While it is undisputable that contemporary American poetry is characterized by a great deal of diversity, the mainstream of American poetry is still dominated by the ubiquitous meditational free-verse poem. This type of poem is characterized by earnest attempts to craft small epiphanies out of inflated experiences and by a scarcely disguised determination to be poetic. Poems in this mode tend to come off as simultaneously pretentious and conventional. Stephen Burt, in "Poetry Criticism: What is it for?" notes that this meditational free-verse poetry, "third-generation American confessional poetry, poetry about the biographical and affective history of the self, by the mid-1980s had become omnipresent, exhausted, and dull" (paragraph 7).
These free-verse poems tend to be well crafted, characterized by an almost overwhelming desire to communicate a personal voice. Nevertheless, in spite of the poetic mainstream's near-glorification of personal voice, the voices present in most mainstream poetry journals are often scarcely distinguishable from one another. To read through many journals is to be inundated by these largely univocal and conventional meditational lyrics. The tendency of these free-verse meditations to resemble one another is summed up by Bruce Bawer, who observes in "Poetry and the University," "Read one poem after another in a recent Pushcart Prize volume, for instance, and the sameness of the voices will soon render you numb" (page 125).
The primary alternative form of writing currently set against poetry's free-verse mainstream is experimental writing in the tradition of the "Language" school of poetry. Informed by the poetics of theorists such as Charles Bernstein and Ron Silliman, contemporary language poetry (using the term "language poetry" loosely now, not as referring to the specific "Language" movement of the 1970s, but as it is commonly used to refer to experimental, difficult, process-oriented writing in general, including not only writers like Lyn Hejinian, Michael Palmer, and Leslie Scalapino, but numerous younger writers many of whom are connected in some way to the poetics program at SUNY-Buffalo who publish work in journals like Chain, Facture and New American Writing) is concerned with issues of theory and signification, indeterminacy and meaning making. While free-verse poetry tends to be earnest in its pursuit of lofty-yet-grounded epiphanies, language poetry is earnest in its attempt to interrogate language. While meditational free verse can be painfully obvious in its aims and meanings, language poetry tends to be elliptical, if not opaque and unapproachable.
Poet and essayist Joan Houlihan, in his article "I=N=C=O=H=E=R=EN=T: How Contemporary American Poets are Denaturing the Poem, Part II," which was recently featured on WebdelSol, criticizes language poetry as "wordplay, without the play" (paragraph 4). Unfortunately, this is too often the case. Language poetry itself is often less appealing than the theories behind it, and is often treated as secondary to theory. While language writing may have broken new poetic ground thirty years ago, most of it no longer merits the label "avant-garde." The term "experimental" often rings hollow in reference to this work. Ironically, much new language writing seems as exhausted as the poetic mainstream. As Burt asks in "Poetry Criticism," "Do we really want more poems that wouldn't pass Turing tests?" (paragraph 7).
One figure that is difficult to locate in relation to this current poetic milieu is New York School poet Frank O'Hara. Nevertheless, in the last couple of decades, O'Hara has become a fixture of the mainstream poetry canon. When his work was featured in Donald Allen's groundbreaking 1960 anthology, The New American Poetry, O'Hara was primarily considered a minor poet, a mere writer of occasional poems, best known as a fixture of the New York art scene. By the 1990s, however, O'Hara was considered one of the major American poets of the century. His work is widely anthologized, and appears in such ultra-mainstream anthologies as A. Poulin's Contemporary American Poetry and J.D. McClatchy's Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry. It would be difficult to imagine that a college student could leave an undergraduate course in 20th-century American poetry today without having been exposed to O'Hara's work.
As a member of the New York School of poets, O'Hara has also been widely venerated by writers and advocates of language poetry. O'Hara is revered by many language poets not only for his refusal to conform to a tired poetic mainstream, but for his approach to language. In the introduction to the 1997 edition of her book Frank O'Hara: Poet Among Painters, Marjorie Perloff argues that "O'Hara's language in [his] mock-odes and elegies . . . has provided an important bridge to the language poetics of the 1980s and 1990s" (page 29). She further argues that O'Hara "devised linguistic structures that anticipate the poetics of our moment, from Charles Bernstein, Ron Silliman and Kathleen Fraser down to Peter Gizzi and Kenneth Goldsmith, Cole Swenson and Susan Wheeler" (page 29). Once at the periphery of American poetry, O'Hara and his work are now established in both free-verse and language communities.
While O'Hara's poetry is commonly read and anthologized, he continues to be known more for his mystique than his work. Meanwhile, his poetics are largely at odds with those espoused by the free-verse mainstream as well as by language writers. O'Hara wrote against the dominant poetic modes of the late 1950s and early 1960s: the stale new critical remnants of high modernism, an often over-theoretical avant-garde led by Charles Olson, which in many respects is similar to today's language writing, and the incipient confessionalism of Robert Lowell, which was the precursor to today's free-verse meditations. In The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets, David Lehman argues that:
"The New York poets directed much of their characteristic irony and comic energy against the poetry of the time that struck them as either freighted down with moral earnestness or marred by what [Kenneth] Koch called "kiss-me-I'm-poetical" junk.' Pomp and sanctimony were what the poets found particularly offensive in the mainstream poetry of the 1950s and early 1960s."
In different ways, much current free verse and language poetry can be described as "kiss-me-I'm-poetical." The central fact of each type of poem is its earnest attempt to be poetry. Both reflect an establishment, an orthodoxy of what poetry ought to be. Yet, it is against any such orthodoxy that O'Hara's poems work. By examining his poetics, one can get a sense not only of the shortcomings of the reigning poetries of the 1950s, but also of the weaknesses of so much contemporary American poetry.
O'Hara formulated two major statements of poetics during his lifetime: his "Statement on Poetics," which was originally written for Donald Allen's The New American Poetry, and his well-known "Personism: A Manifesto" (in The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara). In his "Statement on Poetics," O'Hara rejects the bases of both language and meditational free-verse poetry. He begins his statement by saying "I am mainly preoccupied with the world as I experience it" (page 500). O'Hara's is not the epiphany-laden experience exalted by today's poetic mainstream. The key to his work is its commitment to experience as it occurs, immediate and unadulterated, in the moment its deflation of pretense. Later in the statement, O'Hara elaborates, saying "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" (page 500). While this may seem disingenuous, O'Hara did write most of his poems very quickly, and did not revise extensively. He was committed to creating work that in its final form would not come across as poetic in the pejorative sense, would not emanate a sense of having been made beautiful.
O'Hara was not concerned with dressing up his experiences for a hypothetical readership. Poetry for him was something he did with and for friends. In his "Statement on Poetics" he wrote "I don't think of fame or posterity . . . nor do I care about clarifying experiences for anyone or bettering (other than accidentally) anyone's state or social relation, nor am I for any particular technical development in the American language" (page 500). This also may sound disingenuous, but O'Hara's famous habit of tossing aside poems that had served their immediate function bears this statement out. Moreover, the last part of O'Hara's statement, about him being uninterested in "technical developments" in the language, strikes at the widely recognized goals of language writing, which are to change the epistemological status of language, revolutionize the signifier, and explore and enact theoretical and technical developments in the language. While his work may contain the anticipatory linguistic structures mentioned by Marjorie Perloff in Frank O'Hara: Poet Among Painters (page 29), O'Hara treated poetry as an activity between people, rooted in life and experience, a stance inconsistent with most language poetry. For O'Hara, language was always human language, tied to human purposes and values. To view O'Hara as a pre-language poet is to disregard his chief poetic legacy.
In "Personism: A Manifesto," O'Hara claims to be writing about a realization he experienced while writing a poem to a blond with whom he was in love. He notes that "While I was writing it I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem" (The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara, page 498). This statement is central to O'Hara's poetics. O'Hara aimed for a sense of personal immediacy and openness. O'Hara was a poet of the now, of genuine human experience in the present. In the introduction to O'Hara's Collected Poems, John Ashbery praises "the temporal, fluctuating quality that runs through [O'Hara's] work and is one of his major innovations" (page vii). Another of O'Hara's friends and fellow poets, Kenneth Koch, observes in "All the Imagination Can Hold" that O'Hara's poems "are the result of an unfamiliar aesthetic assumption: that what is really right there, in the poet's thoughts, fantasies, and feelings, is what is richest in possibility and worth the most attention" ("All the Imagination" page 23). Bill Berkson observes in "Frank O'Hara and His Poems" that the "voice [O'Hara] invented . . . abounds with personality, revealing personal habits of inflection, irritability, and jauntiness. On the other hand, it does not seem affected or eccentric: its peculiarity is the peculiarity of authenticity" (page 57). O'Hara's is a poetry of specific people, not of a specific movement or convention. While so many contemporary poets earnestly aim for authenticity, only to sound contrived, O'Hara's work aims for an immediate play of surfaces, and, in doing so, achieves the genuine.
Most of O'Hara's poetry possesses a camp sensibility that undercuts the pretensions of most poetry, now as in the 1950s. "Camp" is ostentation or theatricality that is self-conscious, that calls attention to itself. As such, it is inimical to anything that takes itself too seriously, that doesn't want to admit that it itself is affected. Camp, then, because of the way it can explode pretense and contrivance, can be the most genuine of approaches to poetry. O'Hara's stance toward two decidedly non-camp poets of the 1950s, Charles Olson (the primary avant-garde figure at the time) and Robert Lowell (the reigning king of the mainstream), is telling. O'Hara considered Olson "too grandiose, too bent on making the important utterance'" (Perloff, page 19); he criticized Olson's Black Mountain School for being, like today's language poetry, "too theoretical, too self-consciously programmatic" (Perloff, page 16). And he opposed Lowell, who, like much of today's free-verse mainstream, was overbearing in trying to be important, with his "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" (Lehman, page 346).
With its camp sensibility, O'Hara's poetic stance opposes any dominating orthodoxy. Camp itself is antithetical to orthodoxy. The following defence by John Ashbery of O'Hara's work (Perloff, page 12) is brilliant in its elucidation of this aspect of O'Hara's work: "O'Hara's poetry . . . does not attack the establishment. It merely ignores its right to exist, and is thus a source of annoyance for partisans of every stripe." As this quote suggests, it would be a mistake to treat O'Hara's poetics as the accidental product of a dilettante. In fact, O'Hara's approach to poetry was very intentional, the result of a refined aesthetic attempting to undercut tired orthodoxies, to rejuvenate a tired poetic landscape. His refusal to attempt to transcend or go beneath the immediate was purposeful. As Helen Vendler notes in "The Virtues of the Alterable" (page 9), "The wish not to impute significance has rarely been stronger in lyric poetry."
O'Hara's is also a poetry of intimacy. He wrote his poems for actual readers, actual friends, people he would have spoken to on the telephone. It almost seems disingenuous to think that he didn't intend a larger audience, for his work to be canonized and widely disseminated, but the fact is that he did write occasional poems, often for specific people, and when a poem had served its purpose he would discard it, often losing it to some hiding place in his apartment or simply giving it away. He was prolific, and many of his poems have simply been lost. One that has survived, and is now widely canonized, is the piece "Poem (Lana Turner has collapsed!)," which he wrote on the way to Staten Island, where he was to give a reading with Lowell.
"Poem (Lana Turner has collapsed!)" is an excellent example of O'Hara's poetics in action. The poem needs to be understood in light of O'Hara's intended effect on Lowell and on his audience for that night's reading. According to Lehman (O'Hara, The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara, page 349), "O'Hara regarded the event as something of a grudge match;'" O'Hara's close friend Bill Berkson called it a "mano/mano" duel (O'Hara, Collected, page 554). O'Hara was opposed to the type of poetry practiced by Lowell in both of the major phases of Lowell's career: his initial New Critical phase, represented by the book Lord Weary's Castle, as well as the often overblown confessionalism of Life Studies. In The Last Avant-Garde, Lehman asserts that "The tone of O'Hara's poem is a precise deflation of Lowell's high accents" (page 350).
The poem is a mere 17 lines long. Here it is in its entirety:
Lana Turner has collapsed!
I was trotting along and suddenly
it started raining and snowing
and you said it was hailing
but hailing hits you on the head
hard so it was really snowing and
raining and I was in such a hurry
to meet you but the traffic
was acting exactly like the sky
and suddenly I see a headline
LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED!
there is no snow in Hollywood
there is no rain in California
I have been to lots of parties
and acted perfectly disgraceful
but I never actually collapsed
Oh Lana Turner we love you get up
The language of this poem is fresh and immediate. From "trotting along" to "lots of parties," the diction is unpoetic and unpretentious, easy and campy. The run-on syntax of the poem gives it a seemingly effortless, flowing movement. O'Hara gives the initial exclamation, "Lana Turner has collapsed!" twice, the second time in all capital letters. Such emphasis! Perhaps no other poet gets away with using as many exclamation points as O'Hara.
The poem's use of the word "you," initially in reference to an interlocutor, later in reference to Lana Turner, functions to make the poem more intimate. The poem's speaker is ironic, yet the poem still evokes a genuine emotional response, for the speaker if not for Lana Turner. Rather than trying to present some tired epiphany at the end, the poem radiates a sense of life and presentness throughout. Does the poem pretend to greatness? No. It seeks to make human contact with an audience.
The poem's primary subject, the figure of Lana Turner, is also critical for understanding the poem's intended effect. Lana Turner was the ideal figure to counter the pretentious approach to poetry represented by Robert Lowell. She was the ultimate camp figure. Her name would have been immediately recognizable to any audience of the time. Artlessly stylized, artificial, extravagant, teasingly ingenuous each of these describes Lana, an actress renowned for her striking superficiality. In her autobiography, Lana: The Lady, the Legend, the Truth, Lana herself makes a telling comment about what she stood for, pointing out that her initial screen image, that of a tight-sweatered naive sexiness, "clung to me for the rest of my career. I was the sexual promise, the object of desire. And as I matured, my facade did too, to an image of . . ." (page 8). A sexual facade, a sexual image no substance, only surface; throughout her career, she remained an "image of."
Internet movie maven Monica Sullivan points out in "Lana Turner Tribute" that Turner was always less actress and more image, that she is remembered "most vividly in glistening movie stills and in carefully-staged [sic] film sequences where she didn't have to talk" (paragraph 1) Sullivan further notes that Lana's role was to "supply her audiences with a gorgeous, glamorous & gullible icon with all the trimmings" (paragraph 1). For Lowell's sense of poetry, Lana Turner was the most unpoetic figure possible. Nevertheless, she could represent O'Hara's poetics: immediately recognizable, with a focus on the surface surface that is aware that it is nothing more than surface. O'Hara's Turner, quintessential camp, was ultimately the most genuine of figures, because her superficiality didn't pretend to be more than it was all surface, but no faux depth.
While the figure of Frank O'Hara is almost ubiquitous in the contemporary poetic landscape I've delineated, his poetics are not. By examining them, one can see how they differ from the stances manifested in both today's poetic mainstream and language writing communities. I'm tempted to assert that what I see as a largely exhausted poetic scene needs a good dose of Frank O'Hara the sense of genuine immediacy that permeated his work.
In a recent Poets on Poetry interview with Daniel Kane, poet Ange Mlinko recounts her 1994 experience of encountering O'Hara's Collected Poems. She talks of how she was disenchanted with the current poetry milieu, particularly with over-intellectualized language writing. She tells of how she read O'Hara's Collected Poems, and how it gave her a sense of a different possibility for poetry. According to Mlinko, "He was the first poet I read that gave me hope just as I came to the end of my rope with poetry. He rejuvenated it for me" (paragraph 1).
Mlinko voices a conception of poetry strikingly similar to O'Hara's; she argues that poetry is best when it "comes from an intersection between yourself and your life" (paragraph 3). She wants "life to be chronicled in some sense in the work" (paragraph 3), life that is O'Hara-esque: fresh, rejuvenating, immediate.
This should be Frank O'Hara's legacy to American poetry.
Allen, Donald M., ed. The New American Poetry. Grove Press, Inc. New York, 1960.
Ashbery, John. "Introduction." The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara. Ed. Donald Allen. University of California Press. Berkeley, 1995. Pages vii-xi.
Bawer, Bruce. "Poetry and the University." Poetry After Modernism. Robert McDowell, ed. Story Line Press. Ashland, 1998.
Berkson, Bill. "Frank O'Hara and His Poems." Art and Literature. Spring, 1967. Pages 53-63.
Burt, Stephen. Panel Discussion. "Poetry Criticism: What is it for?" Crossroads. March 15, 2000 to November 10, 2000. www.poetrysociety.org/journal/offpage/vendler-perloff.html
Houlihan, Joan. "I=N=C=O=H=E=R=EN=T: How Contemporary American Poets are Denaturing the Poem, Part II." The Boston Comment. September 2, 2000. http://webdelsol.com/LITARTS/Boston_Comment/bostonc2.htm
Koch, Kenneth. "All the Imagination Can Hold." The New Republic. 1-8, 1972. Pages 23-25.
Lehman, David. The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets. Doubleday. New York, 1998.
Lowell, Robert. Life Studies and for the Union Dead. Noonday. New York, 1967.
--. Lord Weary's Castle and the Mills of the Kavanaughs. Harvest Books. San Diego, 1983.
McClatchy, J.D., ed. Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry. Vintage Books. New York, 1990.
Mlinko, Ange. Interview. "Poets Chat." Poets on Poetry. Daniel Kane and Ange Mlinko. September 1999 to February 8, 2001. www.writenet.org/poetschat/poetschat_amlinko.html
O'Hara, Frank. The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara. Donald Allen, ed. University of California Press. Berkeley, 1995.
---. "Poem (Lana Turner Has Collapsed)," page 449.
---. "Personism: A Manifesto," pages 498-499.
---. "Statement on Poetics," page 500.
Perloff, Marjorie. Frank O'Hara: Poet Among Painters. University of Chicago Press. Chicago, 1998.
Sullivan, Monica. "Lana Turner Tribute." Movie Magazine International. December 7, 1995. www.shoestring.org/mmi_revs/lturner.html
Turner, Lana. Lana: The Lady, the Legend, the Truth. E.P. Dutton, Inc. New York, 1982.
Vendler, Helen. "The Virtues of the Alterable." Parnassus. Fall/Winter, 1972. Pages 5-20.
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