Saturday, 25 September 2010


...well maybe not right now as I've got plenty of other books in my "to read" pile and a second daughter on the way in October but this is the name of an interesting-looking book of essays that I picked up yesterday at a conference/book-launch at the University of London in Paris.

Perhaps a book review will follow but in case it doesn't here's a little resumé of yesterday's proceedings.

Morning session
Robert Hampson, one of the books co-editors spoke about O'Hara, monuments and cinema. Starting from the premise that O'Hara eschewed the monumentality of some of his near-contemporaries (Pound, Zukofsky, Olson) Hampson argued that the references to cinema in O'Hara's poetry partake of a shared cultural memory and hence serve the role of monuments. He also in passing picked out a couple of moments where O'Hara appears to be referring to passages in Wordsworth.

Olivier Brossard spoke next, reading extracts from a book in progress about O'Hara, cinema and the body. A lot of his talk was about money and O'Hara's attitudes toward getting and spending (he valued the latter). His talk was truncated because of lunch but he seemed to be building toward a conclusion where financial expenditure and a Whitmanesque physical dissemination meet.

These two talks for me were complementary, focussing as they did on remembering (Hampson) and dismembering (Brossard). Hampson's positioning of O'Hara as a poet of memory seemed the more startling to me - I had always him down as an American, down with history, live in the present moment kind of a poet. But will keep an eye open for Brossard's book when it comes out; money is too often considered a dirty word in poetry circles so nice to see someone discussing it.

Post-lunch session
David Herd spoke about the step in O'Hara's poetry, tying this to a Heideggerean notion of the leap (the German seems to have some of the word play of "spring" in English, as both source and movement), O'Hara's own gait (apparently many of his contemporaries commented on its grace) and William Carlos Williams' Spring and All. This was a dense paper but Herd seemed to be saying that the step is a unit in space not time and that the measure of O'Hara's poetry (and thinking) is a spatial and not a temporal/metrical one.

Tadeusz Pioro spoke about the new and the boring in O'Hara's verse and approached him through the trifocal lens of Pound ("Make it New"), Baudelaire (Spleen) and Benjamin (The Arcades Project). This critical prism makes O'Hara emerge as a dandy who manages to avoid the trap of modernist ennui, who uses the splendour of the city to stave off the menace of its endless and ultimately tedious novelty.

I would have liked a few more examples to help me understand Herd's argument (but you can't have everything in 20 minutes) - does moving through space make for spaced-out poems (as it often does in Williams) or is the step recognizable in O'Hara's poetry through a certain way of seeing the world rather than through mise en page? Perhaps there will be more when I get around to reading the book. Pioro's paper threw up so many associations that it was hard to pin it down but the role of boredom seems a fertile topic, even if it is notable mainly through its absence in O'Hara's work.

Concluding session
Andrea Brady performed a close-reading of the poem "Second Avenue" which sought to bring out an O'Hara very different from the light, insouciant, campy one we know from the Lunch Poems. This is an id-y poem, full of violence and of dark, wet, smelly images. It is also a prickly and at times unpleasant poem that seeks to repulse and insult it's potential readers.

Will Montgomery looked at the relationship between O'Hara and the avant-garde American composer, Morton Feldman. Feldman set one of O'Hara's poems to music and Montgomery played us two different versions of this piece. He also contextualized this collaboration by looking at O'Hara and Feldman's friendship and also at O'Hara's passion for absorbing other art-forms.

I admired Brady for presenting an unattractive O'Hara - he seems to be an almost universally liked poet among both writers and critics so it's always refreshing to hear a dissenting voice. Montgomery's presentation got me thinking about what you can and cannot do in different art forms - the moving/thinking in space that Herd discusses seems more easy to achieve in a performative art form like a concert which has a physical presence. Also made me wonder if O'Hara's real forte wasn't the collaboration, which permits one to explore ideas as fully and variously as possibly, rather than the poem which is always limited by its existence on the page? This could explain the apparent disregard he had for his own writing - the poems were notes towards a larger project rather than ends in themselves.


  1. I agree it's good to balance out the current rather uncritical favour towards O'Hara, among readers who perhaps only know the more approachable, chatty, "I-did-this-I-did-that" poems, by turning attention to the more challenging experimental works like 'Second Avenue' and 'Oranges'. The Complete Poems is by its very nature a restless, diverse and uneven set of poems which shouldnt be oversimplified into what we think of as "classic O'Hara". Anyway sounds like an interesting event. I also enjoyed the interview with you in Northern Review. All the best,

  2. He led such a glamorous life compared to most poets nowadays that I think people are in awe of him and hence skim over his faults. In the introduction to the book they say that his poetry makes you want to be his friend, and that seems right to me. This collection of essays seems to be an attempt to go beyond the "oh-my-god-he-got-shitfaced-with-pollock-and-de-kooning" attitude while having the honesty to admit that that is part of what draws readers to him in the first place. The conference was excellent and I look forward to exploring the book in more detail. Glad you liked the NPR interview. Rufo

  3. What's the name of the book again?