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.
Chapter One The Ends of Modernism
I. Intentions and Manifestos
Throughout this book, references to Modernism denote primarily its avant-garde and experimental aspects, while the term High Modernism appears in reference to works and authors academically canonized in America during O’Hara’s lifetime. Vladimir Mayakovsky or Antonin Artaud fall under the former rubric, while T. S. Eliot or William Butler Yeats have their place in the professorial pantheon. The importance of this distinction was pointed out quite early in the history of O’Hara’s critical reception: in 1979, Charles Molesworth observed that “the English and American traditions never really secured the attacking front of Modernism. Eliot and his peers flirted with the more readily assimilated parts of the European avant-garde but withdrew when they realized what was really at stake”. Stevens’ hermeticism and Auden’s conversion deepened this retrenchment, and the poetic idiom available to O’Hara in the 1950’s was not “so much depleted as irrelevant.”29 In the visual arts, however, the High Modernist aesthetic of painters such as Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock was crucial to his development as a poet, although their investiture did not affect his admiration for Larry Rivers or Claes Oldenburg and, eventually, Andy Warhol. Therefore both the poetic and the painterly “idiom” should be considered is assessing O’Hara’s position within, or beyond, Modernism.
The “irrelevance” of the dominant poetic idiom of the forties and early fifties to the several avant-garde groupings that came into being at that time is shown up incisively – and hilariously – in...
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