Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Ashbery on O'Hara

Tonight I arrived home to the happy sight of a parcel of books awaiting me on the porch. The one among them that I anticipated most eagerly was John Ashbery’s Selected Prose which I ordered after reading a tantalizing review of it in the Guardian. In the Preface, Ashbery describes the collection as “the assembled results of an activity that has always been something more than a hobby, if less than a calling.” The book is comprised of an array of short pieces that span several decades and cover a broad range of subjects. I expect to zigzag through it in random fashion rather than to methodically read it cover to cover. I turned first to a piece that Ashbery wrote on Frank O’Hara shortly after O’Hara’s death in 1966. Here's an excerpt:

Like most truly original artists today, when tradition menaces the individual talent in ways undreamed of by T.S. Eliot, O’Hara and his achievement are caught between opposing power blocs. “Too hip for the squares and too square for the hips” is a category of oblivion which increasingly threatens any artist who dares to take his own way, regardless of mass public and journalistic approval. And how could it be otherwise in a supremely tribal civilization like ours, where even artists feel compelled to band together in marauding packs, where the loyalty-oath mentality has pervaded outer Bohemia, and where Grove Press subway posters invite the lumpenproletariat to “join the Underground Generation,” as though this were as simple a matter as joining the Pepsi Generation, which it probably is. Whatever it is, join it; you can examine it later and neutralize it, if necessary, from within.

Frank O’Hara’s poetry has no program and therefore cannot be joined. It does not advocate sex and dope as a panacea for the ills of modern society; it does not speak out against the war in Vietnam or in favor of civil rights; it does not paint gothic vignettes of the post-Atomic age: in a word, it does not attack the establishment. It merely ignores its right to exist, and is thus a source of annoyance for partisans of every stripe.

(John Ashbery, Selected Prose, edited by Eugene Richie, University of Michigan Press, 2004 at p. 81.)

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