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This article is taken from PN Review 129, Volume 26 Number 1, September - October 1999.

Dam and River: Two Ways to Art in the 1950s David C. Ward

'He cuts down the lakes so they appear straight.'
                                                               John Ashbery, 'He'

'Destiny guides the water-pilot, and it is destiny. / For long we hadn't heard so much news, such noise.'
                                                     John Ashbery, 'Two Scenes'

In his poem 'Biographia Letteraria', Frank O'Hara pays tribute to a variegated lot of fourteen artists ranging from St Paul to Archibald McLeish. The tributes - which can, maliciously, be read as tombstones - consist of the name of the celebrated in small caps and then one line of summary. The section on the art critic Clement Greenberg reads:

CLEMENT GREENBERG
How Orphic?


O'Hara's sardonic yet uneasy judgement of Greenberg is clear. He acknowledges Greenberg's critical authority even as the overblown reference to an ancient hero and his sacred texts subverts the reference itself; an undercutting nailed down by that concluding question-mark (the meaning would reverse if O'Hara ended with an exclamation point!). But that punctuation mark doesn't close things off but sneakily circles around to keep open the question of Greenberg's oracular status. Maybe it was true and O'Hara's listing of the art critic Greenberg among such makers of modernism as Stein and Joyce (to say nothing of saints like Paul!) is justified even as he hedges his canonical bet with that '?'. While Greenberg aspired to the role of critic as lawgiver, seeing culture as a matter of what to exclude, O'Hara's question-mark left things open, contingent and fluid. ...


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