Frank O'Hara

THE POETICS OF COTERIE
By LYTLE SHAW

UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS

Copyright © 2006 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87745-984-2


Chapter One

NOMINAL FAMILIES COTERIE, KINSHIP, AND LITERARY HISTORY

I don't think Popeye is strictly Faulkner's property, do you? do John Crowe and Allen T.? pass the noodles ... what were you fingering last 4th of July? I remembering having sand on my balls and a Bloody Mary in my hand - Frank O'Hara, "Muy Bien"

In an essay in Homage to Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery introduces his peer through an anecdote: at an opening for Edward Gorey's watercolors in 1949, while all three were still undergraduates at Harvard, Ashbery hears O'Hara "in a ridiculous voice that sounded to me like my own" suggest that Poulenc's Les S��cheresses was "greater than Tristan" (H 20). The "provocation," as Ashbery calls it, depends upon an educational regime at Harvard whose bias against contemporary composers makes mentioning Wagner and Poulenc in the same sentence impossible, let alone raising Poulenc above Wagner.

In his 1972 "Introduction" to O'Hara's Collected Poems, Ashbery had already seen a related provocation in a literary context. It was O'Hara's early cultivation of Rimbaud, Mallarm��, the Surrealists, Mayakovsky, and even lesser-known writers like Ronald Firbank, Jean Rhys, and Flann O'Brien - at a time when none of them had been digested by mainstream American poetry culture - that caused O'Hara's poetry to appear so "puzzling to readers." Their horizons of expectation had been produced by what Ashbery calls the "rules for modern American poetry that had been gradually drawn up from Pound and Eliot down to the academic establishment of the 1940s" (CP vii).

If O'Hara's work was puzzling, though, it was not only because it came out of a then-obscure tradition but also because, in deploying the proper name as a prominent literary device, it provocatively advertised the representatives of this tradition and his then-unknown friends as explicit reference points within his work. This provocation, moreover, was not merely the contents of O'Hara's eccentric canon, the fact that certain names and not others appeared there, but what one might call the syntax of references within this canon more generally. Rather than using proper names as secure markers of property and identity, O'Hara tends to cast them as fluid and overdetermined cultural signs whose coding and overcoding provide a way to imagine experimental kinship structures, both social and literary.

In O'Hara's early writing, names are often those of a series of muse figures (Bunny Lang, Jane Freilicher, and Grace Hartigan) to whom the poems are addressed, e.g., "Oh Jane, is there no more frontier?" (CP 62) In the midperiod of his "I do this, I do that" poems, names tend to focus quotidian experience, including that of writing: "It is 12:10 in New York and I am wondering / if I will finish this in time to meet Norman for lunch" (CP 328). Though O'Hara also experiments with proper names in his wide range of prose poems, odes, occasional poems, and love poems, it is perhaps in his collage-based FYI poems of the early 1960s that names tend to function most actively and experimentally - here as markers of ambiguous cultural knowledge activated within wide fields of reference: "Busby Berkeley, kiss me / you have ended the war by simply singing in your Irene Dunne foreskin" (CP 437). At times, for instance, names explain one another in infinite regress: he presents Jackson Pollock in terms of Richard Burton and Fragonard, or James Dean in terms of Tiepolo and Turner. At other moments names wedge inextricably into each other: "better than Albert Schweitzer, Pablo Casals and Helen Keller / PUT TO GETHER" (CP 319). Throughout, this microdrama of the unstable semantic domains of proper names tends to analogize movements within O'Hara's poetics more generally: the rubbing of vernacular diction against opera and high art terminology; the cross-cutting of disciplines, from music to painting to dance to film; the collapsing of vocabulary registers ("Holy Cow, the cenotaph read" [CP 409]).

The primary response to O'Hara's conspicuous use of proper names and to his intimate referentiality more generally has been to understand him as a coterie poet. But what precisely is a coterie poet? At what level is the figure of coterie meaningful? Is coterie an empirical context that determines meaning? Or is it a style of referentiality, a rhetoric even? Historically, when the term "coterie" has come up in literary criticism it has tended to designate, first off, a size of audience, one often identified, moreover, with a specific time. When Marjorie Perloff speaks of O'Hara's reputation until the mid-1970s as that of "a coterie figure - adored [primarily] by his New York School friends and acolytes" (P 1997 reprint xi) or Leroy Breunig claims that Apollinaire had only "a coterie of readers between the wars" (xviii), each critic is identifying an early phase of an avant-garde, before it had been disseminated.

When coterie is used as a pejorative, however, as it most often is, one takes issue with audience size itself as ineffectual, or antidemocratic, or both. On one end of the spectrum, then, is T. S. Eliot's complaint that the process of democratization has forced the poet to "talk to a coterie or to soliloquise" (The Use of Poetry 22). The more common complaint, however, is the opposite: that the weakness of seeming to address a coterie is not ineffectuality but the refusal to engage a wider, would-be democratic public sphere. In the case of O'Hara's reception history, as we will explore, critics tend to locate what they see as inappropriately specific references as markers of this fall into coterie.

An alternative, historicist approach has been to understand coterie as a determinate "context" that allows one to ground textual valences in specific empirical conditions. While this approach has the benefit of not stationing the critic as the upholder of supposedly universal standards of reference, it tends, as I will argue below, to hypostatize context. Neither of these models, I think, articulates what is most compelling about the problems of reading a coterie in general or in the specific instance of a poet like Frank O'Hara.

Though Marjorie Perloff established many of the central terms of O'Hara's poetry, her strategy reduced both the social implications and the strangeness of O'Hara's relation to the problem of coterie by understanding his use of proper names as important only because "persons and places, books and films ... are central to O'Hara's particular consciousness" (P 2, 130-31). Even for Geoff Ward, who addresses coterie through a more theoretical framework, O'Hara's connection to a literary coterie takes on the consistent, singular meaning of "a humanist refuge against temporality" (Ward 61). That is, in the de Manian terms Ward uses, O'Hara's reliance on coterie as a figure - his thematization of a close-knit world of friends marked in the poems by proper names - represents an attempt to freeze time, to repress temporality and loss by filling these voids imaginatively with the would-be presence of a secure identity within a coterie. But symbolism in de Man's writing always marks not so much an actual refuge against time as a temporary delusion that must eventually give way to what de Man calls an "authentically temporal destiny" and links to allegory, which "prevents the self from an illusory identification with the non-self, which is now fully, though painfully, recognized as non-self." Does this delusion that de Man links to the symbol apply, though, to O'Hara's model of coterie? To answer this question negatively, as this chapter ultimately does, it will be necessary to give a more detailed account of how the problems of coterie connect to models of audience, kinship, and literary history and how these connections are mediated through the effects of the proper name.

Tension between inherently conservative and progressive roles is embedded in the etymology of the word coterie, which carries at once the force of cultural marginality and the authority of deeply established cultural interest. The literary and political uses of the term that became widespread in the eighteenth century were preceded by a very different sense, defined in Littr��: "a certain number of peasants united together to hold land from a lord." In this usage, the wretched condition of "cots" or "cottages" prompts their peasant owners to collectivize against their landlords. But as the term gets used to designate privileged circles devoted to covert political or literary activity, the force of marginality associated with the medieval term gives way to the modern connotation of the clique. Its etymology, then, encodes competing senses of a marginal group engaged in a struggle to attain property rights and a private, privileged clique. The very movement from one meaning to the next is a well-established tension within the history of the avant-garde's attempts to avoid recuperation or co-option.

The idea of coterie as a progressive strategy had entered O'Hara's reception by the late 1960s. Commenting on his reservations about calling the poets included a traditional "school," John Bernard Myers remarks, in the introduction to his 1969 anthology, The Poets of the New York School: "Perhaps, despite the pejorative flavor of the word, it might be more accurate to call them a 'coterie' - if we define as coterie a group of writers rejected by the literary establishment who found strength to continue with their work by what the anarchists used to call 'mutual aid'" (7-8). As director of the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, where many of the artists with whom O'Hara had the closest relationships exhibited their work, Myers was the first to publish O'Hara and Ashbery. If by the mid-1950s the first generation of Abstract Expressionists had begun to establish a market for their painting - one from which O'Hara's second-generation painter friends, such as Mike Goldberg, Norman Bluhm, Alfred Leslie, and Grace Hartigan, would benefit - no equivalent institutional support existed for poets in O'Hara's circle. Accounts of limited audience are crucial to O'Hara's depiction of the origin of his work: "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" (SS 3). Of course, such depictions of the marginal status of writing (as well as of painting) have a distinguished genealogy within modernism, since both have often looked to marginality as self-explanation.

The historicist alternative to understanding coteries as either authentically or symptomatically marginal audience structures has been to read them as determinate "contexts," as frameworks that ground and explain textual ambiguities. When Arthur Marotti published John Donne, Coterie Poet in 1986, for instance, it was a response to a series of decontextualizing readings, from the seventeenth century to the present, that had "falsified" the terms off Donne's "context-bound" writing (24, 3). Documenting Donne's coterie was a way to reestablish the "contextual particularity" (10) that the poems both referred to and depended upon, which Marotti describes as "the personal circumstances of the authors and ... the social, economic, and political milieu they shared with their chosen audience" (ibid.). For Marotti, Donne's intention to keep his poems within a set of small communities should operate, even now, as a primary interpretive framework.

Such a stance therefore suggests a sympathy with Donne's own metaphoric complaint in "The Triple Fool" that, by setting his work to music and performing it in a context over which Donne had no control, other poets thereby free the very grief Donne had captured:

Grief brought to numbers cannot be so fierce, For he tames it that fetters it in verse.

But when I have done so, Some man, his art and voice to show, Doth set and sing my pain, And, by delighting many, frees again Grief, which verse did restrain. (Donne 7)

Identifying with what we might call Donne's contextual imperative, Marotti claims that "the very act of anthologizing dislodged poems from their place in a system of transactions within polite or educated social circles and put them in the more fundamentally 'literary' environment of the handwritten or typographic-volume" (12-13). Understanding this literary environment as necessarily "formalist or ahistorical" (13), Marotti uses the idea of coterie as a way to "recover some of what has been lost through literary institutionalization of Donne's verse" (24).

A similar idea of recovery motivates historian Alan Charles Kors's D'Holbach's Coterie: An Enlightenment in Paris. Here the question, however, is not whether d'Holbach, Diderot, and Grimm, for instance, were involved in something we could call a coterie but rather what the functions and beliefs of this coterie in fact were. Though Kors notes that the term itself comes from an attack on the group in Rousseau's The Confessions, he does not reflect more generally on how the word coterie works to transform a various and diverse social formation into a uniform site of doctrine, the fact of an association into a symptom. As in Marotti's book, coterie is understood as a binding context. The problem for Kors is to establish the actual frame of that context.

It is certainly true that the traditional refusal to understand literature as contextually bound (in any framework more specific than nation) has played a crucial ideological role in the development of the concept of "the literary." Clearly the range of pre-New Historicist imperatives to understand literary effects and values within a universal context served a number of now-familiar ideological agendas, including unifying English subjects across class lines in the wake of religion's ability to achieve this and defining a space of linguistic complexity and play outside what was characterized, alternatively, as scientific instrumentality and mass culture.

But whatever the real problems (nationalism, classism, and fear of popular culture) that have, in different ways throughout history, attended this jump from writing to literature, resistance to the ideological ruses of the literary cannot effectively happen by tracing all literature back to its preliterary status in coteries - its position in constructed contexts of the sort Marotti sees as determinant for the meaning of Donne's poems. If we are always slightly uninformed readers of coteries, we need a way to articulate coterie's afterlife in literature that does not simply imply loss - as if the opposition were between proper historicism and the symptomatically literary. Writing's inherent relation to temporality enforces this literary condition.

Morton Feldman touches on this dynamic when he descibes the odd relation between O'Hara's colloquial tone and its seemingly opposite afterlife in literary history.

In an extraordinary poem Frank O'Hara describes his love for the poet, Mayakovsky. After an outburst of feeling, he writes, "but I'm turning to my verses / and my heart is closing / like a fist."

What he is telling us is something unbelievably painful. Secreted in O'Hara's thought is the possibility that we create only as dead men.... Death seems the only metaphor distant enough to truly measure our existence. Frank understood this. That is why these poems, so colloquial, so conversational, nevertheless seem to be reaching us from some other, infinitely distant place. Bad artists throughout history have always tried to make art like life. Only the artist who is close to his own life gives us an art that is like death. (H 13-14)

O'Hara's quotidian yet paradoxically deathlike work thus gives Feldman an insight ("we create only as dead men") that seems to run directly counter to Donne's and Marotti's contextual imperative. As O'Hara's act of creation stretches temporally into literary history, it is "like death" (perhaps) in that the possibility of an immediate world of quotidian sense-experience evoked so forcefully by O'Hara's rhetoric becomes an oddly displaced, and possibly opposite, effect. As details and names accumulate, O'Hara's New York becomes, for later readers, an increasingly impossible imaginative act, one held in a fictive unity only by its absent experiential center. Should we read O'Hara as the immediate, intimate friend, the animated interlocutor laughing between sentences and facing us, for instance, in Fred McDarrah's 1959 photograph of the poet at his apartment on 441 East 9th Street? Or is it more accurate to understand him, despite the appearance of informality, despite the "colloquial, conversational" surface of his work, as Feldman suggests, as a more "distant" writer (as opposed to speaker) who has subtly shifted himself away from us precisely through his seemingly immediate writing, who is always "turning to my verses," aware that "we create only as dead men" - perhaps the poet who, as in Richard Moore's photograph, presents his back to us while addressing someone else in a phone conversation, working at his desk, maybe typing, and possibly contemplating the solidity and permanence of the brick wall in front of which he writes?

(Continues...)



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