Friday, February 10, 2012

Against Arrangement (O’Hara)

Jackson Pollock, “Blue Poles [Number 11, 1952]”

“To arrange is to fail” is what Fairfield Porter says somewhere. I keep returning to O’Hara’s line in “[Notes on Second Avenue]” insisting that the “verbal elements . . . are intended to keep the surface of the poem high and dry, not wet, reflective and self-conscious”—thinking it’s wrong somehow, that “high and dry” stills the fury and slurry of making and, howsoever imprecisely, arranges a macular and “consequential” thing. It seemingly contradicts O’Hara’s earlier remark that, “To put it very gently, I have a feeling that the philosophical reduction of reality to a dealable-with system so distorts life that one’s ‘reward’ for this endeavor (a minor one, at that) is illness both from the inside and outside.” Put “gently”—meaning a kind of Everyman’s paraphrase of the fiercer “Second Avenue” lines O’Hara quotes just preceding:
This thoroughness whose traditions have become so reflective,
your distinction is merely a quill at the bottom of the sea
tracing forever the fabulous alarms of the mute
so that in the limpid tosses of your violet dinginess
a pus appears and lingers like a groan from the collar
of a reproachful tree whose needles are tired of howling.
Subsequent line (unquoted): “One distinguishes merely the newspapers of a sediment . . .” Containing that phrase I never fail to read as “the sentiments of the newspapers”—O’Hara cocking a fist at how thoroughly trade in the “distinct” (“a dealable-with system”) misrepresents the whole watery (flux-churned) world (that quill attempting its “precise” writing under miles of water, is it mock-styled after Eliot’s “ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas”?) (“Sentiment implied, but denied”—see O’Hara’s line regarding Pollack’s Blue Poles: “It contains everything within itself, begging no quarter: a world of sentiment implied, but denied; a map of sensual freedom, fenced; a careening licentiousness, guarded by eight totems native to its origins.” Akin to what O’Hara concludes in the “Notes”: “Perhaps the obscurity comes in here, in the relationship between the surface and the meaning, but I like it that way since the one is the other (you have to use words), and I hope the poem to be the subject, not just about it.” A refusal of demarcation beyond that enforced (“fenced”) by the word itself . . .)

O’Hara’s great predecessor Williams (“only Whitman and Crane and Williams, of the American poets, are better than the movies”) put it thus (“Against the Weather”): “Formal patterns of all sorts represent arrests of the truth in some particular phase of its mutations, and immediately thereafter, unless they change, become mutilations.” (New Sentence recidivists, nigh two score years down the road, probably ought to heed the good Doctor.) Elsewhere (“The Basis of Faith in Art”) Williams called poetry “a rival government always in opposition to its cruder replicas”—without seeing the need to specify, too, the tiresome self-replicating that gets fobbed off in these States, file under “career.” O’Hara sees clearly the danger of such complacency, how it betrays the very meaning of the work itself. Writing of Franz Kline:
He personally held at bay all possibilities of self-importance, pomposity, mysticism, and cant which might have otherwise interfered with the very direct and personal relation he had to his paintings and their content. He kept himself from being publicly engulfed by his own meaning and the meanings he so well intuited in the life around him. He did not tame his work, but he thus tamed the role which he suspected so correctly society would, if allowed, impose upon him as it had on the unsuspected Pollock. One of the lessons of our own society, often as opposed to that of Europe in the very recent past, is that for the artist to keep working after initial recognition he must adopt the cleverest devices of Dickens’s Artful Dodger. Kline worked publicly to retain his studio privacy. No matter how helplessly he and those around him dissolved in laughter at one of his fantastic anecdotes, underlying it was a nostalgia and longing which reminded one of the early “idealistic” anarchists, and a melancholy recognition of mutability, self-irony singling out the irony of the specific tale.
The Artful Dodger at work: to begin a poem: “Quips and players, seeming to vend astringency off-hours, / celebrate diced excesses and sardonic, mixing pleasures, / as if proximity were staring at the margin of a plea . . .” That, and the “melancholy recognition of mutability” doused with self-irony:
You are lean, achieved, ravished, acute, light, tan,
waving, stolen, lissome in whispering, salivary in intent,
similar to the sole support of a love affair, so artful,
and loyal only to faults. I found myself equal to every . . .
Excess expenditure and squandering (opposing the vendable “astringency,” austerity being one way of “making distinct”). Williams again, niggling the fastidious Mr. Eliot with gusto and self-irony (“The Poem as a Field of Action”):
Stop a minute to emphasize our own position: It is not that of Mr. Eliot. We are making a modern bolus: That is our somewhat undistinguished burden; profusion, as, we must add in all fairness, against his distinction. His is a few poems beautifully phrased—in his longest effort thirty-five quotations in seven languages. We, let us say, are the Sermons of Launcelot Andrewes from which (in time) some selector will pick one phrase. Or say, the Upanishad that will contribute a single word!
Bolus a medicinal term, a dose, a “ball” injected to boost levels of some particular compound in the blood. Shooting up the body poetic—the bolus initially going unabsorbed, making a lump under the skin. Williams’s call for Rabelaisian profusion, unfinished—“as against a limited output”—“we Americans . . . need to build up a mass, a conglomerate maybe, containing few gems but bits of them—Brazilian brilliants—that shine of themselves, uncut as they are.” In O’Hara’s version (“Second Avenue”): “Accuracy has never envisaged itself as occurring; rather a / negligence, royal in retreating upwards of the characteristics of multitudes.”