"Dawn must always recur
to blot out the stars and the terrible systems
Living in our age of rampant obscurantism, one can only hope O'Hara was right. But reading these lines, I couldn't help but wonder what enabled him to speak so boldly -- almost Homerically -- in the first place. And the mood doesn't let up. "Dawn, which dries out the web so the wind can blow it,/spider web and all, away", it continues. And then:
erasing blindness from an eye inflamed,
reaching for its
morning cigarette in Promethean inflection
after the blames
and desperate conclusions of the dark..."
Was this optimism a reflection of a booming economy, not to mention the cultural renaissance of the New York art scene of the 50s? One can only speculate. But a look at the lines themselves reveals another source of their faith.
O'Hara places his bets on the idea that art movements rhyme with nature's rhythms: just as the dawn inevitably follows the night, so cultural enlightenment is sure to overcome the reactionary darkness.
Portraying culture as a sort of natural force is not an unfamiliar gesture on his part. Who can forget the end of his great poem "On the Film Industry in Crisis": "Roll on, wheels of celluloid, as the great earth rolls on!"
In any case, the use of such metaphors brought to mind a book I've been slowly working my way through lately, John Dewey's classic Art as Experience.
Like O'Hara, Dewey often ignores the borders between culture and nature (along with any other barrier that would separate the arts from common experience). "The true antithesis of nature is not art," he writes, "but arbitrary conceit, fantasy and stereotyped convention."
Dewey insists that both the sciences and the arts, in fact, art motivated in part by our response to natural rhythms. Scientific and cultural evolution, in his mind, are both spurred by our increasing knowledge of nature and the changes this causes in our experience. As he puts it:
"The history of the progress of natural science is the record of the operations that refine and render more comprehensive our grasp of the gross and limited rhythms that first engaged the attention of archaic man...Today the rhythms which physical science celebrates are obvious only to thought, not to perception in immediate experience...Yet a common interest in rhythm is still the tie which holds science and art in kinship."
The invisible (to the unaided eye/senses) rhythms Dewey has in mind here (in 1934) are of the cellular and atomic level. And you could argue that in the arts, Modernism provides some rough analogies -- whether authors explore the molecular roots of language, as in Stein, or the interior, heretofore invisible spaces of the unconscious.
But closer to O'Hara's time, this all made me think of the art movement his poem is praising here, Abstract Expressionism. In Art as Experience, Dewey argues that "significant advances in technique occur...in connection with efforts to solve problems that are not technical, but that grow out of the needs for new modes of experience."
The Naturalism of Jackson Pollock
O'Hara's poem is addressed to de Kooning, but with Dewey's ideas in mind, it also made me think of Jackson Pollock. You could argue that Pollock's drip technique arose in part from the need to discover, at a time of nuclear gloom, the sublime qualities of the immediate moment. But on a more direct level, you might also say that it expressed a desire to experience the act of painting in a less conventional, i.e., more natural way.
In this light, a work like Pollock's "Autumn Rhythm" might be seen as a reinvented naturalism for the bomb era, where the work offers itself to the viewer as a sort of seismograph of the artist's interior impulses during the act of creation itself. The painting even looks a little like the tendril-like structure of a group of the brain's synaptic cells:
But such a concern for discovering rhythms of psychic space (the terrain of thought itself) makes me think that despite the countless ways that naturalism is rediscovered in each era, there's an element that's almost classical about its pursuit. Didn't Aristotle (the original naturalist) insist that the highest pleasure of human nature was mental -- i.e., intellectual contemplation?
Or as O'Hara puts it in his poem "Heroic Sculpture" (1958):
We join the animals
not when we fuck
not when tear falls
staring into light