Look What They’ve Done to The San Remo

There is no shortage of opportunities to feel nostalgic for the good old days when rents were cheap, bars were smoky and filled with intellectual chatter, Kafka was the rage, and New York was a haven for rebellious artists.  Nor do you have to work very hard to get depressed about how expensive and antiseptic the city has become.  I’ve even written about this feeling before from time to time, but this piece in the New York Post about the re-boot of the old San Remo Cafe is particularly nauseating.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the San Remo — on MacDougal and Bleecker, in the very heart of Greenwich Village — was one of the most important and romanticized literary hangouts for the bohemian set.  The young New York School poets met there to drink and socialize, and Jack Kerouac used the San Remo as a central setting (rechristened as “The Black Mask”) for The Subterraneans, his speed-fueled 1953 novel about the underground scene.

In an essay, Frank O’Hara recalled the bar’s importance to early days of the New York School of poets:

We were all in our early twenties.  John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, Kenneth Koch and I, being poets, divided our time between the literary bar, the San Remo, and the artists’ bar, the Cedar Tavern.  In the San Remo we argued and gossiped: in the Cedar we often wrote poems while listening to the painters argue and gossip.  So far as I know nobody painted in the San Remo while they listened to the writers argue.

In one poem, O’Hara reminisces about a typical night of carousing at the bar with John Ashbery: “I remember JA / staggering over to me in the San Remo and murmuring / ‘I’ve met someone MARVELLOUS!'”

The NY Post article, titled “Where Models and Tech Billionaires Party to Avoid New Yorkers,” describes the new bar — which is in a different location in the Village, on Lafayette St. — as a playground for the obnoxiously wealthy.  It is also awkwardly trying to use the aura of the old haunt to promote itself:

San Remo Cafe is named after the Greenwich Village watering hole that was frequented by legions of creative types such as Jack Kerouac, Miles Davis and Tennessee Williams.

Its newest iteration, which had a soft opening last Friday, pays homage to the original cafe, which shuttered in 1967. During the day, its storefront coffee shop is open to the public, serving $3.50 espressos under globe lights.

The backroom bar, which opens after 7 p.m., features a retro décor of corrugated mirrors, lacquered tables and moss-green couches, and is now home to yuppies and downtown scenester types.

During opening night, Katya Taran, a svelte Russian model wearing a see-through turtleneck, ripped jeans and YSL bag, uploads a photo of herself on Instagram, praising the new space with a caption, “‘Hip without being slick, intelligent without being corny,’ Jack Kerouac put it best.”


Hmmm…. In his memoir about Frank O’Hara, Joe LeSueur recalls the San Remo as “a dark, smoky, cramped establishment with a big espresso machine, loud jukebox, and crowded tables, whose patrons — seedy literary types, grubby bohemians, quiescent queers who shunned screaming gay bars — mainly drank fifteen-cent glasses of tasteless draft beer.”  It doesn’t sound like one would find too many starving artists and impoverished writers arguing about The Cantos or Gertrude Stein there these days.

Sitting with the cool cats, though, can be costly: A table at San Remo’s has a bar-tab minimum of $5,000. Menu items include a $2,800 bottle of Champagne Salon and a $1,275 bucket containing Johnnie Walker Blue Label and mixers.

“You have to know someone to get in,” Sean Nasiri, a partner at the bar, says. “You won’t know about [the place] unless we want you to.”

Non-bottle spenders make their way to the granite bar at the end of the room, which offers $16 cocktails like Bashful and Green, containing green-tea vodka and Caribbean sweet syrup, as well as La Traviata, a blend of prosecco and grapefruit…

“Everyone’s so well-dressed, and it’s supertrendy,” says 24-year-old stylist Shalimar Ortiz, who’s based in the West Village. “I’ve finally found a great place to be among people like me.”

Oh for the days of “seedy literary types,” “grubby bohemians,” and fifteen-cent glasses of tasteless beer!  But as O’Hara puts it rather cryptically at the end of his 1954 poem “On the Way to the San Remo”:

Yes you are foolish smoking
the bars are for rabbits
who wish to outlive the men

Related image

William S. Burroughs (left) and poet Alan Ansen outside the San Remo Cafe

 

Posted in Barbara Guest, Beats, Frank O'Hara, Jack Kerouac, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, New York, William S. Burroughs | Leave a comment

Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1933-2017), Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch

Yevgeny Yevtushenko, 1972

The great Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko died yesterday at the age of 83. A towering figure in post-World War II Russian poetry, Yevtushenko was, as the New York Times obituary put it, “an internationally acclaimed poet with the charisma of an actor and the instincts of a politician whose defiant verse inspired a generation of young Russians in their fight against Stalinism during the Cold War.”

But as a poet working within and against the Soviet state, Yevtushenko also had a complicated reputation and legacy:

He was the best known of a small group of rebel poets and writers who brought hope to a young generation with poetry that took on totalitarian leaders, ideological zealots and timid bureaucrats….But Mr. Yevtushenko did so working mostly within the system, taking care not to join the ranks of outright literary dissidents. By stopping short of the line between defiance and resistance, he enjoyed a measure of official approval that more daring dissidents came to resent.

While they were subjected to exile or labor camps, Mr. Yevtushenko was given state awards, his books were regularly published, and he was allowed to travel abroad, becoming an international literary superstar.

Some critics had doubts about his sincerity as a foe of tyranny. Some called him a sellout. A few enemies even suggested that he was merely posing as a protester to serve the security police or the Communist authorities. The exiled poet Joseph Brodsky once said of Mr. Yevtushenko, “He throws stones only in directions that are officially sanctioned and approved.”

This ambivalence towards Yevtushenko and his work may remind Frank O’Hara fans of his 1963 poem called “Answer to Voznesensky and Evtushenko.”

O’Hara’s withering poem attacks the pair of young Soviet poets as little more than pale shadows of the great Vladimir Mayakovsky and Boris Pasternak, two writers at the very top of O’Hara’s long list of personal heroes: “We are tired of your tiresome imitations of Mayakovsky,” the scathing poem begins.

Although O’Hara loves nothing more than Russian literature and culture (“we poets of America have loved you / your countrymen, our countrymen, our lives, your lives”), he seems to have had enough.  O’Hara was particularly furious that Yevtushenko and Voznesensky had the gall to criticize American society on the basis of what O’Hara saw as ill-informed claims about American racism.

we are tired
of your dreary tourist ideas of our Negro selves
our selves are in far worse condition than the obviousness
of your color sense

….You shall not take my friends away from me
because they live in Harlem

(In defending America and its promise of diversity and interracial dialogue from these Russian interlopers, O’Hara’s poem notoriously traffics in some unfortunate racial stereotypes itself, but that’s a discussion for another day).

In O’Hara’s eyes, Voznesensky and Yevtushenko completely misunderstand race in America, while being lifeless imitators of the great Russian avant-garde:

                                    you are indeed as cold as wax
as your progenitor was red, and how greatly was loved his redness
in the fullness of our own idiotic sun!  what
“roaring universe” outshouts his violent triumphant sun!
you are not even speaking
in a whisper
Mayakovsky’s hat worn by a horse*

It’s worth noting that O’Hara’s anger at the young Russian poets may have been more a product of the complicated politics of race, nationalism, and Cold War allegiances in 1963, than a blanket dismissal of Yevtushenko and his writing.

In later years, he may have felt quite differently — it seems that O’Hara’s friend Kenneth Koch did.  Yevtushenko’s death immediately reminded me of an event in 1996, when Kenneth Koch invited Yevtushenko to read at Columbia University as part of the F. W. Dupee Reading series.  At the time, I was helping Koch run this series, so I happened to be involved in coordinating and advertising Yevtushenko’s reading.  I recall Koch’s enthusiasm leading up to the visit, and remember the rousing introduction he gave the Russian poet.  Yevthushenko proceeded to give a vibrant performance of his poems, dramatically gesticulating and stalking the stage as he read in a booming voice.  I remember Koch’s being half-bemused and half-inspired by Yevtushenko’s thundering performance and also being shocked that I (a young grad student kid) was invited to a little champagne reception afterwards with these two poets and other VIPs …

I hadn’t thought about this event in a long time, but digging around, I just found a brief article about the reading in the Columbia Spectator. The Spectator reports that in his introduction, Koch said Yevtushenko “seems indifferent to nothing and responsive to everything … His poems of private feelings are as radical as the others.”   The article goes on to describe the reading: “Yevtushenko presented, in English and Russian, both prose and poetry, often making large gestures with his arms and whole body and wandering across, and off, the stage as he read and recited his work.”

Here is a picture of the two late poets, Koch and Yevtushenko, on that night in 1996.

Kenneth Koch and Yevgeny Yevtushenko (Columbia University, 1996)

*As usual, the spacing of these lines is all off because Word Press makes it impossible to reproduce poetry that has any indentations or unusual spacing.  My apologies.  You can find the poem here, in O’Hara’s Collected Poems.

 

Posted in Frank O'Hara, Kenneth Koch, Russian literature, Yevgeny Yevtushenko | 1 Comment

“On Rachmaninoff’s Birthday”: Frank O’Hara and the Russian Composer

Image result for "rachmaninoff"

Today is the birthday of the Russian composer and virtuousic pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) — a date which held special significance for Frank O’Hara. Across the course of his life, O’Hara wrote seven different poems titled “On Rachmaninoff’s Birthday” — including one titled “On Rachmaninoff’s Birthday #158” and another “On Rachmaninoff’s Birthday #161,” which playfully suggests that the series might have been infinitely extendable.

Oddly enough, some of these poems were written on or around April 1, while others were written months away from the composer’s birthday, in July.  (In his Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara, Joe LeSueur notes  “It is of no great moment, I suppose, but Frank seems to have been confused about or uncertain of what day and month the great Russian composer-pianist’s birthday fell on … I don’t know what to make of this — do you?”).

O’Hara was a gifted pianist who seemed destined for a career in music before shifting his allegiances fully to poetry during college, and he enjoyed tackling Rachmaninoff’s extremely complex pieces.  His father played the piano as well, and (as Brad Gooch relates in his biography of O’Hara, City Poet), Rachmaninoff was his father’s favorite composer: O’Hara, “influenced by his father, tried to get his parents to hang a portrait of the Russian composer in the den.”

Gooch mentions that “during O’Hara’s senior year a story circulated at Harvard that he had played once for Rachmaninoff at the New England Conservatory and that the Russian pianist and composer had advised him that his hands were too small for ultimate success.”  (One can only imagine, then, what Rachmaninoff would have said about our current president’s chances of being a concert pianist!).

“O’Hara drew on this story years later when he wrote one of his ‘On Rachmaninoff’s Birthday’ poems”:

Good
fortune, you would have been
my teacher and I your only pupil….
Only my eyes would be blue as I played
and you rapped my knuckles
dearest father of all Russias.

Gooch continues: “While such a session may never have taken place, the conclusion that he was physically unsuited to excel at a concert hall career helped to dissuade O’Hara from a career in music.”

In his memoir, LeSueur points out that the dream of being a musician never entirely left O’Hara: “I truly believe that Frank’s early desire and ambition to be a pianist remained with him throughout his life, not in any practical or realistic sense but as a dream or fantasy one stubbornly clings to, knowing all the while that what one longs for has always been out of reach, never obtainable.”

Here is probably my own favorite from O’Hara’s “Rachmaninoff series.”  This one was written in 1953 (in July, not on Rachmaninoff’s actual birthday) and first appeared in Evergreen Review in 1957 and later in Lunch Poems in 1965:

On Rachmaninoff’s Birthday

Quick! A last poem before I go
off my rocker.  Oh Rachmaninoff!
Onset, Massachusetts.  Is it the fig-newton
playing the horn?  Thundering windows
of hell, will your tubes ever break
into powder?  Oh my palace of oranges,
junk shop, staples, umber, basalt;
I’m a child again when I was really
miserable, a grope pizzicato.  My pocket
of rhinestone, yoyo, carpenter’s pencil,
amethyst, hypo, campaign button,
is the room full of smoke?  Shit
on the soup, let it burn.  So it’s back.
You’ll never be mentally sober.

 

Posted in Frank O'Hara, Music, Poems, Sergei Rachmaninoff | 2 Comments

The Coca-Cola Company Discovers Frank O’Hara’s “Having a Coke with You,” Uses It for Promotion

A couple years ago, when I was musing on the connections between Frank O’Hara and the finale of Mad Men — which notoriously ended with Don Draper having an epiphany in the form of a famous Coke commercial — I wrote “while we’re on the subject of O’Hara, soda, and advertising, count me as one of those who thinks Coke owes the O’Hara estate some serious royalties for its very successful recent “Share a Cokecampaign…”

Well, I don’t think Coke is paying any royalties to O’Hara’s estate yet, but the company is at least now using his work to flog their brand.  Yesterday — in surely what is one of the stranger and perhaps more depressing moments in the recent reception history of Frank O’Hara — the Coca-Cola Company posted an article called “The Story of Frank O’Hara’s ‘Having a Coke with You'” on their website.  Apparently, Coke hosts a series called “Stories” — who knew? — featuring pieces on things like “Why Sprite has Sported Green Since 1961” and “‘What is Coca-Cola?’ Why the Brand Has Appeared on Jeopardy! 200+ Times.”

As part of that ongoing series, Coke posted this new story by Jac Kuntz that provides Coke fans with an overview of O’Hara’s life, and a brief gloss on his best-known (though not only!) poem with a Coke cameo, “Having a Coke with You.”  I’m not totally surprised that Coke would’ve caught wind of this poem, as O’Hara’s charming love poem for Vincent Warren has recently found renewed life, becoming in recent years one of his most famous and most adored works — partly because it is such a tender and beautiful poem, partly because there happens to be a wonderful clip of O’Hara reading it on YouTube, which has helped the piece go semi-viral (or as viral as something poetry-related can get).

In the piece, Kuntz talks a little — though less than you might expect — about the role of Coke in O’Hara’s poem, which he wrote in 1960:

One poem in particular subtly marked the country’s cultural ascension with a classic American icon, while demonstrating O’Hara’s romantic intensity… Romance and tenderness aside, “Having a Coke with You” almost begs an interpretation that asserts the glory of the inherently American “every day” over Europe’s crown jewels of high culture. Though the author’s intention was arguably one of affection, Gooch pointed out how the classic soda replaced the traditional Italian or French red wine as the romantic drink of choice. A simple, corner store bottle of coke, sipped under the foliage of a tree with a loved one, far exceeded the visual marvels and rich tastes Europe once could offer—a reflection of the mid-century cultural shift.

One can only imagine how O’Hara might’ve felt upon learning that Coke was using his poem to promote its brand — ironic laughter?  eye-rolling?  disgust?  In any event, this unusual confluence of corporation and poem surely marks an interesting moment in the long debate about the role of consumer culture in O’Hara’s poetry, his insouciant dropping of brand names, his reveling in the pleasures and banality of pop culture and everyday consumption.  Is O’Hara a cheerleader for American capitalism at the height of its postwar triumph and expansion?  Is he an ironic commentator on its excesses and absurdities?  A savvy cultural critic gauging consumer culture’s charms alongside its insidious dangers and vapidity?

Although critics have been debating such questions about O’Hara for the past several decades, leaving them unresolved, it seems pretty clear how the Coca-Cola Corporation would answer them.

I eagerly await the next installment on the Coke website, this time perhaps on the heart-warming moment when O’Hara mixes booze and soda to drown his sorrows, early on a sad Sunday morning (“washing the world down with rye and Coca-Cola and the news”).  Or maybe they could do a piece on the product’s appearance in “A Step Away from Them,” where “the classic American icon” is being guzzled by some hot construction workers O’Hara ogles on his lunch break in midtown Manhattan:

First, down the sidewalk
where laborers feed their dirty
glistening torsos sandwiches
and Coca-Cola, with yellow helmets
on.
Can’t beat the feeling — have a Coke and a smile!
Posted in Frank O'Hara | Leave a comment

Frank O’Hara and Bunny: A Tribute to V. R. Lang in new issue of “SpoKe”

spoKe 4

The new issue of the Boston-based journal SpoKe has just appeared and it features “A Tribute to V. R. Lang,” an excellent special feature devoted to the writer Violet Lang, known simply as “Bunny” to fans of Frank O’Hara — a.k.a., the one who appears at that crucial moment in one of O’Hara’s most famous poems, “A Step Away from Them,” when he writes “First / Bunny died …”

One of O’Hara’s closest friends and first muses, Lang was a poet, playwright, and creative force who swept through the Cambridge and Harvard literary and theater world like a dynamo before her early death from Hodgkin’s disease in 1956.

The tribute in SpoKe features previously unpublished poems and a play by Lang, along with reflections on Bunny and her importance by Susan Howe, Bill Corbett, Kevin Killian, Alison Lurie, and Allison Vanouse, along with an essay that I contributed about the intense personal and literary relationship between Frank O’Hara and Bunny Lang.

Here’s the start of my essay:

The poet and playwright V. R. “Bunny” Lang roared like a comet through the post-World War II literary worlds of Boston and New York.  Lang burned brightly and quickly disappeared, dying tragically young at the age of 32 of Hodgkin’s disease.  In her wake, she left behind not only an enduring, if relatively modest, body of writing, but also a deep and lasting impression on the lives and the work of those she touched — or perhaps scorched would be a better term.

Undoubtedly one of the most significant figures to have been singed in this manner, to have been forever altered by his fateful brush with Bunny, was Frank O’Hara.  Lang and O’Hara met in 1947 during his time at Harvard and quickly became inseparable.  As he recalled in an essay written in 1957, shortly after her death: “I first saw Bunny Lang 10 years ago at a cocktail party in a book store in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  She was sitting in a corner sulking and biting her lower lip – long blonde hair, brown eyes, Roman-striped skirt.  As if it were a movie, she was glamorous and aloof. The girl I was talking to said: ‘That’s Bunny Lang. I’d like to give her a good slap.'”

My essay traces the connection between O’Hara and Lang, including poems and plays O’Hara wrote for and about Bunny.  It also argues that Lang’s shocking death at such a young age had a profound effect on O’Hara, leaving a deep impression on his poetry and his worldview.  As I write in the piece, “the shadow cast by her death actually causes a darker side of O’Hara’s work to emerge, sparking the painful recognition of loss, transience, and mortality that shade O’Hara’s most powerful work in the later 1950s and early 1960s.  The loss of the youthful Lang deepened O’Hara’s ever-present awareness of death and his sense of the ephemeral nature of life and friendship, which was there from the start but becomes increasingly prominent as his work develops.  If David Lehman is right when he notes that O’Hara’s ‘distinctive tone’ is ‘two parts melancholy, three parts joy,’ it is the death of Bunny Lang that helps make this ratio so characteristic of his work.”  You can see the rest of my essay here.

The issue also contains Corbett’s “Notes on Bunny Lang,” Killian’s essay “The Beat Energy of V. R. (‘Bunny’) Lang,” a piece by Jean Fawkes-Lewis on Lang and the artist Edward Gorey (O’Hara’s college roommate), a short play by Gorey himself, photographs, and much else.

Elsewhere in the issue, fans of the New York School will also want to take note of an excerpt from Bill Berkson’s memoirs and a piece by Ron Padgett.

You can find ordering information for SpoKe 4 here.

Posted in Bill Berkson, Bunny Lang, David Lehman, Edward Gorey, Frank O'Hara, Ron Padgett, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

A Note on Robert Lowell and Frank O’Hara

ohara-shapiro-lowell

Today is the 100th birthday of Robert Lowell, which has sparked a little flurry of attention to Lowell and his legacy, as has a new book by Kay Redfield Jamison on Lowell’s struggles with bipolar illness and its relationship to his poetry, which is reviewed in today’s New York Times.  Coincidentally, I happened to teach Frank O’Hara’s “Poem (Lana Turner has collapsed!” in my graduate seminar yesterday, which, naturally, entailed some discussion of the famous story surrounding O’Hara’s writing and delivery of that poem.

As I wrote in this earlier post on the poem, O’Hara composed it while he was on the way to give a reading with Robert Lowell at Wagner College on Staten Island.  O’Hara didn’t care much for Lowell’s poetry, and as David Lehman tells it in The Last Avant-Garde, “O’Hara regarded the event as something of a grudge match; his close friend Bill Berkson remembers it as a ‘mano/mano’ duel.  February 9, 1962, was a cold, snowy day in the city.  On the way to the Staten Island Ferry, O’Hara bought the New York Post and on the choppy half-hour ride he wrote an instant meditation on the tabloid revelation that Hollywood actress Lana Turner had collapsed… O’Hara read the poem that afternoon, making it clear that he had written it in transit.  The audience loved it; Lowell looked put out.”  When it was his turn to read, a peeved Lowell told the crowd that he was very sorry, but he hadn’t written a poem on the way to the reading.

O’Hara’s distaste for Lowell’s work (and all it seemed to represent, as the epitome of the postwar poetry establishment) is well-known.  In a 1965 interview, O’Hara offered a scathing assessment of Lowell’s famed “Skunk Hour” and the poet’s supposedly groundbreaking turn to the personal in Life Studies:

Lowell has . . . a confessional manner which (lets him) get away with things that are really just plain bad but you’re supposed to be interested because he’s supposed to be so upset.  I don’t think that anyone has to get themselves to go and watch lovers in a parking lot necking in order to write a poem, and I don’t see why it’s admirable if they feel guilty about it. They should feel guilty. Why are they snooping? What’s so wonderful about a Peeping Tom? And then if you liken them to skunks putting their noses into garbage pails, you’ve just done something perfectly revolting. No matter what the metrics are. And the metrics aren’t all that unusual. Every other person in any university in the United States could put that thing into metrics.

What’s less well-known, however, is that O’Hara and Lowell weren’t always so dismissive of each other.  In fact, one can see a rather surprising sign of this in a little-discussed 1954 letter O’Hara wrote to Karl Shapiro, who was at the time the editor of Poetry magazine.  In sending along some work for Shapiro to consider, O’Hara mentions that Lowell, of all people, had recently praised some of his work:

It was kind of you to write me good luck in that Iowa Fellowship thing.  I didn’t get one but Robert Lowell wrote me about my manuscript of poems which was even better.  He liked, with reservations, the long poem I’ve included in this batch, which is why I’m sending it; it isn’t anything you’ll want to print, so if you are very busy you may want to skip it (Second Avenue).

The most striking thing about this passage is not that Lowell wrote O’Hara to compliment his poems, or that O’Hara would draw on Lowell’s cultural capital to sway Shapiro in his role as editor, but that Lowell particularly liked the long, wild Second Avenue, one of O’Hara’s most experimental, disjunctive, and surrealist poems.  (In an unpublished letter from 1962, O’Hara also mentions that John Hollander was fond of Second Avenue, another head-scratcher).  The poem begins in rather un-Lowell-like fashion:

Quips and players, seeming to vend astringency off-hours
celebrate diced excesses and sardonics, mixing pleasures,
as if proximity were staring at the margin of a plea …

Not surprisingly, Shapiro passed on the poem for Poetry, but the fact that a poet like Lowell (and Hollander) liked it, even with reservations, just goes to show, perhaps, that our rigid categories and definitions of American poetry — for example, everyone knows Robert Lowell and Frank O’Hara belong in enemy camps! — are not so simple when you look closely at the messy history of poetry itself.

Robert Lowell (left) and Frank O’Hara (2nd from right) at Wagner College (1962)

 

Posted in Frank O'Hara, Robert Lowell, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Harry Mathews (1930-2017) and the New York School of Poets

Biographical note from An Anthology of New York Poets (1970)

Very sad news for lovers of the New York School and contemporary literature: the novelist and poet Harry Mathews passed away this week at the age of 86.  Mathews is best-known as an experimental fiction writer who was one of the only American members of the Oulipo, the avant-garde French movement devoted to the use of playful procedures, mathematical games, and constraints, whose most famous members were Georges Perec, Italo Calvino, and Raymond Queneau.

Mathews also played a central role in the formation of the New York School of poets: after meeting John Ashbery in France in 1956, Mathews became a key figure in the New York School orbit.  Meeting Ashbery proved to be a crucial moment for his life as a writer – as Mathews recalled in his interview with the Paris Review:

What I think of as my writing life began when I met him. He had already published his first book. But he never spoke much about poetry. He was very proper, though he led another life at night, when he drank and carried on. He told me about modern French poets like Pierre Reverdy and Henri Michaux. I hadn’t read any of them. A couple of weeks later, I gave him a poem. He read it and said, I see you read all those poets that I recommended to you. But I hadn’t. His mentioning them and briefly describing them were enough to transform my writing.

Ashbery also fortuitously introduced Mathews to the work of the eccentric French writer Raymond Roussel, who would exert an enormous influence on his work:

Yes, thanks to John I began reading Raymond Roussel. Roussel had methodical approaches to writing fiction that completely excluded psychology. In the American novel, what else is there? If you don’t have psychology, people don’t see the words on the page. What was really holding me up was this idea that you had to have character development, relationships, and that this was the substance of the novel. Indeed, it is the substance of many novels, including extraordinary ones. But I had tried writing works involving psychology and characters and all that, and the results were terrible. In Roussel I discovered you could write prose the way you do poetry. You don’t approach it from the idea that what you have to say is inside you. It’s a materialist approach, for want of a better word. You make something. You give up expressing and start inventing.

When Mathews received a large sum of money in 1959 upon his grandfather’s death, Ashbery suggested that he put some of the money towards a new literary journal.  Together, they founded the journal Locus Solus, naming it after Roussel’s strange and wonderful novel of that name.  As Mathews told the Paris Review:

My grandfather died in 1959 and left me twenty thousand dollars, which is like a hundred and forty thousand now. John said, Why don’t you use some of the money to do a magazine? So I agreed to put five thousand into Locus Solus, little knowing what I was getting into.

In founding Locus Solus, Ashbery and Mathews deliberately set out to create a space that would showcase the work of those in their circle, New York School writers like Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, Kenneth Koch, Barbara Guest, as well as Ashbery and Mathews themselves.  Mathews later recalled the origins of the magazine in an interview with Lynne Tillman:

It came about because we, all of us, wanted to be published more.  We did this sort of self-centered thing, we published ourselves and our friends. I hadn’t yet found a publisher for The Conversions, my first book. I’d published a few poems here and there, John had published his first book, Kenneth had published one or two books and Jimmy had published, I think, a novel and a book of poems. But we were all anxious to see more of what we wanted, not only in terms of publishing ourselves, but of seeing writing we liked published.

Mathews acknowledges creating a journal for this purpose may have been a risky and self-centered venture, but as he wryly noted in the Paris Review interview: “Of course, it turned out this little circle had three future Pulitzer Prize winners.  Don’t look at me!”  Locus Solus was to last just four issues (over the course of 1961-1962), only folding because, as Mathews explained, “the five thousand dollars were gone.”

In his Paris Review interview, Mathews also reflected on the utility of the “New York School” as a label, and made some helpful comments on what these writers shared, even if they weren’t a school with a coherent program:

We were all categorized as belonging to the New York School, but there was no school. There was little in common between the writing of John, Kenneth, Jimmy, and me. But I do think that what Mallarmé invented—deliberately putting the locus of meaning in the effect rather than in the sense of words—is a notion that we all would have subscribed to. And there was a kind of unavowed doctrine amounting to: no aesthetic bullshit. Stay clear of cute embellishments, like the onomatopoeia of “the moan of doves in immemorial elms, / And murmur of innumerable bees.” By extension, pay no respect to traditional rules. John and Jimmy wrote a novel called A Nest of Ninnies in which they violated much received opinion. For instance, Auden had once said that it’s impossible to describe meals in contemporary fiction. So there is an endless number of meals in the book.

The first two issues of Locus Solus featured lengthy excerpts from Mathews’s Roussellian first novel, The Conversions, alongside work by O’Hara, Schuyler, Koch, Ashbery, William S. Burroughs, and many others.

Upon receiving that first issue, O’Hara wrote (in an unpublished letter) to Ashbery “I love the contents. Your own poems are divine and I loved reading Harry’s prose – I do hope the (I) after the title means that it will be continued in future issues… That piece of his is really extraordinary, it’s so nice to have something really interesting and peculiar going on in prose that one can look forward to seeing more of, jaded jade that I am.”

Although Mathews went on to gain renown as an experimental novelist and member of Oulipo (with books like Cigarettes, Tlooth, and The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium), he continued to write poetry as well.  Although he was always on the periphery of the New York School of poets, he did consider himself an “honorary member,” as he told one interviewer.  Indeed, Mathews’ work was included in one of the first gatherings of New York School poetry, An Anthology of New York Poets, edited by David Shapiro and Ron Padgett in 1970 (see photo above), and his poems often shared his fellow New York poets’s love for artifice, arbitrary rules, surrealism, and humor.

One of my favorite Mathews poems is an elaborate sestina called “Histoire,” which pulls off the remarkable feat of using “militarism,” “Marxism-Leninism,” “fascism,” “Maoism,” “racism,” and “sexism” as sestina endwords.  Here are the opening two stanzas, which you can also hear Mathews reading here:

Tina and Seth met in the midst of an overcrowded militarism.
“Like a drink?” he asked her. “They make great Alexanders over at the Marxism-Leninism.”
She agreed. They shared cocktails. They behaved cautiously, as in a period of pre-fascism.
Afterwards he suggested dinner at a restaurant renowned for its Maoism.
“O.K.,” she said, but first she had to phone a friend about her ailing Afghan, whose name was Racism.
Then she followed Seth across town past twilit alleys of sexism.

The waiter brought menus and announced the day’s specials. He treated them with condescending sexism,
So they had another drink. Tina started her meal with a dish of militarism,
While Seth, who was hungrier, had a half portion of stuffed baked racism.
Their main dishes were roast duck for Seth, and for Tina broiled Marxism-Leninism.
Tina had pecan pie a la for dessert, Seth a compote of stewed Maoism.
They lingered. Seth proposed a liqueur. They rejected sambuca and agreed on fascism.

In 2014, Poetry magazine published another dazzling sestina by Mathews, which indicates just how playful and subversive and New York School-esque he was to the end.  As I wrote in an earlier post on this poem, Mathews’s poem gave an Oulipean twist to the sestina’s already byzantine requirements.  In “Cool gales shall fan the glades,” he adds a letter to each end word, each time it reappears, so that “at” becomes “fat,” “fast,” “feast,” and so on as the poem progresses.

Harry Mathews, an endlessly creative, prolific, and enigmatic force within contemporary literature, will be sorely missed.  For more on Mathews’s passing, see here (from the Paris Review), here (the TLS), and here (the Poetry Foundation).  I’m sure more tributes and obituaries are to come.

Posted in Barbara Guest, French poetry, Harry Mathews, James Schuyler, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Locus Solus, Raymond Roussel, Uncategorized, William S. Burroughs | Leave a comment