Dining Out with Douglas Crase

Douglas Crase and John Ashbery 1975

Douglas Crase and John Ashbery, 1975 (Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)

The poet and critic Douglas Crase published his first book of poems, The Revisionist, in 1981, to rapturous reviews.  No less than Harold Bloom, that tireless canonizer, proclaimed that “Crase has every prospect of becoming one of the strong poets of his own generation,” and John Hollander declared it “the most powerful first book I have seen in a long time.”

For various reasons, The Revisionist has stood as Crase’s sole book of poems for nearly forty years, and has long been out-of-print.  Fortunately, it has just been reissued in a new edition by Nightboat Books, now gathered together with a more recent work titled The Astropastorals.

Crase has long been affiliated with the New York School poets, ever since he met and grew close with John Ashbery and James Schuyler in the 1970s, and became an important member of their circle.  Schuyler fans will recall that Crase and his partner Frank Polach are featured prominently in Schuyler’s great poem “Dining Out with Doug and Frank”: “Why is this poem / so long?  And full of death? / Frank and Doug are young and / beautiful and have nothing / to do with that.”

The new edition features a valuable introduction by Mark Ford, who reminds us of the “exclamations of wonder from poets and critics across the spectrum when it first appeared,” from Ashbery to Anthony Hecht to James Merrill.  The book’s reappearance has been greeted by glowing reviews – with Albert Mobilio including it in a “best poetry of the year” list for Hyperallergic (“this is verse so meticulous in its construction, exquisite in its intelligence, and ravishing in its imagery that fellow poets cannot help but feel both daunted and inspired by the achievement”) and Matthew Bevis reviewing it for the London Review of Books:  (‘The title poem of The Revisionist shapes an address to the nation as though it were whispering in a lover’s ear”).

Crase is also a wonderful critic, and the author of one of my very favorite essays on Schuyler’s work (“A Voice Like the Day: James Schuyler”).  I’m also a fan of his unusual “commonplace book,” AMERIFIL.TXT (1996), a collage of compelling quotations drawn from Crase’s personal pantheon (which happens to look quite a lot like my own personal pantheon) – Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Dickinson, William James, Gertrude Stein, Marianne Moore, Langston Hughes, Lorine Niedecker, Ashbery, O’Hara, Schuyler, Fairfield Porter, and others.

Crase’s essay on Schuyler, along with many other excellent pieces, was recently collected in an excellent gathering of his nonfiction entitled Lines from London Terrace (published by Pressed Wafer in 2017).  The book is brimming with Crase’s acute insights into the work of figures ranging from Emerson to John Ashbery, Marianne Moore, Fairfield Porter, and John Koethe.  Along with The Revisionists and The Astropastorals, these two recently published books testify to the vitality and range of Crase’s writing and thought.

Here is Crase’s lovely poem “When Spring Comes First to West 21st Street,” from The Revisionist:

The day we discovered the world
Was the day it had also been there all the time,
Furious to be documented in the seasons which grow on us
So unnoticeably. At Montauk the lighthouse again
Is closer to the sea and above Dyckman Street
The nets have been spread to catch the running shad,
Fewer though not less vigorous than they used to be.
In the bookstores even the lichens are said
To be in danger now (the lichens, think of that)
But in the city we’ve got the sparrows going at it
Flagrante deluxe before our eyes, apparently
Unembarrassed by DDT. It must be spring
And the blood badgering underneath the skin
Is one of the spring ephemerals perking up
Before the overpowering shade of summer does it in.
Considering its circumstance, the smell of sweet bay
In the Bronx is close to sickening in sentiment:
What have we done? Is it true the English
Could have called Long Island as they did, Eden?
Anyway, if the seas keep warming up it will all be gone
And it may be our sense of this that unlocks the day,
Bringing trout lilies and marsh marigolds into mind
As the last of the concerts are letting out uptown,
And this that brings 800 to watch the egrets
In Jamaica Bay (one hundredth of a percent:
Viewed thus, “population per capita” is really small).
Stolen, our love of the world
Must be stolen from the world the way hepaticas
Steal light from the climax forest
Where alone they are able to grow.  Too much with us
And too soon, the world extends its canopy
To alter the feel as well as color of the air.
How much time we have is hard to say
But, swift as the camera’s shutter when it flowers,
That’s how swift we’re going to have to be
As the bloom of swamp maples reddens into the past
Just like the sun. The speed of the seasons
And their slant remain untouched and unidentified
Until the beauty of something beautiful makes the day.

 

Posted in Douglas Crase, Fairfield Porter, Gertrude Stein, Harold Bloom, James Merrill, James Schuyler, John Ashbery, John Hollander, John Koethe, Marianne Moore, Poems, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, William James | Leave a comment

Frank O’Hara as a Liberating Force in Garth Greenwell’s “Cleanness”

Photo:  Ricardo Moutinho Ferreira

Garth Greenwell, photo: Ricardo Moutinho Ferreira

Garth Greenwell’s new book of fiction, Cleanness, has been greeted with rave reviews over the past couple of weeks.  Narrated by a middle-aged American poet living and teaching in Sofia, Bulgaria, the book reflects Greenwell’s own background as a poet who turned to fiction writing, and who still feels a deep connection to poetry in general, and to New York School poets like Frank O’Hara in particular. “Even though I haven’t written poetry in several years, poetry is still central to my life,” Greenwell recently told the poet Ilya Kaminsky in an interview for Paris Review, “and I still think of myself more naturally as a poet than as a novelist. I read poems every day. I still write a great deal about poetry. I teach poetry whenever I teach a fiction workshop.”

The first section of Cleanness, titled “Mentor” (excerpted in the New York Times last week) depicts an encounter in a cafe between the American poet-narrator and one of his young Bulgarian students, who talks candidly about the difficulties of being gay in such an oppressive and homophobic culture.  I was particularly struck by how this scene pivots on the powerful influence of the work of Frank O’Hara*, whose poetry the protagonist had shared in class with his Bulgarian students:

“Those poems we read in class, he said then, I had never seen anything like them, I didn’t know anything like them existed. He was talking about Frank O’Hara, I understood, whose poems had shocked most of my students, as I intended them to. I had never read anything before, he went on, I mean a story or a poem, that seemed like it was about me, that I could have written it. He didn’t look at me as he said this, looking instead at his hands, both of which were on the table in front of him and in one of which a cigarette had shrunk almost to its nub between two fingers.”

Greenwell positions O’Hara’s work as an intensely liberating force, a rescue line for an anxious, closeted gay student, who is stunned to find a work of literature that speaks to his own experience as a gay man so directly.  Reading O’Hara’s work in class seems to have even sparked the student’s willingness to open up to his teacher about his sexuality.  As the passage goes on, the narrator acknowledges how happy he feels that his decision to introduce students to O’Hara has had the effect he had hoped for:

“I felt two things as he spoke, first my usual dismay when talking to gay men here, who were more excluded than I had been, growing up in the American south, where at least I had found books that, even if they were always tragic, offered a certain beauty as compensation. But in addition to dismay I felt satisfaction or pride at having provided (as I thought of it) some degree of solace, and maybe this was the bigger part of what I felt. I had gathered him up, I thought, and this sparked a sense of warmth that started in the central pit of me and then radiated out. It was a craftsman’s pride, I suppose: I had worked hard to find the right poems for the students, choosing O’Hara for his subject matter but primarily for his joy, his freedom from guardedness and guilt, which would only have reinforced what many of my students already believed about that category or class of people of which I was a part. My satisfaction only deepened when G. continued, after our coffee arrived and we took a moment to add sugar and milk. You’re the only person I know who talks about it, who’s so public and who isn’t ashamed, he said; it’s good that you’re that way, it must be hard here. This was a kind of acknowledgment one hardly ever hears, and it recalled the sense of mission I had had when I first started teaching, which had faded so decisively since. And again this had the effect of increasing the distance between us, so that even as I saw he remained agitated, tense and anxious, that he was miserable with something he still had to say, I was suffused with a sense of accomplishment, a peculiar and sharp pleasure.”

The whole passage offers such an interesting, even inspiring, commentary on the dividends of bringing O’Hara into the classroom, of giving students the chance to experience the shock of recognition that can come from reading a poet who writes so bravely and openly about his sexuality as an utterly natural and wonderful part of his daily life.

As Greenwell’s book makes clear, O’Hara’s “joy, his freedom from guardedness and guilt” can be a potent tonic, can even serve as what O’Hara calls “the wings of an extraordinary liberty.”  As O’Hara writes in his poem “Homosexuality,” “It’s wonderful to admire oneself / with complete candor.”  The narrator of Cleanness seems to have found “a peculiar and sharp pleasure” in using O’Hara’s poetry to impart precisely this message to his young Bulgarian student.

 

* Cleanness is just the latest in a series of works of fiction in recent years where O’Hara has made an appearance, inspired a title, or an epigraph.

Posted in Fiction, Frank O'Hara, Garth Greenwell, NY School Influence | Leave a comment

Roundup of Recent “New York School of Poetry” News and Links (1/20/20)

Here’s the latest roundup of some recent links, new publications, and news related to the New York School of poets. (Previous roundups can be found here).

— For The Rambling, literary scholar Jason Farr wrote a moving personal essay about his discovery that his own “Uncle Joe” was the same Joe LeSueur who was Frank O’Hara’s lover/roommate/best friend, author of the indispensable Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara and central figure in the New York School’s social world. Learning more about LeSueur’s life, writing, and relationship with O’Hara leads Farr to a host of interesting insights about gay life in New York pre- and post-Stonewall, about queer lineage, and about what he calls “the queer kinshp of our literary lives.”

— In the esteemed scholarly journal PMLA, Brian Glavey published a terrific, much-buzzed-about article about Frank O’Hara, the idea of “relatability,” and the beloved and ubiquitous poem “Having a Coke with You.”  Like many scholarly articles, it is behind a paywall, but here is an abstract:

“This essay addresses the recent reception of Frank O’Hara’s poem ‘Having a Coke with You’ to examine the much-maligned concept of relatability as a potentially useful aesthetic category. If the reactions to it on Twitter and YouTube are any indication, O’Hara’s Coke poem has become his most famous piece, immensely popular both online and, in a strikingly different way, in the work of contemporary queer theorists. Whatever the context—queer utopian criticism, an anarchist journal, a wedding ceremony, or even an official Coca-Cola public-relations campaign—readers tend to respond to the poem’s general mood rather than to its specific content. This reception speaks to the fact that O’Hara pursues what I would label a poetics of relatability: ‘Having a Coke with You,’ like many other O’Hara poems, models ways of valuing art by relating it to other things and people. O’Hara explores this relational aesthetic by constantly negotiating between modes of reception that are self-reflective and modes that are social and intersubjective.”

— The great art critic and poet, Peter Schjeldahl, recently published a wonderful, heartbreaking, funny essay about his own struggles with terminal lung cancer in the New Yorker.  As he mentions in the piece, Schjeldahl started out as a poet in the New York School scene in the 1960s. Here is the contributor note that was included in An Anthology of New York Poets (1970):

On the heels of the New Yorker essay, Nick Sturm composed this detailed account of Schjeldahl’s role as an important poet and editor (of the great little magazine Mother), one who played a central role in the New York School’s evolution.

— In related news, Peter Schjeldahl’s daughter, the writer Ada Calhoun, mentioned  in an interview with the New York Times the exciting news that she’s writing a book about Frank O’Hara.  Calhoun, author of a great book  about on the history of St. Marks Place and the East Village (St. Marks is Dead), explained “I’m working on a book about Frank O’Hara. So I’m reading a lot of him. I found all these tapes in my dad’s basement. He had tried to do a biography of O’Hara in the ’70s when I was a baby. So he didn’t finish it. I digitized them all. I’m trying to figure out what it is.”

— Great news about the work of the late poet Lorenzo Thomas (1944-2005), another signficant figure in the New York School orbit, and one of the few African-American poets affiliated with the movement.  The Collected Poems of Lorenzo Thomas, edited by Aldon L. Nielsen and Laura Vrana, has just been published by Weselyan University Press.  Nick Sturm wrote this great essay about the new book and Thomas’s career for the Poetry Foundation.  The new collection, Sturm writes, “brings nearly all of Thomas’s poetry to a new readership. Clocking in at more than 500 pages, the volume underscores his stylistic and thematic virtuosity… Humorous, parodic, politically devoted, and formally experimental, Thomas’s work amounts to more than four decades of writing that stood outside of both mainstream and avant-garde traditions.”

A Frank O’Hara Notebook, Bill Berkson’s posthumous collection of notes and reflections on his friend Frank O’Hara, was recently published by No Place Press, and was reviewed by Troy Jollimore for the Washington Post and Dean Rader for the Rumpus.  As Rader explains,

“Berkson planned for many years to write a book about O’Hara’s impact and influence. However, Berkson himself died in 2016 before he could finish or even properly begin the project. Luckily for us, A Frank O’Hara Notebook—Berkson’s sketchbook about O’Hara—has been lovingly and masterfully reproduced and transcribed by no place press, a relatively new publisher (started in 2017 with distribution through MIT Press). For fans of Berkson and/or O’Hara, and for anyone interested in the intersection of painting and poetry, this book is indispensable.”

The Advocate also listed the Berkson book in a piece called “7 Biographies to Add to Your LGBTQ Library.” (“A Frank O’Hara Notebook captures the vibrancy and achievement of the talented author and critic through the lens of his devoted friend”).  I also wrote about Berkson’ O’Hara notebooka few months ago, when an excerpt appeared in Poetry magazine.

— The Museum of Modern Art unveiled its newly renovated galleries, including a special room devoted to Frank O’Hara’s role as a curator at MoMA and “poet among painters.”  Peter Schjeldahl discusses his delight in the O’Hara exhibit at the end of his review of the new MoMA in the New Yorker:

“One that thrills me is that of a room devoted to the work, the influence, and the aura of the MoMA curator and major American poet Frank O’Hara. His accidental death, in 1966, at the age of forty, ripped the heart out of an overlap of artistic and literary communities in New York. He couldn’t be replaced. Prints by leading artists from a memorial book that the museum issued in 1967, ‘In Memory of My Feelings,’ emanate the deep charm of a moment when a fully fleshed, buoyant, democratic sophistication seemed afoot. I know. I was a kid poet and tyro critic then. I met O’Hara. He inscribed my copy of a catalogue that he had written the introduction to: ‘For Peter with palship, Frank.’ He made pals of all the world. He drank too much, as people then tended to, gesticulating with cigarettes in their other hands. For many, with O’Hara gone, New York took on the trembly cast of an interminable hangover. MoMA’s inclusion of him gladdens.”

I wrote my own piece on the O’Hara room and its significance for Apollo Magazine, which you can find here.

— The poet and critic Alexa Doran places Robin Coste Lewis’s celebrated book Voyage of the Sable Venus in dialogue with the New York School of poetry in this essay for Empty Mirror.

— Cathy Curtis, author of acclaimed biographies of Elaine de Kooning and Grace Hartigan, has a new biography out, titled Alive Still, about another important artist in the New York School circle, Nell Blaine, friend and collaborator of Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, and other poets. An excerpt of the book ran in Literary Hub and it was reviewed in the Wall Street Journal, where Blaine is described as “an archetypal figure of the midcentury Manhattan art scene: experimenting tirelessly with her paints, mingling with Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch, bedding everyone, male or female.”

— A few months back, Sophia Stewart wrote a piece for LARB called “Frank O’Hara is Everywhere,” a sentiment longtime readers of this blog will know I too share.

— Speaking of which, there was recently an unexpected Frank O’Hara sighting in a New York Times article about getting jewelry engraved:

“If you must include familiar romantic images — such as hearts or flowers — Dr. Potts said they should be employed in unexpected ways. Reviewing good love poetry is essential, she said, and she recommended “To His Lost Lover” by Simon Armitage, “Animals” by Frank O’Hara, “Strawberries” by Edwin Morgan, “An Aspect of Love, Alive in the Ice and Fire” by Gwendolyn Brooks and “Peanut Butter” by Eileen Myles.”

Valentine’s Day is approaching: why not get a ring engraved with “O you / were the best of all my days” on it this holiday season?  (That may work better than one that says “Have you forgotten what we were like then / when we were still first rate”).

— It won’t be a surprise to longtime fans of the musician Beck, but it was still fun to see in Amanda Petrusich’s great Beck profile in the New Yorker that he’s an avid reader of John Ashbery:

“Beck’s music is typically classified as pop—in the past decade, especially, he has drifted more toward the sorts of hulking anthems that are discernible over the din of the beer tent at giant outdoor festivals—but it can just as easily be slotted into the avant-garde canon, alongside work by other artists who stack distinct images in chimerical ways. When I texted him a short poem by John Ashbery, he replied with a picture of a tall pile of Ashbery’s books. The spines were cracked.”

The Slowdown, a great podcast created by U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith which consists of Smith spending 5 minutes each day discussing and reciting a poem, recently featured a poem by Alice Notley and another by John Yau.

— A selection of striking, unusual collages by Alice Notley — in the form of fans — appeared in Poetry magazine in August 2019.  As Notley explains:

I started making collages because other poets were and they weren’t that good at it, really. On the other hand, artist friends like Joe Brainard and George Schneeman were very good at it. But the skills and materials seemed available to anyone, and the form, with the addition of a few cut-out words, felt almost like that of a poem…One day I had a fan—a plain paper fan, pink—and I realized I could make it be permanently open and paste things on it. I affixed strips of cardboard to the back so it wouldn’t fold, and then I made this bizarre pasted-upon object that was also beautiful. I neglected to put words on it—I was afraid of spoiling it—but most of my subsequent fans have words on them. This first fan was achieved in the late seventies and I’ve been making collage fans ever since.

You can see a slideshow of these beautiful objects here.  The feature was accompanied by an essay on “Alice Notley’s Collage Art” by Diane Arterian.

— As part of her series of essays for LARB on poets’s second books, Lisa Russ Spaar wrote about Barbara Guest’s sophomore effort, The Blue Stairs, which, as Spaar writes

“appeared in 1968, when the author was 48 years old. The book is in some ways a Baedeker of Guest’s obsessions, a touchstone volume for the work prior to it and the work that would follow. It exhibits a painterly passion for color and spatial composition, a predilection for sonic wordplay, for mixing the wild with the quotidian, the oneiric and the all-too-real in a way that brings the reader to the brink of unsettling emotions without defining them.”

— The scholar Marit MacArthur turned to the archives of the Unterberg Poetry Center at the 92nd Street Y to explore their extensive recordings of John Ashbery’s poetry readings over a period of many years.  The result is this piece in the Paris Review in which MacArthur analyzes and dissects Ashbery’s “reading voice” and unusual reading style.

— The poet and artist John Giorno passed away in October.  As the New York Times discussed in its obituary, among his many activities, Giorno created

“Dial-A-Poem, a rudimentary mass-communication system for cutting-edge poets and political oratory…. Millions of people dialed in, hearing verse recited by poets like Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, Peter Schjeldahl and Ron Padgett, later joined by dozens of other poets and groups like the Black Panthers … In 1963, the artist Wynn Chamberlain gave a 27th-birthday party for Mr. Giorno in the building — an event that became renowned as a remarkably comprehensive snapshot of the emerging art scene at the time: Attendees included Warhol and Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Frank O’Hara, Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, Frank Stella, Barbara Rose, Roy Lichtenstein, John Ashbery, Merce Cunningham and John Cage.”

Daniel Kane wrote this moving memorial tribute to Giorno for Apollo Magazine.

Posted in Alice Notley, Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol, Anne Waldman, Barbara Guest, Beck, Bill Berkson, Eileen Myles, Elaine de Kooning, Frank O'Hara, George Schneeman, Grace Hartigan, Jasper Johns, Joe Brainard, Joe LeSueur, John Ashbery, John Cage, John Giorno, John Yau, Kenneth Koch, Lorenzo Thomas, Merce Cunningham, MoMA, Nell Blaine, Peter Schjeldahl, Robert Rauschenberg, Robin Coste Lewis, Ron Padgett, Roundup, Roy Lichtenstein, Tracy K. Smith, Visual Art, Wynn Chamberlain | Leave a comment

Frank O’Hara, Zadie Smith, Sally Rooney – O’Hara’s Presence in Contemporary British and Irish Fiction

Zadie Smith  Author Sally Rooney

Fiction writers from the UK and Ireland seem to be having a Frank O’Hara moment. I wrote about this trend a couple years ago, after noticing that the titles of two books by young British women — Emma Jane Unsworth’s Animals and Hermione Hoby’s Neon in Daylight — were drawn from works by O’Hara.

But wait, there’s more … I recently learned that the much buzzed-about Irish writer Sally Rooney also seems to have found some inspiration in O’Hara.  She used a line from his poem “To the Film Industry in Crisis” as the epigraph for her debut novel, Conversations with Friends: A Novel (2017): “In times of crisis we must all decide again and again whom we love.”

Now along comes Grand Union, the new collection of short stories by Zadie Smith, one of the most important fiction writers of our time, and it too has an epigraph from O’Hara — “How can anyone fail to be” (from “Yesterday Down at the Canal”).

It’s not the first time we’ve heard that Zadie Smith is a big O’Hara fan.  In 2008, in a talk she gave about Obama’s election and cultural multiplicity she celebrates O’Hara’s “In Memory of My Feelings” and its central creed, “Grace to be born and live as variously as possible.” There’s also a wonderful 2011 audio clip of Smith reading O’Hara poem “Animals” which is often shared on social media (and which may have had something to do with Unsworth hitting upon that poem for her own novel’s title).  Smith has also mentioned that O’Hara’s “Animals” is one of the only poems she knows by heart.

Update: In this interview with David Naimon for Tin House, Zadie Smith talks about her use of O’Hara’s line “how can anyone fail to be” and suggests that it speaks powerfully to her sense of how we (barely) live in today’s tech-saturated culture, and then does a lovely reading of O’Hara’s “Yesterday Down at the Canal” (which you can hear at the 50:30 mark).

The transatlantic nature of these O’Hara sightings suggests just how international O’Hara’s reach has been in recent years.  And if we add to these examples the recent short story by Don DeLillo (“Midnight in Dostoyevsky”) that borrowed its title from O’Hara’s “Meditations in an Emergency” and the short story by Andrew Sean Greer (“It’s a Summer’s Day,” later incorporated in his Pulitzer-winning novel Less) which borrowed its title from O’Hara’s “Homosexuality,” it seems as if O’Hara’s struck a chord lately with fiction writers in general.

It’s an intriguing, perhaps under-studied measure of a poet’s reputation or impact – how often their work pops up in works of fiction.  Surely it’s another sign that Frank O’Hara is everywhere these days, moving freely across genres and across the Atlantic.

Posted in Andrew Sean Greer, Don DeLillo, Fiction, Frank O'Hara, NY School Influence, Zadie Smith | 1 Comment

When Frank (O’Hara) Met Marlene (Dietrich)

 

Image result for frank o'hara                       Marlene Dietrich

As everyone knows, Frank O’Hara was an unabashed, passionate fan of the movies — and of movie stars.  He stanned James Dean and Greta Garbo and Lana Turner decades before stanning was a thing.

Although he usually gushed about such larger-than-life stars from afar, as flickering presences on the big screen, he did occasionally have the chance to meet a few celebrities in person.  I just came across some old notes of mine about a funny, unpublished letter O’Hara wrote to Larry Rivers about a particularly exciting brush with fame: the night in 1962 when he went to a party for Marlene Dietrich and got to spend half a minute in her presence.

It was the same night that O’Hara gave a poetry reading at the New School, which, he reports, “seems to have gone quite well, since Donny Windham said it was the best poetry reading he had ever heard and told Joe that the fact he knows perfectly well how limited my voice resources are should qualify this sufficiently for me to accept it; and Edwin [Denby] said I already knew you were a good poet, but I didn’t yet know you were a great one.”

O’Hara goes on to say:

Afterwards we went to a party for Marlene Dietrich at ‘Le Club’ …I did get about 30 seconds of the great woman’s unconcentrated attention.  Mostly she sat at a table discussing business with three tycoon-looking men…She asked me to join them, which gave me ample opportunity to observe her lovely chin, cheek, eyelashes, and back of head, after which I hied myself to the bar.  Since she gave George Plimpton even less of her time and most people none, I guess I came out all right.

This was not just an everyday sighting of a random movie star for O’Hara — he had been a huge fan of Dietrich’s for decades.  In Brad Gooch’s biography of O’Hara, his brother Philip recalls that as a teenager in the 1940s, O’Hara “had pictures of all the stars on the walls.  He was a very, very rabid fan of Marlene Dietrich.”  A friend remembers visiting the suite O’Hara shared at Harvard with his roommate, the artist Edward Gorey: “The idea was to lie down on a chaise longue, get mellow with a few drinks, and listen to Marlene Dietrich records.  They just loved her whisky voice.”  Gooch notes that while at Harvard, “O’Hara’s specialties were singalongs to an old recording of Marlene Dietrich’s cabaret performances, during which he sometimes applied blue lipstick to his full lips for effect.”

It must have been quite a thrill for O’Hara to spend a few moments with “the great woman” herself, and even better to get a bit more of her “unconcentrated attention” than George Plimpton, or anyone else at Le Club.

O’Hara was only being half-ironic when he said that actors like Marlene Dietrich were our modern-day divinities.  As he writes in his great ode to cinema, “To the Film Industry in Crisis“:

Long may you illumine space with your marvellous appearances, delays
and enunciations, and may the money of the world glitteringly cover you
as you rest after a long day under the kleig lights with your faces
in packs for our edification, the way the clouds come often at night
but the heavens operate on the star system. It is a divine precedent
you perpetuate! Roll on, reels of celluloid, as the great earth rolls on!

Posted in Edward Gorey, Edwin Denby, Film, Frank O'Hara, Larry Rivers, Letters / Correspondence | Leave a comment

Make your own Joe Brainard collage (out of fragments he chose but never used)

Make Your Own Brainard 1

Have you ever looked at a collage by an artist like Picasso or Joseph Cornell, Kurt Schwitters or Joe Brainard, and felt a powerful urge to immediately go make a collage yourself?  Perhaps there’s something about the tactile, playful, anyone-can-do-it premise of collage (unlike, say, oil painting) that invites us to try it ourselves.

Fortunately now you can, thanks to a delightful new interactive website called “Make Your Own Brainard,” created by the scholar Rona Cran (an expert on, among other things, collage in twentieth-century literature and art).

Not only does the site enable you to design your own collage, but rather miraculously, you can create one using actual materials that Brainard himself selected, cut out, but never used.

In an introduction to the project, Brainard’s close friend Ron Padgett tells the story of how these little fragments and cut-outs came to be digitized and accessible online: “In the summer of 2011 Pat Padgett discovered, in an outbuilding on Kenward Elmslie’s property in Calais, Vermont, a large number of paper snippets. Selected and grouped by Joe Brainard, the snippets, grouped in business envelopes, large manila envelopes, and plastic sleeves, are in the form of unfinished collages and loose bits for future collages.”

As Cran explains, although Brainard “intended them for use in his own collages, but never got around to including them, so in keeping with the spirit of generosity and collaboration that underpinned all of his work, this project and the Brainard Estate has now made them available for collage enthusiasts all over the world to use as they see fit.”

This seems just right, and in keeping with Brainard’s renowned generosity and collaborative spirit.  As Padgett notes, Brainard often sent these kinds of snippets to friends and relatives. including his brother John who used them to make his own collages.  “Over the years Joe had sent John Ashbery snippets to use in his collages, which have been exhibited at Tibor de Nagy Gallery and elsewhere. It’s safe to say that Joe would have been pleased to know that now anyone in the world wishing to use his snippets can now pick up where he left off.”

As Padgett’s comments suggest, this project is particularly fitting for an artist like Joe Brainard, whose entire aesthetic is driven by a belief in art-making as collaborative, playful, and experimental.  Indeed, Yasmine Shamma argues that “Brainard encourages his peers, in practice, presence, and publication to collage with and without him, inventing a new form of collage: collaborative collage.”  The site goes on to note that “collage itself is always a form of collaboration, and certainly collaborative collage is at the heart of this project – in putting Brainard’s tactile, material texts into dialogue with digital media and digital media users, it facilitates the creation of original collages that are also, inevitably, collaborations with Joe himself.”

In some remarks included on the site, Mark Ford concurs: “How Joe Brainard would have loved the idea that all the bits and pieces that he collected as potential material for further collages, but never got around to using, would have this strange virtual afterlife! He was a connoisseur of bric-a-brac, a devotee of detritus, and as interested – although this may sound paradoxical – in the uselessness of art as in its power to change our lives. He developed collage, that quintessential twentieth-century art form based on mixing and matching, on snipping and gluing, to dazzling new heights.”

“Make Your Own Brainard” is filled with a rich array of materials, including some interesting background on the project itself and the discovery of these left-behind materials, information about Brainard’s life and work, about the history and practice of collage, and about the New York School of poetry‘s broader fascination with collaboration, exchange, error, and experimentation.  It also features a “series of reflections by people who knew [Brainard] or who have written about or been particularly moved by his work,” including Constance LewallenCedar SigoAnn LauterbachMark FordDaniel Kane and Nick Sturm.

This ingenious site embraces the spirit of fun and the DIY ethos of Brainard and his New York School circle and takes it into a new, digital realm.  As Cran notes, “For Brainard, the chance to be ‘unprofessional’, and to experiment,” was of the upmost importance, and this project gives you the opportunity to play along.

It’s easy and fun to use, even if the experience does remind you all over again just how wonderful Brainard’s own collages are (as can be seen below), and how difficult it is to actually make a good collage yourself (as can be seen by my own humble attempt above).

I encourage you to go check out the site, mess around with the materials, and make your own Brainard.  Once you’ve done so, you can post your work in their gallery, either with your name or anonymously, download, or share it.

Joe Brainard, Carte Postale (1978)

Posted in Joe Brainard, John Ashbery, Joseph Cornell, Kenward Elmslie, Mark Ford, Ron Padgett, Tibor de Nagy Gallery | Leave a comment

David Berman, Poet Among Musicians (1967-2019)

David Berman Actual Air

Last week, tragic news hit the worlds of indie rock and contemporary poetry simultaneously.  The musician and poet David Berman, leader of the acclaimed indie band Silver Jews, had passed away at the age of 52, after a long struggle with depression and addiction.  The news carried an extra potent sting because after a decade of silence following the last Silver Jews album, Berman had recently emerged with a new band name (Purple Mountains) and an excellent new album.  He had also begun giving interviews and was about to head out on tour.  Twitter immediately lit up with stunned laments by fellow musicians, writers, and fans, and many obituaries, wonderful appreciations, and reminiscinces of Berman and his music and writing have quickly followed.

In the days since his death, Berman has been hailed for his vivid, off-kilter songs – studded with unforgettable aphorisms and sung in his not-for-everyone but deeply resonant baritone – but also for his strange and moving poetry.  This is fitting, because, unlike many rock musicians who perhaps dabble in writing poetry, Berman was the real deal: he was an English major at University of Virginia, where he studied poetry with Charles Wright, and then went on to get his MFA in poetry from the University of Massachussets, where his mentor was the revered poet James Tate.

In 1999, after garnering fame and notoriety in indie circles with the first three, terrific Silver Jews albums, Berman published a book of poems called Actual Air, which arrived complete with blurbs by James Tate and Billy Collins.  The book quickly gained a cult following, pulling in many readers who were otherwise unfamiliar with contemporary poetry, and quietly influencing a whole range of younger poets.  The impact of Actual Air on a generation of poets reminds me a bit of Brian Eno’s famous comment about the first Velvet Underground album: the banana record may have “only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.”

So I just wanted to add this small footnote to the chorus of memorials for Berman. In addition to being a hugely important and beloved musician, Berman should be seen as one of the best of a handful of figures who manage to bring the sensibility of contemporary poetry – and, particularly poetry of the New York School – to the world of music.  As I’ve written about before, the connections between indie rock and the New York School of poets are real and extensive, but among musicians, Berman surely has one of the most direct connections to this lineage, whether through his link to Tate (widely seen as a key heir to Ashbery) or simply his own reading and stated influences.

As many reviews of Actual Air noted, Berman’s poetry clearly shows the impress of Ashbery’s work.  For instance, the New Yorker’s review observed that Berman “comes on like a prankster, restocking the imperial orations of Wallace Stevens and the byzantine monologues of John Ashbery with the pop-cultural bric-a-brac of a new generation.”  And Ashbery pops up in various places in Berman’s work, like the epigraph for a piece in the Baffler about his experience working as a guard at the Whitney Museum.  (Around the same time, Berman’s close friend and collaborator Stephen Malkmus, the founder of the iconic indie band Pavement, was giving interviews in which he too identified Ashbery as a source for his own strange lyrics).

But Berman’s debts to the New York School lineage extend beyond Ashbery: in interviews, Berman repeatedly mentioned Kenneth Koch as a major influence.  When the Poetry Society of America asked him “Are there poems, poets, or anthologies that have opened up or radically altered your ideas of what can be done in poetry?” Berman responded “I always thought that the corollary to ‘make it new’ should be ‘make it not boring.’ Stephen Crane and Kenneth Koch both inspired me. One with his clarity, the other with his obfuscation.”  Even as recently as last month, in an interview with Travis Nichols for the Poetry Foundation, Berman said “I would put amusical influences down to Tate, Russell EdsonKenneth Koch.”

Interestingly enough, this ongoing conversation seems to have run in both directions: as Berman himself noted last month in a discussion of James Tate, the title of his old teacher’s final, posthumously published book The Government Lake, seems to have been from one of Berman’s own poems.

The New York School ethos and aesthetic can be found all over the place in Berman’s poems and songs, which masterfully evoke the surrealism of everyday life, take a playful, ironic stance towards experience and the self, revel in the cracked weirdness of ordinary language and the absurdities of pop culture, and experiment with a collage aesthetic.

David Berman’s death is a heartbreaking, tremendous loss, and it’s hard to know what to say beyond that. “Do you believe in MGM endings?”  he once asked in “Like Like The The The Death,”  a song about mortality with a weird, stuttering title worthy of Gertrude Stein or Ashbery himself.  I must say it feels pretty tough to believe in happy movie endings at the moment.  Berman’s song also includes these lines, which seem as fitting a conclusion as any other: “Like like the the the death / Air crickets, air crickets, air crickets, air crickets, air.”

Posted in David Berman, In Memoriam, James Tate, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Music, NY School Influence | 1 Comment