Attention & Outrage

July Bookmarks
Ada Calhoun, 2015 (Wikimedia Commons)

In a 1983 interview, the art critic Peter Schjeldahl tried to articulate why critics do what they do:

I think at the root of the critical impulse is some kind of adolescent outrage at growing up and discovering that the world is not nearly what you hoped or thought it might be. Criticism is then a career of trying to move the world over and make it more habitable for your own sensibility.

Schjeldahl perfectly captures criticism’s petulant seriousness, its blending of the utopian and the intemperate. Why can’t things—this painting or that poem—be what they’re supposed to be, the critic demands? Why can’t the world give me more of what I like (Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping) and less of what I don’t (Richard Powers’s The Overstory)? Why, why, why, the critic asks, stamping her foot. Ask this question long enough, and with enough intelligence, and you might make the world more hospitable, or at least less antagonistic, to your own tastes and desires.

I happened upon Schjeldahl’s account of “the critical impulse” in Also a Poet: Frank O’Hara, My Father, and Me (Grove Press, 272 pp., $27), a new and fascinating memoir by his daughter, Ada Calhoun. Schjeldahl is a longtime and beloved art critic at the New Yorker, an occasional and very good poet, and, decades ago, the would-be authorized biographer of the New York School poet Frank O’Hara. (The project flamed out in the 1970s after O’Hara’s surviving sister fired Schjeldahl.) In Calhoun’s telling, Schjeldahl was also a “reckless, mercurial, occasionally mean father.” He drank too much, didn’t buy her Christmas presents, and “did not know [her] teachers, [her] friends, or [her] shoe size.” To be clear, he did love her and said as much. But, Calhoun writes, “he’s never seemed particularly interested in me.” Among many other things, Also a Poet is Calhoun’s attempt to get her father as interested in her as he is in a Velázquez. Hey critic, hey dad. Look over here!

 

The book opens dramatically. One day, digging through the basement of her parents’ East Village apartment building, Calhoun happens upon dozens of old cassettes. They’re the interviews that her father conducted in the early stages of his O’Hara project. Calhoun digitizes the tapes and begins listening. Eavesdropping on conversations with painters (O’Hara was a curator at the MoMA and a legendary art critic) and writers (he was roommates at Harvard with Edward Gorey), she lambastes her father’s approach. “He keeps wanting to show off,” she says, “when everyone knows the way you get good quotes is by playing dumb.” Calhoun claims that she “want[s] him to be better,” yet there’s an undercurrent of glee whenever she notices her father screwing up this plum writing job. The ambivalence, often acknowledged but not always, is captivating.

An essayist and critic in her own right who has written three books under her name and many more as a ghostwriter, Calhoun knows that her father is “considered the real writer” while she is “the hard worker.” He’s the flake, while she’s “compulsively reliable”; he has the talent and she has the discipline. (Of course, to write on deadline, as Schjeldahl has for years, suggests that he has some kind of discipline, even if it’s not of the parenting kind. And Calhoun sells herself short. She can be a gifted portraitist, as in this description of O’Hara: “With his crooked nose and wide smile, high forehead and light blue eyes, O’Hara looked soft and hard at the same time: part boxer, part librarian.”) Listening to the tapes, noting where she would have pressed the interview subject further and where she would have pulled back, Calhoun begins to dream. “Maybe my Frank O’Hara biography wouldn’t have been as poetic or elegant as his Frank O’Hara biography,” she thinks, “but by god it would have gotten done.”

Calhoun has made her career out of finishing things, on time and to spec. Why can’t she write this O’Hara book, too? After all, she has her own credentials: “In my twenty years as a journalist, I’ve successfully interviewed hundreds of people, including difficult celebrities in their four-star Los Angeles hotel suites, lawyers in sleepy Southern towns, and gang members at the sites of Brooklyn shootings.” These are bona fides of a sort, though it’s unclear how well suited they are to literary biography—a genre that calls for the elegance and style she says aren’t her strongest suits. As she admits, “I’m no poetry expert.” (She worries that O’Hara’s stock has fallen because his titles aren’t available in eBook form. A better barometer is how essential he remains to our strongest poets: Michael Robbins, Hannah Sullivan, Maureen McLane, among many others.) There’s an irony in Frank O’Hara, a poet of whim and gossip, the light and casual, getting a try-hard biographer.

 

Almost since she can remember, Calhoun’s relationship with her father has been bound up with O’Hara.

And so Calhoun describes her attempt to finish what her dad couldn’t. She transcribes his conversations with Willem de Kooning and Larry Rivers. She plans research trips. She gets in touch with O’Hara’s sister, confident that, where her father’s brusqueness alienated Maureen O’Hara, she’ll win her over. Quickly, though, it becomes clear that writing a biography of O’Hara is really a way of writing an autobiography of her relationship with her father. Despite being the ostensible hook, O’Hara’s life, and especially his work, largely drop out of the book. (In the end, Calhoun didn’t win Maureen O’Hara over. “You seem confident,” O’Hara tells her, “but you don’t know that much about poetry or about music.”) Instead, we hear about Schjeldahl’s drinking, which started at 5:00 p.m. and ended whenever; about his “ash-blanketed office at the back of the apartment,” from which she could smell “cigarette smoke curling under the bottom of the door” and hear him talking on the phone as he typed and typed; about the raucous Fourth of July parties he threw in the Catskills for twenty-six years. At one such party, Schjeldahl, on a lark, hid some fireworks in a bonfire. “You know what your motto is?” Calhoun asks her embarrassed but not totally cowed father. “Safety third.”

Almost since she can remember, Calhoun’s relationship with her father has been bound up with O’Hara. O’Hara wasn’t just Schjeldahl’s favorite writer; he was a model for the poet-critic Schjeldahl wanted to be. As he said in 1977, “I’m a poet. I dropped out of college. I came to New York. And I’ve made my living writing art criticism ever since, which was an option that was created by Frank and John [Ashbery].” We might say that O’Hara helped make the world more habitable for Schjeldahl’s sensibility. When Calhoun was nine, Schjeldahl gave his daughter O’Hara’s Lunch Poems in an attempt to make up for his inattention. (The other present was Auden’s The Dyer’s Hand. Would that we all had such bad fathers!) She immediately fell in love with O’Hara’s poems—not because of their meanings (she was too young to get those) but because of their music. And, of course, because getting interested in O’Hara might, she hoped, get her father interested in her, too. Our reading lives aren’t separate from our affective lives; the books we love (and hate) are always shaped by the people we love (and hate). Also a Poet gets this truth across with clarity and force.

Oscar Wilde said that “criticism is the only civilized form of autobiography.” Autobiography often doubles as criticism, too, and Calhoun’s book is critical in at least two ways. First, it reads personal events with a hermeneutical eye. Why, Calhoun wonders, did her father respond to her son’s declaration of love for To Kill a Mockingbird with the cold retort, “It’s no Huckleberry Finn”? What does it mean that, when confronted with a cancer diagnosis, he declared, “I want to do whatever will help me keep writing as long as possible.… Writing is the most important thing”? Calhoun doesn’t do much close reading of O’Hara’s poetry, but she does close read her father’s words.

Second, the book is critical in that, to return to her father’s words, it is rooted in “some kind of adolescent outrage.” Her father is not nearly what she hoped or thought he would be, and at times Also a Poet reads like a litany of complaints. When she was a child, he found his poetry, and his art, and his friends, more interesting than her. Now, when she’s an adult, he throws a book she gave him in the trash. He decides to make someone else his literary executor. When she shares a translation she’s made of an ancient Sanskrit poem, he quibbles with her word choice: “Rooftops can’t really be arresting, can they?” He responds to the news that a book of hers made the New York Times bestseller list with a single-word email: “Zoom!”

The strength of a critic lies not in their sheer capacity for outrage but in where they direct it and what they do with it. The reason Schjeldahl’s failures interest the reader is because of his successes as a critic. In a poem from the 1970s called “Dear Profession of Art Writing,” Schjeldahl announced that he was leaving the critical game behind. (Obviously, the decision didn’t stick.) Lamenting that “on occasion I mistook my hand-me-down taste / for the light of election,” he criticizes critics (“Robert Hughes, ho hum, and Donald Davis, ugh”) and praises poets like O’Hara “whose feats make non-boring poetry conceivable.” Almost fifty years later, Schjeldahl continues to make non-boring criticism conceivable. In Also a Poet, I wanted a little less grousing—as Calhoun herself acknowledges, her father wasn’t terrible, just often not very good—and a little more sustained wrestling with how aesthetic sensitivity might lead to personal insensitivity. How did the act of making the world more habitable for Schjeldahl’s sensibility make his home less habitable for his daughter? Calhoun speculates that, to be a great writer, one must be ruthlessly selfish. Fair enough. But what does it take to be a great critic, specifically? Great criticism involves at least a degree of self-emptying. The object of interest is out there, not in here; the critic charts her own response but what’s most important is the thing working on her, not the other way around. How do we square this fact with Calhoun’s experience of her critic father?

I think of critical attention as generative and inexhaustible—more like love than a limited resource. Of course I would. I’m a critic. O’Hara thought through these issues, too. “Why should I share you?” he asks in “Meditations in an Emergency.” “I am the least difficult of men. All I want is boundless love.” That’s what we all want, all the time: fathers and daughters, poets and critics. Still, imperfect creatures that we are, we’re tempted to limit our love, to withhold our attention. O’Hara continues: “It’s not that I’m curious. On the contrary, I am bored but it’s my duty to be attentive, I am needed by things as the sky must be above the earth.” Attentiveness as the sky, as something like grace: I like that.

Anthony Domestico is Chair of the Literature Department at Purchase College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period is available from Johns Hopkins University Press.

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