Saturday, June 28, 2008

Reviewing the Review: O'Hara and Logan

There is an interesting review in the Sunday Times of the new Selected Poems of Frank O' Hara, written by William Logan. Typical of Logan, the overall tone is snide, and, I would also say, a bit homophobic. Take his final summary of the poems chosen for inclusion in the volume:
In his best poems...O’Hara found something beyond that terrible vacancy he was trying so hard to fill. (His best poems are rarely his most characteristic or frenzied.) The style, though at times foolish and self-parodic, remains fresh 50 years later. However much these poems live in the world of Lowell’s “tranquilized ’50s,” their giddiness in the face of despair, their animal pleasure in gossip, their false bravado, their frantic posturing and guilelessness and petty snobberies — and these were O’Hara’s virtues — give us as much of a life as poetry can.
There is a long tradition of criticizing the work of queer artists along these exact lines. The common accusations are of being insufficiently serious, and of not working hard enough. O'Hara, Logan tells us, was "preoccupied with the trivial." His "physical world is curiously impoverished." O'Hara "refused to apologize for his narcissism, his comic pretensions, his sometimes insufferable archness." And of course, my favorite line: "What O’Hara most objected to about poetry, however, was the hard work." Not to belabor the point, so to speak, but this approaches cliché. There is a way in which the central aspect of homophobic critique is a revulsion at any absence of procreation, or at least metaphors of procreation, in the artwork of a queer artist. Heaven forbid that an artist should step outside the framework of bourgeois domesticity. Rather than interpreting or even just simply noting O'Hara's approach--which these quotes describe accurately enough--Logan has to pass negative judgment in moral terms.

I wish I could say that Logan was himself being flip or attempting to reproduce some sort of camp humor. But I don't have that sense; I think rather that he really does object to O'Hara's breezy manner. Perhaps he's jealous, which you will understand if you ever read Logan's own ultra-laborious poetry. I'm just not sure how useful a review is that points out that a prolific poet wrote some poems that aren't good. He does, after all, praise quite a bit of his work, and considering that O'Hara died at the age of forty, I'm not sure what the big problem is.

Anyways, I just want to leave you with one of O'Hara's greatest poems. This is the "Salute to the French Negro Poets," from 1958, where he famously links together the common struggle of colonialized people at home and abroad in what is an essentially anti-identitarian politics. Texts like these are why I love working on the 1950s. Read it aloud, and I dare you not to be moved by the last line.

Ode: Salute to the French Negro Poets

from near the sea, like Whitman my great predecessor, I call
To the spirits of other lands to make fecund my existence

do not spare your wrath upon our shores, that trees may grow
upon the sea, mirror of our total mankind in the weather

one who no longer remembers dancing in the heat of the moon may call
across the shifting sands, trying to live in the terrible western world

here where to love at all’s to be a politician, as to love a poem
is pretentious, this may tendentious but it’s lyrical

which shows what lyricism has been brought to by our fables times
where cowards are shibboleths and one specific love’s traduced

by shame for what you love more generally and never would avoid
where reticence is paid for by a poet in his blood or ceasing to be

blood! Blood that we have mountains in our veins to stand off jackals
in the pillaging of our desires and allegiances, Aimé Césaire

for if there is fortuity it’s in the love we bear each other’s differences
in race which is the poetic ground on which we rear our smiles

standing in the sun of marshes as we wade slowly toward the culmination
of a gift which is categorically the most difficult relationship

and should be sought as such because it is our nature, nothing
inspires us but the love we want upon the frozen face of earth

and utter disparagement turns into praise as generations read the message
of our hearts in adolescent closets who once shot at us in doorways

or kept us from living freely because they were too young then to know what they would ultimately need from a barren and heart-sore life

the beauty of America, neither cool jazz nor devoured Egyptian heroes, lies in
lives in the darkness I inhabit in the midst of sterile millions

the only truth is face to face, the poem whose words become your mouth
and dying in black and white we fight for what we love, not are.


Rebecca said...

Truly stunning poem and truly strange review. Statements like this: "...but O’Hara almost never faces up to the emptiness beneath this high life and low desire — if there’s a subconscious revealed, it’s very hard to detect" irritate me. Why must there always be a secret? Can art never be transparent? The review itself is lacking in transparency as well.

One of the problems with reviews (particularly a review of a dead artist/poet/composer/etc) is that there is a tendency to search for the box. On which shelf will we store O'Hara? The reviews become more about fitting the artist's works into some sort of frame rather than really looking at the works themselves. I'm sure O'Hara wrote some rather glib and trifling poetry. But none of that takes away from his ability to create beauty with words like that last line of "Ode."

Ryan said...

Logan might as well have said, "O' Hara writes about showtunes and interior decorating. The End."

Rubbish all the way.