- The Anti-Social Network
In a description of Frank O'Hara's 1959 "Personal Poem" that could apply to much of O'Hara's verse (especially his sui generis, self-styled "I do this, I do that" poems), 1 Michael Clune writes:
O'Hara shows himself moving through the city, making choices that are accompanied by an exhaustive specification of the scene of choosing. This specification of the scene of choice, O'Hara's tendency to give the coordinates of his position relative to space, time, and companions, replaces an account of the reasons for choices. Choice is determined by an instant response to options presented by the immediate environment, rather than by the speaker's fixed values, desires, or beliefs.(55)
This statement near the beginning of American Literature and the Free Market, 1945-2000 brilliantly captures O'Hara's difference from other major poets of the 1950s such as Robert Lowell, Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, and John Berryman, who in their different ways offer the sorts of exhaustive personal, familial, and other histories that we associate with the confessional school. Confessional poetry, with its detailed renderings of individual [End Page 370] subjectivity, was of course a response to the widespread postwar concern that newly large-scale institutions were undermining individuality and turning Americans into mindless drones not all that different from their Communist counterparts. 2 In this respect, it was not unrelated, as Clune points out, to the writing of such free-market apostles as Milton Friedman, who saw in the invisible hand of the economy "a form of social organization" that, rather than subordinating the individual to society, instead reshaped the latter around "the individual's private desire" (70). In eschewing "the interior of the choosing subject" for "his local and contingent situation" (55), however, O'Hara does not so much abandon individuality as attempt to think beyond the presumptive model of it shared by confessional poets, free-market polemicists, and postwar critics of conformity alike. Because O'Hara understands individuality as the product of choices made in "a context of commercial objects" (75)—as in "The Day Lady Died," whose speaker purchases "a little Verlaine . . . a bottle of Strega . . . a carton of Gauloises and a carton of / Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it" 3 —his poetry presents us with a model of individuality in which "contingent details of individual experience . . . open directly onto a common life" (76). For O'Hara, as for his contemporary the urban planner Jane Jacobs, the nonstandardized commercial environment of the city opens up a space in which "the preference of the moment [End Page 371] activates the communal dimension of personal experience" (64). What Marjorie Perloff long ago dubbed O'Hara's "aesthetic of attention," that is, bypasses postwar fears about the shrinking distance between society and the individual to elaborate instead a utopian vision of the way in which context-dependent personal choices simultaneously shape and are shaped by a nonmalign collective subjectivity. 4
I begin with Clune's chapter on O'Hara because it exemplifies both his commitment to a counterhistory of postwar literature (he admires O'Hara because his vision is atypical) and his insistence on understanding the aesthetic and the economic as realms separate from the social. Clune's book is as important a study of postwar writing as Mark McGurl's The Program Era precisely because it takes a diametrically opposed approach to the study of this literature. 5 Where McGurl stresses the role played by the institutions of the university and the writing workshop in shaping the aesthetics of wildly diverse works of fiction, Clune excavates a small but important countertradition committed to "[t]he economic fiction" (25) of "the market . . . as a nonsocial principle for organizing experience" (26). Exploring the manifold ways in which "the collective rises in the moment-by-moment organizing of first person experience by market forces" (25), these works envision the market not only as "the structuring principle of subjectivity" (25) but as a mode of access to...