John Ashbery’s First Love and Rimbaud

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In a new interview at the Brooklyn Rail with Jarrett Earnest, John Ashbery speaks candidly about an early, formative experience that I don’t recall seeing him ever mention before.

When Jarrett says “a lot of people resort to poetry when they are in love, or are upset. I wonder how falling in love affected your poetry, or your relationship to language?” Ashbery divulges some personal details about his first love.  He explains that the older boy he fell for when he was 16 was the one who actually introduced Ashbery to the work of Arthur Rimbaud — the French poet who would become an important influence on his work and whose poetry Ashbery would go on to translate so memorably and wonderfully:

Ashbery: Actually, my first love was the summer I was sixteen with a boy a year older from Massachusetts who was working on a farm nearby. He was the one who first told me about Rimbaud.

Rail: Really!

Ashbery: He had read him. And he showed me the short poem, Ô saisons, ô châteaux, / Quelle âme est sans défauts?—which I thought was the most beautiful thing I’d ever read. I think I had already begun to write poetry when I first met him, but that opened a more intriguing way of poetry. My early poems are really embarrassing now and he was very kind about them but obviously he didn’t think they were worth much, offering genial criticism. And he also knew the poet Robert Francis, who was like sort of like Robert Frost—younger and lesser known—who lived in Amherst, near my friend.

Rail: Did you have a dramatic parting?

Ashbery: He went home to Amherst and I was going to Deerfield that September for my first year, and after he left I felt very guilty about having done all this and I stopped replying to his letters. He was very upset.

There’s something sweet and moving about this revelation — the notion that the 16-year old Ashbery fell in love for the first time and discovered Rimbaud simultaneously . As Jarrett says, the experience “must have cemented your relationship to both French and poetry.”

The interview is full of good stuff, including discussion of the youthful Ashbery’s diary (which he wrote in French to avoid having his mother learn of his crushes on boys), his experience as an art critic, his long-term relationship with David Kermani, and many other topics.  You can read it here.

Posted in Arthur Rimbaud, French poetry, Influences on the NY School, Interview, John Ashbery, Translation, Uncategorized

Bernadette Mayer’s “Memory” as an “Everyday-Life Project”

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Bernadette Mayer, Memory (cover, 1975 book version)

For the past six weeks, Bernadette Mayer’s important early multimedia work Memory has been on display at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago (the exhibition closes on April 27).  In conjunction with the exhibit, the Poetry Foundation hosted an artist’s talk with Mayer herself last week and posted a good discussion of the work by Lucy Biederman.  As if to underscore the recent surge of overdue attention to her work, a new poem of Mayer’s was selected by Matthew Zapruder to appear in today’s New York Times Magazine.

The exhibition of Mayer’s Memory is a big deal for fans of Mayer, contemporary poetry, and conceptual art: this now-legendary mixed-media installation has not been shown in its entirety since its original appearance in a New York gallery in 1972.

Over the past four-plus decades, Mayer’s experimentalism has taken many forms, but probably the most important part of her legacy has been her tireless creation of rule-determined, procedural, conceptual works like Memory.  To create this work, Mayer relied on self-assigned parameters and rules: she decided to take a roll of film every day for the entire month of July 1971, and recorded 7 hours of corresponding narration. The work was exhibited in a gallery, and was also later published in book form, and was thus simultaneously a long poem, a performance piece, an art exhibit, and an archive of daily life.

In Attention Equals Life, my forthcoming book on contemporary poetry’s fascination with the everyday — which has a chapter devoted to Bernadette Mayer — I refer to such works as “everyday-life projects.”  By this, I mean a whole range of rule-bound, performative, artificial experiments that call for the individual undertaking the project to engage in certain activities, usually for a set amount of time, with the goal of channelling attention to some aspects of everyday experience.  The conditions and parameters of the project are usually predetermined, and the project itself an experiential process – an embodied performance of some sort – rather than simply an aesthetic object or product.  The results of the project are also usually recorded, documented, and circulated in some way.

In some ways, Memory is a quintessential “everyday-life project” of the sort I discuss throughout my book.  “It’s a diary of one month,” Mayer later explained.  “I wrote incessant notes and made drawings about everything that happened every day.  I wrote down as much as I could without interrupting my life.  It was the month of July, 1971.  I had chosen the month at random without knowing what I would be doing during that month, because I didn’t want to choose a time to do this experiment that would be particularly loaded, or particularly interesting or dull.”

One of the first of her many exhaustive projects of documentation, Memory is an explicitly time-based and procedural work that she called an “emotional science project.” As she described the work (in Studying Hunger):

MEMORY was 1200 color snapshots, 3 x 5, processed by Kodak plus 7 hours of taped narration. I had shot one roll of 35-mm color film every day for the month of July, 1971. The pictures were mounted side by side in row after row along a long wall, each line to be read from left to right, 36 feet by 4 feet. All the images made each day were included, in sequence, along with a 31-part tape, which took the pictures as points of focus, one by one & as taking-off points for digression, filling in the spaces between.

As Liz Kotz has pointed out in her excellent discussion of Memory and conceptual art, here is how Mayer described the project, in a card included in the original exhibition:

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Mayer recalls that Memory “was exhibited as a multimedia work in a gallery that was interested in “trying to do kind of new things at that point in time.  Conceptual art I suppose is what it’s called.”  As she envisioned it, the audience “could follow the whole month by walking along with the pictures, and spend eight hours in the gallery.”

Following on the heels of Memory, Mayer would go on to devise many such everyday-life projects, including her book The Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters (in which she used the nine months of pregnancy as the formal constraint for a book of unsent letters arranged in nine sections that track the pregnancy’s progress) or her recent book The Helens of Troy, NY (in which she tracked down every woman named Helen in the city of Troy, New York, and took photographs and wrote poems about each one).

Given Mayer’s fascination with creating such projects, it is not surprising that once she had children in the mid-1970s, she quickly took the tools and tactics she had been using in Memory and other works and adapted them for the purposes of rendering daily life
as a mother as exhaustively and fully as possible. This goal came to fruition
in Midwinter Day (1982), generally considered to be one of her most significant and
influential works, which is the result of another deliberate, constraint- and time- based project — a kind of “real- time” experiment written about, and during the course of, a single day.

If you’re interested, stay tuned for the appearance of my book next month: it will feature an extensive discussion of Mayer, conceptualism, gender, and motherhood.  In the meantime, if you’re in or near Chicago, don’t miss out on seeing Mayer’s Memory in person!

 

Posted in Art Exhibit, Bernadette Mayer, Uncategorized, Visual Art

The “Resurgent Popularity” of Eileen Myles

Fortunately, the “Eileen Myles Moment” continues apace, with a big feature on Myles and her “resurgent popularity” in this weekend’s New York Times T Magazine.  The piece, by Emily Witt, is titled “The Poet Idolized by a New Generation of Feminists,” and it notes that “For decades, it seemed as though Eileen Myles and her unflinching depictions of New York misfits and creatives would forever be relegated to the margins of the American canon. And then last year happened.”

Here’s how Witt lays out the story of the Myles boom:

At the age of 66, Myles has published 19 books of poetry, prose and criticism, but until last year, when Ecco re-­released her 1994 novel, “Chelsea Girls,” many readers didn’t know who she was. That’s not to say she wasn’t famous in her own way — if you were a contemporary poet, if you were gay or if you had an interest in the cultural feminism of the 1990s, you probably read her. Each of these communities had its canon, and in their canons Myles figured.

But 2015 was the year that the culture machine picked up Myles and transmitted her to a larger audience. The gritty, idealistic outsiders of New York’s creative scenes in the late ’70s — their era’s music, art and general sense of freedom — provided an antidote to the homogeneity of today’s pop culture, and few writers captured that romantic rawness quite like Myles. She published poems in The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books for the first time. Young women were reading her work in the coffee shops of Brooklyn. On television, on the Amazon show “Transparent,” the  poems of a character named Leslie Mackinaw, played by Cherry Jones, are actually hers, and the fictional feminist professor is based on Myles, too. (Myles and the show’s creator, Jill Soloway, have dated.) This new generation of public feminists, including Beth Ditto, Lena Dunham and Tavi Gevinson, cite her as an inspiration, finding in her writing a ribald and ponderous succession to the New York School.

The article also discusses Myles’s formative experience working for James Schuyler (a chapter in her life memorably captured in Chelsea Girls): “For half a year she was an assistant to the poet James Schuyler who, said Myles, had ‘a career as a mental patient,’ supported by art-world friends who admired his writing. He lived at the Chelsea Hotel, and every morning Myles would bring him his newspapers and keep him company for the day.”

In addition to the profile, T Magazine also offers a list of Myles “10 Favorite Books,” which is worth checking out just for her funny and incisive commentary on each book — for example, Myles has this to say about Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood: “This is like a dark lesbian genius rolling in a giant heap of damp, dead leaves. What a great, shaking, grieving party this book is — the best,” and this to say about the poet John Wieners: “The Hotel Wentley poems are nested in here, and they are the most grandly erotic and heartfelt homosexual sketches about living out of time in friendship on the edge, and seeing the whole trembling picture of midcentury America from there.”

“For many readers discovering Myles’s work for the first time,” Witt writes, “the experience was accompanied by a sense of confusion: Why hadn’t we read her sooner?” For those of us who have been reading Myles for a long time, we’re just happy the rest of the world is catching up.

Posted in Eileen Myles, James Schuyler, John Wieners, Uncategorized

Grace Hartigan, Frank O’Hara, and the New York School

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Burt Glinn, Back Table at the Five Spot (1957), Frank O’Hara, Larry Rivers, Grace Hartigan (l to r)

The painter Grace Hartigan (1922-2008) was a central figure in the New York School of poets and artists in the 1950s. Particularly close to Frank O’Hara, Hartigan played an integral role in the movement’s heroic period.  Fortunately, she is the subject of a new biography by Cathy Curtis called Restless Ambition: Grace Hartigan, Painter, which was published in 2015. The book is part of a recent trend which has brought renewed attention to the wonderful, often overlooked women painters who were affiliated with Abstract Expressionism and the New York School, such as Elaine de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, Jane Freilicher, Helen Frankenthaler, and Hartigan herself.

The current London Review of Books features a great review of Curtis’s biography by Jenni Quilter.  Quilter (author of the indispensable New York School Poets and Painters: Neon in Daylight) helpfully traces Hartigan’s career, highlighting her role as one of the few women painters in a mostly-male dominated New York art and literary world.  She also gives a good sense of Hartigan’s famously tempestuous personality and crucial yet stormy relationship with O’Hara.

As Quilter notes, “Hartigan was known as a socially difficult person, quick to take and to give offence. She had a reputation for being an aggressive drunk, and a habit of isolating herself. She often felt like the only female painter in the room, even when she wasn’t. She consistently envied her colleagues’ and friends’ successes,” including fellow painters like Joan Mitchell and Jane Freilicher.

Quilter explains the close connection between Hartigan and O’Hara, which burned hotly for several years before coming to a sudden end in the early 1960s:

She was one of O’Hara’s muses, and he dedicated several poems to her, including ‘For Grace, after a Party’, ‘Christmas Card to Grace Hartigan’ and ‘Portrait of Grace’. Receiving this last poem, Hartigan wrote that it ‘makes me feel as though I exist now. I get so confused about myself, as though only the paintings are real. The poem makes me have an existence.’ The gift of attention could be profoundly sustaining – and Hartigan was generous in return. She designed the cover for a collection of O’Hara’s poems (written to accompany an exhibition of hers), and embarked on an ambitious series of 12 paintings based on the prose poems ‘Twelve Pastorals’ in which she incorporated many of O’Hara’s lines. She is the Grace mentioned on O’Hara’s gravestone, in a line from ‘In Memory of My Feelings’: ‘Grace to be born and live as variously as possible.’ And yet in 1960 or 1961 she wrote him a ‘Dear John’ letter, ending their friendship. Her therapist had told her that her attachment to him was stifling other intimacies. O’Hara was wounded; friendships waxed and waned, but declaring a split in this way felt violent.

from Grace Hartigan’s series Oranges, based on prose poems by Frank O’Hara (1953)

At the very moment Hartigan, O’Hara, and their coterie began to achieve visibility and success, Hartigan left the dynamic yet draining New York scene behind and made the apparently tragic mistake of moving, with her fourth husband, to Baltimore. Hartigan later called this “the disaster of my life.”

In 1960, the snobbish consensus within the New York art world was that Baltimore was another country, despite being only a four-hour drive away. Although many other artists were leaving New York at the time, they went to Paris, or Long Island, well-established alternatives with like-minded communities. Even Vermont, Cape Cod and Maine felt closer; at least people summered there. After moving to Baltimore, Hartigan’s career never recovered.

That may be the case, but while it lasted, Hartigan thrived at the heart of the New York School’s social and artistic world, collaborating with the poets and feeding off of and fueling their work.  As Quilter observes, O’Hara addresses or mentions Hartigan in numerous poems, as when he writes of their friendship in “Day and Night in 1952”: “Grace may secretly distrust me but we are both so close to the abyss that we must see a lot of each other, grinning and carrying on as if it were a picnic given by somebody else’s church.”

In another poem not mentioned in the review, the 1959 poem titled “L’Amour Avait Passé Par Là,” O’Hara writes:

to get to the Cedar to meet Grace
I must tighten my moccasins
and forget the minute bibliographies of disappointment
anguish and power
for unrelaxed honesty

The day after writing this poem, O’Hara sent it to Hartigan, along with the following note: which apologizes for his own part in whatever went wrong during the presumably liquor-sodden previous night:

Here’s the poem O’Hara enclosed*:

Quilter points out that one effect of biographies like this one about Hartigan, along with others to come on Ashbery, Schuyler, and Elaine de Kooning — and I would add recent work on figures like Joan Mitchell and many others — will be to quietly “reshape a milieu we think we know.” And that is something to be happy about indeed.

I’ll close with one of my favorite of O’Hara’s poems for Grace Hartigan,  “For Grace, After a Party”:

 

*Obsessive O’Hara readers may notice that the typed version of “L’Amour Avait Passé Par Là” is presumably an early draft, because it differs significantly from the version that appears in O’Hara’s Collected Poems.  In O’Hara’s Collected, the poem omits the final 7 lines of the typed version, and instead ends with the lines “it is the great period of Italian art when everyone imitates Picasso / afraid to mean anything / as the second flame in its happy reflecting ignores the candle and the wind.”

Posted in Abstract Expressionism, Book Review, Elaine de Kooning, Frank O'Hara, Grace Hartigan, Helen Frankenthaler, James Schuyler, Jane Freilicher, Joan Mitchell, John Ashbery, Larry Rivers, Uncategorized, Visual Art

Hilton Als on John Ashbery’s Rimbaud

In the New Yorker, Hilton Als reviews a new production called “Rimbaud in New York,” which is based on John Ashbery’s translation of Arthur Rimbaud’s great collection of prose poems, Illuminations.  As Als explains:

Working from Ashbery’s translation of Rimbaud, the Civilians, a Brooklyn-based theatre collective, have put together a new piece, “Rimbaud in New York” (at BAM Fisher, March 1-6). The socially concerned group, under the direction of Steve Cosson, uses songs and prose to investigate, among other works, Rimbaud’s dense and wild “Illuminations,” written during his relationship with the poet Paul Verlaine.

Als doesn’t say much about the production, but instead spends most of the brief piece praising Ashbery’s wonderful translations of French poetry, which were gathered in Collected French Translations in 2014 — a two-volume set that Als calls “essential reading not only if you’re interested in the esteemed poet but also if you share his interest in French cultural figures, ranging from Baudelaire to Redon and beyond.”

Als traces the history of Ashbery’s engagement with French:

As a boy growing up in upstate New York, Ashbery was entranced by distant relatives who lived abroad. The glamour of expatriation was formative. In high school and, later, at Harvard, the burgeoning writer studied French and was excellent at it; he moved to France on a Fulbright in 1955, and lived in a number of towns before finally settling in Paris

Making a living was tough but not impossible. In 1960, Ashbery joined the staff of the International Herald-Tribune. He wrote about art, and about the milieu that helped inform the work of such French masters as Toulouse-Lautrec. After ten years in France, Ashbery returned to New York, where he continues to live, surrounded by poets young and old, who learn from him and take heart—language can change your life in more ways than one.

And closes with some more praise for Ashbery’s Rimbaud:

Ashbery not only captures that French renegade’s intensity and playfulness in his translation, he does so with an urgency that reminds us that Rimbaud left the form that he helped create—modernism—as a disenchanted young man, while Ashbery, never a cynic, works in his own vibrant space, one that goes on and on.

Posted in Arthur Rimbaud, French poetry, Influences on the NY School, John Ashbery, Theater / Plays, Translation

New York School Sons (to Delmore Schwartz)

Delmore Schwartz

The New Yorker has posted a piece by John Ashbery on the writer Delmore Schwartz.  The essay, which Ashbery first gave as a talk in Japan in 1996, has not been easily accessible in print until now, but it will apparently serve as the introduction to Once and for All: The Best of Delmore Schwartza new edition of Schwartz’s work (edited by Craig Morgan Teicher) that is due out in April from New Directions. A resuscitation of Schwartz’s reputation is overdue and fortunately this collection “aims to restore Schwartz to his proper place in the canon of American literature and give new readers access to the breadth of his achievement.”

With the clarity, charm, and elegance typical of his prose, Ashbery recounts the ups and downs of Schwartz’s life and reputation, and makes a persuasive case for the enduring strength and appeal of his poetry.

Ashbery seems like a fitting figure to provide this introduction since Delmore Schwartz served as an important influence for his own work and for the other poets in Ashbery’s circle.  As the critic Terence Diggory has noted, “Schwartz loomed over the New York School as a figure of authority in person as well as in his writing.”

When Ashbery and his future fellow New York School poet pals attended Harvard in the late 1940s, Schwartz, already one of the most celebrated younger writers of the day, was a professor there.  In the piece, Ashbery actually acknowledges that a major reason he wanted to attend Harvard in the first place was because Schwartz, whose work he was already very fond of, was on the faculty there. He writes:

though I never studied with Delmore, nor met him at Harvard, for reasons I can no longer remember, since I admired his poetry even before coming to the university; in fact, he was one of the main reasons I wished to study there. My friend Kenneth Koch did, however, take a course with him, from which he reported great things. (I did get to know Delmore slightly several years later, in New York, and was delighted when he accepted my poem “The Picture of Little J.A. in a Prospect of Flowers” for Partisan Review.) Our lack of contact at Harvard may have been a problem of scheduling; Schwartz, in fact, on at least one occasion cancelled his course abruptly and returned to New York to breathe the freer air of Greenwich Village.

The fact that Ashbery has written so eloquently and perceptively about Schwartz’s work further underscores a point which I have argued elsewhere: that Delmore Schwartz stands as an unexpected point of origin, of common ground, shared by the first generation New York School poets and Lou Reed, who always insisted that studying with Schwartz at Syracuse University was a formative, life-changing experience.  Reed’s band, the Velvet Underground, famously tipped their hat to the poet who served as mentor and influence for not only Lou Reed, but also Kenneth Koch, and (more indirectly) John Ashbery, on their epochal first album (with the famous Andy Warhol banana cover), which closes with a long, chaotic song titled “European Son (to Delmore Schwartz).”

The song, which features two brief, cryptic verses (“You killed your European son / you spit on those under 21”) before turning into a 7 minute dissonant instrumental jam, was something of a tribute, but also a sly rebuke, to Reed’s hero Delmore Schwartz, who Reed knew was very skeptical of his turn from literature to rock music. As guitarist Sterling Morrison recalled, “Delmore thought rock and roll lyrics were the worst things he’d ever heard in his life; he despised songs with words. As this was our big instrumental outing on the album we dedicated it to him.”

 

Posted in Andy Warhol, Delmore Schwartz, Influences on the NY School, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Lou Reed, Music, Velvet Underground

James Schuyler: “Tomorrow is St. Valentine’s …”

“Tomorrow is St. Valentine’s,” James Schuyler wrote in a poem 41 years ago today.  “Tomorrow I’ll think about / that.”  The poem (which one of my grad students, the poet Paige Lewis, reminded me of today) appeared as  part of Schuyler’s sequence “The Payne Whitney Poems,” a series written while he was institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital following one of his many mental breakdowns.

Once again, tomorrow is Valentine’s Day and tomorrow you can think about that.  In the meantime, here is Schuyler’s poem:

February 13, 1975

Tomorrow is St. Valentine’s:
tomorrow I’ll think about
that. Always nervous, even
after a good sleep I’d like
to climb back into. The sun
shines on yesterday’s new-
fallen snow and yestereven
it turned the world to pink
and rose and steel-blue
buildings. Helene is restless:
leaving soon. And what then
will I do with myself? Some-
one is watching morning
TV. I’m not reduced to that
yet. I wish one could press
snowflakes in a book like flowers.
Posted in James Schuyler, Poems