Sunday, June 29, 2008

An Alternate Take

Frank O'Hara was the Coleridge of his day. At his funeral in 1966, the painter Larry Rivers said that the poet had been his best friend, and added that there must be sixty people in New York alone who, that very morning, were making the same claim. It was not only that he had been a best friend, he'd been a world-making friend. For O'Hara, the word alone carried such an active charge that it had easily generated in him enough energy to light up a dozen movements. With his death, "countless poets, artists, novelists, composers, and musicians were left reeling as they tried in vain to make sense of the loss of a figure who was so central to ...[their] own overlapping communities."

O'Hara's romance with friendship was openly linked to the key idea of collaboration. What Coleridge and Wordsworth had marveled over for a few months in their long lives became for O'Hara and his friends an article of faith that, in theory, went the nineteenth-century Romantics one better. At the time, Paul Goodman was arguing that the avant-garde artist builds a community of interests influential to both art and society by writing for, with, and about his friends. The New York poets all responded eagerly to the suggestion, but none more than O'Hara, whose credo became, We will write together, about ourselves and one another, each of us egging the others on to shine, thereby making a difference in the culture at the same time that we draw the very best from ourselves. If the mood of the fifties Manhattan poetry scene was imbued with the over-excited prospect of doing collaborative work, it was almost entirely due to the hungry ardor of O'Hara himself, for whom collaboration represented the promise of artistic fulfillment. At the heart of the excitement lay the hope that, paradoxically, collaboration would perform a transformative act: The more deeply I submerge myself into our common effort, the more brilliantly will I become my own true self.

-Vivian Gornick, "The Soul Grown Unrefined," reviewing three books about poetic friendship, including Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry by Andrew Epstein (Oxford University Press, 2006), in POETRY, July/August, 2008, pp. 402-403.


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