Jennifer Lawrence and Frank O’Hara: From Hunger Games to Lunch Poems

I’m always on the lookout for surprising Frank O’Hara sightings, but I definitely didn’t see this one coming.  The Daily Mail is reporting today that when the movie star Jennifer Lawrence was spotted in New York on Sunday on a date with her boyfriend, art dealer Cooke Maroney, the “action star was carrying a copy of Frank O’Hara’s 2001 poetry book, Lunch Poems.”  (The book was actually published in 1964, not 2001, but who’s counting?).

Here’s the picture that was snapped, presumably, by some annoying paparazzi:

Carrying Lunch Poems: Last week, the Red Sparrow action star and the NYU grad celebrated her 28th birthday with a romantic European vacation to Paris and Rome

Is it just me or does the book Lawrence is holding look much thicker than the usual copies of Lunch Poems — a slender volume which is, after all, part of City Lights’s famous “Pocket Poets Series”?  Strange… * (see below for an important update).

In any event, it’s great, though not surprising, to learn that Lawrence has such good taste in literature.

Also, I can only imagine how happy it would make Frank O’Hara — the ardent lover of the movies, the author of poems that pay tribute to Mae West, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean — to learn that one of the biggest movie stars of our age was spotted on the street carrying a book of his own poems.

It’s not to hard to imagine J. Law fitting right in with these lines from O’Hara’s “Steps“:

where’s Lana Turner
she’s out eating
and Garbo’s backstage at the Met
everyone’s taking their coat off
so they can show a rib-cage to the rib-watchers

*UPDATE: After I posted this piece, and wondered on Twitter why the book looked so much thicker, Carl Robert Anderson informed me that it is probably not a book at all, but rather a $1500 Olympia Le-Tan “Lunch Poems” purse or clutch (sold through Marc Jacobs), which you can find out more about, or purchase (?), here.

Lunchpoemsletan - View 1

Oh well … but somehow I imagine O’Hara would love this nonetheless…

 

 

 

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Posted in Film, Frank O'Hara | 6 Comments

Roundup of Recent “New York School of Poetry” News and Links (8/23/18)

Here’s the latest roundup of recent links, new publications, and news related to the New York School of poets.  (For my most recent roundup, see here).

— The indie band Deerhunter released an album titled Double Dream of Spring, a title which evokes both John Ashbery’s masterful fourth book and the Giorgio di Chirico painting to which Ashbery’s title alludes.

       Image result for deerhunter double dream of spring                                        File:The Double Dream of Spring.jpg

— Another development on the New York School-and-indie-music front: No Rome, a young musician from Manila, told an interviewer about the importance of Frank O’Hara to his songwriting:

“But lyrically I guess it’s Frank O’Hara. He’s very interesting in the way that he’s very honest with his poems but at the same time it’s fake, so the honesty is there, but at the same time you question; ‘Yeah I get what he’s trying to say’. It’s there, but what does it really mean? That’s kind of how I wanted to tell a story with that EP.”

— The art historian Irving Sandler, author of The New York School: The Painters and Sculptors of the Fifties (1978), died in June at the age of 92.  As the New York Times obituary noted, Sandler “drew on his extensive relationships with living artists to compile authoritative histories of Abstract Expressionism and the artistic movements that followed.”  One of those relationships was with Frank O’Hara, who paid tribute to Sandler in his great poem “Adieu to Norman, Bonjour to Joan and Jean-Paul” with these lines:

and Irving Sandler continues to be the balayeur des artistes
and so do I (sometimes I think I’m “in love” with painting)

Sandler must have liked being called “the balayeur des artistes” – or “the sweeper-up after artists” – by O’Hara, as he alluded to the phrase in the title of a recent memoir: Swept Up by Art: An Art Critic in the Post-Avant-Garde Era (2015).

— For a recent New Yorker poetry podcast, the poet Kevin Young, poetry editor of the New Yorker, discusses Ashbery’s poem “Worsening Situation” with David Lehman, who also reads his own poem “Stages on Life’s Way.”

— The poet Bobbie Louise Hawkins passed away in May at the age.  Hawkins was married to Robert Creeley, and also was close with many New York School poets, especially during the time she lived in Bolinas, California.  Her passing of Bobbie Louise Hawkins reminded me of this lovely, touching passage about her, and her then-husband Robert Creeley, in Joe Brainard’s “Bolinas Journal”:

— A novella by Ron Padgett entitled Motor Maids Across the Continent was recently published by the Song Cave:

More than fifty years in the making, Ron Padgett’s novella, Motor Maids across the Continent, is an altered version of a novel for adolescent girls originally published in 1911. A mix of Harold Lloyd, Tom Mix, and Max Ernst, Padgett’s tale is by turns comic, visionary, and strangely touching.”

John Yau praises Padgett’s strange and playful book in a review for Hyperallergic:

Reading Motor Maids across the Continent is like sitting in a car that has been commandeered by a driver who likes to exceed the speed limit. He does not want to scare you so much as enthrall you, and that is exactly what he does, time and again throughout the book…It is luxuriantly bizarre in beautifully precise sentences. He moves from the frivolous to feeling with such smoothness it takes your breath away.

— John Ashbery’s final poem, “Climate Correction,” was recently published in Harpers, with this note appended: “John Ashbery’s last poem, handwritten at his home in Hudson, New York, on August 25, 2017. Ashbery died on September 3.”  These are the last lines of the brief, poignant poem:

What was I telling you about?

Walks in the reeds. Be
contumely about it.
You need a chaser.

In other words, persist, but rather
a dense shadow fanned out.
Not exactly evil, but you get the point.

—  Another Ashbery sighting: a new book of literary criticism by John Steen uses a subtitle that quotes the last line of one of my favorite Ashbery poems, “A Blessing in Disguise”: Affect, Psychoanalysis, and American Poetry: This Feeling of Exaltation.

Lovers of My Orchards: Writers and Artists on Frank O’Hara, a new collection of essays devoted to O’Hara edited by Olivier Brossard was recently published in France.  It’s a big, rich collection of essays and reflections by a long list of contemporary poets and artists, including Bill Berkson, Lee Ann Brown, Thomas Devaney, Vincent Katz, Geoffrey O’Brien, Eileen Myles, and Anne Waldman.  I will probably write more about this book at a later date, but for now, you can find details here.

Alexandra. J. Gold has published an interesting piece which brings together Kim Kardashian and Frank O’Hara, specifically connecting an image of Kardashian with the notorious portrait Larry Rivers painted of Frank O’Hara, naked and wearing boots.

— Matthew Holman published a review of a recent Jane Freilicher exhibit (“How Jane Freilicher Found Beauty in the Everyday”) in Apollo.  The piece included a tantalizing bit of information for fans of Jane: “Karin Roffman, who last year published a monograph on Ashbery’s early years, is currently working on a major biography on Freilicher.”

— Speaking of Karin Roffman’s biography of Ashbery’s early years, The Songs We Know Best (which I reviewed last year for the New York Times Book Review): Christopher Spaide has reviewed the book for Chicago Review. Spaide writes that Roffman’s “book may be the most instructive guide yet on reading Ashbery autobiographically, a rarely-chosen approach to this poet who invites and deflects all approaches … Roffman has written something invaluable for today’ s many mournful readers, for all of us struggling to imagine American poetry without Ashbery’ s meandering step leading the way.”

— Nick Sturm has posted a treasure trove of a digital project — an archive of fully searchable facsimile PDF editions of the magazines co-edited by Alice Notley and Douglas Oliver, Scarlet and Gare du Nord (10 issues total).  The issues are now available for download hereSturm has also published a valuable essay on the journals, their importance to Notley’s work, and their significance and aesthetic vision.

Rona Cran reviews Daniel Kane’s book on New York poetry and punk, Do You Have a Band?, for the journal ASAP/J.  According to Cran:

As far as an academic book can be, Kane’s is punky and irreverent. His writing is of a piece with his subject matter, and is often witty or demotic, his arguments ranging from the casually observed to the borderline polemical. This, combined with his extensive and meticulous research, which includes fascinating archival material and first-hand interviews with many of the figures under discussion, renders Do You Have A Band? both intellectually rigorous and profoundly enjoyable. It is also an important interdisciplinary addition to the growing body of exciting work on the New York School.

A review of Kane’s book by Drew Strombeck also recently appeared in ALH Online (American Literary History’s online review platform).  Strombeck writes that “Do You Have a Band? markedly complicates the often-hallowed story of punk, while adding texture and nuance to the arc of post-New American poetry, providing another essential piece of literary history.”

— Alina Cohen writes a profile of the painter Joan Mitchell for Artsy:

Mitchell is currently in the spotlight as both a market darling and a scholarly subject… A few years from now, a new generation of fans will have the opportunity to enjoy a comprehensive presentation of Mitchell’s work. In 2020, the Baltimore Museum of Art is mounting a major retrospective of the artist, which will travel to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and New York’s Guggenheim Museum. The show promises to increase scholarship and broaden Mitchell’s audience.

Joan Mitchell in her Vétheuil studio, 1983. © Joan Mitchell Foundation. Photo by Robert Freson, Joan Mitchell Foundation Archives. Courtesy of David Zwirner New York/London/Hong Kong.

Shell Game, the long-awaited second volume of poems by Jordan Davis, was recently published by Edge Books: “Scratch an American, win a lifetime / all expenses charged back to you / trip to the front.  Scratch an American, / find your way through the smoke.”  From the publisher:

The first collection in fifteen years from a poet whose first book Stephanie Burt called ‘very personal, very appealing,’ Shell Game by Jordan Davis presents a series of puzzles of feeling and mazes of history where the person speaking disappears into the world, and vice versa, without warning.

Starting against the backdrop of New York in 2001 and working back to the words that came into the English language during World War II, Jordan Davis’s second book teleports to Turkey in the middle of the century in a series of poems reimagining the work of Orhan Veli Kanik as a New York School poet, then returns to reflect on the precarious present in which everything is at incredible risk, and trying to laugh about it.

— Last year, I wrote about the death of Vincent Warren, the ballet dancer and dance historian, who was the love of Frank O’Hara’s life.  There is a new documentary about Warren’s life and career, “A Man of Dance,” which was screened in July at Lincoln Center in New York.  You can see a brief trailer for the film here.

A MAN OF DANCE (Un Homme de Danse) by VINCENT WARREN premieres in Dance on Camera Festival

— The Best American Poetry blog posted “Sonnet After Koch” by Mitch Sisskind.  Here is how it begins:

If I could push a button and write
A new Kenneth Koch poem
I would push a button and write
That I could push a button so
We are hitchhiking again near
Vallauris and the sky is cloudy
But who cares since we’re young
And plain silly…

— Berfrois published two poems by Eileen Tabios that she calls “The Ashbery Riff-Offs,” “where each poem begins with 1 or 1-2 lines from ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’ by John Ashbery.”

— Bernadette Mayer has a new, official website, which you can find here.

Fairfield Porter’s home at 49 South Main St. in Southampton, NY – a hallowed site for New York School poetry and painting – has been bought by New York art dealer Andrea Glimcher for $4.8 million:

Porter’s subjects were primarily landscapes, domestic interiors, and portraits of family, friends, and fellow artists, many of them affiliated with the New York School of writers, including John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, and James Schuyler. Many of his paintings were set in or around the family summer house on Great Spruce Head Island, Maine, and the family home on South Main Street in. Porter died at 68 in 1975, and his wife, the poet Anne Elizabeth Porter, died at 99 in 2011.

— In other Hamptons news, there was an interesting article in the New York Times in July about a dispute regarding the garden that once belonged to the painter and New York School pal Robert Dash – a garden which happens to be the site of some great James Schuyler poems, including “Korean Mums” and “Dec. 28, 1974.  The story mentions the connections between Dash, the garden, and poets including John Ashbery, John Koethe, Barbara Guest, and Douglas Crase (though it keeps misspelling his name). And it quotes Crase on Schuyler:

“Something about Madoo seemed to inspire odes,” Mr. Crace [sic] wrote in the script for a talk he gave at the Beinecke Library at Yale. “Once in the winter house, we actually watched Jimmy Schuyler, seated all afternoon in his chair, as he wrote one of his best-known poems,”“Dec. 28, 1974.”

— The British poet Ian Seed recently published a new book of prose poems with Shearsman Books titled New York Hotel that clearly displays the influence of poets of the New York School, as well as those who influenced them, like Pierre Reverdy (whose book The Thief of Talant Seed translated in 2010).  Writing about Seed’s earlier book Shifting Registers, John Ashbery said “The mystery and sadness of empty rooms, chance encounters in the street, trains traveling through a landscape of snow become magical in Ian Seed’s poems.”

Posted in Alice Notley, Anne Waldman, Bernadette Mayer, Bill Berkson, Bobbie Louise Hawkins, Criticism, David Lehman, Douglas Oliver, Eileen Myles, Fairfield Porter, Frank O'Hara, Geoffrey O'Brien, Irving Sandler, Jane Freilicher, Joan Mitchell, Joe Brainard, John Ashbery, John Yau, Kenneth Koch, Kevin Young, Larry Rivers, Music, NY School Influence, Robert Creeley, Robert Dash, Ron Padgett, Roundup, Thomas Devaney, Vincent Katz, Vincent Warren, Visual Art | 1 Comment

Tom Clark (1941-2018), the New York School, and the Paris Review

 

Tom Clark, in a still from a home movie by Larry Fagin, 1968

Very sad news in the poetry world: the poet Tom Clark died this week at the age of 77 after being struck by a car while walking across a street in Berkeley, California.  A prolific and controversial writer, Clark was the author of over 25 volumes of poetry and biographies of Jack Kerouac, Charles Olson, and Robert Creeley.  He was a pivotal figure in the New York School’s second generation, both as a poet in his own right and for the important role he played as poetry editor of the Paris Review, a post he held from 1963 (when he began at the ripe old age of 22!) to 1973.

During the late 1960s and 1970s, while living first in New York, and later Bolinas, California, Clark established close friendships with second-generation New York School poets like Ron Padgett, Ted Berrigan, and Bill Berkson. According to Terence Diggory, while in New York, Clark’s “brief but intense involvement in the local poetry scene was capped in March 1968 by his marriage at St. Mark’s Church to Angelica Heinegg, the muse who inspired the title of Angel Hair magazine. Padgett served as best man; Berrigan gave the bride away; [Larry] Fagin, Dick Gallup, and David Shapiro, and painter Mike Goldberg provided music; Anne Waldman and Lewis Warsh hosted the reception at their apartment.”

In the mid-1960s, Clark opened the pages of the august Paris Review to a wide range of poets associated with the avant-garde, and with the New York School in particular, including John Ashbery, Amiri Baraka, Berkson, Berrigan, Joe Brainard, Jim Carroll, Joe Ceravolo, Clark Coolidge, Kenward Elmslie, Barbara Guest, Kenneth Koch, John Koethe, David Lehman, Frank Lima, Gerard Malanga, Harry Mathews, Alice Notley, Frank O’Hara, Padgett, Peter Schjeldahl, James Schuyler, Tony Towle, Warsh, and Waldman, along with other “New American” poets and fellow travelers, like Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, Larry Eigner, and Philp Whalen.  When Lou Reed turned to poetry after the Velvet Underground broke up, his poems found a home in Clark’s Paris Review.

In essence, Clark dramatically transformed the rather staid Paris Review, turning it into one of the more important venues for New York School-affiliated poetry: thanks in part to Clark, the Paris Review became the place where many landmark New York School poems first appeared, including John Ashbery’s “Soonest Mended” and “The System,” Schuyler’s “Crystal Lithium” and “A Few Days,” Frank O’Hara’s “Memorial Day 1950” and “A True Account of Talking to the Sun on Fire Island,” and many others.

In later years, Clark certainly courted controversy in various ways, but there is no question that with his sudden, tragic death, he leaves behind a complicated but important legacy for the poetry of the New York School.  For more on Clark, see here and here, for a 2003 interview, and this tribute by Terence Winch.

Tom+Clark+Poet

Posted in Alice Notley, Allen Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), Anne Waldman, Barbara Guest, Bill Berkson, Charles Olson, Clark Coolidge, David Lehman, David Shapiro, Denise Levertov, Frank Lima, Frank O'Hara, Gerard Malanga, Harry Mathews, In Memoriam, Jack Kerouac, James Schuyler, Jim Carroll, Joe Brainard, Joe Ceravolo, John Ashbery, John Koethe, Kenneth Koch, Kenward Elmslie, Larry Eigner, Larry Fagin, Lewis Warsh, Lou Reed, Peter Schjeldahl, Philip Whalen, Poetry Project at St. Marks, Robert Creeley, Ron Padgett, Ted Berrigan, Tom Clark, Tony Towle, Uncategorized, Velvet Underground | 1 Comment

One of Kate Spade’s Muses was Frank O’Hara

 

 

Frank O'Hara bag             

Here’s an interesting footnote to the very sad news about the pioneering fashion designer Kate Spade, who died of an apparent suicide several days ago.  In a piece in the Atlantic, Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell emphasizes Spade’s retro sensibility, pointing out that Frank O’Hara, of all people, was one of her guiding lights:

Spade was photographed around town wearing twinsets, cocktail rings, and leopard coats long before Wes Anderson came to prominence and Mad Men debuted on TV. Instead of contemporary celebrities and socialites, she once cited the playwright Arthur Miller and the poet Frank O’Hara as her muses.

I confess that I know very little about fashion design, and even less about Kate Spade, but this connection does further solidify my sense that nearly all roads somehow lead back to the New York School of poets.  I imagine it would’ve pleased O’Hara to know that he had helped inspire such a innovative and creative designer in the world of fashion.

He didn’t write about high fashion all that often, but he did write this in “Christmas Card to Grace Hartigan”:

For red there is our blood
which, like your smile, must be
protected from spilling into
generality by secret meanings,
the lipstick of life hidden
in a handbag against violations.

 

 

Posted in Frank O'Hara, Grace Hartigan, In Memoriam, Mad Men, NY School Influence | 2 Comments

Another Night at Columbia: Allen Ginsberg in 1995, Standing Room Only

 

Today is Allen Ginsberg’s birthday, and it brought to mind a memorable evening in 1995, one of a handful of times I had the pleasure of meeting the amazing Ginsberg himself: a night when I was partially responsible for creating a fire hazard and what felt like a near-riot at a Ginsberg reading at Columbia University.

Kenneth Koch had invited his old friend Ginsberg to read at Columbia as part of the F. W. Dupee Poetry Reading series Koch had recently launched.  To round out the evening, he asked another old friend, David Shapiro, to read with Ginsberg.  Shapiro, one of the central poets of the New York School’s second generation, is also a well-known Columbia alum, famous within university lore for his role in the student protests of 1968, so it was a very special double bill.

I had the good fortune of being Koch’s assistant at the time, and for six years, helped him organize, advertise, and set up for the readings in this series (as I’ve mentioned before).  In the run-up to the Ginsberg reading, Koch asked me whether I thought we should use the lounge in Philosophy Hall (home to the Columbia English Department), where we had held other readings in the series, for this reading.  The lounge, a pleasant sitting room where they used to serve tea and graham crackers every afternoon, was not a huge space — it could fit maybe 100 people comfortably, and was filled with couches, armchairs, and wooden tables.  In other words, it was in no way a space used for large events.  I told Koch I was a little worried that it would be too small a venue for someone as famous as Ginsberg, but Kenneth thought it would be probably be fine, and I went along with his intuition.  I sent out the flyer, as usual, to the Village Voice, NY Press, and other local outlets and magazines, and spread the word on email listserves and the like.

Because Ginsberg was one of Columbia’s best known literary alums, this was to be a homecoming of sorts, a return to one of the prime Beat points of origin.  In 1995, he was also one of the most famous living poets, an actual pop culture figure, with a vast reputation that far exceeded the narrow poetry world.  So … the reading ended up being a much bigger deal than Koch, or I, expected.  The lounge in Philosophy Hall turned out to be a comically small room for a hometown reading by a world famous icon.

The day of the reading, October 25, 1995, I recall worrying — as I always did before readings — whether enough people would show up to have a critical mass for a decent event.  The first inkling that we might be in trouble occurred when I arrived a couple hours before the reading to set up chairs and some people were already there, already waiting for the big event.  The room filled up quickly, as Columbia students, faculty, people from the New York poetry scene, and curious Ginsberg fans flooded into the lounge.  The atmosphere felt a little unruly and out of control, with people scrambling to find space and eventually climbing through the now-open windows.

By the time Ginsberg and Shapiro arrived, it was standing room only, with a throng of people also outside the room, filling the echoing lobby.  I remember pushing through the mob to get to the front door to help Koch and the two readers jostle their way through the crowd in the lobby and into the packed room.  Despite being in poor health, Ginsberg took it all in stride, bemused at the chaos and grateful for the adoration of the crowd that had assembled at his alma mater in his honor.  I recall Shapiro telling me later he was completely overwhelmed — both by the intensity and excitement of being back at Columbia reading with Ginsberg, and by the size of the boisterous crowd.

Both poets gave wonderful, passionate readings of their work, while students crammed into the open windows behind them and others strained to hear from outside the building (as you can see in the newspaper photo above).  Although Ginsberg would pass away less than two years after this night, he was in fine form that night, inspiring the young crowd with his inimitable poems and sense of humor and his words about politics and justice.

It was quite a different reception than Ginsberg had received after a 1959 reading on the same campus, immortalized in the notorious Partisan Review essay by Diana Trilling called “The Other Night At Columbia” that “described her horror and disgust at a reading given at Columbia by Ginsberg, Orlovsky, and Gregory Corso. The people in the crowd, she said, looked like they smelled bad.”

I recently dug up an article on the event from the archives of the Columbia Spectator, which you can see below.  The article says 400 people attended, with audience members sitting on window sills and listening from outside the building.  “Koch admitted he did not expect so many people to attend,” the article (rightly!) notes.

Here’s the sad, little, graphic-design-challenged flyer I made for the event:

Ginsberg Shapiro flyer

And here’s the article from the Columbia Spectator about the reading, October 26, 1995:

Posted in Allen Ginsberg, David Shapiro, Gregory Corso, Kenneth Koch | 2 Comments

On Five Years of Locus Solus

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Ad for Locus Solus, in the Wagner Literary Review, 1963 (courtesy of Nick Sturm)

Five years ago today, on May 27, 2013, I launched this blog with a welcome message and only a vague sense of what this site would become.  It’s turned out to be an immensely rewarding and fun side project, and it’s been very gratifying to learn that people seem to have found it useful and enjoyable as well.

Over the past 5 years, I’ve published nearly 300 posts on the poets and artists of the New York School and their milieu, the influences that shaped their work and the long shadow they’ve cast on what has followed in their wake.  Although it wasn’t my primary intention when I started, one of the goals of this blog has been trying to track the surprisingly vast and growing influence these poets have exerted, not only on poetry but across our culture as a whole.  If anything, I’ve found it nearly impossible to keep up with the constant stream of news related to the poets of the New York School – the steady and inspiring appearance of new books, articles, poems, art exhibits, podcasts, and sightings in pop culture and journalism, occasionally punctuated by the inevitable sad news about deaths and the passing of a generation.

Posts have ranged from discussions of indie rock, jazz, filmfiction, and television (and one beloved show’s triumphant rescuing of Frank O’Hara from cultural obscurity (that’s a joke); to “visual footnotes” for famous poems; to recovering interesting ephemera or rare items from the archives; from a photo-essay / walking tour of Frank O’Hara’s New York apartments to anecdotes about Leonard Cohen telling Kenneth Koch to give up poetry for rock music and the time Elizabeth Bishop got high with John Ashbery.

If you’re curious about the range of topics and types of things I’ve posted about here over the past five years, click on the “Categories” and “Archives” drop-down menus on the right side of the screen and browse around.  (And to keep up with new stuff, some of which doesn’t make it on to this blog, be sure to follow the “Locus Solus” Facebook page and my own Twitter account, as well as this site, to get timely updates and information and links about the poets and artists of the New York School).

One wonderful by-product of doing this blog has been getting the chance to hear from so many readers and fans of the New York School.  It has really given me a tangible sense of a wide-ranging community of people who care deeply about poetry and art in general, and in particular about this group of poets, and the art and literature and music they cared about and which they in turn have influenced.

I’ve truly appreciated all the tips, suggestions, review copies, encouragement, etc., from fans of the New York School, fellow scholars and poets, and interested readers — please keep them coming!

I just wanted to take this opportunity on this site’s fifth birthday to thank you for reading and for visiting this site.  As (New York School pal) Robert Creeley would say, onward!

Posted in Elizabeth BIshop, Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, Leonard Cohen, Locus Solus, Robert Creeley, Uncategorized | 8 Comments

Cecil Taylor (1929-2018), Frank O’Hara, Amiri Baraka

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Cecil Taylor, still from “Les Grandes Répétitions,” a 1966 French documentary about Taylor.

When the groundbreaking avant-garde jazz pianist and composer Cecil Taylor died last month, there was an outpouring of obituaries and tributes to his genius and influence.  But there was less attention paid to Taylor’s connections to the literary world, and to avant-garde poetry — including his links to New York poets during the 1950s and 1960s — than one might have expected.

It’s true that Taylor’s friend and rival, Ornette Coleman — who is often seen, alongside Taylor, as one of the co-founders of free jazz – may have had more extensive contact and social ties than Taylor himself with the poets of the New York School, as I discussed after Coleman died in 2015.

But Taylor, who was also a poet, first emerged in the same New York scene, rubbing elbows with poets like Frank O’Hara and Amiri Baraka, and playing some of his earliest gigs at the Five Spot (the legendary jazz club that serves as the site of Frank O’Hara’s famous elegy for Billie Holiday and was a hangout for the downtown, bohemian, literary set).  And he really read (and wrote) the stuff: thanks in part to Baraka, Taylor began to read deeply in the work of poets associated with the “New American Poetry,” like Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Michael McClure, and Bob Kaufman.

Adam Shatz has just published a lengthy and excellent article about Taylor’s life, work, and legacy for the New York Review of Books that fills in some of these gaps — including a tantalizing reference to O’Hara and passages about Baraka, the Five Spot, and other literary figures like Norman Mailer.  Shatz weaves together a slew of memorable anecdotes that flesh out the daunting range of Taylor’s influences and interests, and vividly convey his brilliant, complicated, sometimes difficult, enigmatic personality and aesthetic philosophy.  As Shatz writes, “Cecil Taylor was as urbane an intellectual as jazz has ever known: reader of Camus, friend of the Beats, student of modernist architecture.”

Shatz got to know Taylor during the last decade of his life, and relays the texture and content of his many conversations with the musician.  In the course of doing so, he mentions that Taylor would regularly speak with admiration about Frank O’Hara:

He invariably talked about the people he loved and the artists he admired: his father, a professional cook from whose kitchen “the most wonderful smells would emanate”; his formidable mother, who spoke French and German and took him to the ballet; Billie Holiday and Lena Horne, both of whom he worshipped; Jimmy Lyons, who had given twenty-six years of saintly devotion to Taylor’s Unit; the architect Santiago Calatrava, whose bridges he adored; and the poet Frank O’Hara, who shared his love of modern art and “was rather pleasant to look at.” (Did he know O’Hara well, I once asked him. “I don’t know anyone well,” he replied.)

I’ve never been able to find much textual evidence pointing to specific connections between O’Hara and Taylor, especially in contrast to Coleman (who O’Hara did mention in letters and refer to in his work), so I was particularly intrigued by Shatz’s recollection here.

Presumably, O’Hara and Taylor would’ve crossed paths repeatedly in the downtown music, art, and poetry scene, and I know of at least one event where they shared a (rather amazing) bill, on June 24, 1963.

Leroi Jones Benefit flyer

As this poster shows, both Frank O’Hara and Cecil Taylor performed at a benefit for LeRoi Jones (who would soon become Amiri Baraka) and his wife Hettie Jones at the Living Theatre.  The benefit, intended to raise money for the couple after they had been stricken with hepatitis and were struggling financially, brought together a rather amazing set of figures from avant-garde poetry, art, and music, including O’Hara, painter and saxophonist Larry Rivers, Paul Blackburn, trumpeter Don Cherry (famous for his work with Ornette Coleman), and Cecil Taylor.  (This 1963 article from the Village Voice about the upcoming event mentions that avant-garde composer Morton Feldman and writer Gilbert Sorrentino would be appearing as well).

Here’s another instance which suggests that O’Hara and Taylor spent time in one another’s company: a couple years ago, I wrote about an interview in which Allen Ginsberg reminisced about the “real mad combination” of people who could be found socializing at Baraka’s apartment, which functioned as “a grand ‘salon'” for the postwar avant-garde: “I saw at one party, in one room, at one time Langston Hughes, Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Franz Kline, Kerouac, myself,” along with “Frank O’Hara … maybe intersecting with Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery, and others; Robert Creeley, Charles Olson…”

Speaking of Baraka, Shatz’s article also includes an interesting passage about the Taylor-Baraka relationship, which started out strong but turned fraught, for reasons both personal and political:

Taylor often spoke of his estranged friend the poet and jazz critic Amiri Baraka, whom he insisted on calling by his former name, LeRoi Jones. They had been close in the late 1950s and early 1960s, until Baraka brought Allen Ginsberg over to Taylor’s apartment in the East Village. Ginsberg wanted Taylor to write music for a reading of Howl, but Taylor declined, out of loyalty to the black Beat poet Bob Kaufman, whom Taylor felt Ginsberg had unfairly overshadowed. As they were leaving, Baraka sneered, “the problem with our jazz musicians is that they’re not literate.” Still cut by that remark, Taylor told me, “I took a friend to one of ’Roi’s readings years later, after he’d started calling himself Amiri Baraka. I asked him what he thought. ‘Very impressive,’ he said, ‘but how many times can you hear the word black?’ ’Roi started out as a poet, but became a polemicist,” a word he pronounced with disdain.

There’s also a funny Five Spot anecdote, about the time Norman Mailer liked Cecil Taylor’s music so much, and so noisily, that he got Taylor canned:

One of his earliest (and loudest) admirers was Norman Mailer, who heard Taylor at the Five Spot, on the Bowery, in the early 1960s, and was so astonished that he stood up on his chair and declared, “This guy Cecil Taylor is so much better than Monk.” Mailer cost Taylor his gig: an influential friend of Monk’s reported the comment to Joe Termini, the Five Spot’s co-owner, who was already looking for a pretext to fire Taylor. “Norman knew about a lot of things, but music was not one of them,” Taylor told me at one of our dinners, adding that “if it weren’t for Monk I could not have existed.”

Throughout, Schatz stresses Taylor’s deep ties to poetry, literature, and the other arts, which sometimes contrasted sharply with his chilly reception by the gatekeepers of jazz.  “Never fully embraced by the jazz world, he was lionized by writers, poets, dancers, and artists who admired his audacity and had as little use for categories as he did.”  Taylor’s death — like the passing of Ornette Coleman, John Ashbery, and so many others in recent years — signals the end of a remarkable era in which those “real mad combinations” were still possible, and music, poetry, and art cross-fertilized in fascinating, inspiring ways.

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Cecil Taylor, still from “Les Grandes Répétitions,” a 1966 documentary about Taylor.

Posted in Allen Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), Beats, Billie Holiday, Bob Kaufman, Cecil Taylor, Charles Olson, Frank O'Hara, Franz Kline, Gilbert Sorrentino, In Memoriam, Influences on the NY School, Jack Kerouac, Jazz, Kenneth Koch, Larry Rivers, Michael McClure, Morton Feldman, Music, Norman Mailer, NY School Influence, Ornette Coleman, Paul Blackburn, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Thelonious Monk | 1 Comment