I would like to recommend to you all a book called Hip: the history, even though I find that an unfortunate title. It was written by John Leland, self-proclaimed “reporter for the New York Times and former editor-in-chief of Details, and…an original columnist at SPIN magazine.” According to Leland’s definition, “…hip tells a story of black and white America, and the dance of conflict and curiosity that binds it. In a history often defined by racial clash, hip offers an alternative account of centuries of contact and emulation, of back-and-forth. This line of mutual influence, which we seldom talk about, is not a decorative fillip on the national identity but one of the central, life-giving arteries” (6). In a 360-plus page record of such cultural exchange, Whitman is named the ‘theoretician’ of hip (9), the author (along with fellow Transcendentalists Emerson, Thoreau and Melville) of “the formal groundwork for hip,” i.e., “hip’s…original gangstas. No skater, raver, indie-rocker, thug, Pabst Blue Ribbon drinker or wi-fi slacker today acts without their permission” (13). Whitman’s 1855 preface to the Leaves of Grass is even quoted, at length, as “a founding hipster manifesto” (41). To which I think we can all agree…
But what I find so pertinent to our recent discussion of Frank O’Hara (who is sadly omitted from the book’s extensive index) is Leland’s emphasis on the poetic pursuit of the ‘present tense.'”…[A]s much as hip organizes space, it also organizes time. A recurrent theme of this book is that hip produces a continuous present tense, cut loose from past and future. Whitman and the 19th century transcendentalists accomplish this through intense contemplation, which stilled the clock; the Beats and beboppers got there by fetishizing the moment of improvisation; hip hoppers by inventing their names and personae, severing the continuities of family and blood line. All of these suspend time” (273). For Leland, the effort to liberate oneself from linear time and space is a common denominator among modern iconoclasts. Like others in his generation of ‘Beats and beboppers,’ O’Hara composed his poems spontaneously, seizing the immediate and concrete details as inspiration for crucial, impactive, enduring articulations.
So, do you buy the argument that, like Whitman’s tendency to obsessively revolve around his subject, O’Hara’s coffee, cigarettes and movie stars are all just part of a larger ritual for arriving at the present? And do you agree with me that hip hop could be the proverbial road less traveled from this point in our syllabus?
Sounds interesting — though the phrase I like best is yours having to do with the “ritual for arriving at the present.” That seems to be a marvelous definition of poetry itself, even if much of the ritual often evades the present. It’s a long and convoluted ritual, I guess you could say, but poets ultimately want to arrive at some core truth–of history, of emotion, of relationships.
I also like that the phrase helps us think of O’Hara’s I-do-this-I-do-that poems not as slight little things, but as rituals of the present. A ways to engage the present. As Charles wrote in a previous post (citing another critic I think): attention = life. And attention happens in the present tense. I’m not sure about the “suspended time” business (that reminds me too much of TS Eliot’s still point in a turning world, some symbolic stasis). But I like the emphasis on an in-process presence. Anyway, thanks for sharing the book with us!