Whitman, the New York School, and the Drift of Poetry
“A book I have made, the words of my book nothing, the drift of it every thing,” said Walt Whitman in 1865. While this may seem an extraordinary claim for a wordsmith to make, the concept of textual drift defines a strain of American writing from “the radiant gist” of Williams’ Paterson to the implicit question (“get my drift?”) which underwrites the Beat aesthetic in the post-war period. In the writings of Frank O’Hara, poetic utterance is modelled upon the digressive drift of “metropolitan conversation” as a means of constructing personhood; this writer’s conversation poems articulate a mode of self-presentation which prioritizes the digressive drift of personality over formal, expository discourse on any single governing subject. Moving from Whitman through O’Hara to the post-war Manhattan art world, this section discusses the abolition of the pictorial subject under the aesthetics of abstraction; wielding conversational digressions instead of oils and acrylic in poems such as “Digression on Number 1, 1948,” O’Hara imports the New York School’s painterly project of constructing “a text without a subject” into the discursive field of language.
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