Ben Lerner’s Oblique Elegy For John Ashbery

Ben Lerner

Ben Lerner (John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

“I find the moments of beauty and possibility opening up in John Ashbery’s work inexhaustibly beautiful,” the fiction writer and poet Ben Lerner recently said in an interview.  This is certainly not surprising – Ashbery is a fixture in virtually all of Lerner’s writing and thinking.  After Ashbery passed away in 2017, Lerner wrote a brief, affecting tribute in the New Yorker about the poet and their relationship (“I’m dizzied by my luck at having overlapped with John Ashbery, one of the good things about being born when I was”).

Not only are Lerner’s first three books – volumes of poetry — clearly indebted to Ashbery’s work, but when he turned to fiction with his 2011 debut novel Leaving the Atocha Station, he borrowed the book’s title from an Ashbery poem.  The story centers on Lerner’s barely fictionalized alter-ego, Adam Gordon,  a young poet whose life bears a striking similarity to Lerner’s own, stumbling through a fellowship year in Madrid and ruminating at times on his favorite poet, John Ashbery.  On the novel’s very first page, the main character says that each day “I’d find my bag, which contained a bilingual edition of Lorca’s Collected Poems, my two notebooks, a pocket dictionary, John Ashbery’s Selected Poems, drugs, and leave for the Prado.”  Lerner even weaves into the novel parts of an essay on Ashbery that he had published in the scholarly journal Boundary 2.

Lerner’s most recent book, his celebrated third novel The Topeka School, continues to evince his deep ties to Ashbery and the New York School of poetry.  For this novel – a portrait of the artist as an even younger man – Lerner goes back to his high school years, to his experiences as a star debater and fledgling poet in Topeka, Kansas in the 1990s, in order to trace the “genealogy of his speech.”  By excavating his past, Lerner aims to explore the nature of the “school” that formed him and to map out the influences that shaped the adult Adam/Ben, who narrates the book’s final section in the present moment.

One of the key sources in that pre-history seems to be Ashbery, along with the movement he was so closely associated with.  Indeed, one of the novel’s sections, which recounts some disparate experiences all set in New York City (including a scene involving Ashbery himself) is called “The New York School.”  Furthermore, even though the book chronicles teenage Adam’s growing interest in poetry, refers to him studying poetry in college, and presents current-day Adam as a poet himself, Ashbery is one of the only poets mentioned by name.

Then there’s the novel’s title — as pieces in the New York Times and the Guardian have noted, it too seems to nod to the important role these poets played in Lerner’s own development: “Lerner wanted to be a lawyer until he discovered poetry in his midteens. The so-called New York School of John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara was especially formative (a debt acknowledged in the new book’s title ). The playful, suggestive incoherence of such writers offered a kind of antidote to the zero-sum hostility of debate.”

The title might also be a winking reference to “the soi-disant Tulsa School,” the tongue-in-cheek name Ashbery gave to a group of his own younger disciples, the remarkable group of writers and artists to emerge from Oklahoma in the early 1960s, which included Ron Padgett, Ted Berrigan, and Joe Brainard.  By titling his novel The Topeka School, Lerner may be hinting that Topeka is just as unlikely a site of origin for adventurous New York School-influenced art and literature, but also just as possible.

Throughout the novel, Lerner explores how our selves, our voices, and our view of the world are all fashioned out of disparate, clashing languages, vocabularies, and grammars – from the white, male, tough guy, rap-influenced teenage lingo of Topeka in the 1990s to the highbrow psychoanalytic patois of Adam’s intellectual parents, from the rapid-fire barrage used in competitive debate (known as “the spread”) to the non sequiturs and linguistic play of experimental poetry.  So it’s no accident that phrases from Ashbery’s poetry seep almost imperceptibly into the text, often unmarked and seamlessly blended into the consciousness which seems to be composing the novel we’re reading – that of the grown-up Adam/Ben, writing in Brooklyn in the Trump years.

For instance, in one passage where the narrative voice begins to break down into a jumble of fragments, lines from Ashbery’s long litany of rivers, “Into the Dusk-Charged Air,” enter the text unannounced (“Experts agree that the Yukon is choked with ice.  The Japurá is a pack of ice. The Loing is choked with fragments of ice. The Dnieper is still ice-bound”).  In another passage, set in a museum, Adam’s mother (or is it Adam ventriloquizing his mother?) mentions that she “kept catching glimpses” of an elusive painting “out of the corner of my eye,” adding the  phrase “whispers out of time” — which directly echoes the final words of Ashbery’s great long poem about an elusive painting, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” (“in cold pockets / Of remembrance, whispers out of time”).  At another point, Adam’s father (or is it Adam ventriloquizing his father?) seems to quote the first line of Ashbery’s “At North Farm” when he says “I was traveling furiously toward him in the dark”;  he also refers to New York as “a logarithm of other cities,” just as Ashbery does in a striking moment in “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.”

But it’s not just bits and pieces of Ashbery’s language, nor his characteristic preoccupations with the nature of time, language, art, or consciousness, that pop up throughout the novel – Ashbery himself makes a brief, important cameo.  Adam’s father recalls a pivotal moment in his son’s college years: while spending a semester at Columbia University, Adam is devastated to find out via email that his girlfriend has broken up with him while studying abroad in Spain. “And later that night, [Adam] explained, he was supposed to attend a big poetry reading at the 92nd Street Y; his professor, a poet named Stoke, or maybe Coke, was going to read, and so was John Ashbery, Adam’s hero.  There was some chance he might get invited to the dinner after; this was the kind of thing he’d dreamed about when he’d opted for New York.”

Although Adam’s father garbles the name, Adam’s teacher is obviously Kenneth Koch, the longtime Columbia professor.  Despite Adam’s excitement about seeing Ashbery read, everything goes wrong: just as Ashbery moves to the podium to introduce the evening’s program, Adam, seated in the front row and filled with despair about his breakup, has a panic attack and bolts from the room, but not before Ashbery spots him leaving and quips “That bad, eh?  Wait till you hear our poems?” while “everyone in the auditorium laughs.”

When I read this passage, I immediately thought: was this an actual event, a real poetry reading given by two famous poets, discoverable in the annals of history?  More importantly, was I there?  Like Adam (and presumably Lerner), I too happened to be living in New York and studying at Columbia in 1999, although I was nearly a decade older, a graduate student and instructor, rather than an undergraduate at the time.  At the same moment that Lerner apparently had Koch as a teacher, I too was working with Koch, though in my case I was helping him run a poetry series as his now-former assistant and all-around mentee.

One of the things that make Lerner’s novels so much fun is the way he deliberately creates a constant flickering between fact and fiction.  It’s impossible to read his books without pondering what is real and what is made up, what is autobiographical and what is not.  If you’re like me, you may even find yourself spending an inordinate amount of time googling things like the Menninger Foundation (the real-life version of the “Topeka school” Foundation where Lerner’s parents were psychologists), reading up on Harriet Lerner (the author’s famous psychologist mother and model for Jane in the book), or searching in vain for a photograph of the young Ben Lerner alongside Senator Bob Dole on the front page of an ancient edition of The Topeka Capital-Journal, to find out where the novel leaves off and real life begins.  This is of course the point of his work, which intensely probes what he calls “the unstable mixture of fact and fiction.”

So given my own obsessions and personal history, a passage about an Ashbery-Koch reading in New York in 1999 seems almost tailor-made to send me scurrying down various rabbit holes, trying to figure out whether it really happened as the book presents it.  The first thing I discovered is that, according to the detailed archives of the 92nd Street Y, Ashbery and Koch do not seem to have given a joint reading there in 1999, or at any other point.  Of course it is possible that Lerner has just invented the reading, or shifted the location, or the year.  However, Ashbery and Koch did appear together at that venue in 1999, just not as the two featured readers, at a reading that took place at the same moment as the event in the book, “a few weeks before the end of the term, before the end of the millennium,” so perhaps Lerner has just changed the details slightly.

On December 6, 1999, Barbara Guest and Kenneth Koch read together at the 92nd Street Y, and Ashbery himself also took part, though it’s not clear in what capacity; the archive only lists him as one of the performers.  (He may well have given an introduction for Koch, as the novel mentions: “His professor, Coke, is slated to read first; Ashbery will introduce him; then Coke will introduce Ashbery”).

My next thought was that surely I must have been there that night too!  It’s very unlikely that I would have missed the opportunity to see Koch and Guest and Ashbery read in New York in 1999, and I do recall seeing Ashbery and Koch read together on a number of occasions.  Maybe somewhere, deep in the coils of my brain, I might even be able to locate a memory of a young guy in the front row awkwardly getting up to leave in a rush as the evening was getting started, prompting a teasing remark from Ashbery, just as it happens to Adam/Ben in the novel.

But it was not to be: I dug out a datebook I kept during that year, and lo and behold, on the page for December 6, 1999, there’s a note about the coming event, along with the disappointing words, written (presumably later, with disappointment) in different color pen: “SOLD OUT.”

Guest Koch reading in 1999 datebook

So, apparently I was not there, not present in the audience alongside the real Ben or the fictional Adam.  Nevertheless, I’d like to think that maybe — on some some forking path, or within some flickering, alternate, possible version of reality (like those one finds everywhere in Lerner’s fiction and Ashbery’s poetry) — in a way I was.

In any event, Lerner’s brilliant novel is many things – a moving family saga, an unusual Künstlerroman, a sharp prehistory of the Trump era and its toxic masculinity – but it is also a chance for Lerner to compose another moving elegy for one of his heroes, John Ashbery, an oblique tribute to Ashbery’s outsized role in the “genealogy of his” – and our – “speech, its theaters and extremes.”

Posted in Barbara Guest, Ben Lerner, Fiction, Joe Brainard, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, NY School Influence, Ron Padgett, Ted Berrigan | 6 Comments

Sea Wolf’s “Frank O’Hara,” a Tribute to the Poet of Indie Rock

 

Indie rock’s love affair with Frank O’Hara continues apace.  As I’ve noted before on this blog, O’Hara seems

to haunt the history and present of popular music, leading one observer to ask: ‘When did Frank O’Hara become the poet of indie rock?’ O’Hara inspired the stage name of Frankie Cosmos, and songs by Rilo Kiley and Sonic Youth‘s Thurston Moore — Lou Reed even recited his work to Patti Smith while reclining in a bathtub! … Jeff Tweedy (of Uncle Tupelo and Wilco fame) cited O’Hara as one of his favorites, too.

Now the indie band Sea Wolf is keeping this welcome tradition alive with their new song titled “Frank O’Hara.”

 

The gentle, wistful song imagines an encounter between the singer and the great New York poet on a subway platform, not unlike Allen Ginsberg strolling the aisles of “A Supermarket in California” with the ghost of Walt Whitman at his side:  “Frank O’Hara / Standing in the subway / Imagined you beside me.”

Just as Ginsberg does with Whitman and Lorca, this song explores the speaker’s deep queer kinship with O’Hara: “I was always with you / Though we’re not the same / I know what it was to / Grow up with the shame.”

Indeed, Alex Brown Church, the singer and songwriter behind Sea Wolf, has explained that the song “reflects on the day same-sex marriage was federally legalized in the United States.”  Church’s song poignantly wishes O’Hara himself could’ve been around to witness how the world changed on June 26, 2015:

Love won that day
Lifted all of us up
What would you have written?
Would words have even been enough?

… Frank O’Hara
Wish you could’ve been there
You and me and mother
And all your former lovers

There is something undeniably moving about a musician in 2020 writing a such a lovely song paying tribute to Frank O’Hara as a gay forbear — as a “lonely old courage-teacher” (to borrow Ginsberg’s phrase for Whitman) — and imagining how O’Hara might’ve responded to the new world ushered in by the decision to legalize same-sex marriage: a world that has changed, changed utterly, in which one can look around and finally say, as the song’s chorus does, “so this is love / this is love.”

Here are the song’s lyrics in full:

Frank O’Hara
Standing in the subway
Imagined you beside me
As if you could hide me
Love won that day
Lifted all of us up
What would you have written?
Would words have even been enough?

Drove through deserts
Garbage in the meadows
Saw ourselves in windows
Hidden in the shadows
No one really knew us
Not the way we wanted
So we had to listen
To the voices haunting us

So this is love
This is love
So this is love
This is love

Frank O’Hara
Wish you could’ve been there
You and me and mother
And all your former lovers
I was always with you
Though we’re not the same
I know what it was to
Grow up with the shame

So this is love
This is love
So this is love
This is love
So this is love
This is love
So this is love
This is love

Frank O’Hara
Standing in the subway
What would you have written?
Would words have even been enough?

Posted in Allen Ginsberg, Federico Garcia Lorca, Frank O'Hara, Music, NY School Influence, Walt Whitman | Leave a comment

“Art Cooking: Frank O’Hara” (with Sarah Urist Green, John Green, Paige Lewis, and Kaveh Akbar)

Art Cooking Frank O'Hara title

It’s probably not a surprise that the work of Frank O’Hara, the author of a book called Lunch Poems, is overflowing with images of food and drink — from the “glass of papaya juice” at the end of “A Step Away from Them” and the “just plain scrambled eggs” in “For Grace, After a Party” to the “liver sausage sandwich” (ew) in “Music.”

For the series called “Art Cooking,” part of her educational YouTube channel “The Art Assignment,” Sarah Urist Green has zeroed in precisely on this aspect O’Hara’s work, and produced a charming and informative video devoted to the life and work of Frank O’Hara, and its connections to the delights of eating and sharing food with friends.  For this episode, Green is joined by her husband, the novelist John Green, and two wonderful poets, who also happen to be friends and former graduate students of mine, Paige Lewis and Kaveh Akbar.

In the video, titled “Having a Coke with Frank O’Hara,” Sarah Urist Green interweaves a lively introduction to O’Hara’s life and work with the preparation of a delicious-looking avocado salad (inspired by O’Hara’s “Poem (“Light   clarity   avocado salad in the morning”), followed by some cheeseburgers and a chocolate malted (from “A Step Away From Them”).  Along the way, Paige and Kaveh both read from O’Hara’s work, and the gang shares a coke while O’Hara reads his perennial favorite — and Valentine’s Day classic — “Having a Coke With You.”

Art Cooking Frank O'Hara avocado salad

The whole thing is a lot of fun, and it may even make you want to try out Green’s avocado salad recipe, eat a good burger, and read some of O’Hara delightful poems.

(The video was made in conjunction with the terrific new YouTube series called Ours Poetica, which Paige created with John Green, and I was honored to play the tiny role of providing “O’Hara protips”).

Art Cooking Frank O'Hara credits

Posted in Frank O'Hara, John Green, Kaveh Akbar, Paige Lewis, Sarah Urist Green, Video | 3 Comments

The Weather on 2/9/62: A Footnote for Frank O’Hara’s “Poem (Lana Turner has collapsed)”

Lana Turner collapse

On this day (February 9) in 1962, Frank O’Hara was on his way to give a poetry reading at Wagner College, with the much more famous poet Robert Lowell (who O’Hara viewed as a stuffy, mandarin rival) when he saw a surprising, troubling, and rather absurd headline.  Apparently, the famous actress Lana Turner, already a tabloid fixture, had collapsed “from exhaustion” at her own 42nd birthday party.  (A few years ago, I posted the original newspaper clipping and headline — “Lana Faints; In Hospital” — that O’Hara probably saw that day).

On the Staten Ferry, O’Hara jotted down a now-famous poem, which he took out of his pocket and read to the audience later that evening — an insouciant gesture, one in keeping with his aesthetic of spontaneity and improvisation, and apparently a real crowd-pleaser.  But it seemed to irritate Lowell, perhaps intentionally so: when he took the stage, Lowell sniffed that he wasn’t going to read anything he had written on the way to the reading.

Here’s the poem, which records the day’s miserable wintry weather in some detail, and uses it as a contrast to the supposedly perfect sunny and warm world of Hollywood, which now seems threatened by Lana’s calamity :

Lana Turner has collapsed!
I was trotting along and suddenly
it started raining and snowing
and you said it was hailing
but hailing hits you on the head
hard so it was really snowing and
raining and I was in such a hurry
to meet you but the traffic
was acting exactly like the sky
and suddenly I see a headline
LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED!
there is no snow in Hollywood
there is no rain in California
I have been to lots of parties
and acted perfectly disgraceful
but I never actually collapsed
oh Lana Turner we love you get up

A few years ago, Carl Robert Anderson tweeted the following New York City weather report for that fateful winter day, February 9, 1962, and simply said “it checks out.”

Weather Report Feb 9 1962

It does indeed check out — right down to the mix of rain and snow and “ice pellets,” which suggests that the “you” in the poem, who said it was hailing, was kind of right, even if O’Hara insists it was only raining and snowing.

Just another reminder of the experimental realism that drives O’Hara’s poems, which meticulously record the minutiae of daily life, including the fluctuations of the weather.

(For more on this poem and the original headline, see Paul Stephens’s essay on O’Hara, celebrity culture, and “the poetics of celebsploitation”).

Happy Lana Turner poem day!

Posted in Frank O'Hara, Poems, Robert Lowell, visual footnote | Leave a comment

“Dear David”: Joanna Fuhrman and Elaine Equi Pay Tribute to David Shapiro

David Shapiro

David Shapiro

Joanna Fuhrman

A few months ago, the poet Joanna Fuhrman wrote a lovely tribute to her friend and mentor, David Shapiro, for Fence.  As she explains, Shapiro’s poetry has meant a great deal to her for a long time (as it has for so many of us):

“I have been reading David Shapiro’s poems since I was a teenager. Long before we became friends, the lines from his mercurial and questioning poems bounced around my mind and being, becoming  part of the structure of who I am as a poet and a person.”

Eventually, Fuhrman and Shapiro became friends, and he began to read and comment on her own poems:

“Overtime we started to become friends. For years, he was the first person I sent my poems to, and he would write back emails that were like poems themselves, sometimes even rhymed, and always full of playful metaphors. His highest compliment was calling a poem ‘fresh.’ He’d write, ‘so fresh, as if they were made tomorrow.'”

Many years ago, I got to know David as well (when I was fortunate to have him serve as an external member of my dissertation committee), and like Fuhrman, I found him to be a brilliant, caring, generous, and an unfailingly supportive mentor.  As Fuhrman notes, this is nothing to sneeze at, especially in our contemporary moment:

“In the era of #MeToo, when more and more women are sharing their horror stories of male mentors, I am increasingly grateful (and aware of how rare it is) to have found a male mentor who was always generous, respectful, loving and never inappropriate.”

The piece also includes a wonderful short video that combines Shapiro’s own collages with a collaborative poem called “Dear David” that Fuhrman wrote for Shapiro with the poet Elaine Equi, another close friend of Shapiro’s.  As Fuhrman explains:

“we thought it would be meaningful to write a collaboration as a tribute to him and his most recent collection. David is well known for the beautiful collages he makes out of postcards and stickers. If you visit my Brooklyn apartment, you’ll see them all over the walls. For our poem, Elaine and I emailed each other photographs of the collages we owned and found other images of them online. We picked images we felt inspired by and wrote lines (or two or three) for each one. As we worked, we emailed lines to each other, and each riffed on what the other had written. We were inspired by David’s own poetry as much as by the images. At the end, I pieced the lines together of our poem ‘Dear David’ and made a video out of it. I wanted to use a piece of music by the Viennese composer Alban Berg, because the title of David’s most recent book is a reference to the composer’s Violin Concerto.”

Here’s the video:

Be sure to check out the piece, which Fuhrman calls “a tribute to David’s work as a poet and collage artist, as well as a great person and friend.”

Posted in David Shapiro, Elaine Equi, Joanna Fuhrman | Leave a comment

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 terrific 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