Today is Frank O’Hara’s (Real) Birthday — But Not the Day He Thought Was His Birthday [again]

[NOTE: I posted this piece a year ago today, but since there is another flurry of activity out there today on Twitter and the web toasting O’Hara on his birthday, I thought I’d repost it again today].

It’s been great to see lots of people around the web noting that today is the birthday of Frank O’Hara, who was born on March 27, 1926.

But there’s a strange story about this which complicates things a bit: today is not the day O’Hara thought was his birthday.

As Brad Gooch details his biography of O’Hara, City Poet, O’Hara believed that he was born on June 27, 1926.  That’s what his parents told him, and presumably that was the date he always celebrated as his birthday.  He even wrote some funny lines about his supposed birthday in “Ode to Michael Goldberg (‘s Birth and other Births)”:

I hardly ever think of June 27, 1926,
when I came moaning into my mother’s world
and tried to make it mine immediately
by screaming, sucking, urinating
and carrying on generally
it was quite a day

O’Hara also deliberately began one of his amazing long poems, “In Memory of My Feelings,” on the day he thought was his 30th birthday — June 27, 1956.

But he was wrong.  As Gooch explains, O’Hara’s “birth certificate — found twenty-five years after his death — recorded his real birth as three months earlier, on March 27, 1926, at Maryland General Hospital.  The presiding physician: Maurice Shamer, M.D.”

Gooch offers a compelling explanation for this error:

“The discrepancy is a mystery.  But not a difficult one to solve.  His parents had been married in Grafton, Massachusetts, on September 14, 1925 — six months before the birth of their first son.  As both were offspring of morally conservative Irish-Catholic families, the shift of their baby’s birthday three months later implied conception after marriage rather than before.  The cover-up also solves the mystery of his parents’ eighteen-month stay in Baltimore.  They fled their thickly rooted families in New England to hide the progress of the pregnancy, then soon returned.”

So there you have it: today, March 27, is actually Frank O’Hara’s real birthday — but that would’ve come as a big surprise to him.

As Gooch notes, this means that O’Hara (who called himself “an ardent horoscope reader”) wasn’t even aware of his correct astrological sign.  Ironically, in October 1959, he wrote a poem about being a Cancer, when he was actually an Aries:

Now it is the 27th
of this month
which would have been my birthday
if I’d been born in it
but I wasn’t
would have made me a
which symbolizes silver, money, riches

… instead of
which symbolizes instability, suggestibility, sensibility
all the ilities like a clavichord

In any event, happy birthday to Frank O’Hara!

Posted in Uncategorized

A Conversation about “New York School Painters and Poets: Neon in Daylight”

(l to r): Anne Waldman, Ron Padgett, Carter Ratcliff, Bill Berkson, Larry Fagin, Jenni Quilter, Allison Power

Last week, the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog posted an item about a recent event held at the Joan Mitchell Foundation to mark Mitchell’s birthday and to celebrate the publication of New York School Painters and Poets: Neon in Daylight, a remarkable new book I’ve mentioned several times before.

Joan Mitchell, of course, was a central Abstract Expressionist painter and close friend to the poets of the New York School (whose work, not coincidentally, serves as the backdrop for this humble blog), so the Joan Mitchell Foundation is an auspicious place to hold such an event.

The Foundation has now posted a video of an event it hosted on February 12, which featured a lively conversation with a group of second-generation New York School poets, including Bill Berkson and Larry Fagin (who served as Advisory Editors for the book), Ron Padgett, Anne Waldman, the poet and art critic Carter Ratcliff (who wrote a foreword for the book), along with Allison Power (who edited the book) and Quilter, the book’s author.

The video, which runs for over an hour, features the poets reading from their own work (for example, Anne Waldman reads from her collaboration with Ted Berrigan, “Memorial Day”); discussing the nature and importance of collaboration; talking about the dialogue between painting and poetry in their milieu; reading poems related to Joan Mitchell (Bill Berkson reads O’Hara’s great poem “Adieu to Norman, Bonjour to Joan and Jean-Paul” at around 1 hour 11 minutes); and generally reminiscing about their own formative years and discussing the genesis of the recently published book.

You can see the entire video here.

Posted in Anne Waldman, Bill Berkson, Carter Ratcliff, collaboration, Frank O'Hara, Larry Fagin, Ron Padgett, Video, Visual Art

David Kirby on a Wild Allen Ginsberg Reading



Over the past few months, the 92nd St. Y has been hosting a “75 at 75″ series, which asks authors to select and respond to a recording from the 92Y Poetry Center’s archive.  This week, my friend and colleague, the poet and critic David Kirby, reflects on a recording of a particularly wild reading given by Allen Ginsberg in 1973.

First, Kirby recalls meeting Ginsberg in the late 1960s when he was a young graduate student (and perhaps being not-so-subtly propositioned by the older poet) and two slightly later Ginsberg readings at Florida State University (where Kirby and I both teach in the English Department):

A few years later, he read again in Tallahassee—remember, poets were rock stars then. The FSU faculty consisted largely of older gentlemen who wore seersucker suits and taught from battered copies of The Norton Anthology. One of these old darlings was seated in the front row with his wife, and when Ginsberg opened with “Hard-On Blues”—“Blues is like a hard-on / Comes right in your mouth”—they got up and left; later someone told me he’d seen them weeping in the lobby, though that sounds suspiciously like an embellishment.

The reading Kirby chose from the 92nd St. Y’s enormous archive is a doozy — a messy, anarchic performance in which Ginsberg contends with continuous, belligerent heckling by his old friend Gregory Corso.  At about 5:30 minutes into the recording (below), Corso barges into the reading, assailing Ginsberg for peddling “poesy bullshit,” and bickering with Ginsberg’s father Louis, who apparently was also on stage.

Ginsberg’s reaction is characteristically generous and bemused, as he quickly incorporates Corso, and his interruption, into the reading.  He soon launches into some inspired, Dylan-ish singing, accompanied by a harmonium, in which he gleefully chants and rhymes and sings, all the while improvising and riffing on Corso’s behavior.  (You can find more about this strange reading and the Ginsberg-Corso contretemps here and here).

Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, Louis Ginsberg at 92Y on February 26, 1973.

Corso, of course, was no stranger to heckling and bad behavior at poetry readings.  Almost 15 years earlier, in 1959, there was a notorious incident at a reading Corso gave with Frank O’Hara, which involved a drunken Jack Kerouac maliciously heckling O’Hara (an event I’ve written about here).  Although everyone remembers the Kerouac-O’Hara conflict — Kerouac: “You’re ruining American poetry, O’Hara”; O’Hara: “That’s more than you ever did for it” — Corso, too, was already honing the drunken poetry-reading harassment skills he would perfect at the 1973 Ginsberg reading.  As Brad Gooch tells it in his biography of O’Hara:

“After reading his last poem, ‘Marriage,’ Corso turned to O’Hara and said, ‘You see, you have it so easy because you’re a faggot.  Why don’t you get married?  You’d make a much better father than I would.’  Ginsberg then shouted from the audience, ‘Shut up and let him read.’  Corso replied, ‘And you’re a fucking faggot too, Allen Ginsberg.’ Willard Maas, an underground filmmaker, then joined in, ‘Why don’t you marry Frank, if you want to so much, Gregory?”

Here’s Kirby’s take on the Ginsberg reading:

This February 26, 1973, reading at the 92nd Street Y’s Poetry Center, at which Ginsberg and his father were heckled by Gregory Corso, contains everything that I remember from the three readings I attended. Spontaneity, variety, improvisation, stupidity: in a word, show-biz. In that sense, the 1973 reading is an essay on poetry, period. Everything—everything!—flows into poetry and poetry is for everyone. You hear François Villon and Shakespeare and Blake and William Carlos Williams and the bards of Hindu scripture in Ginsberg’s lines, and you get the sense of poetry as a public act rather than a private process. Throughout, Ginsberg’s startlingly plummy tones are supported and refuted by his dad’s youse-guys Jerseyspeak and Corso’s drunken catcalls.

Gregory Corso is the ideal heckler: he’s drunk, you’re sober; he isn’t prepared, you are. Poems like to flow smoothly, but they also like elements that are indifferent and even hostile to that flow, and Corso’s outbursts are just such snags and sandbars in Ginsberg’s silvery current.

Kirby’s right — it’s quite an amazing recording and it does seem to capture something essential about the spirit of Ginsberg, and perhaps poetry itself: humor, play, improvisation, music, and joy.  He concludes: “I can’t imagine enjoying myself any more than I did this morning when I hit ‘play’ and rocked back and forth with joy as Ginsberg laughed at—and with—the world and everything in it.”

Posted in Allen Ginsberg, Beats, David Kirby, Frank O'Hara, Gregory Corso, Jack Kerouac

Reading Ted Berrigan’s Poetry: Alice, Anselm, and Edmund

This is quite a treat for fans of the Berrigan/Notley family of poets: Don Yorty recently posted some footage of a reading that took place in 2011 at (the amazing) St. Marks Bookstore in New York to celebrate the publication of The Selected Poems of Ted Berrigan.  The book was edited by Berrigan’s widow, Alice Notley, and their two sons, the poets Anselm and Edmund Berrigan, and the event featured all three members of the family reading selections from Ted’s work.

Yorty has posted three clips — first, Anselm Berrigan reading from his father’s long poem “Tambourine Life,” Notley reading from Easter Morning, and Edmund Berrigan reading selections from A Certain Slant of Light.

Here is Anselm Berrigan’s reading sections 1-23 of “Tambourine Life”:


You can visit Yorty’s blog to see all three clips as well his own reflections on the event.




Posted in Alice Notley, Anselm Berrigan, Edmund Berrigan, Ted Berrigan, Video

A Lost Poem by Kenneth Koch

Kenneth Koch, August 1978. Photo credit: Katherine Koch.

The current issue of Poetry magazine has a great special feature devoted to a newly-discovered, unfinished poem by Kenneth Koch.  In a brief accompanying essay, Kate Farrell, who lived with Koch for several years in the 1970s and edited several books with him, explains the very personal and moving circumstances of this remarkable poem’s genesis, as well as the reasons why it never became part of the Koch canon.  As Farrell tells it, Koch wrote the poem in 1978, just as their relationship was foundering:

In July 1978, Kenneth Koch sent me his new poem “At the Ramp, ovvero Alla Rampa” — or “Alla Rampa” as he referred to it in the letter that accompanied it. After living together for several years in New York and elsewhere, Kenneth and I and my two children (the “babies” mentioned mid-letter) had spent that spring in Rome, where he was teaching Italian schoolchildren to write poetry. In June, I’d returned with the kids to New York for a trial separation which later that summer became permanent … Rediscovering “Alla Rampa” in my files a few years ago, I was struck by what a good poem it was — however unfinished. The Rome-drenched verve and charm of the letter that arrived with it was another surprise, bringing the moment of the poem’s writing to life.

After discussing the contents of the letter and giving some context for the poem and its musings on “time, love, loss, poetry,” Farrell explains what eventually happened to the poem:

The letter containing “Alla Rampa” was delayed in the mail, and the arrival of the poem just as we were breaking up muted the pleasure of reading it. I filed it away for my upcoming move, and I don’t think we ever discussed it. Luckily our friendship and collaborations continued: I remained his writing assistant for years afterward and we coauthored two books about reading and writing poetry.

Paul Celan’s idea of a poem as “a message in a bottle” seems to me especially apropos of “At the Ramp, ovvero Alla Rampa.” Not just a matter of how it showed up, redolent of another time, but of its letter-like tone, the vivid sense it gives of Kenneth at his Olivetti, the present-tense allegro of the endless search intact.

In addition to Farrell’s piece, the Poetry feature also includes a facsimile of the letter Koch sent to Farrell enclosing the poem, and the poem itself.

First page of “At the Ramp, overro Alla Rampa” by Kenneth Koch

Koch’s “At the Ramp, ovvero Alla Rampa,” unfinished or not, is a fascinating and moving poem, a welcome and exciting addition to Koch’s body of work.  With its disarming meditation on the poet’s own earlier writing, its anxious struggle to locate the self who had written those poems, it immediately calls to mind one of Koch’s finest works, “The Circus,” which he’d published a few years earlier:

Reading my own work to get some new inspiration
I found someone who resembled me who had gone away.
He had just gone a moment ago, in fact,
Since what I was reading was something I had just written.
Yes, now that this exists in time, I thought,
It is no longer the truth I am always looking for…

Consumed (like “The Circus”) by the problem of “our existence in time,” the poem meanders and ruminates, circling around “the discrepancy between thought and 
experience,” gnawing on questions of change and loss.  It ends:

Now, this person — I had better sum up — this one who is always different
Is also, since he is I myself, always the same.
He went last night to the restaurant and he wrote the poem
In which there was someone who was not quite completely himself.
He is writing this poem, and thinking, Oh, you’re not going to like me
Because I talk about changing so much and don’t stay on the subject
Of how much I love you and how I care so much more about this
Than about everything in the restaurant magnified to infinity, and the whole sky
And all the music, and he knows that the awareness of this feeling
Will pass, but the feeling — well, I don’t think that ever will, unless I die.

The emergence of this lost poem (as well as the facsimiles of the letter and poem, the great photos, and the essay that accompany it) is a treat for fans and scholars of Koch and the New York School, and contemporary poetry more broadly.  For more on the poem and the story behind it, the check out Poetry magazine’s monthly podcast, in which editors Don Share and Lindsay Garbutt talk with Kate Farrell herself.

Posted in Kenneth Koch, Poems

John Ashbery remembers Tomaž Šalamun

Tomaž Šalamun

Back in December, I posted about the unfortunate passing of the Slovenian poet Tomaž Šalamun, and his deep connections to the New York School.  The current Artforum gathers a number of brief tributes to Šalamun, including the following from John Ashbery:

I knew Tomaž Šalamun over a long time, but saw him relatively briefly on widely spaced occasions. Each time he came to New York we would get together for a little blast of Slovenian mirth and Sloveno-American poetry. And then he would be gone, leaving me with the illusion that a close friend had just come and left on another brilliant voyage. He seemed to be at home everywhere. Perhaps even Ljubljana, which to my regret I have never seen. They say it’s beautiful and sophisticated and yet obscure and off-the-radar, terms that might also apply to Tomaž and his crackling poetry.

Posted in John Ashbery, Tomaz Šalamun

The New York School, and more, in Louisville

I’ve just gotten back from the very fun and stimulating Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture since 1900 (directed by the esteemed poetry scholar Alan Golding) which, this year at least, amply demonstrated that scholarly work devoted to the poets of the New York School and their contemporaries is alive and well.  If nothing else, learning what other scholars and poets are talking about such conferences can give one a snapshot of the state of the conversation in a particular field.

There were a number of panels and papers devoted to the New York School, including a panel organized by Ben Lee, about “Rethinking Ekphrasis and the New York School.” It featured Brian Glavey giving a talk drawn from his book on “queer ekphrasis” in twentieth-century poetry (forthcoming from Oxford University Press), in which he argued that John Ashbery gives an unusual twist to the long ekphrastic tradition, since Ashbery’s celebrated poems about visual art are as much about not looking (or looking away) as they are about gazing at an artwork.  Susan Rosenbaum‘s paper (also related to her forthcoming book on surrealism and American poetry) uncovered a fascinating little-known film made by Daisy Aldan (editor of Folder and an important early ally to the New York School poets) titled Once Upon an El, which featured short cameos by O’Hara, Ashbery, Grace Hartigan and other poets and painters.  Mark Silverberg, author of The New York School Poets and the Radical Avant-Garde, took up a series of poems by Bob Holman that were inspired by Van Gogh, and argued that Holman turns ekphrasis into a more public, external, and performative mode.

A second panel on the New York School was devoted to figures from the movement’s so-called “second generation.”  It featured Grant Matthew Jenkins calling for greater critical attention to the work of Ron Padgett, Greg Kinzer using object-oriented ontology to explore the disorienting and unusual way Joseph Ceravolo represents things in his poems, and Robert Zamsky analyzing disobedience and elegy in Alice Notley’s middle-period poetry.

There was also a third New York School panel, this one organized by Robert Archambeau. For this panel, I contributed a talk that argued that Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground can be read as a surprising and under-recognized example of the New York School’s influence, giving some special attention to the remarkable issue of the magazine Intransit that Gerard Malanga edited in 1968 (which I’ve mentioned before) — a huge anthology that brought together poems by many New York School figures with written works by Warhol and other members of his “Factory,” as well as rock musicians like Reed, John Cale, and Nico.  Robert Archambeau‘s own paper re-situated Ashbery’s early work firmly within the art world of the 1950s, in a talk drawn from his forthcoming book on aestheticism and 20th century poetry.  John Gallaher expanded on his recent edition of the poems of Michael Benedikt (which I posted about here) with a talk about Benedikt’s poetry, his work as an editor, and his role within and outside of the New York School.

There were also interesting and compelling papers on cosmopolitanism and the New York School (Gregory Hazleton), the 1963 Vancouver Poetry Conference (Andy Meyer), on Charles Olson’s notion of polis (Paul Jaussen), the relationship between American and Canadian poets of the 1950s and 1960s (Zane Koss), and the correspondence of Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan (Joshua Hoeynck).  Plus a panel on “After Objectivism” in which Bob Perelman gave “a short history of punctuation in American poetry” and Hank Lazer delved into John Taggart’s poetry (and several other Objectivist panels that I wasn’t able to attend).

The conference also featured poetry readings by Joseph Lease (which, unfortunately, I wasn’t there in time to see), Tracie Morris, Fred Moten, Joseph Donahue, and Stephen Paul Miller, and an incendiary critical keynote talk by Fred Moten, and a great deal more.

I’m not sure if this is exactly what Angela Ball had in mind with the phrase “New York School diaspora,” but after spending 3 days in the middle of Kentucky talking about the New York School, discussing its legacy, and hearing lots of poetry written in its wake, I’d say it just might be.


Posted in Alice Notley, Andy Warhol, Conferences and Talks, Daisy Aldan, Gerard Malanga, Joe Ceravolo, John Ashbery, Lou Reed, Michael Benedikt, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Velvet Underground, Visual Art