Mad Men and the now “much less obscure poet” Frank O’Hara

In the New York Times today, there is a piece about the long-awaited return of the television show Mad Men this evening, and how much has changed in the years since it first aired:

“Seven years on, much has changed for everyone and everything involved with the show — even some of the products woven into it. As the series returns on Sunday for the first half of its final season — the second half arrives next year — we look at that altered landscape.”

Apparently one such “product” woven into the show — alongside Canadian Club Whisky and Lucky Strike cigarettes — is the poet Frank O’Hara, whose work had a memorable cameo role in Mad Men‘s second season.  (I wrote about the boom, or boomlet perhaps, in O’Hara-related television here).

Here’s how the article puts it, in listicle form:

“Frank O’Hara

THEN Relatively obscure poet of the New York School.

NOW Much less obscure poet of the New York School, at least when it comes to book sales. After Don read aloud from “Meditations in an Emergency” during the opening episode of the second season, annual sales have jumped more than tenfold. In 2007, 197 copies were sold, according to Nielsen BookScan; the next year, the tally rose to 2,028 and has not dipped below 1,971 since.”

Thanks to Mad Men, O’Hara has been rescued from relative obscurity and sales are booming for whisky, Lucky Strikes, and Meditations in an Emergency.  And — at least according to what one finds on Twitter and elsewhere around the web — these lines (recited on Mad Men and seemingly related to the plight of Don Draper) have become some of O’Hara’s most enduring — or at least most, um, re-tweeted:

Now I am quietly waiting for
the catastrophe of my personality
to seem beautiful again,
and interesting, and modern.


Posted in Frank O'Hara, Television

Roberto Bolaño and the Role of the Poet

A piece of mine about the writer Roberto Bolaño and poetry was published the other day on the Oxford University Press blog, OUPblog.

Bolaño is of course best-known as the author of sprawling, ambitious novels like The Savage Detectives and 2666, but he was also a poet, and an obsessive interest in poetry appears across his body of work. This piece argues that Bolaño was not only fascinated by poetry in general, but had some strong and rather surprising connections to poets and artists of the New York School.

As I discuss in the essay:

Bolaño read voraciously, immersing himself fully in a wide range of 20th century avant-garde writing and art, but as the final pieces of his work appear in translation, it has become clearer than ever that he seems to have had a special connection to a poetry movement that sprouted from a place far from Santiago, Mexico City, Barcelona, and other key points in his own geography — the world of Frank O’Hara, Larry Rivers, Ted Berrigan, and other New York poets.

In the piece, I mention a strange and funny moment in Bolaño’s recently published, posthumous book, Woes of the True Policeman (which I am grateful to David Shapiro for pointing out to me).  At one point, Bolaño includes a page of “Notes from a Class in Contemporary Literature: The Role of the Poet,” supposedly compiled by his college professor protagonist.

This takes the form of a kind of proto-Buzzfeed list that features a dizzying array of authors, selected for various amusing and strange categories, like “Biggest cock” (Frank O’Hara), “Worst houseguest” (candidates include Allen Ginsberg and Seamus Heaney), “Best movie companion” (Elizabeth Bishop and Ted Berrigan), “Least desirable as a literature professor” (Charles Olson) and “Best drinking buddy” (includes Mark Strand, “who was said to be an expert in the martial arts”).

Not only does the list contain a number of writers associated with the New York School (O’Hara, Berrigan, Diane Di Prima), it also provides a wonderful, idiosyncratic map to the profoundly eclectic and cosmopolitan nature of Bolaño’s literary universe, which ranges from Latin American literature (Borges, Paz, Neruda, Parra, and many others) to American poetry (Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, Robert Lowell) to the European avant-garde (Francis Ponge, Artaud, Mayakovsky, Celan).

Here’s the list in full:

Notes from a Class in Contemporary Literature: The Role of the Poet

Happiest: Garcia Lorca.
Most tormented: Celan.  Or Trakl, according to others, though there are some who claim          that the honors go to the Latin American poets killed in the insurrections of the ’60 and        ’70s.  And there are those who say: Hart Crane.
Most handsome: Crevel and Félix Azúa.
Fattest: Neruda and Lezama Lima (though I remember – and with grateful resolve chose        not to mention – the whale-like bulk of a Panamanian poet by the name of Roberto              Fernandez, keen reader and best of friends).
Banker of the soul: T.S. Eliot.
Whitest, the alabaster banker: Wallace Stevens.
Rich kid in hell: Cernuda and Gilberto Owen.
Strangest wrinkles: Auden.
Worst temper: Salvador Díaz Mirón.  Or Gabriela Mistral, according to others.
Biggest cock: Frank O’Hara.
Secretary to the alabaster banker: Francis Ponge.
Best houseguest: Amada Nervo.
Worst houseguest: various and conflicting opinions: Allen Ginsberg, Octavio Paz,                          e.e. cummings, Adrian Henri, Seamus Heaney, Gregory Corso, Michel Bulteau, the                Hermanitos Campos, Alejandra Piznarik, Leopoldo María Panero and his older brother,        Jaime Sabines, Roberto Fernández Retamar, Mario Benedetti.
Best deathbed companion: Ernesto Cardenal.
Best movie companion: Elizabeth Bishop, Berrigan, Ted Hughes, José Emilio Pacheco.
Best in the kitchen: Coronel Urtecho (but Amalfitano reminded them of Pablo de Rokha              and read him and there was no argument).
Most fun: Borges and Nicanor Parra.  Others: Richard Brautigan, Gary Snyder.
Most clearsighted: Martín Adán.
Least desirable as a literature professor: Charles Olson.
Most desirable as a literature professor, though only in short bursts: Ezra Pound.
Most desirable as a literature professor for all eternity: Borges.
Greatest sufferer: Vallejo, Pavese.
Best deathbed companion after Ernesto Cardenal: William Carlos Williams.
Most full of life: Violeta Parra, Alfonsina Storni (though Amalfitano pointed out that both             had killed themselves), Dario Bellezza.
Most rational way of life: Emily Dickinson and Cavafy (though Amalfitano pointed out that         –according to the conventional wisdom – both were failures).
Most elegant: Tablada.
Best Hollywood gangster: Antonin Artaud.
Best New York gangster: Kenneth Patchen.
Best Medellín gangster: Álvaro Mutis.
Best Hong Kong gangster: Robert Lowell (applause), Pere Gimferrer.
Best Miami gangster: Vicente Huidobro.
Laziest: Daniel Biga. Or, according to some, Oquendo de Amat.
Best masked man: Salvador Novo.
Biggest nervous wreck: Roque Dalton.  Also: Diane Di Prima, Pasolinim Enrique Lihn.
Best drinking buddy: several names were mentioned, among them Cintio Vitier,                          Oliverio Girondo, Nicolas Born, Jacques Prévert, and Mark Strand, who was said to be          an expert in the martial arts.
Worst drinking buddy: Mayakovsky and Orlando Guillén.
Most fearless dancer with American death: Macedonio Fernández.
Most homegrown, most Mexican: Ramón López Velarde and Efrain Huerta.  Other                    opinions: Maples Arce, Enrique González Martínez, Alfonso Reyes, Carlos Pellicer, and          the female author of Rincones románticos (1992), whose name no one could                          remember.

– from Woes of the True Policeman, Roberto Bolaño


Posted in Diane Di Prima, Frank O'Hara, NY School Influence, Robert Bolaño, Ted Berrigan

Celebrating the Poetry of Alice Notley (NY, 3/13/14)

For those of you in New York this weekend, there will be an event devoted to the work of Alice Notley featuring a great cast reading selections of her poetry, as part of the Downtown Literary Festival. Here are the details:

“The City Drifting”: Celebrating the Poetry of Alice Notley

Each year, the festival celebrates a poet with strong ties to downtown literary culture; last year’s inaugural festival featured Frank O’Hara. This year, Timothy Donnelly, Lynn Melnick, Rachel Zucker, Marcella Durand, John Godfrey, Stacy Szymaszek, Kim Lyons, Filip Marinovic, Charif Shanahan, Erica Kaufman, John Coletti, and Patricia Spears Jones read chosen poems from Alice Notley’s work.

Sunday, April 13, 2014
2 pm
The Bowery Poetry Club 
308 Bowery 

Posted in Alice Notley, Event, New York

Interview with Bernadette Mayer at Coldfront

Coldfront has published a three-part interview with Bernadette Mayer by Stephanie Anderson.  The two poets have a lively and detailed conversation that covers a lot of ground, including Mayer’s editing of the landmark journal of poetry and conceptual art, 0 To 9, her friendship and collaboration with Clark Coolidge, and the genesis of her remarkable long poem Midwinter Day.

A couple of highlights:

  • about the poetry scene in New York in the 1960s: “The whole New York School scene just seemed flimsy to me. I didn’t like it.”
  • about her friendship with Joe Brainard: “Joe and I didn’t really talk that much. Neither of us liked to talk. So we’d just hang out together. I would see him in front of St. Mark’s church; he would come to the readings. He had terrible social anxiety disorders, and so did I, so we would just stand there together and smoke cigarettes. I never felt any need to talk to Joe. I mean, unless something vital had to be said.”
  • about giving poetry readings: when Anderson asks Mayer “Do you like giving readings?” she responds “I do now. I used to hate it. I used to be so nervous. I remember when I gave my first reading—that I had a twitch in my, uh, ass. And I kept thinking, “I wonder if anybody’s noticing this.” I mean, it was out of my control, obviously. [laughs] I never understood why other people weren’t nervous too. The most nervous person I ever saw was Jim Carroll when he would sing. When he first started singing… He used to just read poetry before then, and then all of a sudden he was singing, and he would be shaking, visibly. And it was painful to watch. I always enjoyed Jim’s singing, but I hated watching him sing.”

You can check out the whole three-part interview here, here, and here.

Posted in Bernadette Mayer, Interview, Jim Carroll, Joe Brainard

Peter Matthiessen / Patsy Southgate / Frank O’Hara

Peter Matthiessen

Sometimes it seems like all roads lead back to the New York School (for me, at least).

The widely-admired novelist, naturalist, and nonfiction writer Peter Matthiessen passed away on Saturday at the age of 86.  At first glance, Matthiessen — “a roving author and naturalist whose impassioned nonfiction explored the remote endangered wilds of the world and whose prizewinning fiction often placed his mysterious protagonists in the heart of them” – would seem to have little to do with the poets of the New York School.

But Matthiessen’s first wife was Patsy Southgate, an important figure in the New York School scene of the late 1950s.  After her divorce from Matthiessen, Southgate went on to marry the painter Michael Goldberg and become a close friend of Frank O’Hara’s.  In doing so, Southgate consciously left behind Matthiessen’s literary crowd, which centered on the Paris Review (co-founded by Matthiessen in 1953) and featured people like George Plimpton and William Styron, and embraced the more bohemian scene around Goldberg and O’Hara.

As she told O’Hara’s biographer, Brad Gooch, “I really kind of canceled the rest of my life and started up this one with Frank and Joe (LeSueur) and Mike and the whole works.  My life with Peter Matthiessen had been sort of Uptown, and I considered this a move to Downtown.”

Patsy Southgate — who O’Hara once called “the Grace Kelly … of the New York School” — was to play an important and under-examined role in O’Hara’s career and imagination, appearing in numerous poems (including as the recipient of one of the gifts he buys in “The Day Lady Died” — a little Verlaine “with drawings by Bonnard”).

In the later 1950s and early 1960s, O’Hara became a fixture in the decidedly bohemian Goldberg-Southgate domestic scene — frequently staying at their house in the Hamptons, playing with Southgate’s children from her marriage to Peter Matthiessen, and writing poems for and about both Mike and Patsy.

In fact, as Gooch relates, Luke Matthiessen (the son of Peter Matthiessen and Patsy Southgate) recalls O’Hara being a very important figure in his childhood:

“Frank was in many ways a kind of surrogate father to me.  Although it was never communicated directly, I think that was also very important to him.  We used to have great pear fights all the time in the country.  I remember several times being thrown back and forth in the ocean between Joe and Frank.  I remember making Bloody Marys for him in the morning, and I would bring them to him in bed when I was six or seven.  Also, Frank loved the dogs. We had these two German shepherds.  The dogs meant a lot to him.  We meant a lot to him.  The whole family meant a lot to him.  I have this very real sense of Frank being a part of the family.”

So there you have it: the late Peter Matthiessen’s son felt Frank O’Hara was like a surrogate father to him.  (And served him Bloody Marys in bed!).

Surely a minor footnote to the amazing career of Peter Matthiessen, but an interesting one nonetheless.


Posted in Frank O'Hara, Patsy Southgate

David Lehman’s new translation of Apollinaire’s “Zone”

Portrait of Guillaume Apollinaire - Giorgio de Chirico

“Premonitory Portrait of Apollinaire,” Giorgio de Chirico (1914). Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France

Among the most important influences in any account of the New York School’s lineage must be the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, and perhaps no single Apollinaire poem is as important as his great, landmark 1913 poem “Zone.”

There have been many excellent translations of the poem — including by Roger Shattuck, Samuel Beckett, and Ron Padgett — but a wonderful new version has just appeared by David Lehman.  It was published in Virginia Quarterly Review and was awarded the journal’s Emily Clark Balch Prize for Poetry.

Lehman prefaces the translation with a very helpful introduction that provides background on Apollinaire and his career:

In the heady days leading up to and including the catastrophe of World War I, when Paris was the capital of modern art, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire (1880–1918) stood at the vital center of a gang of writers and artists who embraced the future with such tremendous energy that avant-garde became an adjective of glamour and prestige. Apollinaire—whose circle included painters (Picasso, Derain, Vlaminck) and composers (Satie, Poulenc) as well as poets (Blaise Cendrars, Max Jacob, Pierre Reverdy)—was a superb activist and agitator. He championed Cubism and gave Surrealism its name. In 1917, his edition of Charles Baudelaire’s poems linked the two men as kindred spirits, city poets who doubled as art critics; Baudelaire prefigured Apollinaire as the latter prefigures Frank O’Hara.

and on “Zone” and its importance, its formal innovations, and its influence:

“Zone,” the central poem in Apollinaire’s career, prefaces his collection Alcools … The poet was thirty-three years old, the age of Dante embarking on his tour of the afterlife. The poem doesn’t so much praise its objects of futurist desire—the Eiffel Tower, airplanes, a railway terminal—as treat them like pastoral motifs. The heart of the poem is not in the future at all but in a past recollected in anxiety and sadness.

“Zone” heralds a striking new direction in Apollinaire’s work. He discards punctuation to good effect. He refers to himself sometimes as I, sometimes as you (both tu andvous in French), a habit that held a special appeal for O’Hara and other New York poets …  Organized around a walk in Paris from one sunrise to another—and from one time zone to another—“Zone” is in loosely rhymed couplets…

Lehman also explains his own efforts to translate the poem over a period of many years:

I discovered “Zone” in my junior year of college and studied it closely when, as a graduate student at Cambridge University, I attended Douglas Parmée’s lectures on French literature and spent a few seasons in Paris. This was in 1971 and 1972. In Paris I lived with this peripatetic poem on such intimate terms that I felt I could hear it in my own voice as I walked from Notre Dame to the Luxembourg Gardens and from there to the cafés of Montparnasse. I made a special trip to the Gare St. Lazare with Apollinaire’s stanza about “ces pauvres émigrants” in my brain. Nevertheless I did not type up a complete draft of my translation until January 1978 when I taught a course at Hamilton College that called for it. After presenting it at a public reading, I let it lie fallow. I worked on the poem often and carefully, if at long intervals, until three years ago when, as a professor at the New School’s graduate writing program, I supervised MFA candidate Ashleigh Allen’s thesis, which focused on Apollinaire and “Zone.” This happy task spurred me to revise my translation yet again. Encouraged by friends, I worked on it some more in summer 2011 and fall 2012. These things take time. The love of the work sustains the effort.

Finally, Lehman also explores some of the differences between his own version and those by previous translators, including its striking, famous last line — “soleil côu coupé” (which Aimé Césaire would use as a title for a volume of poetry).  The line has been translated many ways — “The sun a severed neck” (Roger Shattuck), “Sun corseless head” (Samuel Beckett), “Sun cut throat” (Ron Padgett), and “Solar throat slashed” (A. James Arnold and Clayton Eshelman).  Lehman decides to render it “Let the sun beheaded be” — “mainly,” he explains, “because of the repetition of sounds in the last words. I felt that the relation of ‘be’ to ‘beheaded’ approximated the action in ‘côu coupé.’

Check out the whole translation, but here are the stirring opening lines:

In the end you’ve had enough of the ancient world

O Eiffel Tower shepherdess today your bridges are a bleating flock

(I’ve always loved the image above, too, which is a painting of Apollinaire as doomed rock star, by Giorgio di Chirico).

Posted in David Lehman, French poetry, Guillaume Apollinaire, Poems, Translation, Uncategorized

Frankie Cosmos and Frank O’Hara

Frankie Cosmos

You never know who is going to get bitten by the Frank O’Hara bug.

Greta Kline, a sophomore at NYU and the 19-year old daughter of actors Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates, is a musician who performs lo-fi indie-folk under the name Frankie Cosmos.

As this piece in the University of Pittsburgh newspaper explains, her newly released first studio album, Zentropy, “warrants a comparison to poet Frank O’Hara, who, of course, is the inspiration for Kline’s use of ‘Frankie’ as a pseudonym. ‘I’m just a normal girl, but my name is Frank,’ she sings on album closer ‘Sad.’ … A poetry student at NYU, Cosmos embodies the city’s literary past with a youthful wit that is rare in any artist — much less one who’s still too young to buy alcohol.”

In a profile and interview posted last month on Pitchfork, Greta Kline/Frankie Cosmos discusses her fascination with O’Hara at length.  The interviewer first sets the scene by mentioning that in Kline’s apartment “a small book of poems by Kline’s spiritual forebear Frank O’Hara rests in clear view on the kitchen table, alongside a chessboard and just underneath a pinned-up Bowie record”:

Pitchfork: Your name “Frankie” references the poet Frank O’Hara. What about his writing resonates with you?

GK: Right when we started dating, I bought Aaron this really big book of Frank O’Hara poems, so he started calling me Frank. I had a weird introduction to Frank O’Hara. I heard an audio clip of “Adieu to Norman, Bonjour to Jean and Jean-Paul”—which starts “It is 12:10 in New York”—on some kid’s website, and I remembered it and wrote it down. I was obsessed with this poem, but I didn’t know who it was by. I never thought to Google it because I don’t understand how computers work; I still don’t have a smartphone.

A year goes by, and this girl I knew from an art class sent me a different O’Hara poem. It immediately reminded me so much of the other one—his voice was so distinct and strong that I recognized it. I finally Googled it and realized the poems were by the same guy, and immediately went out and bought this huge book of Frank O’Hara poems and was obsessed with him and read the entire thing front-to-back when I was 15.

Pitchfork: He takes really fine details from New York City life and incorporates them into his poems in a way that is romantic. I feel like your music does that, too. What do you want your songs to capture about New York life?

GK: All of his poetry was coming from a place of mundane New York life—he wrote Lunch Poems on his lunch break everyday—but there’s so much more there. There’s so much depth to the streets of New York. I’m sounding really pretentious here, but there are a lot of places you can go from just observing everyday life, which he does really well. I was thinking about New York today and realized how much I hate walking around in the winter and how much I dread getting on the train. When I was younger, my view of New York was really wide-eyed and excited. I’ve lived here all my life, but when I was 15 my parents were like, “Yeah, you can go on the subway by yourself, you can do whatever.” Everyday I would get on the train and go somewhere to just walk around. My brother and I were like, “New York is so big! There are so many places we can go!”

My relationship to New York has changed a lot, but I try to preserve that attitude. I feel lucky to live here. A lot of times you walk through the city and don’t notice that you’re in a really beautiful neighborhood, or that you’re passing a beautiful building. It’s nice, as an exercise, to keep aware that you’re in a really lucky place. Writing songs about it is a really useful way for me to love New York more, and stay observing it, and not just zone it out. I’m trying to do what Frank O’Hara did and remind myself that there’s a lot of good stuff. I write about New York for my own mental health.

I have to say: I never thought there would be a reason to mention Kevin Kline, Phoebe Cates, and Frank O’Hara in the same breath.  But I’m happy there is.  If nothing else, this is another fun example of the continuing and unpredictable spread of O’Hara as an influence on our culture (including, once more, on the world of indie music).

Zentropy seems like a really likable and smart bunch of songs.  You can see the (very positive) Pitchfork review here, and can check it out below:

Posted in Frank O'Hara, Music, NY School Influence