- Confessional Counterpublics in Frank O'Hara and Allen Ginsberg
I was trotting along and suddenly
it started raining and snowing
and you said it was hailing
but hailing hits you on the head
hard so it was really snowing and
raining and I was in such a hurry
to meet you but the traffic
was acting exactly like the sky
and suddenly I see a headline
LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED!
there is no snow in Hollywood
there is no rain in California
I have been to lots of parties
and acted perfectly disgraceful
but I never actually collapsed
oh Lana Turner we love you get up(Lunch Poems 78)
Frank O'Hara introduced his occasional poem "Lana Turner has collapsed!" at a poetry reading in 1962, explaining to the audience that he had written the poem on the Staten Island ferry en route to the reading. Robert Lowell was also in attendance that day, and when it came time for him to read, Lowell apologized for not having written his poem on the spot too.1 In Lowell's retort, the more established poet is alluding to the care with which he writes, while O'Hara brags about his carelessness and spontaneity. O'Hara looks like the more effusive of the two, and so we are left to ponder [End Page 40] why it was Lowell who acquired the label of "confessional" with its connotations of spontaneity. Lowell's "confessional" poetic is in fact characterized by controlled spontaneity or feigned carelessness, which goes some way towards explaining why he may not have appreciated O'Hara's devil-may-care attitude. The rhetorical mode that won Lowell his confessional title is that of the self-conscious, composed style of self-narration we have come to expect from models of confession descending from Augustine and Rousseau. O'Hara wrote dismissively of this quality in Lowell's "Skunk Hour" with his characteristic light humor, saying "I don't think that anyone has to get themselves to go and watch lovers in a parking lot necking in order to write a poem, and I don't see why it's admirable if they feel guilty about it. They should feel guilty. Why are they snooping? What's so wonderful about a Peeping Tom?"2 Embedded in his low-brow humor is a pointed critique of Lowell's confessional mode, with its spurious claims to sincerity and cathartic release from a guilt that is in fact its precondition.
This article examines the cultural labor performed by confessional poetry in America during the late fifties and early sixties, particularly in relation to certain poets excluded from this privileged group, namely O'Hara and his contemporary Allen Ginsberg. I suggest that the influence exerted by the category needs to be situated within the context of a critical tradition linking confession with a form of transcendent lyricism associated with Romanticism. O'Hara was disparaging of Lowell's particular brand of confessional poetic, partly because it was not consistent with O'Hara's avant-garde aesthetics. But his aversion to Lowell's poetic was also conditioned by his positioning in American cold war culture as a homosexual man. When it came to disclosing personal matters, he opted for an intimate lyric addressed to his friends. O'Hara's antipathy to New Criticism and confessional poetry has been addressed by Terrell Scott Herring, who argues that O'Hara "strategically manufactures an alternative public sphere in which public individuals paradoxically meet as private persons" (416). Herring contends that O'Hara's poems respond to the mass public sphere, and he shows how "Poem" ("Lana Turner has collapsed!") uses the techniques of tabloid journalism to create a community of subjects from the mass public (420). However, Herring suggests that O'Hara thought Lowell's confessionalism too self-revealing, while I argue on the contrary that O'Hara disliked Lowell's poetic because of its disingenuous claim to sincerity and self-revelation (416). I suggest that rather than being "anti-confessional," both O'Hara and Ginsberg wrote poems that had affinities with the confessional mode, but which overtly reject the impersonal, solitary form of confession advocated by Lowell. They used...