PRINT March 2008


Lytle Shaw’s Frank O’Hara: The Poetics of Coterie

Across the street there is a house under construction,
abandoned to the rain. Secretly, I shall go to work on it.

—Frank O’Hara, “Cambridge,” 1956

THINGS HAPPENED around Frank O’Hara. At his death in 1966, he was known as much for his nonstop social presence at the center of a group—a coterie, aesthetic tendency, or even school—of ’50s and ’60s abstract painters and poets as for his poetry and art criticism. The 1971 publication of his six-hundred-page Collected Poems thus came as something of a surprise to readers who had a better sense of O’Hara’s celebrity than of his published poetry, available until then only in small editions from galleries and alternative presses: Meditations in an Emergency (1957), Odes and Second Avenue (both 1960), Lunch Poems (1964), and Love Poems (Tentative Title) (1965). However elegant, these ephemeral publications were hardly representative of the variousness and scale of his work; their DIY quality—often saddle-stitched, printed mimeo or offset—stood in sharp contrast to the aesthetic grandiloquence of Larry Rivers’s nude portrait of O’Hara on the original front cover of the Collected. The disparity of intention and scale between O’Hara’s intimate poetry and his inescapable public presence—not least as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York—had the effect of positing the person of O’Hara himself as the work in question. The famous “I do this I do that” mantra O’Hara put forward for his poety, even so, tends to simplify the manifold strategies—modernist, populist, personal, language-centered, painterly, Surrealist, Pop, and queer—of his heterogeneous poetic output.

O’Hara’s poetry is in fact as much oriented toward material surfaces as toward “personism” (to adopt his own term)—coming, as it does, after the influence of Surrealism and parallel to the rise of abstract painting. The rubric “poet among painters” does not adequately explain the radical shifts between formal and personal values in O’Hara’s poetry, or from his spontaneous poetics to his heroic pose as impresario and critic. By virtue of a deeper, intertwined logic, the demands of poetry and painting, of expressivity and formalism, collided in his work and would come to no easy resolution. This duality also bears upon the gap between O’Hara’s casual if influential writings on poetics (“Personism: A Manifesto,” “Statement for Paterson Society”) and his adjective-laden, effusive, artist-centered criticism. Representative of the latter, O’Hara’s 1962 review of Philip Guston alternates between biographical and formalist frames in order to account for the artist’s abandonment of the figure for abstract painting:

Philip Guston has, characteristically, a kind of introspective aggressiveness toward art which is capable of providing the best of two worlds simultaneously. . . . In the earlier work there is a certain amount of secretiveness resulting from the symbolic elaboration of his content, but then Guston turned away from the overtly figurative, and he has become clearer and more spontaneous in meaning ever since. . . . It is as if he had no longer found it necessary to have a pictorial pretext to do the painting that was in him.

Burt Glinn, Back Table at the Five Spot, 1957, black-and-white photograph. Back table, from left: Frank O’Hara, Larry Rivers, and Grace Hartigan.

In this complex formulation, O’Hara finds Guston asserting his independence from two seemingly opposed realms—figuration and abstraction—preserving aspects of his figurative practice while moving toward embodied spontaneity in abstraction. The familiar grand narrative of progress toward abstraction is thus qualified by the underlying resilience of the figure (a reading that foreshadows the figure’s reemergence in Guston’s later work). This dialectic applies equally to O’Hara himself, reflecting the tension between language and biography that informs his own poetry.

While art criticism was moving, in the ’70s, away from the authority of Greenbergian grand narrative and its concomitant “achievement” of painterly surface, through a return to the figure and under the influence of conceptualist uses of language, literary criticism undertook a parallel move, questioning the coherence of the “author” and exploding the resulting “subject” following the influence of language-centered and poststructuralist (as well as Marxist and feminist) approaches. O’Hara’s poetry and criticism seem to define the apogee of an expressivist account of art as the product of a singular creative genius advancing toward the goal of abstraction—but here, too, contradictions emerge, as “artist” and “abstraction” themselves come undone. While the turn to language in poststructuralist theory and in language-centered writing saw a decline in the status of the author, making him or her largely an effect of language or discourse, the resulting stress on language and materiality worked to separate the formal imperatives of abstraction from the authorial making of the work. Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky, writing in the ’20s, coined a notion of “literary biography as device”—demanded by the extratextual motives and performativity of poets such as Pushkin and Mayakovsky—that suggests a possible synthesis of artist and work. But while biography may survive today as a trade-friendly mode of precritical work, serious literary criticism has largely eschewed the frame of the single author and has a hard time making precise sense of the constructivist dimensions of authorship theorized by Shklovsky. After the banishment of biographical interpretation (the question of what the poet ate for breakfast, as New Critics W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley put it), what is known in posthumanist disciplines as “discursive subject position” rules. As one younger critic put it recently, the status of the “author”—like the biographical “artist” in O’Hara’s art criticism—has been demoted to that of a mere chapter, hardly ever a book-length work.

The academy of the future opens its door to a new construction of authorship in poet and critic Lytle Shaw’s Frank O’Hara: The Poetics of Coterie, precisely in its use of both a biographical and a formalist frame for what counts as the author. Shaw’s single-author study is at once metacritical and revisionist: It is as much about the idea of the author as about O’Hara and his work, and it expands the notion of coterie to include personal affiliations, social networks, and multi­authored projects. The book comes at a time of much interest among critics and artists in multiauthored and collaborative projects, aesthetic schools and tendencies, and institutions and “scenes” as generating aesthetic and cultural value. Recent examples include histories of 1960s exhibition strategies (Alexander Alberro’s Conceptual Art and the Politics of Publicity [2003]) and of ’70s avant-garde formations such as the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in Chicago (George E. Lewis’s A Power Stronger than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music [2008]) and the Language school of poetry, as well as critical reexaminations of the Cologne and Leipzig art scenes of the ’80s and ’90s. Shaw’s Frank O’Hara also joins a series of important revisionist critiques of authorship: In literary criticism, Arthur Marotti’s John Donne, Coterie Poet (1986) provides a nuanced reading of Donne’s poetry within historical contexts such as the men’s-club enclave of London’s Inns of Court, the public travails of government service, and the private confines of love relations. For art history, Svetlana Alpers’s Rembrandt’s Enterprise: The Studio and the Market (1988) expanded the notion of what counted as “Rembrandt”—a real art-historical chestnut—to include the social production of the studio and marketing strategies. For literary modernism, Thomas E. Yingling’s Hart Crane and the Homosexual Text: New Thresholds, New Anatomies (1990) develops queer readings of modernist textuality alternating between form and context, where a bottle of Scotch labeled CUTTY SARK signifies “cruising.” And Mark Scroggins’s recent The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky (2007) revives Russian Formalist insights about the relation of biography to work, recasting Zukofsky’s formalist dictum “The words are my life” (and, it follows, nothing else matters) in palimpsests of textualized lifeworlds. But it is the construction of coterie in Marotti’s Donne—the network of intimate affiliations as interpretive framework for poetry—that gives Shaw’s O’Hara its initial point of departure, along with the impetus to push past the text/context binary of historical readings.

Franz Kline, Poem, 1960, etching, aquatint, and drypoint on paper, 8 x 14". From the Syracuse University Art Collection.

To read poetry in the context of coterie for a historicist like Marotti may seem a relatively uncomplicated task: Poetry is addressed to specific or multiple interlocutors and produced in knowable contexts, and its interpretation is grounded in historical frames that are staged, in and as history, as charting a move from poet to coterie to larger publics and print. For the world of ’50s and ’60s New York art, as well as within the intellectual environment from the ’70s on, coterie is a more vexed concept, both politically and as a critical term. Reading poetry in terms of coterie risks the contraction of aesthetic value to “who’s in, who’s out”; with O’Hara, there is an additional awkwardness that depends on the still-live politics of one’s relation to certain social networks (or the very idea of networking tout court). In critical terms, there are numerous problems with a too-literal use of coterie as interpretive frame: First, there is the question of the possibility of any positive historical knowledge after the move to radical textuality (either avant-garde or poststructuralist); there is also the political question of the social makeup of coteries and the “restricted production” of avant-garde art as opposed to more accessible, middlebrow, or public tastes, theorized by Pierre Bourdieu; there is also the nasty theory of the avant-garde that faults its claim to return art to life while failing to do so; and finally there is the question of the porous boundary between high art and mass culture—particularly relevant to O’Hara’s work—which further complicates the hierarchies of coterie. To construct coterie as a reading strategy is thus an interpretive move and a political claim more than it is a historical task: Shaw is obliged to engage each of the above caveats about the limits of coterie while using the concept to frame new motivations and entailments of O’Hara’s poetry in both intimate and public contexts. An initial payoff comes with Shaw’s account of O’Hara’s use of proper names, which liberally pepper the poetry—or, as a psychoanalytic critic might put it, are the “quilting points” of his discourse—but in more complicated ways than, say, Andy Warhol’s use of name-dropping. To begin with, Shaw considers the many unreadable/unknowable (forgotten, trivialized, ridiculous) names that pop up in O’Hara’s work—“Miss Stillwagon” in “The Day Lady Died,” to take a famous example: “I go to the bank / and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard) / doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life.” Against this background of named anonymity are the legions of known persons in O’Hara’s poems: Kenneth (Koch), Jane (Freilicher), Roi (LeRoi Jones), Bunny (Lang), Bill (Berkson), Joe (LeSueur), Larry (Rivers), Mike (Goldberg), Grace (Hartigan)—poets, artists, lovers, and friends—who provide the literal register of coterie.

Beyond this, there is also a third register of names: public figures of an imagined coterie one doesn’t know directly, including stars (Lana Turner), painters (Picasso), composers (Rachmaninoff), and poets (Mayakovsky). Shaw shows the systematic relation among these various strata of names, and further—big payoff—how they provide the ground for O’Hara’s reinvention of queer sociality, which dispenses with the framework of the nuclear family as kinship and substitutes for it an aesthetic community at once intimate, casual, and public. At the same time, for Shaw, O’Hara’s Rolodex of proper names circulates around a gap in the self that the poet figures directly as the body of work after his own death. We thus move quickly beyond any reading of positive social facts (Marotti’s coterie) to coterie as extended allegory for sociality in the absence of the self—far from any “I do this I do that” reading of O’Hara’s work. Shaw is thus able to recast the expressive, biographical O’Hara, chatty and engaged with friends, as in alignment with the textual, allegorical O’Hara, unfolding language in world-making abstract poetry like “Biotherm,” In Memory of My Feelings (1967), and Second Avenue. “As details and names accumulate,” Shaw writes, “O’Hara’s New York becomes, for later readers, an increasingly impossible”—yet open and constructive—“imaginative act, one held in a fictive unity only by its absent experiential center.” Even better, Shaw convincingly argues for O’Hara’s poetry as a site for social construction, precisely at the point where coterie configures a new form of sociality: “He recodes alliances by replacing the organic and fixed social model of the family with a contingent and shifting association of friends. He recodes filiation not merely by refusing to produce offspring but also by refusing to be one.” O’Hara’s poetics of coterie led him to a horizontal modality of artmaking between genres as it escaped the paralyzing vertical hierarchies of tradition.

It is at this point that both the strengths and the limits of coterie emerge. It is crucial that Shaw sees the importance of the micropolitics of intimacy and desire in O’Hara’s work and that he rejects reading the avant-garde in terms of its alleged “restricted production,” which would make it relevant only for the small number of original participants. Thus opened up, the concept of coterie becomes a capacious interpretive framework, in which the multiple levels of personhood (as well as experience and meaning) condensed in its matrix of proper names serve as synecdoches for larger frames of social interaction. The greatest reward of Shaw’s study comes when he shows how O’Hara’s major works function as interpretive constructions of social experience, as in his chapters on the cold-war allegory of O’Hara’s use of Mayakovsky and Pasternak, on Second Avenue as criticism of abstract painting, and on O’Hara’s response to Rauschenberg’s Combines as a postfigurative mix of material and semiotic fabrication. The chapter on Second Avenue is especially important for factoring in O’Hara’s constructivist (non-self-identical) responses to abstract painting with his expressivist judgments of value (identified with the “I”). The chapter on the Combines reveals how O’Hara accepted the social heterogeneity of these hybrid objects—quite another end for artistic development than Greenberg’s “surface.”

If O’Hara’s coterie begins with his circle of friends and influences, it more importantly ends up producing an open-ended series of meanings to be read between language and biography, form and context. While I don’t see O’Hara, in real life, putting on a construction hat—his attitude toward labor unions was that they were only interesting to learn about later—in my mind’s eye, through Shaw’s lens, I see O’Hara with his sleeves rolled up, applying himself to the task of being both a social person and an engaged artist. O’Hara wrote and acted in real time and space; Shaw’s exemplary criticism extends the scope of his work in a parallel form of activity. Poetics, the act of making, works through O’Hara as “making things happen.” This is a task beyond allegory, but one that, for O’Hara, can only be approached poetically in an allegorical unfolding.

Barrett Watten is a poet, critic, and professor of English at Wayne State University in Detroit.


Lytle Shaw, Frank O'Hara: The Poetics of Coterie (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2006), 332 pages.