- Frank O'HaraSalute to the French Negro Poet, Aimé Césaire
In the opening lines of "Ode: Salute to the French Negro Poets" (1958), midcentury American poet Frank O'Hara beckons: "From near the sea, like Whitman my great predecessor, I call/to the spirits of other lands to make fecund my existence" (1–2). O'Hara's "call" at once registers an entreaty and a commandment, foregrounding a poignant contradiction: the harkening "I" requires external confirmation of its own "existence." Likewise, the speaker's concrete identification with "Whitman," from whom he derives poetic ancestry and voice, is undercut by the ambiguity of the remote "other lands" and airy "spirits" that must birth him. O'Hara's lines are rife with tension, collapsing spatial proximity and distance, finitude and uncertainty. They exploit the couplet form in these dualities, precariously straddling location and dislocation, a sense of control and a, quite literal, subjection. Yet, if O'Hara's lines are fraught with indeterminacy, their attachment to poetry is inviolable, as the lyric call remains addressed "To the French Negro Poets." Consequently, any sense of identification at stake here is one between poets: O'Hara and Whitman, or O'Hara and the one "French Negro Poet" whom he names, Aimé Césaire. O'Hara's later line, "blood! blood that we have mountains in our veins to stand off jackals/in the pillaging of our desires and allegiances, Aimé Césaire" (13–14) even explicitly echoes Césaire's Notebook of a Return To The Native Land (1947): "Blood! Blood! all our blood aroused by the male heart of the/sun" (826–27).1 O'Hara's poem declaims an intimate form of textual identification with Césaire: a poetic and fraternal consanguinity.
O'Hara's identification with Césaire is surprising—more so, at least, than that with Whitman. After all many midcentury poetries, including O'Hara's own and those particularly associated with Beat and San Francisco Renaissance writers (e.g. Allen Ginsberg, William Everson, Gary Snyder) invoked Whitman as a crucial predecessor whose model of intimate declaration and expansive lineation could serve as a bastion against formalist conservatism.2 By contrast, the French Negro Poets and Césaire are rarely so invoked. As a wide reader and one both literate in French and enamored of the French surrealists, however, O'Hara was likely attuned to Césaire's [End Page 257] Notebook, particularly after André Breton penned the forward to the first bilingual 1947 edition of the epic. O'Hara's familiarity with Césaire's work might also have come later, stemming from François Hoffman's 1958 Yale French Studies essay entitled "French Negro Poetry," which excerpts the "blood" line O'Hara revives in "Ode," written the same year. In any case, his invocation of Césaire is significant. Discussing O'Hara's coterie poetics, Lytle Shaw suggests that the author's "naming" of particular people "situate[s] [his] writing within shifting concepts of space, audience, and authority" (121). Moving beyond Shaw's geographic scope (Russia and Europe) as well as our traditional understanding of the consummately social poet through his pivotal role in American artistic networks, O'Hara's naming of Césaire further shifts our conception of O'Hara's literary space, audience, and authority. It asks us to reconceive of the American poet within a wider transnational literary context.3
With this in mind, I suggest that the connection between O'Hara and Césaire runs deeper than these superficial connections can only, of necessity, begin to indicate. I will argue here that O'Hara's attraction to Césaire in "Ode: Salute" is more broadly based on the poets' shared struggle to poetically reconcile their peripheral identities to exclusive social landscapes. For though the French Negro Poets were titularly aligned with France, their connection to that country remained uneasy. As Hoffman's early essay attests: the "French Negro poets are … marginal men who feel themselves to be different both from the 'primitive' tribe from 'civilized' Europe" (Hoffman 62). These Negro Poets' marginalized position within the Francophone world likely resonated with the homosexual O'Hara, enmeshed as he...