Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A windy defense of the "Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara"

Selected Poems
Frank O'Hara
Edited by Mark Ford (Alfred A. Knopf).

Famously dour poetry critic William Logan smooths a few of the wrinkles from his creased visage and assess editor Mark Ford's new Selected Poems by Frank O'Hara with a surprisingly even hand. That is, he found some nice things to say about a poet you wouldn't have thought he'd consider to have any saving graces .The upshot is that he has a peeve against massive "Collected Poems" from dead writers where the good work is buried among limitless juvenilia and failed experiments. The poems of O'Hara, he writes, needed a good weeding.

"O’Hara’s wonderful poems are all too easily drowned out by the vivifying mediocrity of the rest. At times the banalities pile up and overwhelm the poems — but then they were the poems. Rarely has an American poet so influential (two generations of urban poets have come out of O’Hara’s shopping bag) written so many poems dull to anyone except his genial fanatics — his very notion of the aesthetic courted failure as a method.... When O’Hara was lucky, he was very lucky, because his method could not help but fail most of the time."


One does have to admire this congenial sourpuss's ability with a phrase.I happen to love my massive , Donald Allen edited Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara , and think that Logan is being obtuse for the sake of not diminishing his reputation for taking iconic writers to task, but all the same, enjoy the review. What is significant and wonderfully successful about O'Hara's poem is , as Ron Silliman upon, he was the first American poet since William Carlos Williams to shy from, lampoon or ignore altogether the dominant conventions of formal, high style then current in American poetry and to instead settle on a unique idea of the patois of American cities. There is something wonderfully askew in the poet's work, and a good amount of the poems in the Complete Poems succeed because of what I suspect was a canny knack O'Hara developed and honed as he wrote over the years; a speech that was endearingly familiar, with an elegance that didn't announce its beauty with trumpets summoning the reader to a poem's epiphany, but rather something that caught you in wildly conflating stream of language.

Not unlike the live-wire architectural cubism in Stuart Davis paintings, with their jazz inflected angles , bright,bursting colors and idiomatic use of advertising iconography (but avoiding the entombing tendencies that doomed Pop Art), O'Hara's writes the poetry equivalent of a man supremely stimulated by what the boundless blocks and tall buildings of New York could bring him; his was the rhythm of someone wanting to talk to you about a dozen items at once, and there in is his genius; with so many things to relate, to remark upon, to marvel at and express the accelerated rush of emotional response, the poet allows matters to drift, topics to drop, creating an impressive verse that is at once of it's time and yet timeless in the sense that a reader to this day recognizes the exhilaration and sadness of O'Hara's valedictorian missives, both compact and expanded, generalized and specific to friends, lovers, situations.

There is something wonderfully askew in the poet's work, and a good amount of the poems in the Complete Poems succeed because of what I suspect was a canny knack O'Hara developed and honed as he wrote over the years; a speech that was endearingly familiar, with an elegance that didn't announce its beauty with trumpets summoning the reader to a poem's epiphany, but rather something that caught you in wildly conflating stream of language. As others would learn from him, O'Hara was the master of not getting to the point. The point , if any, was that he was alive in a life that was simply too incredible for words to contain.

2 comments:

  1. There wasn't much unique in his vision of NYC – it was all high-society / Hollywood mythos, mostly trite, certainly vain. He was certainly, like many of the beats and some lesser non-modernist contemporaries, interested in a more casual, toned-down language.

    In the context of his collected work, O'Hara's better poems seem like accidents, hit upon by virtue of the sheer odds: the old monkey-at-a-typewriter. It was, in large part, banal poetry of self-absorbed and permanently-infantile wealth.

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  2. We will just have to agree to disagree about this one.About the only thing wrong with The Collected Poems is that so many of them are virtually perfect as they are, as I think he had a number of styles he could muster up with ease to get across the energy and inspiration the city could provide. This was writing of it's time, but the work survives far beyond their period and are read to the current day largely because few others have been able to write about a thrill or convey their idea of kicks, sadness and still collect a response on re-reading. What you call casual and toned down I'd call mastery, and for being self absorbed, no harm in that to the work. Accusing a writer of being self absorbed is like complaining about night because it's dark.

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Say something clear and smart.Lets have a discussion.