Vincent Warren, love of Frank O’Hara’s life, passes away at 79

Sad news for readers of Frank O’Hara: Vincent Warren, the ballet dancer who has often been described as the true love of O’Hara’s life, passed away on October 25 at the age of 79, some 50 years after O’Hara himself.  In the years after his intense, early relationship with O’Hara, Warren settled in Canada and became a celebrated dancer and dance historian.  Although his death has been covered in the Canadian press and in dance circles, I haven’t seen any notice of it in the world of American poetry or among Frank O’Hara fans.

As the obituary in The Globe and Mail puts it:

“He was a gifted dancer with a gripping stage presence, a stunningly beautiful young man who drew comparisons to Rudolf Nureyev. He danced for Igor Stravinsky, had a love affair with the American poet Frank O’Hara and played the title role in the landmark rock ballet of The Who’s Tommy.”

If you’ve ever read O’Hara’s “Having a Coke With You” and wondered about the person lucky enough to be the recipient of such a tender, funny, and beautiful love poem, it was Vincent Warren, the handsome young ballet dancer Frank O’Hara fell in love with in 1959.

As soon as they met that summer, when O’Hara was 33 and Warren was 20, the dancer began appearing in O’Hara’s poetry.  He quickly became the subject of some of the best love poems I know of, including “Poem (A la Recherche d’Gertrude Stein,) “Les Luths,” “Poem (So many echoes in my head),” and, of course, “Having a Coke With You,” which refers to Warren’s grace as a dancer in the line “the fact that you move so beautifully more or less takes care of Futurism.” And then there’s “Steps,” with its Twitter-beloved closing lines that are also an ode to Vincent Warren: “oh god it’s wonderful / to get out of bed / / and drink too much coffee / and smoke too many cigarettes / and love you so much.”

Although Warren is their subject, many of these poems do not mention O’Hara’s lover by name, thanks to Warren’s fear that his mother would read them and discover he was secretly gay.  This is the reason behind O’Hara’s decision to playfully encode Warren’s name down the left-hand side of the acrostic “You are Gorgeous and I’m Coming.”  There is a long list of such poems to Warren, many collected in the volume Love Poems (Tentative Title), which was published in 1965.

Many commentators feel O’Hara’s love affair with Warren helped trigger what is often considered the pinnacle of O’Hara’s achievement — the annus mirabilis of 1959.  O’Hara’s friend/lover and roommate Joe LeSueur makes this case in his book Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara, noting that “the deluge began immediately after” the O’Hara and Warren met.  “Take a look at the Collected Poems, pages 329-406, and my case is made, for these marvelous poems testify to what finally came together for Frank, what he at long last experienced, love and the reciprocation of love — physical, sexual, romantic love, fully and deeply realized… They are among Frank’s finest works, and the poems I find most moving.”

Warren’s obituary in The Globe and Mail discusses the importance of O’Hara to the dancer’s life, as it notes that during his time in New York, Warren “met Mr. O’Hara, leading poet of the postwar New York School and the love of his life. Mr. Warren served as Mr. O’Hara’s muse, inspiring his poems, while in turn Mr. O’Hara introduced him to his circle of artist friends, including Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock… Although a striking dancer, Mr. Warren admitted he often coasted on his good looks and Met credentials. That changed in 1966, when Mr. O’Hara was killed in a jeep accident on New York’s Fire Island. His lover’s death devastated him, but it was also the turning point that pushed him to become a serious artist.”

Rest in peace, Vincent Warren.  Here is the conclusion to O’Hara’s poem “Les Luths,” written for Warren in 1959:

and I am feeling particularly testy at being separated from
the one I love by the most dreary of practical exigencies money
when I want only to lean on my elbow and stare into space feeling
the one warm beautiful thing in the world breathing upon my right rib

what are lutes they make ugly twangs and rest on knees in cafés
I want to hear only your light voice running on about Florida
as we pass the changing traffic light and buy grapes for wherever
we will end up praising the mattressless sleigh-bed and the
Mexican egg and the clock that will not make me know
how to leave you

And here is “Poem (A la recherche d’ Gertrude Stein),” also written for Warren in 1959, (and which my wife and I liked so much that we read it our wedding many years ago):

When I am feeling depressed and anxious and sullen
all you have to do is take your clothes off
and all is wiped away revealing life’s tenderness
that we are flesh and breathe and are near us
as you are really as you are I become as I
really am alive and knowing vaguely what is
and what is important to me above the intrusions
of incident and accidental relationships
which have nothing to do with my life

when I am in your presence I feel life is strong
and will defeat all its enemies and all of mine
and all of yours and yours in you and mine in me
sick logic and feeble reasoning are cured
by the perfect symmetry of your arms and legs
spread out making an eternal circle together
creating a golden pillar beside the Atlantic
the faint line of hair dividing your torso
gives my mind rest and emotions their release
into the infinite air where since once we are
together we always will be in this life come what may

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Vincent Warren (c. 1960)

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Posted in Frank O'Hara, Jackson Pollock, Vincent Warren, Willem de Kooning | 9 Comments

Michael Jackson, the Frank O’Hara Fan?

Image result for "michael jackson" reads book                             Image result for "frank o'hara"

I know these days it can seem as if everyone is a Frank O’Hara fan and his name gets dropped in far-flung places all the time, but this one caught me by surprise.  Would you have expected that in 1989 Michael Jackson talked about reading Frank O’Hara as a way to relax in his hotel room after his concerts?

In her new book, The Vanity Fair Diaries, the famed editor Tina Brown offers a selection of journal entries she wrote during the “roaring ’80s,” some of which have just been published by Vogue.  In one entry, Brown describes meeting Michael Jackson at the height of his fame, and being a bit shocked to discover “his surprising literary tastes”:

“I asked him how he comes down to earth after his incredible live performances. ‘I read,’ he said, ‘in my hotel room. O. Henry sometimes. Frank O’Hara.’ Not exactly the world’s image of him. But strangely gratifying at the same time.”

I’m not sure what to make of the weird pairing of such different authors, O. Henry and O’Hara (was this an associative leap based on the sound of their names? a coincidence?).  But it is “strangely gratifying” to learn from Brown that the King of Pop was reading O’Hara’s poetry in 1989.

Brown marvels at the strange contradictions she found in the elusive and eccentric star. “I think he’s a Mozartian kind of genius,” she writes.  “A weird innocent with the combined power of both otherworldliness and utter worldliness…But here’s the paradox. In some ways Michael is less weird than people want him to be … There’s a lot of shrewdness to his intuitions.”

I’ve talked about O’Hara’s influence on popular music many times over the years, but never thought to make this connection before.  Apparently, Jackson was an avid reader with a large book collection, but I don’t know if anyone anywhere else has ever mentioned his literary interest in Frank O’Hara, or even discussed the two in the same breath.  It’s certainly rather wonderful to imagine Michael Jackson lying around in his hotel room reading Lunch Poems as a way to unwind after performing at Madison Square Garden.

 

Posted in Frank O'Hara, Music | 1 Comment

The Time John Ashbery Did a “Screen Test” for Andy Warhol

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from “John Ashbery” (1966), by Andy Warhol

Over the last several weeks since John Ashbery passed away, we have seen a flood of moving tributes, memorials, personal memoirs, and re-assessments, including even some reflections on the poet “in all his hunky glory,” as the title of a surprising New York Times article about Ashbery’s dashing good looks and sense of style put it.

One thing I haven’t seen are any photos, or any references to, a moment we might think of as peak “cool Ashbery” — when he sat for one of Andy Warhol’s famous Screen Tests in 1966.

Between 1964 and 1966, Warhol made nearly “500 short, silent, black-and-white films of artists, musicians, actors, writers, filmmakers, models, curators, celebrities and hangers-on … at the Factory, his silver-walled studio on East 47th Street in Manhattan.”  The subjects of these short films “were seated, initially instructed not to move, and filmed straight-on (most often in close-up).”

The Screen Tests feature a long list of fascinating people, a sort of who’s who of mid-1960s edgy cool — from Lou Reed and Nico to Salvador Dali and Susan Sontag, Bob Dylan and “Mama” Cass Elliot to Dennis Hopper.  Warhol was deeply interested in avant-garde poetry, which led him to film many members of the New York School, including Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett, and Joe Brainard, and other poets like Allen Ginsberg, John Wieners, and Ed Sanders.

In 1966, Ashbery got his turn in front of Warhol’s unsparing camera.  Here is how Callie Angel writes it up in her excellent book Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests:

The American poet John Ashbery first met Andy Warhol in the fall of 1963, when Ashbery visited New York and gave a poetry reading at the Living Theatre.  As Ashbery recalled, Gerard Malanga, who was a poet as well as Warhol’s assistant, took him to the artist’s studio for an introduction.  Ashbery, who lived in Paris between 1955 and 1965, had written several favorable reviews of Warhol’s art … When Ashbery moved back to New York at the end of 1965, Warhol threw a big party for him at the Factory. Ashbery maintained his interest in Warhol’s work after his return to New York, and also became friends with Malanga, on whom he had an important influence as a poet.

Ashbery recalled that his Screen Test was shot one day when he had dropped by the Factory from his job as executive editor of Art News magazine: ‘I found it kind of intimidating,’ he confessed, ‘because there were all these people doing their strange tasks.’  Formally dressed in a suit and tie, Ashbery gives a formidable performance, meeting the camera’s stare with a friendly critical scowl.  His suspicious expression does relax somewhat in the course of the film; toward the end, he appears momentarily lost in his own thoughts.

I’ve never had the chance to watch Ashbery’s actual Screen Test; as far as I can tell, it’s not available on the web, and pictures from the film seem scarce.  So here, along with the image at the top of this post, are some stills of the young Ashbery sitting before Warhol’s camera in 1966:

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from “John Ashbery” (1966), by Andy Warhol; still from “Screen Tests: A Diary,” by Gerard Malanga

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from “John Ashbery” (1966), by Andy Warhol

 

 

 

Posted in Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan, Ed Sanders, Gerard Malanga, Joe Brainard, John Ashbery, John Wieners, Lou Reed, Ron Padgett, Ted Berrigan | 1 Comment

Remembering John Ashbery (1927-2017)

Larry Rivers, “Portrait of John Ashbery” (1962)

This past Sunday, September 3, brought the very sad news that John Ashbery had passed away at the age of 90.  Ashbery has long been regarded as the greatest and most influential living American poet, so it is not surprising that the last few days have seen an outpouring of grief and praise from all corners of the literary community, and a slew of fine obituaries and tributes (I’ve collected many of these below).  I was grateful that the New York Times also asked me to suggest a few favorite shorter poems to accompany their obituary for Ashbery, which you can see here.

Even though he had just turned 90 in July, it somehow felt as if Ashbery would always be here, like crazy weather (“falling forward one minute, lying down the next”) – churning out a new book every year or two, exhibiting his wonderful collages, blurbing younger poets, generally filling the air of contemporary poetry with his brilliant presence.  So his loss still came as a shock, a sharp blow, despite his extraordinary, long career and full life.

One reason Ashbery’s death seems so significant and painful is that it marks the real end of an era: he was one of the last of the great figures associated with the adventurous, avant-garde movement that emerged after World War II known as the “New American Poetry.”  And more broadly, he was one of the final living poets belonging to the amazing generation born around 1925 to 1927 (a roster of illustrious names that includes Kenneth Koch, Jack Spicer, Frank O’Hara, James Merrill, James Wright, Adrienne Rich, Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, A. R. Ammons, Galway Kinnell, and many more).

Ashbery was also, of course, one of the last surviving members of the New York School’s legendary first generation.  He outlived virtually all of his original close companions: Frank O’Hara, who died 51 years before him, Fairfield Porter, James Schuyler, Kenneth Koch, Larry Rivers, Barbara Guest, Jane Freilicher, Harry Mathews – they all went into the world of light before Ashbery himself, a poignant fact that often surfaced subtly and wistfully in his later work.

Because Ashbery is such a towering figure, I’ve found it hard to know where to begin or what to say that would be adequate to mark his passing.  On a personal level, his work has been of such vital importance to my own writing and thinking for so long that his loss seems too huge to encapsulate or sum up, so I’ve decided I’m not going to really try here.

It did occur to me, as news of his death sank in, that I’ve been reading and writing about Ashbery continuously for 25 years and that his “philosophy of life”; his sensibility and sui generis voice; his distinctive, hilarious, tragic and consoling way of looking at the world and its absurdities and pains; not to mention countless beautiful, moving, and strange lines of his poetry have all seeped into my consciousness, quietly affecting how I think and relate to my own experience in ways I can’t really articulate.

At one moment in “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” Ashbery happens to reflect on this very process: how “the light or dark speech” of others – include those we read deeply – enters our minds and becomes woven into the fabric of our selves:

How many people came and stayed a certain time,
Uttered light or dark speech that became part of you
Like light behind windblown fog and sand,
Filtered or influenced by it, until no part
Remains that is surely you.

As an undergraduate at Harverford College in 1991, I took a bus over to nearby Bryn Mawr College by myself one evening to see Ashbery read from his new book-length poem Flow Chart, in a dim, grand hall, and came away equal parts mystified and inspired.  A few years later in graduate school at Columbia University, I had the good fortune of working closely with one of Ashbery’s closest friends, Kenneth Koch.  The first day I met Koch and began working as his assistant, he immediately informed me, half-jokingly, that Ashbery was his “greatest living rival,” and quickly convinced me that no poet was more important or better than Ashbery, whose work he absolutely revered.

Your Name Here

I studied Ashbery’s poetry in my courses, wrote seminar papers on his work, and eventually decided to make him one of the main subjects of my doctoral dissertation (though Koch did half-jokingly wonder why I wasn’t focusing on him instead).  One of my first published reviews was a piece about Ashbery’s book-length poem Girls on the Run, which appeared in the American Book Review in 2000.  Ashbery’s work was at the center of my first book, Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry, which delved into his ideas about the self, interpersonal relationships, and his philosophical connections to Emerson and American pragmatism, and explored the close, complex personal and poetic “sibling bond” at the heart of his relationship with Frank O’Hara.  More recently, I contributed a chapter about Ashbery for The Cambridge Companion to American Poets and then, just a couple weeks ago, my review of Karin Roffman’s new biography of his early life appeared in the New York Times Book Review.

Not surprisingly, Ashbery has also been a regular fixture on this humble blog about the New York School – in fact, I realized I’ve written 100 posts about, or at least touching on, Ashbery since I began this site in 2013.  (To sample some of these posts – which range from pieces about important Ashbery poems like “Pyrography” or the time Ashbery smoked a joint with Elizabeth Bishop to the recent show where Patti Smith paid tribute to “my Ashbery year”, see here).

I’m sure there will be many more, just as there will always be more essays and books devoted to Ashbery’s poetry, just as there will always be young writers who will revel in his influence and be fueled by his spirit as long as there are poets writing poetry.  For now, there is the sustaining tower of books and words he left behind.

“You have built a mountain of something,
Thoughtfully pouring all your energy into this single monument”

For it all builds up into something, meaningless or meaningful
As architecture, because planned and then abandoned when completed,
To live afterwards, in sunlight and shadow, a certain amount of years.
Who cares about what was there before? There is no going back,
For standing still means death, and life is moving on,
Moving on towards death. But sometimes standing still is also life.

And here, finally, is Frank O’Hara’s beautiful, now extra-heartbreaking 1954 poem “To John Ashbery,” in which he imagines himself and “Ashes” (his affectionate nickname for Ashbery) reading their “new poems to each other / high on a mountain in the wind,” like a pair of ancient Chinese poets.

To John Ashbery

I can’t believe there’s not
another world where we will sit
and read new poems to each other
high on a mountain in the wind.
You can be Tu Fu, I’ll be Po Chü-i
and the Monkey Lady’ll be in the moon,
smiling at our ill-fitting heads
as we watch snow settle on a twig.
Or shall we be really gone? this
is not the grass I saw in my youth!
and if the moon, when it rises
tonight, is empty —a bad sign,
meaning “You go, like the blossoms.”

Rest in peace, Ashes, little J.A.

* * * *

Here is a selection of obituaries and tributes that have begun to appear since Ashbery’s death:

New York Times obituary by David Orr and Dinitia Smith (along with a selection of Ashbery’s poems, selected by Gregory Cowles and myself)

Mark Ford’s obituary for Ashbery in the Guardian

Dan Chiasson in the New Yorker

Matthew Zapruder in the San Francisco Chronicle

Larissa MacFarquar in the New Yorker

Paul Muldoon in the New Yorker

Rae Armantrout in the New York Times

David Orr in the New York Times

Alex Ross in the New Yorker

Tania Kentenjian in the Guardian

Emma Bowman on NPR

John Emil Vincent at the Best American Poetry blog

Terence Winch at the Best American Poetry blog

Corinne Segal for PBS

Evan Kindley in the New Republic

David Lehman in the American Scholar

Christian Lorentzen at Vulture / New York Magazine

Ben Lerner in the New Yorker

Library of America invited tributes from a long list of Ashbery’s friends and fellow writers, including Charles Bernstein, Langdon Hammer, Eileen Myles, Marjorie Peroff, and Anne Waldman

Posted in Allen Ginsberg, Barbara Guest, Fairfield Porter, Frank O'Hara, Harry Mathews, Jack Spicer, James Merrill, Jane Freilicher, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Larry Rivers, Mark Ford, Robert Creeley | 10 Comments

The Picture of Little J.A.: A New Biography of the Young John Ashbery

 

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John Ashbery, fall 1955, after arriving in Montpellier, France to begin his Fulbright.

Karin Roffman’s new book, The Songs We Know Best: John Ashbery’s Early Lifethe highly anticipated, first full-fledged biography of Ashbery — was recently published, and my review of the book appeared in the New York Times Book Review several days ago.  As I write in the review:

like a classic bildungsroman, The Songs We Know Best tells the story of a shy, sensitive, preternaturally gifted boy who weathers a lonely childhood on a farm, awakens to the joys and mysteries of art, poetry and sex as a teenager, and finally assumes his true vocation as a poet when he arrives in the big city and falls in with a circle of revolutionary writers and artists. It is also an affecting narrative about growing up gay in a virulently hostile, intolerant culture — a moving portrait of an artist who not only survived that ordeal as a young man but became, improbably enough, one of the greatest poets of his age.

Thanks to Roffman’s “exhaustive research — especially her deep dive into unpublished early poems, newly uncovered diaries and extensive interviews with Ashbery himself,” the book is “a treasure trove for scholars, fans and casual readers alike.”

Indeed, the book is crammed with illuminating and fascinating new details that will surprise and delight even those of us who know Ashbery’s work, and the criticism of it, well.  Among other things, the book unearths a good deal of personal, even juicy material about Ashbery’s private life, including his early crushes and romantic relationships (giving us moments like this one, which may be a little TMI for some: “he and Dick Sanders hugged, kissed, and fondled each other, and John ejacluated for the first time”).

Here are just a few of the many little tidbits from the book that I enjoyed but didn’t get a chance to mention in my review:

~ Roffman reprints and analyzes the absurdly precocious poem called “The Battle” that Ashbery wrote at the ripe old age of 8 (opening lines: “The trees are bent with their glistening load, / The bushes are covered and so is the road”). She explains that the poem was a huge hit with Ashbery’s parents and extended family and even made its way from rural western New York where Ashbery grew up to the exotic foreign land of Manhattan, where the poem was recited to great praise at the apartment of a famous novelist named Mary Roberts Rinehart. Once young John was “informed of his poem’s journey to NewYork City and told that it had received great acclaim, he felt inspired to write more.”  But, alas, it was not to be: the poor little guy was unable to recreate the magic and simply could not write a new poem, so “he decided to quit writing poetry altogether” and didn’t write another poem for 7 years!

Ashbery gave Roffman access to a diary he kept as a teenager, which no previous scholars have seen or referred to, and not surprisingly, it is a goldmine of information about the adolescent Ashbery: wry meditations on the boredom of life on a rural farm, thoughts about art and literature, cryptic notes about his early infatuations and trysts with boys (sometimes written in Latin or French to throw his prying mom off the scent), along with wonderful comments that presage the poet he would become — like when he recorded in his journal that he was “doing nothing vigorously,” which seems so quintessentially Ashberyean.

The book includes a revelation that I don’t believe has been disclosed before: Ashbery had a brief and very stormy romantic relationship with the painter Fairfield Porter not long after meeting him in the early 1950s. Ashbery and Porter later became very close friends, but I can’t recall previous references to the fact that their relationship began with a sexual encounter.  Roffman notes that after they slept together in Porter’s studio, “John immediately felt he had made a terrible mistake”; Porter quickly developed a “fixation” on Ashbery, became “antagonistic” when Ashbery rebuffed him, and told Jane Freilicher that “he wanted to leave his wife, Anne, for John.”  Then things got even more dramatic: “John refused to see him. Miserable at being cut off, Fairfield punched John when he saw him unexpectedly at the San Remo Café.”  Only months later were Ashbery and Porter able to “repair their friendship after the fumbled intimacy.”

Justin Spring’s biography of Fairfield Porter (2000) broke new ground by discussing Porter’s largely hidden bisexuality for the first time, detailing the extended sexual relationship he had with James Schuyler.  However, in that book, Spring merely notes Porter’s early attraction to Ashbery and discusses a poem called “The Young Man” that Porter wrote for Ashbery, which quietly expressed his homoerotic feelings for the young poet.  But Spring says nothing about their having slept together and how it affected their relationship, so the revelation in Roffman’s book is news.

Here’s another juicy bit that I don’t recall being divulged before. It’s well-known that Ashbery got a chance to meet his idol, W. H. Auden, during his time at Harvard, but apparently their bond went a little further than is often assumed: during a visit to Harvard, Auden attended a Harvard Advocate event, and the two “chatted a while, and then Auden invited John to walk with him back to his hotel suite.  After accompanying him as far as his room, however, John demurred.  Despite his boundless admiration for the man as a poet, he ‘could not go to bed with him’ and returned to his dorm room, where he described the almost-sexual encounter” to a friend.

The following year, Ashbery decided to write his senior thesis on Auden’s work, but had a very difficult time completing the essay.  Procrastination, a lack of motivation, and depression left him unable to write the thesis;  Roffman also touches on “the difficulty of writing about a gay artist (and near love interest).”  Imagine trying to write a senior thesis on a famous writer, who wanted to sleep with you, and who you rejected!

The book includes a few more details about Auden and Ashbery that were new to me: six years later, Auden would of course choose Ashbery’s manuscript for the Yale Younger Poets Prize (passing over Frank O’Hara’s manuscript in the process), an award which led to the publication of Ashbery’s first book.  That much is known, but apparently it was Auden “who insisted he pick a title from one of the poems in the volume, and thought Some Trees best, a decision about which John was ambivalent.”  Ashbery informed Roffman in an interview that he “had included his best experimental poems in the manuscript, but Auden removed any poem that had objectionable language, including ‘White’ (because of ‘masturbation’) and “Lieutenant Primrose” (because of ‘farting’).  Ashbery accepted all Auden’s changes, but he privately objected.”

Also, as is well-known, Ashbery wasn’t crazy about the begrudging introduction Auden wrote for Some Trees.  Roffman suggests Ashbery’s displeasure may have gotten back to Auden himself, who — she reports for the first time — once told a friend that Ashbery was “‘the most ambitious person’ he had ever  known,” which, given Auden’s circle of acquaintances, is saying something…

This is just a glimpse of the many gems of literary gossip and new insights that abound in this biography.  As I said in my review, “The Songs We Know Best offers up a feast of new details, documents and colorful anecdotes that will be foundational for any future understanding of Ashbery.”

You can check out my review in the New York Times Book Review here, and for more coverage of the book, see excellent reviews by Mark Ford in the Guardian, Evan Kindley in the New Republic, and Matthew Bevis in Harpers.

Posted in Book Review, Fairfield Porter, Jane Freilicher, John Ashbery, Mark Ford, W. H. Auden | Leave a comment

Happy 90th Birthday to John Ashbery!

Ashbery USA Poetry 1

Today is the 90th birthday of John Ashbery, who was born on July 27, 1928.  At LitHub, Adam Fitzgerald and Emily Skillings have “invited 90 of his dearest friends, collaborators, and admirers to pick a favorite line from his vast published corpus…and write about it in 90 words or fewer.”

It’s a wonderful selection of meditations, reminiscences, and commentary on many of Ashbery’s most enduring, moving, funny, and beautiful lines, with illuminating remarks by quite the roster of Ashbery fans and readers, including Rae Armantrout, Susan Howe, Jim Jarmusch, Paul Muldoon, Alice Notley, Don Share, and Helen Vendler.

Here, to celebrate this monumental and happy occasion, is “The Task,” which was the first poem in Ashbery’s 1967 volume The Double Dream of Spring.  It’s an old favorite of mine and one of Ashbery’s many poems about “preparing to begin again,” about the need to keep moving onward, especially when there is “so much in the night to come” and “reaches to be attained.”

THE TASK

They are preparing to begin again:
Problems, new pennant up the flagpole
In a predicated romance.

About the time the sun begins to cut laterally across
The western hemisphere with its shadows, its carnival echoes,
The fugitive lands crowd under separate names.
It is the blankness that follows gaiety, and Everyman must depart
Out there into stranded night, for his destiny
Is to return unfruitful out of the lightness
That passing time evokes.  It was only
Cloud-castles, adept to seize the past
And possess it, through hurting.  And the way is clear
Now for linear acting into that time
In whose corrosive mass he first discovered how to breathe.

Just look at the filth you’ve made,
See what you’ve done.
Yet if these are regrets they stir only lightly
The children playing after supper,
Promise of the pillow and so much in the night to come.
I plan to stay here a little while
For these are moments only, moments of insight,
And there are reaches to be attained,
A last level of anxiety that melts
In becoming, like miles under the pilgrim’s feet.

Happy 90th birthday to John Ashbery!

 

 

Posted in Alice Notley, Jim Jarmusch, John Ashbery, Paul Muldoon, Poems, Rae Armantrout, Susan Howe | Leave a comment

Buried at Springs: Frank O’Hara’s Funeral (7/27/66)

O'Hara Tombstone 2

51 years ago today, Frank O’Hara was buried in Green River Cemetery, in Springs, New York, just steps away from the grave of one of his heroes, Jackson Pollock, two days after being struck down by a dune buggy on Fire Island.

O’Hara’s sudden death at the age of 40 in a bizarre accident left the New York art and literary worlds reeling.  The funeral itself has become the stuff of lore.  Brad Gooch opens his biography of O’Hara (City Poet) with a lengthy and colorful description of the funeral, where a long list of famous writers and artists gathered to mourn and where emotions ran high:

The mourners arrived from all points.  Robert Motherwell and Helen Frankenthaler drove down from Provincetown (because small planes made Frankenthaler nervous).  The poet Bill Berkson flew in from Newport.  Alex and Ada Katz made the trip down from Maine.  Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky chanted “Hare Krishna, Hare Rama” all the way from Manhattan in Larry Rivers’s car.  Barnett Newman had vowed never to return to the Hamptons after Pollock’s funeral in 1956, but he and his wife, Annalee, reneged and rented a limousine and driver…Al Leslie heard the news on the beach and came straggling to the cemetery in his swimsuit with towel… Willem de Kooning wore splattered workclothes as did many of the other painters and sculptors…A yellow bus hired by the Museum of Modern Art made a sweltering three hour trip from Manhattan filled with curators, directors, assistants, and secretaries.

O’Hara’s longtime roommate and sometime lover Joe LeSueur “appeared weeping, supported on one side by the poet Barbara Guest and on the other by the painter Robert Dash.”  O’Hara’s close friend and protege Bill Berkson spoke movingly, “John Ashbery broke down trying to read the last several lines of O’Hara’s ‘To the Harbormaster,'” and Larry Rivers delivered his notorious “violent eulogy, full of raw fury,” describing in excruciating, graphic detail how O’Hara’s body looked in the hospital after the accident and eloquently expressing the pain of losing his “best friend.”

“As the coffin was lowered into the ground,” Gooch writes, “mourners filed by.  Reuben Nakian, a white-haired sculptor, had attached to it a terra-cotta sculpture of his Voyage to Crete series, from a show then at the Museum of Modern Art, curated by O’Hara. Stephen Holden, a young poet [and now film critic for the New York Times], tossed in a laurel wreath.  Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky intoned Indian sutras, while Jack Smith, the auteur-director of Flaming Creatures, snapped photographs.”

Descriptions like this of O’Hara’s funeral testify to the incredible range of his friends admirers — with scruffy bohemian poets mourning alongside the most celebrated of painters, classical composers, actors, and avant-garde filmmakers mingling with museum officials, and wealthy patrons of the arts, poets of the New York School grieving with their Beat counterparts, and so on.

For example, in this wonderful photograph, one can see Allen Ginsberg and Kenneth Koch walking away, grief-struck, from O’Hara’s graveside arm in arm.

Ginsberg and Koch at O'Hara funeral 2

Allen Ginsberg and Kenneth Koch, leaving Frank O’Hara’s grave, 7/27/66. (Alex Katz can be seen in the background in a dark tie and suit).

And here is a photograph of Larry Rivers reading his famous eulogy, with Bill Berkson and Edwin Denby to the left behind him, and John Ashbery (with sunglasses) to the right.

Larry Rivers and John Ashbery at Frank O'Hara

As I mentioned in this post a couple of years ago, the New York Times covered O’Hara’s funeral in an article entitled ‘200 Pay Tribute to Frank O’Hara.’ Among other things, the piece discusses Larry Rivers’s eulogy and John Ashbery’s moving recitation of “To the Harbormaster,” while managing to misspell the names of John Ashbery, Edwin Denby, and David Shapiro.”

Many poets would soon write moving elegies for O’Hara, including James Schuyler, who titled his “Buried at Springs.”

 

 

 

Posted in Alex Katz, Alfred Leslie, Allen Ginsberg, Barbara Guest, Bill Berkson, David Shapiro, Edwin Denby, Frank O'Hara, Helen Frankenthaler, Jackson Pollock, James Schuyler, Joe LeSueur, Kenneth Koch, Larry Rivers, MoMA, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning | 7 Comments