Thursday, May 15, 2003

Of course, gossipy criticism, like gossipy poetry, can be oppressive in ways similar to biographical criticism--in this case, by drawing lines between insiders and outsiders, positioning the reader as a voyeur of a social world that remains totally inaccessible. I experience this any time I pick up books on the Beats, which often seem to both compellingly romanticize their exploits and inspire pangs of jealousy or resentment in the reader. What looks like a coherent "group" in hindsight was always much messier in practice. If it seems that anyone who attended Columbia at a certain moment in the '50s got to be a Beat, it's only because of the need to justify the myth we've built up around somebody like Ginsberg, to explain why his work was special and deserved to survive while so many other writers withered in obscurity.

I think this is why "Howl" has always had such appeal--it strikes a perfect balance between voyeuristically peering into the lives of a band of romantic rebels (from which the reader is excluded) and suggesting that the reader might possibly be included in that group through reading the poem itself--somewhere between documenting a community that's already passing into history and extending that community through the poem.

This may connect to David's question yesterday about "social poets." I guess I think of O'Hara as less a social than a sociable poet, someone who's always talking to everybody and reporting on talking to everybody, friendly and open in that way--but the question is whether that sociability is just being reported on at a remove or whether the reader is really invited into it, included in it. Again, the gossipy reportage itself is appealing, and may make us feel like we can participate in O'Hara's social world to some limited degree. But the only way to really be a part of that--I guess this is just how I've always felt in reading O'Hara, even though I love him--would have been to *really* be there, to have been in New York at that particular moment and to have known him. Perhaps the intimacy of his work makes this possible; but I feel there's always that sliver of a divide that prevents it from being what David wants to call "social."

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