“Deep Space vs. Layered Space Aesthetics”

Why Forager & I are both correct, and AC Douglas/George Hunka/Harold Bloom are all quite mad (or: You say “room for transcendence”, I say “keep that window to the beyond open a smidge”, and Aaron Haspel knows what he’s talking about too–and not one of us is a “vulgar postmodernist”)

I jest! Sort of… But, you’d better believe I’m grateful to each of those folks for giving me occasion to post things like this!

The following is a review of Geoff Ward’s Statutes of Liberty: The New York School of Poets, which is one of the best damned books on poetry I’ve ever read! I wanted to change it a bit, just to tailor it to the blog-posts that I’ve linked to, but there just isn’t time, and, anyway, I think it’s self-explanatory. Needless to say, I’ve twisted Ward’s work until it screams Fiorean dicta (can you say misprision?), so you might want to read the book for yourself, if you’re really eager to learn what the author thinks of Frank O’Hara!

Geoff Ward’s Statutes of Liberty situates the poetry of James Schulyer, Frank O’Hara, and John Ashberry within the context of a tension between “deep” and “layered space” art which, he argues, has informed all creative endeavor since the French Revolution. The author places the New York poets firmly within the “layered space” camp, a position which is most definitely privileged by the language used in the book’s introduction (“deep space” art is associated with metaphysics and the “overturned pyramidal order”(12); “layered space art” is “egalitarian” (12) and “revolutionary” (13)–it is defined more by what it is not, i.e. metaphysical and hierarchical). However, he finds that all three of these poets keep a “little window open onto the beyond”(12) and ultimately it is the poems that manage to keep this window from blowing open that interest Ward. The author praises the work of Frank O’Hara, using his oeuvre as a stick with which to beat the purely “layered space” art of second generation New York Poets and the closely-related Language poets (ACD’s PoMos par excellence).

Ward rejects Harold Bloom’s “great man theory of literature” and Francois Lyotard’s “incredulity toward metanarratives”; he cares enough about what has been called the “canon” to state: “If I want to read O’Hara’s poetry, I am free to go on doing that without writing about him. I wrote this book in order to express …my sense that the poetry of Frank O’Hara is demonstrably great poetry” (5). Even in the chapters dealing with Schuyler and Ashberry, the figure of O’Hara looms large. For example, Ward claims that Bloom’s elevation of Ashberry to the status of “contemporary poetry’s only hope” is based on a willful misreading that ignores the poet’s wit in favour of his more “Agonistic” tendencies (134). Ward’s book privileges the humour in Ashberry’s work to highlight its affinities with O’Hara’s poetry, which laughs at the Romantic idea of the subject, while wondering, quite seriously: who is doing the laughing?

The book begins by investigating James Schuyler’s “rhetoric of temporality” (11). Ward introduces poems such as ‘June 30, 1974’ and ‘Dining Out with Doug and Frank’ in order to demonstrate Schuyler’s obsession with the recorded moment” (25). However, the poems are in no sense mere lists of sights and sounds heard. They are the reverse of naively empirical; and if they are obsessed with the recorded moment, they are no less concerned with the recording apparatus itself. These poems show a strong awareness of their own subjectivity. In ‘June 30, 1974’ the speaker sits alone on a summer morning at a friend’s country house, watching “the clear day ripen” (27), but also thinking about the still-sleeping “friends!” who have sponsored the scene. Ward attributes the success of the poem to its recognition of the “indivisual life, the lives of others in the vicinity, and the non-juman surroundings [and] the possibilities they afford for pleasure and contemplation” (27). These elements are “celebrated for that precious but provisional balance in which they can be held for the moment the poem records” (27).

Ward then playfully re-interprets the speaker of ‘June 30, 1974’ as an

author-parasite [who] has both battened on his hosts’ larder and got a poem out of them, the four J’s, one of whom is an inhuman month, flattening and textualizing the symbols of home! and friends! into allegorical supports for a coffee-gorged subject whose temporal entrapment seems far from painful(28).

Building upon this reading, Ward deconstructs the satisfaction of this “coffee-gorged subject” as an attempt to “cushion his separateness from a world he dcoes not resemble by a strategy of Romantic reinsertion. The world and its weather are falsely portrayed as a larger home into which everyone will fit harmoniously” (28). However, this De Manian suggestion is quickly withdrawn, or rather, repatriated to the text of the poem itself. Ward argues that it is impossible to “deconstruct” Schuyler’s work (and that of the New York poets in general), because the poems themselves are “involved in the generation of multiple and contradictory meanings from the outset”(28).

Ward concludes his chapter on Schulyer with an analysis of ‘Song’, from The Morning of the Poem. He situates the poem within the lyric tradition and demonstrates how Schuyler diverges from typical “Romantic ode to evening” (33) by a poetics of “quirkiness” (17). Ultimately, it is the quirk, or the interesting tic, that allows Schuyler to use the “symbols of a grand ode” (33) in a refreshing way. Returning to his categories of “deep” and “layered” space, Ward finds, beneath the layered space collage of ‘Song’, not a return to “deep-space mythology”, but a playful “imaging of a more mysterious light”(34). Thus layered space aesthetics, characterized by the use of “non-metaphysical flats and shapes of painterly color” (34), acquires a shading of “deep-space yearning” which may not be “observable”, but clearly will not be steamrolled out of the mind.

If Ward admits, and ultimately approves of, the re-entry of “deep space” into the work of the New York School of Poets, he is wary of critical attempts to make them into “deep space poets”. This is how Ward interprets Harold Bloom’s reading of John Ashberry, and he offers a polemical reading of ‘Wet Casements’ in order to make his point. The poem has famously prompted “Bloom to heights of portentousness that reach self-parody” (131). In keeping with his assertion that New York Poetry (post-modern poetry in general) is engaged, at the level of creation, in the critical project of generating multiple and contradictory meanings, Ward admits that ‘Wet Casements’ is “liable to confirrm any reader in the view they already held of Ashberry’s work” (131). Nevertheless, he insists that the poem cannot mean what Bloom wants it to. Bloom makes much of the last two lines–“I shall keep to myself/ I shall not repeat others’ comments about me” (134)–which occur after the speaker’s extended meditation upon an “interesting conception: to see, as though reflected/ In streaming windowpanes, the look of others through/ Their own eyes” (132). The poem procedes from this initial thought to a final realization that though the speaker might want “that information very much today,/ [He] Can’t have it” (133), and this makes him angry. He resolves to build a bridge out of his anger, upon which “people may dance for the feeling/ Of dancing on a bridge I shall at last see my complete face/ Reflected not in the water but in the worn stone floor of my bridge” (134).

After all of this, Bloom infers that the final two lines are an “Emersonian exaltation of the divine solitude that Montaigne both praised and warned against” (134). By contrast, Ward interprets them as a “comic and paranoid assertion of selfhood . . . the power of the writer is not the closing of doors and windows . . . but an opening outward of the casement to the other airs and voices without which our own world would not exist” (134). Ward leads up to this interpretation by demonstrating the importance of collaboration in Ashberry’s creative life (126-130) and the paradoxical presence, in his work, of a skepticism toward art and love that is coupled with a “readiness to be taken up by the accidentalism of either” (109).

For Ward, the greatest representative of the New York School of Poets is Frank O’Hara. In fact, he argues that “no subsequent American poetry has been as powerful . . . [as] O’Hara’s equation of poetry, truth, and passionate speech seeking a response” (189). Like Schuyler, and unlike the more openly introspective Ashberry, O’Hara is dedicated to a poetics of observation. However, in poems such as ‘Joe’s Jacket’, O’Hara entertains questions of subjectivity with Ashberrian subtlety and wit. A key passage for Ward is the rambling line:

no central figure me, I was some sort of cloud or a gust of wind at the station a crowd of drunken fishermen on a picnic Kenneth is hard to find (175)

Statutes of Liberty frequently repeats Grace Hartigan’s comment that O’Hara’s poetry is about “how to be open but not violated, how not to panic” (81). Each time he returns to it, Ward modifies the formula, first arguing that “In Memory of My Feelings’ is about “how to be open and violated, and panic, and get through it somehow with nothing of the hero, that lemming to his own appalling stoicism, but with some more flowing quality like an idea of democracy or a line of Whitman” (81-82). Later, he asserts that ‘Joe’s Jacket’ “is about knowing when to button up the raw and open self inside a jacket of self-preservation” (173).

Sometimes even a “cloud or a gust of wind” can become lost, and Ward points to O’Hara’s recognition of the “fissures in experience that split self from other, subject from object” (174). The “darkest implication [of O’Hara’s poetry] is that at times you have to rely on the fissures as a means of survival” (174). Nevertheless, the surface of his best poems remain high and dry above the metaphysical deeps, thanks to an aesthetic that draws strength from “interruption, intrusion, challenge” (176), all of which were in plentiful supply in O’Hara’s New York. Ultimately, “nothing is more or less material than anything else in [O’Hara’s work], including its ‘I’. It is all verbal substance, here producing pain, there a color or a jacket or a mixture of all three” (176). It is this individualistic materiality that Ward so admires in O’Hara, and finds so lacking in the post-modern inheritors of his playfulness and rapid transitions.

You can find more Fiore on O’Hara (sans scholarly finger-puppet) here. And, well, you know, if you find my ideas persuasive, you might want to read my first major attempt to put them into practice–or even buy the damned thing!

Good night friends!



  1. You really do have to stop reading this litcrit trash, David. Turns one’s brain and sensibilities to mush, y’know, and makes them incapable of responding to the transcendent wonders of the Universe.<><>Knowhadamean?<><>Concerned,<><>ACD

  2. There you have it folks! That’s the blogosphere in a nutshell! People reaching out to each other… Caring… Sharing their simple truths…

    Happy holidays ACD!

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