Frank O’Hara: Prose About Poetry / Walt Whitman: Poetry In Prose

In preparation for this research paper situation, I’ve been (counterintuitively, perhaps) going through O’Hara’s and Whitman’s prose. It’s been (surprisingly, perhaps) fruitful, I think. Here’s some tidbits.

1. In a very short statement for The New American Poetry in 1959, O’Hara writes:

I don’t think of […] clarifying experiences for anyone or bettering (other than accidentally) anyone’s state or social relation, nor am I for any particular technical development in the American language simply because I find it necessary. What is happening to me, allowing for lies and exaggerations which I try to avoid, goes into my poems. I don’t think my experiences are clarified or made beautiful for myself or anyone else; they are just there in whatever form I can find them.

Compare this to the first section of Whitman’s Specimen Days called “A Happy Hour’s Command,” in which he describes the larger project of the work as a “huddle of diary-jottings, war-memoranda of 1862-’65, Nature-notes of 1877-’81, with Western and Canadian observations afterwards, all bundled up and tied by a big string.” Whitman, in a way uncannily similar to O’Hara, seeks to “reel out the diary-scraps and memoranda, just as they are, large or small, one after another, into print pages, and let the melange’s lackings and wants of connection take care of themselves.”

2. In another section of Specimen Days entitled “No Good Portrait of Lincoln” (and we all know how much he loved Lincoln), Whitman describes the failure of every portrait he’s seen of Lincoln:

Probably the reader has seen the physiognomies (often old farmers, sea-captains, and such) that, behind their homeliness, or even ugliness, held superior points so subtle, yet so palpable, making the real life of their faces almost impossible to depict as a wild perfume or fruit-taste, or a passionate tone of the living voice–and such was Lincoln’s face, the peculiar color, the lines of it, the eyes, mouth, expression. Of technical beauty it had nothing–but to the eye of a great artist it furnished a rare study, a feast and fascination. The current portraits are all failures–most of them caricatures.

In a statement written for the Paterson Society in 1961 but never sent, O’Hara tackles the difficulty of describing one’s own work:

Well you can’t have a statement saying “My poetry is the Sistine Chapel of verse,” or “My poetry is just like Pollock, de Kooning and Guston rolled into one great verb,” or “My poetry is like a windy day on a hill overlooking the stormy ocean”–first of all it isn’t so far as I can tell, and secondly even if it were something like all of these that wouldn’t be because I managed to make it that way. I couldn’t, it must have been an accident, and I would probably not recognize it myself. Further, what would poetry like that be? It would have to be the Sistine Chapel itself, the paintings themselves, the day and time specifically. Impossible.

The distinction between these are subtle but telling. Both describe art’s struggle with the physical world–depicting it perhaps, or elucidating it, or capturing it, immortalizing it. O’Hara rejects these goals both here and elsewhere in his prose (and, surely, his poems). For O’Hara, then, the goal becomes (we suppose) to communicate something non-physical, or merely to be something worthwhile in itself.

Whitman seems less eager to reject depiction as a (if not the) goal of great art. One might, however, read this dismissal of contemporary portraiture of Lincoln as an indictment of the institution of portraiture as a whole, or nearly. He leaves some wiggle room, citing “the eye of a great artist” as a potential avenue of successful portraiture. So perhaps Whitman sees more than one avenue of “success” in art, one in the communication/immortalization of the physical, and one separate the physical entirely? Whitman leaves a lot unsaid, here, and I hope to find more language on this subject elsewhere in his prose.

3. Whitman talks about trees in a section of Specimen Days called “The Lesson of a Tree”:

One lesson from affiliating a tree–perhaps the greatest moral lesson anyhow from earth, rocks, animals, is that same lesson of inherency, of what is, without the least regard to what the looker on (the critic) supposes or says, or whether he likes or dislikes.

Compare this to O’Hara’s “Personism: A Manifesto”:

But how can you really care if anybody gets it, or gets what it means, or if it improves them. Improves them for what? For death? Why hurry them along?

And then, in his statement for the Paterson Society:

If you cover someone with earth and grass grows, you don’t know what they looked like any more. Critical prose makes too much grass grow, and I don’t want to help hide my own poems, much less kill them.

They’re talking about the same thing, I think, but Whitman seems more concerned with his personal integrity than the work itself. What’s interesting, though, is how close the individual person is to the work of art for Whitman–he’s using the same language for both. It’s interesting also that O’Hara, while talking about art, personifies it, using the language of human death and burial. So I suppose they’re making similar points, but coming from opposite sides.

At any rate, I think there’s a paper in there somewhere, or at least I catch the odor of one. It may be possible to compare O’Hara’s and Whitman’s prose, construct a kind of unified poetics between them, and then use that to look at individual poems. Or I might be coming at this the wrong way entirely. Ideas?

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1 Response to Frank O’Hara: Prose About Poetry / Walt Whitman: Poetry In Prose

  1. AVZ says:

    I think this is a great start. It’s all about art trying to capture something–a tree, a face, an emotion–and failing. Many of O’Hara’s poems even chart this failure, breaking down midway as a poem’s own methods become too neat, too clean. Perhaps you can find similar moments in Whitman where there’s this drive to turn from art to authenticity. One such moment that just came to mind is in section 2 (I think) of SOS where he writes in the lilting line of perfumes, before moving to the broader atmosphere of existence itself. There, he catches himself on the verge of a kind of poetic failure.

    Most attempts at art, from the perspective of O’Hara’s prose at least, kill their subjects. They apply the sod and plant grass and the thing itself rots beneath. O’Hara and Whitman both enlist strategies of honesty, feigning, perhaps, immediacy and spontaneity to counteract the death of art–a death that comes by way of ornament and super-imposition of feeling among other things.

    But perhaps this is all a game. A poem is a mediation, not the thing itself. Even when it tries to be the thing itself, it is not the thing itself–just something posing as the thing itself. A good metaphor for this is O’Hara’s use of the phone in “Personism.” The irony there is that the supposedly more real and human connection itself is heavily mediated by distance and technology. Tracing how Whitman and O’Hara dramatically posit an ideal of authenticity and immediacy only to drown in layers of strong, mediating presence might be a great grounding idea of a paper.

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