Sites of Interest

1. The Academy of American Poets page featuring the text of "Howl" on-line, w

|j 2. Allen Ginsburg Trust homepage —

Lecture 12: Whitman, Visual Poetics, and the New York School

Before beginning this lecture you may want to . . .

Read O'Hara's Paterson. View Jackson Pollack's painting "Autumn Rhythm" on-line.

Heirs to the Whitman legacy of this period include not only Frank O'Hara, the leading poet of the New York School, but several of the Abstract Expressionist painters—specifically, Jackson Pollack. Since O'Hara acknowledged that his poetry was a literary version of Pollack's paintings, we'll say a quick word on the Abstract Expressionists and Pollack's relationship to Whitman in particular.

Our main interest here is O'Hara's complex relationship with Whitman, a relationship more nuanced and less direct than Ginsberg's affection for his "courage teacher," and less of Williams' direct response to Whitman, in Paterson.

Why is O'Hara's reaction to Whitman more complicated? O'Hara was gay and a proud New Yorker—two characteristics that would suggest a close sympathy with Whitman. But O'Hara, though a poet, is described as maintaining an "anti-poetic stance." He refused to specify how a poem could be significant, and wrote what he called "I do this, I do that" poems. He is often deemed an apolitical, strictly aesthetic poet—a poet whose light, often campy sense of humor plays away from serious meaning, who was supposedly too ironic to be sincere. Could such a poet really be a follower of Whitman, with all his almost ridiculously raw emotion and raging politics? A close look at a few representative O'Hara writings will show that, despite the open mockery of Whitman's broad stance, O'Hara's poetry is clearly Whitmanesque both in terms of its experimental style and its content.

Let's begin with a look at the visual roots of the poetics—the Abstract Expressionist movement of the 1950s.

Abstract Expressionism, a style of nonrepresentational painting, is considered America's greatest single contribution to the history of modern art. These painters—who included Jackson Pollack, Robert Motherwell, Larry Rivers, Willem de Kooning, and Philip Guston—helped shape the work of the New York School poets like John Ashberry, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler.

Abstract Expressionism dominated the New York scene for about 15 years after the end of WWII. It was a strong reaction against America's fascination with the European painting of artists like Picasso and Matisse. The abstract expressionists exalted instead in the idea of the individual and an unfettered expression of freedom. The movement was American on a grand scale, with energetic grand paintings. There was a general tendency for a free application of paint with these artists, though their styles all varied wildly and followed no recognizable school of style like the Impressionists had done earlier. Official recognition of the movement came in a major exhibition at MOMA in 1951.

Pollock and Whitman

Already it may feel like these artists will easily compare with Whitman, and indeed, the work of Jackson Pollack is in many ways a visual corollary to the writings of Whitman.

First, think of the sheer size of their productions. Leaves of Grass was an oversized book, its first poem ("Song of Myself') was over 60 pages long. Pollack's canvasses too were large. "One (Number 31)," painted in 1950, measures over 17 feet across and over 8 feet high. These were both epic American works. However, despite the size, the works are at the same time very intimate, very personal, seductively close to the bodies of the artists. Whitman writes in "So Long": "camerado, this is no book; who touches this touches a man ..."

Pollack described his style of action painting: "On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting."

There is, also, the ceaseless change and flux of their work. Consider "Song of Myself' once again—a poem that flows irregularly, with unpredictable rises and ebbs, and never even ends, thanks to the missing end—punctuation. ("I stop somewhere waiting for you.") Pollack's paintings gyrate all over their huge canvasses—the paint ignores the four corners of the canvas and refuses to be "framed" according to convention.

Pollock and Whitman themselves seem cut from the same cloth. Both were iconoclasts and egomaniacs, inspiring cults of personality around them. They both outraged the establishment and thus received attention for the wrong reasons: as Whitman was censored and harshly critiqued for sexual content, Pollack was termed "Jack the Ripper," probably for his aggressive and brash style. They are two of America's most radical artists.

Whitman broke free of the conventional poetic line, of traditional poetic subject matter, to write the "new American Bible." Pollack destroyed Renaissance and cubist perspectives and planes, and refused to abide by the limitations of canvas and established easel technique. There is something organic and "natural" about this undulating movement. Consider Whitman's description of the ideal poem from his 1855 preface to Leaves of Grass and look also at the undulating, irregular patterning of the spattered paint of Pollack's "Autumn Rhythm" (1950). The title helps you recognize the bending and twisting tree trunks, the wind stirring the branches. There is beauty and truth in all this irregularity, but also an intentional break from convention and established form.

Frank O'Hara

Frank O'Hara openly admired Pollack's work and directly identified his poetry with Pollack's paintings "My poetry is just like Pollack, de Kooning, and Guston rolled into one great verb."

This allows us to introduce O'Hara, a poet who always maintained a strong connection with the arts. After earning his Masters in Comparitive Literature at the University of Michigan in 1951, O'Hara moved to New York to join fellow poet John Ashbery. He looked for a job that would leave him time to write and let him explore his interest in the arts—and what he found was ideal. In

December 1951 he was hired to work at the front desk of the Museum of Modern Art, selling postcards, publications, and tickets. He often wrote poems while he worked at the counter, and his friends in the art world frequently stopped by to visit. O'Hara began writing articles for Art News, and in 1953 became an editorial associate. He continued to write for the publication when he returned to the Museum of Modern Art in 1955. The abstract expressionism movement, whose major artists were Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and Jackson Pollock, was flourishing in New York, and O'Hara, along with John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch, all became part of the avant garde art scene there.

In 1952 O'Hara's A City Winter and Other Poems was published as a collection of thirteen poems with two drawings by Larry Rivers. The collection was the first of a series of books by poets with artists' drawings published by the Tibor de Nagy gallery.

At this time O'Hara became involved with the "Club," an artists' forum that had been established in the 1940s. Beginning in March 1952, O'Hara appeared on a series of panels on art and poetry.

In 1957, O'Hara was approached by a publisher about collaborating with artist Larry Rivers. The resulting project, a series of twelve lithographs titled "Stones," was produced between 1957 and 1960. For the work, Rivers and O'Hara worked directly on the stones from which the lithographs were made. O'Hara had to write backward so the text would be readable in the finished lithograph.

How does this tie in with Whitman? We've mentioned the aural quality of Whitman's poetry but haven't really talked about visual correlations, though they are there.

Any of Whitman's catalogues and tendency toward listing highlight this point.

The blab of the pave, tires of carts, sluff of boot-soles, talk of the promenaders,

The heavy omnibus, the driver with his interrogating thumb, the clank of the shod horses on the granite floor, The snow sleighs, clinking, shouted jokes, pelts of snow-balls, The hurrahs for popular favorites, the fury of rous'd mobs, The flap of the curtain'd litter, a sick man inside borne to the hospital,

The meeting of enemies, the sudden oath, the blows and fall, The excited crowd, the policeman with his star quickly working his passage to the centre of the crowd, The impassive stones that receive and return so many echoes, What groans of over-fed or half-starv'd who fall sunstruck or in fits, What exclamations of women taken suddenly who hurry home and give birth to babes, What living and buried speech is always vibrating here, what howls restrain'd by decorum, Arrests of criminals, slights, adulterous offers made, acceptances, rejections with convex lips, I mind them or the show or resonance of them—I come and I depart, (from Part 8 of "Song of Myself)

What we have here is an 1855 city scene. Whitman is dwelling on a series of images of what he sees. Whitman floods our mind with these images and they overlap to create a three-dimensional feel for a city. It is a way for Whitman to make New York City come to life.

In comparison, O'Hara's version of the Whitmanesque catalogue comes across in the poem, "The Day Lady Died." The action of this poem takes place on July 14, 1959, when O'Hara heard of Billie Holiday's death. He had heard Holliday sing the previous autumn at the Five Spot Café, where Thelonious Monk regularly played. It was a Monday night, and Mai Waldron—Billie's piano accompanist—was at the keys. Though Billie had lost her cabaret card because of heroin use. she broke the law for just one song while Waldron played, as O'Hara stood leaning against the bathroom door, listening.

Hearing of Holliday's death on Bastille Day 1959, O'Hara went up to his office and typed up the poem. He folded it, put it into his jacket pocket and brought it with him to East Hampton, where he read it aloud to his friends. (This form of spontaneous creation was the spirit in which many of his poems were created. When he died, friends discovered over 500 of his poems, not in "books," but on the backs of postcards or notes, used as bookmarks and slipped inside his wallet. That intimacy alone must make you think of Whitman's attempts to get close to the reader.)

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