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Lytle Shaw

On Coterie: Frank O'Hara


Frank O'Hara IN AN ESSAY published in 1978, John Ashbery introduces Frank O'Hara through an anecdote: at an opening for Edward Gorey's watercolors in 1949, while all three were still undergraduates at Harvard, Ashbery hears O'Hara "in a ridiculous voice that sounded to me like my own" suggest that Poulenc's Les Sécheresses was "greater than Tristan."[1] The "provocation," as Ashbery calls it, depends upon an educational regime at Harvard - a bias against contemporary composers - that makes mentioning Wagner and Poulenc in the same sentence impossible, let alone raising Poulenc above Wagner. Proper names within this regime get associated individually with descriptive and evaluative attributes - Wagner is the author of Tristan, Wagner is great - and collectively with what we might call a syntax that allows and forbids meaningful contact: sentences with Wagner cannot contain the substantive Poulenc.

(Endnotes and photo credits are given at the foot of this page.
Click on the note to be taken to it; likewise to return to the text.)

Extending this idea of provocation from music to literature, Ashbery continues about O'Hara:

The poetry that meant the most to him when he began writing was either French - Rimbaud, Mallarmé, the Surrealists: poets who speak the language of every day into the reader's dream - or Russian - Pasternak and especially Mayakovsky, from whom he picked up what James Schuyler has called the 'intimate yell.'  So it was not surprising that his work should have initially proved so puzzling to readers - it ignored the rules for modern American poetry that had been gradually drawn up from Pound and Eliot down to the academic establishment of the 1940s.[2]


Not only do Eliot and Pound both produce canons in writings like Pound's A Guide to Kulchur and Eliot's On Poetry and Poets, but, more importantly, the position of names within these canons is similarly governed by a sense of their relative weight, their potential connections - in a sense their possibilities for kinship.[3] As in the example of Harvard's music education, one could think of Pound and Eliot's cultural and literary writing as making possible certain types of sentences in which substantives, here proper names, do and do not come into contact with each other. Ashbery relates the eccentricity of O'Hara's personal canon to what he calls the "muscle-flexing period" (CP viii) of O'Hara's early experimentation:

Just as he was constantly interested in a variety of people, in several branches of the arts at once and in an assortment of writers of whom one had never heard (Beckett, Firbank, Jean Rhys and Flann O'Brien were among the then almost unknown writers he was reading when I first met him in 1949), so he was constantly experimenting in his poetry in different ways without particularly caring whether the results looked like a finished poem. (Ibid)
But it is not merely that O'Hara read unheard-of authors and wrote experimental works; the practices are connected in that O'Hara's experimentation can be characterized by the frequency and range of proper names, which operate in his works as prominent poetic devices. At times names explain each other in infinite regress: he presents Jackson Pollock in terms of Richard Burton and Fragonard, or James Dean in terms of Tiepolo and Turner.

At other moments names wedge inextricably into each other: "better than Albert Schweitzer, Pablo Casals and Helen Keller / PUT TO GETHER" (CP 319) O'Hara writes in "Biotherm."  This constitutes a refusal to play by Poundian and Eliotic rules not simply because popular culture enters poetry; obviously Eliot and Pound had their own ways of letting it in.[4] Instead, what is unfamiliar is how names from different disciplines and historical periods come into contact with each other - the social syntax of names. O'Hara's writing rethinks structures of kinship at the level of the name.

Anthropologists understand kinship in terms of two primary structures: alliance ("horizontal" association through marriage) and filiation ("vertical" association through birth).[5] Though O'Hara was himself not particularly interested in anthropology, considering his writing in the context of kinship has the advantage both of reframing his differences from mid-century modernists in social terms and also of providing a way to understand his interest in literary coterie as something other than an unfortunate weakness.


Proper names are of course not the only marker of coterie thought; nor is the deployment of proper names an invention of the New York School. But the idea of coterie and the function of proper names remain crucial to O'Hara's critical history - a history now well established 22 years after Marjorie Perloff's 1977 Frank O'Hara, Poet Among Painters. Though Perloff eloquently established many of the central terms of O'Hara's poetry, and effectively dispelled the myth of O'Hara as an "aesthetic courtier" that had grown from his glamorous life as a MoMA curator and close connection to New York artists, her strategy reduced both the social implications and the strangeness of O'Hara's interest in coterie by understanding his use of names as important only because "persons and places, books and films . . .  are central to O'Hara's particular consciousness."[6]

Even for Geoff Ward, who focuses directly on the problem of coterie, O'Hara's connection to a literary coterie takes on the consistent, singular meaning of "a humanist refuge against temporality."[7] That is, in the de Manian terms Ward uses, O'Hara's reliance on coterie as a figure - his thematization of a close-knit world of friends marked in the poems by proper names - represents an attempt to freeze time, to repress temporality and loss by filling these voids imaginatively with the would-be presence of a secure identity within a coterie. But symbolism in de Man's writing always marks not so much an actual refuge against time as a temporary delusion that must eventually give way to what de Man calls an "authentically temporal destiny" and links to allegory, which "prevents the self from an illusory identification with the non-self, which is now fully, though painfully, recognized as non-self."[8]

In a classic Post-Structuralist move, symbolism is not simply a mode of figurative language but an initial stage in an epistemological struggle. But does the delusion that de Man links to the symbol apply generally, or even in specific cases, to O'Hara's use of coterie? To answer this question negatively as I ultimately will, I think one has to give a far more detailed account of precisely how ideas of coterie function throughout O'Hara's writing: how coterie might connect to social institutions, anthropological structures, models of literary history.

Frank O'Hara Who would want to defend the idea of coterie? In everyday speech, literary communities are good, coteries are bad: the latter term seems to mark a threshold at which some ethical breach can be registered. But by whom, how? Rather than assume this opposition, I want to reconsider O'Hara's critical history by charting how the term coterie plays a crucial interpretive function for critics. What does it mean, then, to interpret a poem in the context of a coterie? For critics of modern and contemporary poetry, an interest in coteries appears wedded to biography and the minutia of cliques. Coterie has been alternatively an antiquarian interpretive mode or a dismissive tag applied to poems or poets who stray beyond what is understood as an appropriate level of referential particularity, usually manifested in proper names.

At the very least, then, the moments at which writing gets dismissed as "coterie" should explain something about the assumptions underlying reading practices. But this negative insight is only part of coterie's potential relevance for contemporary poetry. To admit an interest in coterie, perhaps unavoidably, is to take on the project of reimagining the term's potential uses.

One place to start is with the basic question: Is a coterie inherently conservative, or might it play tactically progressive roles? This uncertainty is embedded in the term's etymology, which carries at once the force of cultural marginality and the authority of deeply established cultural interest. The literary and political uses of the term that became widespread in the eighteenth century were preceded by a very different sense, mentioned in Littré: "a certain number of peasants united together to hold land from a lord."[9] In this usage, the wretched condition of "cots" or "cottages" prompts their peasant owners to collectivize against their landlords.

But as the term gets used to designate privileged circles devoted to covert political or literary activity, the force of marginality associated with the medieval term gives way to the modern connotation of the clique. What I want to identify in this etymology is the competing senses of an authentically marginal group engaged in a struggle to attain property rights and that of a private, privileged clique. The very movement from one meaning to the next is a well established principle within the avant-garde's attempts to defamiliarize the relation between art and life.[10]

Commenting on his reservations about calling the poets included a traditional "school," John Bernard Myers remarks, in the introduction to his anthology, The Poets of the New York School:

Perhaps, despite the pejorative flavor of the word, it might be more accurate to call them a 'coterie' - if we define as coterie a group of writers rejected by the literary establishment who found strength to continue with their work by what the anarchists used to call 'mutual aid.' [11]
As director of the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, where many of the artists with whom O'Hara had the closest relationship showed, Myers was the first to publish O'Hara and Ashbery.[12] If by the mid 1950s the first generation of Abstract Expressionists had begun to establish a market for their painting - one from which O'Hara's second generation painter friends like Grace Hartigan, Jane Freilicher and Larry Rivers would benefit - no equivalent institutional support existed for poets in O'Hara's circle. Accounts of limited audience are crucial to O'Hara's depiction of the origin of his work. "When we all arrived in New York or emerged as poets in the mid 50s or late 50s, painters were the only ones who were interested in any kind of experimental poetry and the general literary scene was not."[13] Of course, such depictions of the marginal status of writing (as well as of painting) have a distinguished genealogy within modernism, since both have often looked to marginality as self-explanation.[14]


Rather than approach O'Hara's coterie in terms of a margin/center model, however, I want to consider what sort of interpretive work an idea of coterie has already been able to accomplish for other critics. When Arthur Marotti published John Donne, Coterie Poetin 1986 it was a response to decontextualized readings of Donne from both the New Critics and Post-Structuralists. Documenting Donne's coterie was a way to reestablish the apparently lost context that these poems originally had - the system of poetic conventions and social relationships that the poems referred to, depended upon.

For Marotti, Donne's intention to keep his poems within a set of small communities should operate, even now, as a primary interpretive framework. Verse, in many court contexts, functioned less the way we now understand literature than as kind of personal written property deployed to gain status and preferment: along with singing, dancing, witty conversation and letter writing, verse writing was a component within a courtier's overall social effect, his value.

Though Marotti admits that Donne's social context becomes increasingly opaque after almost 400 years, that such a loss may even be "inevitable,"[15] he nonetheless assumes that reconstruction as a goal can work to dispel ahistorical illusions about Donne. Readers who learn to understand Donne's coterie can cut through levels of irrelevant interpretive sediment and begin to imagine the poems' situation within the specific social environment where they were an active variable.[16]

In Marotti's account, ahistoricism begins far before the New Critics. Indeed it is initiated in the seventeenth century with Donne's inclusion in anthologies. Anthologies, as we all know, decontextualize literature. Whereas recent critics of poetry tend to emphasize the concrete particulars of publication in books over and against the weird and often pernicious netherworld of anthologies, the threshold of specificity for Marotti, as for most historically informed critics of seventeenth-century poetry, is that between unpublished manuscripts and published anthologies.

One might continue this transhistorical comparison by relating the seventeenth-century process by which manuscripts get anthologized to the more recent pattern of small run, out of print poetry books eventually finding their ways - with both losses and benefits - into widely distributed modern anthologies. Smaller books and manuscripts tend to be better at retaining the traces of their participation in a social world.

In the seventeenth century, then, intending a coterie audience was a way of controlling context, securing and stabilizing the relation between a writer as person and written property so that the latter could serve the former to concrete ends, and so that interpretations would occur within fixed frames. When in "The Triple Fool" Donne employs a metaphor of grief escaping from its capture in verse, for instance, he articulates an anxiety about poetic property circulating in a sphere in which it would not directly benefit its owner:

    Grief brought to numbers cannot be so fierce,
For he tames it that fetters it in verse.
    But when I have done so,
Some man, his art and voice to show,
    Doth set and sing my pain,
And, by delighting many, frees again
    Grief, which verse did restrain.[17]
Like most courtier poets, Donne was actively disdainful of print. Donne's fear of publication went hand in hand with what one could call a contextual, historical imperative. Contextual loss, it is important to stress, can happen both spatially and temporally: as "The Triple Fool" suggests, one could have read Donne "out of context" in his own period, much as one necessarily must do so, to an extent, now.[18] Whatever the real problems (nationalism, classism, fear of popular culture) that have, in different ways throughout history, attended this jump from writing to literature, resistance to the ideological ruses of 'the literary' (we are speaking here of "our own" resistance, not Donne's) cannot effectively happen by tracing all "literature" back to its pre-literary status in coteries.

If we are always slightly uninformed readers of coteries, we need a way to articulate coterie's afterlife in literature that does not simply imply loss - as if the opposition were between proper historicism and the literary. Writing's inherent relation to temporality enforces this literary condition.

In his "Poem (Khrushchev is coming on the right day!)" O'Hara comments self-reflexively on these very problems.


                                Ionesco is greater
than Beckett, Vincent said, that's what I think, blueberry blintzes
and Khrushchev was probably being carped at
                                                in Washington, no politesse
Vincent tells me about his mother's trip to Sweden
                                                        Hans tells us
about his father's life in Sweden, it sounds like Grace Hartigan's
painting Sweden
                                      so I go home to bed and names drift through my head
Purgatorio Merchado, Gerhard Schwartz and Caspar Gonzales, all
                    Unknown figures of the early morning as I go to work

(CP 340)


Embedded with the names of O'Hara's lover (Vincent), close friends (Grace) and remarks from private discussions, this is a classic coterie poem. Anticipating our own, the speaker himself experiences contextual loss with his own poem. He highlights the desires that arise from inevitable processes of spatial and temporal decontextualization. These problems can be managed temporarily by asserting, even policing, the priority of an actual, literal coterie of readers (as Donne does), but as Donne's example makes clear, this strategy of containment both cannot last, and, more importantly, appears oddly ostrich-like in view of how literary history operates.

In O'Hara, it's not that such an "inner circle" is an irrelevant figure - it's hugely important - only that O'Hara is aware of and interested in what happens when poetry escapes these contexts, as it must if it meets any kind of wide publication and anthologization.

To this end, O'Hara does not assert that any particular sub- group of proper names - his inner circle (Vincent), his famous international contemporaries (Beckett and Ionesco) or world leaders (Khrushchev) - forms an ideal audience. Instead, Vincent's opinion gets listed almost as an ethical argument whereby contingent, tossed off comments by non-experts get to inhabit literary public space as a way to deflate that space's internal, tacit assumptions about where Judgment and Taste come from (who are their spokesmen) and where they can be publicly aired (not in lyric poetry).

Even though we now associate these types of moves with O'Hara's "voice," there is an important way in which he brings an effect like "voice" into contact with its institutional conditions of legibility. Voice emerges not as the property of a decontextualized "I," but as the enunciations of "someone" situated within the intersubjective networks his poems explore from a variety of angles. These situating networks operate not at an archetypal level (husband/wife; father/son) but at a particularized, socialized level, and include literary history not as an abstract "tradition" (as it often is for Eliot and Lowell) but as specific engagements with authors and texts that mark the poems with proper names.

Though Pound can also be thought to show his work (as the mathematicians say), in a sense O'Hara's Khrushchev poem inoculates itself against Poundian judgment by both staging judgment as contingent (if also interesting and relevant) and by self-consciously proliferating reference beyond the speaker's own control.

Frank O'Hara on WNDT-TV, 1964, talking with Barnett Newman. O'Hara's practice of coterie writing less symptomatically instantiates than self-consciously explores this problem of contextual loss. I want to extend this claim by suggesting paradoxically that O'Hara uses the effects of contextual loss and distanciation to specific social and historical ends within 1950s practices of and debates about poetry. An historical movement which has often been understood as the gradual democratization of both literary production and technologies of reading sets the stage for a climate, present in the 1950s and in a different form today, in which identifying a work as coterie marks it as nostalgic, problematic.

Still, the obscure proper name is a problem for readers who believe in this history in part because the name breaks what is first and foremost a New Critical reading pact based on the necessarily possible subsumption of all particular details (every mention of Alvin, Dick Mayes or Waldeman) into a universal effect (tension, ambiguity, irony).

While in Marotti's work coterie as a reading code restores context, applied to recent poetry its mention marks a severance from a shared context into a disturbing particularity. This kind of severance - a thematization of particularity at the level of a speaker's identity, often achieved through modes of identity politics - is now a familiar response to rhetorics of universality. Both the tactical uses and conceptual limitations of this response are quite familiar. For some writers (and critics) coterie clearly serves this purpose. In O'Hara, as I am seeking to demonstrate, it achieves a variety of stranger and more interesting effects.

In his well known poem "Adieu to Norman, Bon Jour to Joan and Jean Paul," for instance, O'Hara suggests that rubbing the names of his friends - Allen, Peter, Norman, Joe, Kenneth and others - against the names of more established French writers might effect a sort of improper canonization.

and surely we shall not continue to be unhappy
we shall be happy
but we shall continue to be ourselves everything continues to be possible
René Char, Pierre Reverdy, Samuel Beckett it is possible isn't it
I love Reverdy for saying yes, though I don't believe it         (CP 329)
Unlike Donne's project of making his canonization poem a well-wrought urn, O'Hara makes his the site of an alchemical onomastic operation. Though both poems memorialize by arrogating authority to themselves, the importance of a figure of coterie for O'Hara has less to do with how his friends would have understood the poem - that they would have been able to supply last names, or perhaps see the poem's ambivalencies in an ironic relationship to O'Hara's budding career - than with the larger question of canonization.

Coterie has less to do with an immediate reception context (as in Marotti's account of Donne) than with an idea about how the engines of literary history might be confused into inclusions through the guerrilla use of proper names. If this poem, like "Poem (Khrushchev is coming on the right day!)", suggests how an idea of coterie could explore the performative power of canonization, it also suggests, perhaps less obviously, how a practice of coterie could be used to recode kinship structures.

I mean kinship here in the sense that a coterie of friends produced through selection could come to supplant the naturalized bonds of the family. Acts of canonization contain a buried moment of kinship: they come out of families, they form and reform families. Whether what canonization forms is a natural family or a contingent community is of course always open to debate. Still, canonization asserts principles by which kinship could be recognized.

Geoff Ward is the only critic to treat O'Hara's interest in coterie as a theoretical question. For Ward, as I mentioned, coterie plays the role of the symbol in the most recent round in the debate about the relation between symbol and allegory.[19]

Specific reference in O'Hara falls into three readerly categories: literal recognition, abstract identification and coterie dismissal. In the first case one knows and enjoys the reference; in the second, one appreciates the situation as a common human one.

Of the poem "Adieu" mentioned earlier, Ward writes: "Any of us middle-class speaking subjects has a friend like Kenneth and a lunch appointment next week with our own Joan and Jean-Paul" (W 62). Ward contrasts the accessibility of the above poem with examples in which coterie has become "bad," claiming that "a line like 'It's another case of nature imitating Alfred Leslie!' . . .  is simply an in-joke, conforming to the more incestuous associations of 'coterie'" (Ibid).

For Ward, coterie enters as a dismissive tag when he can no longer turn names and events into universally accessible experience. With the mention of Alfred Leslie, O'Hara's proper names have dropped below Ward's interpretive radar and somehow broken the pact he wants to establish with O'Hara.

If O'Hara's lines depended upon our knowledge of all of his proper names, one might agree. But this example makes it clear that they do not. Holding in abeyance the identity of Alfred Leslie, one can notice that O'Hara's line literalizes Oscar Wilde's famous dictum that "life imitates art." For "art," O'Hara has plugged in a proper name. Whether or not one knows precisely who life is imitating, encountering a proper name in this revised pun encourages us to take the name as an example of an artist. O'Hara consciously chooses an obscure name with which to update Wilde so that life itself will seem subject to a wide number of potential artistic modes or styles. Mastering life now appears, in the logic of the pun, as a function of mastering a panoply of specific artistic styles. Not only could we have Rembrandt, Goya or Picasso days; we could have an Alfred Leslie day. Many people might be confused and frustrated on this day, much as they might be confused on a day in which, as O'Hara writes elsewhere, "the clouds are imitating Diana Adams" (CP 339).

In the example Ward has chosen, the referentiality of the name does not regulate entrance into an actual group, a coterie, so much as it sets into motion a pun about the workings of names in general within the relation between art and life. Ward's frustration leaves him outside O'Hara's pun, not outside a reference that depends upon a reader's ability to associate specific attributes (beyond the contextually produced relation to art) with the name Alfred Leslie. Failures of recognition, I want to suggest, can have a variety of other functions.


Frank O'Hara, NYC, 1965, photo Renate Ponsold Motherwell That O'Hara's engagement with coterie generally and names specifically can be understood less as an affirmation of identity than as a meta-communal concern can be fleshed out by a brief turn to the study of proper names in philosophy. Because proper names at once blur schemes of categorization and perform important and vast political work, situating the name within the social sciences has been a difficult and largely inconclusive project. Though theorists of the name have been unable to account for the ways in which names become differently weighted, seemingly tied to "public" systems of "canonical" reference, the specific nature of their failures has relevance for our consideration of kinship and canonization.

John Searle, for instance, attempts to explain how we understand famous or overdetermined names by the idea of "descriptive backing," a given set of associations that would accompany the most famous names like Napoleon or Aristotle.[20] Searle's reliance on a connotative approach to proper names suggests a wider anxiety about securing the univocal functioning of proper names within public discourse.

Not surprisingly, Searle's proposition was quickly countered by questions, from Saul Kripke and others, about how such essential associations would be established. In his Naming and Necessity, Kripke concludes "our reference depends not just on what we think ourselves, but on other people in the community, the history of how the name reached one . . .  It is by following such a history that one gets to the reference."[21]

But precisely how one "follows such a history" is not a concern for Kripke, who continues: "More exact conditions are very complicated to give. They seem in a way somehow different in the case of a famous man and one who isn't so famous" (Ibid).

Kripke makes clear what the (impossible) requirements would be for a secure public discourse of the name. To consider O'Hara in this context is to have a fuller sense of precisely how he achieves the provocation Ashbery mentions. O'Hara, one could say, uses three types of non-canonical proper names and naming practices to rethink both familial and literary historical models of kinship: first, proper names too obscure to have a family of attributes; second, those, just as unknown, that pick up such a "family" only contextually in his work; finally, famous proper names that gain a surrogate, often queer, "family" - as in O'Hara's camp appropriations of Hollywood stars and action painters.

Though one gets a sense of the complexity of the relation between reference and the public world in O'Hara only by reading his Collected Poems sequentially, I must rely on a few limited examples to describe what I mean by these three types of provocative, coterie naming practices. For the first category - names whose effects depend upon their obscurity - the last lines of the Khrushchev poem will serve as a good point of departure:

                                      so I go home to bed and names drift through my head
Purgatorio Merchado, Gerhard Schwartz and Caspar Gonzales, all
                    Unknown figures of the early morning as I go to work

(CP 340)

To say that O'Hara is simply interested in the sounds of these or all proper names is not enough; here names are included at least in part because they fail to call to mind any would-be essential attributes. This experience of grasping unsuccessfully to link evocative proper names to "figures" crucially and self-reflexively puts O'Hara in the position of a reader of his own Collected Poems. Here, after names vanish below contextual radar they do not reemerge in the sky as archetypes.

We can't be sure that, as Ward would have it, "any of us middle-class speaking subjects has a friend like" Gerhard Schwartz "and a lunch appointment next week with our own" (W 62) Purgatorio Merchado. And that's the point. The names are recalcitrant matter - designating identities from which we (and here this we includes O'Hara) are held at a careful distance. So to universalize them is not adequate; instead, they are remainders within O'Hara's poems, remainders that play the role of provoking, undermining models of poetry in which any proper names included should either refer to public figures whose attributes are not in question or, if they are unknown, allow themselves to be universalized. The effect of these names depends upon a version of the contextual loss - at the double levels of speaker and reader - that Marotti, and most readers of coteries, seek earnestly to overcome.

Though O'Hara is continually supplying context, he seems to be interested in what happens when it breaks down, when we encounter markers of identity that we can't recuperate. This kind of loss operates in The Collected Poems not as a veiled content, a condition of the fallen, but as a way to make coterie into a figure, an idea, a mode of thinking, rather than a binding imperative governing our relation to a real historical context.

To turn to my second category, then, names that begin to accumulate attributes generally do so as they move through the context of the poems: repetition in different contexts teaches attributes.[22] Through a self-consciously minor form of canonization we come to associate attributes with names like Jane, Grace, Larry, Kenneth, Joe, JA and Bill.[23] The goal of improper canonization I attributed to the single poem "Adieu to Norman, Bon Jour to Joan and Jean-Paul" can therefore be understood at the larger scale of O'Hara's Collected Poems as a whole also. This pedagogical project, however, is quite unlike our coming to learn names in Pound, for instance, where we tend to be bullied or shamed into research. Moreover, there is in O'Hara a fluidity about what might count as a name's "attributes." Proper names are not stand-ins for certain kinds of literary or historical knowledge.

This second practice of linking attributes to previously obscure names tends to build, not a body of canonical knowledge to be handed down, but a figure or rhetoric of community that becomes legible through accumulated reference: as would-be lyricism takes on serial qualities, it increasingly becomes part of a social world that the poems create. But what is this world, what does O'Hara have to say about community and kinship?

To give a very brief answer to this complicated question I will turn to the third name practice I mentioned above, that of transforming the attributes of a famous figure. As film and painting enter the poems, O'Hara tends to torque the language one might use for accomplishment. In "Favorite Paintings in the Metropolitan" he writes:
                          Richard Burton
waves through de Kooning the
Wild West rides up out of the Pollock
and a Fragonard smiles no pinker
than your left ear, no bigger either           (CP 423)
Because the syntax of name placements allows for interdisciplinary, anachronistic montages, painters can become caricatures of Americana who feature Hollywood actors among their attributes. This happens in reverse in "Thinking of James Dean," which begins,
Like a nickelodeon soaring over the island from sea to bay,
two pots of gold, and the flushed effulgence of a sky Tiepolo
and Turner had compiled in vistavision. (CP 230)
Again the point is a kind of energized connection that strips famous names of established attributes, while highlighting others. This process comes together perhaps most clearly and hilariously in BIOGRAPHIA LETTERARIA:
She hated herself because she wrote prose.

He was a very lovable person, though thorough.

I will not go home with you, so perhaps I shall.

My grandfather's lap was comfortable and becoming speaking is not becoming a cactus.

      PHILIP ROTH How do you do, Mr. Rahv; I hope you will print my friend.

How Orphic?

He hated pretense. He was the founder of Social Security.

Cognac is not KY.

My ink is hardly dry upon the page.

The light that failed.

A hoot he had. A crease he did not. The water crusheth, the booth notth.

In a sense I have not really arrived into your country, yet.

(CP 464-5)

Humorously elliptical attributes shift seamlessly from description of, to statement from, authors. Firbank and Compton-Burnett occupy the same plane as Joyce and Stein. Though Clement Greenberg has power to attach attributes to careers in art history, his inability to read contemporary literature, especially poetry, leaves him as a confused spectator. Similarly, Philip Roth's own writing vanishes and he gets remembered only as a toady schmoozer. If these examples catalogue modes of linkage that obtain between people and their career property, other of O'Hara's poems deal with linkage as a matter of social or intersubjective kinship. "Cornkind" is a poem explicitly about this. What are social and familial bonds? How do they get maintained or perpetuated over time?
So the rain falls
it drops all over the place
and where it finds a little rock pool
it fills it up with dirt
and the corn grows
a green Bette Davis sits under it
reading a volume of William Morris
oh fertility! beloved of the Western world
you aren't so popular in China
though they fuck too
and do I really want a son
to carry my idiocy past the Horned Gates
poor kid         a staggering load
yet it can happen casually
and he lifts a little of the load each day
as I become more and more idiotic
and grows to be a strong strong man
and one day carries as I die
my final idiocy and the very gates
into a future of his choice
but what of William Morris
what of you Million Worries  . . . 
what of Hart Crane
what of phonograph records and gin
what of "what of"
you are of me, that's what
and that's the meaning of fertility
hard and moist and moaning                 (CP 387)
The poem suggests that how we think of the word "of" might determine how we understand fertility and the possible social linkages implied by it. Casting aside William Morris's attempt to universalize heterosexuality in so-called "fertility motifs," the poem moves from fertility's "of" as heterosexual reproduction or filiation to "of" as something like inhabitation, coexistence, alliance - concretized in the activity of gay sex, which would enact linkage in itself outside of representation and reproduction. Giving up the desire to see one's idiocy carried forward by children parallels a renunciation of narrative, not caring, as Million Worries does, what happens to William Morris. And indeed, with this pun, O'Hara actually turns the name William Morris into a critique of heterosexual narrative by flipping the M and W upside down.

Frank O'Hara, NYC, 1965, photo Renate Ponsold Motherwell If O'Hara's work celebrates queer families, membership in any particular idea of family is not a bedrock fact that would secure authenticity. Though articulating how queer families might be understood to recode anthropological kinship structures would require a separate essay, the basic idea might be stated as follows: anthropology, as I mentioned, divides kinship into structures of alliance (association through marriage) and filiation (association through childbirth); these can be understood as horizontal and vertical movements. Coterie has implications for both.

In the establishment of queer families, O'Hara's idea of coterie could be understood to cultivate a kind of mock or recoded alliance in which the naturalized bonds of marriage are replaced by contingent, what one could even call allegorical, modes of social linkage. At the same time, O'Hara's version of coterie also historicizes its precedents in a kind of improper or outlaw filiation: O'Hara both appropriates the meaning of well known historical figures through a kind of camp and suggests his own campy additions to the canon - like Ivy Compton-Burnett and Ronald Firbank.

Which brings me to canonization. Once coterie appears as a rhetoric, Donne's and Marotti's historical imperative must be transformed: to reconstruct the codes by which gestures within coterie were meaningful is part of the work. But the second part consists in tracking poems as they recede from this context into literature.

This movement away from one kind of context (empirical coterie) to another (literary history) is something that O'Hara anticipates. In a sense, O'Hara's stance toward proper names internalizes a social theory of literary history. Unlike the Poundian version, whose goal (even more than the Eliotic) is a research project with a fixed itinerary - sorting which names should enter, establishing clear hierarchies of attributes for those proper names included, producing ranked taxonomies - O'Hara's approach is to feature the obscure as experience in itself, to canonize the unknown, and to modify or disrupt the canonized. The fluidity with which proper names undergo these transformations mirrors the readerly processes which the poems undergo after they leave their initial context.

This is another way of understanding what Ashbery means by provocation. That the poems encode this process is a way of acknowledging their position as "literature," in what is, paradoxically, a far more historically cognizant stance than the contextual imperative assumed by Marotti's reading of coterie. Because we get to look at the edges of coterie - positions from which it does not cohere, from which names drop, add, change their attributes - we begin to see it as also a rhetoric - one capable of engaging and commenting upon models of kinship and canonization.

I hope to have indicated by now how both the historicist act of emphatically reconstructing a coterie's would-be proper and singular context and the humanist act of policing threshold of specificity misunderstand the potential stakes of coterie writing. O'Hara's idea of coterie should be understood, not as a symbolic stand against time, but as a way of conceptualizing kinship or social linkage. Coterie might retain a demystifying force, one that is allegorical rather than symbolic, because it can be based on appropriated, superimposed, chosen and seemingly "arbitrary" structures of relationship instead of the would-be natural, symbolic relationships built out of the family.

Though O'Hara's work displays, even parades, a level of referential specificity one might expect from coterie writing in the familiar bad senses of the word, he takes up the problem of shared reference in such a way that coterie becomes a theme, a mode, a project rather than merely being a symptom or a delusion.



[1] John Ashbery, "A Reminiscence" in Homage to Frank O'Hara (eds. Bill Berkson and Joe LeSueur. Bolinas: Big Sky, 1988). 20.

[2] In his "Introduction" to The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara (ed. Donald Allen. New  York: Knopf, 1972). Vii. All future citations of O'Hara's poems will be of this edition, listed parenthetically in my text.

[3] Clearly the fixity of both of these canons increased with time.

[4] It is of course worth distinguishing between Pound and Eliot. To most poets in the early 1950s, despite Pound's more explicitly deplorable politics, he was a more appealing, because more marginal, figure. Even to liberals like Williams, Ginsberg, Zukofsky and Olson, Pound could be understood as an anti-authoritarian poet. As evidenced in his "Poem (The rich cubicle's enclosure)," O'Hara did not quite share this view of Pound. See Poems Retrieved (Bolinas: Grey Fox, 1977). 84.

[5] Two of the main moments within a now famous debate in France about the relations among naming, kinship and power are Claude Lévi-Strauss's "Universalization and Particularization" in The Savage Mind and Jacques Derrida's "The Violence of the Letter" chapter in Of Grammatology.

[6] Marjorie Perloff, Frank O'Hara: Poet Among Painters (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1977). 2, 130-131. More recently, David Lehman's The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets (New York: Doubleday, 1998) returns to earlier mythic accounts of O'Hara, whom he sees as "the hero, the great animateur, the catalyst of the New York School" (72).

[7] Statutes of Liberty: The New York School of Poets (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993). 61. Future citations of this text will be parenthetical within the main text, marked by a "W."

[8] Paul de Man, "The Rhetoric of Temporality" in Blindness and Insight(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983). 206-207.

[9] The Oxford English Dictionary. Prepared by J. A. Simpson and E. S. L. Weiner. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989). 995.

[10] Though Peter Burger's more recent Theory of the Avant-Garde (published 1974, translated 1984) highlights this process more directly, Renato Poggoli's The Theory of the Avant-Garde (published 1962, translated 1968) also suggests the ways in which radical practices can get coopted as stylistic sheen. O'Hara was a student of Poggoli's at Harvard.

[11] (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania University Press, 1969). 7-8.

[12] Ashbery's Turandot and Other Poems, which included four drawings by Jane Freilicher, was published by Tibor de Nagy in 1953; O'Hara's A City Winter was published in 1952 by the same press; it had two drawings by Larry Rivers.

[13] See "Edward Lucie Smith: An Interview with Frank O'Hara" in Frank O'Hara: Standing Still and Walking in New York(San Francisco: Grey Fox, 1983). 3.

[14] Within the history of painting, see T. J. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life. The transition from the depiction of marginality to the attempt to enact it abstractly is crucial in this history.

[15] John Donne: Coterie Poet (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986). 10.

[16] One might object immediately (and not originally) that influential readings of poets, be they ahistorical or not, themselves become part of that poet's context.

[17] John Donne's Poetry, ed. A. L. Clements (New York: Norton, 1966). 7.

[18] To understand coterie this way is to see how space, as a function of varying interpretive distances, becomes a figure for dynamics of inclusion/exclusion and knowledge/ignorance within a slice of time. In Structuralist terminology what I am calling coterie's spatial component would be called its synchronic element, whereas its temporal component would be called diachronic.

[19] Along with de Man, Walter Benjamin's The Origin of German Tragic Drama helped to  revive interest in allegory.

[20] See John Lyons, Semantics. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1977).

[21] (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972). 95. Kripke argues against a proper name's necessity at two levels: first, a name itself refers to someone who might not have had any of the qualities that he or she had; second, when we refer to that name, we do not necessarily refer to any essential qualities, any fixed set of the features, that she or he did in fact have. Kripke establishes that no single piece of career property can always be called to mind through a reference to a person. His examples are famous figures with two roughly equal résumé lines: Benjamin Franklin (postmaster or inventor of bifocals); Aristotle (student of Socrates or teacher of Alexander).

[22] Some names, like Miss Stillwagon in "The Day Lady Died" - though mentioned only once - get enough context to resolve themselves thematically into the poems.

[23] But of course the type of canonization O'Hara performs on his friends - perhaps most obviously in the cases of painters like Grace Hartigan and Jane Freilicher- - is quite different from that he suggests for modernist figures he admired but never knew: Ivy Compton-Burnett, Ronald Firbank, Florine Stettheimer.

P H O T O   C R E D I T S

¶ The two large photographs of Frank O'Hara are from The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara, edited by Donald Allen, with an Introduction by John Ashbery, Alfred A.Knopf, New York, 1971, ISBN 0-394-43901-5. The photograph of O'Hara with his chin resting on his hand (he was sitting in a rowboat at the time) is by the poet Kenward Elmslie, copyright © Kenward Elmslie 1971, 2000. The other photographer is not credited.
¶ The smaller photograph is of Frank O'Hara, New York City, 1965, photograph copyright © 1965, 2000, Renate Ponsold Motherwell.
¶ The photo of Frank O'Hara on television is from WNDT-TV, 1964, talking with Barnett Newman.

You can read some of Frank O'Hara's art reviews
from the 1950s in Jacket # 6

This piece was first published in
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photo of Lytle Shaw
Lytle Shaw has published four poetry chapbooks, two in collaboration with the artist Emilie Clark, with whom he edits Shark, a journal of poetics and art writing. He grew up in Ithaca, New York; after studying architecture and literature at Cornell, he attended U.C.Berkeley, where he is completing a dissertation on Frank O'Hara.
      His essays and poems have appeared in numerous journals including The Chicago Review, Poetics Journal, Qui Parle, and Arshile. He currently lives in New York City.
      You can read five poems by Lytle Shaw in this issue of Jacket.


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