Frank O’Hara’s “For Bob Rauschenberg,” on His Birthday

Robert Rauschenberg, “Estate” (1963)

Today is the birthday of the groundbreaking painter Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008), who would’ve turned 91 today.  Rauschenberg, who Frank O’Hara once called “the enfant terrible of the New York School,” was of course both a good friend and inspiration to O’Hara, Ashbery, and their circle in the 1950s and 1960s.

This link is nowhere more apparent than in a wonderful poem by Frank O’Hara called “For Bob Rauschenberg” (1959), which I’ve always felt should be better known.  Here it is in its entirety:

For Bob Rauschenberg

Yes, it’s necessary, I’ll do
what you say, put everything
aside but what is here.  The frail
instant needs us and the cautious
breath, so easily drowned in Liszt
or sucked out by a vulgar soprano.

Why should I hear music?  I’m not
a pianist any more, and in truth
I despise my love for Pasternak,
born in Baltimore, no sasha mine,
and an adolescence taken in hay
above horses —

                        what should I be
if not alone in pain, apart from
the heavenly aspirations of
Spenser and Keats and Ginsberg,
who have a language that permits
them truth and beauty, double-coin?
exercise, recreations, drugs –

can heaven mean up, down, or sidewise
who knows what is happening to him,
what has happened and is here, a
paper rubbed against the heart
and still too moist to be framed.

In this poem, O’Hara suggests that he has made a choice to throw his lot in with Rauschenberg and the new aesthetic the painter was developing in the late 1950s. “Yes, it’s necessary,” he concedes. “I’ll do / what you say, put everything / aside but what is here.”

O’Hara indicates that he too will pursue an art devoted to the immediate, the concrete, the small and transitory, rather than other, grander, or more metaphysical aspects of experience.  The poem sets this materialist, empiricist, quotidian impulse against a more romantic, spiritual approach to the world that O’Hara feels is foreign to him (after all, in another poem he refers to himself as “the opposite of visionary”).

For O’Hara, the afterlife is elusive, even fictive; it pales in the face of “what has happened and is here.”  With its skepticism of “the heavenly aspirations” of other, more Romantic poets, like “Spenser and Keats and Ginsberg,” with its incredulity towards the language of “truth and beauty” and “heaven,” this poem declares its commitment instead to the here and now and to daily life.

In 1955, Rauschenberg had written of his own everyday aesthetic: “painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made.  (I try to act in that gap between the two).” The striking image  O’Hara uses to close his poem for Rauschenberg

paper rubbed against the heart
and still too moist to be framed.

suggests that close attention to “what is here,” to the immediate and daily, results in an art object that is poised, uneasily and paradoxically, in the gap Rauschenberg describes — between art and life: a piece of paper glistening with the raw, red blood of experience, still too wet, too fresh, too much a part of “life” itself to be fully captured in a traditional artifact.

O’Hara’s poem “For Bob Rauschenberg” seems to be a central statement of the profoundly influential aesthetics of everyday life the two figures shared.  This is one reason why I was so grateful that I was able to use the painting above, Rauschenberg’s “Estate” (1963), for the cover of my new book, Attention Equals Life: The Pursuit of the Everyday in Contemporary Poetry and Culture, which takes its title from O’Hara and explores the broad fascination with the quotidian O’Hara outlines in his poem for Robert Rauschenberg.


This entry was posted in Boris Pasternak, Frank O'Hara, Poems, Robert Rauschenberg, Uncategorized, Visual Art. Bookmark the permalink.

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