On Frank O'Hara, 'Second Avenue'

Dated 1953. Published 1960. Picked up by moi in 1964 and purchased, not for ninety-five cents as priced on back (Totem Press), but for five francs twenty-five centimes, in Paris at Shakespeare and Company, which was almost the same as one dollar considering it had to fly the Atlantic, which it probably did on sheer exuberant sexual and lexical energy and gay will to power, which was clearly not masculinist will to power but impressive and powerful in a different “we are sissies” way, thereupon to be confronted by an immediate me who immediately couldn’t understand one word, but got the energy and the comedy and the insouciance and the verve and the nerve — and stored it up. [1] These emerged in a much transfigured form in the ode and the serial, and desire, and the long poem, and scale. But not so much in a cocky sense of combinatoire, a-referentiality or the transformed real, but rather in the pleasure of a visceral happening based on erotic pulse and on the sheer charm of the world.

The door opened. It really was something outrageous and helpful. Not to speak of utterly unlike the flaccid stuff, with no particular force or dimension, but dutifully bowling straight down the middle, those overworked samplers from the Hall, Pack, Simpson anthology, treat of my recent college days. This was not overworked — it was overwrought!  And thus a talismanic power bundle wrapping a suspect magic.  It was a traveling poem — why else was it called by the name of a street, non-static and in motion? Why else did it have motion lines on the cover? How else to explain how it got from word to word and phrase to phrase where the not-expected was happening —consistently! It was propelled by the strange energies of combination. “I hope the poem to be the subject, not just about it.” [2] In contrast, the well-made poem was all about “aboutness.” Well, let’s just say our heroine wasn’t exactly in Kansas any more, and it was “less comfortable but more decorative,” but it wasn’t totally clear where she was yet. Probably “my head [was] covered by a green cloth.”

This copy of Second Avenue is not the black and white cover with tipped in label blah blah — $145 at AbeBooks in 2010 — but the first printing, second state, in semigloss wrap, offset printed in red ($45), cover art by Larry Rivers, foxed foxily and light pencil markings. Carried here, carried there. Pink and speedy. A liberation and very uncomfortable. Nothing to solidify, something to do, to have happen, to engage with, to be confused by. It was — like the Sixties were about to be — all happening all at once.   

This poem manifested the erotics of writing as an erotics of living; it put words like effeminate in play — the line, “Are you effeminate, like an eyelid, or are you feminine, / like a painting by Picasso?” condensed five layers of cultural education. In your face! Such fairy stories about one’s friends, each one “acting” in another junky movie — and any word that happened along was a good enough word, from marshmallows to motherfuckers. Not too many of those had been in poems I’d ever read, but now they were. The poem was a zippy discourse circus, with the poet as a juggler, keeping five bowling pins, four striped hoops, and two balls in the air at the same time. Being inside this eleven-part poem was like living in an alternative mind, inventing elaborated, baroque-ish narrative skits in which to enfold friends with a show-offy zeal that took place as language urgency. Such dramatic, campy love for John, and Joe, and Grace, and Kenneth was expressed as sheer grifting snarkiness, narcissism and pleasure. It was a real nice party going on next door. It wasn’t quite my house then, nor was it to be, but the door was open and the music came out.   

A list of what is on any single page of this poem would look like a list of what is in any of Joe Brainard’s assemblages: “jewels and sparkles and doilies and dollars and rubber stamps and plastic eggs and hard rolls and glasses and ‘Peace’ buttons and cameras and satin slippers and elephants and screws and price tags and words and squares …” [3] Or one of Jackson Pollock’s pictures: “Oil on canvas with nails, tacks, buttons, key, coins, cigarettes, matches, etc.” [4]

It’s excited, it’s giddy and solid at once: the pleasurable poesis of a really intent plethora that won’t give up.  Accumulative, funny, and scandalous, “unreadable” and totally syntactic.  Amuse-toi! “Why don’t you go on with it as long as you can?” was the instruction — O’Hara said this to Kenneth Koch, but of course it was a message to the self. [5] This poem occurred between at least two people. Maybe six. Later on, John Ashbery did note the “obfuscation” of this work and the fact that it was an “experiment” that “eventually turned out to be unsatisfactory” — he sees it as a deck-clearing move. [6] That’s probably why I liked it. It swept everything away, despite being a pileup of stuff and allusions set in relation. The impacted impact of it exploded the literary into a totally other zone.

That is, the literary became externalized energy and desire, which it always is at root. Dionysiac with an Apollonian cockiness — so one feels “the physical insistence of the mind to keep on making decisions,” as Larry Rivers said on art, interviewed by O’Hara. [7] Same general ethos in O’Hara, as Bill Berkson pointed out: “Reading his poems, you find yourself engaged in a number of intricate calculations made at break-neck speed […] You are getting the language firsthand, from where it gets put together in the mind.” [8] Sheer continuance, propulsion, and energy get that ribbon or pulse of words to work. And if they don’t, one simply moves along. No crises of judgment in relation to decisions. No angst! Just an insistence on scale that here seemed out of proportion to the casual intensity. [9] Precisely. That impressed me. More and more, longer and longer, fun to do, and stop when it’s not.   

Ashbery again, with a general law: “The poem is the chronicle of the creative act that produces it.” [10]

The desire, patent in this poem, is to pile up transformation. This desire had a distinct political shadow. In 1959, six years after he had written the poem, O’Hara pointed to Jackson Pollock’s use of Surrealism not as a surface effect, but as “spiritual clarity” — “the accumulation of decisions” made towards “action.” [11]  That is, O’Hara said, “you do not find in his work a typewriter becoming a stomach, a sponge becoming a brain” — a surface surrealism of images in combinatoire. [12] Rather there are “qualities of passion and lyrical desperation, unmasked and uninhibited” that O’Hara traces to a atomic-bomb-post-war world “faced with universal destruction.” [13] He called the necessary, critical response to this “the urgency of joy.” [14]

And “She went bloated into the azure/ like a shot.”

[1] Frank O’Hara, Second Avenue (New York: Totem Press, 1960); Frank O’Hara, “Sissies,” in The Selected Poems of Frank O’Hara, ed. Donald Allen (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), 39.
[2] Frank O’Hara, “Notes on Second Avenue,” in The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, ed. Donald Allen (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 497.
[3] Ron Padgett, Joe: A Memoir of Joe Brainard (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2004) 69. The list is over twenty-two lines long — I have cited just under four lines.
[4] Pollock’s painting “Full Fathom Five” (1947) was discussed by O’Hara in his essay on Pollock in Art Chronicles.
[5] Kenneth Koch.  “A Note on Frank O’Hara in the Early Fifties,” in Audit–Poetry IV: Frank O’Hara Issue (1964): 32–33.
Kenneth Koch’s When the Sun Tries to Go On, begun before “Second Avenue,” is 2,400 lines. “Frank said to me, on seeing the first 72 lines — which I regarded as a poem by itself — ‘Why don’t you go on with it as long as you can?’ Frank at this time decided to write a long poem too…” Koch is pretty amused/bemused by O’Hara’s mix of competitiveness and generosity. “Sometimes he gave other people his own best ideas, but he was quick and resourceful enough to use them himself as well.”
[6] John Ashbery, “Introduction,” in The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, ed. Donald Allen (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) xi.
[7] Frank O’Hara, Art Chronicles, 1954–1966 (New York: George Braziller, 1975), 109.
[8] Bill Berkson.  “Frank O’Hara and His Poems,” in Homage to Frank O’Hara, ed. Bill Berkson and Joe LeSueur (Berkeley: Creative Arts Book Company, 1980) 162.
[9] Frank O’Hara, Art Chronicles, 1954–1966 (New York: George Braziller, 1975), 34–5. What was Pollock’s transformative intervention in American art, besides the all-over surface of great scintillation? It was, O’Hara says, “SCALE.” This concern begins with the WPA projects like the Federal Arts Project. Murals in post offices, for instance, were linked intellectually, aesthetically and politically to the Mexican muralists, and their desire to have progressive public art. According to O’Hara, scale is interpreted by Pollock as a shift from the normal sense of a represented reality (scaled to a person’s body as in Renaissance proportions) and of the intended setting — the place for which the painting was conceived. Because Pollock had no recognizable images in the drip paintings, the normal sense of scale (the “image of a body” imagined by the work) was not in play; instead he chose the painter’s actual body, and the setting was no more or less than the surface of the canvas.  What then O’Hara calls “scale and no scale” is “the physical reality of the artist and his activity of expressing it, united to the spiritual reality of the artist” in a state of “oneness” without any need for “the mediation of metaphor or symbol.” This is suggestive, but would demand more gloss than I will give.
[10] John Ashbery, intro., The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, ed. Donald Allen (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), viii–ix.
[11] Frank O’Hara, Art Chronicles, 19541966 (New York: George Braziller, 1975) 25–6.
[12] Ibid., 18.
[13] Ibid., 26.
[14] Ibid., 27.