BEAUTIFUL ENEMIES: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry

Andrew Epstein
Oxford University Press ($45)

by Elizabeth Robinson

Andrew Epstein’s Beautiful Enemies offers a study of friendship and postwar American poetry by focusing on three poets, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and Amiri Baraka. In his introduction, Epstein states that the intention of the book is to investigate the peculiar dynamics of American avant-garde poetic communities and the uneasy role of the individual within them. It takes as its starting point a fundamental paradox: that at the heart of experimental American poetry pulses a commitment to both radical individualism and dynamic movement that is sharply at odds with an equally profound devotion to avant-garde collaboration and community.

Epstein proposes that scrutinizing the role of friendship among poets in general, and among this trio of postwar New York poets in particular, will yield valuable insights into how poets negotiate literary friendships, and the ways that “the mixture of angst and inspiration [friendships] provide become intertwined with the subject, form, rhetoric, and imagery of actual poems.” This scholarly book is likely to be read by practicing poets; it speaks to issues that are familiar and perplexing to all such practitioners. How does one preserve one’s distinctiveness and elasticity as a writer while also making meaningful connections with peers whose own efforts can provide useful provocation and inspiration? At its best, Beautiful Enemies delves into the messy world of friendships without diminishing their complexity, ambivalence, or pleasures.

Epstein employs two central interpretive grids to develop his portrait of friendship among the three poets. He argues, first, that the postwar pressures toward conformity and containment helped create a context in which avant-garde writers opted for diametrically opposed values: “motion, disorder, flux, speed, change, and action.” Avant-garde art of this period turned toward a more individualistic practice that was skeptical of any herd mentality, and Epstein demonstrates how issues of race and sexual orientation were relevant to O’Hara, Ashbery, and Baraka as they resisted prevailing cultural mores.

Secondly, Epstein looks to the philosophical tradition of American pragmatism and how that informed the work of the three poets. Through extensive citations of Emerson and William James, Epstein builds a compelling argument that pragmatism has shaped modernist poetics and is, indeed, an “American idiom.” In short, a pragmatist approach is constituted by a skepticism toward any knowledge that claims to be immutable. Selfhood, too, is socially constructed and protean, where “the inevitable presence of another person is what forces the original individual to re-invent, to change, and to go beyond.” Thus, pragmatism functions with a thorough-going awareness of the contingency of all experience.

Epstein goes on to discuss each of his subject poets individually, while filling out their friendships with each other. His chapter on Frank O’Hara is perhaps the most successful because O’Hara wrote the kind of occasional poems that directly disclose autobiographical information about his friendships. Further, O’Hara is also the only poet of the trio who is deceased, and so Epstein can reasonably generalize about a body of work that is complete.

By contrast, the chapter devoted to Ashbery seems weak, as Epstein attempts to position Ashbery’s poems as coded confessional writings. For instance, he reads Ashbery’s poem “Lithuanian Dance Band” as an elegy directly addressed to O’Hara, reframing the lines “And everywhere the truth rushes in to fill the gaps left by / Its sudden demise so that a fairly accurate record of its activity / is possible” by saying that the poem “has the tone of a casual, intimate letter to a friend who has now departed, after a ‘sudden demise.’” Epstein goes on to claim that the lines “You know not just the scarecrow but the whole landscape / And the crows peacefully pecking where the harrow has passed” is Ashbery’s self-characterization of himself as a crow picking up poetic style from O’Hara: “Ashbery suggests that by adopting O’Hara’s form and voice in this poem (and perhaps others), he is paying tribute to his friend’s artistic innovations—but perhaps even to the point of jeopardizing his own.” This is a reading that cannot stand on the basis of the poem itself. Having allowed that Ashbery’s writings are best described as “vague allegories,” Epstein ought not to have forced so biographical a reading on the work.

Epstein’s interaction with Amiri Baraka’s work is far more persuasive, and his depiction of the Baraka-O’Hara friendship is lively and revealing. Whether or not Baraka and O’Hara were ever lovers, their intimacy clearly galvanized strong writing from both. Epstein’s chapter on Baraka’s break with his mostly white, middle-class, apolitical (and frequently gay) writing community is revelatory and often wrenching to read, evoking as it does the painful self-division that Baraka experienced. Epstein is sharply critical of Baraka’s later homophobic and anti-semitic remarks, yet he attends to the ambivalence of Baraka’s early work with considerable sympathy and admiration. About Baraka’s play, The Toilet, he notes that it is “powerful because of its author’s confusion and ambivalence.”

Taken as a whole, this is an intriguing book, but a number of issues hamper its effectiveness. Epstein tends to fix on a few quotations from the authors he studies and repeat each multiple times. Further, the ubiquity of Emerson and James citations begins to efface the nuances of writing between very distinct poets whose writings are forced into a one-size-fits-all philosophy. Some of Epstein’s readings psychologize in a manner that is speculative and overreaching, as when he cites Ashbery’s recollection that his (physical) voice sounded very much like O’Hara’s; Epstein says that this “suggests [a fear on Ashbery’s part of] a perhaps submerged sense that the two poets, in their poetry, had ‘both inherited the same’ literary voice and ‘were all but indistinguishable’ as poets.” Any reader who knows even the earliest poems of these two poets will find this implausible.

Despite these missteps, Epstein helpfully considers the role friendship plays in shaping art-making within the “American idiom” of pragmatism. The temptation to extrapolate from Epstein’s study and apply it to contemporary communities of writers is irresistible—and this is entirely pertinent to the project of Beautiful Enemies. When Epstein addresses the problem of “how to avoid appropriation, how to ward off absorption by groups, institutions, and other forces that might reduce one’s ability to change, move, or create freely, while at the same time navigating and feeding off of literary communities and friendships,” his description is hauntingly trans-historical: he seems to be talking about you and me.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2007/2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007/2008