Funtime, Endtime: Reading Frank O’Hara

by Tadeusz Pióro (Author)
©2017 Monographs 142 Pages


This book is a comprehensive approach to interpreting Frank O’Hara’s highly influential work. Frank O’Hara’s poetry, initially inspired by the Modernist avant-garde, underwent a radical change around 1960. This change parallels the decline of Abstract Expressionism and the rise of Pop Art. The book includes historical contextualization as well as practical criticism. The author analyzes how Frank O’Hara could be regarded. As a Modernist poet, or as one who realizes that the aesthetic of High Modernism is on the wane, and is preparing himself for a paradigmatic change. Earlier poems are best seen as Modernist/avant-gardist, while the later ones as no less vanguard forays into uncharted territory. While the book takes up issues such as mimeticism, realism and abstraction in both poetry and painting, the boredom of the new as seen by Walter Benjamin, and the representational potential of the camp aesthetic, the main emphasis is on practical criticism, modes of reading O’Hara’s œuvre.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction “Everything is impossible in a different way”
  • Chapter One The Ends of Modernism
  • Chapter Two Modernism and the Avant-Garde
  • Chapter Three Reading Frank O’Hara
  • Conclusion “We create only as dead men”
  • Bibliography
  • Series index

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“Everything is impossible in a different way”

My main concerns in this book are how to read Frank O’Hara’s poetry and how to situate it within, or beyond, the aesthetic of Modernism, whose influence by the time of O’Hara’s death in 1966 had started to wane. Since Modernism was not limited to one aesthetic, or one ideology, this introduction narrows down their scope to those most relevant to O’Hara, while subsequent chapters focus on specific aspects of his work and its reception. Even as it grows consistently, the number of critical works on O’Hara’s poetry remains relatively modest, so instead of trying to generalize, I shall consider individual readers’ reflections, frustrations and illuminations. The term “Modernist aesthetic,” which appears throughout this book, serves as a convenient abbreviation, and is implicitly limited to those aspects of the various Modernist aesthetics O’Hara found important or inspirational.

The flourishing of vanguard art in the United States at a time when European art was reassessing its own reasons for being owes as much to the effects of World War II and the Holocaust on the Continent as to the cultural belatedness of pre-war America. The enthusiasm that Abstract Expressionism and, shortly afterwards, Pop Art, inspired, was to some extent the result of a conviction that Americans were at last world leaders in the arts, and not just everything else. Patriotic sentiments played a not-negligible role in the popularization by the media of the new art forms, State Department support for overseas exhibitions of Action Painting notwithstanding.1 Contemporary commentary is as illuminating of the emotions this might have stirred in artists and critics as an article by Ezra Pound about J.A.M. Whistler, published in The New Age in 1912: “What Whistler has proved, once and for all, is that being born an American does not eternally damn a man or prevent him from the ultimate and highest achievements in the arts. And no man before him proved this. And he proved it over many a hindrance and over many baffled attempts. He is, with Abraham Lincoln, the beginning of our great tradition.”2 Whereas for Pound the proof of artistic achievement was appreciation by European audiences (Henry James and Whistler were his ← 7 | 8 → main examples of this kind of success), in O’Hara’s time one could take pride in the fact that it was no longer so. This goes a little way towards explaining some of O’Hara’s rhetoric in his adulatory art writing, especially the monograph on Jackson Pollock, but also indicates that his enthusiasms were neither idiosyncratic nor limited to the generally recognized merits of particular works.3

The consequences of this public mood for the reception of O’Hara’s poetry are a different matter. He remained minor and marginal during his lifetime, gradually coming to prominence in the twenty years after his death, eventually to be recognized as highly influential, and thus major. Yet his position within the transitional period between the hegemony of High Modernist influence and its gradual decline remains ambiguous: to claim that he went from a fascination with Modernism to a Postmodernist revision of it seems rather self-evident, a foregone conclusion. I think that an analysis of how O’Hara functioned within ← 8 | 9 → a literary and artistic environment still dominated by the aesthetic ideals of Modernism should be more interesting, and hermeneutically rewarding, than counting on taxonomic distinctions to do this job for us.4 Just what these ideals might have been will forever remain disputed, as it must, since the concept of Modernism is far too broad to allow for a logically rigorous competition between generalizing judgments. It makes practical sense, therefore, to focus primarily on individual Modernists’ intentions, and only later, if at all, to consider the theoretical ramifications of what they wanted to do and what they actually achieved.5 What they wanted, of course, was (seemingly) impossible, or unattainable, and therefore unquestionably beautiful. And this is precisely what O’Hara was after, as one of the last of a long lineage of Modernist writers.

When Mallarmé said that he felt stupefied, nullified, by the effort of writing, and on top of that disgusted with himself; when Hofmannsthal’s Lord Chandos said that he had lost the ability to speak in a coherent fashion; when Kafka lamented that he hadn’t written a single line that he could accept, that his body put him on his guard against every word; and Beckett that he was weary of going a little further along a dreary road – they all testified to their revulsion at having, for the sake of something called art, to repeat the confused and half-thought-through actions of their predecessors, which, far from shedding light on the human condition, only muddied the waters. When Lord Chandos confessed to being moved only by the unnamed or the barely nameable, an abandoned harrow, a dog in the sun, a cripple, he touched unwittingly on the antidote to this, the effort, through art, to recognize that which will fit into no system, no story, that which resolutely refuses to be turned into art. That effort is at the heart of the Modernist enterprise.6

And yet, there is hardly a trace of this kind of tortured toil in O’Hara’s comments about his own poetry, while the poetry as such, when it is at its best, seems effortless, almost casual. This could be seen as a “sign of the times,” as much as a sign ← 9 | 10 → of individual talent, or genius. We might take Morton Feldman’s remark to John Cage – “now that everything is so simple, there is so much to do” – as another “sign of the times.” Modernist ambitions had not changed, but the means of achieving the impossible seem to have been made more accessible, and the creative paralysis of European writers reduced to a mere myth, useful to their own self-representations as unsung heroes, rather than something to be emulated or even referenced: “you just go on your nerve,” as O’Hara puts it in “Personism: A Manifesto.”7 European influences had been sufficiently absorbed for the local avant-garde to understand in a flash what artists working in various disciplines were doing and what had inspired them, while the post-war cultural climate of New York made agonizing over aesthetic choices appear pointless – there was too much to do for that kind of “quandariness” to seem justified.8

Writing about the situation of American poetry in 1957, O’Hara presents the gist of what James Breslin later explained in depth in the introductory chapters of his book on this subject, published in 1983.9 The title of O’Hara’s article, “Rare Modern,” suggests that what he takes for genuinely modern poetry is a rarity in America. While the article is, by and large, a review of books by Chester Kallman, John Ashbery and Edwin Denby, O’Hara includes in it several generalizing and polemical statements.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (September)
American poetry Avant-garde writing Modernism Abstraction in painting and poetry Aesthetic Ideology
Frankfurt am Main, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2017. 142 pp.

Biographical notes

Tadeusz Pióro (Author)

Tadeusz Pióro is an Associate Professor at the Institute of English studies at the University of Warsaw. His main research interest is the theory and practice of avant-garde literature. He has published articles on the New York School poets, Language poets, Ralph Ellison and James Joyce.


Title: Funtime, Endtime: Reading Frank O’Hara
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146 pages