The Politics of Genre and Medium apropos of Frank O’Hara’s “On Seeing Larry Rivers’s Washington Crossing the Delaware (1955)

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Frank O’Hara’s ekphrastic poem “On Seeing Larry Rivers’s Washington Crossing the Delaware” is only one work among others in a series of 1950s works in different genres and media relating to Emanuel Leutze’s romantic representation of the father of the American nation in his painting Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851). Most critics have viewed not only O’Hara’s poem, but also Rivers’s painting (1951), Kenneth Koch’s play George Washington Crossing the Delaware (1956), and Alex Katz’s décor for Koch’s play (1961) as typical examples of ‘50s parodies of Leutze’s patriotic icon of a founding event in American history. Inversely, only few critics take seriously the difference in both genre and medium between these different textual and graphic representations of Washington’s crossing and the questions such a difference may give rise to.
In this paper I shall make an intergeneric and intertextual reading of O’Hara’s poem, suggesting that the latter’s poetic ekphrasis of River’s Washington Crossing the Delaware foregrounds the question of how to represent and be representative of America, American history and the Americans. By way of “prosopoeial envoicing” (J. Heffernan) and by narrativizing Rivers’s painting, the poem opens up alternative representational possibilities of the former and thus poses the question of whose ‘truth’ gets told or not told depending on the choice of genre and medium in representation. Thus, the intertextual relationship existing between Rivers’s painting and O’Hara’s poem politicizes their generic difference and the difference in their choice of artistic medium, insofar as they mutually contest their own authority of representativity. The latter aspect in turn reflects back critically on the heroism and romantic glorification of official American history in Leutze’s 19th century painting, which both Rivers’s painting and O’Hara’s poem paraphrase.
Original languageEnglish
Publication date2006
Number of pages7
Publication statusPublished - 2006
EventPoetry & Politics - University of Stirling, Stirling, United Kingdom
Duration: 13 Jul 200616 Jul 2006


ConferencePoetry & Politics
LocationUniversity of Stirling
CountryUnited Kingdom

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