. . . Frank O'Hara

. . .

"Life is distracting and uncertain,"

She said, and went to draw the curtain.

Continuing our series of interesting Campus Connections, we note that those kings of casual chic Edward Gorey and Frank O'Hara roomed together during their sophomore and junior years at Harvard.

"He had friends in the Music Department who actually accused me of having corrupted Frank, like in some turn-of-the-century novel." -- Edward Gorey
Leaving aside their overlapping interests in scandal, ballet, pictures-with-text, French poetry, comfortable shoes, and things to do on a rainy Sunday, Gorey was perhaps the only artist whose ouevre might conceivably have incorporated without noticeable strain a portrayal of accidental death by dune buggy on Fire Island....

. . .

Continental Divide

Excerpts from a poem by Frank O'Hara

what does San Francisco have
that we don't have
a volunteer Fire Department and a Skid Row
you're like a wall that shuts out all the sunshine from the park
I don't want to be but I am

Look, a knife has just dropped into the ocean.

Frank O'Hara
Jack Spicer Excerpts from a letter by Jack Spicer

any letter written from/to NYC is full of worms.

They made it utterly impossible to identify God. They purged history of contemporary reference.

Religion is the shadow of the obvious. On holidays you can see the shadow that the thing casts.

When you rush bravely against the mirror shouting 'This is also my universe' you are likely merely to get a bloody nose. That surface has no patience with violence.

... the violence of the impatient artist

. . .

Le bateau ivre

Drunk Boat

As I went down on the impassive Rivers,
I didn't smell myself any more....

. . .


Natalie Schulhofer sends us an update from that other Times:

A report in the At the Movies column of Weekend on Friday about the death of
the Hong Kong actor Leslie Cheung, who played a police academy graduate in
John Woo's film "A Better Tomorrow," misidentified the actor who played
his older brother. That actor was Ti Lung, not Chow Yun Fat.

Which should serve nicely as icebreaker in the big hangoverless cocktail party in the sky when Cheung meets Joe LeSueur:

FIRST CHAPTER: Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O'Hara, By KINKY FRIEDMAN

Speaking of whom, in still another Times, Mary Ann Gwinn & Michael Upchurch tell us about "the books most likely to provoke, intrigue and inspire [but pointedly not 'inform'] us this season":

"The Art of Burning Bridges: A Life of John O'Hara" by Geoffrey Wolff (Knopf). The novelist-memoirist ("Providence," "The Duke of Deception") examines the life and career of novelist John O'Hara ("Appointment in Samara," "Butterfield 8"), the 1940s-'50s writer whose star is back on the rise. This biography follows the April publication of a memoir by O'Hara's lover: "Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O'Hara" by Joe LeSueur (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).

. . .

Physics assures us that if the artist is to produce a viable artifact distinct from the artist, external assistance is required. Such supplements of idiot intention we call "the Muses." (Or, equivalently, "radio transmissions from Mars.")

They're often at odds with dignity as well as conscious intent: Van Morrison's dour Ulster affect 1 jerked down hill and up alley by the loping Irish wolfhound of his vocal impulse; Zukofsky backed into La Parfumerie's stacked display of zebra-fragrance by the words, the words, the tintinnabulation that so Tin-Pan-Alley blurts from the words, words, words, words, words, words, words.

Sometimes the top of the head comes off; sometimes the trousers fall down. What inclines the individual toward one startle effect over another?

1. A countryman, rustic, or peasant.
  1563 BALDWIN Mirr. Mag., Rivers xliv, The cloyne contented can not be With any state.

    b. Implying ignorance, crassness, or rude manners: A mere rustic, a boor.
  1848 MACAULAY Hist. Eng. I. 320 Language..such as we should now expect to hear only from the most ignorant clowns.

I've written before about the class lines obscured under the Modernist blanket. "Modernism" was a defense of endangered privilege, but "Modernism" was also an attempt to prove that one could fit into an imagined meritocracy, that one was more than one's slum.

Although I wouldn't claim that the aesthetic is atemporal, by definition it's antitemporal. Attempting to confine such a formulation to a particular range of "modernist" years will make it squirt out between one's fingers and all over one's nice dress shirt. Class trauma had something to do with Joyce's move from solemn epiphany to sarcastic sentiment, yes, but it also helps explain Hans Christian Andersen's risky move from hifalutin novels to the ecstatically naked resentment and shame of his fairy tales. And Jerome McGann argues that John Keats 2 anticipated Frank O'Hara's insolent mingling of low and high diction.

As for "Postmodernism," it's not like verse regained its eighteenth-century position in the cultural mainstream after World War II ended. If you want to be a contemporary countertenor, you'd better have a sense of humor about it.

(Not that I've ever met a countertenor who did.)

1 My favorite example of Muse as obnoxious practical joker isn't anything from Hopkins or Zukofsky, but fireplug Van Morrison advising his "Ballerina" to "fly it; sigh it; come on and diet."
2 In Yeats's indelibly cruel description, "the coarse-bred son of a livery stablekeeper" "with face and nose pressed to a sweet-shop window."

. . .

Now it feels all lumped up again.. JAIL

Lawrence L. White writes that our recent serial on comic poetry glanced off a thought much on his mind:

What if the non-sequitur were a legitimate figure of speech?

I take this thought to be a lesson of Gertrude Stein's work. I'm sure Mr. Weinberger counts Stein among the better angels. "Cubist simultaneity" would be her invite to the party. But one thing perplexes me about his list of virtues: two of them are based directly on pictures, and maybe even the third (one creative writing teacher suggested to us that dreams were more like rebuses than stories). None of them are about language. & I thought the lesson we all got from Cezanne was that your medium was the truest path into the problem.

[...] I do mean the "what if" part seriously. There's an odd triumphalism to a lot of Language poetry proponence. As if it really did move mountains. Now I'm not saying that Stein wasn't one heck of a triumphalist, but the parts I like (there are plenty available) are when she's wondering if she's managed to get her latest contraption off the ground yet & if so how long it's going to stay airborne.

Seriously or not, I'm not sure a what-if is necessary. The non-sequitur, like other approaches to nonsense, is already "a legitimate figure of speech" in the living language. It only seems exceptional within the bounds of purposefully restricted discourses such as funeral orations, or shareholder reports. To bring it into those restricted areas isn't to overcome the quotidian but to enrich (or corrupt) with the quotidian.

True, the power fantasies of poets and theorists (and science fiction writers and superhero comics and hiphop MCs and so on) are laughable. But, far from being an attack or a defeat, deflation reveals the true nature of their achievements.

And, as you say, worrying aloud about the impression one's making while in the midst of purposefully restricted discourse is a deflationary technique mastered by Gertrude Stein as well as Robert Benchley. (Which may hint at why my readings of Derrida have been unusually benign.)

I'm aware of my tongue! Unable to stop fretting about one's own place in one's own medium -- doesn't that send us back to Cézanne's school?

Before and beyond any other response they might elicit, Manet's paintings (like Stein's writings) were funny, mocked (more-or-less warmly) even by friends and supporters. Accordingly, the affections of caricaturists and parodists often sided with their irresistible target rather than with their hostile employers. Marcel Duchamp said that when he was a cartoonist hanging out with other cartoonists (not to insinuate that Duchamp ever stopped being a cartoonist), "The conversation centered above all on Manet. The great man that he was." Or, in Baudelaire's reassuring words, "the first in the decrepitude of your art."

I'm trying to avoid terms like "Postmodernism" -- John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, found the lyric stance as distressingly risible as Frank O'Hara or Jack Spicer ever did. But I suppose it might be true that one would need ever higher doses of delusion to avoid self-consciousness after the printer's devil has stopped tapping at the casement window for new installments. Just us and the medium, all alone by the telephone.

. . .

Flogging the Dead Bardic Mule, concluded

In a work-in-progress, John Holbo applies to contemporary theorists a quote from William Empson, describing John Donne's appeal:

"'Argufying' is perhaps a tiresomely playful word, but it makes my thesis more moderate; I do not deny that thoroughly conscientious uses of logic could become a distraction from poetry. Argufying is the kind of arguing we do in ordinary life, usually to get our own way.... This has always been one of the things people enjoy in poems; and it can be found in every period of English literature."
Holbo, Auerbach, White: What all three of these readers dislike in contemporary academic cultural writing is the stultifying reign of a few approved flavors of argufying. Myself, I think I'd be pleased with any of these outcomes, since I think all of them are capable of producing more of what I enjoy.

The thing about cycles of fashion, though, is that even when you know they're inevitable and fun and all that, you can't really summon up hearty enthusiasm for tight skirts and high heels the third time round. (I mean, not if you like women to be able to walk places.) A dose of Empson might be healthy for kids nowadays, but I associate him with a stultifying effect of his own: snobbish conservatism, with many a dismissal of post-Portrait James Joyce, and medicine-man William Carlos Williams the only barbarian allowed through the institutional gates.

Remembering that Empson was Donne imitator before Donne critic, let's think a bit about that argufication of his.

A poem was once just another way to deliver a message. For some time now, though, a poem has instead been above all else a poetic artifact: the form is the essential thing about it, for reader and writer both. (Have you ever noticed how many twentieth-century-plus poems mention the words "poetry" or "poem"? I recommend that you don't, 'cause once you start, it's irritating as a neighbor who plays the same Rush album every day.) That's a very different experience of poetry. And, like it or not, it's the one we've got. When was the last time that even a poet had their opinion swayed by a political poem, for example?

When Jack Spicer or Frank O'Hara "plead their case" in a poem, they acknowledge (miserably or lightly) the scare quotes: no one will really be swayed by their plea; their case isn't really the case of the poem; in fact, the poem frankly doesn't care about them one way or the other. When the New Critic poets plead their case in a poem, they sound like they expect us to pretend that they hope someone will believe them, and to give them extra credit for attempting the delusion. That's a lot of zombie-raising to go through just to hear some melodious groans.

. . .


Welcome back to the only web journal where errata outnumber entries! As you can see by this illustration of my earliest exercise in community building, it comes natural.

Donald O'Connor! thou should'st be living at this hour. Yes, Francis walks again, and it's all my fault for tying everything up in red ribbon. Next in line to unknot the bow with a single tug is Jake Wilson, The Hardest Working Co-Editor in Online Film Journals:

As a sucker for general aesthetics I've been following your recent series with interest, but while people are jumping in I thought I might as well say a word in defence of William Empson, who wrote sympathetically about Ulysses on several occasions, and as far as "stultifying conservatism" goes was no Eliot, or Winters for that matter.

Also, for the sake of argument, or argufication, I don't know if I agree that "a poem was once just another way to deliver a message." This bypasses the difficulties of separating message and medium - Sam Goldwyn said you could send a message by calling Western Union, but a declaration of love made that way might miss its mark. In any case the idea of poem-as-artifact rather than propaganda is at least as old as the lyric. It doesn't seem to me that Donne's "arguments", which are fanciful in the extreme, are meant to be taken any more literally than Frank O'Hara's; his rhetoric seduces better than it reasons, and typically the extravagant nonsense of the reasoning (e.g. in "The Sun Rising") is part of the seductive charm. That isn't "thinking" in the sense that Kant is a thinker, but viewing abstract system-building as the only legitimate mode of thought is like believing in I.Q. tests; wisdom takes many forms, and it's obtuse to maintain that the only people we learn it from are philosophers.

Empson, by the way, said somewhere that he didn't think poems were made of words, but rather "from the sort of joke you find in hymns". I'm not sure what he meant, but I still think he could have been right.

It was a mistake to drag twentieth-century poetry wars in as a mere argument capper a very pretty thought, but, you know, (sotto voce) not very B-R-I-G-H-T, poor thing.

Also I shouldn't talk any more trash about Empson till I'm ready to do it to his face.

PF managed to find time on the way to his appointment with doom to decode my Sister Noon non-review:

But you'll admit Flaubert did a hell of a job with Saint Julian and Saint Antoine.
I will admit it! Good lord, PF, how did you know?

I'll also admit that I tried to fit both into the piece, but decided it was already too lumpy and squirmy to hold any more digressions. (The digression would've been that neither are recognizably part of the historical fiction genre, "Julian" being fairy tale and Antoine being my favorite single New Wave SF Postmodernist Screenplay [ideally realized by Raul Ruiz, Harry Dean Stanton, and a 94-million-dollar budget].)

Finally, an anonymous reader summed affairs up nicely with the single comment:

its all very well its just not very good

I could live with that as an epitaph.

. . .

Intermediate Hedonics

"You must learn to choose between right and wrong."
"Right and wrong? But how will I know?"
"'How will he know'! Your conscience will tell you."
"What are conscience?"
"'What are conscience?'! I'll tell ya! A conscience is that still small voice that people won't listen to."
- The Blue Fairy, Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket
In practice it is seldom very hard to do one's duty when one knows what it is, but it is sometimes exceedingly difficult to find this out. The difficulty is, however, often reducible into that of knowing what gives one pleasure, and this, though difficult, is a safer guide and more easily distinguished.

Why I should have been at the pains to write such truisms I know not.

- Samuel Butler

Pleasure, like pain, is a signal to pay attention.

Attract the attention of a verbosely analytical person and you get verbal analysis. Pleasure is not the only thing in life. It's not even the most important thing. But for a critic it's the pertinent thing.

And so I've been puzzled by its absence in most academic criticism, perhaps because such euphemisms as "jouissance" and "cosmic laughter" make me queasy. As critic, it seems to me I have a singular code of ethic: To remain true to pleasure, no matter how embarrassing or inconvenient that may be. To betray that is to betray the entire enterprise. I can no more know what's going on in art if I ignore pleasure than I can know my own sexuality or my own diet.

I realize, of course, in an unhappy sort of way, that not everyone feels that way that for some people, sexuality is what it would be dangerous not to profess, and diet is what they've had all their lives in abundance, and what's artistically interesting is what's come out most recently, or what everyone in their social set is talking about, or what they need to advance their career, or what they've been assigned to review. And clearly I can't agree with Kant that the Beautiful is somehow more universally valid than the Pleasant, or follow the tenuous corollary that greater Universal Beauty is carried by art that is scrubbed of all but artiness. For someone in my unattractive $20 shoes, aesthetic relativism, like ethical relativism, isn't just another doctrine on special in the marketplace of ideas, but an obstinate fact that must somehow be lived with.

When it seems I assault the validity of your pleasure, I intend only to express my own pain. It genuinely saddens that Spielberg never fulfilled the promise of Sugarland Express and genuinely infuriates that Saving Private Ryan so gulled me. Conversely, what are we supposed to do when someone argues against the possibility of taking pleasure in Frank O'Hara? Need we sully our cause by championing it on the villein's own chosen battlefield? Or can we nod and smile and leave the laborer sweatily building their model-hell-kit in model-heaven-kit's despite? My own impulse is to point towards my pleasure and state (firmly but politely, toujours the lady): "Nevertheless, it moves."


Un regard oblique directs us to an appropriate bit of foreword by W. S. Merwin.

Jordan Davis writes:

There used to be a parlor game (back when we had parlors): assigning personality type according to the phrase that comes to mind when O'Hara's "Personism" manifesto is mentioned. You have your "Mineola Prep" and "they do may" types needing to be reminded when they do and do not control a situation, your "bully for them" and "only Whitman and Crane and Williams... are better than the movies" people suffering from excessive well-adjustment (probably not standard English), your "nostalgia *for* the infinite" and "life-giving vulgarity" people (probably the best poets of the bunch), and of course your "not Roi, by the way, a blond" and "Lucky Pierre" types, who went to Brown.

As for Aaron of Godofthemachine and his dubious "poetry scans" proposition, generally I find I'm better off not striking up a conversation with someone with fists raised to strike me.

Aaron himself protests he's no fighter, even if he's not always a lover. So far I follow him, having denied that dichotomy in the paragraph that linked him. He also protests that his attacks on (what seem to him) artlessness have nothing to do with pleasure, art being a discipline akin to civil engineering. My dissent is the topic (such of it is) of this (meandering and frankly disappointing) series: Art is unknowable except by pleasure; when previously held notions of "what's allowed" can't take into account one's pleasure in an artwork, it's a sign that the notions need to be rethought, not that the art is bad; the critic's noblest job is to undertake such rethinking, John Latta on O'Hara a convenient case in point.

. . .

Good Books from the English Department

Book reviewing don't come natural to me, but the call of politeness sometimes vanquishes nature's. In gratitude for John Latta's pointer, here are two other recent publications which deserve talking up.

  1. Hart Crane : After His Lights by Brian M. Reed

    Beneath his bright candy coating, Hart Crane can be a tough nut to crack. This is the best appreciation-analysis I've seen. If Reed occasionally repeats himself or overstates his case, well, that may be pedagogically necessary. When we limit the force of our expressions to reflect their validity, most readers and listeners miss the point entirely; for the object to be noticed, the mirror must magnify.

    Polemic and expository, Part One mimics the form and mocks the spirit of those "And here's how a feminist talks about Wordsworth" menangeries by showing how both the attractions and screw-ups of Crane's work and life refuse to fit any theoretical structure, academic trend by trend.

    Part Two spins a more idiosyncratic yarn, drawing Crane's lyric and then epic work from his "undertheorized" peculiarities. For instance, he may have been the first writer capable of appending a playlist to each publication. Sure, competitors like Pound, Eliot, and Zukofsky liked to compare their major undertakings to music. But by "music" they didn't mean "The Moon Shines on the Moonshine" at top volume on infinite repeat. (You can get a good taste of this part from "Hart Crane's Victrola" if you have access to Project MUSE or know someone who does.)

    Part Three moves into influence studies less profitably, partly because there's less profit to be had and partly because Reed wants to include lack of influence as a topic. (Non-influence studies could become a horrifically growing field.) Still, it gives him an excuse to get off some good ones about Frank O'Hara.

  2. Why We Read Fiction : Theory of Mind and the Novel by Lisa Zunshine

    As I've noted before, one reason to get older is so instead of dying sad about what we couldn't accomplish we can die happy about someone else accomplishing them. ("Then you can do the work for me," as the poet sang.) For almost as long as I've wanted to write a fantasy epic starring Jack Spicer, I've wanted to write a series of pieces called "Fiction Science" where tidbits from the cognitive sciences (social and developmental psychology as well as the neurosciences) would seed literary speculation. And here's an ex-Russian named Zunshine taking care of it!

    She doesn't include much science, but a little goes a long way with case studies.

    The little she takes are our human need and capacity to track attribution and reliability, and our mammalian impulse to play with our needs and capacities. Those are enough to explain much of the appeal of fiction, particularly written fiction.

    As a professionally literary reader, Zunshine tends to dwell on edge cases. S'OK; she acknowledges them as such, makes their edginess part of the point, and chooses contrasting edges: The first half of the volume looks at attribution games that many readers find too difficult to follow (the heroes of Clarissa and Lolita); the second half at attribution games that many readers find too artificial to care about (the detective mystery genre).

    It's a short book (with an even shorter version online). And despite its comically overblown title, she wrote it without the lookit-me handwaving of Franco Moretti's or Nancy Armstrong's recent loud-and-skinnies in fact, she writes as well as a good blogger.

    By which I don't mean me. Making complicated things seem simple's not a skill I possess, just a skill I respect.


Simultan kindly forwarded from the TLS a brief demonstration that chatty application of a few easily digested ideas to some engaging particulars will not satisfy a seeker of rigorously theoretical manifestos. Fair enough. For myself, I hope there's room in criticism for both, and more.

(I don't suppose the TLS much less the NYRB or the NYTBR will take any notice of the Hart Crane book, since it's neither a biography nor a lament that nobody reads poetry any more.)

Josh Lukin inquires:

Ian Matthews was a poet?

Inspired by what inspires poets, anyway. "Silver moon sail up and silver moonshine..."

Paul Kerschen breaks the curse of silence:

Just wanted to thank the good people at for the heads-up on the Hart Crane book; I requisitioned it from the library this past week and found it a real treat to read, especially the middle section. I admit that I zipped pretty quickly through the final influence-studies part, but the back-and-forth from scansion and syntax to the poetics of the Victrola was a real bravura performance. Among other things, it made me feel rather better about the possibility of writing that kind of book for a living. (And if Swinburne's never gonna be one of my favorite poets, I'm still glad to see that not everyone followed up on Eliot's excommunication of him.)

In Philosophy and Literature 30.2 (2006), Brian Boyd has published a much better dissing of Zunshine than the TLS managed. Regarding my own more positive response, I can only point to the influence of low expectations. (Maybe another reason I mentioned "good bloggers"?)

. . .

Jeepers, Creepers, and Peepers

"The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde" by Sianne Ngai,
Critical Inquiry Summer 2005, Vol. 31, Issue 4

Aesthetic theorists and researchers traditionally start from the Beautiful and Sublime. Having tangled questions of taste with investigations of experience, they then traditonally fall face-first into complete muddle.

So, as simultan kindly surmised I would, I like what Ngai's doing with Minor Aesthetic Categories. All I have to add to her essay relates to what it specifically isn't about. I mean, it says "the Avant-Garde" right in the title; I can't complain I was misled. But I think its High Art focus leads it to romanticize, overstate the centrality of, and miss some distinctions in cute-directed violence.

* * *

Impugning sincerity is tricky business. Goths genuinely are cute, and I'm sure as many kids go to art school because they're goths as the other way round. Nevertheless, sincere or not, there's no challenge when a contemporary fine-artist brutalizes the cute, or pretends it's a menace. In some cases, as Ngai kind of admits, it's macho-brat kicking against being perceived as trivial. In a lot of cases, it's just a cut-rate version of surrealism's habitual degradation of the desired. In all cases, it's currently easier to market "edgy" than "adorable".

In contrast, I admire Joe Brainard and Frank O'Hara for the conviction of their cuteness for refusing to buckle under fear of what the guys would say.

There are other artists, true, some inside, some outside high art circles, that I admire for the conviction with which they beat cuteness up. These come in two flavors.

  1. Kids who torture and maim their own toys. There's a lot of self-loathing in the play. Two obvious (and contrasting) examples from underground comix would be Vaughn Bodé and Rory Hayes.
  2. Kids who torture and maim other kids' toys. Here resentment is more important than identification: Tex Avery's sympathies didn't lie with the Disneyesque Sammy Squirrel. Although partly inspired by a photo of the director as an ugly baby, I have to believe similar hostility fueled the most hideous of all cuteness desecrations: Bob Clampett's original Tweety Bird. With its huge eyes and feet, sticky nakedness, and horrid leer, the creature's regressed past fluffy chick to fertilized egg: NEOTENY GONE TOO FAR.
Lizard About to Blow Balls Off at Flower: Vaughn Bode
Type 1
Shit-Eating Grin: Bob Clampett unit
Type 2

* * *

cute, a. 2. (orig. U.S. colloq. and Schoolboy slang.) Used of things in same way as CUNNING a. 6.

Gertrude Stein's book answered the riddle "What's cuter than a button?" Minima Moralia, on the other hand, I'd call cunning.

As those near synonyms (and as shithouse rats) indicate, "acute"'s move to "cute" was aphetic but not antonymic. The cutey-pie's wide eyes and soft skin signal receptivity and resilience.

Cute Eugene the Jeep is quiet, sure, but also indestructible and omniscient. Doghouse Reilly is notoriously cute. Young John Wayne is by no means harmless, but he's observant, non-judgmental, and cute, whereas old John Wayne is damaged, vindictive, and decidedly not cute. When Charlie Chaplin shambles on broken at the end of City Lights, he's definitely harmless, but he's no longer cute.

In nineteenth century North America, where both usages began, I suppose an infant might've seemed "cunning" in its sheer makedness: the extent to which the infant manages to resemble a perfectly engineered doll. "What a piece of work is a baby!" But the OED's "acute" citations seem to instead point towards "sensitive to impressions" and "having nice or quick discernment."

The most surefire "Awwww!" shot in movies is the one which shows an audience of children spellbound by a movie. And here's Chris summarizing a recent study of folk comparative psychology:

The baby scored really high on experience (higher, in fact, than the adult humans, including "you"), but really low on agency. This seems to imply that people feel like babies are experiencing everything, but have no will. I'm not exactly sure what to make of that.

More than just the viewers' vulnerability associates aesthetic response with cuteness.


I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can, and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use silence, exile, and cute.

. . .

Have you read The Poetics of Coterie yet? It's quite articulate, very fine.

Nothing Personal, 4

What is hell? Hell is oneself,
Hell is alone, the other figures in it
Merely projections.

No particular technique or taste associates T. S. Eliot with post-1940 conservative American poetry. Only agreement on what poetry is, practically speaking, for:

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be....

What a silly complaint. Hamlet was a loser. We're supposed to feel sorry for you because you're not Hamlet? Who the hell would want to be Hamlet?

Answer: No one. But lots of us would want to act Hamlet. What rankles is not being John Barrymore on Tour, nor being meant to be.

Eliot's legacy: a nation of Malvolios performing air soliloquies in front of their mirror.

Whenas, opening up the cast, the best of the New York School were willing to play Sir Andrew, Feste, or Sir Toby Belch.

Consider their collaborations and plagiarisms, and imagine the scandal if Jarrell had ripped off a stanza of Lowell, or Sexton of Plath. In a democratized revival of manuscript culture and sprezzatura, these were social acts.

Try to reach directly from the alienated individual to the vasty universal and you're apt to sprain something. Instead, poets could escape solipsism by embracing and populating insularity. The lyric "I" presented a formal problem whose formal resolution wasn't so much supported by coterie as it expressed the music of the thing itself or, as Lytle Shaw put it, The Poetics of Coterie. 1

By that I don't mean to imply that all of O'Hara's or Mayer's best work, or any of Ashbery's or Guest's, is "occasional verse" in the traditional sense. Remember: This is New York. Is a momentous event upon us? Only with every little breath I take.

and you take a lot of dirt off someone
is the character less bad. no. it improves constantly
you don't refuse to breathe do you

I've acted perfectly dreadful, true, but why should I pretend to be so upset and expect you to be interested? I've acted perfectly dreadful at lots of parties.

Sure, it's an emergency; that doesn't mean it's serious.

Because (as the poet sang) every time you chase me down the street with a knife, it's a real special occasion.

1 You should listen to John Latta and Professor Bugg and read this book. The digest version doesn't do it justice.

Although I wonder whether it (much less I) can really add all that much to Peli Grietzer's two paragraphs:

It's a shame to make the I vanish though, rather turn it into a technicolor multipurpose toy to be interacted with for fun and profit. And I'm not just talking of poetry.

(Isn't that the lesson of O'Hara? I always thought that's the lesson of O'Hara.)


Peli responds with kind words followed by an understandable protest:

But, way unfair on Eliot!

It's hard to properly state my contention and I'm stuck with rabidly overstating it, so please downgrade its volume when reading : Starting to feel like I've had a linguistic error and in America Avant-Garde refers to a personality type -- vaguely correlated with the poet's aura being vigorous, excited and humanistic or stoically domestic (meanness is allowed in measured dosages, as long as it's a vigorous meanness) -- and has fuck all to do with one's approach to constructing texts. To you guys Paul Celan is probably indistinguishable from Anne Sexton.

Ah, but I didn't say that was all there was to Eliot I said that's what conservative poetry took from Eliot.

More generally, I agree I'm emphasizing personality here more than seems realistic. That's because I'm trying to balance my more ingrown tendency to overstate the possibility of pure formalism. (When I was eighteen, Frank O'Hara sounded like noise.) What counts as a correction in my own course would count as a wrong turn for some other navigator on some other trip.

It is the most shattering experience of a young man's life when he awakens and quite reasonably says to himself: "I will never play The Dane."

. . .

Nothing Personal, 5

What does it mean to talk about a poet's "voice"? Or to praise a poet's contribution or opposition to "diction"? Something about a poem in a particular context, context and poem held as a unit.... It's an intuition of vocabulary and aim, stops and breaks, approach and territory. It's what good parody flushes out of its home digs and into the open.

Whatever it is, what I wrote earlier didn't quite get it. Personality per se isn't the issue and depersonalization isn't the goal "depersonalizing"'s just another formula for sounding like a poet. Personality is undiscardable: it's not in our hands to discard, being a matter of how a subject is perceived. Posing or not, once the camera snaps, I'm captured in a pose. With all the will in the world, ideas seep into our things.

No, Marcel Duchamp wasn't trying to escape marcelduchampitude. What he disliked was not himself, but a certain rhetoric of self-presentation which leads to a certain social relation....

For example, to comments which read like a pro-anorexia support group's. Honestly pursued self-indulgence is a rare thing; what usually goes under that name is a desperate fraud of self- and peer-flattery. Jack Spicer's and Frank O'Hara's flatness "I am a real poet" opens up that window lets the bad air out.

Not that window openers necessarily benefit directly. Unhealthy as their verses sound to me, Duncan, Ginsberg, Berryman, and Lowell all outlived O'Hara and Spicer. A fresh expression of acerbic alcoholism is nicer than a stale one, but that doesn't make it safe to operate heavy machinery: you're still alone in a room with a hangover. The mostly-sober Objectivists were unusual in being able to take the matter of the contemporary lyric past how someone fucked you over, how you fucked someone else over, or how fucked up you are.

Which may in itself be enough to justify associating them with Language Poetry.


Sense of Doubt?
As much as their left-wing earnestness and their formal choices *what*?

I see what you mean. Would I could return the favor. I hope trimming the sentence helped a bit letting it grow didn't seem to.

Speaking of compression artifacts, I got an email this morning titled "GMT Book" and starting "Dear GMT Event Contributors," and I must've spent two minutes trying to remember when the hell we ever discussed time zones on the Valve.

. . .

Nothing Personal, 8

"But then Michael Palmer might not be a Language Poet. We won't know until he dies and they cut his heart open and see if L=A can be found there.... And the politics of it all is fascinating, but there are people who are much better equipped to speak about it than I am. You might want to go and talk to some of them about it, if you're interested."
- David Bromige

Note: The following is based on second-hand hints and third-hand extrapolations. That is, it's gossip. And since I'm art-for-art's by nature, it's not even good gossip. But my essay's carried me out of my depth, and in this deep water I'll paddle. Feel free to administer a little paddling of your own.

I told my conversion narrative because it's not unique. (It's not interesting, either, but that wasn't why I told it.) For me it happened in 1989; for others it happened in 1982 or in 1999, or it will happen in 2007. All that changes is the number of precursors and passersby clumped into the Katamari Damacy of "Language Poetry".

No conspiracy lies behind that phenomenom, and protests were futile. It's merely a side-effect of success, enthusiasm, and inattention. I've witnessed similar confusions in punk and hip-hop, and a recent museum show dedicated to "the Beats" included work by Frank O'Hara and Jess.

What distinguishes LangPo is the stability and range of its success. The Beats weren't moving by the time of that pleasant curatorial blunder; the Language Poets continue. And the formal advances responsible for that success were political ones:

Instead the group's glue is found in the non-poetic work of "poetics": self-publication, self-promotion, self-defense.... Creative members could parlay any diction they liked so long as they cooperated with the critical members. And, David Bromige aside, those critics weren't fooling around: they've been painfully sincere, with most of the pain directed outwards.

This community, like any community, coheres by selective memory and selective attention. I share a class background with Ron Silliman, and an allergy to academic power structures. Naturally we except our friends from our prejudices. Silliman, however, sometimes deploys those prejudices even in defense of his friends and despite the disposable incomes which back their publications. Then there's the contrast between Perelman's finger-wagging and high-fiving, and in another way Susan Howe sacrificing her own layouts while insisting on the primacy of Emily Dickinson's....

I don't mean to characterize them as villains in this history. (They are, after all, three of my favorite writers.) Conservatives and the old-garde haven't been shy about marking their dry discolored turfs, would-be Young Turks tried similar tactics, and when Bromige enlivened the Buffalo Poetics list, the mob who shouted him down wasn't led by his fellows. The Language Poets didn't invent the game: they only managed it better.

I do mean to imply that the game has a human cost. If I haven't heard versions of Luther Blissett's story quite as often as versions of my own, still I've heard them. And worse, the one-time-enemy may be appropriated: I remember some poet I respect (whose name I don't remember) being asked by someone somewhere if she considered herself a Language Poet, and her answering something like she wouldn't have minded but someone I respect less (whose name I also don't remember) said she wasn't Marxist enough. (As I warned, my gossiping skills are weak.) Then there's Benjamin Friedlander, often called a Language Poet because he paid them close attention, and scarred by them for the same reason.

Given the human payback, though, was it worth it? Could any avant-garde have managed the scarcity-economy of print better?

I don't know; I just hope the post-print world does.

* * *

The web hosts an economy of attention: Who's attended to? Who should I attend to?

It's one question with two faces, self-ish and other-ish, inseparable yet rarely perceived simultanously. We become two-faced in asking it. We lament the lack of attention paid our so worthwhile work and then spend a half-hour responding to an irksome comment made by someone who doesn't particularly interest us.

In the mailing lists, there was no way around it: you had to slog through mire to reach anything at all. While the web allows for greater selectivity and wider browsing, established algorithms steer us towards continued dysfunction. Jordan Davis may have closed Equanimity to focus on other projects, but (as usual) I fear the worst. And there's Gary Sullivan's recent comment....

The next innovation in American poetry might better target LangPo's social aspects than its lyric ones.



Mark me as a Luther Blissett story. Sure, I like\love 80% of first-gen LangPo, but would you speak as kindly of the things you rightfully mention to be the actual correlate of the LangPo appellation -- their theory, norms, critical language, self-definition of their practice, analysis of literary history? This aspect wasn't only lackluster, but managed to salt the earth rather thoroughly with unimpeachable dogmas, and as much as I love A.K.A and Sunset Debris it wasn't worth it.

It *isn't* worth it, even. Which is why I'm halfway to goodbye poetry hello video-games, and even though I probably won't, I'll always feel a little miserably about my field of interest\study in a way I never thought I would before I discovered that the guy who wrote Tjanting has essays.


A God's mask have ye hung in front of you, ye "pure ones": into a God's mask hath your execrable coiling snake crawled.
shiver down the spine


Turbulent Velvet extrapolates.

. . .

This'll put hair on your shirt

Prodigal son looks like a sweet gig but it's more dangerous than the brochures make out. The great mill-wheel won't keep turning without a stream of bad karma.

Like an anti-bodhisattva, to maintain self-image the confessional writer needs sins to slough off. Alcoholism's an indispensable occupational hazard, like coal dust for miners. You drink to forget what you learned the last time so you can relearn it in slightly different words.

That may be why Frank O'Hara stopped producing in his late thirties, after he got the big day job. The bitterness of the mean middle-aged drunk, so essential to a Lowell or Berryman, blocked his balancing act.


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.