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Banal Probe

By D.A. Powell

The Blogosphere is, as they say in stand-up comedy, a tough room: so many audience members seem to have shown up just to heckle. It’s strange how people lob remarks from the void—I wonder, often, how those same people might behave at parties.
Of course, a healthy dose of criticism is good and necessary. And it may even be useful to call out the romantic banalities when you see them—though I think anyone who tires of banality should probably avoid the arts altogether.


I am reminded of the old chestnut which I am always unintentionally misquoting: “opinions are like assholes—everybody has at least one.”
I know every Ivy league graduate student has already heard this story (yawn) but I’ll tell it anyway. Once, Frank O’Hara was giving a reading, and a familiar voice shouted from the back of the room, “You’re ruining American poetry, O’Hara.” Not missing a beat, O’Hara replied, “That’s more than you ever did for it, Kerouac.”
Of course, what makes the preceding anecdote noteworthy is the lasting legacy of both participants. Otherwise, it would have just been a silly argument between two people with an exaggerated sense of importance.

Comments (11)

  • On June 17, 2008 at 8:53 am bill knott wrote:

    you gotta be kidding, “D.A.” (if that’s your real name)——
    because you must know they “screen” the comments
    here:
    honest words like O’Hara and Kerouac exchanged
    would never make it through to appear here—

  • On June 17, 2008 at 11:55 am Aaron Fagan wrote:

    Or two, silly people with an exaggerated sense of an important argument. I don’t know. A tough room, yes. Like stand-up or magic, enough time has elapsed for the jokes to lose their flare and the secrets of the trick to be made plain. The social construction of legacy is complex and unpredictable. Hindsight having 20/20 vision, isn’t it impossible to know what of blogosphere will be remembered? This exaggerated sense of importance may be your own fear. It’s pretty unlikely any of us will be remembered. Respect for the past seems pretty unfashionable, respect for the present, definitely. And with so much revisionism at work, most of what we celebrate will be a very long, confusing footnote. So have fun.

  • On June 17, 2008 at 12:01 pm Daniel wrote:

    That story is interesting?

  • On June 17, 2008 at 12:51 pm Robert wrote:

    I wonder if that anecdote is an urban legend. I’ve heard it too but in the version I’ve heard, it’s Gregory Corso, not Kerouac.

  • On June 17, 2008 at 4:36 pm Don Share wrote:

    The anecdote was written up in David Lehman’s The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets just as Doug, for that is his name, tells it.

  • On June 17, 2008 at 4:42 pm Don Share wrote:

    … and also in Brad Gooch’s City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara, p. 322.

  • On June 17, 2008 at 6:22 pm D. A. Powell wrote:

    I didn’t mean for the story to be “interesting.” I meant for it to be illustrative of a kind of critical banter that has some underlying sense of urgency and showmanship. Anybody can fling dirt, apparently. But they can’t all hope to win the hearts and minds of the poetry-reading public. And I’m not signifying any one comment-poster here. It is a general observation on the state of internet conversations.

  • On June 18, 2008 at 1:25 pm Andrew Epstein wrote:

    As Don said, the famous incident involving O’Hara and Kerouac (and Gregory Corso) which Doug refers to is by no means an urban legend, and is covered in colorful detail in Brad Gooch’s biography of O’Hara and in David Lehman’s book The Last Avant-Garde (336). Also, Lytle Shaw discusses it in his book Frank O’Hara: The Poetics of Coterie (88-89), and in my own book, Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry, I discuss the O’Hara-Kerouac exchange in relation to an early poem by Amiri Baraka (“Look for You Yesterday, Here You Come Today”) which refers to the incident as well (223-224).

  • On June 18, 2008 at 1:51 pm Don Share wrote:

    Well, and stop me if you’ve heard this one before:
    [Robert] Lowell did a joint reading with Allen Ginsberg at New York’s St. Marks-in-the-Bowery. The poets shared a podium—a hint that, in the interim, the battlelines had blurred. Gregory Corso rambunctiously heckled Lowell as he read his poem, “Ulysses and Circe.” “Robert, you left out that great line about paranoid,” Corso called out. Lowell responded with a quick “Point taken” and continued. “You treat us like a classroom,” Corso shouted. Lowell responded that he, in fact, was a teacher and tried to let it go at that. The event was shaping up like a lopsided showdown when Ginsberg finally stepped forward and proposed that the crowd collectively invite Corso to “shut up.” They did and Corso amicably exited, boots in hand, wife and baby at his side.
    “The Raw and the Cooked: Robert Lowell and the Beats,” by Tina Cane
    (There’s easily obtainable audio of this incident, too!)

  • On August 14, 2008 at 10:11 am Ms Baroque wrote:

    What a pain in the ass! Corso, I mean.
    I agree totally about the tough room thing, though. Putting your head above the parapet just seems to invite abuse in some quarters. I think maybe more on these kind of group blogs, where people are reading to see what’s up, and it’s less personal. I’d think twice before blogging for the Guardian, for example.
    It doesn’t happen on my blog, & I’m very grateful. Maybe as it’s just me, if they didn’t like me they wouldn’t read it. But then I never set out to make any big pronouncements; it’s just meant to be a good read.
    As is Harriet, by the way, folks!

  • On August 14, 2008 at 3:37 pm unreliable narrator wrote:

    First, comedian Katt Williams (L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E advisory) on the necessary social function of haters; and then, perhaps more loftily, Ms. Adrienne Rich: “Not all of them will love you whichever way you choose.”
    Now theirs might be an argument worth entertaining, were they opinionated, obnoxious guests with exaggerated senses of their own importance! (Which surely describes all literary parties? And reminds me of waiting tables in my twenties, and wondering whether restaurant patrons strew their food around at home as liberally as they seem to do in public.)


Posted in Uncategorized on Tuesday, June 17th, 2008 by D.A. Powell.