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.

“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

Seeing a Place

John Ashbery’s poem “The Instruction Manual” offers another of the juxtapositions mentioned in the interview with A. Poulin, Jr., this time between an instruction manual on the uses of a new metal and Guadalajara, Mexico. The two have nothing to do with one another, yet the instruction manual brings to mind Mexico’s second city. It’s as if the colors, sounds, and people of Guadalajara come to mind as a sort of rebellion against the speaker’s tedious task of writing the instruction manual.

I am particularly interested in how the speaker’s imaginary tour of Guadalajara is experienced and how he communicates that experience. In his initial address to Guadalajara, the speaker calls it the “City I wanted most to see, and most did not see” (5), which would seem to imply that he has never been to Guadalajara. For never having been there, however, he is able to construct a very detailed, multidimensional description of what it would be like to be in the city for a day. I think that the word “see” in this line is used in two different ways here. The speaker wanted to see Guadalajara, meaning that he wanted to visit it, but he “most did not see” it. I think that the second “see” means that he didn’t see the city as tourists “see” a city by visiting its historic landmarks or following what a guidebook instructs them to do.

According to the travel company Lonely Planet, Guadalajara has contributed tequila, mariachi music, the sombrero, rodeos (charreodas), and the Mexican Hat Dance, all fairly stereotypical elements of Mexican culture. The speaker does not even mention these elements, however. His experience is completely different. He says later in the poem, talking to his invisible companion(s), “How limited, but how complete withal, has been our experience of Guadalajara!” (8). He decides that he has experienced the city because he has seen love, heard music, tasted the drinks, and seen the colored houses. He claims that the only thing left to do is to stay (8), but from a tourist standpoint he has not even begun to see the famous sites of the city. Instead, he has seen the city on a different level. Guadalajara itself is not important here, but rather the focus is on the experience of seeing the people and activities of a place.

The speaker’s experience and voice are in keeping with Ashbery’s other poems where the experience of the thing is emphasized, while the speaker’s voice is impossible to pin down. First of all, we are never sure where the speaker is located, either temporally or physically. Is he sat at his desk in his office dreaming? Is he in a memory? Is he in Guadalajara? Who is with him? Where is he in relation to the people he describes, or is he a removed observer? It is impossible to know sometimes. At the same time, the speaker’s voice seems to oscillate between that of a tour guide, saying things such as, “Let us take this opportunity to tiptoe into one of the side streets. / Here you may see one of those white houses with green trim” (6), and an artist who sees the city in terms of its colors. Color is constantly mentioned in descriptions of people and of the city itself, and when the speaker is going to climb the church tower, he describes it as “the faded pink one, there against the fierce blue of the sky” (7). Here the speaker defines the world through its colors, which seems to be a very artistic viewpoint. By switching between these voices, Ashbery creates yet another juxtaposition and perhaps suggests that there are multiple ways to “see” a place, just as there are multiple voices in his poem, but that no single method gives a complete view.