Magnetic Otherness: Frank O’Hara and the Emersonian Sublime

Magnetic Otherness:
Frank O’Hara and the Emersonian Sublime

Harold Bloom’s criterion that great poetry is, necessarily, a “lie against time”, relegates the work of Frank O’Hara–so self-consciously “in favor” of its “own time”–to the cultural margins. Indeed, there is no place for O’Hara in Bloom’s agonistic growth-chart of American poetry–from Emerson to Ashbery. According to this scheme, the one and only subject of important American literature is the fundamental confrontation between “I and the Abyss.” Inevitably, the logic of this confrontation leads either to radical solipsism or pantheism–and there is very little difference between these two extremes (unless one happens to be a solipsist or a pantheist). Bloom’s construction of American literature–apart from the original contribution of an oedipal struggle between poems and their precursors–really adds very little to the impressive scholarly edifice erected by Perry Miller, F.O. Matthiessen, and Sacvan Bercovitch: all of these writers prioritize what Bloom calls “American Gnosis” and conceive of only one viable modern alternative to Emersonianism: American “Agnosis”, a counter-current of radical scepticism that extends from Melville (actually a problematic figure here) and Hawthorne (a much purer exemplar) to (possibly) Ashbery again. American criticism has been held hostage by the binary of gnosis and agnosticism, and it is not surprising that O’Hara–who, in his finest poems, is cheerfully ambivalent toward these questions–has been neglected.

Bloom’s famous identification of Emerson as the founder of the American religion has a certain rhetorical validity, in that it accurately conveys the extent of Emerson’s influence upon his successors; but, for all of Bloom’s famous eclecticism, the reader of Agon waits in vain for its author to deal with Cotton, Hooker, the Mathers, and the “New England Way”. Bloom dismisses the Puritan inheritance as irrelevant, remarking that although he “stemmed from the mainstream Protestant tradition in America, Emerson is not a Christian, nor even a non-Christian theist in a philosophic sense” (169). The gesture is intended to banish Perry Miller’s saga of the “New England Mind” and the attempts by its various agents to untangle (or, ideally, maintain a tension between) the epistemological knots in a worldview that seeks stability but cannot help generating Antinomian anarchy.

In Miller’s view, Emerson was merely another strong thinker in a line of strong thinkers, freed by the new democratic orthodoxy of his age (codified by the Declaration of Independence) from the the old orthodoxy of predestination. Miller’s oeuvre does not lament Emerson’s transformation of the American Way into a way of freedom and tolerance for every individual’s quest to perfect him/herself, but it does attempt to assess the cost of such a startling development. At the risk of reducing approximately ten books and a lifetime of brooding upon the “meaning of America” to a single sentence, the answer is: it has sacrificed the fruitful tension generated within the mind of Jonathan Edwards.

For Bloom, Edwards was merely a “great systematic theologian” (147); but in Miller’s reading he becomes a man of ardent Antinomian tendencies, held in check by sheer willpower and a refusal to lose sight of “the distinction between God and the world or to fuse them into one substance, to blur the all-important distinction of the divine transcendence” (From Edwards to Emerson, 333).In Edwards’s opinion, the distinction had to be maintained, lest “excitable Yankees reel and stagger with another error which they would pretend was an elevated thought” (329).

According to this view, the two hundred-plus years of romanticism(s) that have followed upon the heels of the Enlightenment represent the staggering and reeling of Western Culture as a whole. This is a drastic over-simplification of intellectual history since Blake and the French Revolution; yet it is only the negative mirror-image of Bloom’s agonistic model: Is our choice then only to be between a nihilism and a collective Narcissism? The strong poem, as I have tried to show, has no choice; the quest for the Sublime demands, of poet and reader, both transgressions: to celebrate the Abyss, and to worship, lovingly, one’s own self as it is confronted by the Abyss, whether or not the Abyss returns our gaze as aura (244).
Thus Bloom argues that all great literature must, ultimately, grow out of solipsism or pantheism. In this scheme, the skeptical tradition of Hawthorne figures, by implication, as an inferior literature of resentiment; but the Hawthornian “I” differs from the Emersonian “I” only by its quirky refusal to peer into the “Abyss”. Upon the primal fact of “I and the Abyss”, Bloom’s main line of American poetry and its antagonist literature are in agreement.

The view of American literature as a struggle between (or a struggle to reconcile) Emerson’s “optative mood” and Hawthorne and Melville’s “dark romanticism” dates back to F.O. Matthiessen’s The American Renaissance (perhaps even earlier, for if V.I. Parrington’s distinction between “Jeffersonians” and “Hamiltonians” lacks psychological complexity, it deals with the same conflict). Subsequent criticism has left Matthiessen’s interpretive template in place, even as it has expanded upon or exploded his notion of the literary canon. Consequently, American criticism has tended to obscure the Edwardsian position, which is as much anti-nihilistic as it is anti-transcendental, and which is evident (if one looks for it) in the culture’s most composed artifacts.

By the “Edwardsian position” I do not mean a strict Calvinist presdestinarianism; I refer rather to moments–fleeting, or perhaps non-existent, within human consciousness, but discernible in works of art–which deconstruct the binary of “I and the Abyss”. From this position, it is possible to glimpse that while there is an “I”, there can be no “Abyss”; and once there is an “Abyss”, there can be no “I”. The Abyss is nothing if not unknowable, and if unknowable, how can it be assimilated, or assimilated into, or even doubted by the knowing (or unknowing) subject? There can be no “confrontation” between “I” and “the Abyss”, because the “I” breaks up in the “atmosphere” (non-atmosphere?) of the “Abyss” before it reaches its object, becoming instead a magnetic field around a steely “otherness”.

The founder of the “American religion” is not treated, in Agon, as a static entity. Bloom’s Emerson is dynamic; he progresses through many moods and stages–from the anarchic prophet of solipsistic “Self-Reliance” to the outrageous pantheist of “Compensation” and “Brahma” and back to the acute observer of “Experience” and “Fate”–but, through it all, he remains committed to “Gnosis”. In Bloom’s lexicon, the term refers to a way of knowing, distinguishable from philosophy, which approaches the Sublime through a hyperbolic quest to “see earliest”. Thus, Bloom can say that, “even in Experience, and then even more in Fate, we read not philosophy but Gnosis, a chastened knowing that is not chastened as knowing”(176). Even if this is true, it does not account, entirely, for the Emerson of “Days”, who seems to deconstruct his own customary gnosis.

Written in 1857, “Days” is a short meditation upon Transcendental “knowing” that encompasses the objections of sceptics, Bloom’s gnostic interpretation, and an ambivalent “Edwardsian” reading:

Daughters of Time, the hypocritic Days Muffled and Dumb like barefoot dervishes, And marching single in an endless file, Bring diadems and fagots in their hands. To each they offer gifts after his will, Bread, kingdoms, stars, and sky that holds them all. I, in my pleached garden, watched the pomp, Forgot my morning wishes, hastily Took a few herbs and apples, and the Day Turned and departed silent. I, too late, Under her solemn fillet saw the scorn. (449)


The first half of the poem is comparatively straightforward: it describes the Romantic riches to be gained by mastering Time, though the fact that the Days are “muffled and dumb”, rather than “Sublime” or “untamable” immediately sounds a problematic note. The speaker, watching the procession from his “pleached garden”, is a strangely Hawthornian intruder in the Emersonian realm of omnipotence. An uncharacteristic sense of limitation is palpable in the lines: “forgot my morning wishes, hastily/ took a few herbs and apples”. Can a “transparent eyeball” be rushed? In this poem, Emerson’s persona may “see all”, but he is not “part or parcel of God” (6); nor is he “nothing”, at least not in the pantheistic sense that he had been in Nature. One hears Bloom’s rhetoric of gnostic “belatedness” in the line “I, too late”; but is the “scorn” he “sees” under the Day’s “solemn fillet” the Abyss? Or is the passage a quiet admission that Emerson, in all of his phases, from his ascent into “the sky that holds them all” to his glimpse of Time’s scorn, has never confronted the Abyss; for how can one see anything underneath a “solemn fillet”? It is as if the scorn emanates from the garment itself, or rather is projected there by the subjective “I”, sensitized, at last, to the mocking unreality of the “solemn fillet”, an ersatz Sublime that can never be anything but a snare for the solipsistic ego. Perhaps this explains why the poem gives the impression that its speaker wishes not to see beneath the fillet, but to be in that privileged position; and the final line-break leaves open that possibility, leaving out the “I”.

The poetry of Frank O’Hara often–I do not say consistently–manifests an Edwardsian ambivalence (is it possible to be consistently ambivalent?) toward the Emersonian Sublime. Emerson himself, as we have seen, shows signs of this ambivalence in his quieter moments; as do many texts which have entered the canon for other reasons. What is remarkable about O’Hara is not his ambivalence, but rather his inability to write (brilliantly) in any other mode. He certainly attempts, at times, to join the Emersonian choir, and he also takes a good many jabs at the great tradition; but his finest poems are those which blithely ignore Bloom’s fundamental agon.

At his most intense (and attentive), O’Hara is committed to “layered-space” aesthetics. Geoff Ward argues that an O’Hara poem strives to “reject any trace of metaphysics as a taint and . . . celebrate the energy of a world composed of discrete sense-events” (11). However, this celebration comes at the cost of a realization of the “separateness and unrepeatability of each moment”; a loss which may “signify the reopening [in O’Hara’s poetry] of deep space” (11). The poems in which this occurs exist on the cusp between layered and deep-space aesthetics, and it is in this ambivalent space that O’Hara’s work becomes most provocative.

“In Favor of One’s Time” (CP, 341-42), is one of O’Hara’s most interesting–and neglected–achievements. The title leads the reader to expect a carpe diem poem, and the text does indeed contain three references to Marvell (the intentionally misspelled allusive adjective, “marvellous”). However, the poem works toward the cheerful conclusion (contra Bloom) that the day cannot be seized, it can only be talked over.

The first stanza voices a cautious (and therefore believable) optimism, concerning the human condition:

The spent purpose of a perfectly marvellous life suddenly glimmers into flame it’s more difficult than you think to make charcoal it’s also pretty hard to remember life’s marvellous but there it is guttering choking then soaring in the mirrored room of this consciousness it’s practically a blaze of pure sensibility and however exaggerated at least something’s going on and the quick oxygen in the air will not go neglected will not sulk or fall into blackness and peat


Here the “spent purpose of a perfectly marvellous life” may refer to memories, stored up and condensed into inflammable material in the “mirrored room of consciousness”. But what is it that ignites this “blaze of pure sensibility”? It is the “quick oxygen in the air”–the present moment–in which “something’s going on.” This is perhaps an overused, but essential, trope in O’Hara: his persona is that of a man who, no matter how disappointed or ill, is too curious about what will happen next to give up on life.

Implicit in the opening stanza of “In Favor of One’s Time” is the idea that no person, no lump of coal, no product of the mirrored room of consciousness, can flare up by itself; and that “soul-craft”, the goal of deep-space Romanticism, is ultimately an insignificant process when compared with the moment of ignition, which really has nothing to do with what goes on in the “blackness and peat” of a brooding mind. The second stanza ascends into the air, the source of the “quick oxygen”, but not in order that the “currents of the Universal Being” may circulate through the speaker:

an angel flying slowly, curiously singes its wings and you diminish for a moment out of respect for beauty then flare up after all that’s the angel that wrestled with Jacob and loves conflict as an athlete loves the tape, and we’re off into an immortal contest of actuality and pride which is love assuming the consciousness of itself as sky over all, medium of finding and founding not just resemblance but the magnetic otherness that that that stands erect in the spirit’s glare and waits for the joining of an opposite force’s breath


Whereas the Romantic quest is always the quest for identity, an integration of the self achieved by the recognition of a “resemblance” in the awful mirror of the Sublime (this is the essence of both mysticism and pantheism), O’Hara finds a “magnetic otherness”: a “that that that” that “stands erect in the spirit’s glare”. Here the “spirit’s glare” has a metamorphic double-meaning, shifting from the restless, seeking gaze of the “I” into a dispersed magnetic field around an obelisk of “otherness”.

Thus, in O’Hara, literature ceases to aspire to capture and bottle the present moment and instead becomes a soundtrack, magnetized, out of sync, to the filmstrip of the Sublime. The importance of jolting sounds in O’Hara has often been noted. Generally, they are city sounds (such as the “everything suddenly honks” line from “A Step Away From Them”, CP, 256) that force him to flip to the next page of a life-story he has had no part in creating, and thus cannot imagine beforehand. Oddly, in such a key text by the most determinedly “materialistic” of the New York Poets, there is no city noise; no city at all. The final quatrain introduces allegorized versions of two elements that are generally found “plain” in O’Hara’s work:

so come the winds into our lives and last longer than despair’s sharp snake, crushed before it conquered so marvellous is not just a poet’s greenish namesake and we live outside his garden in our tempestuous rights


The winds, of course, are the forces of “interruption, intrusion, challenge” (Statutes of Liberty, 176) that Ward considers vital to O’Hara’s poetry; and the space “outside his garden” is the urban nexus (outside of the Garden State?) that facilitates contact with Sublime otherness, which does not occur in solitary communion with “Nature”, but through encounters with other people.

“In Favor of One’s Time” is not O’Hara’s greatest poem, but it does provide a key to reading many of his most successful works. The idea of an “I” that disperses into a field of cognition, forming a halo around every encountered, unknowable particle of reality recurs continually. It is manifest in “The Day Lady Died”, in “Joe’s Jacket”, and “A Step Away From Them”; but it is in what Marjorie Perloff calls the “Vincent Warren poems”(216, n41) that O’Hara deals most fully–and variously–with the ultimate center of “magnetic otherness”, the object of romantic love.

At times, O’Hara’s love poems sound trite: “When I am feeling depressed and anxious sullen/ all you have to do is take your clothes off/ and all is wiped away revealing life’s tenderness” (Poem ‘A La Recherche de Gertrude Stein’, 349). Generally, however, even these possess the saving grace of recognizing their own triteness and their betrayal of the poetic principle outlined in “In Favor of One’s Time”: “everything is too comprehensible/ these are my delicate and caressing poems/ I suppose there will be more of those others to come, as in the past so many!” (“Avenue A”, 356). The greatest danger to O’Hara’s poetic sensibility is the universal human tendency to find “resemblance”, rather than “otherness”, in what he sees. In everyday life it is impossible not to succumb to this temptation, and perhaps in everyday poems as well–but O’Hara’s best poetry avoids this, is even, often, about avoiding this:

why is it that everyone denies it it’s apparent as the air you breathe and you don’t want to be breathed do you why don’t you because it would make you that air and if you were that air you would have to hear yourself no I will never do that so when you speak to me I will always be other […] and at the same time you know that I don’t want to know you (“Ballad,” 368)


Actually “knowing” someone is not the issue; it is a false, comfortable “knowledge” (read: “resemblance”) that O’Hara refers to when he speaks of “not wanting to know” Vincent. He cannot know him the Harold Bloom way, through gnosis. For O’Hara, romantic love is a focusing of attention upon a “magnetic other”, an unknowable object that:

. . . seems good because it brings back the that that which we wish that which we want that which a ferry can become can become a bicycle if it wants to get across the river and doesn’t care how though you will remember a night where nothing happened and we were both simply that and we loved each other so and it was unusual (368)


In this passage, the speaker also becomes a “that”. It is a rare occurrence: each lover becomes a “magnetic other”, temporarily eliminating all subjectivity from the scene. It is the realization of “In Favor of One’s Time”‘s “immortal contest of actuality and pride/ which is love assuming the consciousness of itself/ as sky over all”.

Ward interprets “Ballad” as a deconstruction of the romantic subject, arguing, blandly:

we are never self-consistently we, I am never a unified I, but we or you or I are always like others. Understood only in relation to other people or things, a thing or human self never exists only in itself (66).


To be sure, this is a viable reading, so far as it goes, but it does not follow the poem to its conclusion, where the “I”, which certainly has never been unified, becomes a “that”–a unified field between two bodies that are not “like” each other at all.

It is precisely this “that” that O’Hara compares his poetry to in “Personism: A Manifesto” (CP, 498-99):

[Personism] does not have to do with personality or intimacy, far from it! . . . It puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style, and the poem is correspondingly gratified (499).


The “person” to whom the poem is addressed is to be a person with whom the poet is in love; yet it is has nothing to do with intimacy–it is not a “love poem”, in any traditional sense. It does not open up a direct channel to the Other; it does not posit a likeness between the parties involved; it does not even lament the loss of such a gnosis. In short, it does not do what Harold Bloom says a poem should do: describe the struggle of an “I” to master “the Abyss”, by “lying against time”. O’Hara’s best poems are ambivalent toward Bloom’s grand tradition, because they contain no belated subject; no subject at all. They are radiant fields of language around an Abyss of otherness.

Works Cited and Consulted

Ashbery, John. Selected Poems.New York: Elizabeth Sifton Books, 1985.
Bloom, Harold. Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism. New York: Oxford UP, 1982.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Selected Prose and Poetry. Ed. Reginald Cook. New York: Rinehart, 1960.
Miller, Perry, ed. The Transcendentalists. New York: MJF Books, 1978.
—-.”From Edwards to Emerson.” Theories of American Literature. Ed. Donald Kartiganer. New York: MacMillan, 1972. 324-342.
O’Hara, Frank. The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara. Ed. Donald Allen. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
Perloff, Marjorie. Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters. New York: George Braziller,1977.
Ward, Geoff. Statutes of Liberty: The New York School of Poets. London: MacMillan, 1993.

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