Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Notley on O'Hara = Degentesh?

A while back I blogged about Katie Degentesh’s The Anger Scale and how the unique voice at work in the poems extends and amplifies O’Hara’s late style. There’s a lot more going on in the collection than that, but it’s one way of getting at what it is that doesn’t sound 'prodecural' to me (if procedure has a sound) in Katie’s deft fusion of the MMPI with Google. Out with the labcoat and the I Ching; in with wit, absurdity, looby satire, and a surprisingly intimate voice given the various sources used to call it into being. (Shanna Compton and Jasper Bernes have been commenting on this aspect of the poems as well.)

Recently I’ve been reading Alice Notley’s Coming After: Essays on Poetry. In it she talks about O’Hara’s late style in a way that reminds me a lot of The Anger Scale, though the things Notley objects to in O’Hara’s last poems are the same qualities that I think make Katie’s collection so engaging. Of those last poems, which O’Hara planned to collect under the title The End of the Far West or the New York Amsterdam Set, Notley writes:
"A new kind of voice is speaking, that of the poet becoming, and at the same time commenting on and changing, the story or issue on the screen. The voice is both satirical and mysterious; it’s anonymous and communal (in the bad sense) in its exploitation of verbal mediocrity, and works somewhat more through deadpan presentation and juxtaposition than through intricate linguistic closework.

What if that one, that entity [the ‘I’ of the poems], does think in the clichés of television, has a pile of these units, these lines clattering around inside waiting for further use and rearrangement in rather empty contemporary situations? It’s the space between sentences that’s now remarkable and impeccable, but these poems aren’t very pleasant, though maybe they shouldn’t be. A warning shouldn’t be pleasant, a pointing towards a future both inarticulate and full of words produced, recycled, and recombined by all sorts of machines.”

--Alice Notley, Coming After, pp. 12-13.

Among the many other things it is, The Anger Scale may be one of the first books to make good use of the neglected O’Hara. More pointedly political though: the backbeat of the MMPI suggests how subjectivity—or the exams, institutions, and (ulp) lyric poems we rely on to produce it—can be absurdly limiting, sinister, and laugh-your-ass-off funny all in the same breath.

It seems like a lot of contemporary poets are also pursuing a voice like this, one to which Notley's thoughts about O'Hara might apply, but charged positive. What is it about the culture right now that makes this tonal shift feel so right?


John Sakkis said...

hey rodney,

could you send me your mailing address?

my email is

Montana said...

Great connection Rodney. I sort of make the argument in Emancipating Pragmatism that "The End of the Far West" ("I'm going to plant some corpses" etc) reflects the close relationship between O'Hara and Baraka in the early 60s moment when Baraka is staging "The Toilet" (drafts of which O'Hara had commented on) with set designs by Larry Rivers etc. One might make a strong case, I think, that whatever we may love about it, the 2nd Gen NY School (with its heavy dose of Koch's influence) oversees the de-politicization of O'Hara.

Stanley Bishop Burhans said...

Great comments Rodney. I feel like you're fast becoming the very best reader of Katie's very wonderful book.

Thanks for the Notley quote. I never knew O'hara had talked about collecting those strange late poems. I've always loved how mean-spirited and impersonal they are, and how they lack or undercut the redemptive gestures of other O'Hara poems. They seem vapid and uncompromising at the same time, which is kinda great.

I've been meaning to do a close-reading type essay on one of those Anger Scale poems, as an experiment, though it's kind of hard to establish what I'm reading--not an authorial persona exactly? So what is it? An organizing irony? A political perspective? I feel like I have to decide how to address the type of intelligence that's in the poem, what to call the poet's agency in this case.

Happy New Year!

rodney k said...

Thanks to you both!

Mike: there's an unwritten history of the New York School that has a big 'MM' in gold relief on the imaginary cover.

Stan: I know what you mean about having to decide how to address the intelligence moving through the poems. Myself, I've used the MMPI and its history as a kind of interpretive anchor, but the ship's always pitching against the stay in a dozen different directions. Limes and rum seem to help.