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Frank O’Hara as Modernist for the People

The poetry of Frank O’Hara is intimately connected to New York City. He explores the role of the individual subject in the city and the mechanics of the city itself; yet because he engages the urban landscape in an urbane manner many readers of Frank O’Hara view him as the prankish patron of the New York art scene who occasionally took pen to paper. Take this review by Herbert Leibowitz as an example:

A fascinating amalgam of fan, connoisseur, and propagandist, he was considered by his friends, in an excess of enthusiasm, as the Apollinaire of his generation, an aesthetic courtier who had taste and impudence and prodigious energy . . . From the start O’Hara exhibits a precocious air of command and a throwaway charm, as if to the verbal manner born . . . and indeed his world is full of events – parties, thoughtful acts, homosexual encounters, a painting or film to be commented on – that he supports with a sophisticated naïve wonder and generous emotion. [1]

Leibowitz’s remarks occasion the publication of The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara and decorate the back cover of the paperback version. I find it a little strange that a publisher reprinted a portion of this particular review of O’Hara’s poetry. Leibowitz basically pans the book and dismisses O’Hara as a poet of minor importance. He views Frank O’Hara as “a Pan piping on city streets”. This is a backhanded compliment at best but it does solder a connection between lyric poetry and the cityscape. Consider that O’Hara is following in the footsteps of another lyric poet of the urban landscape, Charles Baudelaire. Baudelaire attempts to embrace modernity, as he sees it, and to write the poetry of the city and the crowd. Although his intentions…

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[7] Neal Bowers. “The City Limits: Frank O’Hara’s Poetry”. Frank O’Hara: To Be True to a City, ed. Jim Elledge, University of Michigan Press, 1990 (321).

[8] This section is very problematic. I don’t want to make reductive generalizations and assertions about Modernism. At the same time, I do not want to explore the work of any one writer in too much detail. I’m going to allude mainly to Eliot and Pound, for simplicity’s sake.

[9] Frank O’Hara. “The Day Lady Died”. The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, ed. Donald Allen. University of California Press, 1995 (325). Hereafter cited parenthetically by title of poem and line number.

[10] Kevin Stein. “Everything the Opposite: A Literary Basis for the Anti-Literary in Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems” Frank O’Hara: To Be True to a City, ed. Jim Elledge. University of Michigan Press, 1990 (358).

Invisible Man Essay: Race, Blindness, and Monstrosity

Race, Blindness, and Monstrosity in Invisible Man

I’d like to read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man as the odyssey of one man’s search for identity. Try this scenario: the narrator is briefly an academic, then a factory worker, and then a socialist politico. None of these “careers” works out for him. Yet the narrator’s time with the so-called Brotherhood, the socialist group that recruits him, comprises a good deal of the novel. The narrator thinks he’s found himself through the Brotherhood. He’s the next Booker T. Washington and the new voice of his people. The work he’s doing will finally garner him acceptance. He’s home.

It’s a nice scenario, but the narrator realizes his journey must continue when Jack, the leader of the Brotherhood:

‘Now see here,’ he began, leaping to his feet to lean across the table, and I spun my chair half around on its hind legs as he came between me and the light, gripping the edge of the table, sputtering and lapsing into a foreign language, choking and coughing and shaking his head as I balanced on my toes, set to propel myself forward; seeing him above me and the others behind him as suddenly something seemed to erupt out of his face . . .” (Ellison, Invisible Man, 409).

The careful bureaucracy gives way to rage; he regresses, spitting and swearing in a foreign tongue, leaning forward as if to attack the narrator. And the eruption? Jack is a Cyclops, the one-eyed mythological giant of terror and lawlessness:

I stared into his face, feeling a sense of outrage. His left eye had collapsed, a line of raw redness showing where the lid refused to close, and his gaze had lost its command. I looked from his face to the glass, thinking he’s disem…

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…Citizen is a rowdy drunk that no one listens to. Yet Jack is a brother, or, as Invisible Man puts it, the great white father. He’s not such an easy enemy to defeat, and the problem won’t just go away. The map of racism, blindness, and monstrosity that Ellison draws is incomplete because the monster is never defeated. Perhaps this too is characteristically American. Ellison’s evolved Cyclops has staying power. He’s grown resistant to the hero’s tricks and, though blind, he will thrive. Ellison’s Odysseus is doomed to wander longer than eleven years.

[1] This is the Gaelic word for “nonsense”.

Works Cited

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Random House, New American Library, 1952.

Homer. The Odyssey, translated Richmond Lattimore. New York: Harper Collins, 1991.

Joyce, James. Ulysses. New York: Random House, 1990.

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