Optical and Verbal Illusions

Just to set the scene: one of my housemates is an art history major, and she and I were sitting at our kitchen table doing our homework one evening a few weeks ago. I was reading Frank O’Hara, and she was researching optical art. We would break for conversation frequently, and as I listened to her talk about what she was reading I realized that there were a lot of similarities between optical art and the poetry that I was reading. So I did a bit of digging of my own and I think that there are a number of parallels between op-art and the New York school of poetry as we’ve discussed it in class.

Op-art began to grow in popularity in the 1960s, especially after a 1965 exhibition called “The Responsive Eye,” so in the same time period that the New York poets were writing. According to Optical Art: Theory and Practice, the foundation of op-art is a “non-objective perceptual response” (10). Its subject matter is abstract elements arranged in various patterns that have a striking visual impact on viewers – it is “sudden and immediate” (9). In our discussion of the New York school, one of the traits that we identified was the observational quality, especially of Frank O’Hara’s poems, the record of the poet’s immediate surroundings. The poetry of the New York school is also instinctive; the poems are like unfiltered streams of consciousness that illicit immediate reactions, just like op-art.

One of the best poems to illustrate the relationship between op-art and the New York school of poetry is John Ashbery’s “Daffy Duck in Hollywood.” In the beginning of the poem, Ashbery hits us with a barrage of allusions to make it clear that our lives are composed of constant experiences of stimuli. This is similar to the immediacy of optical art. This section of the poem also embodies the Gestalt principles that influenced op-art. The Gestalts were psychologists in the early twentieth century who believed that comprehension does not result from a step-by-step examination of a subject, but that we are capable of perceiving multiple objects as a group (9). To group elements, we use the processes of assimilation and contrast. Assimilation is a simplifying process by which we try to create uniformity between stimuli, while contrast emphasizes the differences between stimuli (13-14). Both of these processes are at play as we try to comprehend “Daffy Duck in Hollywood.” Ashbery combines items in new ways that don’t seem to make sense – “a mint-condition can / Of Rumford’s Baking Powder, a celluloid earring, Speedy / Gonzales the latest from Helen Topping Miller’s fertile / Escritoire” – and we try to find connections and similarities between them in order to make sense of the lines, a rather futile exercise (227). The contrast between the objects serves to communicate the variety of stimuli that we interact with on a daily basis.

Like viewing op-art, reading “Daffy Duck in Hollywood” is as much about the experience of reading as it is about the message of the poem. Op-art “places a binding emphasis on perception,” as did Ashbery (9). At the end of the poem, the speaker states, “No one really knows / Or cares whether this is the whole of which parts / Were vouchsafed,” which speaks to the allusions that Ashbery throws at readers in the first part of the poem (230). It doesn’t matter whether or not we can make them into a cohesive whole – the point is that we had the experience of reading about them. The speaker continues, “Life, our / Life anyway, is between” (230). Here Ashbery seems to advocate a neutral position; all that we can do is experience the poem or the stimuli that he writes about, because we don’t have complete control. Similar to viewing optical art, the experience is just as important, if not more so, than trying to find meaning in the words or images.

Parola, Rene. Optical Art: Theory and Practice. New York: Reinhold Book Corporation, 1969.

18 thoughts on “Optical and Verbal Illusions

  1. I realy like the points you raise, Holly- if only because they make me feel a bit better about not understanding O’Hara’s poetry. For O’Hara, life is about the experience. Just as how any art, op-art or otherwise, is about the experience of viewing it and the connotations the viewing raises, O’Hara’s poems are about the imagery as opposed to the comprehension.

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