Telling it Slant . . .

This is just the beginnings of something I’ve been working on, about the ways we, as writers, make a space for writing about some of the less “hip” emotions (like Love, Fear, Tenderness,etc.). Like I said, just the beginning. I haven’t gone past Frank O’Hara yet.

This post has Intro & O’Hara sections. subsequent posts will deal with Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery, James Schuyler

TELLING IT SLANT, OR, NOTHING MORE SERIOUS THAN A JOKE: Humor and Sincerity in the New York School Poets

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant –
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise  

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind –
 --Emily Dickinson

Ray Stanz: "Don't look directly into the trap!"
Egon Spengler: "I looked into the trap Ray..."

Whether one believes Dickinson’s nurturing, if slightly mother-henish, egg of wisdom regarding why we are compelled to approach truths or sincerities from side angles, or the more pop-centric 80s recasting (that’s 1980s) of the same nugget by Ray Stanz (Dan Ackroyd)—or, a preference toward a defining explosion in the use of a kind of ironic detachment as an end run around facing and representing something approaching Truth (capital Tee), Sincerity, Hope, or Earnestness (not to even mention Tenderness), as a result of oversaturation of artistic mediums—leaving us nothing original to write, paint, compose or sculpt about—the hopelessness of an existence without a possible meaning or end result, coupled with a ever-increasing speed and fluidity of modern culture—no matter the conclusion drawn about causes/impetus, many artists seem to find it difficult to meet many of our basest feelings and questions with any sort of head-on clarity.

Poetry, specifically contemporary poetry (say, of the last half-century or so), may be the most guilty of this type of deflection (to borrow a term from the therapist’s lingo). Part of it has to do with the ultra-compression a lyric is subjected to. I can think of a poet who claimed a 12-line poem he’d written took him 6-months to complete. And with all of poetry’s adornments of figure, language, music, image, diction, syntax, rhythm that kind of time frame starts to become believable. And when we start to think about how vast a language becomes when not only the words, but the connotations and inflections (which increase to the nth degree when the multitude of possible audiences brought to bear) given the words by others who interact with them are considered, how easy it becomes to feel that direct statements don’t begin to embody experience.

And what about the mind behind that experience—isn’t it just as valuable to come to an understanding of how ideas are generated, as the ideas themselves? One can’t simply say “I love you” these days—the ante’s been raised, the price of poetry has just gone up—in fact one can’t say  “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways” or “My love is like a red red rose” any more, because “roses” and “red” is an overused comparison (if completely apt), and “love”—the very word “love,” how can we take that word seriously, say it without either giggling like school kids or questioning its very existence in a society that doesn’t allow all of its citizens to marry, care for its poor, or treats divorces like turning in a lease car. “Death” works similarly, as does “race,” “class,” “gender,” poems about the state of the “soul.”

So we’ve become experts in “[Telling] it slant;” it has become an art form in and of itself, and the cooler, more hip, more out in front one is—a part of the vanguard, say—the more angular the art seems to be. I like that term, “angular.” The poet Tony Hoagland uses it in his essay on tone in poetry, “Sad Anthrpoligists,” to describe what he calls “angular tone,” saying that


“Tone is most visible when it is at an angle. Since the sense of angularity requires the juncture of two things, it is also useful to think of tone as a sort of fraction. Take, as an example, the opening of Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Motive for Metaphor”:

You like it under the trees in autumn,

Because everything is half dead.

These two lines introduce us not to a scene so much as to the angle of a sensibility. The angle struck here is the oddity of attraction to something that would typically be thought of as distasteful, the angle between attraction and repulsion, between the words “like” and “half dead.”


The New York School Poets are especially good at showing this angular relationship to Sincerity or Earnestness. As playful as they were, as much as they eschewed the academic literary poetic standard of the mid-20th-Cenutry, belly-laughed in the face of its self-seriousness, they did it with their own advanced degrees, and suits and ties. They were Earnest, Sincere, but most times when they were, they flanked those serious feelings like Love, Fear, Confusion. The angle was indeed extreme. And they, Ashbery, O’Hara, Koch specifically, have been extremely influential on multiple generations of poets, poets whose exposure to an ever-increasing cultural insistence on Irony/Humor as a base-coat for emotional interaction has caused them to make even more frequent and large-scale use of the type of heavy-emotinal detachment seen in the NY School.

An excellent example of using humor and play as a way into sincerity is Frank O’Hara’s modest-seeming lyric “The Critic,” which I include here in full:


I cannot possibly think of you

other than you are: the assassin


of my orchards. You lurk there

in the shadows, meting out


conversation like Eve’s first

confusion between penises and


snakes. Oh be droll, be jolly

and be temperate! Do not


frighten me more than you

have to! I must live forever.


This short lyric is deceptively dense, though that density is down-played by signature moves O’Hara makes, like sweetener packets emptied into a cup of black coffee—his love of the exclamation mark, joke linking Eve and penises, and request imploring critics to “be droll, be jolly,” seem classic O’Hara, in the same way titling poem after poem “Poem” or a seemingly dashed-off Lana Turner reference is. But just as the use of “Poem” as a recurring title hides a certain seriousness by claiming the poem (or poetry) isn’t a thing worthy of a title (O’Hara was known for sending his only type-written copies of poems off to publishers and friends), or by posturing a sense of “dashed-offedness” in his poems, O’Hara could disinvest from a poem if need be, these moves in “The Critic” attempt to counterbalance the serious tone of Fear that emanates from the poem’s ending. When O’Hara writes “I must live forever,” he is speaking both about the fear of not being remembered, or canonized, and the fear of being remembered, compared to true poets, like, say, Shakespeare, the same Shakespeare “The Critic” tips its hat to (pays homage). In “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day,” lines like “Thou art more lovely and more temperate” and the final couplet,


So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.


ripple through O’Hara’s poem, strongly enough that when I first read “The Critic” its parallels to Shakespeare were extremely striking. It certainly becomes recognizable that O’Hara’s poem (in fact many of them) back into a sort of Sincerity and that somehow the playfulness and jokes give him a kind of permission to till hard, and hard-earned, emotional ground, coming off almost as if he were fooled into revealing something real, a facsimile of a true epiphanic moment, as if to say “I didn’t want to go there but in the moment the feeling was too compelling.”


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