Frank O'Hara
Frank O'Hara; drawing by David Levine

The indisputable relation between writers’ works and their lives becomes disputable as soon as it is enunciated. The “pure” biography which mentions works in chronological order but makes no attempt at criticism is restful and serene; at its best, it creates no powerful myth of explanation, but arranges a responsible and persuasive and unobtrusively well written narrative out of the facts that are known. But something in us revolts against such a biography of “our” author; we hanker after more intimacy, or more speculation, or more criticism. We crave bias. And so the critical biography, the psychological biography, the psycho-critical biography arise to tease and to disappoint us. The only form inherently more unsatisfying than literary biography is its macroform, literary history.

The complications of literary biography (and of literary criticism) are increased when the writer under discussion veers in some interesting way toward one of the other arts. Richard Kennedy’s biography of E. E. Cummings and Marjorie Perloff’s book on Frank O’Hara (which combines some biographical material with its criticism) concern poets who were interested in, and influenced by, the visual arts: each book brings poetry into uneasy relation with painting. Each is, in its way, valuable in the information it provides; each is theoretically assailable.

Richard Kennedy is an Americanist who teaches at Temple University; his biography of Cummings, using “the voluminous Cummings papers” at Harvard, was intended, he tells us, to run to two volumes, but was reduced by “the exigencies of present-day publishing” and consequently “contains less information and less discussion of Cummings’s poetry” than he had intended. Kennedy’s good-natured preface (“This project was given a great boost by…I propose a toast of thanks to…I have to thank…that ballerina of the typewriter keys, Nadia Kravachenko”) gives an idea of the level of writing which is to follow—helplessly conventional, needlessly “lively,” at its best serviceable, at its worst pretentious. Kennedy tells a somewhat defensive story; he wants Cummings to be a better writer than he is, and he wants to see things through Cummings’s eyes, rather than to see the phenomenon of Cummings.

And Cummings was a phenomenon—an interesting writer, a bad writer, a popular writer, a self-deceiving writer, a rebel turned reactionary, a New Englander turned New Yorker, a frightened blusterer, a spectacular entertainer, a martyr to psychosomatic troubles, a pitiably incompetent father, a thrice-married husband, an example of the cultural strain undergone by talented American men. We could not see Cummings’s life without the materials made available by Kennedy, but the analysis accompanying the narrative falls far short, in interest, of what could be made of this strange life, and Kennedy’s literary criticism is both innocent and misconceived.

Cummings’s minister-father seems to have been pompous and self-satisfied, perhaps because he did extremely well in both his early academic life (he was the first instructor in sociology at Harvard) and in his subsequent pastoral work (he replaced Edward Everett Hale at the South Congregational Church of Boston and became a powerful man in the larger world of American religion). He appears to have combined pride in his son’s early precocity with contempt for the form it ultimately took. Though Kennedy speaks of his “love and understanding” of his son (relying too uncritically on E.E. Cummings’s late remark in his Harvard Six Nonlectures in 1953 that “no father on this earth ever loved or will love his son more profoundly”) I cannot see in Edward Cummings any real understanding of his son’s impulses or obessions, and consequently no love of any psychologically useful kind. There was uncomprehending support, but behind that support was an ethos eventually intolerable to the son. However, the poet was formed by his father’s overwhelming personality, and seems to have fallen into the child’s inevitable confusion of a father who preaches God’s word with God himself.

The single most important document Kennedy quotes is an excerpt from a notebook Cummings kept at seventeen, just after he had begun Harvard:

I am a young man living in an advanced and cultivated era, surrounded by things lovely and of good report. I have a strong mind, a healthy body, resulting from years of careful and devoted watching by father and mother, and a high reputation, everywhere I go, as a gentleman. My friends are pure, high-minded girls and clean, manly fellows. My father is a man who has worked out his own success by toil and pluck, who has maintained as a lasting gift to his son a noble soul and well-developed body. He is a man who never allowed the faintest suggestions of temptation to grip him, and expects the high and pure of his son. My mother is a woman who has kept herself strong and pure for me alone, who has built upon me, her first child, a wonderful frame of utter love and endless aspiration, whole [sic] lives only as I live, hopes as I hope, and falls only when I fall. I worship a God unutterably merciful and vitally human, and who embodies all the good that I have not won and all the vast strength I have not attained.

This nonsense seems to be a direct echo of the pieties of Edward Cummings. (Cummings’s mother did not offer orations in this vein.) The pitiful lack of preparation for life evident in the document is embarrassing. The document continues with a tribute to Cummings’s instructor in Greek, an apparent homosexual, seven years older than Cummings, who inscribed a book to Cummings for Cummings’s nineteenth birthday “But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,” etc.


One friend have I of whom I speak out lovingly from my heart at all times. He is a man at college with me, older, wiser, and of perfect chivalry toward woman and man. I love him as I love no other friend; I worship him for good, and imitate him for worthiness. His life, also, has grown into mine. The honor of his friendship he has placed with perfect confidence in my trembling hands; if I do wrong, I commit an unfaithfulness to him who [sic] I admire most of my friends. If I do right, his the glory equally with the deed’s.

“By the time he was five years older,” Kennedy tells us, “Cummings was in full rebellion,” and he sees Cummings’s story as in part one which shows “the ordinary pattern of a young man’s rejection of his father’s dominance.” No doubt that is true, but there was something so corrupting in the senior Cummings’s gigantic falsification of life, or something so defective in the son’s intelligence, that in rejecting (though only temporarily) his father’s platitudes, the son also permanently rejected mind, intellectual patience, learning, meditative persistence, and profundity of soul, producing in his turn platitudes as offensive (if in a different direction) as his father’s, and of comparable sentimentality. Cummings hysterically hated, and fled, his father’s Cambridge (that very Cambridge where Eliot and Stevens, for instance, found an intellectual base which Cummings, for all his four years at Harvard, never trusted). The confusions of rebelling against a father so apparently unindictable pervade Cummings’s life (until he apparently received psychoanalytic absolution, much too late). Kennedy is far too easy on the elder Cummings.

E.E. Cummings’s life (aside from the brief imprisonment in France that produced The Enormous Room) is not a very interesting one. Most of Kennedy’s purely biographical writing is expended on Cummings’s three marriages (all to women who were good-looking but not interesting) and on his peculiar (out-rageous or cowardly, it is hard to tell) treatment of his daughter Nancy, who was led to believe, till she was an adult, that she was the daughter of Scofield Thayer (to whom her mother, Elaine, who was to become Cummings’s first wife, was still married when Nancy was born). Cummings and Elaine Thayer married when Nancy was four, and Cummings legally adopted the child, but the social pretense that she was Thayer’s daughter was continued, even though Cummings’s family and friends knew Nancy was his child. Nancy kept the Thayer name. Almost immediately after her marriage to Cummings, Elaine fell in love with another man, divorced Cummings, remarried, removed Nancy from any further continued communication with her father, and in fact never mentioned to Nancy that she had ever been married to Cummings until Nancy’s adolescence.

Nancy eventually came back to America, married, and had children; Cummings, after knowing for several years that she was in the country, arranged to meet her, invited her to visit, and even painted her portrait, but did not, for some time, tell her that he was her father. After that revelation, he tended more to rebuff her interest than to enjoy it. This pathetic tale (earlier retold by Nancy, after her fashion, in Charon’s Daughter) provides, in addition to the marriages, the narrative interest of this biography. Though Cummings knew various interesting people, from Hart Crane through Marianne Moore, and kept up both personal and professional relations with painters and sculptors, Kennedy’s account of these relations (perhaps from an insufficiency of data) remains superficial. The literary commentary on Cummings’s poetry which fills out the rest of Kennedy’s book, and which attempts some relation of the poetry to Cummings’s talent as a painter, springs from certain preconceptions to which I shall return.

Marjorie Perloff’s book on Frank O’Hara has, in Perloff’s words, a focus that is “critical rather than biographical,” but, she adds, “Whenever it seems useful, I relate the poetry to the life.” Perloff’s subtitle, Poet Among Painters, announces what it is about the life that will be related to the poetry. We learn from Perloff invaluable things about O’Hara’s early reading (chiefly in French poetry) and about his friendships with painters, especially Larry Rivers, Grace Hartigan, and Willem de Kooning. Perloff shows us an O’Hara who is literary, well-read, and fully aware of his own techniques of writing, a poet in an improvisatory tradition but not for that reason a naïf. The book reminds us how much work O’Hara did as an art critic and arranger of exhibitions, and ought to put to rest forever any notion of O’Hara as a part-time or careless writer. On the other hand, Perloff, like Kennedy, wants to make her writer better than he is, to claim a cumulative effect for the Collected Poems greater than the effect of its parts, and to defend, as successful, writing too often dubious.


At first, disappointed with the critical writing in both of these books, one is inclined to blame the authors, and to think (what is in part true) that a different author would have done better, critically, by his subject. An after-thought makes me more inclined to think that the criticism in each of these volumes arises from a misconception of the nature of criticism itself. It was never claimed by the founders of the so-called “New Criticism” that any text, no matter how trivial, could be usefully considered in painstaking detail. Only texts of a certain sort can bear that sort of inquiry; for others, ’twere to consider too curiously so to consider them. There are authors—even great authors—in whose work one simply cannot find the freighted detail, polyphony of voices, ambiguity of intent, and so on: Burns comes to mind at once. It is no service to any writer to subject him to a criticism he is not equipped to bear. If poets create the taste by which they are enjoyed, so poetry should create the criticism by which it is to be discussed. Both of these books impose a belated, and uncritical, form of “New Criticism”—that is, a labored scrutiny of parts quite unlike what the original New Critics did—on authors little suited for such examination.

A fair example of Kennedy at work shows him discussing a short poem by Cummings, which I reproduce entire:


bRight s??? big

soft near calm
calm st?? holy

(soft briGht deep)
yeS near sta? calm star big yEs


near deep whO big alone soft near
deep calm deep
Who(holy alone)holy(alone holy)alone

Here is Kennedy’s commentary:

[This] poem is one of Cummings’s most pleasingly patterned linguistic experiments. As Robert McIlvaine has pointed out, there are only eleven discrete words used in the fifteen-line poem but they are deployed in such a way that they make up a total of forty-four words: the three-letter words “big,” “yes,” and “who” are used three times, the four-letter words “soft,” “near,” “calm,” “holy,” “deep,” and “star,” four times; the five-letter word “alone,” five times; the six-letter word “bright,” six times. There is no English sentence at all—only a construct of words. But a statement emerges by means of patterns. The lines are arranged in a numerical progression from the first line standing alone to a five-line final group. Another progression moves from “s???” to the full spelling of “star,” as if star gradually comes into being. “Bright” orthographically disappears into “?????T,” as if dawn comes isolating the morning star and then causes it to fade. Suggestion builds into meaning that this is a poem about the star of Bethlehem, a meaning greatly aided by the conjunction of words like “bright,” “holy,” and “calm” in their allusion to the Christmas hymn “Silent night, holy night. / All is calm, all is bright.” The pattern of capital letters at length spells out BRIGHT, YES, and WHO and is completed with the last light when the capital “Who” remains “(holy alone)holy(alone holy) alone.”

My point is not that any of this is false; the question is whether any of it is worth saying in a respectful tone of voice. The true critical questions—is this a poem? is it “pleasingly patterned”? is there anything here to interest another mind? is it foolish? is it sentimental? is it repellent? is it stupid? what is wrong with a man who writes this?—are never put.

It is perhaps not to be expected that a man writing a biography should do the sort of demolition job on his author that R.P. Blackmur, a genuine “New Critic,” did memorably, and once-forall, on Cummings in Form and Value in Modern Poetry, but anyone wishing to know what real criticism is (even what real New Criticism was, the New Criticism practiced, whatever the subsequent popular misapprehension, by men learned in languages, history, philosophy, religion, and the arts) has only to look at Blackmur’s superlatively unanswerable “Notes on E.E. Cummings’ Language”:

In a sense anyone can understand Mr. Cummings and his kind by the mere assertion that he does understand. Nothing else is needed but a little natural sympathy and a certain aptness for the resumption of a childish sensibility. But no poetry is so pretentious…. We look at the poetry. Sometimes one word, in itself vague and cloudy, is made to take on the work of an entire philosophy—like flower. Sometimes words pile themselves up blindly, each defeating the purport of the others. No feeling is ever defined. No emotion betrays a structure…. Such an art…is a substitute for something that never was—like a tin soldier, or Peter Pan.

What makes a grown man resort to empty “babytalk” as Blackmur calls it, in the name of experiment; what restricted Cummings’s mind to the banal and the sentimental; what relation can be drawn between Cummings’s curiously evasive human relations and his artistic evasions; what resemblances connect his “rebellious” phase and his “reactionary” phase—all these questions are left unsolved, and for the most part unaddressed, in Kennedy’s meek self-submission to what he believes to be “criticism.”

Perloff’s criticism of O’Hara’s poems confronts different problems, as she ambitiously attempts to connect poetic practice with the practice of painting, chiefly by a process resembling conventional “explication”: Perloff quotes, for instance, O’Hara’s own description of Grace Hartigan as a painter “of heterogeneous pictures which bring together wildly discordant images through insight into their functional relationship,” and then proposes an application of this remark to O’Hara’s poem “Second Avenue”:

What O’Hara calls Hartigan’s “progress of inclusion” is beautifully conveyed in the following passage from Second Avenue, which is, the poet tells us, “a description of Grace Hartigan painting.”

Grace destroys

the whirling faces in their dis- sonant gaiety where it’s anxious,
lifted nasally to the heavens which is a carrousel grinning
and spasmodically obliterated with loaves of greasy white paint
and this becomes like love to her, is what I desire
and what you, to be able to throw something away without yawning
“Oh Leaves of Grass! o Sylvette! oh Basket Weavers’ Con- ference!”
and thus make good our promise to destroy something but not us.

Notice how O’Hara’s heterogeneous images and syntactic dislocations “imitate” the process of painting itself. The pronoun “it” (“It’s anxious”) has no antecedent, the relative clause “which is…” no specific referent, and yet we are told that “this” (the “dissonant gaiety”? the “heavens” seen as a “carrousel”? the “loaves of greasy white paint”? or all these things taken together?) becomes “like love to her” and is also “what I [the poet] desire.” The shorthand phrase “and what you” in line 6 again shifts perspective: “you” is now Grace herself; her painting is all she desires it to be—a structure of “wildly discordant images” that manages to avoid all bombast (“Oh Leaves of Grass! o Sylvette! oh Basket Weavers’ Conference!”), that can deconstruct (“throw away without yawning”) pure abstraction in favor of heterogeneity (“Images…hitherto repressed,” “chaotic brushwork and whirling impasto”…), that is charged with personal passion (“and thus make good our promise to destroy something but not us”).

What we might object to here is not the absence of critical judgment (Perloff takes up elsewhere the virtues and defects of “Second Avenue”) but rather the premises which underlie each of these assertions. Do “heterogeneous images and syntactic dislocations” in language really bear any relation, by “imitation” or otherwise, to the “process” (let alone the product) of “painting itself”? This new “action” version of the theory of ut pictura poesis, in which the poem is said to imitate the process, rather than the product, of a painter’s art, is not new as assertion, but it lacks explanation. Even the Cubist conflict of perspective is, after all, part of the product (as we see full face and profile at once) just as any “correct” perspective is; and we do not “read” the simultaneity of a painting as we read the linear poetic “shift of perspective” Perloff here mentions. There is always an aspect of wit in a painter’s violation of laws of perspective; there seems no wit at all in an abandoning of third person reference (“Grace destroys”) to second person address (“what you [desire]”) if indeed the person addressed is in fact the painter. Perloff uses the currently fashionable word “deconstruct,” but philosophically speaking, deconstruction is the process by which the assumptions underlying systematic constructs are exposed; it has nothing to do with throwing anything away, with or without yawning, certainly not in the interests of heterogeneity.

John Ashbery, in a poem from Houseboat Days wryly entitled, “And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name,” faces squarely the old and new dilemmas of the Latin analogy between “the sister arts”:

You can’t say it that way any more…. Now,
About what to put in your poem- painting:
Flowers are always nice, particular- ly delphinium,
Names of boys you once knew and their sleds.
Skyrockets are good—do they still exist?
There are a lot of other things of the same quality
As those I’ve mentioned. Now one must
Find a few important words, and a lot of low-keyed
Dull-sounding ones.

Ashbery understands that once we pass beyond the level of representational ingredients, the comparability of the arts comes in the (indirect) comparability of contrastive effects—some things in high prominence (“a few important words”) and a background of low relief (“a lot of low-keyed dull-sounding ones”). He next tries out his recipe, the mundane shot through with the surreal:

She approached me

About buying her desk. Suddenly the street was
Bananas and the clangor of Japanese instruments.
Humdrum testaments were scat- tered around. His head
Locked into mine. We were a seesaw.

This sounds like a bad O’Hara poem, full of stage business, the result of writing a poem to a recipe—a recipe that might work for painting, but that lacks, for verse, the ideational matter which alone—though we admit it with irritability—can make or break a poem. It is not enough to have ingredients—flowers or sleds. It is not enough to have tone color, dull or important. There has to be something like a mind at work, and the decor of the poem must come from the desires of that mind.

The extreme austerity of an almost empty mind
Colliding with the lush, Rousseau- like foliage of its desire to com- municate
Something between breaths, if only for the sake
Of others and their desire to under- stand you and desert you
For other centers of communica- tion, so that understanding
May begin, and in doing so be un- done.

This is genuine evidence of deconstruction—understanding’s undoing of itself in the process of its own doing. Ashbery’s poem contains many “deconstructive” suspicions—that being “bothered” about “beauty” is the wrong way to begin; that classical decorum for the lyric won’t do; that our new lyric requires new inclusions (“Certainly whatever funny happens to you is OK”); and that self-analysis is not the right starting point either (“So much for self-analysis”). Ashbery’s move to jettison the old motives of lyric, “beauty” and “self-analysis,” and to proceed, inspired by the example of painting, on a pure presentational basis, adding up ingredients, and “low-keyed” words, and “important” words is understandable enough, but it is, as Ashbery says, unsustainable. His solution is Keatsian (negative capability combined with “the wreathed trellis of a working brain”) but its result, unlike the constructive Keatsian action which has as result an artifact, is the perpetually self-dissolving model of conversation, sacred and profane alike.

Perloff, in writing about the “New York School,” usefully distinguishes Ashbery from O’Hara, taking as her base a wonderful comparison O’Hara himself drew:

John’s work is full of dreams and a kind of moral excellence and kind sentiments. Mine’s full of objects for their own sake, spleen and ironically intimate observation.

The poets themselves are the people to trust for critical terms; their observations about poetry tend to be put not in a vocabulary drawn from painting, but in the words—moral, psychological, and referential—that we normally employ in talking about art objects made of words. Even though Perloff presses the analogy with painting, especially action painting (“push and pull,” “all over painting,” etc.), as hard as she can, most of her book, in spite of its title, rightly concentrates on literary influences on O’Hara—influences from Dada and Surrealism, from French poetry in general, from Pound, Williams, and Auden, and even from Mayakovsky and Pasternak. Her discussions of O’Hara’s favorite genres (romantic autobiography, odes, and love poems) reveal his solidly literary base. And in fact her commentaries do not, on the whole, involve the vocabulary of painting, except in the chapter, central to the book, arguing for an influence from art.

The upshot of it all seems to be that mixed-media products (poem-paintings) are really works of the painters, and that one does not really need to invoke terms from paintings very often to explain literary effects. “O’Hara lets one image ‘bleed’ into another even as Hartigan does in her painting,” says Perloff, quoting O’Hara’s lines “Put out your hand, Isn’t there / an ashtray suddenly, there? beside / the bed?” This is too Rilkean to demand any metaphor of “bleeding” imagery from painting. Nor am I sure that O’Hara’s poem “Joseph Cornell” is best seen as a “translation” (Perloff’s word) of painting into poetry. It is descriptive—but so is poetry, tout court.

Into a sweeping meticulously
detailed disaster the violet light paws,
It’s not a sky, it’s a room.

Here, says Perloff, “the verbal experience closely approximates the visual.” We have such difficulty in finding any words to say what happens when we see a Cornell box that it is nice to have O’Hara’s response. But a report on a visual experience, a response to a visual experience, does not “translate” that experience; the two media remain distinct. The great thing poets have learned from the visual artists—have always learned from painters, sculptors, and architects—is the all-over view, the architectural blueprint, we might say, that directs teleologically, or gives spatial form to, an art which, like music, is by its essence linear. The conceptual compositional field of his poem is as real to a poet as its unfolding in time. The two irreconcilable experiences we have of a poem—our knowledge of its conceptual totality and interrelation of parts, on the one hand, and our sequentially partial perception of it as it on each reading unfolds afresh—would not be so interesting, to us or to the poets, without the example of the visual and plastic arts in their whole and simultaneous possession of space, untroubled by time.

For a poet, to imitate painting means to ensure that his poem “makes sense” as a spatial, conceptually controlled form in addition to making sense as a directed progress. Poets differ in their capacity for simultaneity: O’Hara, to my mind, is one of the more linear poets, and therefore least painterly; Cummings, with a mania for structure (trivial structure, but nevertheless structure), is closer to being a poet of spatial form. Perloff enlarges our knowledge of O’Hara’s profound and long-lasting acquaintance with artists, but it seems to me that her book, written for the general reader, does not yet establish an indisputable aesthetic connecting O’Hara’s writing to the other arts.

This Issue

February 7, 1980