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This article is taken from PN Review 195, Volume 37 Number 1, September - October 2010.

Moving Targets David C. Ward

With perspective, the 1950s in the United States has come to be seen as a more interesting, indeed fertile, period in American culture than it initially appeared, especially from the perspective of the turbulent 1960s. Far from being a period of stultifying conformism, a conformism marinated in post-war affluence and foreign policy triumphalism, the decade nurtured a succession of cultural and artistic developments whose effects resonated both at the time and subsequently in the evolution of post-war America. This period saw an especially fruitful collaboration between painters and poets, one loosely grouped as the New York school. The linkage of poetry and painting as the sister arts is a centuries-old theme, but the connections were seldom as tight as they were in the 1950s. While personal relationships and friendships played a part in making this bond, there also emerged a common aesthetic concern, one that broadly articulated a sense of cool, almost anecdotal detachment. Frank O’Hara’s ‘Why I Am Not a Painter’ both captured this style and made the aesthetic point when he sketched a dialogue with his painter friend in which they both left the title subjects – oranges and sardines – out of the finished works: ‘My poem is finished and I haven’t mentioned/ orange yet.’ The poet, it turns out, was a painter – and vice versa. They were both doing the same thing. Slight, seemingly superficial, casual: O’Hara recalibrated our ‘plain sense of things’ to hint that a habit of irony, deflection, and omission was ...


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