William S. Burroughs to Frank O’Hara: Drop Dead

William S. Burroughs was born one hundred years ago today.  In honor of his centennial, there has been a great deal of activity in Burroughs-land, including a series of events in various cities, with a big centenary conference getting underway in Bloomington, Indiana as we speak.  Timed to coincide with the anniversary, a new biography of Burroughs by Barry Miles has just been published and has garnered high-profile reviews, including a smart, even-handed piece by Peter Schjeldahl in last week’s New Yorker.

I’ve always been fascinated by the relationship between Burroughs, and his fellow Beats, and the poets of the New York School, a topic that hasn’t gotten quite as much attention as it deserves.  Despite the genuinely affectionate friendship between Frank O’Hara and Allen Ginsberg, and even though two groups are (rightly) viewed as allies in the broad, avant-garde “New American Poetry” of the postwar period, the Beats and the New York School had an uneasy relationship founded on a sense of aesthetic kinship and deep cultural, personal, and philosophical differences.

Perhaps the most palpable, famous sign of the tensions between the two coteries is the notorious incident that occurred in March 1959, when Frank O’Hara gave a poetry reading with a good friend, the Beat poet Gregory Corso, at the Living Theatre in New York.  Jack Kerouac, who was very drunk and apparently jealous of Corso’s high regard for O’Hara, began to heckle and harass O’Hara with homophobic comments and to insist that he be allowed to read.  When Kerouac shouted out “you’re ruining American poetry, O’Hara,” O’Hara famously shot back “that’s more than you ever did for it.”

As far as I know, O’Hara had little direct contact with Burroughs, who was mostly in Mexico, Paris, and Tangier during these formative years.  But they had mutual friends, a shared interest in collage, and their work was often published in the same journals (like Amiri Baraka’s The Floating Bear).  One of Burroughs’s cut-ups (composed in collaboration with Corso) was even included in the New York School journal, Locus Solus.

So I was surprised and disturbed when I came across the following remarks Burroughs once made (in a letter to Brion Gysin) about O’Hara’s tragic death.  They appeared in a review of Burroughs’ letters that ran in 2012 in the New York Times (by Luc Sante):

“Burroughs, of course, was no saint. More shocking than his occasional flare-ups of misogyny or his consistent generalized misanthropy are the poisoned arrows he directed at his peers: ‘On the credit side of ledger Frank O’Hara was hit and killed by car and Delmore Schwartz . . . died of heart attack.'”

Burroughs was a deeply complicated, contrarian, and, yes, at times misanthropic, writer and person, so one shouldn’t be too surprised by anything he did or wrote.  I’ve always found him and his work fascinating, and I don’t mean to be a party-pooper on the day of his centennial.  But somehow this seems a step beyond the pale.

Schjeldahl mentions that Burroughs was “never cruel in his personal conduct,” but moments like this give one pause.

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