- Frank O’Hara and the Turn to Friendship
A couple of bright new books on Frank O’Hara and the New York School of poets underscore two notable trends in scholarship on twentieth-century U.S. poetry and culture. The first of these trends is fairly easy to describe. Since his stunning death in 1966—struck by a beach buggy late at night on Fire Island—O’Hara has been transformed from an influential though little-known poet and supporter of experimental art into a full-fledged member of the literary canon. Donald Allen’s The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara (1971) and Marjorie Perloff’s Frank O’Hara: Poet among Painters (1977) were early and indispensable steps in the rise of popular and scholarly interest in O’Hara, which continued apace throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, fueled in part by the invention of queer theory and the growing influence of cultural studies. O’Hara’s poems captured a number of movements that scholars were keen to describe, flitting easily across the great divide between high art and popular culture, meditating cleverly on the practice of everyday life in the postindustrial city, and addressing both the pleasures and difficulties of articulating queer desire in the public sphere. By now we have a biography, several tributes and essay collections, and recent books on O’Hara and the New York School marketed to broader audiences.1 “I’m so grateful to you!” O’Hara might have exclaimed to his growing audience in the new millennium, with his characteristic combination of self-deprecating ambition and joy.2
Lytle Shaw’s Frank O’Hara: The Poetics of Coterie and Andrew Epstein’s Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry confirm O’Hara’s position as a charismatic and irresistible figure in discussions of postwar American poetry. They underscore a second trend as well, at once more intriguing and more difficult to [End Page 243] evaluate: the turn to “coterie” and “friendship” as the central terms in discussions of aesthetics and agency in twentieth-century literary cultures. It seems striking that these two quite different studies of the art and social imaginary of O’Hara’s circle should both favor this particular level of intimacy and collaboration, which hovers ambivalently between individual and community. It’s true, of course, that O’Hara’s own poetic meditations on friendship and collaboration can be said to justify these approaches, and one might add that O’Hara’s popularity makes particular sense in an era of text messages and social networking. This is, after all, the poet who claimed to have invented his own poetic philosophy when, one day after lunch with a friend and while writing a poem for a lover, he realized that “if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem.”3
And yet there is more at work here than just O’Hara’s own interest in thematizing intimacy, or his prescience as a commentator on the fusion (and confusion) of social, creative, and professional lives in the twenty-first century. Epstein’s and Shaw’s arguments signal a subtle but perceptible reorientation in our thinking about individual subjects and the impingements of the dominant culture. These arguments suggest that we turn to intimate communities—groups of friends and close-knit literary allies—as a way of grounding our thinking about the self in social context, or about individual agency in relation to larger systems. They substitute friendship and coterie, forms of commonality just above the autonomous and individually creative, for the broader communities (literary or subcultural; those coalescing around experiences of race, class, gender, or sexuality) that have recently exerted such force in studies of twentieth-century American poetry and culture.
Indeed, “community” becomes a keyword for both Epstein and Shaw, a term they use to distinguish themselves...