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Hyper O’Hara

Hyperscapes cover image

Terence Diggory reviews

Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara: Difference/ Homosexuality/ Topography by Hazel Smith

Liverpool University Press, 2000, 230 pages

£45.00 hardback
ISBN 0-85323-994-0

£18.50 paperback
ISBN 0-85323-505-8

This piece is 2254 words or about five printed pages long.

Many fans of Frank O’Hara will be put on guard by Hazel Smith’s prefatory confession that she lost interest in O’Hara’s life early in the process of research that led to her book Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara. Isn’t it O’Hara’s distinctive achievement precisely to make his life and his poetry seem inseparable? Don’t we admire O’Hara, above all, for the vividness of his voice? Smith admires the performance that creates this voice but she refuses to identify the performer with O’Hara. Rather, a ‘splintered subjectivity’ speaks in the poems (144), an array of ‘different types of recontextualised talk’ that compose a ‘talkscape’ (143). As ‘talkscape’ intertwines with ‘textscape,’ recontextualised literary language and patterning, the result is the complex weave that Smith calls the ‘hyperscape’ (151).

The model for the hyperscape is the computer screen, the visual field of hypertext poetry that has increasingly become the scene of performance for Smith as an experimental artist. In ‘Intertwingling’ (2001), composed in hypertext and sound by Smith and her frequent collaborator Roger Dean, a segment of text declares ‘the screen speaks but its voice is silent.’ On another collaboration, The Egg The Cart The Horse The Chicken (2000), Smith and Dean comment, ‘the texts adopt a wide range of voices and attitudes, ranging from the satirical to the surreal, consequently decentring the notion of any predominant and unifying authorial presence’ (IMEj 4.1 [April 2002]). Smith’s book on O’Hara presents him as a forerunner of such practice: ‘If the voice is distinctive, it is also humorously self-questioning, self-correcting and self-parodying. The self-parody is both part of the distinctive voice and a challenge to the concept of ‘personality’ with its attendant aura of consistency, intentionality and self-regulation’ (144).

O’Hara is clearly important to Smith as a forerunner, but her book does not address that importance specifically, since it unfortunately omits any discussion of Smith’s own practice as a poet and musician (another way of decentring authorial presence?). Instead, recirculating ‘a wide range of post-structuralist theory’ (2), Smith presents O’Hara as a forerunner of postmodernism. How we are supposed to evaluate the importance of this view remains an open question. To be postmodern is clearly as important to Smith as to be modern was to Rimbaud, but Smith’s historical sense is keen enough to recognize that O’Hara was merely headed for postmodernism without having actually reached the promised land. His openness to popular culture, for instance, never equalled his passion for high art, as Smith demonstrates (31–33) in her discussion of ‘The Day Lady Died’ (1959).

If O’Hara thus falls short of postmodernism as the standard of artistic and cultural value that Smith upholds, does the importance of O’Hara lie in his historical value as a forerunner? This would be the case if, for instance, the success of O’Hara’s practice helped to validate trends that developed later, or, alternatively, if O’Hara’s example contained certain postmodern seeds that still await cultivation by contemporary artists. However, Smith’s view of history is too linear to encourage inquiry into the latter possibility. In her account, the arrival of postmodernism appears to have been inevitable, and it appears to have arrived as a complete package. One would have thought a theorist of hypertext would have been more open to a view of history as a set of branching paths requiring choices, and to the critical potential of such a view.

As for the possibility that O’Hara’s practice might validate postmodernism as it subsequently developed, Smith is not willing to grant such priority to practice over theory. Throughout her book, Smith repeatedly claims that a particular practice needs to be ‘theorised,’ by which she appears to mean not merely ‘situated’ but also validated. She takes issue with certain theories, for instance, Fredric Jameson’s view of postmodern ‘hyperspace,’ another term underlying Smith’s concept of ‘hyperscape.’ However, to dispute Jameson, Smith cites other theorists (Paul Patton and Steve Pile), not the work of O’Hara, which Smith allows us to enter only after each of her chapters has unfolded a theoretical map. Once again, Smith’s practice contradicts her theoretical stance, since it is precisely Jameson’s insistence on mappable space that she disputes.

The priority that Smith assigns to theory is reflected in the sequence of chapters as well as within individual chapters. After a first chapter ‘resituating O’Hara’ in the context of postmodern theory in general, chapter 2 focuses on ‘the productivity of bodies and cities in defining and establishing each other,’ a formula Smith quotes from Elizabeth Grosz (67); chapter 3 treats a parallel textual productivity resulting in ‘a metonymic web of association which is hypertextual in essence’ (80); chapter 4 considers the web of sexual identities spun out of a process of ‘morphing,’ another term Smith derives from digital art; chapter 5 discusses performance and improvisation; and chapter 6 surveys collaboration. Chapter 3 being largely a theory of textuality, only in the last two chapters does the focus finally narrow to artistic practice, especially those practices that Smith has been exploring in her work with Roger Dean (see their previous book, Improvisation, Hypermedia and the Arts Since 1945 [1997]).

Perhaps Smith intended these chapters to acquire extra weight from their concluding position, but as it turns out, they function rather as afterthoughts. The discussion of collaboration is particularly disappointing, since amidst all the theorising Smith finds time to examine, briefly, only one concrete instance: a single plate from the series of lithographs, Stones (1957–59), that O’Hara produced with Larry Rivers. Collaborations in media other than visual art are relegated to an Appendix, including ‘one of the most interesting of the collaborations’ (199), the film The Last Clean Shirt (1964), directed by Alfred Leslie with texts by O’Hara. In a recent issue of Jacket, Olivier Brossard rightly notes that this film ‘would have been a perfect case in point’ for Smith’s notion of ‘a vein-like network in which differences coalesce, only immediately to fall asunder again’ (12). [See Jacket 24.]

Counteracting, to some extent, the deterministic force that theory acquires in the sequence of chapters is the non-sequential, ‘hypertextual’ manner in which Smith inserts O’Hara’s poems into her discussion. As she notes in her Introduction, she has ‘taken the unusual step of re-entering the same poem several times over from different points of view’ (2). Of course, to feel ‘the way diverse meanings jostle together,’ as Smith intends, it would help the reader to gather together the various points where the same poem comes up for discussion, actually producing, with the aid of the index, a non-linear reading of the book. This, too, appears to be part of Smith’s intention.

However, after applying this method to the poem that Smith refers to most frequently, ‘In Memory of My Feelings’ (1956), I did not find that the ‘multi-layered’ structure of the poem that Smith so much admires was particularly illuminated by setting the various passages of her commentary side by side. The concluding lines of the poem, for instance, have posed a special challenge to critics:

                                      and I have lost what is always and everywhere
     present, the scene of my selves, the occasion of these ruses,
     which I myself and singly must now kill
                                                   and save the serpent in their midst.

Here are Smith’s comments on these lines in three separate chapters of her book:

For the engimatic serpent who appears throughout the poem as phallic yet feminised, erect but coiled, single but also multiple, is a symbol of ultimate difference. In order to secure this difference it is necessary to kill ‘the scene of my selves’, that is, a fixed sexual identity, an absolute sense of place, and writing as closure. (chap. 2, p. 73)

The poem never disrupts into total surrealism for, when it seems as if it might, the recurring symbols bring it back nearer to symbolism. The poem culminates in a simultaneous assertion and cancelling of all the possibilities. For the speaker has both lost his selves and must kill them, must create art but cannot remember it. (chap. 3, p. 95)

It is necessary, therefore, for the serpent-as-male-body to be preserved as a site in which these different masculine identities can intersect. Paradoxically, though, preserving the serpent means killing the scene of the selves, the social construction of masculinity. (chap. 4, p. 119)

Rather than exposing ‘diverse meanings,’ these passages all seem to be controlled by the single dominant concept that Smith identifies with postmodernism: the concept of ‘difference.’ Rather than ‘jostling together,’ these passages remain just as inert when placed next to each other as they appear when first encountered in isolation. Although she opposes fixity in concept, Smith produces fixity in practice by pinning down an image in O’Hara’s poem with a concept: ‘the scene of the selves’ = ‘the social construction of masculinity.’ Multiplying the number of concepts does not help to revive the image, because, once again, what appears to be several concepts reduces to one. The formula at the end of the first quotation simplifies to: ‘the scene of my selves’ = ‘fixity.’

Compare a comment on the same passage in O’Hara by James Breslin, the critic who, to my mind, has written the most compelling account of ‘In Memory of My Feelings’:

At the very end of ‘In Memory of My Feelings’ O’Hara rises up in what looks like an heroic gesture aimed at striking through all the masks, penetrating to authenticity and pulling himself together at last. But the phrase ‘I myself and singly’ splits the self in the very act of unifying it and the final line declares O’Hara’s intent to ‘save’ that slippery, invasive, poisonous, beautiful energy that keeps proliferating new transparencies, selves, guises — the energy that allows O’Hara to work inside all these old fictions and disguises and make them live again. (Breslin 248)

If Smith’s key word is ‘difference,’ Breslin’s is ‘energy,’ but that word behaves not so much as a containing concept but as a syntactical vortex out of which new movement ‘keeps proliferating.’ The resulting series — ‘slippery, invasive, poisonous, beautiful’ or ‘transparencies, selves, guises’ — do not contain terms that substitute for each other, metaphorically, as tropes belonging to a single category. Rather, they slip away from each other in a potentially endless metonymic chain. Breslin’s prose performs ‘hypertextually’ much more successfully than Smith’s does. Even more important, Breslin’s criticism comes much closer to what it feels like to read O’Hara; it recognizes O’Hara’s text as a performance but responds, not with a theory, but with a parallel performance, located on another plane of the critical hyperscape. At an earlier point in his reading of ‘In Memory of My Feelings,’ Breslin explains his approach:

Perhaps the best way to deal with this passage is not so much by trying to extract meaning from it — all too easy, as it turns out — but by trying to articulate the processes we follow as we read it. Our best position is thus a step away from it and from there we can see how reading the poem engages the reader with precisely those difficulties that the poet is writing ‘about.’ (Breslin 242–43)

Interestingly, the importance of energy emerges in Smith’s account when she deals with the spirit of improvisation in O’Hara. She evokes that spirit not as a theorised ‘difference’ but as the emotion of dizziness: ‘One of the effects of improvising in O’Hara’s poems is the dizzy effect of the poem exuberantly propelling itself forward’ (164), similar to the effect Breslin attempts to enact in his series. For Smith, the achievement of dizziness is an alternative to the more intellectual means of self-parody, also aimed at undoing the ‘self-regulation’ of the traditional subject. In response to O’Hara’s ‘Ode to Joy’ (1957), Smith writes, ‘This poem strikes at accepted values of self-control and self-regulation through Dionysian dizziness rather than logical argument’ (133).

There is a lesson here for Smith’s own dependence on logical argument. Her reference to the ‘Dionysian’ element in O’Hara recalls, of course, Friedrich Nietzsche, who famously criticized his own attempt to evoke the Dionysian in The Birth of Tragedy: ‘this ‘new soul’ should have sung, not spoken. What a pity that I could not tell as a poet what demanded to be told’ (Nietzsche 7). No doubt Smith would suspect Nietzsche of that ‘mystification’ that she rejects in the romantic view of improvisation, a view from which she is eager to distance O’Hara. Nevertheless, what a pity that Smith did not tell as a poet what demanded to be told of O’Hara.

Additional References

Breslin, James. From Modern to Contemporary: American Poetry, 1945-1965. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1985.

Brossard, Olivier. ‘The Last Clean Shirt: A Film by Alfred Leslie and Frank O’Hara.’ Jacket 24 (November 2003).

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy and The Genealogy of Morals. Trans. Francis Golffing. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday-Anchor, 1956.

Smith, Hazel. ‘Returning the Angles.’ Jacket 7 (April 1999).

Smith, Hazel, and AustraLYSIS. ‘Intertwingling.’ How2 1.5 (March 2001).

Smith, Hazel, and Roger Dean. ‘The Egg The Cart The Horse The Chicken: Cyberwriting, Sound, Intermedia.’ IMEj 4.1 (April 2002).

———. Improvisation, Hypermedia and the Arts since 1945. London: Harwood Academic, 1997.

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