On John Ashbery’s 87th Birthday: “Extraneous good wishes from everywhere”

Today is John Ashbery’s 87th birthday.  I’ve been thinking of lines of his that might seem appropriate for this happy occasion, and some of my very favorite, the closing sentences of “The System” (1972) immediately came to mind:

“It seems truly impossible, but invariably at this point we are walking together along a street in some well-known city.  The allegory is ended, its coils absorbed into the past, and this afternoon is as wide as an ocean.  It is the time we have now, and all our wasted time sinks into the sea and is swallowed up without a trace.  The past is dust and ashes, and this incommensurably wide way leads to the pragmatic and kinetic future.”

In digging around for an Ashbery meditation on birthdays I came across the poem “Someone You Have Seen Before” (first published in April Galleons, 1987), which not only features some lines about a birthday — “their happiness is for you, it’s your birthday” — but also about change, time, and “wondering what the new round / Of impressions and salutations is going to leave in its wake / This time.”   Here’s the poem’s second half:

But people do change in life,
As well as in fiction. And what happens then? Is it because we think nobody’s
Listening that one day it comes, the urge to delete yourself,
“Take yourself out,” as they say? As though this could matter
Even to the concerned ones who crowd around,
Expressions of lightness and peace on their faces,
In which you play no part perhaps, but even so
Their happiness is for you, it’s your birthday, and even
When the balloons and fudge get tangled with extraneous
Good wishes from everywhere, it is, I believe, made to order
For your questioning stance and that impression
Left on the inside of your pleasure by some bivalve
With which you have been identified. Sure,
Nothing is ever perfect enough, but that’s part of how it fits
The mixed bag
Of leftover character traits that used to be part of you
Before the change was performed
And of all those acquaintances bursting with vigor and
Humor, as though they wanted to call you down
Into closeness, not for being close, or snug, or whatever,
But because they believe you were made to fit this unique
And valuable situation whose lid is rising, totally
Into the morning-glory-colored future. Remember, don’t throw away
The quadrant of unused situations just because they’re here:
They may not always be, and you haven’t finished looking
Through them all yet. So much that happens happens in small ways
That someone was going to get around to tabulate, and then never did,
Yet it all bespeaks freshness, clarity and an even motor drive
To coax us out of sleep and start us wondering what the new round
Of impressions and salutations is going to leave in its wake
This time. And the form, the precepts, are yours to dispose of as you will,
As the ocean makes grasses, and in doing so refurbishes a lighthouse
On a distant hill, or else lets the whole picture slip into foam.

The past is dust and ashes, this afternoon is wide as an ocean, and here’s to John Ashbery, and the “pragmatic and kinetic future”!

Posted in John Ashbery, Poems

The Day Frank Died: O’Hara’s NY Times Obituary

48 years ago today, Frank O’Hara died in a tragic accident on Fire Island, New York.  Last year at this time, I wrote a post about the wealth of fine elegies for O’Hara that appeared following his death, by poets like Allen Ginsberg, James Schuyler, David Shapiro, Ron Padgett, and others.

Today, I thought I’d put up a copy of the obituary that ran in the New York Times on July 26, 1966, a document that is not so readily available.  As I always point out to my students, the headline tells you quite a bit about O’Hara’s reputation at the time of his death: “Frank O’Hara, 40, Museum Curator,” with the subheadline “Exhibitions Aide at Modern Art Dies — Also a Poet.”

“Also a poet” indeed.  Although it may be hard to believe now, at the time of his sudden death, O’Hara was better known as an art-world figure than a poet.  The obituary discusses his work on the painter Robert Motherwell and the controversy over Larry Rivers’s nude portrait of O’Hara, before turning to mention his poetry. (It also says he was “struck by a taxicab,” which was not in fact the case — he was run over by a dune buggy driven illegally on the beach by a young guy on a date).

Here’s the obituary:

O'Hara obituary

Two days later, the New York Times also covered O’Hara’s funeral in an article entitled “200 Pay Tribute to Frank O’Hara.” Among other things, the piece discusses Larry Rivers’s famously shocking and graphic eulogy and John Ashbery’s moving recitation of “To the Harbormaster,” while managing to misspell the names of John Ashbery, Edwin Denby, and David Shapiro.

O'Hara NYT funeral story

The opening pages of Brad Gooch’s City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara feature a detailed description of the funeral, and also mention that an early edition of this New York Times article (which I recall I once had a copy of, but now can’t locate) contained “a snide line” about the “many bearded, tieless friends of Mr. O’Hara.”  Tieless!

Lastly, here are some lines from O’Hara’s “Poem (And tomorrow morning at 8 o’clock in Spingfield, Massachussetts”):

When I die, don’t come, I wouldn’t want a leaf
to turn away from the sun — it loves it there.
There’s nothing so spiritual about being happy
but you can’t miss a day of it, because it doesn’t last.

So this is the devil’s dance? Well I was born to dance.
It’s a sacred duty, like being in love with an ape,
and eventually I’ll reach some great conclusion, like assumption,
when at last I meet exhaustion in these flowers, go straight up.

O'Hara Tombstone 2

Posted in Allen Ginsberg, Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, Larry Rivers, Robert Motherwell

Alex Katz’s Birthday and “The New”

Alex Katz. Passing. 1962-63

Alex Katz, Passing (1962-63)

The Allen Ginsberg Project has a good, typically link-rich post up today in honor of the painter Alex Katz’s 87th birthday.  (I’ve written before about Katz and his close ties to New York School poetry here and here).

Among other things, it features a great comment from an interview with Alex Katz by the artist Richard Prince, from the Journal of Contemporary Art, in which Katz offers a wonderful list of things that struck him as truly new when he first encountered them, in effect providing a blueprint for a great syllabus or map of 20th century music, art, literature, and film.

Prince: What are some of the things in your life that you saw or heard or came on and you thought, “Yeah, now that’s new”?

Katz: Lester Young. Billie Holiday. Be Bop. Stan Kenton. Dizzy Gillespie. Manchito. Charlie Parker. Stan Getz. Miles Davis. Sonny Rollins’s “Wagon Wheels.” Man Ray. Charles Lamb. Georges Braque’s 1913 black and white collages. Pablo Picasso’s sculptures. Malevich’s Suprematist paintings. Henri Matisse’s collages. Jackson Pollock. Barnett Newman. Clifford Still. Roy Lichtenstein, early 1960s. James Rosenquist, early 1960s. Eva Hesse. Jeff Koons. Mike Kelley’s rugs. Richard Avedon’s fashion photos, 1960s. Red Groom’s early happenings. Paul Taylor, late 1950s. William Dunas, early 1970s. Samual Beckett’s Happy Days with Ruth White. John Jesuran’s Red House. Meredith Monk’s theater and music pieces. Godard’s Breathless. Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. Antonioni’s L’Avventura. Rudy Burckhardt’s city and country films without acting. 1960s vinyl coats, white or black. Guillaume Apollinaire. John Ashbery’s “Skaters.” Color TV. Ads. Football. Wide-angle technicolor movies.

He had me at Beckett’s Happy Days, if not way before that …

Posted in Alex Katz, Andy Warhol, Film, Guillaume Apollinaire, Jackson Pollock, Jean-Luc Godard, John Ashbery, Rudy Burkhardt, Samuel Beckett, Visual Art

Christopher Schmidt’s New Book on the Poetics of Waste in Ashbery, Schuyler, and Others

We tend to think of waste and garbage as civilization’s abject “other,” the marginalized and repressed excess produced by the machinery of capitalism.  Then why does it seem to be everywhere in American poetry?  A new book by the critic and poet Christopher Schmidt examines the preoccupation with trash and detritus in twentieth-century poetry.  The Poetics of Waste (just out from Palgrave Macmillan) has excellent chapters on James Schuyler and John Ashbery, as well as extended discussions of Gertrude Stein and Kenneth Goldsmith, plus a dazzling bit on the movie Wall-E.

Schmidt uncovers a line of poets who embrace waste and detritus as a source of value, fascination, pleasure, and, most importantly, queer identification.  He argues that this recuperation of waste defies the pernicious cultural logic that has long associated queer and other marginalized identities with degradation, garbage, and mass culture.

It’s a great book, and I was happy to be able to provide this blurb for it:

“In this remarkable, illuminating study, Schmidt explores the ‘mysterious charisma of waste,’ the magnetic pull it exerts on a vital strain of modernist and contemporary poetry . . . Schmidt’s brilliant, incisive argument gives us valuable tools for understanding key features of avant-garde poetics — such as fragmentation, collage, excess — in a fascinating new light: as complex, subversive methods of ‘waste management.’ A timely, provocative, and important book.”

Schmidt’s chapter on Ashbery examines one of the poet’s strangest, most intriguing, and least discussed works, The Vermont Notebook (1975), a volume in which Ashbery’s own writings are paired with drawings by Joe Brainard.  Schmidt reads The Vermont Notebook as “a ‘waste book’ in which the poet collects scraps excised from other poems and recycles them into new ‘anti-lyric’ form.”  He argues that “the book establishes what I call a ‘queer nature,’ in which waste—a growing concern during the overpopulation fears and nascent environmentalism of 1970s—undermines the false boundary between the natural and the cultural.” Ultimately, Ashbery replaces “landscape with landfill, as if to suggest that nature and environment are as much produced by human presence as perceived by it.”

In his chapter on Schuyler, Schmidt draws attention to what he calls “Schuyler’s camp poetics.”  He argues that the “poet’s brazen identification with waste—much more direct than that of any other figures in the book—suggests that his rag picking is a form of sexual and economic recuperation.”  He argues that Schuyler’s work “addresses economic imbalances by mirroring and exaggerating the excessive consumption encouraged in capitalism—a consumption that Schuyler represents in campy performances of
overeating and profligacy—and by revealing the damage wrought on consumers compelled to gorge themselves on the excess.”

Here is the description from the publisher:

Since the modernist period, waste has functioned as a potent symbol of cultural decline and environmental damage, in artworks ranging from T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ to Pixar’s Wall-E. In The Poetics of Waste: Queer Excess in Stein, Ashbery, Schuyler, and Goldsmith, Christopher Schmidt argues that before we demonize excess out of hand, we ought to attend to the many possibilities for artistic innovation and literary experiment that detritus, garbage, and excrement have afforded artists and writers throughout the twentieth century. Schmidt looks at modernist and postmodernist writers who resist such biases, developing poetries that are formally excessive and preoccupied with waste’s transgressive aspects. This lineage stretches from the counter-modernism of Gertrude Stein to the New York School poets John Ashbery and James Schuyler, who grapple with and resist ideologies of Taylorist efficiency, cold war ‘containment,’ and phobias associating queer bodies with mass cultural waste. The book ends with a consideration of more recent conceptual poetries and asks the question, do these twenty-first century writers reanimate modernist prejudices against gender politics and queer sentimentality?

 Check out the book on Amazon here, and from the publisher here.  As Daniel Kane puts it in another blurb for Schmidt’s book, “We’ll never think about poetry — or garbage — in quite the same way again.”

Posted in Books, Criticism, James Schuyler, Joe Brainard, John Ashbery

Mark Halliday on Kenneth Koch and the “Fun of Being a Poet”

Kenneth Koch in the 1970s

The poet and critic Mark Halliday, who has written several good, important essays on Kenneth Koch in the past, has a new essay in the Summer 2014 issue of Pleaides, which was posted by Poetry Daily a couple days ago as one of their prose features.

In this essay, Halliday focuses on Koch’s profound commitment to the sheer fun and pleasure of poetry — reading it, yes, but especially the joy involved in being a person who writes it.

He writes:

Perhaps no important poet has more consistently acknowledged the manifold pleasures of the vocation than Kenneth Koch (1925-2002). Throughout his amazingly, indeed almost bizarrely various poetry,  we can always hear Koch’s charismatic voice urging us not to deny the fun in poetry—the fun in writing it, reading it, arguing about it, daydreaming about it, knowing it is in the world.

This aliveness to the pleasure of being alive poetically was something Koch shared with his friend Frank O’Hara (1926-1966). In a 1995 interview with Jordan Davis, Koch said: “I love the quality in Frank’s work that makes its message always that life is so rich, so full of variety and excitement that one would be crazy to think that anything else was the theme and crazier not to participate in it as much as one could.” O’Hara, though, died at the age of forty, having already written some poems in which melancholy yearning undermines the ebullience; Koch lived on through another three and a half decades of middle age and early old age, decades in which the splendidness of being young and brilliant naturally tends to give way to other truths of disappointment, regret and loss. Thanks to Koch’s honesty, that concession is a crucial part of the story presented by his work across the years. However, what never disappears from his poetry is the palpable and contagious feeling that to be a poet is great luck. The poet’s vocation often induces anxiety, yes, but the anxiety is part of an adventure not to be missed.

To illustrate this vocational happiness in Koch’s work, countless examples could be offered; I’ll look mainly at passages from four poems representing different phases of Koch’s long career. My hope is to evoke a profound healthiness that flows through his oeuvre and invites other poets to acknowledge their own vocational good fortune and take heart.

Halliday goes on to trace and analyze this theme in “A Time Zone,” “The Pleasures of Peace,” “Days and Nights,” and “The Artist.”  Check out the whole essay here.

Posted in Articles, Criticism, Kenneth Koch, Mark Halliday, Uncategorized

New Frank O’Hara Plaque Unveiled in New York

A few weeks ago, I posted a piece about the four New York apartments Frank O’Hara lived in.  I discussed the plaque that has long been above the front door of his apartment at 90 University Place, and a new plaque that the Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation was soon to unveil at the building O’Hara lived in at 441 East 9th Street.

I had mused about what the new plaque might say, since the old one on University Place oddly emphasizes Jackson Pollock more than O’Hara himself.  This one fortunately strikes a much better note.  Here is a photograph of it:

Also, here is a clip of the unveiling ceremony that was held on June 10, 2014, which featured readings and remarks by poets Edmund Berrigan and Tony Towle. Towle, a friend of O’Hara’s, offers some reminiscences and recalls that he moved into the same apartment right after O’Hara moved out, living first with Frank Lima, and later with Joe Brainard.  (Among other tidbits, he mentions that after O’Hara moved out, the rent went up from $53 to $56 per month!):

In a long piece on O’Hara just published at the Brooklyn Rail, Tim Keane describes this event in more detail:

O’Hara lived at 441 East 9th Street from 1959 to 1963, years that have been thought to be his most productive. In addition to summing up his career as poet and art critic, the commemorative plaque unveiled earlier this month designates O’Hara as “one of the last avant garde.” That unfortunate final clause proved to be the only major false note during the ceremony, brushing aside as it does the subsequent decades of experimental American poetries. Poet Edmund Berrigan read O’Hara’s poem “Avenue A,” a few yards from that very street. All who were present—small barking dogs, curious bicyclists, and the saleswomen at the local boutiques that now flank the poet’s former doorway—shared a street-fair solidarity as the orchestral sway of “Avenue A” conveyed us “far from our small selves and our temporally united / passions in the cathedral of Januaries.” Poet Tony Towle, a protégé and friend of O’Hara, took over that apartment, along with poet Frank Lima, in 1963, and Towle was on hand to recall his mentor, noting that “it was here that O’Hara wrote much of the work that made up Lunch Poems, almost all of the contents of Love Poems, many of which he wrote for Vincent Warren, and also the unique ‘Biotherm,’ for Bill Berkson.” Towle reminisced about living and working at poetry in that building, when the cockroaches “paraded” through the apartment, the crosstown bus fumes were far worse than they are today, and the rent was $56 a month (which, adjusted for inflation, comes out to about a mere $394 a month in 2014 dollars). Towle then read the iconic poem “The Day Lady Died,” which eulogizes Billie Holiday and celebrates her music as a form of rapture, as O’Hara’s persona is described, “leaning on the john door in the 5 Spot / while she whispered a song along the keyboard / to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing.”

Posted in Event, Frank O'Hara, New York, Tony Towle, Video

Tim Keane on Frank O’Hara, at the Brooklyn Rail

Yet another piece on Frank O’Hara and his relevance to today’s culture and poetry has just been published — this one by Tim Keane at the Brooklyn Rail.  It’s a good, smart, substantial overview of O’Hara’s work and career, as well as an account of some of the recent signs that O’Hara’s “influence on both contemporary American poetry and on pop culture is greater than ever.”  Keane notes that “evidence of this is everywhere,” before giving a good rundown on recent events, like the republication of Lunch Poems, the huge group reading of Lunch Poems at the Poetry Project at St. Marks, the unveiling of a new plaque on O’Hara’s East 9th St. apartment, and the upcoming O’Hara festival on Fire Island (“On July 12, The Fire Island Pines Arts Project, to be moderated by poet Adam Fitzgerald, has assembled yet another roster of distinguished guests to read from O’Hara’s works, including the prolific American novelist Edmund White and Pulitzer-Prize winning Irish poet Paul Muldoon”).

Along with some good general observations about O’Hara and a summary of his biography, Keane pushes back a bit on the notion bandied about lately that O’Hara’s poetry is prophetic of today’s culture of Twitter and Facebook:  “Although we are up to our necks in torrents of information age ephemerae, and collating data in the service of social status and the literal ‘like,’ O’Hara’s poetic instants are the opposite of such indiscriminate documentation or point-and-click narcissistic absorption of the outside world. He’s busy in the next room cavorting with strangers and doesn’t care if you like his posts or unfriend him.”

The piece also provides a detailed description of the recent group reading of Lunch Poems at the Poetry Project:

Erica Hunt kicked off the session marvelously, breaking into song during the poem “Music” giving it an exhilarating gospel lift—“clasp me in your handkerchief like a tear, trumpet / of early afternoon! in the foggy autumn.” Sharon Mesmer deftly handled the relatively long prose/verse hybridity of “Alma,” perhaps the only poem ever to blend Arthur Rimbaud’s hallucinatory visions with the deadpan style of an encyclopedia article. Edwin Torres turned in the most histrionic reading of the evening, for “Image of the Buddha Preaching” which involved props like a FedEx box and a singing bowl for meditation. His stop-and-start performance played out brilliantly, like a scene from a Beckett play. Hettie Jones, former wife of the recently deceased Amiri Baraka (born Leroi Jones), took the occasion of “Personal Poem,” written by O’Hara the day after her 25th birthday, to speak eloquently about his unflagging encouragement of her fragile vocation as a writer. “Personal Poem,” typifies how his poems evade the safe-distancing of memory while delineating the affective power of one’s surroundings, so that a construction shed near the Seagrams Building thwarts him as vehemently as does the shocking news that, “Miles Davis was clubbed 12 / times last night outside BIRDLAND by a cop / a lady asks us for a nickel for a terrible / disease.” If poetry is news that stays news, it requires this kind of bloody precision to maintain its urgency. His poetry has a political dimension, too, in how its instantaneous precision sustains, rather than passes over, the trauma-inducing blows and impact of the indifferent American social machinery.

As the marathon reading with its polytonal voices showed so well, O’Hara’s poetry oscillates between states of inspired confusion and creative adaptation, with each poem unveiling a newer and always intrepid self. As poet Cedar Sigo puts it, there is in these restless cadences, “the expectation of being an entertainer [that] sometimes reminds [the reader] of drag. How liberated we feel in the grip of such queer diction. The performer has to move against the fact that it is impossible for the poem to contain all of New York’s energy.” Yet he tries to match and even outmatch the city’s energy. Take the poem “Steps,” read by former Umbra poet and Jimi Hendrix biographer David Henderson which features a persona who preempts the flattening effect of the city’s grind by getting high on its oddity the very second he walks out his door: “How funny you are today New York / like Ginger Rogers in Swingtime / and St. Bridget’s steeple leaning a little to the left / here I have just jumped out of a bed full of V-days, (I got tired of D-days).”

You can read the whole piece here.

Posted in Articles, Event, Frank O'Hara, Uncategorized