Erin, Literature Review (O’Hara)

Frank O’Hara


Literature Review:

O’Hara’s critics are intrigued not merely by O’Hara the poet, but by O’Hara the man, who worked at MoMA by day, was the chatty, affable, beloved party guest by night, and died in a freak accident (hit by a dune buggy on Fire Island) in 1966. David Lehman, Terrell Scott Herring, Anne Hartman, and Lytle Shaw each begin their criticism of O’Hara with anecdotes; Marjorie Perloff, in Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters (1977) which still looms large in O’Hara criticism, occasionally “relate[s] the poetry to the life” (xxxii). Perloff’s influential book both demarcates and participates in the trend of interest in O’Hara’s personality alongside his poetry. The aforementioned four critics of the late 90s and early 2000s pull strands from Perloff’s original work, discussing to what extent O’Hara is a personal or an impersonal poet. This chorus of voices, rather than a discordant melee, seems to agree that he is both, even if some agree that he is more heavily personal, whereas others agree he is more heavily impersonal.

In this review, I move chronologically. I first discuss Perloff’s caution against reductive readings of O’Hara in her 1997 introduction to her 1977 book. David Lehman, in 1999, reads O’Hara personally but takes up a similar problem of reductive criticism in the mythologizing of O’Hara in which Brad Gooch’s biography, City Poet (1993), is complicit. I next discuss Herring, who views purely personal readings of O’Hara as reductive in their negligence of O’Hara’s use of public, commoditized language. Herring posits an opposition between O’Hara and Confessional poets, which Anne Hartman questions. Hartman poses O’Hara as a personal poet, focusing on the inclusive intimacy he creates rather than his exclusive coterie. I finish with Shaw, who considers the simultaneously personal and impersonal nature of O’Hara’s coterie.

In her 1997 introduction to Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters, Perloff notes that from the 50s to the 70s, O’Hara was “a coterie figure.” In the 70s, his obscurity led Perloff and her contemporaries to miss coded signs of his sexual preference, neglecting the presence of his homosexuality in his work altogether (xi-xii). Perloff’s new introduction cautions against reducing O’Hara to anything in particular: to a poet to whom sexuality doesn’t matter, to a distinctly gay poet, or to a quotidian poet who resembles a “genteel” lady (xvii). Perloff’s corrective pushes us to read O’Hara not merely personally, as a gay poet, but as a poet who innovates with language to create poetry that is the verbal form of Abstract Expressionist painting (xx). Perloff’s seminal 1977 edition mixes a focus on this language-play with a focus on the personal aspects of O’Hara’s work, when it intersects with his life (xxxii). But her 1997 introduction invites a focus on both the man and the work.

Lehman, in The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets (1999) moves closer to the personal strand of O’Hara criticism than Perloff does, while thinking about the ways in which O’Hara was mythologized after his death, and how a reductive look at his life leads to reductive readings of his poetry. For Lehman, “O’Hara’s distinctive tone—two parts melancholy, three parts joy—is necessarily absent from the myths that by monumentalizing O’Hara’s death obscure his life” (170). Gooch’s City Poet is the main culprit of this myth-making; Lehman attempts to absolve personal readings of O’Hara of this reductive trap, exploring the ways in which O’Hara makes himself “vulnerable” in his poetry and does not withhold “ardor,” but characterizes his poetry with it (175, 179). Lehman’s half biographically narrative, half academically critical chapter on O’Hara explores the possibility of reading O’Hara as a personal poet without reading him reductively.

Herring’s “Frank O’Hara’s Open Closet” (2002) avoids reductivity by considering O’Hara’s impersonality. Herring argues for a view of O’Hara as both a personal and an impersonal poet, ascribing this paradox to the “pre-Stonewall silencing of homosexuals” in the 1950s and 60s and the rise of both New Criticism and Confessional poetry at the same time (414-15). O’Hara’s poetry is “personal in form but impersonal in content” (417); using “Poem (Lana Turner has collapsed!),” Herring argues that O’Hara uses his own voice to mimic the headline he reports to us, creating an “impersonal community of observers who gather over a fallen star” (420). Personal intimacy is made into a farce by O’Hara’s use of “language of the mass public sphere” (423). O’Hara’s flirting with both the personal and the impersonal creates a poetic that weighs more heavily on the impersonal side. For Herring, O’Hara’s impersonality flouts Confessional poetics even though, as Hartman points out, the Confessionals had an impersonal mode of their own.

Hartman’s project in “Confessional Counterpublics in Frank O’Hara and Allen Ginsberg” (2005) builds on Herring’s look at O’Hara’s counter-relationship to New Criticism and traditional Confessional poetics; however, Hartman argues that rather than rejecting the Confessional mode altogether, gay poets O’Hara and Ginsberg “restyled” it, “interpellat[ing]” an audience of only their friends so as to maintain the degree of privacy that traditional Confessionals do not have (41). O’Hara and Ginsberg reformed Confessional poetics by moving away from an isolated “I,” which the two gay poets cannot assert as strongly as the quintessential Confessional Robert Lowell can for fear of violent discrimination (48). Instead, O’Hara and Ginsberg form friendly audiences of only their friends, maintaining privacy in a public sphere (42). Hartman does not use the word “coterie” to describe either O’Hara’s or Ginsberg’s audiences; she focuses on the intimacy and inclusion (personality) that a poet’s address to his friends creates rather than the potential exclusion (impersonality) of the reader by a coterie (49, 53).

Lytle Shaw picks up the problem of O’Hara’s coterie (first introduced by Perloff) in Frank O’Hara: The Poetics of Coterie (2006). Shaw explains that O’Hara’s poetry was inaccessible to many of its first readers because he uses his “then-unknown friends as explicit reference points” (19). While O’Hara’s use of references that an in-group will recognize and that will confuse anyone else classifies O’Hara as a coterie poet, Shaw rejects the ease with which we can dismiss O’Hara as an inscrutable member of a clique if we stop at calling him a coterie poet (20). Shaw delineates a typical use of coterie: to stop time, to keep one’s friends and world alive (21). O’Hara creates a coterie to resist falling on either side of the personality/impersonality debate; his intimate address to his friends sounds at once like an “animated interlocutor laughing between sentences and facing us” and like a poet who “presents his back to us while addressing someone else in a phone conversation” (24). According to Shaw, even O’Hara’s coterie—a “pejorative” term with an exclusive connotation (20)—falls in between personal and impersonal.

O’Hara wants to have it all: to be able to share everything while also keeping some things for himself. In this thread of criticism, a distinction between those who read O’Hara as a personal poet and those who read him as an impersonal poet is not a necessarily helpful one. The distinction between these five critics becomes whether they explore the way O’Hara writes more than the way we read O’Hara; I move by association in this review because the questions they pick up from each other animates the conversation. Herring falls closest to the impersonal extreme because he considers the reader’s position in O’Hara’s public discourse. Lehman and Hartman, on the other hand, best represent the personal extreme because they do not consider the reader. Perloff and Shaw most clearly occupy the middle position among critics who also settle somewhere in between the two poles.

Works Cited

Hartman, Anne. “Confessional Counterpublics in Frank O’Hara and Allen Ginsberg.” Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 28, no. 4, 2005, pp. 40–56. Web.

Herring, Terrell Scott. “Frank O’Hara’s Open Closet.” PMLA, vol. 117, no. 3, 2002, pp. 414–27. Web.

Lehman, David. “Frank O’Hara: You Just Go on Your Nerve.” The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets. New York: Anchor Books, 1999. Print.

Perloff, Marjorie. Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977. Print.

Shaw, Lytle. Frank O’Hara: The Poetics of Coterie. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2006. Print.


SSR 1:

I. Herring, Terrell Scott. “Frank O’Hara’s Open Closet.” PMLA, vol. 117, no. 3, 2002, pp. 414–27. Web.

II. “The more visible the poet becomes, the greater his invisibility; the greater this invisibility, the closer we get to the essential O’Hara” (414).

In other words, Herring argues that O’Hara flirts with both personal and impersonal poetics; O’Hara, though he makes himself available to us, is inaccessible to us, and this paradox is truer to the poet than placing him squarely on either the personal or impersonal side.

III. Herring opens with the story of Elaine de Kooning’s portrait of O’Hara, in which the painter obscured O’Hara’s face at the last minute: “when the face was gone, it was more Frank than when the face was there” (414). Herring uses this anecdote to pivot to his own project of ascribing O’Hara’s simultaneous open and closed personality to three cultural and historical developments in the 1950s and 60s: the “pre-Stonewall silencing of homosexuals,” the rise of New Criticism (mainly Wimsatt and Beardsley’s “The Intentional Fallacy”), and the appearance of Confessional poetry (414-15). In the latter half of his introductory section, Herring traces how these three developments contributed to “sharper distinctions between public and private life.” The attitude toward homosexuals at the time of O’Hara’s writing encouraged gay men to stay in the closet; New Critical theory recreated the poem as “public property”; the Confessionals wrote private selves into those poems, the selves then becoming public property, too (415-16). Herring argues that within this context, O’Hara saw opportunities to lose privacy and a need to maintain it wherever possible; he reverses the Confessional mode by writing poetry in which “public individuals paradoxically meet as private persons” (416).

To support his claim of O’Hara as a personally impersonal poet, Herring first turns to “Personism,” “a novel form of public abstraction.” Herring opposes O’Hara to T.S. Eliot, the traditionally impersonal poet; though Eliot’s impersonality “spoke an alternative language to the masses,” O’Hara collapses the distinction to the language poetry uses and the language we use in our everyday lives. O’Hara’s form takes on a personal style, but his content remains impersonal (417). The obscuring of the personal self occurs when O’Hara places that personal self “into the public sphere”—in other words, once O’Hara uses language that the masses understand, the personal subject is always already depersonalized (417-18).

In his second section, Herring moves from his discussion of language of the public sphere to reading “Poem (Lana Turner has collapsed!).” In this poem, O’Hara invites his readers into his own mind as he stumbles upon and responds to a tabloid headline while also recreating that headline for us in an impersonal fashion; though O’Hara’s is the voice we read, he “deploys” the same “tabloid techniques” he reads to “create a community of impersonal observers who gather over a fallen star” (420). Herring next explores “Personal Poem” for similar effects of “impersonal intimacy” via “the language of the mass public sphere,” but with the caveat that “Personal Poem” tries to fool readers into thinking it conveys “O’Hara’s particular experience” (423, 425). Like “Poem (Lana Turner has collapsed!),” though, “Personal Poem” describes a communal experience (425).

Herring finishes the article by posing O’Hara as more impersonal than personal because of his use of the “language of the public sphere,” though his voice does tease personality. In the New Critical terms of O’Hara’s day, “what is superficially public is also private.” O’Hara, like a proper anti-Confessional, “reveals all, only to reveal nothing about himself” (425-26).

IV. I admire Herring’s use of the story of Elaine de Kooning’s portrait to frame his argument; the story was not purely anecdotal, but provided a microcosm of the trend Herring points to in O’Hara’s poetry.

I appreciate Herring’s inclusion of New Criticism with Confessional poetry as two literary movements O’Hara ran counter to; several critics oppose O’Hara and Robert Lowell, but I think the distinction between O’Hara’s poetics and the New Critical style is a smart one.

“O’Hara’s personism is personal in form but impersonal in content” (417). I love this form/content divide built into the personal/impersonal or private/public divide.


SSR 2:

I. Hartman, Anne. “Confessional Counterpublics in Frank O’Hara and Allen Ginsberg.” Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 28, no. 4, 2005, pp. 40–56. Web.

II. “I suggest that rather than being ‘anti-Confessional,’ both O’Hara and [Allen] Ginsberg wrote poems that had affinities with the confessional mode, but which overtly reject the impersonal, solitary form of confession advocated by [Robert] Lowell. They used the mode to interpellate a homosexual counter-public, while exploiting confession’s ability to unsettle normative categories” (41).

In other words, Hartman unconventionally places O’Hara alongside Ginsberg to pose the two as poets who restyled, rather than rejected, confessional poetics; their reformed poetics drop the impersonality of the confessional mode (which neither could afford to join because they were gay) by creating and hailing a small audience of insiders.

III. Hartman begins her article with the story of O’Hara’s “Poem (Lana Turner has collapsed!),” which he claimed he wrote on the ferry on the way to a reading he did with Lowell; O’Hara bragged about his ability to write on the fly, and Lowell disparaged him for it (40-41). This anecdote also brings to light O’Hara’s distaste for Lowell’s brand of confessional poetry. But, as Hartman argues, O’Hara reformed that brand rather than flouting it altogether. Hartman engages with Herring’s argument for its elucidation of O’Hara’s simultaneous privacy and openness; however, Hartman distinguishes herself from Herring, arguing that O’Hara disliked Lowell’s confessionalism because it is too solitary. Hartman argues that O’Hara’s poetry creates and hails an audience, which is how it escapes impersonality (41). But since the audiences O’Hara and Ginsberg create are small, the two poets still “engage the dialectic between privacy and publicity” (42).

Hartman, in her close reading of “Poem (Lana Turner has collapsed!),” points to personality in O’Hara’s poetry by way of “an equivalence between the speaker of the poem and the poet” (42). Hartman explores M.L. Rosenthal’s claim that Lowell “removed the mask” and displayed himself in his poetry in this way, too; but Hartman argues that O’Hara was more cutting-edge in personal poetics than Lowell was (43). As the more avant-garde poet, O’Hara advances Lowell’s inscription of the poet’s self into the poetry, but does so while rejecting “reflection on the inner self” (44-45).

In her next section, Hartman traces the lyric roots of confessional poetry as a place in which the poet can express the individuality and solitariness of “I” (45). Hartman explores the popularity of Lowell’s use of this solitary “I” in light of the anti-communist political climate (46). But in that same climate, Hartman reminds us that homosexuals were not allowed the same privilege of unrestrictedly celebrating “I,” for fear of violent discrimination. Hartman uses Perloff’s warning against reductively reading O’Hara as a homosexual poet representative of “queer sensibilities” to argue, in turn, that O’Hara’s relationship to those sensibilities resulted in a complicated relationship with confession. Hartman sets up this historical scene to explain why gay poets like O’Hara and Ginsberg had to create their own brand of confessional poetry (47).

Hartman argues that O’Hara and Ginsberg maintained privacy in their confessional form by addressing a “counter-hegemonic homosexual public”—the two gay poets de-isolated themselves by speaking to their friends in their poetry (48). Without ascribing the term “coterie” to either poet, she theorizes O’Hara and Ginsberg’s poetry as “addressed to an intimate community,” focusing on the inclusion (and personality) rather than the exclusion (and impersonality) that address creates (49, 53).

IV. “If Rosenthal had wished to find an innovative poet, he might more reasonably have turned to O’Hara, who was at the center of a vibrant avant-garde milieu” (43). I appreciate the phrasing of this statement as well as the opposition between O’Hara and Lowell on the grounds of innovation, avant-garde poetics being more important to O’Hara than to Lowell.

“What you write about in the poem is what you would tell your friends” (51). I admire the more talky way of saying this amidst some denser theoretical discussion.

I like the move of printing an entire poem—in this case, O’Hara’s “Poem (Lana Turner has collapsed!)”—before the article begins. I think it’s a successful move largely because Hartman spends a good deal of time reading this poem, but I wonder if it would also be more effective to include a Ginsberg poem (or part of one) alongside the O’Hara poem, to make O’Hara seem less singular from the start.


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