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.

O’Hara’s “Why I Am Not a Painter, and Goldberg’s “Sardines”

Although the title of Frank O’Hara’s poem, “Why I Am Not a Painter,” suggests that poetry and painting are somehow inherently different, the poem itself seems to structurally focus more on similarities between the two art forms and what they can accomplish than their differences. Within the poem, a poet’s creative process and “Mike Goldberg’s” painting process are established as parallel through their mirroring in the second and third stanzas. Where Goldberg’s painting, titled “Sardines,” loses its concrete subject matter as a compositional choice, the poet’s work, which begins with the concept of the color “orange” ends up “finished,” (26) with no mention of orange. Both are named after concrete subject matter that their content lacks, presented in parallel block lettering. The poem ends without describing the actual content of either, and in both artists’ processes vague quantities of time pass before they are finished. Because of these clear parallels, I decided to compare “Why I Am Not a Painter” directly to Michael Goldberg’s painting “sardines, which Professor Phillips recently uploaded on Moodle. By imitating the painting in structure and blurring descriptions of the creative process, O’Hara seems to assert that painting and poetry can achieve similar goals.

The structure of “Why I Am Not a Painter” seems similar to the composition of Goldberg’s painting “Sardines,” because both are circular. Just as the colors in Goldberg’s paintings seem to travel in roughly circular patterns through the image, “Why I Am Not a Painter” creates a kind of circle from beginning to end through its return to the title, “SARDINES,” (29). Although the word “sardines does not begin the poem, it opens the description of Goldberg’s painting process (8) and returns to it in the final word. Smaller circles also characterize O’Hara’s experience of Goldberg’s painting process as “I drop in” at beginning of Goldberg’s process (5), and as the painting progresses and changes (11,13). The poet finally returns to Goldberg’s painting at the end, completing the cycle.

Statements that blur distinctions of what defines poetry also might imitate, or at least relate to the lack of concrete or recognizable subject matter in Goldberg’s painting.
Time in particular becomes blurred throughout the poem. While the painting progresses, “I go, and the days go by,” (11-12), and an unmeasured number of “days go by” (24) again while the poet writes “Oranges.” Time, therefore is an abstract concept instead of a concrete factor in the poem’s narrative.

When O’Hara describes the poem “Oranges,” the poet says, “It is even of prose, I am a real poet” (24-25). Here, the reader cannot be sure even of whether poem that O’Hara is describing is actually poetry or prose. With different forms of writing confused, even the reader’s perception of what a “poem” is becomes blurred and abstracted. Similarly, in O’Hara’s description of Goldberg’s painting process, in the place of the “sardines” in the painting, “all that’s left is just letters,” (15-16). Since the reader would likely expect “letters” in a poem, but not in a painting, this statement blurs the line between writing and painting as art forms also becomes blurry. Through such mixed descriptions, O’Hara challenges the expectation that familiar art forms will appear how they are traditionally expected to look; this achieves a similar effect to that created by abstract paintings such as “Sardines,” which also challenge traditional conceptions of what a painting should look like and what art should accomplish.

O’Hara’s The Day Lady Died – To whom does the poem belong?

During our class discussion of Frank O’Hara’s poem The Day Lady Died, we considered the function of his constant references to exact details and times. He uses time constantly in the poem, beginning with 12:20 in the opening line, expanding to the day (Friday), in the second line putting the day in context of the year (three days after Bastille day), in the third putting the year in context (1959), and in the fourth and fifth back to 4:19 and 7:15. This motion of time seals the moment in his own personal memory, making it impossible for the reader to enter the poem as the subject. The details included throughout the poem continue to make the scene undeniably personal. O’Hara takes his reader along his daily path on the road and into stores to take care of his daily chores, and his commentary like “for once in her life” regarding the bank teller and the confident sense with which he refers to products as specific brand names create a clear sense that this is a frequent routine of his. It is clear that while O’Hara wants to connect with his reader, he does so by making the poem able to transcend its physical setting and connect on an emotional level only. We are not invited to take part in this memory that has occurred and passed, and indeed it seems as though even O’Hara himself can only view the poem as a memory and not as an experience.

The conclusion of the poem with “and everyone and I stopped breathing,” which we discussed in class to be a reflection of the death of Lady (Billie Holiday) herself, can also be read to suggest a death or sealing of the moment in O’Hara’s own past. The last scene, as he reflects on a performance he attended of Lady’s, ends ambiguously as we are not sure who exactly has stopped breathing (“everyone” or O’Hara?) nor are we sure when this is occurring (either in the Five Spot or when O’Hara discovers that Lady has died). Regardless, the idea that someone has stopped breathing, and the fact that there is nothing following this statement, invokes the feeling that the moment itself is dead and cannot be relived even through the poem. It it as though the poem has been clipped short, suspended and detached. If we read the poem aloud this last line is difficult because it does not resolve or even end in punctuation, and the abrupt break with no logical exit seems to forcefully shake off the reader who attempts to insert him or herself into O’Hara’s memory.

In O’Hara’s “Personism: A Manifesto,” he explains that he views poetry as a means to connect people as a telephone call would. This poem does accomplish this task – while the details given make the poem inaccessible as an experience for the reader, they also invite us to observe his experience closely through the lens of O’Hara’s memory. We are given many context clues to situate ourselves in time and space, and the description is such that we can visualize O’Hara himself wandering along the morning road. However, we are also clearly informed in the Manifesto of O’Hara’s regard for his audience. He explains his view of the necessity of “let[ting] all the different bodies fall where they may” in regards to the critical reception of his work. The use of the word “bodies” indicates that O’Hara fully expects a certain number of “casualties” of literary criticism, but his nonchalant decision to “let them fall” demonstrates an apparent lack of concern with their words. O’Hara’s poems are between himself and his reader, but there is a very peculiar sense that in the event that the reader does not wish to be the person on the other end of the metaphorical phone line, O’Hara is not affected. In effect, the phone call is always extended, but either party reserves the right to “hang up.”

So – to whom does the poem belong, both in this instance and in the art itself? Should the writer be invited to observe the author’s experience and connect with him, as O’Hara suggests, or does the poem leave the possession of the author once it is released to become an experience itself for the reader, as Ashbery (among others) believed? O’Hara seems to draw a fine line between wanting an intimate connection with each reader and yet only allowing them to approach the poem from an outsider’s observation – is he justified or selfish?


“To the Harbormaster”: A Biographical Approach

In trying to determine my topic for this blog post, I began by thinking about what poems have really captured my interest or intrigued me so far this semester. Of the ones we have read most recently, I felt myself drawn to Frank O’Hara’s “To the Harbormaster.” Kristen has already discussed some of the imagery and metaphors in her post (http://blogs.dickinson.edu/ampoetry1950/2011/09/29/oharas-to-the-harbormaster/), so I will be taking a more biographical approach. I am particularly interested in the question of to whom the poem is addressed, the “you” that the poem’s speaker “wanted to be sure to reach” (line 1).

According to Professor Phillips, many scholars have argued that the poem is written to the artist Larry Rivers (who is also mentioned elsewhere in O’Hara’s writings, most notably in “On Seeing Larry Rivers’ ‘Washington Crossing the Delaware’ at the Museum of Modern Art”). Having now researched Rivers, I would say that this is entirely plausible.

O’Hara and Rivers met in 1950 at a party hosted by John Ashbery and were close friends until O’Hara’s death 16 years later. They collaborated professionally many times and their personal correspondence has been well documented. Upon O’Hara’s death, Rivers gave the eulogy at his funeral and also contributed to the MOMA’s memorial exhibition in Frank’s honor. As poet and editor Edward Byrne comments in his blog post about the friends: “Perhaps no other friendship epitomized as well the links between the art and literary communities in New York at the time” (http://edwardbyrne.blogspot.com/2008/08/larry-rivers-and-frank-ohara.html).

Like O’Hara, Rivers originally studied music, working as a jazz saxophonist and attending Juilliard. As an artist, he is most remembered for his contributions to Pop art (Andy Warhol is probably that movement’s best known son), often being called its “Grandfather” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Larry_Rivers).

It is obvious that the two men were close. O’Hara related the first meeting between them at Ashbery’s party: ““I thought he was crazy and he thought I was even crazier. I was very shy, which he thought was intelligence; he was garrulous, which I assumed was brilliance—and on such misinterpretations, thank heavens, many a friendship is based” and Rivers later wrote in his memoirs: “From the earliest moments of our friendship we were enthusiastic about each other’s work. Frank O’Hara was a big influence on me, but I think I influenced him too.” In his eulogy for O’Hara, Rivers commented, “Without a doubt he was the most impossible man I knew. He never let me off the hook. He never allowed me to be lazy. His talk, his interests, his poetry, his life was a theatre in which I saw what human beings are really like. He was a dream of contradictions. At one time or another, he was everyone’s greatest and most loyal audience” (qtd. in Byrne).

Knowing, then, the warmth between Rivers and O’Hara, the personal affection as well as the professional respect, it seems perfectly logical that Rivers would be O’Hara’s Harbormaster, the person to whom he would “offer my hull and the tattered cordage/of my will” (10-11).

For more information on Larry Rivers or to view some of his work, visit: http://www.larryriversfoundation.org/bio.html