- "Between the Poet and the Person":Dilemmas of Friendship in Contemporary Poetry
In the speech Larry Rivers gave at Frank O'Hara's 1966 funeral, he said: "Frank O'Hara was my best friend. There are at least sixty people in New York who thought Frank O'Hara was their best friend." He later rooted this impossibility in O'Hara himself, calling the poet "a dream of contradictions."1 Andrew Epstein cites Rivers's eulogy at the outset of his fascinating reading of the artistically generative conflicts between self and friendship in O'Hara's life and work, an analysis that forms the core of Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry. From O'Hara's death on, friends, lovers, critics, and scholars have all helped to contribute to the myth that the poet actually achieved the proliferated intimacies Rivers describes—that, in O'Hara's words, he managed to be "everything to everybody everywhere" (qtd. in Beautiful Enemies 117), without personal consequence and in the breezy mood that buoys his most famous poems. Epstein's skepticism, bred of a much more sophisticated understanding of the relationship between O'Hara's poems and friendship "as subject matter, biographical factor, philosophical riddle, or textual consideration" (87), offers a sobering, and deeply humanizing, alternative to what [End Page 151] Rivers himself warned would be a tendency to "deify" the man many consider the timelessly vital center of the multigenre, multigenerational explosion in the New York art world of the fifties, sixties, and seventies. Against the prevailing image of O'Hara as a radiantly charming, if sometimes bristly, cultural socialite, Epstein posits an intellectual deeply ambivalent about intimacy in relation to individual autonomy, dependent upon but forever turning away from the scores of people who counted him as their "best" friend.
Epstein's revision of O'Hara is emblematic of the bracingly corrective and inspiring nature of Beautiful Enemies as a whole. Epstein's book doesn't seek to be encyclopedic—his main focus is the poetry and interlocking friendships of O'Hara, John Ashbery, and Amiri Baraka, examined through the lens of Emersonian pragmatism—but his sharply faceted readings set in motion a feeling of kaleidoscopic possibility, of shifting scholarly configurations yet to be explored. Among other contributions, Beautiful Enemies enters the emergent field of social poetics as a useful curb to purely celebratory treatments of postwar avant-garde poetry as a site of "community formation," reads an O'Hara now truly popular for his friendly occasional poetry against that grain, and makes the case for Baraka's centrality to the so-called New York school in a way that both challenges the group labels we've been using since Donald Allen's New American Poetry (1960) and provides a tantalizing lure to return to Baraka's oft-overshadowed early career. Although it is not the first recent work to explore the connections between pragmatism and postwar American poetry, Epstein's book does so with the combination of intellectual lucidity and psychological affinity that, one imagines, helps to inspire the relationship between philosophy and art—and philosophers and artists—to begin with.
While not in a completely linear trajectory, contemporary poetry scholarship has evolved, over the last three decades, from a primary focus on lyric subjectivity, through identity-oriented and historicist accounts of the work of various groups, to studies that, as Epstein puts it, "look more closely, analytically, and sociologically at the importance of community," particularly for postwar avant-garde and experimental poetry (7). While useful as an umbrella term for the range of activities and institutions through which poets share work and build careers and canonicity, "community" has not been [End Page 152] sufficiently theorized from the inside. Solidarity is an obvious necessity among groups of poets who operate outside of establishment institutions. Most commentary on avant-garde community has been concerned with defining and celebrating the radical position of a given collective—the fixity of whose identity is more often a product of scholarly exigency than actual affinities—within the large-scale field of...