Having read a great deal of less-than-thrilling criticism on O'Hara in the last month, I wanted to put a good word in for Lytle Shaw's recent monograph, FO'H: The Poetics of Coterie (Iowa, 2006), not only because I think it's valuable, but also because it speaks to some recent and not-so-recent blogification about that dread term community. In all honesty, I expected to dislike this book, expected a biography with lots of extra words, if you will.
Part of the success of the book is its definition of coterie as both a concept within the poems and a milieu where the poems are written--a mosaic of proper names (and places, and vanished or vanishing particulars) as well as the friends and contempories with which these names never quite match. Shaw is particularly good on the way that O'Hara's sidelong, spatial notions of poetic influence (and his eccentric choices of predecessors) uncouples him from the family romance of "Tradition and the Individual Talent."Needless to say, it's a useful counter to the genealogical post-its over at Dad's place. Obviously, it's difficult not to read the genealogical model as hetero- and the coterie one as homo-, but Shaw doesn't overstate this point, and he's careful to show how Auden, for instance, buys into the heritage model late in life. The following citation is nicely representative:
He recodes alliances by replacing the organic and fixed social model of the
family with a contingent and shifting association of friends. He recodes
filiation not merely by refusing to produce offspring but also by refusing to be
one. O'Hara's attempt to exit the filiative model of the Great Tradition is
coincident both with his cultivation of obscure, often campy, genealogical
precedents and with his frequently heretical readings of canonical authors. (29)
Which, of course, begs the question, which Shaw doesn't really address, of why O'Hara becomes the founder, then, of a new tradition (or anti-tradition). Why, then, the New York School (if you believe this exists, as I tend to believe)? Why does this particular writerly mode have such legs? The answer, I suppose, is that in refusing to be an heir to a particular tradition, he refuses to let you be one either--no Oedipal complex because: no parents. The house is ours. Don't listen to me.
But then, of course, there's the dark side of coterie--here exemplified by Pound's circle at St. Elizabeth's. I do wonder, though, if this doesn't understate the way in which the celebrity of the outsider tends to follow these kinds of networks whether one wants it to or not.
The best chapter in the book (and strangely, the one I'm most uncomfortable with) is his reading of O'Hara's art writing alongside "Ode to Willem de Kooning." He's quite convincing in showing how O'Hara's writerly performances of active, proximate engagement and identification with painting debunks some of Greenberg's and Michael Fried's claims about the immediacy and self-enclosure of AbEx painting, as well as preparing the way for the neo-figurative paintings of his closer friends, as well as early proto- pop art like Rauschenberg's. I'd always thought that the relationship was between O'Hara and painting was sort of overstated, but Shaw convinces me here. But what doesn't work in this chapter, despite everything that does, is what doesn't work in almost every other piece of O'Hara criticism I've seen: that is, a unwillingness to be critical. In the end, almost everyone except for Roland Barthes (ventriloquized by Bob Perelman) makes Frank into a hero. So, when Shaw starts to claim O'Hara distances himself from the macho primitivism, and the search for wildness, of AbEx painting, I'm less than fully convinced. Thank god O'Hara could read those French poets, I say. Somebody needed to. But all of that exoticizing of blackness, the valences of "Africa" in his poems? I think it's important to call that out--ambiguous and perhaps well-intentioned as it often is-- especially seeing that so many of today's poets (in the search for some kind of functional negativity) are looking to reinhabit (recolonize/decolonize?) "the wilds" with a bit more political consciousness. There are great examples of this and, well, some not so great ones. And no doubt, some regrettable but unavoidable part of modernism starts with a encounter with the racial other. All I'm saying: I never fail to cringe when I read the lines "There are several Puerto Ricans on the Avenue today, which / makes it beautiful and warm." And so it is with a certain amount of satisfaction that I read Barthes (a.k.a. Perelman) responding to this particular moment: "Ah, Mr. American Imperial Artist, you were so happy, in your walks, in your world." It is a poetry that admits its own fallibility, no? We could give it that.