grace Har-
tigan, Joan Mitchell, Alfred Leslie, Michael Goldberg, Norman
Bluhm and Jane Freilicher. The close relationship between Rivers
and O’Hara,8 and the way in which Rivers’s work – like O’Hara’s –
combines abstract and representational modes, has already been well
discussed by Marjorie Perloff (Perloff 1979).9 I want to argue that

8. Their relationship is also documented in Gooch 1993 and in Rivers with Wein-
stein 1992.
9. However, some painters of the New York School were attracted to one or other
of the poles of representation and abstraction. Jane Freilicher, for example, in
paintings such as ‘Farm Scene’ (1963), ‘Driveway’ (1964), and ‘The Mallow-
Gatherers’ (1958; reproduced in Sandler 1978, p. 92) leaned heavily towards
representation of landscape, or in ‘Portrait of John Ashbery, 1954’ (reproduced
in Sandler 1978, p. 92), towards human representation. Fairfield Porter (an
184 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

Rivers’s work is in a similar relationship of ‘complementary antago-


nism’ to Abstract Expressionism and Pop Camp as O’Hara’s. Rivers
often used commercial images in his painting and was an important
forerunner of Pop Art. However, like O’Hara, Rivers’s work devi-
ated from Pop Art. Helen Harrison argues that Rivers differs from
Pop Art, which ‘comments on the social implications of standardiza-
tion, mass dissemination of information, and the dehumanizing
effects of modern culture’. What Rivers does have in common with
the Pop Artists, Harrison argues, is to employ ‘traditionally unac-
ceptable raw material’ (Harrison 1984, p. 48). Similarly, Libby
suggests that ‘While pop art flattens … Rivers discovers the radiance
of ordinary things, imaginatively transforming them in ways that
Williams would admire but Warhol might consider perversely
romantic’ (Libby 1990, p.134). Although these comparisons make a
useful distinction, again they tend to underestimate the aestheticisa-
tion of the image within Pop Art.
In fact, ‘pop camp’ is also an important ingredient of Rivers’s work,
and this is shown not only in his inclusion of consumer goods but also
in his parodic revisions of historical representations which are deeply
ingrained in American popular culture. A good example of this kind

older painter who is nevertheless collected by Sandler, together with other mem-
bers of the New York School) also leaned towards representation in such paint-
ings as ‘Jimmy and John’ (1957–58), which is a portrait (reproduced in Sandler
1978, p. 92). On the other hand, Joan Mitchell, Norman Bluhm and Alfred
Leslie, even if they took their inspiration from nature, were abstractly orientated
painters. Mitchell’s ‘Ladybug’ (1967), in the collection of the Museum of
Modern Art, ‘Metro’ (1958) and ‘Evenings on 73rd Street’ (1957) (both repro-
duced in Schimmel et al. 1984, pp. 123 and 121 respectively), though they may
be drawn from land or cityscapes, consist of thickly, highly coloured, inter-
weaving bold strokes which form a web of small overlapping blocks of paint.
Norman Bluhm’s paintings ‘Bleeding Rain’ (1956) and ‘Jaded Silence’ (1957),
although they consist of overlapping layers of paint, suggest the horizon in the
horizontal division of the canvas. And ‘Sunstorms’ (1957) jettisons the idea of
the horizon for overlaying washes of orange and yellow dotted with small blue
shapes which dissolve into drips, while ‘Chicago 1920’ (1959) consists of
swirling gestures in red and blue (reproduced in Schimmel et al. 1984, pp. 55,
57, 59, 63 respectively). Alfred Leslie, in ‘Quartet #1’ (1958) and ‘None’
(1959), divides the painting into larger blocks which combine geometric abstrac-
tion with loose brushstrokes, drips and splashes. But in ‘Flag Day’ (1956), there
are some figurative elements such as stripes, which could belong to a flag, and
some still-life images (reproduced in Schimmel et al. 1984, pp. 109, 111, 103
respectively).
Why I Am Not a Painter 185

of work is ‘Washington Crossing the Delaware’ (1953), an important


‘repainting’ of a traditional American icon, Leutze’s painting of
‘Washington Crossing The Delaware’, which undermined the hero-
ism, masculinity and patriotism of the original. The painting appeared
the year after the Leutze was in the public eye in the celebrations for
the 175th anniversary of the river crossing. At that time the Cold War
and McCarthyism were at their height, and patriotism had become a
national obsession. Rivers’s painting undercuts the heroic Napoleonic
stance of Washington in the Leutze and humanises it. Washington
becomes only one of many going about their business; he seems iso-
lated and his stance is much less heroic and purposeful than in the
original. While seeming to buy into the sentiments of nationalism and
patriotism, Rivers subverts them by taking Washington off his heroic
pedestal. Rivers said of the painting:
The last painting that dealt with George and the rebels is hanging at the
Met and was painted by a coarse German nineteenth-century academi-
cian who really loved Napoleon more than anyone and thought crossing
a river on a late December afternoon was just another excuse for a gen-
eral to assume a heroic, slightly tragic pose … What could have inspired
him I’ll never know. What I saw in the crossing was quite different. I saw
the moment as nerve-wracking and uncomfortable. I couldn’t picture
anyone getting into a chilly river around Christmas time with anything
resembling hand-on-chest heroics. (Davidson 1983, p. 74).
Conflicting readings, however, inhabit the painting, and it seems to
be more ambiguous than critics sometimes allow. Does Washington
really look as ‘uncertain’ as critics say? The deconstruction is all the
more effective because the attitudes which are being questioned still
have a presence within the painting, in the same way that they do
within O’Hara’s poems.
O’Hara responded to the painting with the poem, ‘On Seeing Larry
Rivers’ Washington Crossing the Delaware at the Museum of Modern
Art’. This poem characterises Washington as afraid, gun-happy and a
liar. He is the father of debatable notions about freedom which
honour individualism rather than community. ‘See how free we are!
as a nation of persons.’ In other words, the poem narrativises the
painting further, implying, but not determining, trajectories of plot,
character and past history.10

10. Both poem and painting, however, point to representation as a kind of histori-
cal recess, a point well made by Michael Davidson, who suggests that behind
186 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

The relationship of O’Hara’s work to Pop Art and Abstract


Expressionism, therefore, is not simply a matter of technique but of
subject matter, in particular the city and the body, discussed in Chap-
ter 2. The city was an obvious source for the iconography of the Pop
Artists. But the city and body were also important subjects for the
Abstract Expressionists, particularly for de Kooning, who was influ-
ential on the New York School in this respect (Polcari 1991, p. 292).
For example, de Kooning’s painting ‘Gotham News’ (1955) refers to
the city in its title. Other paintings, such as ‘Excavation’ (1950) and
‘Sag Harbour’ (1964; Polcari 1991, pp. 291–300), although less
involved with the city as subject, present a dislocation of the body
and environment, and rearticulation and remerging of the elements.
This is similar to the intersection of the body and the city in
O’Hara’s hyperscapes, despite a fundamental difference created by
the poems’ more pronounced temporal dimension.11 Similarly,
Grace Hartigan, who said in the 1950s, ‘I want an art that is not
“abstract” and not “realistic” – I cannot describe the look of this art,
but I think I will know it when I see it’ (Schimmel et al. 1984, p.31),
worked with a combination of representational and abstract styles to
create city paintings, such as ‘Billboard’ (1957) and ‘Summer Street’
(1956), which focus, albeit in a fragmented and dislocated way, on
life on the Lower East Side (reproduced in Schimmel et al. 1984, pp.
80, 78, respectively.). And sexual identity, gender–bending, masking
and femininity were also an important feature of Hartigan’s work.12

Rivers’s painting ‘is a realization of the extent to which history is inscribed in the
gaps between one representation and another’ (Davidson 1983, p. 74). David-
son also argues that, in O’Hara’s poem, ‘What begins as an attempt to re-see for
the viewer what the poet sees in the museum becomes a recognition of the fail-
ure of any recoverable event, whether Washington crossing the Delaware or the
details of a painting’ (Davidson 1983, p. 74).
11. The influence of de Kooning’s landscapes was pointed out by O’Hara himself,
who said in ‘Notes on Second Avenue’: ‘Where Mayakovsky and de Kooning
come in, is that they both have done works as big as cities where the life of the
work is autonomous (not about actual city life) and yet similar: Mayakovsky:
“Lenin,” “150,000,000,” “Eiffel Tower,” etc.; de Kooning: “Asheville,” “Exca-
vation,” “Gansevoort Street,” etc.’ (O’Hara 1979, p. 497).
12. Diggory refers to gender-bending as a distinctive element of Hartigan’s Oranges
series, which used O’Hara’s poem of that name as a textual basis and included
words from the poem. Diggory also comments on the relationship between
masking and femininity in Hartigan’s work, and masking and homosexuality in
O’Hara’s (Diggory 1993b, p. 49). He suggests that Hartigan’s ‘practice of
Why I Am Not a Painter 187

Similarly, Rivers’s paintings sometimes dealt explicitly with a range


of different kinds of taboo sexual practices: ‘Lampman Loves It’
(1966), made from plexiglas, painted wood, and lights, features het-
erosexual anal sex (reproduced in Harrison 1984, p. 79). His ‘Parts
of the Body, English Vocabulary Lesson’ (1963; reproduced in Har-
rison 1984, p. 78) could also be seen to parallel some of O’Hara’s
gay love poems discussed in Chapter 4 in their reconstruction of the
body. And Rivers’s ‘The Greatest Homosexual’ (his ‘repainting’ of
David’s Napoleon; reproduced in Harrison 1984, p. 92) feminises
the heroic, heterosexual connotations of the original. Despite the
verbal labels which seem to mark it as a female body, and the pres-
ence of female breasts, the legs are extremely phallic. However, the
range of sexual relationship along the heterosexual–homosexual
continuum, which inhabits O’Hara’s poems, seems less prominent in
Rivers’s work.
Finally, Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art are obviously at the
two ends of a continuum of artists who can be seen to interface with
O’Hara’s work. The art of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg is
not part of Abstract Expressionism, or Pop Art, but bears some rela-
tionship to both. Their work intersects with O’Hara’s cityscapes and
hyperscapes, particularly in the way it crosses the boundary between
real life and art life. Johns played off ‘real’ against ‘art’ objects:
‘Painted Bronze’ (1960) is composed of two plastic cylinders cast
into bronze with painted Ballantine labels, but at the same time is a
replica of the objects (beer cans). Similarly, the flag pictures (repro-
duced in Sandler 1978, p. 186) look exactly the same as ‘real flags’.
Rauschenberg’s combine-paintings, such as ‘Bed’ (1955), made from
oil, pencil, pillow and quilt (reproduced in Sandler 1978, p. 182),
derive from a collage–assemblage technique of found objects and
real objects. The objects are torn from their usual contexts and
rearticulated and recontextualised while still retaining some of the
connotations of their origins. These combines can be offset against
O’Hara’s verbal collages in poems like ‘Biotherm’, where ‘found’
conversations and texts are juxtaposed.

exhibiting under the name “George” until 1954 directly reflects the “camp”
spirit among the gay men in John Bernard Myers’ circle, who tagged each other
with women’s names’ (Diggory 1993b).
188 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

Two Singular Steeples Necessarily Together:


The Collaborations13
One of the most direct ways in which O’Hara extended the realm of
the poem was through collaboration with artists.14 O’Hara, who was
attracted towards the kind of experimentation, risk-taking and vari-
ety which collaboration offered, was at the centre of a group of writ-
ers and artists who welcomed collaborative ventures as a means of
mutual support, stimulation and artistic development. O’Hara’s col-
laborations span a wide variety of forms, but it is those with other
poets and painters I want to discuss. His main collaborations with
artists were the Stones collaborations with Larry Rivers (O’Hara and
Rivers 1957–59), poem-paintings with Norman Bluhm (O’Hara and
Bluhm 1960) and some comic-strip collaborations with Joe Brainard.
My main purpose here is to set up a framework for analysing how
semiotic, social and artistic exchanges intersect within them.
These collaborations occurred during a period when there was an
increase in inter-artistic reciprocation and experiment. Artists in all
creative spheres, such as John Cage, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschen-
berg and Merce Cunningham, were becoming increasingly interested
in multimedia and collaborative work. Cynthia Jaffee McCabe sug-
gests that the renewal of interest in collaboration had its roots in the
surrealist collaborations of the 1920s and 1930s (McCabe 1984b).
David Shapiro (Shapiro 1984) and Robert Hobbs (Hobbs 1984), on
the other hand, both argue that the collaborations of the 1950s and
1960s were reactions to wider social issues. Hobbs sees the growth of
collaboration since the 1950s as a rejoinder against superficial con-
cepts of individuality prized by a consumer society. Shapiro suggests
that collaboration could be a response to alienation in the modern
city and the false collectivism of authoritarian regimes. Overall, it
seems most likely that collaboration arose as the result of a whole net-
work of factors, including those above.
O’Hara’s collaborations were produced at the beginning of an era
when the visual was becoming more and more prominent. Perloff has
demonstrated how the verbally dominated advertisements of the early

13. ‘Two singular steeples necessarily/together’ is a quotation from ‘St. Bridget’s


Hymn to Willem de Kooning’, a collaboration by O’Hara and Bill Berkson
(O’Hara and Berkson 1974 n.p.).
14. In fact, O’Hara collaborated with musicians, writers and film-makers. More
details are given in the Appendix.
Why I Am Not a Painter 189

part of the century were gradually replaced by more visually orien-


tated ones during the 1960s (Perloff 1991). Furthermore, visual/verbal
conjunctions in film, TV and advertising were beginning to saturate
society, and O’Hara’s interests in the visual spanned both popular cul-
ture and high art. The collaborations call on a whole range of forms –
some such as comic strips, cartoons and advertisements derived from
popular culture – in which the visual and verbal interconnect.
O’Hara’s collaborations with Rivers, Koch, Bluhm and Brainard
were all born out of friendships. In an interview with me Bill Berkson
stressed the continuity between writing and friendship for O’Hara:
I think what interested O’Hara about collaboration was art and life: art
and social life were very continuous for him and writing was his natural
occupation, so if he was with someone who was a writer it made sense
for the two of them to extend their conversation in the form of a poem
or play. (Berkson 1986b)
According to Berkson this was all part of O’Hara’s desire to ‘aes-
theticise life and enliven art’ (Berkson 1986b 849). Shared social and
artistic background were central to the collaborations which are char-
acterised by campiness, in-jokes and personal references with which
the outsider feels in a double relationship of inclusion and exclusion.
In an interview with me Ron Padgett also said that at that time col-
laboration was a ‘natural thing to do’ because the poets and painters
were young, childless and had a lot of social mobility (Padgett 1986).
Homosociality and homosexuality also played a prominent part in
their generation (though Bluhm was heterosexual).
These collaborations are of considerable historical importance,
particularly in the semiotic exchange they promote between text and
image. This semiotic exchange is closely related to the collaborative
relationship, and it is therefore important to briefly consider the
nature of collaboration itself.

The Nature of Collaboration


Artistic collaboration erodes the romantic concept of the work of art
as the unique expression of a particular individual, since the input of
one collaborator is not necessarily distinguishable from another. It
involves cross-imaging, and is a complex process of symbiotic trans-
formation. In collaboration two or more subjectivities splinter into a
shared subjectivity. Collaboration is also a major challenge to the
190 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

American cult of individuality and independence, and is another form


of the community of difference, discussed in Chapter 2.
Collaboration can be an important catalyst in the evolution of an
artist, because it forces him or her into new creative terrain. It has
been more common historically in a number of different forms (such
as editing ) than is often realised (Masten 1997). Inge points out, for
example, that even the typesetting and printing of a book has a col-
laborative aspect (Inge 1994, p. 32). Collaboration has been a very
common mode in popular culture, perhaps more so than in high cul-
ture (an important point, since O’Hara’s collaborations mediate
between the two). For example, in the case of comics, successful car-
toonists often used assistants, and Walt Disney was ‘perhaps the most
successful collaborator of this century’ (Inge 1994, p. 35). Collabora-
tion can also be a way of subverting identities with regard to gender
and/or sexual orientation. Wayne Koestenbaum sees collaboration
between men as inherently homoerotic and places it in a historical
perspective:
Collaboration, itself neutral, can mean many things. It became laden,
delicately at the beginning of the 19th century, and ferociously at its
end, with the struggle to define male bonds along a spectrum including
lascivious criminality and sexless chumming – a continuum that Eve
Kosofsky Sedgwick has called homosocial. To borrow her term and her
interpretive apparatus, I would say that collaboration between men in
the 19th and early 20th centuries was a complicated and anxiously
homosocial act, and that all the writers in this study, regardless of their
sexual preference, collaborated in order to separate homoeroticism
from the sanctioned male bonding that upholds patriarchy. (Koesten-
baum 1989, p. 3)
Koestenbaum claims that collaborators ‘express homoeroticism and
strive to conceal it’: in this way they engage in what he calls ‘double-
talk’. He suggests that ‘men who collaborate engage in a metaphorical
sexual intercourse, and that the text they balance between them is
alternately the child of their sexual union, and a shared woman’
(Koestenbaum 1989, p. 3). Koestenbaum’s main metaphor for double
talk is anal intercourse. He ‘resist(s) Freud’s claim that procreation is
the normative form of erotic behaviour’, and ‘give(s) precedence to
the symbolic “anus”, the place where men conceive when they write
together’ (Koestenbaum 1989, p. 7). The concept of ‘double-talk’
seems to be strongly connected with Bredbeck’s argument discussed in
Chapter 4 that the homosexual male symbolic is expressed through
Why I Am Not a Painter 191

two organs, the penis and the anus. While I do not fully endorse
Koestenbaum’s idea that men who collaborate balance a text between
them which is ‘alternately the child of their sexual union, and a shared
woman’ (Koestenbaum 1989, p. 3), he does draw our attention to the
homosocial/homosexual implications of some types of collaboration.
Moreover, his metaphors for collaboration sit well with my own idea
of text and image collaboration as cross-dressing.

Text and Image: Semiotic Exchange


Mixed media works by artists and writers integrate two semiotic sys-
tems, the verbal and visual. In traditional illustration the poem and
painting are juxtaposed but retain a certain spatial separation, and the
visual image usually responds to the text. However, the basis of
visual–verbal mixed media works is that text and image are integrated
on a non-hierarchical basis. Consequently each medium loses its
autonomy and becomes merged with the other in a process which
promotes semiotic exchange. This is possible because, as we have
already seen, both painting and poetry are made up of mixed signs
which can merge. Consequently, the text becomes part of the image
and the image becomes part of the text.
Collaboration, then, pivots on difference and likeness, separation
and merging, and demonstrates their interdependence. But as we have
already seen, differences between poetry and painting can be con-
ceived of as differences within them: poems and paintings are in many
respects alike because they are internally different. An important
factor in considering collaboration, therefore, must be the role of
shared internal difference as part of the process of merging. Here my
framework for considering collaboration makes a link with Derridean
différance, and with the work of Barbara Johnson, who sees the dif-
ferences between entities as differences within them (Johnson 1980,
opening remarks).

The Stones Collaborations: Rivers and O’Hara


As I have already said, the collaborations do not necessarily stand
up as O’Hara’s best work. However, The Stones lithograph collabo-
rations made by Rivers and O’Hara are probably O’Hara’s most
significant contribution to visual/verbal collaboration and form a
series of thirteen (O’Hara and Rivers 1957–59). The main interest of
192 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

the collaborations lies in the way they merge text and image, mediate
between Pop and Abstract Expressionism, and thematise homosocial-
ity/ homoeroticism. They are, however, of variable quality (some are
quite slight ‘one-offs’), and I have therefore decided to concentrate on
the lithograph ‘US’, the first of the Stones series, as it seems to me to
be most stimulating (reproduced in Smith and Dean 1997, p. 167 and
in Perloff 1998, Fig. 3). My aim is to find a framework for consider-
ing such collaboration which could then be applied more widely.
The semiotic exchange between visual and verbal signs is funda-
mental to ‘US’ and is part of its subject, which overtly parodies
concepts of artistic separation and division. The aphorism ‘Poetry
belongs to Me, Larry, and Painting to you’ turns the relationship
between the two art forms into a joke about possession: verbal and
visual signs are so versatile and exchangeable that the artist has to be
careful to ‘hang on’ to his own sphere. The collaboration also refers
to the relation between the visual and verbal spheres, the art milieu
of the 1950s in which painting was achieving more commercial recog-
nition: ‘poetry was declining/painting advancing’. The lithograph
itself invokes both pop camp and Abstract Expressionism. Its visual
structure mimics comic strips and advertisements, is full of pop
iconography, is ironic and camp, but uses abstraction as a technical
tool. It is highly satirical about the art scene – although painting is
advancing, perhaps it is James Dean who is the real hero.
As discussed above, collaboration involves the splintering of self
into a shared subjectivity. In ‘US’ the two collaborators appear as
themselves in the lithograph but in a way which involves segmenta-
tion and bodily dispersal throughout it. Where their faces are shown,
O’Hara and Rivers mirror each other, that is, they look somewhat
alike. O’Hara is pictured in the extreme left-hand top corner, and
Rivers adjacent to him, but their identities fuse in the top right-hand
corner of the lithograph, and in the image of sexual union in the
bottom right-hand corner. Here homosocial/homosexual activity
becomes a metaphor for collaboration and also the integration of the
two types of sign system, visual and verbal.
The lithograph resists hierarchical and fixed relationships between
text and image in which image illustrates text, or text explains image.
Instead, it plays on the relationship between visual and verbal sign
systems by cross-dressing them. The verbal messages and visual
images interpenetrate, sometimes partially obscuring or transforming
the lettering itself, as in the words ‘look where it got them’, which are
Why I Am Not a Painter 193

partially smudged. The visual and verbal counterpoint each other:


so the image of O’Hara in heroic pose balances the word ‘hero’.
There are metonymic/hypertextual links between the visual and the
verbal, for example, the visual icon of O’Hara drinking could be seen
to relate to ‘Parties were “given” we “went”’. But the links will be
made by the observer differently each time because they are often
only implicit. So the speckling over ‘took where it got them’ might be
perceived as relating to the soft rain, though there is no stated con-
nection. Although ‘US’ is set out as a fixed design, observers actually
‘spatialise’ it in their own way in order to permute the different rela-
tionships between the verbal and visual components.
This cross-dressing of verbal and visual signs occurs because both
visual and verbal fluctuate along a continuum between iconicity to non-
iconicity. This extends the semiotic potential of each medium and cre-
ates semiotic exchange between the two. The iconicity of the text is
increased by the use of handwriting, underlining, capital letters, black-
ened emphasis and smudging, which strengthen its visual impact; and
through the brevity, simplicity and ideogrammatic nature of the verbal
messages which are text-insertions and more like aphoristic hypertexts,
rather than complete poems. Similarly, at certain points in the litho-
graph, the iconicity of the images is reduced, so that they draw attention
to themselves as structural elements of the design, although they are
often images of a particular thing. The near-photographic, iconic shots
of O’Hara and Rivers are unmistakable likenesses (representations), but
in the top right-hand corner they are partially abstracted. Any sign is
endlessly transformational: the kisses at the end of the James Dean letter
become visual icons which are then taken up by the artist and used as
part of an abstracted design in the lower half of the lithograph, under-
neath the James Dean letter. The visual and verbal reciprocally cross
over in the sign ‘US’. This is a symbolic sign because it is a word which
refers (to the collaborators and their country). But it is also an icon
which is so ambiguous – the S resembles the US flag, and a snake; the U
might be a jug or an hourglass – that it becomes partially abstracted.
The lithograph parodies nationalism and patriotism through the
pseudo-nationalistic, highly ambiguous use of the flag icon (quintes-
sential symbol of America’s national identity) and the superimposition
of US the artists and US the nation.15 In fact, artists and homosexuals

15. See also the discussion of Jasper Johns’s flag paintings by Stich: ‘Considering the
sociopolitical climate, the irony of Johns’s flag paintings is extraordinary. These
194 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

are ‘the farters of our country’ and have formed their own social and
artistic unit, ‘us’ (a mini-coterie), in defiance of the norms required by
the state. ‘Poetry was declining/painting advancing’ might also suggest
that painting is more successful than poetry because it can more easily
be turned into a commodity in a commercial culture which has little
real respect for either. Yet the lithograph is highly ambiguous: like Pop
Art it colludes in, but also ironises, the commercial, hedonistic aspects
of American culture.
‘US’, therefore, demonstrates how, in O’Hara collaborations, semiotic
exchange goes hand in hand with social and artistic exchange; homoso-
ciality with cross-dressing of text and image; abstraction with pop camp.
In this sense it shows how text and image can be merged, but in a way
which retains the sense of a verbal entity more strongly than concrete
poetry. Drawing on popular culture as well as the high art tradition, and
fragmenting the text into aphorisms, it points the way towards the trans-
mutation of poetry into new forms characteristic of hypermedia.
This collaboration, then, is a form of hyperscape, and also fore-
grounds many of the conceptual ideas which have recurred during
this book. It is a site in which difference turns over into similarity and
back into difference; it brings the splintered subjectivities of the col-
laborators into a shared subjectivity; and through their presence
within the lithograph probes the relationship between real life and
text life. The lithograph hovers between metonymic dispersal and
metaphorical fusion, its surfaces resonate as surbols. It connects (but
in the loose associative way characteristic of O’Hara’s personalised
hyperpolitics) the life and work of the artists, the New York art scene,
and US society. It morphs friendship into collaboration into homo-
sexuality, and situates itself as pop camp between Abstract Expres-
sionism and Pop Art. And most importantly, the whole collaboration
is highly topographical; it disrupts its own spatial connections and
puts them back in a way which is multidirectional. This allows us to
read it in a way which is ‘unfixed’, and to ‘walk’ through it, taking a
different route each time.

paintings affirm and deny an Americanness. They address the issue of patriotic
display – indeed, they denote a total devotion to and obsession with the flag image
– but they refuse to make an unequivocal statement about it. They reiterate the
stability of the banner’s design even while laying siege to its signifying features.
But they also treat the flag as the site of subterfuge, concealment, and obfuscation,
raising doubts about its integrity as a sanctified symbol’ (Stich 1987, p. 19).
1

Coda: Moving the Landscapes


Author

Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara began with metaphors


about journeying through one of O’Hara’s poems, and returned to
the idea of the journey at the end of Chapter 6. In the intervening
chapters we have taken many different routes through the landscape
of the poetry along intersecting paths. But this book has also engaged
with the transformational nature of that landscape, and the ways in
which we as readers mobilise it.
The book has, in addition, participated in the changing terrain of
O’Hara criticism. In order to play a part in ‘moving the landscapes’ I
constructed the hyperscape, a deterritorialised territory, a site and yet
non-site, the meeting place of contradictions. I have explored the
spaces, time-zones, sexualities and representational modes of the
hyperscape, always with the earth shifting beneath my feet. Through-
out I have conceptualised the hyperscape in such terms as difference,
hypertextual web, personalised hyperpolitics, morphing sexuality,
complementary antagonism, semiotic exchange and textual cross-
dressing. All these concepts have been a way of trying to encapsulate
the co-presence of difference and identity in O’Hara’s poetry, their
dynamic transformation into each other, and their relevance to his
significance as a postmodern poet.
At the same time I have tried to show how these conceptions of
O’Hara’s poetry line up with actual historical events. Frequently his-
toricising O’Hara in terms of contradiction, I have situated his work
between the uptown milieu of MOMA and the downtown avant-garde
of Greenwich, between the liberal consensus and gay repression. But I
have, conversely, discussed ways in which his work seems ahead of its
time, for example in the adoption of a morphing sexuality, discussed
in Chapter 4.
The book has also engaged with the intertextual, intermedia aspects
of O’Hara’s poetry. In Chapter 3 I demonstrated the textual mobility
and eclecticism of O’Hara’s poems and their roots in imagism, sym-
bolism and surrealism. In Chapter 6 I theorised the intermedia aspect
196 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

of O’Hara’s work, situating it between the arms of Abstract Expres-


sionism and Pop Art. But in order to emphasise the continuum
between process and product, I also speculated in Chapter 5 on the
improvisatory nature of his writing in the context of improvisation as
a popular creative process and ideology during the period.
To begin to analyse the hyperscape is also to find it resists such clar-
ification. Consequently, I have tried to generate ideas and link them
together, in ‘hypertextual’ fashion, without locking them into place. I
hope that readers have found interrelationships but also some loose
ends. I also hope readers will travel through the book in both a linear
and ‘topographical’ fashion and that, in some cases, the end will send
them back to the beginning.
In writing about O’Hara I have drawn on contemporary theory
from deconstruction, to postmodern geographies, to sexuality theory.
One of the ideas behind this approach was to show how O’Hara’s
practice anticipates the theory. In approaching the poetry in this way
I have superimposed many of the assumptions of our culture upon the
contexts of O’Hara’s, while still trying to retain a sense of his distinc-
tive historical position. For I wanted to show that O’Hara’s work has
a compelling relevance for our current culture, as it did for his own.
A tantalising issue that this book raises, then, is how future theo-
retical perspectives will shed further light on O’Hara’s work. It is an
exciting prospect that, as ideas about the city, sexuality or textuality
change, we will see his poetry in fresh lights. So, as the New York of
the mid-twentieth century recedes, the landscapes of O’Hara’s poetry
will continue to be renewed through, as yet unarticulated, cultural
perspectives.
1

Appendix: More Collaboration


Author

Chapter 6 dealt only with the visual–verbal collaborations but, in fact,


O’Hara collaborated with film directors, poets and musicians. This
appendix gives some more information about these collaborations.
Bibliographical details of the collaborations are given in Alexander
Smith’s bibliography (Smith 1979).

Collaborations with Writers


In collaborations between writers the contributors are not differenti-
ated by different media, and can either foreground or subsume the
differences in their writing style. Collaborations can consist of alter-
nate sections written by each author, or can be more closely inte-
grated, so that different identities are subsumed. Either way,
collaboration is likely to involve an extension of each author, so the
resulting product does not read like the work of either individual.
Kenneth Koch and O’Hara wrote a number of poems together:
‘The Mirror Naturally Stripped’ (O’Hara and Koch 1956a); ‘Poem’,
published in the magazine Semi-Colon (O’Hara and Koch 1956b) and
‘Nina Sestina’ and ‘Bad Words’, unpublished (O’Hara and Koch
undated). In an interview with me, Kenneth Koch said that when they
were writing ‘The Mirror Naturally Stripped’, O’Hara and he took
turns writing a line each (Koch 1986).
Although ‘The Mirror Naturally Stripped’ was written by two
people, it appears to be a seamless text which uses the first-person sin-
gular rather than the first-person plural. It is not easy to tell who has
written what. The poem, therefore, does not attract attention to itself
as collaboration: the nearest we come to any reference to the collab-
oration is the word ‘criss-crosses’. Instead it foregrounds again a
shared subjectivity: the dissolution of the difference between people
thtough the adoption of a common literary code and a fabric of
shared experience and reference. The dense, absurdist, dada-esque
imagery seems to be a code which both writers tap into:
198 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara

They are debating over the daffodil seeds


in history. Quaff these jeweled belches
for isn’t there whichness in the thinking apparatus
that glides towards cruelty as commonly as a bench?
Yes I am inverting my bricks.
(‘The Mirror Naturally Stripped’;
O’Hara and Koch 1956a)
‘Poem’ consists of twelve repetitions of ‘Sky/woof ’ ‘woof/harp’ and
was, according to Koch, composed on the street near the Museum of
Modern Art (Koch 1986). It was published in the same edition of
Semi-Colon as ‘The Mirror Naturally Stripped’. ‘Nina Sestina’ was a
sestina written for Nina Castelli’s sixteenth birthday. ‘Bad Words’ has
26 lines, each beginning with a different letter of the alphabet,
demonstrating Koch’s interest in using games and linguistic schemes
as a framework for collaboration.
O’Hara also wrote Hymns of St. Bridget, a series of poems, with Bill
Berkson (O’Hara and Berkson 1974). These grew out of mutual
observation of St. Bridget’s church and were described by O’Hara in
a letter to publisher Barney Rossett as having ‘a nice peculiar quality’
(O’Hara 1961). In a note among Berkson’s papers in the Special Col-
lections, University of Connecticut, Storrs, Connecticut, Bill Berkson
describes how all the poems were written jointly, except ‘Hymn to St.
Bridget’s Steeple’, which was written by him alone (Berkson various
dates). They were written in larger sections than the O’Hara/Koch
poems. In an interview with me, Berkson said that Hymns of St. Brid-
get ‘were written on the typewriter; one person would start something
going and he would get up and the other person would go on a bit –
like choruses in improvised music’ (Berkson 1986b). Berkson also said
that they often had music on while they were writing the poems. The
poems were written, according to Berkson, without revision, though
Berkson attempted some revision after O’Hara’s death.
Some of O’Hara’s collaborations took the form of correspondence
between friends either in the form of poem-letters which reply to each
other, or as scenarios in which the correspondents adopt roles, e.g.
the Angelicus and Fidelio Fobb letters with Bill Berkson. Some of
these letters, the originals of which are among the papers of Bill Berk-
son in the Special Collections, University of Connecticut (Berkson
various dates) were published (O’Hara and Berkson 1975).
Appendix 199

Other Collaborations
The film, The Last Clean Shirt, was produced, filmed and edited by
Alfred Leslie with subtitles by O’Hara, and made between 1963 and
1964 (Leslie and O’Hara 1964). It consists of three repetitions of the
same visual scenario – an African-American man and a white woman
driving through New York traffic – with different subtitles superim-
posed on the second and third repetitions. The soundtrack (by Leslie)
includes the woman babbling in nonsense language, a range of effects
including traffic noises and sounds like gunfire, the pop song ‘The
Last Clean Shirt’, and a voice which interjects with the words ‘from
dust to dust, from ashes to ashes’. The soundtrack, subtitles and the
photography all work against each other, producing extreme multi-
plicity of meaning. In an interview with me, Leslie said that he com-
pleted the visual part of the film and the soundtrack and that O’Hara
then watched it and wrote the subtitles for it (Leslie 1986). This film,
which is experimental in character, is in my opinion one of the most
interesting of the collaborations.
O’Hara also collaborated with Ned Rorem in the Four Dialogues
for Two Voices and Two Pianos (Rorem and O’Hara 1970). On the
sleeve notes Rorem says that O’Hara first called it the ‘Quarrel
Sonata’. Rorem adds that the dialogues are ‘of a nameless genre that
falls somewhere between concert cantata and staged opera’. The
are in rhyming verse: O’Hara’s frivolous scenario and Rorem’s
conventional musical style make a rather uneasy mix.
There also seem to have been a number of collaborations which
were discussed but never came to fruition. In an interview with me,
Morton Feldman said that O’Hara and he had discussed a collabora-
tion which was an adaptation of Gide’s Strait as the Gate, but the
project never took shape (Feldman 1986). Feldman showed me a copy
of the novel with marked passages. He said that they had had a lot of
discussion about it and that he had felt he needed ‘a quiet subject’ and
that Gide was ‘fashionable at that time’. In 1959 O’Hara applied to
the Ford Foundation for a grant to ‘write a libretto for a grand opera’,
with Ben Weber as his first choice as composer and Ned Rorem,
Charles Turner or Morton Feldman as further possible choices. How-
ever, he was not a recipient of a grant. This letter, undated, is in the
archive of the Ford Foundation, New York (O’Hara various dates d).
1

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1

Index
Author

Abstract Expressionism 3, 7, 16, 18, 19, 27, 41, Bernstein, Charles 22


49, 76, 134, 137, 155–7, 167, 168, Berrigan, Ted 3
174–87, 192 Bhabha, Homi 34
‘Adieu to Norman, Bon Jour to Joan and Jean- ‘Biotherm’ 12, 48, 125, 143, 146, 146n.6, 147,
Paul’ 74, 78, 149, 159, 160, 162, 164–5 148, 151,187
‘Aggression’ 160 Black Mountain poets 2, 48, 82, 138, 141
Allen, Donald 3, 8, 51, 161, 162 Blasing, Mutlu Konuk 17, 37, 138, 139n.1, 147
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) 111 ‘Blocks’ 165
‘Answer to Voznesensky and Evtushenko’ 35, Bluhm, Norman 3, 7, 49, 159, 183, 184n.9,
36–7 188, 189
Antin, David 136, 152, 157, 164 ‘Bleeding Rain’ 184n.9
‘Anxiety’ 144, 151 ‘Chicago 1920’ 184n.9
Apollinaire, Guillaume 46 ‘Jaded Silence’ 184n.9
‘Art Chronicle’ 16 ‘Sunstorms’ 184n.9
Art Chronicles 7 Bolter, Jay David 61
Art with the Touch of a Poet: Frank O’Hara Boone, Bruce 134
(exhibition) 161 Bowers, Neal 55n.2, 66n.10
Ashbery, John 2, 3, 4, 17, 20, 26n.4, 38, 47n.16, Bowles, Jane 47n.16
51, 81n.2, 103, 106, 138, 145n.4, 158 Brainard, Joe 159, 188, 189
Everyman, a Masque 4n.1 Bredbeck, Gregory W. 18, 134, 158, 190
‘Grapevine, The’ 13 Breslin, James E.B. 68n.11, 168
‘Painter, The’ 173–4 Breton, André: ‘Spectral Attitudes, The’ 86, 96
‘Street Musicians’ 73–4 Brown, Earle 49, 154, 184
‘They Dream Only of America’ 99–100 Buchbinder, David 112, 114n.6, 122
‘Two Scenes’ 82 Bürger, Peter 42
‘At the Old Place’ 127–8 Burroughs, William 47n.16
Auden, W.H. 47n.16 Butler, Judith 21, 57, 103–4, 121, 140
Austin, J.L. 61, 140, 141 Butor, Michel 47n.16
avant-garde 41–5 Button, John 123–4n.8
‘Ave Maria’ 40 Byron, Stuart 18, 108, 128, 130
Awake in Spain 7, 154
Cage, John 49, 154, 188
Baldwin, James 47n.16 Caldwell, Erskine 24
Ball, Hugo 167 Cesaire, Aimé 35
Banes, Sally 24, 34, 57, 75, 76, 98 Chadwick, Joseph 109n.4
Barth, John 71n.14 Chaikin, Joseph 50, 155
Barthes, Roland 105 Chamberlain, Wynn 177n.4
Pleasure of the Text, The 134 Chambers, Iain 32, 56
Baudelaire, Charles Pierre 29n.5, 46 ‘Chez Jane’ 88–91, 93, 96, 100, 131, 173
‘Correspondances’ 85 City Winter, and Other Poems, A 7
Beaton, Cecil 5 Clare, John 44
Beat Movement 2, 24, 25, 48, 82, 111, 138, 157 Clarke, Graham 63
Beck, Julian 155 Cockcroft, Eva 19
Beckett, Samuel 47n.16 Coleman, Ornette 49, 153, 154, 164
‘Beer for Breakfast’ 160 Coleridge, Samuel Taylor 61
Behan, Brendan 63 collaboration 188–94
Bender, Thomas 75, 76 Collected Poems 8, 48, 161, 178
Bergman, David 106–7 Collinson, David L. 113n.5
Berkson, Bill 7, 8, 29, 29n.5, 46n.16, 52, 58n.3, Coltrane, John 49, 153
77, 78, 123n.8, 159n.10, 162, 188n.13, communities 74–9
189 consumerism 30–3
Index 227

Coover, Robert 71n.14 ‘For Another’s Fear’ 160–1


‘Cornkind’ 150 ‘For Grace, After a Party’ 124–5
Corso, Gregory 2, 47n.16 ‘For James Dean’ 183
Cowley, Malcolm 24 Ford, Charles Henri 81n.2
Crane, Hart 46, 47n.16, 66, 66n.10, 103, 108 Fordism 30
‘Episode of Hands’ 127 Foucault, Michel 24
Creeley, Robert 2 ‘Four Apartments’ 159
Culler, Jonathan 82, 83 Freilicher, Jane 3, 8, 124n.9, 183
cummings, e.e. 46 ‘Driveway’ 183n.9
Cunningham, Merce 8, 188 ‘Farm Scene’ 183n.9
‘Mallow-Gatherers, The’ 183n.9
Dadists 167 ‘Portrait of John Ashbery, 1954’ 183n.9
Dahlberg, Edward 157 ‘Fresh Air’ 20
Daughters of Bilitis 110–11 Freud, Sigmund 109, 155, 157, 190
Davidson, Michael 141, 185–6n.10 Fuss, Diane 103
Davis, Bette 150 Futurists 167
Davis, Miles 49, 153, 154
‘Day and Night in 1952’ 36, 51, 113, 127, Genet, Jean: Les Nègres 63
149–50 ‘Getting Up Ahead of Someone (Sun)’ 160
‘Day Lady Died, The’ 31, 32, 33, 37, 46, 51, Gide, André 47n.16
58–9, 58n.3, 61n.4, 63, 113, 181 Gilbert, Roger 44, 61, 62, 62n.5
de Certeau, Michel 33, 61, 61n.4, 62, 66 Ginsberg, Allen 2, 25, 47n.16, 103, 109,
de Kooning, Willem 7, 52, 156, 175, 180, 111–12, 126, 138, 151, 157, 158
180n.7, 186, 186n.11 ‘City Midnight Junk Strains’ 150n.9
‘Excavation’ 186 ‘Howl and Other Poems’ 78, 111, 138
‘Gotham News’ 186 ‘Many Loves’ 112
‘Sag Harbour’ 186 Goffman, Erving 144
de Man, Paul 81, 83 Gold, Herb 47n.16
Dean, James 192 Goldberg, Michael 3, 7, 172, 175, 183
Deleuze, Gilles 12 ‘Sardines’ 172, 172n.1
DeLillo, Don 71n.14 Gooch, Brad 17, 76, 102n.2
Denney, Reuel 145n.4 Goodman, Paul 77, 155, 157, 168
Derrida, Jacques 9, 12, 22, 40, 139, 140 ‘Advance-Guard Writing, 1900–1950’ 76
‘Dido’ 128 Gottlieb, Adolph 178
Diggory, Terence 186n.12 Greenberg, Clement 18–19, 20, 33
‘Digression on Number 1, 1948’ 144 Grosz, Elizabeth 67
Disney, Walt 190 Gruen, John 123n.8
Dollimore, Jonathan 39, 104–5, 107–8, 120, Guattari, Félix 12
130, 131 Guest, Barbara 3, 4
Doss, Erika 19 Guilbaut, Serge 19
Dostoyevsky, Fyodr 47n.16
Dreiser, Theodore 24 Habermas, Jurgen 32n.8
Duncan, Robert 2, 47n.16, 103 Harrison, Helen 184
‘Torso, The’ 122–3 Hartigan, Grace 3, 8, 16, 51, 72, 124, 124n.9,
148n.8, 158, 160, 175, 180, 183, 186,
Early Writing 8, 130 186n.12
‘Easter’ 15, 35, 88, 96–101, 133, 98n.9, 133, ‘Billboard’ 186
160 ‘Summer Street’ 186
Eggins, Suzanne 142, 146n.5 Harvey, David 56, 57
‘Elegy’ (musical composition) 4n.1 Hay, Henry 110
Eliot, T.S. 27, 29n.5, 47n.16, 48, 52, 146 Hayes, Joseph J. 143
‘Waste Land, The’ 71 Hearn, Jeff 113n.5
Elledge, Jim 4, 18, 120 Hebdige, Dick 32n.6
Emerson, Ralph Waldo 64 Hemingway, Ernest 24
ethics 38–41 Higgins, Dick 167
Evergreen Review 77 Hobbs, Robert 188
Hofmann, Hans 173
Farrell, James T. 24 Holiday, Billie 31, 37, 63
Featherstone, Mike 32, 32n.7, 32n.8 ‘Homosexuality’ 127
Feldman, Alan 4, 93n.7 hooks, bell 34
Feldman, Morton 8, 49 ‘Hôtel Particulier’ 160
Fernbach, David 114 ‘Hôtel Transylvanie’ 51
Finlay, Ian Hamilton 167 Houédard, Dom Sylvester 167
‘Flag Day’ 147 Hughes, Langston 24
Flannigan-Saint-Aubin, Arthur 122n.7 Hutcheon, Linda 43n.14–15
228 Index

hypergrace 55 ‘Little Travel Diary, A’ 160


Living Theatre 154, 155
‘Image of The Buddha Preaching, The’ 37 Love Poems (Tentative Title) 7
Imagism 81, 87 Low, Jackson Mac 49
improvisation 151–65 Lowell, Robert 3, 15, 47n.16, 68n.11, 138, 159
‘In Memory of My Feelings’ 2, 12, 49, 55, 67, Lowney, John 44–5
68n.11, 69, 70–3, 74, 88, 91–6, 99, Lucie Smith, Edward 15, 145, 158, 167
118–19, 178–80 Lunch Poems 7
‘In the Pearly Green Light’ 14 Lynch, Kevin 58
Inge, Thomas M. 190
Machor, James 64n.7
Jackson, Peter 32n.6 Mackie, Alwynne 156
Jameson, Fredric 21, 42, 44, 45, 56, 57, 71, 177 Mailer, Norman 34
‘Jane Awake’ 124 Malina, Judith 154–5
Jarrell, Randall 3 Mallarmé, Stefan 46
Jencks, Charles 42n.13 ‘Un Coup de Dés’ 85
‘Joe’s Jacket’ 14, 74, 148n.7 Mamiya, Christin J. 30
‘John Button Birthday’ 126 Mandiargues, André Pieyre de 47m.16
Johns, Jasper 50, 187, 188, 193n.15 Marinetti, Filippo Tommasso 167
‘Painted Bronze’ 187 Martin, Robert 105–6, 108
Johnson, Barbara 191 Marx, Karl 157
Jost, Ekkehard 164 Massey, Doreen 55
Joyce, James 47n.16 Mattachine Society 110–11
Mayakovsky, Vladimir 46, 186n.11
Kameny, Frank 111 McCabe, Cynthia Jaffee 188
Kerouac, Jack 2, 47n.16, 52, 138, 157, 158 McClure, Mike 47n.16
Khrushchev, Nikita 28, 143 McCray, Porter 25
Kikel, Rudy 18, 108, 128, 129, 130 McLuhan, Marshall 57
Kirby, Kathleen M. 56 Meditations in An Emergency 7
Kline, Franz 7, 21, 41n.12, 156 ‘Meditations in an Emergency’ 54, 162
Koch, Kenneth 2, 3, 4, 7, 20, 29, 29n.5, 47n.16, ‘Meditations on an Emergency’ 162
98n.9, 138, 149, 157, 158, 160, 162, Miller, J. Hillis 102–3n.3
164n.12, 167, 189 mirror 12–13
‘Fresh Air’ 3, 167 Mitchell, Joan 183, 184n.9
‘To You’ 82 ‘Evenings on 73rd Street’ 184n.9
‘Variations on a Theme by William Carlos ‘Ladybug’ 184n.9
Williams’ 45 ‘Metro’ 184n.9
Koestenbaum, Wayne 190–1 Mitchell, Joan 3
Kress, Gunther 142, 169 Mitchell, W.J.T. 169, 170
Kuspit, Donald B. 19n.3 Molesworth, Charles 17, 29
Moramarco, Fred 168
‘”L’Amour Avait Passé Par Là”’ 160 Motherwell, Robert 7, 155
‘Lana Turner has collapsed’ 159 ‘Music’ 31
Lang, Bunny 8, 132 ‘My Heart’ 160
Lash, Scott 32n.7, 32n.8 Myers, John Bernard 3
Last Clean Shirt, The (film) 7
Lehan, Richard 71n.14 ‘Naphtha’ 160
Lehman, David 3, 4, 17 Nash, Ogden 47n.16
Leja, Michael 156, 176n.3 Nelson, Ted 12
Leslie, Alfred 3, 7, 160, 183, 184n.9 New American Poetry, The 3
‘Flag Day’ 184n.9 New Criticism 17
‘None’ 184n.9 New World Writing 63
‘Quartet #1’ 184n.9 New York School of painters 7, 167
LeSueur, Joe 8, 16, 47n.16, 51, 124n.8, 158, New York School of poets 2, 3, 4, 29, 41, 82,
159, 163–4 138, 141, 157
Leutze, Emanuel: ‘Washington Crossing The Newman, Barnett 7, 18, 20, 156
Delaware’ 185 Nielsen, Aldon 35–6
Levertov, Denise 47n.16 Nixon, President 143
Lewis, C. Day 47n.16 ‘Notes on Second Avenue’ 16, 179n.6,
Libby, Anthony 168, 178, 184 186n.11
Lichtenstein, Roy 175, 175n.2, 183
‘Woman with Flowered Hat’ 176 ‘Ode en salut aux poètes nègres françaises’ 160
Lima, Frank 47n.16 ‘Ode on Causality’ 11, 12, 55, 161
Lippard, Lucy R. 175n.2, 183 ‘Ode: Salute to the French Negro Poets’ 35, 36,
‘Little Elegy for Antonio Machado’ 161 38, 77n.16, 136, 160
Index 229

‘Ode (‘To Joe LeSueur) on the Arrow that Flieth ‘Autumn Rhythm’ 176, 179
by Day’ 163 ‘Blue Poles’ 176
‘Ode To Joy’ 78, 133 ‘Male and Female’ 97n.8
‘Ode to Michael Goldberg (’s Birth and Other ‘Shimmering Substance’ 23
Births) 12, 79, 114–15, 120, 162, 178 Pop Art 49, 167, 168, 170, 174–87, 192
‘Ode to Willem De Kooning 16 Pop Camp 182, 183
Odes 7 Porter, Fairfield 3, 183n.9
Oldenburg, Claes 175n.2 ‘Jimmy and John’ 184n.9
Olson, Charles 2, 15, 47, 47n.16, 47n.17, 82, Porter, Katherine Anne 24
138 positioning 20–4
‘Kingfisher, The’ 13 Postmodernism 2, 20–4, 41–5
‘Projective Verse’ 3, 157 Pound, Ezra 29n.5, 47n.16, 48, 58n.3, 146
‘On Rachmaninoff ’s Birthday #158’ 163 ‘Present’ 160
‘On Seeing Larry Rivers’ Washington Crossing protopolitical 23
the Delaware at the Museum of Modern Proust, Marcel 46, 83
Art’ 185
ONE 110 Ra, Sun 153
Ong, Walter 137 racial difference 33–8
Open Theatre 50, 155 ‘Radio’ 145, 161
Rasmussen, Waldo 159n.11
Padgett, Ron 3, 189 Rauschenberg, Robert 50, 187, 188
‘Painting’ 161 ‘Bed’ 187
Paradise Now 155 Reich, Steve 157
Parker, Alice 4 Reinhardt, Ad 20
Partisan Review 77 ‘Returning’ 131
Passos, John Dos 24 Reverdy, Pierre 46
Pasternak, Boris 47n.16 ‘Rhapsody’ 52, 55, 63, 64–7, 149, 150, 183
‘Pastoral Dialogue, A’ 125 rhizomatic structure 12
Patton, Paul 56 Riding, Laura 47n.16
Peirce, C.S. 168 Riesman, David 33
performativity 33–8, 139–51 Rilke, Rainer Maria 46
Perloff, Marjorie 4, 11, 18, 47, 81, 168, 178, Rimbaud, Arthur 46
183, 188–9 Rivers, Larry 3, 7, 8, 11n.1, 37, 49, 158, 160,
‘Personal Poem’ 148–9, 161 175, 180, 183–4, 186n.10, 188, 189, 191,
personalised hyperpolitics 16, 20, 22, 38 192, 193
personalised politics 25 ‘Greatest Homosexual, The’ 187
Personism 48 ‘Lampman Loves It’ 187
‘Personism: A Manifesto’ 39, 143 ‘Parts of the Body, English Vocabulary Lesson’
Picasso, Pablo 176 187
Pile, Steve 56, 62, 71 ‘Washington Crossing the Delaware’ 185
Plath, Sylvia 3, 15 Robbe-Grillet, Alain 47n.16
‘Cut’ 83 Robie, Burton Aldrich 4n.1, 47n.16
‘Daddy’ 25 Rollins, Sonny 164
‘Mirror’ 13 Rosenberg, Harold 2, 155, 156
‘Morning Song’ 83–4 Rosenquist, James 175
‘Poem: All the mirrors in the world’ 13 Ross, Andrew 18, 23, 24, 25, 26, 26n.4, 27, 31,
‘Poem en Forme de Saw’ 160 33n.9. 37, 63, 107, 113, 131n.11, 182
‘Poem: Hate is only one of many responses’ 10, Rothko, Mark 7, 156
12, 146, 160 Rutherford, Jonathan 68n.12
‘Poem: I don’t know as I get what D.H.
Lawrence is driving at’ 160 ‘Saint’ 160
‘Poem: I ran through the snow like a young ‘Savoy’ 160
Czarevitch!’ 117–18 Sandler, Irving 180n.7
‘Poem: Khrushchev is coming on the right day!’ Sarraute, Nathalie 47n.16
27, 161 Schuyler, James 3, 4, 47n.16, 159
‘Poem Read at Joan Mitchell’s’ 77, 160 Schwitters, Kurt 167
‘Poem: The eager note on my door’ 78 Second Avenue 7
‘Poem: There I could never be a boy’ 116–17 ‘Second Avenue’ 30, 43, 48, 82, 158, 160, 178,
‘Poem: Twin spheres full of fur and noise’ 121 179, 180, 181
‘Poem: When I am feeling depressed and Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky 18, 103, 104, 125, 190
anxious sullen’ 129 Seidler, Victor J. 114n.6
Poems Retrieved 8 Selected Poems 8
‘Poetry is not (an) instruments’ 161 Shapiro, David 16, 188
Pollock, Jackson 7, 20, 135, 155, 156, 157, 178, Shelley, Percy B.: ‘Ode to the West Wind’ 164n.12
179–80, 181 Sherrod, Drury 126, 126n.10
230 Index

Silliman, Ron 180 ‘“Unfinished”, The’ 15, 132


Simpson, Louis 26n.4 ‘US’ 192–4
Slade, Diana 142 U.S.A. Poetry: Frank O’Hara and Ed Saunders 160
‘Sleeping on the Wing’ 74, 159
Smith, David 7, 20
Van Gogh, Vincent 177
Snyder, Gary 47n.16
‘Song’ 133 Van Leeuwen, Theo 169
Sontag, Susan 107, 182 Vendler, Helen 17
‘Notes On Camp’ 106 Verlaine, Paul 46
Southgate, Patsy 8 ‘V.R. Lang’ 132
Spacks, Patricia Meyer 142, 143n.3
Spender, Stephen 47n.16 Ward, Geoff 3, 4, 10, 18, 23, 26n.4, 35,
Spenser, Sir Edmund 44 87n.5
splintered self 13–14
‘St. Bridget’s Hymn to Willem de Kooning’ Warhol, Andy 175, 175n.2, 176, 177n.4, 184
188n.13 ‘Blue Liz as Cleopatra’ 177
Standing Still and Walking in New York 7 ‘Four Campbell’s Soup Cans’ 177
‘Statement for The New American Poetry’ 39, ‘Marilyn’ 177
51, 181 Warren, Vincent 8, 51, 120, 129
Stedman, Lorna 38n.11 ‘Washington Square’ 112
Steffens, Lincoln 24 Weber, Ben 8, 32n.8
Stein, Gertrude 38n.11, 46, 47n.16, 103, 167 ‘Weekend, The’ 136
Steiner, Wendy 168, 169
‘Step Away from Them, A’ 32–3, 46, 49, 58n.3, Wesselman, Tom 175, 175n.2
59–60, 62, 63, 161, 181 West, Nathaniel 24
‘Steps’ 144 Whalen, Philip 47n.16
Stevens, Wallace 44, 52 Whitman, Walt 64, 66, 72, 103, 108
‘Rabbit as King of the Ghosts, A’ 85 ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’ 46
Stich, Sidra 193–4n.15 ‘Mannahatta’ 46
Stones 191–4 ‘Why I Am Not a Painter’ 170–4
‘structure of feeling’ 21
Wieners, John 47n.16
surbols 29, 147, 182
Surrealism 81, 81n.2, 86, 87, 87n.5, 167 Wilbur, Richard 3, 138
Symbolism 47n.16, 81, 87 Wilde, Oscar 38, 39, 40, 46, 105, 131
synecdoche 81–5 Williams, Emmett 167
syntactic ambiguity 11 Williams, Raymond 21, 22
Williams, William Carlos 44, 48, 52, 87, 138,
Tannen, Deborah 151 146, 164n.12
Taylor, Cecil 153, 154 ‘Poem’ 87–8
Taylor, Elizabeth 177
‘Red Wheelbarrow, The’ 88
‘Terrestrial Cuckoo, A’ 37
‘Thanksgiving’ 160 Wilson, Edmund 24
Thomas, Dylan 47n.16 Wilson, Elizabeth 54n.1
Thomson, Virgil 8 Wirth-Nesher, Hana 62n.6, 64n.7
‘Those Who Are Dreaming, A Play About St. ‘With Barbara Guest in Paris’ 161
Paul’ 147 ‘With Barbara in Paris’ 161
‘To a Friend’ 120 Wolf, Reva 150n.9, 174, 177
‘To Gottfried Benn’ 161 Wolff, Christian 154, 184
‘To Larry Rivers’ 166
‘To The Film Industry in Crisis’ 33, 131–2, 133, Wolff, Douglas 47n.16
145 Woods, Tim 22–3
‘To You’ 161 Wordsworth, William 44
Tolstoy, Leo 47n.16 Wright, Richard 24
Tristano, Lennie 153 Wyatt, Thomas 46, 146
Trotter, David 150n.9
‘True Account of Talking to The Sun at Fire Yeats, W.B. 47n.16
Island’ 15
‘You are Gorgeous and I’m Coming’ 165
Try! Try! 7
‘Two Dreams of Waking’ 120 Young, Iris Marion 75
Tyler, Parker 81n.2
Tzara, Tristan 167 Zurbrugg, Nicholas 42–3

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