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Funtime, Endtime: Reading Frank O’Hara

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Tadeusz Pióro

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.

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Chapter Three Reading Frank O’Hara

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My first encounter with O’Hara’s poems came by chance: in 1985, I enrolled in Robert Pinsky’s course on modern and contemporary poetry at Berkeley. At the outset, students were asked to choose three from a long list of poets about whom they would like to give class presentations. By mistake, I chose only two, and later that day Pinsky called me to ask for my third pick, saying that O’Hara was “still up for grabs.” I had never heard of O’Hara, but agreed to take him on, just to be polite. Lunch Poems turned out to be an ordeal when it came to preparing my presentation. Immersed in High Modernism, I had no idea how to read these poems, and therefore disliked most of them, even though I was moved and very impressed by “The Day Lady Died.” More recently, while doing research for this book, I found out that several critics had been initially baffled or put off by O’Hara’s poetry, not because they were hoping to find in it reworkings of High Modernist modes of writing, but because his poems seemed to have little or nothing to do with what Cleanth Brooks called “well-wrought urns.”119 I also recognized my own approach to reading O’Hara in Morton Feldman’s not entirely fair, but rhetorically persuasive remark from “Lost Times and Future Hopes:” “Unlike Auden or Eliot, who never stopped writing for the undergraduate, Frank O’Hara dispenses with everything in his work but his feelings. This kind of...

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