Friday, August 22, 2008

The Odd Couple

Katy is standing up for Frank O'Hara and Ernest Dowson ( on August 20th, et seq.), a pair who deserve each other. I can see their shades in Poesy Limbo, reciting to no one in particular:

Pedant and pitiful. O, how his rapt gaze wars
With their stupidity! Know they what dreams divine
Lift his long, laughing reveries like enchanted wine,
And make his melancholy germane to the stars?

And here I am, the
center of all beauty!
writing these poems!

Together they are frank and ernest, but I have no taste for either. At least in admiring Dowson (however tongue-in-cheek the admiration may be), she is swimming against the tide. O'Hara is the poet du jour, idol of the moment: a taste for him is cheap, easy, and, to my admittedly limited mind, inexplicable.


Ms Baroque said...

Ha! More as son as I get a chance, which may be as late as Tuesday. Bear with me.

Ms Baroque said...

Okay, I said Tuesday. I never said which Tuesday.

Well, on Sunday I was actually strolling with my beloved in Brockley Cemetery in South London, when lo and behold, we were standing before the (slightly desecrated, but apart from that also slightly decorated, with a laurel wreath and a half-drunk bottle of absinthe) grave of Dowson himself. I hope to get a wonderful blog post out of the resulting photographs, once they're back from the studio (he uses a Rolleiflex). I mentioned YOU, Richard, as I fingered a "flung rose" scattered artfully across the top of the stone...

The question he asked me was: "Who, as in poets, would you defend in an argument?"

And I guess the answer is that I'd defend almost any poet who I thought had been real. Dowson certainly isn't a major poet, and much of what he wrote isn't even good. But he's very real - well, in our little world he is real as a person, because the beloved has a little thing about him, and has in fact written a play in which he is one of the main characters. The play is about precisely this: what is the nature of artistic success or failure; of personal success or failure; the fear of failure. It is a farce, howlingly funny in parts and also very moving. Dowson's death scene, poverty-stricken in the flat of a friend in Catford, is brilliant. He was only 32 and he wanted to live. So there's my interests declared. The play is doing the rounds of the theatres and while no one has taken it on it is getting very positive feeback.

And what would Dowson have written if he'd lived to develop his art past that little green-lit window? Wilde was dead a year or two later. Did any of the Decadents go on to become, say, Modernists? Or symbolist-imagists?

I'm at work and have no books to hand, but without quoting examples I think you have to admit that each poet - as a living, breathing creator of written works - can only exist in his own time. Dowson was very much a product of that little moment, the 1890s, that Decadent movement that seemingly ate everyone who followed it, and can only exist there. To recognise his dream and his achievements (such as they were) isn't the same as saying I think he's any better than that, but I'll still defend it!

History, remember, and even more so literary criticism, is the story of the victors.

O'Hara I think is more subtle than you give him credit for. Artlessness can also be artful; he was very well-educated, very sophisticated, was a musician, understood all kinds of artistic motives and manifestations. What comes over in his work, aside from the sheer exuberance, is this persona - maybe the persona is just him, maybe it's a developed persona. I think this is a case of the Zeitgeist and the man, & you can't get away from it. I'm an admirer of O'Hara. I sdon't read him for the same things you might get from, say, "Byzantium," but once again that's okay with me! He gives permission for a certain mood, spirit, a something that feels valuable, and is incontrovertibly like a little time machine. (THAT factor may diminish though; I know lots of young poets, here in UK, especially young gay poets, who revere him.)

Also!! In many ways I do not see Frank's project as being that different from Catullus'.

RHE said...

Funny you mentioned "Byzantium" in your comment on O'Hara, because I was about to say, in connection with your remarks about Dowson, that Yeats is about as close as you can get to a poet who began as a 90s Celtic Twilight-and-twee poet and grew into something much larger.

You're right on the mark in saying that O'Hara is a Zeitgeist-and-the-Man sort of poet, and I may be as premature as you in leaping to evaluation. But I think of his predecessor generation. Look at how Lowell seemed to embody the moment, announced as a major poet from the very first. He seems all sound and fury to me now, a poem once as famous as "The Quaker Graveyard" a cautionary tale of how will isn't enough to force poetry into importance. Berryman, a lower profile guy, more internal and idiosyncratic, is a far greater poet.

I think that as the Zeitgeist fastens itself on newer, more current representatives, O'Hara will fade away. But I'll never know.

RHE said...

Cynthia Ozick's recent remarks seem pertinent here:

Nothing is more poisonous to steady recognition than death: how often is a writer – lauded, fĂȘted, bemedalled – plummeted into eclipse no more than a year or two after the final departure? Who nowadays speaks of Bernard Malamud, once a diadem in the grand American trinity of Bellow-Roth-Malamud? Who thinks of Lionel Trilling, except with dismissive commemorative contempt? Already Norman Mailer is a distant unregretted noise and William Styron a mote in the middle distance (a phrase the nearly forgotten Max Beerbohm applied to the fading Henry James). As for poor befuddled mystical Jack Kerouac and declamatory fiddle-strumming mystical Allen Ginsberg, both are diminished to Documents of an Era: the stale turf of social historians and tedious professors of cultural studies.