Lowell . . . becomes interesting in our conflicted and tense cultural moment because she was not in any sense "free" either to express her sexuality or to police it. She could not have the confidence—or perhaps bravado—of overseas 1920s lesbian communities, or even of the more modest bohemianism of the Village. On the contrary, at the center of many of her most interesting poems, like "Venus Transiens," are painfully contradictory impulses toward revelation, display, or even a certain form of "flaunting," and hiding, a poetics of the closet.
Explicit permission given
It has interested Miss Lowell to explore many fields and study all forms. Beginning—in the Atlantic about fifteen years ago—with sonnets and other exactitudes, and writing her 1912 book [A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass] entirely in rhyme or blank verse, she was attracted to the imagists from their first appearance towards the end of that year, studied their ideas and technique, and joined the group to the extent of appearing in the three Some Imagists anthologies of 1915-16-17.
[Amy Lowell’s first] volume, a Dome of Many-Coloured Glass (1912), was a strangely unpromising first book. The subjects were as conventional as the treatment; the influence of Keats and Tennyson was evident; the tone was soft and sentimental, almost without a trace of personality. It was a queer prologue to the vivid Sword Blades and Poppy Seed (1914), which marked not only an extraordinary advance but a totally new individuality.
Amy Lowell was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, the daughter of Augustus Lowell and Katherine Bigelow Lawrence. Both sides of the family were New England aristocrats, wealthy and prominent members of society. Augustus Lowell was a businessman, civic leader, and horticulturalist, Katherine Lowell an accomplished musician and linguist. Although considered as "almost disreputable," poets were part of the Lowell family, including James Russell Lowell, a first cousin, and later Robert Lowell.
The books and articles to which MM refers in her notes to "Spenser's Ireland" provide contexts for parts of the poem and show her method of finding affinities among seemingly disparate materials. Of the poem's 67 lines (counting the title as line one, as MM did), forty have their genesis in the works noted. The six notes appended to the poem are derived from four sources, namely single publications by four Irish writers: novelists Maria Edgeworth and Donn Byrne, storyteller Padraic Colum, and boatman-bard Denis O'Sullivan.
MM made extensive use of "Ireland: The Rock Whence I Was Hewn" by Donn Byrne in The National Geographic Magazine, 51 (March 1927), 257-316. In his somewhat polemical and spirited description of Ireland, Byrne was writing for an American audience, among whom he lived in New York for many years. He tries to disabuse future tourists of certain ideas held by Ireland's "Saxon neighbours," for example, that the "Irish bull" (a locution like "If that colt could catch the other, he'd beat him!") has no subtlety, or that all Irish stories are about little people. He ranges over Irish history, language, customs, scenery and monuments, concluding on a note of dissatisfaction that the "New Ireland" has not attained his dreams.
The first aspect of the article on which MM draws is Byrne's comment on Irish language and names. MM's "Every name is a tune" (line 5) was inspired by a list of town names and their translations. Byrne says that while in some countries, there are "names like a bar of music," their meanings are no longer alive. In contrast, "Our names are still alive in Irish speech. Aderg means the Red Ford, . . . Booleyhasruhan, the Milking Place of the Little Stream, . . . Killabrick the Wood of the Badger and so on for about fifty names.
Elsewhere, Byrne describes Irish servants who
. . . have a pathetic loyalty. They are often of a carelessness which drives a sane man mad. But no tongue-thrashing will affect them. They will say: "Ah, sure, himself doesn't mean a word of it! ‘Tis only a gray day in his heart." The only discipline you can use is to forbear speaking to them for some days. This is torture.
MM turns this comment into her lines 6-8:
Denunciations do not affect the culprit; nor blows, but it is torture to him to not be spoken to.
"Cheating the fairies"--Along the Connemara coast, boys were dressed in red flannel skirts up to the age of twelve. Fairies were thought to spirit off male children. The Irish believed that they would mistake the boys for girls, whom they would not touch.
A photograph of red-skirted boys suggested lines 31-32: "Outwitting / the fairies." In Connemara, boys are dressed in "red flannel petticoats in order to deceive the fairies who are supposed . . . to run away with male children if they have the opportunity, but will not touch little girls."
Three other photographs prompted lines 45-53:
Concurring hands divide
flax for damask that when bleached by Irish weather has the silvered chamois-leather water-tightness of a skin. Twisted torcs and gold new-moon-shaped lunulae aren't jewelry like the purple-coral fuchsia-tree's. Eire— the guillemot so neat and the hen of the heath and the linnet spinet-sweet--bespeak relentlessness?
Irish ornaments, with torcs and lunulae clustered at the lower left and two gold lunulae at the lower right.
First, a weaver is shown at a hand loom, making table damask: "Some of the linen is so fine that it resembles silvered chamois leather. . . and will hold water . . . The thread is woven unbleached and the cloth is bleached afterward on the wide lawns of the mill." Page 279 shows "a collection of old Irish ornaments," among them an "assortment of torcs and old lunulae." Page 317 offers a colored photograph of a grandmother, knitting, in front of a fuchsia-tree whose bicolored flowers are best described as "purple-coral."
MM's last selection comes from Byrne's discussion of Irish peasants: "When they are young they are supple as a larch. When they are old they have the kindness and sanity of a gnarled apple tree. Always, our trouble is their trouble and your joy theirs." MM rephrased the comment and made it a question:
The Irish say your trouble is their trouble and your joy their joy?
It should be noted that MM's lines 6-8, concerning "torture to him to not be spoken to " were applied in their original context to servants. The first reference to Castle Rackrent, which MM embeds in her next lines, 9-12, also concern a servant:
They're natural,-- the coat, like Venus' mantle lined with stars, buttoned close at the neck, -- the sleeves new from disuse.
Drawing on her copy of Maria Edgeworth's Stories of Ireland: Castle Rackrent and The Absentee(London: George Routledge, 1892), MM chose the opening self-descrioption of Thady Quirk, the narrator-family retainer whom the Rackrents call "Poor Thaddy"
for I wear a long great coat1 winter and summer, which is very handy, as I never put my armes in the sleeves; they are as good as new, though come Holantide next I’ve had it these seven years: it holds on by a single button round my neck, cloak fashion.
The footnote is Edgeworth's own. In it she cites Spenser's "View of the State of Ireland" as the authority for the cloak's "high antiquity," offering his many proofs from the history of the Jews, Chaldees, Egyptians et al: ". . . the Greeks also used it anciently, as appeared by Venus' mantle lined with stars." Then she invokes Spenser's knowledge of "the convenience of the said mantle as housing, bedding and clothing:
Because the commodity doth not countervail the discommodity; for the inconveniences which thereby do arise are much more many; for it is a fit house for an outlaw, a meet bed for a rebel, and an apt cloak for a thief.
From the second part of the footnote, MM takes Spenser's remark about the discommodity of the cloak's ability to cover up riffraff as well as the loyal servant and saves it for the end of the poem where it joins the "Earl Gerald" story: "Discommodity makes / them invisible."
From The Absentee, MM draws material for lines 38-43:
When large dainty fingers tremblingly divide the wings of the fly for mid-July with a needle and wrap it with peacock tail, or tie wool and buzzard's wing. . . .
On pages 163-164 of MM's edition, Edgeworth sets a hilarious scene wherein sportsminded houseguests of Lady Dashfort collect two British officers and impose on Count O'Halloran to request permission to hunt on his lands. The British officers make fools of themselves in trying to show off their limited knowledge of fly tying to the count, an expert at the craft. First, they tell him how to tie a feather: ". . . and then, Sir Count, you divide your wings with a needle." Then, the count produces a basket of his flies:
There was the dun fly, for the month of March; and the stone-fly, much in vogue for April . . . . "and chief the sad-yellow fly, in which the fish delight in June; the sad-yellow-fly, made with the buzzard's wings, bound with black braked hemp; and the shell-fly for the middle of July, made of greenish wool, wrapped about with the herle of a peacock's tail, famous for creating excellent sport."
A gentleman to the quick, the Count gives the flies to the officers, noting that since he had made theme they are "of Irish manufacture." The British officers never catch on that they have been bested by the Irishman, a man whose pride "'is in care, not madness."
In her notes, MM refers to a work by Denis H. O'Sullivan as the source for the "guillemot" in line 53 and the "linnet spinet-sweet" in line 56. It is unlikely that O'Sullivan's Happy Memories of Glan-Garriff (Dublin, n.d.) would have survived had MM not kept a copy herself. It is a 16-page pamphlet of poems by "The Bard of Glengarriff," a boatman whose work was to row tourists around Bantry Bay, Cork. From these jaunty verses, MM admired two phrases: "the guillemot so neat" and "Tis there you'll hear the linet so equal with the spinnet." Not given to modesty about Bantry Bay or himself, O'Sullivan repeatedly applies "so neat" to flora and fauna and advertises his fame:
As Denis H. O'Sullivan is recommended here, By this well known writer, G. B. Shaw who says he ne'er had found A Boatman guide my equal for knowledge, wit and sport, For truthfulness and humour around the Irish coast.
Like Donn Byrne, Padraic Colum was an Irish writer who spent much of his time in New York. Like O'Sullivan, he strains credulity, although through fantasy rather than hyperbole. MM heard Colum tell the "Earl Gerald" story at a lecture (he published it in The Big Tree of Bunlahy, New York, 1933). From this tale comes inspiration for lines 15-20 where the question is posed: "If in Ireland they
. . . gather at midday the seed of the fern, eluding their "giants all covered with iron," might there be fern seed for unlearn- ing obduracy and for reinstating the enchantment?
and lines 58-61:
they are to me like enchanted Earl Gerald who changed himself into a stag, to a green-eyed cat of the mountain. Discommodity makes them invisible; they've dis- appeared.
In "The Wizard Earl," Colum tells that one who gathers fern-seed unseen on Midsummer's Eve gains the power of invisibility. Earl Gerald tried to do so, but was seen. Later, his wife begged him to show her his wizard's shapes. After obtaining her promise not to be frightened and thus make him disappear against his will, Gerald became first a stag, then a "cat of the mountain," and then himself in miniature form. All went well until the castle monkey swept up the tiny Earl, the Countess screamed in fright, and the Earl disappeared forever.
Discommodity, that makes the Earl Gerald invisible (lines 62-3), circles back to Spenser's comment on the discommodity of the coat which could make an outlaw invisible. Although MM wrote to a student (T.L.C. to John D. Sheehan, 22 March 1955) that "Spenser's Ireland" was "too opportunistic a title," it is the Elizabethan poet's Ireland, as transmitted by Maria Edgeworth, that MM describes. MM went on to say: "I had in mind the appearance of Ireland, and the Irish idiosyncrasies as seen in Maria Edgeworth's Ireland -- Thady Quirk, for example. . . -- his coat worn as a mantle, 'the sleeves new from disuse.’" Edgeworth, Spenser, Byrne and Colum, whose writings were the chief inspiration for the poem, share MM's intent, best expressed in the introduction to her copy of Castle Rackrent. There, the editor, Henry Morley, quotes Sir Walter Scott on his debt to Maria Edgeworth and his desire to do for his island what she had done for hers, namely to "’introduce her natives in a more favourable light than they had been placed hitherto, and tend to produce sympathy for their virtues, and indulgence for their foibles.’"
From the Marianne Moore Newsletter Vol. IV, No. 2 (Fall 1980)
"Spenser's Ireland" makes no direct reference to the subject of "Sojourn in the Whale," but it portrays an even more subtle and evasive power. The poem concludes with its speaker's admission that "I am troubled, I'm dissatisfied, I'm Irish," but it has already offered a solution to the alleged dissatisfaction by portraying freedom and success as states of mind rather than as action. We learn, for instance, that dull perseverance which
again and again says, "I'll never give in," never sees
that you're not free until you've been made captive by supreme belief
If the eccentricities of Ireland thus seem merely fussy--and Moore's language itself is deliberately fussy when making the point--she has her own suggestion for a method of escape:
Erie-- the guillemot so neat and the hen of the heath and the linnet spinet-sweet--bespeak restlessness? Then they are to me like enchanted Earl Gerald who changed himself into a stag, to a great green-eyed cat of the mountain. Discommodity makes them invisible; they've dis- appeared.
"Spenser's Ireland" thus shows that imagination offers escape both from discouragement and, on a whim, from discommodity.
From Marianne Moore: Subversive Modernist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986. Copyright © 1986 by Uviversity of Texas Press.
[Levenson quotes the opening four lines]
Who speaks these lines? – presumably whoever speaks these next lines:
[. . . .]
since the subject-matter (the life of the seasons) persists, as does the distinctive syntactic pattern (the series of present participles) and the almost obsessive noun-adjective pairings ("dead land," "spring rain," "little life," "dried tubers"). The second sentence, of course, introduces a new element, a narrating personal consciousness. But surely this need not signal a new speaker; it suggests rather that there is and has been a speaker, the unspecified "us," who will receive greater specification in the next several lines.
[. . . .]
Certainly we want to identify the "us" that winter kept warm with the "us" that summer surprised, and with the "we" who stop, go on, drink coffee and talk. That is how we expect pronouns to behave: same referents unless new antecedents. But if the pronouns suggest a stable identity for the speaker, much else has already become unstable. Landscape has given way to cityscape. General speculation (April as the "cruellest month") resolves into a particular memory: the day in the Hofgarten. And the stylistic pattern shifts. The series of participles disappears, replaced by a series of verbs in conjunction: "And went ... And drank ... And talked." The adjective-noun pattern is broken.
What can we conclude so far? -- that a strain exists between the presumed identity of the poem's speaker and the instability of the speaker's world. If this is the speech of one person, it has the range of many personalities and many voices -- a point that will gain clarity if we consider the remaining lines of the sequence:
[. . . .]
The line of German aggravates the strain, challenging the fragile continuity that has been established. Here is a new voice with a new subject-matter, speaking in another language, resisting assimilation. Is the line spoken, overheard, remembered? Among the poem's readers no consensus has emerged. Nor is consensus to be expected. In the absence of contextual clues, and Eliot suppresses such clues, the line exists as a stark, unassimilable poetic datum.
And yet, after that line a certain continuity is restored. The first-person plural returns; the pattern of conjunction reappears: "And when . . . And I . . . And down." Even that startling line of German, let us notice, had been anticipated in the "Hofgarten" and "Starnbergersee" of the previous lines. Discontinuity, in other words, is no more firmly established than continuity. The opening lines of the poem offer an elaborate system of similarities and oppositions, which might be represented in the following manner:
The diagram should indicate the difficulty. Lines 1-6 are linked by the use of present participles, lines 5-18 by personal pronouns, lines 8-12 by the use of German, lines 10-16 by the reiteration of the conjunction "and." The consequence is that in any given line we may find a stylistic feature which will bind it to a subsequent or previous line, in this way suggesting a continuous speaker, or at least making such a speaker plausible. But we have no single common feature connecting all the lines: one principle of continuity gives way to the next. And these overlapping principles of similarity undermine the attempt to draw boundaries around distinct speaking subjects. The poetic voice is changing; that we all hear. Certainly we hear it when we compare one of the opening lines to those at the end of the passage. But the changes are incremental, frustrating the attempt to make strict demarcations. How many speak in these opening lines? "One," "two" and "three" have been answers, but my point is that any attempt to resolve that issue provokes a collision of interpretive conventions. On the one hand, the sequence of first-person pronouns -- an "us " that becomes a "we," a "me" an "I," and then "Marie" -- would encourage us to read these lines as marking the steady emergence of an individual human subject. But if the march of pronouns would imply that Marie has been the speaker throughout, that suggestion is threatened in the several ways we have considered: the shift from general reflection to personal reminiscence, from landscape to cityscape, from participial connectives to conjunctions, the disappearance of the noun-adjective pattern, the use of German. Attitudes, moreover, have undergone a delicate, though steady, evolution. Can the person who was "kept . . . warm . . . in forgetful snow . . . " be that Marie, who prefers to "go south in winter?" Can the voice which solemnly intones the opening and explosive paradox: April is cruel, utter such conversational banalities as: "In the mountains, there you feel free"?
Perhaps -- but if we insist on Marie as the consistent speaker, if we ask her to lay hold of this complexity, we can expect only an unsteady grasp. The heterogeneity of attitude, the variety of tone, do not resolve into the attitudes and tones of an individual personality. In short, the boundaries of the self begin to waver: if we can no longer trust our pronouns, what can we trust? Furthermore, though we find it difficult to posit one speaker, it is scarcely easier to posit many, since we can say with no certainty where one concludes and another begins. Though the poem's opening lines do not hang together, neither do they fall cleanly apart. Here, as elsewhere, the poem plays between bridges and chasms, repetitions and aggressive novelties, echoes and new voices.
In the opening movement of The Waste Land, the individual subject possesses none of the formal dominance it once enjoyed in Conrad and James. No single consciousness presides; no single voice dominates. A character appears, looming suddenly into prominence, breaks into speech, and then recedes, having bestowed momentary conscious perception on the fragmentary scene. Marie will provide neither coherence nor continuity for the poem: having been named, she will disappear; her part is brief. Our part is larger, for the question we now face is the problem of boundaries in The Waste Land.
[. . . .]
Eliot, as we have already seen, rejects the need for any such integrating Absolute as a way of guaranteeing order. His theory of points of view means to obviate that need. Points of view, though distinct, can be combined. Order can emerge from beneath; it need not descend from above. And thus in the Monist he says of Leibniz' theory of the dominant monad: "I contend that if one recognizes two points of view which are quite irreconcilable and yet melt into each other, this theory is quite superfluous." And in the dissertation he writes that "the pre-established harmony is unnecessary if we recognize that the monads are not wholly distinct."
My italics are tendentious, dramatizing the repetitions in phrase. But the repetition is more than a chance echo; it identifies a problem which both the philosophy and the poetry address. How can one finite experience be related to any other? Put otherwise, how can difference be compatible with unity? Moreover, the poetic solution is continuous with the philosophic solution: individual experiences, individual personalities are not impenetrable. They are distinct, but not wholly so. Like the points of view described in the dissertation, the fragments in The Waste Land merge with one another, pass into one another.
Madame Sosostris, for instance, identifies the protagonist with the drowned sailor ("Here, said she/Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor"). But the sailor, Phlebas, is also identified with Mr Eugenides: recall Eliot's phrase, "the one-eyed merchant, seller of currants, melts into the Phoenician Sailor." But, as Langbaum has shown, if the protagonist is identified with Phlebas and Phlebas with Eugenides, then it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the protagonist and the Smyrna merchant are, themselves, "not wholly distinct." What, then, do we make of these lines?
[Levenson quotes lines from "Under the brown fog of a winter noon" to "Followed by a weekend at the Metropole."
The protagonist, as Langbaum points out, "stands on both sides of the proposition," and such a conclusion will unnerve us only if we hold fast to traditional concepts of self, personal identity, personal continuity and the barriers between selves.
But in The Waste Land no consistent identity persists; the "shifting references" alter our notions of the self. The characters are little more than aspects of selves or, in the jargon of Eliot's dissertation, "finite centres," "points of view."
Here are the concluding lines of "The Fire Sermon":
[. . . .]
Lines from Augustine alternate with lines from the Buddha, and, as Eliot tells us in the footnote: "the collocation of these two representatives of eastern and western asceticism, as the culmination of this part of the poem, is not an accident." Of course it is not. It is the way the poem works: it collocates in order to culminate. It offers us fragments of consciousness, "various presentations to various viewpoints," which overlap, interlock, "melting into" one another to form emergent wholes. The poems is not, as it is common to say, built upon the juxtaposition of fragments: it is built out of their interpenetration. Fragments of the Buddha and Augustine combine to make a new literary reality which is neither the Buddha nor Augustine but which includes them both.
But at my back from time to time I hear The sound of horns and motors, which shall bring Sweeney to Mrs. Porter in the spring.
The echo from Marvell passes into an echo from Day: the poetic effect depends on amalgamating these distinct sources, on recognizing them as not wholly distinct. For we know, argues Eliot, "that we are able to pass from one point of view to another, that we are compelled to do so, and that the different aspects more or less hang together." The movement of The Waste Land is just such a movement among points of view: Marvell and Day, the Buddha and St Augustine, Ovid and Virgil.
We find ourselves in a position to confront a problem, which, though distant, is not forgotten: the problem of the poem's unity, or what comes to the same thing, the problem of Tiresias. We may begin to see how Tiresias can serve the function of "uniting all the rest," without that obliging us to conclude that all speech and all consciousness are the speech and consciousness of Tiresias. For, if we rush too quickly to Tiresias as a presiding consciousness, along the lines established by Conrad or James, then we lose what the text clearly asks us to retain: the plurality of voices that sound in no easy harmony. What Eliot says of the Absolute can be said of Tiresias, who, also, "dissolves at a touch into ... constituents." But this does not leave us with a heap of broken fragments; we have seen how the fragments are constructed into new wholes. If Tiresias dissolves into constituents, let us remember the moments when those constituents resolve into Tiresias. Tiresias is, in this sense, an intermittent phenomenon in the poem, a subsequent phenomenon, emerging out of other characters, other aspects. The two sexes may, as Eliot suggests, meet in Tiresias, but they do not begin there.
"The life of a soul," writes Eliot in the dissertation, "does not consist in the contemplation of one consistent world but in the painful task of unifying (to a greater and less extent) jarring and incompatible ones, and passing, when possible, from two or more discordant viewpoints to a higher which shall somehow include and transmute them." Tiresias functions in the poem in just this way: not as a consistent harmonizing consciousness but as the struggled-for emergence of a more encompassing point of view. The world, Eliot argues, only sporadically accessible to the knowing mind; it is a "felt whole in which there are moments of knowledge." And so, indeed, is The Waste Land such a felt whole with moments of knowledge. Tiresias provides not permanent wisdom but instants of lucidity during which the poem's angle of vision is temporarily raised, the expanse of knowledge temporarily widened.
The poem concludes with a rapid series of allusive literary fragments: seven of the last eight lines are quotations. But in the midst of these quotations is a line to which we must attach great importance: "These fragments I have shored against my ruins." In the space of that line the poem becomes conscious of itself. What had been a series of fragments of consciousness has become a consciousness of fragmentation: that may not be salvation, but it is a difference, for as Eliot writes, "To realize that a point of view is a point of view is already to have transcended it." And to recognize fragments as fragments, to name them as fragments, is already to have transcended them not to an harmonious or final unity but to a somewhat higher, somewhat more inclusive, somewhat more conscious point of view. Considered in this way, the poem does not achieve a resolved coherence, but neither does it remain in a chaos of fragmentation. Rather it displays a series of more or less stable patterns, regions of coherence, temporary principles of order the poem not as a stable unity but engaged in what Eliot calls the "painful task of unifying."
Within this perspective any unity will be provisional; we may always expect new poetic elements, demanding new assimilation. Thus the voice of Tiresias, having provided a moment of authoritative consciousness at the centre of the poem, falls silent, letting events speak for themselves. And the voice in the last several lines, having become conscious of fragmentation, suddenly gives way to more fragments. The polyphony of The Waste Land allows for intermittent harmonies, but these harmonies are not sustained; the consistencies are not permanent. Eliot's method must be carefully distinguished from the methods of his modernist predecessors. If we attempt to make The Waste Land conform to Imagism or Impressionism, we miss its strategy and miss its accomplishment. Eliot wrenched his poetry from the self-sufficiency of the single image and the single narrating consciousness. The principle of order in The Waste Land depends on a plurality of consciousnesses, an ever-increasing series of points of view, which struggle towards an emergent unity and then continue to struggle past that unity.
From A Genealogy of Modernism: A study of English literary doctrine 1908-1922. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984. Copyright © 1984 by Cambridge University Press. Reprinted by permission of the author.
"To Be a Jew in the Twentieth Century" enacts most powerfully the struggle of the body and for belief:
To be a Jew in the twentieth century Is to be offered a gift. If you refuse, Wishing to be invisible, you choose Death of the spirit, the stone insanity. Accepting, take full life. Full agonies: Your evening deep in labyrinthine blood Of those who resist, fail, and resist: and God Reduced to a hostage among hostages.
The gift is torment. Not alone the still Torture, isolation; or torture of the flesh. That may come also. But the accepting wish, The whole and fertile spirit as guarantee For every human freedom, suffering to be free, Daring to live for the impossible.
The significance of this poem’s representation of Jewish experience at a time when the great majority of American volumes of war poems ignored the Holocaust cannot, I think, be overemphasized. "To Be a Jew in the Twentieth Century offers a profound extension and reformulation of the terms of the other poems in the "Letter [to the Front]" sequence and of the terms of Western war poetry and dominant American home-front culture. Stressing the active work of Judaism, it reworks the traditional rhetoric of election: Jews are people who must choose to be the chosen people. Giving new substance to the word "belief" which has cropped up so frequently in "Letter [to the Front]," it represents that belief as rooted and exemplified in Jewish cultural and spiritual tradition. Its figure of the gift which is also torment refigures conventional imagery of war’s exchanges; external battles and written, distant correspondences are replaced by an inward, invisible offering, an internal struggle to acknowledge and live by one’s identity and one’s principles. Finally, not least, "To Be a Jew" adds another dimension to the front which this "Letter to the Front" redefines, reminding us that in 1944 not only soldiers bore marks, scars, and wounds or capacities of vision and resistance.
There is a body at the center of "Letter to the Front." It is a Jew’s body. And, in this war poem . . . it is a woman’s body. "Letter to the Front"’s strongest revision of the tradition of war poetry and war letters lies here: the great questions of that tradition -- if, why, how the body should be or will be put to use, put in danger, for the sake of belief -- are claimed as questions, necessary and inevitable, for supposed "non-combatants."
[Susan Schweik, A Gulf So Deeply Cut: American Women’s Poetry of the Second World War (Madison: U of Wisconsin Press, 1991), 169-170.]
While some of O'Hara's poems are more pop camp and others more abstract, poems like 'Rhapsody' (O'Hara 1977a, p. 325) combine the two. This mixture of Pop Camp and Abstract Expressionism is also to be found in the work of Larry Rivers. Rivers worked on the edges of the New York School of painters who included Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, Alfred Leslie, Michael Goldberg, Norman Bluhm and Jane Freilicher. The close relationship between Rivers and O'Hara, and the way in which Rivers's work—like O'Hara's—combines abstract and representational modes, has already been well discussed by Marjorie Perloff (Perloff 1979). I want to argue that Rivers's work is in a similar relationship of 'complementary antagonism' to Abstract Expressionism and Pop Camp as O'Hara's. Rivers often used commercial images in his painting and was an important forerunner of Pop Art. However, like O'Hara, Rivers's work deviated from Pop Art. Hefen Harrison argues that Rivers differs from Pop Art, which 'comments on the social implications of standardization, mass dissemination of information, and the dehumanizing effects of modern culture'. What Rivers does have in common with the Pop Artists, Harrison argues, is to employ 'traditionally unacceptable raw material' (Harrison 1984, p. 48). Similarly, Libby suggests that 'While pop art flattens . . . Rivers discovers the radiance of ordinary things, imaginatively transforming them in ways that Williams would admire but Warhol might consider perversely romantic' (Libby 1990, p.134). Although these comparisons make a useful distinction, again they tend to underestimate the aestheticisation of the image within Pop Art.
In fact, 'pop camp' is also an important ingredient of Rivers's work, and this is shown not only in his inclusion of consumer goods but also in his parodic revisions of historical representations which are deeply ingrained in American popular culture. A good example of this kind of work is 'Washington Crossing the Delaware' (1953), an important 'repainting' of a traditional American icon, Leutze's painting of 'Washington Crossing The Delaware', which undermined the heroism, masculinity and patriotism of the original. The painting appeared the year after the Leutze was in the public eye in the celebrations for the 175th anniversary of the river crossing. At that time the Cold War and McCarthyism were at their height, and patriotism had become a national obsession. Rivers's painting undercuts the heroic Napoleonic stance of Washington in the Leutze and humanises it. Washington becomes only one of many going about their business; he seems isolated and his stance is much less heroic and purposeful than in the original. While seeming to buy into the sentiments of nationalism and patriotism, Rivers subverts them by taking Washington off his heroic pedestal. Rivers said of the painting:
The last painting that dealt with George and the rebels is hanging at the Met and was painted by a coarse German nineteenth-century academician who really loved Napoleon more than anyone and thought crossing a river on a late December afternoon was just another excuse for a general to assume a heroic, slightly tragic pose . . . What could have inspired him I’ll never know. What I saw in the crossing was quite different. I saw the moment as nerve-wracking and uncomfortable. I couldn't picture anyone getting into a chilly river around Christmas time with anything resembling hand-on-chest heroics. (Davidson 1983, p. 74).
Conflicting readings, however, inhabit the painting, and it seems to be more ambiguous than critics sometimes allow. Does Washington really look as 'uncertain' as critics say? The deconstruction is all the more effective because the attitudes which are being questioned still have a presence within the painting, in the same way that they do within O'Hara's poems.
O'Hara responded to the painting with the poem, 'On Seeing Larry Rivers' Washington Crossing the Delaware at the Museum of Modern Art'. This poem characterises Washington as afraid, gun-happy and a liar. He is the father of debatable notions about freedom which honour individualism rather than community. 'See how free we are! as a nation of persons.' In other words, the poem narrativises the painting further, implying, but not determining, trajectories of plot, character and past history.
from Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O'Hara: Difference/Homosexuality/Topography. Liverpool UP, 2000. Copyright © 2000 by Hazel Smith.
It is a paradox worth savoring that the painters closest in mood and temperament to the New York poets were not the makers of the abstract revolution but such "second generation" figures as Larry Rivers, Jane Freilicher, and Fairheld Porter, not one of them an abstract artist. To understand how the New York School of poets assimilated the influence of their painterly namesakes, we might linger for a moment over the differing ways in which a Rivers or a Porter responded to the avant-garde imperatives of the day. The example of Rivers was particularly crucial for O'Hara and Koch. Porter's example had a corresponding importance for Schuyler and Ashbery.
Born Yitzroch Grossberg in the Bronx, Rivers was an uninhibited, grass-smoking, sex-obsessed jazz saxophonist in his early twenties when he took up painting in 1945. His Bonnard-inspired early works made Clement Greenberg sit up and take notice. Though he would later modify his praise and then with- draw it altogether, Greenberg declared in 1949 that Rivers was already "a better composer of pictures than was Bonnard himself in many instances"—and this on the basis of Rivers's first one- man show. Rivers—who can, as I write this, still be heard playing the saxophone at the Knickerbocker Bar in New York City some Sunday nights—always retained the improvisatory ideal of jazz. The make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is evident in even his most monumental constructions—such as The History of the Russian Revotution (1965) in Washington's Hirshhorn Museum— which have a fresh air of spontaneity about them, as if they had just been assembled a few minutes ago.
Rivers relied on "charcoal drawing and rag wiping" for the deliberately unfinished look of his pictures. Also distinctive was his prankish sense of humor. In 1964 he painted a spoof of Jacques-Louis David's famous Napoleon in His Study (1812), the portrait of the emperor in the classic hand-in-jacket pose. Rivers's version, full of smudges and erasures, manages to be iconoclastic and idolatrous at once. The finishing touch is the painting's title: Rivers called it The Greatest Homosexual. A visitor to Rivers's Fourteenth Street studio in 1994, seeing a picture on the wall with the Napoleon motif in it, asked him why he had given the original painting its unusual title. "In those days I was carrying on with people in the gay bathhouse world," Rivers said. "Napoleon's pose was like, 'Get her!' Also, it was a kind of joke, since the art world at the time was primarily homosexual. And I had just read that Napoleon was a little peculiar. In St. Helena he used to be surrounded by an entourage of officers and he would take a bath in front of them, nude."
There is a strand of Rivers's work that can only be understood if you take into account the homosexual aestheticism that he found embodied in the poems and person of O'Hara. In the early 1950s, "queerdom was a country in which there was more fun," Rivers has said. "There was something about homosexuality that seemed too much, too gorgeous, too ripe. I later came to realize that there was something marvelous about it because it seemed to be pushing everything to its fullest point."
If one condition of avant-garde art is that it is ahead of its time, and another is that it proceeds from a maverick impulse and a contrary disposition, Rivers's vanguard status was assured from the moment when, in open apostasy, he audaciously made representational paintings. glorifying nostalgia and sentiment, while undercutting them with metropolitan irony. His paintings of brand labels, found objects, and pop icons—Camel cigarettes, Dutch Masters cigars, the menu at the Cedar Tavern in 1959,a French hundred-franc note—preceded Pop Art but eluded the limitations of that movement. And his pastiches of famous paintings of the past—such as his irreverent rendition of Emmanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware (1953)—anticipated the breezy ironies of postmodernism without forfeiting the painterly touches of Abstract Expressionism. The painting, Rivers told O’Hara, "was just a way for me to stick my thumb out at other people. I suddenly carved a little corner for myself. Luckily for me I didn’t give a crap about what was going on at the time in New York painting. In fact, I was energetic and egomaniacal and, what is even more important, cocky and angry enough to want to do something that no one in the New York art world could doubt was disgusting, dead, and absurd. So, what could be dopier than a painting dedicated to a national cliché?"
Rivers denied that his Washington Crossing the Delaware was specifically a parody of Emmanuel Leutze’s painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He maintained that his true inspiration derived from the patriotic grade school plays he had acted in or watched as a boy. This explanation made the picture no less heretical in an art world that had given up on representation and was bound to consider a patriotic theme as either hopelessly corny or retrograde. But for Rivers’s poet friends, the painting- -which the Museum of Modern Art purchased in 1955—was an electric charge. Kenneth Koch wrote a play, George Washington Crossing the Delaware, in which the father of our country is glorified with ironic hyperbole. And Frank O'Hara. in his poem "On Seeing Larry Rivers.s Washington Crossing the Delaware at the Museum of Modern Art," used the opportunity to state a "revolutionary" credo:
To be more revolutionary than a nun is our desire, to be secular and intimate as, when sighting a redcoat, you smile and pull the trigger.
It is conceivable that the "redcoat" O'Hara envisioned here coat of red paint. The gun in Rivers's hands, or in his own, the promise of freedom from dogma or domination:
Don't shoot until, the white of freedom glinting on your gun barrel, you see the general fear.
from The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets. Copyright © 1998 by Doubleday, Inc.