Cecil Taylor (1929-2018), Frank O’Hara, Amiri Baraka


Cecil Taylor, still from “Les Grandes Répétitions,” a 1966 French documentary about Taylor.

When the groundbreaking avant-garde jazz pianist and composer Cecil Taylor died last month, there was an outpouring of obituaries and tributes to his genius and influence.  But there was less attention paid to Taylor’s connections to the literary world, and to avant-garde poetry — including his links to New York poets during the 1950s and 1960s — than one might have expected.

It’s true that Taylor’s friend and rival, Ornette Coleman — who is often seen, alongside Taylor, as one of the co-founders of free jazz – may have had more extensive contact and social ties than Taylor himself with the poets of the New York School, as I discussed after Coleman died in 2015.

But Taylor, who was also a poet, first emerged in the same New York scene, rubbing elbows with poets like Frank O’Hara and Amiri Baraka, and playing some of his earliest gigs at the Five Spot (the legendary jazz club that serves as the site of Frank O’Hara’s famous elegy for Billie Holiday and was a hangout for the downtown, bohemian, literary set).  And he really read (and wrote) the stuff: thanks in part to Baraka, Taylor began to read deeply in the work of poets associated with the “New American Poetry,” like Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Michael McClure, and Bob Kaufman.

Adam Shatz has just published a lengthy and excellent article about Taylor’s life, work, and legacy for the New York Review of Books that fills in some of these gaps — including a tantalizing reference to O’Hara and passages about Baraka, the Five Spot, and other literary figures like Norman Mailer.  Shatz weaves together a slew of memorable anecdotes that flesh out the daunting range of Taylor’s influences and interests, and vividly convey his brilliant, complicated, sometimes difficult, enigmatic personality and aesthetic philosophy.  As Shatz writes, “Cecil Taylor was as urbane an intellectual as jazz has ever known: reader of Camus, friend of the Beats, student of modernist architecture.”

Shatz got to know Taylor during the last decade of his life, and relays the texture and content of his many conversations with the musician.  In the course of doing so, he mentions that Taylor would regularly speak with admiration about Frank O’Hara:

He invariably talked about the people he loved and the artists he admired: his father, a professional cook from whose kitchen “the most wonderful smells would emanate”; his formidable mother, who spoke French and German and took him to the ballet; Billie Holiday and Lena Horne, both of whom he worshipped; Jimmy Lyons, who had given twenty-six years of saintly devotion to Taylor’s Unit; the architect Santiago Calatrava, whose bridges he adored; and the poet Frank O’Hara, who shared his love of modern art and “was rather pleasant to look at.” (Did he know O’Hara well, I once asked him. “I don’t know anyone well,” he replied.)

I’ve never been able to find much textual evidence pointing to specific connections between O’Hara and Taylor, especially in contrast to Coleman (who O’Hara did mention in letters and refer to in his work), so I was particularly intrigued by Shatz’s recollection here.

Presumably, O’Hara and Taylor would’ve crossed paths repeatedly in the downtown music, art, and poetry scene, and I know of at least one event where they shared a (rather amazing) bill, on June 24, 1963.

Leroi Jones Benefit flyer

As this poster shows, both Frank O’Hara and Cecil Taylor performed at a benefit for LeRoi Jones (who would soon become Amiri Baraka) and his wife Hettie Jones at the Living Theatre.  The benefit, intended to raise money for the couple after they had been stricken with hepatitis and were struggling financially, brought together a rather amazing set of figures from avant-garde poetry, art, and music, including O’Hara, painter and saxophonist Larry Rivers, Paul Blackburn, trumpeter Don Cherry (famous for his work with Ornette Coleman), and Cecil Taylor.  (This 1963 article from the Village Voice about the upcoming event mentions that avant-garde composer Morton Feldman and writer Gilbert Sorrentino would be appearing as well).

Here’s another instance which suggests that O’Hara and Taylor spent time in one another’s company: a couple years ago, I wrote about an interview in which Allen Ginsberg reminisced about the “real mad combination” of people who could be found socializing at Baraka’s apartment, which functioned as “a grand ‘salon'” for the postwar avant-garde: “I saw at one party, in one room, at one time Langston Hughes, Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Franz Kline, Kerouac, myself,” along with “Frank O’Hara … maybe intersecting with Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery, and others; Robert Creeley, Charles Olson…”

Speaking of Baraka, Shatz’s article also includes an interesting passage about the Taylor-Baraka relationship, which started out strong but turned fraught, for reasons both personal and political:

Taylor often spoke of his estranged friend the poet and jazz critic Amiri Baraka, whom he insisted on calling by his former name, LeRoi Jones. They had been close in the late 1950s and early 1960s, until Baraka brought Allen Ginsberg over to Taylor’s apartment in the East Village. Ginsberg wanted Taylor to write music for a reading of Howl, but Taylor declined, out of loyalty to the black Beat poet Bob Kaufman, whom Taylor felt Ginsberg had unfairly overshadowed. As they were leaving, Baraka sneered, “the problem with our jazz musicians is that they’re not literate.” Still cut by that remark, Taylor told me, “I took a friend to one of ’Roi’s readings years later, after he’d started calling himself Amiri Baraka. I asked him what he thought. ‘Very impressive,’ he said, ‘but how many times can you hear the word black?’ ’Roi started out as a poet, but became a polemicist,” a word he pronounced with disdain.

There’s also a funny Five Spot anecdote, about the time Norman Mailer liked Cecil Taylor’s music so much, and so noisily, that he got Taylor canned:

One of his earliest (and loudest) admirers was Norman Mailer, who heard Taylor at the Five Spot, on the Bowery, in the early 1960s, and was so astonished that he stood up on his chair and declared, “This guy Cecil Taylor is so much better than Monk.” Mailer cost Taylor his gig: an influential friend of Monk’s reported the comment to Joe Termini, the Five Spot’s co-owner, who was already looking for a pretext to fire Taylor. “Norman knew about a lot of things, but music was not one of them,” Taylor told me at one of our dinners, adding that “if it weren’t for Monk I could not have existed.”

Throughout, Schatz stresses Taylor’s deep ties to poetry, literature, and the other arts, which sometimes contrasted sharply with his chilly reception by the gatekeepers of jazz.  “Never fully embraced by the jazz world, he was lionized by writers, poets, dancers, and artists who admired his audacity and had as little use for categories as he did.”  Taylor’s death — like the passing of Ornette Coleman, John Ashbery, and so many others in recent years — signals the end of a remarkable era in which those “real mad combinations” were still possible, and music, poetry, and art cross-fertilized in fascinating, inspiring ways.


Cecil Taylor, still from “Les Grandes Répétitions,” a 1966 documentary about Taylor.

Posted in Allen Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), Beats, Billie Holiday, Bob Kaufman, Cecil Taylor, Charles Olson, Frank O'Hara, Franz Kline, Gilbert Sorrentino, In Memoriam, Influences on the NY School, Jack Kerouac, Jazz, Kenneth Koch, Larry Rivers, Michael McClure, Morton Feldman, Music, Norman Mailer, NY School Influence, Ornette Coleman, Paul Blackburn, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Thelonious Monk | 1 Comment

Roundup of Recent “New York School of Poetry” News and Links (5/16/18)

Ashbery Diffusion of Knowledge collage

John Ashbery, “Diffusion of Knowledge” (1972).

Here’s the latest roundup of recent links, new publications, and news related to the New York School of poets.  (For my most recent roundup, see here).

They Knew What They Wanted, the gorgeous new collection of John Ashbery’s collages (paired with a selection of his poems), continues to elicit attention and laudatory reviews.  Gregory Cowles reviewed the book for the New York Times Book Review.  “Ashbery’s images demonstrate the same sense of gleeful mischief that’s everywhere in his poetry,” Cowles writes, “mixing fine art with advertising and comic strips and picture postcards, all of it married with the artist’s sure eye for color and mood and perspective. The result is an entire oeuvre of fantasy landscapes…”

 – Michael Robbins reviewed the book of Ashbery’s collages for the Chicago Tribune.  He stresses the often overlooked spirit of fun at the center of Ashbery’s body of work, and connects the collage-like elements of his poetry to the works of visual art that are reproduced, “in eye-smacking color,” in this book.  Ashbery’s “collages re-create childlike mysteries and enchantments. Their unlikely encounters can return me to my juvenile fascination with comic-book crossover events, Superman and Spider-Man duking it out in some corporate DMZ.”

— For Artsy, Alina Cohen writes about “The Ongoing Influence of Frank O’Hara, the Art World’s Favorite Poet.”  Cohen traces O’Hara’s complicated and colorful interactions with postwar American painters, from Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning to Andy Warhol, and his profound and continuing impact on the art world.  (I was happy that I got a chance to speak with Cohen for this piece and it contains a few quotes by yours truly).

— For Vogue, Julia Felsenthal wrote a great, wide-ranging piece on Jane Freilicher’s life and work and a new show of her work that is currently at Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York.  The article presents Freilicher as “an uncommonly magnetic presence on the postwar art and literary scene,” and highlights her close friendships with the poets of the New York School (a subject I’ve written about before for example here and here):

The paintings in the Kasmin show—all but two date back to the ’50s (many hung in her and Ashbery’s homes)—were made in the heady early days of these creative friendships (Hazan compares her mother and the poets to Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe in Just Kids). It was an era when O’Hara, who wrote a slew of poems devoted to “Jane,” would come over and help her stretch her canvases; when Ashbery would drop by to watch her paint; when Kenneth Koch, her onetime upstairs neighbor, would don a gorilla mask and scare passengers on the elevated train that rumbled past their windows. (He once said of Freilicher: “I never enjoyed conversation with anyone so much in my life.”)

— The current issue of the New Yorker also has a brief rave review of the Freilicher show as well: “Lyrical interiors and cityscapes, painted in the nineteen-fifties by this beloved New York artist, who died at the age of ninety in 2014, are a balm for the eyes…The show’s graceful mood is so seductive that you might overlook how daringly improvisational a painter Freilicher really was.”

Jane Frelicher, The Painting Table (1954)

Jane Frelicher, The Painting Table (1954)

Joseph Lease’s highly anticipated new book of poems, Body Ghost, will be published in June by Coffee House Press.  The blurbs situate Lease’s work within a New York School poetic lineage.  Cyrus Cassells writes that “These poems, rife with music and sly, playful inquiries into the world, have some of Frank O’Hara’s metropolitan freshness and directness; they’re charming in their artful, lyrical gestures (‘the elegies / are taking off their clothes . . .’), but also plangent at key moments in their genuine moral and social critique (‘… tear up maps— / democracy is anyone’s eyes— feel / like you might have, might have / killed someone’).”  David Shapiro, second generation New York School poet extraordinaire, writes: “When I was very young, my father, a ‘skin doctor,’ would show gleaming models of body parts at medical fairs. They frightened my sisters, but they were also illuminations of a whole world. Joseph’s poems are like these terrifying wholes/holes. They travel into us. Joseph has been making an American Buddhist poetry, and he is as maximalist as flesh and bone. He gives me the sensation that poetry is in gleaming hands, healing and grasping and letting go. He is the future of poetry.”

— At the Believer, there is a long, interesting interview with Ron Padgett, in which Padgett and Stephanie La Cava discuss the passing of John Ashbery, Joe Brainard, Kenneth Koch, Marcel Duchamp, Padgett’s role as the poet behind Jim Jarmusch’s New York School-saturated film Paterson, William Carlos Williams, collaboration, Alex Katz, and much else.

— Nick Sturm recently posted a fascinating piece on his blog, Crystal Set, about a notebook Bernadette Mayer kept during her time as the Director of the Poetry Project at St. Marks, which is available as a PDF from the Library of Congress and which Sturm reproduces some pages from:

Filled with scribbled notes, poets’ phone numbers, lists of names for possible readings, reminders, budget concerns, doodles by her then-young children, sketches of correspondence, questions, ideas for events and poems, and even a colored map of the Church describing volunteers’ responsibilities for the 1980 New Year’s Eve Benefit Reading, the notebook acts as an animated snapshot of the planning and record keeping that went into the events and readings that facilitate and support a community of major artists. It’s an incredible visual document. From day-to-day Mayer is checking in with Alice Notley about a poster, calling John Wieners, writing to Cecil Taylor, or checking to see if a grant application for the Project Project Newsletter is due yet… More than anything else, the notebook is a document of labor, evidence of the difficult and overwhelming work that it requires to manage an institution like the Poetry Project, including managing the personalities, egos, and arguments amongst artists and other Project employees.

— And, speaking of Bernadette Mayer, there are two new poems by Mayer in the current (May 2018) issue of Poetry magazine, “Fish & Chips” and “Alternating Lunes” (a collaboration with Philip Good).

John Yau’s lovely elegy for the late New York School poet Paul Violi, “Overnight,” appeared in the “Poem-a-Day” series hosted by the Academy of American Poets:

I did not realize that you were fading from sight
I don’t believe I could have helped with the transition
You most likely would have made a joke of it.

— In other welcome John Yau news, Poets & Writers announced that Yau has been awarded the 2018 Jackson Poetry Prize.  The $60,000 prize is given annually “to an American poet of exceptional talent who deserves wider recognition.”

— As readers of this blog might recall, I’m a bit obsessed with the connections between Lou Reed and the New York School of poets, so I’m eagerly awaiting the publication of a new collection of Reed’s rare, early poems, Do Angels Need Haircuts?  There has already been some buzz about the book (as in these pieces in the Guardian and Rolling Stone).  And now there’s a great review of the book in Rolling Stone by Will Hermes, who is working on a biography of Reed.  The collection captures the moment just after the Velvet Underground disbanded, when Reed seriously contemplated giving up music and devoting himself full-time to writing, and features a 1971 recording of Reed reading his poems at New York School headquarters, the Poetry Project at St. Marks.  As Hermes notes:

Reed’s literary and musical drives merged majestically years later in the Velvet Underground, a band born of a scene full of poets. Their first drummer, Angus MacLise, wrote poems and ran a small chapbook press with Reed’s sometime roommate, fellow poet and filmmaker Piero Heliczer. Gerard Malanga, the Velvets’ whip-cracking dancer in the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, was a poet of some accomplishment too, working with Warhol on various publishing projects; one was an outsized edition of the literary journal Intransit titled The Andy Warhol–Gerard Malanga Monster Issue, featuring poems by Reed, MacLise, Nico and John Cale, among others. And to be sure, New York City poets young and old saw the Velvets play their legendary stand at the Dom in the East Village in April 1966, and at their swan-song Max’s Kansas City residency in the summer of 1970. At the latter shows, Patti Smith and Jim Carroll were among the up-and-comers. Anne Waldman, high priestess of the latter-day Beats and New York Schoolers, caught the Velvets at the Dom when she was living just down the block, at 33 St. Mark’s Place.

Reed’s widow, Laurie Anderson, who is tending to his archive and legacy, recently spoke with Dazed about the new collection of Reed poems as well.

Posted in Alex Katz, Alice Notley, Andy Warhol, Anne Waldman, Bernadette Mayer, collaboration, David Shapiro, Frank O'Hara, Gerard Malanga, Interview, Jane Freilicher, Jim Carroll, Jim Jarmusch, Joe Brainard, John Ashbery, John Wieners, John Yau, Joseph Lease, Kenneth Koch, Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed, NY School Influence, Patti Smith, Paul Violi, Poems, Poetry Project at St. Marks, Ron Padgett, Roundup, Velvet Underground, Visual Art, William Carlos Williams | 2 Comments

On Frank O’Hara and Willem de Kooning

Well, I have my beautiful de Kooning
to aspire to. I think it has an orange
bed in it, more than the ear can hold.

— Frank O’Hara, “Radio”

Today is the birthday of the great painter Willem de Kooning, who was born on April 24, 1904.  I thought I would take this occasion to link to a piece of mine about the deep ties between Frank O’Hara and de Kooning, which appeared last year in the British journal Decals of Desire (and which I guess I forgot to post about at the time here).

In the piece, I write that although O’Hara revered both de Kooning and Jackson Pollock,

“he loved de Kooning.  He never enjoyed a close personal relationship with Pollock, who was frequently cruel and abusive to those around him and prone to homophobic outbursts and slurs.  In his biography of O’Hara, Brad Gooch notes of Pollock that “on at least one occasion he called O’Hara a ‘fag’ to his face and was enough of a menace that O’Hara fled the Cedar one night when he heard that Pollock was on a drunken rampage.”  In contrast, de Kooning was unfailingly generous and supportive of O’Hara and his friends, who in turn idolized him and his work above all others.  In a memoir, O’Hara recalled that “when Larry [Rivers] introduced me to de Kooning I nearly got sick.”  He and his friends may have seen de Kooning as a god, but, to their delight and surprise, he was a deity who deigned to come down and chat and get drunk with mere mortals like themselves.  The young poets adored de Kooning’s charismatic personality, his clever wit, and his tendency (as a native speaker of Dutch rather than English) to spout wonderful off-kilter phrases and oddly poetic insights, which they would sometimes stitch into their own work.

And the feeling was mutual: de Kooning developed a strong connection with O’Hara in particular that persisted until O’Hara’s tragic death at the age of 40 in 1966.  The painter respected O’Hara deeply, despite the difference in their age. “I liked him immediately,” de Kooning would later recall.  “He was so bright. Right away he was at the center of things, and he did not bulldoze.  It was his manner and his way.  There was a good-omen feeling about him.”  De Kooning was also not shy about showing his affection for O’Hara: as Gooch notes, “evidently free of Pollock’s homophobia, de Kooning often greeted O’Hara at the Cedar with a big juicy kiss.”

In addition to tracing their friendship, which was marked by affection and deep admiration for one another’s work, I also argue that “De Kooning was more than merely an artist O’Hara admired. The painter’s work – especially its fresh, intoxicating mix of abstraction and figuration – also kindled O’Hara’s imagination and influenced his poetry in tangible and abundant ways.”  This can be seen in many places in his poetry, including the poem “Radio,” which I quoted above and his expansive “Ode to Willem de Kooning.”

I argue that this ode suggests “the special place the painter held in O’Hara’s own personal pantheon: not only as one of this painting-obsessed poet’s very favorite artists, but also as the epitome of the artistic ambition and fierce independence that he cherishes and wishes to emulate in his own work.  Indeed, the ode’s rousing conclusion sounds precisely these notes, as it praises the painter’s ‘imperishable courage and the gentle will / which is the individual dawn of genius rising from its bed.’ For O’Hara, de Kooning represented the kind of quintessential artist figure he aspired to be himself – forging unforeseen paths, opening up new possibilities, and ‘hewing a clearing / in the crowded abyss of the West.'”

You can read the rest of the piece here.







Posted in Abstract Expressionism, Frank O'Hara, Influences on the NY School, Jackson Pollock, Visual Art, Willem de Kooning | Leave a comment

Roundup of Recent “New York School of Poetry” News and Links (4/2/18)

Here’s the latest roundup of recent links, new publications, and news related to the New York School of poets.  (For my most recent roundup, see here).

Jeremy Noel-Tod reviews Karin Roffman’s biography of John Ashbery’s early years and reflects on his entire career in Prospect: for Noel-Tod, Roffman’s book is “a fascinatingly detailed account of a childhood that was shadowed by loneliness and melancholy.”

— In the Nation, Barry Schwabsky fills a large gap in the flood of commentary that followed Ashbery’s death in September 2017 by focusing extensively on Ashbery’s important and wonderful work as an art critic.  “Everyone knows that the death of John Ashbery took away a great poet. Fewer people realize that we also lost an outstanding art critic,” Schwabsky begins.  In many of his works of art criticism, we can see the poet “working out the aesthetic principles that would both carry through his poetry and inform his appreciation of painting, drawing, and sculpture.”

Craig Burnett writes at Frieze about the beautiful new book of John Ashbery’s collages:  “They Knew What They Wanted, edited by Mark Polizzotti and out with Rizzoli this week, places a lifetime of John Ashbery’s collages in conversation with his poems.”  For more on the book, see here.

— The poet Geoffrey G. O’Brien recently published an elegy for John Ashbery called “Irrealis.”

Eileen Myles is interviewed at Guernica by Carlie Fishgold.

— The terrific indie band Frankie Cosmos, led by the singer-songwriter Greta Kline, has a new album out, which means it’s time for another round of articles that mention that she was inspired to adopt the name Frankie because her love for Frank O’Hara’s poetry, which she counts as a major influence — like this one, in the New York Times: “The name Frankie Cosmos, which she’s used since 2012, is in part a homage to one of her favorite poets, Frank O’Hara.”  (For previous coverage of Frankie Cosmos and O’Hara, see here).

Katy Waldman’s interesting piece in the New York Times about whether artists and writers with day jobs make better art discusses Frank O’Hara writing poems on his lunch break, alongside other examples, including William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens. (“Frank O’Hara’s 1964 Lunch Poems, a set of imagistic, peripatetic musings on a city in motion, are beloved in part because they manage to articulate the balance of work and life. Written on his breaks, their title an invitation to us to read them on ours, the seemingly dashed-off lines celebrate the pleasure a mind can take in wandering through its own busyness”).

Alexandra Gold places Frank O’Hara in a transnational context and examines the little-discussed connections between Frank O’Hara and Aimé Césaire in an excellent article entitled “Frank O’Hara: Salute to the French Negro Poet, Aimé Césaire,” which appeared recently in The Comparatist (probably only accessible with university account, but here’s a link: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/675743).

— At Hyperallergic, John Yau reviews Charles North’s new book, States of the Art, a collection of North’s sharp and exhilarating critical prose, recently published by Pressed Wafer.  (“This is criticism at its best … His essay on Frank O’Hara’s relationship to the Russian experimental poet and playwright, Vladimir Mayakovsky, is brilliant, as is everything he says about Schuyler and his poems”).

— At LitHub, Kevin Killian talks with Quinn Roberts about his career and memories of his experiences as a young writer.  Here’s a bit from the interview, where Killian recalls his early years in New York and some of the “proudest moments” in his long and distinguished career:

“When I got out of high school I thought of myself pretty much as a writer, and I went to school in New York, which brought to me the mysteries of contemporary poetry. Gay classmates brought me to the Continental Baths to see Bette Midler. We wore towels. On Washington Square Park another more hip student pointed out the stylish, messed up enigma that was Patti Smith—not yet a songwriter, but an electrifying presence on the street. I encountered Amiri Baraka and Ted Berrigan and Allen Ginsberg, Robbe-Grillet and Margaret Mead … I was proud when John Ashbery picked out my poem “Pasolini” for the very first edition of Best American Poetry. I was proud when the Spicer book that Peter Gizzi and I edited won the American Book Award.”

John Yau also reviews the new book by Douglas Crase, Lines from London Terrace, another excellent collection of a poet’s essays published by Pressed Wafer.  The book contains an amazing, previously uncollected essay on James Schuyler (“A Voice Like the Day”) which has meant a lot to me, but has many other treasures as well.  As Yau notes, “Crase has lots of intelligent things to say about the poems of Ashbery, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Frost, Amy Gerstler, John Koethe, Lorine Niedecker, James Schuyler, and Marjorie Welish; the prose of Marianne Moore; the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson; the garden of the painter Robert Dash; and the philosophy of Richard Poirier. There is a section on the origins of the New York School which every aspiring poet and budding critic should read.”

— At the Los Angeles Review of Books, Brian Glavey talks with Andy Fitch about Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, queer ekphrasis, and his terrific book The Wallflower Avant-Garde.  Here’s an excerpt in which Glavey discusses Ashbery:

Ashbery’s poetry and criticism model one way of being in the world that negotiates these desires to attract, to get noticed, and to remain private. That tension runs throughout his entire career, with this constant trope of being present while remaining on the side of things. In terms of ekphrasis, this often means lingering around works of art without looking at them directly. Ashbery likes to engage with art as a kind of wallpaper, as something that might blend into the environment. I think this ambient aesthetic maybe helps explain the recent interest that has developed around Ashbery’s house and the curios and bric-a-brac that he surrounded himself with. All of that is a version of what we see in his poetry, the way it connects with a desire to treasure and to feel attached to objects, but also to let them have their own privacy — by approaching them gently and not forcing them to divulge their secrets. Ashbery’s poetry models that shyness, and is not at all naive about the coyness, the attractiveness that attaches to this gesture of withdrawal. It a gesture that says both “Don’t come any closer,” and “Pay close attention.”

— For more on Glavey’s book, see Benjamin Kahan’s review of Wallflower Avant-Garde in the new issue of the Journal of Modern Literature, which concludes: “Glavey’s writing sparkles with wit, and bubbles with intellectual pleasure. His book is a must read. The reader finishes it feeling that considerations of modernist and queer form and affect have achieved a new capaciousness”

— Also at the Los Angeles Review of Books, Margaret Ronda talks with Andy Fitch about her exciting-looking new book, Remainders: American Poetry at Nature’s End.  Among many other things, Ronda discusses her book’s ecocritical discussion of John Ashbery, whose work, she argues, takes up

questions of epistemology and perception, in relation to various dimensions of ecological relationality and experience — all during an era, of course, when “the environmental crisis” gets named as such, and constantly gets discussed in the news media and mass-market books, and when a majority of Americans list environmental issues as one of their top national concerns. The first Earth Day takes place in 1970, a galvanizing moment for the American environmental movement. Ashbery writes against this backdrop of a very public, urgent conversation. He explores the vicissitudes of consciousness confronting ecological change and crisis.

Circus Nerves

— On his blog Crystal Set, Nick Sturm offers an extended discussion of Kenward Elmslie’s 1971 book Circus Nerves, tracing its “buoyant, charming, and powerfully weird lyrical gymnastics.”  Sturm includes an early review Ted Berrigan wrote about Elmslie’s work, discusses the cover image by Joe Brainard (above), and generally offers a great introduction to the work of Kenward Elmslie, an important but under-recognized poet and mainstay of the New York School.

— At Full Stop, Jeff Alessandrelli writes about the similarities between Frank O’Hara and the rapper Notorious B.I.G.


Posted in Aime Cesaire, Allen Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), Book Review, Charles North, Criticism, Douglas Crase, Eileen Myles, Elizabeth BIshop, Interview, Jack Spicer, James Schuyler, Joe Brainard, John Ashbery, John Koethe, John Yau, Kenward Elmslie, Kevin Killian, Music, NY School Influence, Patti Smith, Peter Gizzi, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Roundup, Ted Berrigan, Uncategorized, Visual Art, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams | 3 Comments

James Schuyler’s “February”: “It’s a day like any other”

Fairfield Porter, “John Ashbery and James Schuyler Writing ‘Nest of Ninnies'” (1967)

It’s February 28, and that means it’s a good day to read and think about one of my favorite James Schuyler poems, “February,” which takes place “on the day before March first.”

I’ve decided to post an excerpt from my recent book, Attention Equals Life, which discusses “February” in some detail.  I argue that this poem actually represents something of a turning point in Schuyler’s early work, encompassing a new embrace of the daily and ordinary that would become the signature concern of his poetry as a whole.

First, here is the poem in its entirety (you can also listen to Schuyler read the poem here):

A chimney, breathing a little smoke.
The sun, I can’t see
making a bit of pink
I can’t quite see in the blue.
The pink of five tulips
at five p.m. on the day before March first.
The green of the tulip stems and leaves
like something I can’t remember,
finding a jack-in-the-pulpit
a long time ago and far away.
Why it was December then
and the sun was on the sea
by the temples we’d gone to see.
One green wave moved in the violet sea
like the UN Building on big evenings,
green and wet
while the sky turns violet.
A few almond trees
had a few flowers, like a few snowflakes
out of the blue looking pink in the light.
A gray hush
in which the boxy trucks roll up Second Avenue
into the sky. They’re just
going over the hill.
The green leaves of the tulips on my desk
like grass light on flesh,
and a green-copper steeple
and streaks of cloud beginning to glow.
I can’t get over
how it all works in together
like a woman who just came to her window
and stands there filling it
jogging her baby in her arms.
She’s so far off. Is it the light
that makes the baby pink?
I can see the little fists
and the rocking-horse motion of her breasts.
It’s getting grayer and gold and chilly.
Two dog-size lions face each other
at the corners of a roof.
It’s the yellow dust inside the tulips.
It’s the shape of a tulip.
It’s the water in the drinking glass the tulips are in.
It’s a day like any other.

What follows is a passage that I’ve adapted from my chapter on Schuyler.  As a whole, the chapter explores the complex and moving poetics of everyday life at the center of his work.  (This excerpt can be found on pages 75 to 79 of Attention Equals Life):

The poet and critic Douglas Crase, a friend of Schuyler’s, once hinted at the seriousness of Schuyler’s investment in the quotidian when he recalled that “Jimmy was our own moralist of the everyday. He didn’t so much teach as exemplify, which is the way it should be, since even the wisest lessons sound like drivel.” What Schuyler exemplifies, the moral stance his poetry models, is how one can—as well as why one should—lead a life buoyed by an attentiveness to daily life. Although many writers turn to ordinary experience as vital subject matter for their writing, Schuyler goes further, consciously adopting the everyday as a central category and conceptual term for his thinking about art, as well as for his own poetry. “Daily life,” “the day,” “the everyday,” “the ordinary”—these are not just ideas critics can apply to Schuyler’s work after the fact but are also frequently recurring phrases, key words, and concepts that the poet himself uses overtly throughout his poems and his extensive body of art criticism.

… Schuyler seems to arrive at this commitment to the daily, this devotion to the “literal / and unsymbolic / day,” in one of his most important early poems, “February,” which catches the poet at the very moment of a conversion to an everyday-life aesthetic.  Written in 1954, the poem seems to have been a breakthrough for Schuyler, ushering in his mature style and set of concerns;  years later, he decided to give it pride of place as the second poem in Freely Espousing, his debut full-length collection, published in 1969.  (“February” was also one of only four poems by Schuyler included in The New American Poetry, the epochal 1960 anthology edited by Donald Allen, which ensured that it would become an early “greatest hit” for the poet).

“February” is one of the first of Schuyler’s many “window” poems; it sets out to recount exactly what could be seen from his apartment window in New York during a wintry sunset, at precisely 5 P.M. “on the day before March first.”  Fortunately for us, Schuyler discussed the composition of this poem in a letter he wrote (and apparently never mailed) to a woman (“Miss Batie”) who had written a fan letter to him about his poems.  In the letter, he explains that

the day on which I wrote the poem I had been trying to write a poem in a regular form about (I think) Palermo, the Palazzo Abatelli, which has splendid carved stone ropes around its doors and windows, and the chapels decorated by Serpotta, with clouds of plaster cherubs; the poem turned out laborious and flat, and looking out the window I saw that something marvelous was happening to the light, transforming everything.  It then occurred to me that this happened more often than not (a beautiful sunset I mean) and that it was ‘a day like any other,’ which I put down as a title.  The rest of poem popped out of its own accord.  Or so it seems now.  (Just the Thing 240)

By deciding to abandon the other, unwritten hymn to Palermo and Serpotta’s baroque cherubs, and by choosing to write “February” instead, Schuyler seems to have stumbled upon a recognition about subject matter, about attentiveness to daily life, and about form.

Schuyler describes a sudden decision to reject the “laborious and flat” exercise he had been working on, a poem in a traditional, inherited form that took for its subject an exotic location and a masterpiece of Western art (traits, clichés even, associated with the dominant, New Critical mode of mid-century verse).  Instead, he realizes a poem could be born simply from paying close attention to the present and immediate, to what was happening outside his window: an ordinary evening in New York City at sunset.  By doing so, Schuyler enacts the movement Emerson calls for in “The American Scholar” – he turns away from the remote and the antique, and toward the common, the low, and the familiar.  Suddenly aware that this kind of “marvelous” event happens “more often than not,” that it literally occurs every day, and that only our inattention obscures it from view, Schuyler discovers a new, more vital mode of writing, one highly attuned to what is happening right in front our noses, all the time.  In a way, the anecdote about the genesis of Schuyler’s “February” neatly recapitulates the emergence of the “New American Poetry” in the 1950s more broadly, which saw poets like Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Jack Spicer, Allen Ginsberg, and Frank O’Hara rejecting what they saw as the stultifying, artificial conventions of mid-century poetry and embracing organic form, quotidian experience, and colloquial language.

Interestingly, the resulting poem itself serves as both the fruit of that recognition and a meta-commentary on it.  Defiantly spurning what he calls (in the letter to Batie) “regular form,” Schuyler instead writes a free verse poem in a colloquial voice, with enjambed lines, surprising line breaks, quick, associative leaps, and repetition (as in the last four lines), using precise and fresh images to notate how the speaker’s eye perceives the minute and shifting details of an ordinary dusk in Manhattan.  For example, he carefully recreates the way the pink of the tulips on the window-sill echoes the colors of the setting sun in the sky and building facades and vividly etches the gritty details of the urban scene.  At the same time, the poem allows the present to mingle with memories of the past – in particular, glimpses of the Mediterranean are interwoven with the Manhattan scene – in an associative fashion that is meant to mirror the way consciousness actually moves in daily life.

Then, in the middle of the poem, the speaker’s jaw drops open at the wonderful, accidental congruence of this contingent everyday moment: “I can’t get over / how it all works in together / like a woman who just came to her window / and stands there filling it / jogging a baby in her arms” (Collected 5).  Rather than dwelling, or concluding the poem, on this moment of insight or revelation, as many other poets might have done, the poem ends:

It’s getting grayer and gold and chilly.
Two dog-size lions face each other
at the corners of a roof.
It’s the yellow dust inside the tulips.
It’s the shape of the tulip.
It’s the water in the drinking glass the tulips are in.
It’s a day like any other. (5)

Schuyler deliberately leaves open what “it” is meant to refer to – is “it” the meaning of this specific everyday moment?  February?  Life?  Poetry?  The everyday?  While the reference remains loose and indeterminate, the passage, with its insistence underscored by repetition, makes a declaration about what is valuable, what is worth noticing, as it zooms in like a telephoto lens to see the dust inside the flowers and then pulls back to consider the entire, ordinary day in which all these things occur.  It also registers the mixture of repetition and variety in everyday life that will so fascinate Schuyler throughout his career.  Despite, or perhaps because of, all its richness and vitality, this day is, in the end just “like any other.”  The poem’s conclusion turns the everyday – and everydayness – into its central theme and subject, as well as an object of representation.

You can read the rest of my chapter on Schuyler and the everyday in my book, which you can find here and here.  (I also posted another excerpt from this chapter, on Schuyler’s poem “June 30, 1974” a while back).  For more on Schuyler’s “February,” check out this 2015 podcast discussion of the poem at PoemTalk (featuring Al Filreis, Julia Bloch, Erica Kaufman, and Bernadette Mayer).


Posted in Bernadette Mayer, Douglas Crase, James Schuyler, Poems | 3 Comments

Frank O’Hara as an Influence on Greta Gerwig and “Lady Bird”

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Although it’s not a surprise anymore, Frank O’Hara continues to pop up in unexpected corners of popular culture, often cited as an influence and lodestar for rock musicians, TV showrunners, and filmmakers.

I was happy to come across today’s installment: the wonderful actor and director Greta Gerwig, whose delightful, critically-acclaimed film Lady Bird has been nominated for multiple Oscars, is apparently a big O’Hara fan.

This piece in AnOther Magazine about Saoirse Ronan, the amazing young star of the film, lists a number of “the cultural references behind Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird.”  Ronan explains that Gerwig introduced her to a range of movies and books to help her prepare for the role, including John Hughes’s movies, Joan Didion’s essays on Sacramento, and, you guessed it, Frank O’Hara’s poetry.

As Ronan recalls, Gerwig “said Joan Didion would give me a sense of where Lady Bird comes from and the Lunch Poems are where she feels she’s destined to be – the life she’s destined to live, because it’s such a romantic view of New York.”

“O’Hara’s pocket book of poems is steeped in the rhythm and romance of Manhattan: honking cabs and muggy streets, languid hangovers, coffee and cigarettes. Published in 1964 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s revolutionary City Lights imprint, these wry, nimble glimpses of city life helped Ronan conjure Lady Bird’s dream of escape to New York and adulthood: ‘Greta said the Lunch Poems are where she feels she’s destined to be, or the life she’s destined to live.'”

Posted in Film, Frank O'Hara, NY School Influence | 1 Comment

Roundup of Recent “New York School” News and Links (2/20/18)

Ever since I started doing this blog (back in 2013), it’s been a challenge for me to just keep up with the steady stream of New York School-related news and happenings. (It doesn’t help that this doesn’t actually count as “real” work and I do it entirely by myself).  Lately I’ve found it easier to post more on the “Locus Solus” Facebook page and my own Twitter account rather than on this site, so please follow me at either or both of these places if you don’t already to get timely updates and information and links about the poets and artists of the New York School.

But rather than let the flood of news go by unnoticed here, I’ve decided to post what I hope will be a semi-regular roundup of recent news and links  (I’ve done this a couple times before, but not lately).

So here are a few items (some several months old, some more recent) that might be of interest, but which I don’t have time to do a full post on right now:

— Barry Schwabsky has a great piece in the New York Review of Books about a collaboration between Frank O’Hara and the Italian artist Mario Schifano which, until now, had remained mostly unknown and forgotten, but has recently been published in a limited-edition volume, with a wonderful, detailed essay by Raphael Rubinstein, among others.

— In this piece, David J. Alworth writes about Frank O’Hara’s “Having a Coke With You” and “thing theory” for Arcade.  “What is Frank O’Hara’s poem, ‘Having a Coke with You,’ trying to teach you about objects, things, and thingness?” Alworth asks.

— Sandra Simonds has posted an interesting piece about John Ashbery’s Girls on the Run at Jacket2, arguing that “Ashbery’s book is about the affective, textual, emotional, and psychological frames of childhood,” and offering a reading of the political dimensions of Ashbery’s long poem.

— In this piece, Charles Bernstein explores the differences between two different obituaries that the New York Times ran for John Ashbery last August, in Postmodern Culture.

— Just after Ashbery’s death, the second volume of the Library of America’s collection of Ashbery’s work appeared:  Collected Poems 1991–2000The Economist reviewed the book here.

— In December, the Library of America posted an interview with the volume’s editor, Mark Ford, in which he “describes some of the revelations he encountered while editing the book, and explains what makes this phase of Ashbery’s long career so distinctive.”

— In their end-of-the-year tribute to people who died in 2017, the New York Times published a photo of Ashbery’s beloved collage-making desk, along with this great comment by David Kermani, Ashbery’s husband:

“He has been collecting collage material since he was in college. In a sense, it’s how he writes a poem: using fragments of conversation or something he heard on TV, juxtaposing things and creating environments. Collage is central to his process. It was very much trial and error. You can’t really describe what his collages are specifically about, but they deal with the process and language itself. He was, perhaps, communicating the feeling of creativity.”

— The poet and critic Stephen Paul Miller wrote a piece for Publishers Weekly reflecting on Ashbery’s passing and on the strange experience of finding himself mentioned in one of the obituaries for the poet in the context of what Ashbery felt were “ludicrous interpretations of his poetry.”  Miller writes about his own friendly encounters with Ashbery and their disagreement about Miller’s reading of his work, and writes that “I was embarrassed about my infamous mention, but felt honored to be a footnote in the obituary of the poet I admired most. ‘At least,’ one of my students told me, ‘you made it into the New Yorker.'”

— In a New York Times piece about the much-discussed and extremely popular “Instagram poet” Rupi Kaur, the critic Carl Wilson discusses Kaur in relation to John Ashbery, and discusses the impact of Ashbery’s death, among other things: “John Ashbery’s death in September gave my world a lurch, as the 90-year-old eminent American experimentalist was my favorite living poet. But the compensation was to discover how many others felt the same way …On social media, people posted their favorite Ashbery poems and passages…”

— Matthew Bevis’s long essay for Poetry magazine about poetry and distraction (a subject very close to my heart!) centers on a discussion of Ashbery’s work.

— Daniel Kane recently published a terrific new book (which I’ve mentioned before) about the connections between the New York School and punk music, called Do You Have a Band? Poetry and Punk Rock in New York City.

— Josh Schneiderman wrote a great review of Kane’s book for Public Books, calling it “a pioneering work of literary history that chronicles a period from roughly the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s when the line between poetry and Manhattan-based proto-punk and punk rock was markedly permeable.”

— Franz Nicolay, who some might remember as the former keyboardist for the indie band The Hold Steady, reviewed Kane’s book alongside two other books about music for the Los Angeles Review of Books, noting that Kane “persuasively argues the crucial influence of poetry on New York art-rock and proto-punk from the 1960s through the 1980s.”

— For more on Kane’s book and on New York School poetry and punk, check out the rich and far-ranging interview Kane did with Andy Fitch for the Los Angeles Review of Books.

— The Paris Review posted a conversation between Eileen Myles and Jeremy Sigler, focused on the pair’s visit to the Tibor de Nagy Gallery to see a Larry Rivers exhibit and, especially, to see Rivers’s famous 1954 painting “O’Hara Nude with Boots.”

— In McSweeney’s, Liam O’Brien published a funny (but not only funny, and rather affecting) pastiche of Frank O’Hara’s beloved poem “Steps” called “Frank O’Hara, Updated for 2017.”

— At Los Angeles Review of Books, Andy Fitch interviews the scholar Yasmine Shamma, whose book Spatial Poetics: The Second Generation New York School of Poetry, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.  The two discuss many second-generation figures, including Ted Berrigan, Joe Brainard, Ron Padgett, and Alice Notley, and issues related to the city, urban space, and collage.

— The poet and critic (and former student of mine) Nick Sturm has a wonderful new blog devoted to his archival research into postwar American poetry (New York School, Black Mountain, Black Arts, New Narrative, Beat, San Francisco Renaissance).  The most recent entry examines Ted Berrigan’s writings on the art of George Schneeman.

— At the Paris Review, Jeff Dolven ruminates on a sentence from John Ashbery’s poem “Soonest Mended” as part of an eight-part series called Life Sentence, in which “Dolven takes apart and puts back together one beloved or bedeviling sentence.”

— Also, Dolven’s new book, Senses of Style: Poetry before Interpretation — which focuses on Sir Thomas Wyatt, Frank O’Hara, and the problem of style — has just appeared from the University of Chicago Press.  You can read more about it here.

— The Poetry Society of America announced that Ron Padgett “is the 2018 recipient of the organization’s highest award, the Frost Medal, presented annually for distinguished lifetime achievement in poetry. Previous winners of this award include Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Gwendolyn Brooks, Allen Ginsberg, Adrienne Rich, Barbara Guest, Lucille Clifton, Michael S. Harper, Marilyn Nelson, and Susan Howe.”

— A major new Jasper Johns exhibit has opened at the Broad Museum in Los Angeles, featuring “Skin with Frank O’Hara Poem” and “In Memory of My Feelings” (a tribute to O’Hara) among many other works.  Deborah Solomon wrote about the show and Johns for the New York Times.

Kynaston McShine, the influential curator at the Museum of Modern Art, who also had the distinction of having dated Frank O’Hara, his MoMA colleague, in the 1960s, passed away in January.

— The librettist John Latouche is the subject of a new biography by Howard Pollock.  This New York Times piece refers to him as a forgotten Broadway lyricist,” but while that may be true, LaTouche lives on in Frank O’Hara’s famous “A Step Away from Them”: “First / Bunny died, then John Latouche, then Jackson Pollock. But is the earth as full as life was full, of them?”

 — At the Paris Review, the novelist Ann Beattie has written a tender memorial for her friend Harry Mathews, who passed away last year, on the occasion of his birthday, which was Valentine’s Day.

Posted in Alice Notley, Book Review, Charles Bernstein, Criticism, Eileen Myles, Frank O'Hara, Harry Mathews, Jasper Johns, Joe Brainard, John Ashbery, John LaTouche, Lou Reed, Mark Ford, Music, Ron Padgett, Roundup, Ted Berrigan, Velvet Underground | 1 Comment