Synopses & Reviews
Although it has long been commonplace to imagine the archetypal American poet singing a solitary "Song of Myself," much of the most enduring American poetry has actually been preoccupied with the drama of friendship. In this lucid and absorbing study, Andrew Epstein argues that an obsession with both the pleasures and problems of friendship erupts in the "New American Poetry" that emerges after the Second World War. By focusing on some of the most significant postmodernist American poets--the "New York School" poets John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, and their close contemporary Amiri Baraka--Beautiful Enemies
reveals a fundamental paradox at the heart of postwar American poetry and culture: the avant-garde's commitment to individualism and nonconformity runs directly counter to its own valorization of community and collaboration. In fact, Epstein demonstrates that the clash between friendship and nonconformity complicates the legendary alliances forged by postwar poets, becomes a predominant theme in the poetry they created, and leaves contemporary writers with a complicated legacy to negotiate. Rather than simply celebrating friendship and poetic community as nurturing and inspiring, these poets represent friendship as a kind of exhilarating, maddening contradiction, a site of attraction and repulsion, affinity and rivalry.
Challenging both the reductive critiques of American individualism and the idealized, heavily biographical celebrations of literary camaraderie one finds in much critical discussion, this book provides a new interpretation of the peculiar dynamics of American avant-garde poetic communities and the role of the individual within them. By situating his extensive and revealing readings of these highly influential poets against the backdrop of Cold War cultural politics and within the context of American pragmatist thought, Epstein uncovers the collision between radical self-reliance and the siren call of the interpersonal at the core of postwar American poetry.
"Excellent study."--The New Yorker
"Epstein's close readings of individual poems are shart and trenchant.... Most engaging of all are the sections in which Epstein explores the poets'intertextual and collaborative processes in depth, especially when he cites unpublished documents such as a wonderful letter-poem to Kenneth Koch co-written by Ashbery and O'Hara, which he reprints in full."--K. Silem Mohammad, Poetry Project Newsletter
"An intriguing book."--Elizabeth Robinson, Rain Taxi
"Epstein offers superb close readings of individual works as they relate to the biographical, philosophical, and cultural background of the three poets. This is an enlightened and enlightening study of O'Hara, Ashbery, and Baraka in particular and of postmodern poetries in general. Highly recommended."--R.T. Prus, Choice
"The premise is simple - John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara were frenemies, as were O'Hara and LeRoi Jones (now Amiri Baraka) - but Epstein handles it with such care and intelligence, that his study ends up revealing a great deal about the American midcentury avant-gard... Never before have they been presented in such painstaking detail, backed by a wealth of letters and readings of the poets' verse that are patient in the explication, and in their refusal to draw easy conclusions about the nature of the relationships under discussion. Anyone with an interest in the ways great poetry depends on complex and extraordinary relationships will find this book deeply rewarding."--Publishers Weekly
"Beautiful Enemies charts the fascinating tensions between individual and community in the New York poetry world of mid-century. For post-World War II poets, friendship was at once the engine that made poetry come alive, and yet it could also be confining and oppressive-- the source of competition as well as nourishment. Andrew Epstein examines the role community played in the forging of New York poetics--a poetics that cannot be dissociated from its relation to Cold War politics. His is a fascinating, beautifully documented investigation, both of individual poems and of the interlocking friendships that animated their production." --Marjorie Perloff, author of Frank O'Hara, Poet Among Painters
"In Beautiful Enemies, Andrew Epstein offers exemplary Emersonian readings of the intricate web connecting individual talent and collective investment in the poetry and poetics of John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, and Amiri Baraka. Averting the Cold War myth of the individual voice in the wilderness of conformity, Epstein gives us voices in conversation and conflict, suggesting that resistance to agreement is at the heart of a pragmatist understanding of literary community." --Charles Bernstein, Donald T. Regan Professor of English, University of Pennsylvania
"[A] fascinating reading of the artistically generative conflicts between self and friendship in O'Hara's life and work. Epstein is uniquely alive to the tensions legible in these poetic continuations of friendship, and this attentiveness, along with his assiduous scholarship, yields results that should change the way the works, their creators, and their milieu are viewed."- Libbie Rifkin, Contemporary Literature
"Andrew Epstein's marvelous book, Beautiful Enemies, takes the conundrum of literary friendship to a whole new level...no one has written so thoroughly, or so lucidly, about the contested nature of friendship in avant-garde circles as Epstein has."-Timothy Gray, Zen Monster
"Epstein's elegant book offers a subtle and meticulously researched account of the literary, personal, and philosophical dynamics of the New York School, and of O'Hara, John Ashbery, and Amiri Baraka in particular."-Benjamin Lee, Criticism
"Clear and nuanced...evocatively weaving together the poets' lives, letters, and poetry. Persuasively argued and beautifully written...a model for how friendship and literature may usefully illuminate one another." --American Literature
"Epstein's argument is immensely satisfying in the way it constellates a number of related contexts...[his] argument about individual poets in productive friction with their friends and collaborators is masterful. He produces strong readings of major works of these writers...Epstein's book is, simply put, a pleasure to read." --American Literary History
About the Author
is Associate Professor of English at Florida State University.
Table of Contents
1. Situation the Avant-Garde in Postwar America
Community, Individualism, and Cold War Culture
2. Emerson, Pragmatism, and the "New American Poetry"
3. "My Force Is in Mobility"
Selfhood and Friendship in Frank O'Hara's Poetry
4. Growing Up with Our Brothers All Around
John Ashbery and the Interpersonal
5. Amiri Baraka and the Poetics of Turning Away
6. "Against the Speech of Friends"
Baraka's White Friend Blues
7. "A Rainy Wool Frankie and Johnny"
O'Hara, Ashbery, and the Paradoxes of Friendship