On Joseph Cornell ‘s Birthday — Frank O’Hara’s “Joseph Cornell”

The American artist Joseph Cornell, famous for his haunting, surrealist box constructions and collages, was born on this day in 1903.  Cornell was of course one of the most beloved and influential artists in the New York School of poets’ pantheon — an object of veneration, the subject of critical essays, and inspiration for poems.

Here is Frank O’Hara’s poem “Joseph Cornell” (1955).  On the manuscript, O’Hara wrote beneath the poem “print like boxes”:

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Joseph Cornell, “Untitled (Grand Hotel Des Iles D’Oro)” (1952)

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Joseph Cornell, “Untitled (The Hotel Eden)” (1945)

Posted in Frank O'Hara, Joseph Cornell, Poems, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

For Ted Berrigan’s Birthday: “44th Birthday Evening, at Harris’s”

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Ted Berrigan would’ve turned 82 today. Here is one of a number of poems he wrote about, and on, his birthday, November 15:

44th Birthday Evening, at Harris’s
Nine stories high Second Avenue
On the roof there’s a party
All the friends are there watching
By the light of the moon the blazing sun
Go down over the side of the planet
To light up the underside of Earth
There are long bent telescopes for the friends
To watch this through. The friends are all in shadow.
I can see them from my bed inside my head.
44 years I’ve loved these dreams today.
17 years since I wrote for the first time a poem
On my birthday, why did I wait so long?
                                                                         my land a good land
its highways go to many good places where
many good people were found; a home land, whose song comes up
from the throat of a hummingbird & it ends
where the sun goes to across the skies of blue.
I live there with you.
Posted in Poems, Ted Berrigan, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Leonard Cohen (1934-2016), Kenneth Koch, and the Island of Hydra


Very sad news broke last night that the legendary songwriter, singer, and writer Leonard Cohen had passed away at 82.  Cohen began his career as a daring young Canadian poet and novelist, before switching to writing and performing music in the 1960s.  Not surprisingly, he is considered one of the most literary figures in popular music history.

It may be surprising, however, to hear that Cohen had a close tie to the New York School of poets, but he did, thanks to his friendship with Kenneth Koch.  Cohen and Koch fortuitously crossed paths on the Greek island of Hydra in the early 1960s, when it was a bohemian enclave of ex-pat writers and artists, and the two became good friends. At the time, Cohen was a poet and not yet a rock star, and Koch watched his later rise to fame with some surprise and bemusement.

When I worked as a teaching/research assistant for Koch in the 1990s, I remember him telling me a number of times that in the later 1960s Cohen tried to convince him to follow in his footsteps, making the move from poetry to music.  “Look at what Bob Dylan’s doing!” Cohen would tell him.  “And now I did it! And you can too!”  Telling this story, Koch would then laugh and joke that maybe he should have tried that after all and maybe his career would have turned out quite differently…

Jordan Davis recently unearthed an unpublished interview he did with Koch where the poet talked about his friendship with Cohen and tells a funny story about the time Cohen tried to get him to try his hand as a rock musician too:

I met Leonard Cohen on the island of Hydra in Greece where Janice and Katherine age five and I had gone for a summer vacation. And we became very good friends. We traveled also to Turkey together, to Istanbul. I liked Leonard a lot and so did Janice. We saw each other then a few times after that, it was nice and intense, but never more than a day. After some years, we were already living on West 4th Street, Katherine must have been ten by then. I ran into him on a bus. “Leonard!” I asked him what he was doing and he said, “Don’t you know? I’m a singer.” He had been a poet and a novelist. I got him to tell me all about it. I invited him over to our place and he told me I should become a singer too. I should sing all my poems. It was wonderful because you met lots of women and made a lot of money and you got to travel around and it was very satisfying to sing your poems. I said, “That’s great, Leonard,” and of course I was interested. I said, “Leonard, I can’t sing.” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “I can’t carry a tune.” He said, “That’s good, that means no one else will be able to sing your stuff.” And I said, “Well okay, but also I don’t play an instrument.” He said, “You can probably learn — let’s try.There wasn’t anything that made noise except a vacuum cleaner. I plugged in the vacuum cleaner and I thought I’d be more in the mood to sing if I stood up on a chair. He said, “Sing one of your poems.” I said, “There’s no music to any of my poems.” He said, “That’s okay.” I sang, with intermittent noise from the vacuum cleaner, “You were wearing your Edgar Allan Poe printed cotton blouse” in a hillbilly voice.

Leonard interrupted me after a few bars I think they’re called — “You’re not serious.” Well there I was standing up on a chair and playing a vacuum cleaner. I stopped playing the vacuum cleaner and tried to be serious. He said, “I don’t believe you. Who are you singing to.” “Leonard, I’m singing to you, there’s no one else here.” “No — who in the audience. Who do you want to go to bed with after the show? Who are you addressing? Who do you want to like you?” “Twenty-two year old women.” “No. Everybody wants 22-year-old women. Sing to somebody else. You know who I sing to? 14-year-olds and 40-year olds.” I’m not sure those are the exact numbers — something like 14 and 40. I said, “Okay, I’ll try to sing to 14 yr olds.” But trying to sing my poems? It didn’t work too well. I said I’d try. At my age how can I get started? I can’t carry a tune I don’t play an instrument and I’ve never sung before. I was already 40 at least by then. “There’s one way you can help me.” And he said, “Anything, what is it.” “Are you going to have tributes on your sleeve, put me on the record jacket. Say, ‘Even the legendary Kenny has come out of retirement to praise Leonard Cohen.’” I figured that people who respond to this kind of thing are not exactly scholarly. He promised he would put this on the record cover. Months went by. I never heard from Leonard. I did receive from him this big rectangle, his record. On the cover was this girl (I don’t know if she was 14 or 40) rising from flames, somewhere in between, and on the back was Leonard, his lyrics, and no tributes. And no Kenny, and that was the end of another career, another attempt to become rich.

Koch’s daughter Katherine — an artist and writer who has begun publishing pieces of a memoir-in-progress about her experiences growing up around the poets and artists of the New York School — recently published a lovely essay about her memories of “Hydra, in 1960.”  In it, she recalls being a wide-eyed five year old, inspired by her father to have “dreamy ideas about what a poet’s or an artist’s life could look like: living in some sort of inspired state of mind, in a beautiful place which would spread out in front of you when you walked outside your studio.”  And Hydra seemed like the ideal place to do it.  She writes:

OK, this is it! I thought, I’m going to live here forever, painting during the day and grilling lamb for my friends in my courtyard in the evening. We’re going to laugh a lot, wear sandals, live in white houses above the harbor and listen to Leonard play songs on his guitar.

Leonard Cohen, a young Canadian novelist and poet, sometimes played guitar and sang. He had been living on Hydra since the spring, and was in love with Marianne Ihlen, whom he’d met there just a couple of months before we met them. Marianne was beautiful, I remember, and later on I associated her angular, sweet blondness with Mary Travers of the singing group Peter, Paul & Mary. I thought Leonard was wonderful, good-looking, looking a little like my father. He had an atmosphere about him, courtly and funny, sharing his good humor with me. We gave each other nicknames we never forgot: Boodie Leonard and Boodie Katherine.

Kenneth Koch, too, wrote about this idyllic time in his life in various places, such as his poem “The Departure from Hydra,” the short story “Living in the Sun,” and the moving elegiac poem “With Janice,” which mentions Leonard Cohen as well:

So Leonard invites us
to come and to see, where the white water bucket is a dashboard
Of this place to that.  You will want to go swimming, and you will want to meet
These snobbish absurd Americans who inhabit
The gesso incalcations on the cliff.

For decades, Leonard Cohen has been inviting us too to come and see, through the endless stream of his indelible songs and and moving words.  He will be sorely missed.

Posted in Kenneth Koch, Leonard Cohen, Music, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Try to see the world through Frank O’Hara’s eyes

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“Frank O’Hara: In the Heart of Noise” — London, Nov. 9

If you’re in or near London next week, you’ll want to check out this event devoted to Frank O’Hara, featuring poet, critic, and New York Schoolologist extraordinaire Mark Ford and the Aurora Orchestra.  It will be on November 9th, at Kings Place in London.  Here are the details:

“Poet in the City, in collaboration with Aurora Orchestra, present a special evening of poetry, music and art in celebration of Frank O’Hara, 50 years since his death.

From curating with Jackson Pollock and de Kooning to creating work inspired by John Cage and Billie Holiday, O’Hara was at the restless heart of the 1960s creative explosion and the ‘New York School’; legions of devoted followers have ensued since his death at 40. Featuring poet and critic Mark Ford, players from Aurora Orchestra and the acclaimed soprano Nina Bennet, join us to explore the great legacy of this ceaseless soul.”

The program looks great, too:

Billie Holiday/Mal Waldron Left Alone
Billie Holiday/Herbie Nichols The Lady Sings the Blues
Bill Carey/Carl Fischer You’ve Changed
Rachmaninov Prelude in E flat, Op. 23, No. 6
Ned Rorem Poulenc
Poulenc Sonata for flute and piano
Ravel La Valse
John Cage The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs
Feldman Piano Piece 1952

For more information see here and here.

Posted in Event, Frank O'Hara, John Cage, Mark Ford, Morton Feldman, Music, Ned Rorem, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Stephen Burt’s “The Poem Is You” and John Ashbery’s Invitation to the Reader

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Stephen Burt’s expansive new book, The Poem is You: Sixty Contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them, is both a well-chosen anthology of American poems published since 1980 and a generous introduction to the dizzying variety and wealth of recent poetry.  For each poem he has selected, Burt provides a characteristically smart, provocative, yet accessible essay about how to interpret and enjoy the poem.

Not surprisingly, given his catholic tastes and wide-ranging interests, Burt has selected poets from an array of backgrounds and poetic movements.  They range from titans of an earlier generation, represented by poems from their mid-to-later careers, like Robert Creeley, Lucille Clifton, Adrienne Rich, James Merrill, and Louise Gluck, to younger poets like Terrance Hayes, Brenda Shaughnessy, and Ross Gay.  As a whole, this book offers a wonderful, enlivening tour of contemporary American poetry, its landmarks and its lesser-known precincts, led by one of the most entertaining and knowledgeable guides we have.

But what interests me most here is that Burt decided to take his title — The Poem Is You — from a John Ashbery poem, and quite deliberately uses that poem to frame and justify his book.*

And it is an apt and resonant title for the book Burt has produced.  The phrase comes from the last line of Ashbery’s “Paradoxes and Oxymorons,” an anthology chestnut from 1981 that Burt uses to open the book and introduce its philosophy of poetry, if you will. The poem, which at first appears to be unusually straightforward and clear by Ashbery standards, begins with a rather direct address to a “you” who seems to be, at least in part, the reader of the piece itself:

This poem is concerned with language on a very plain level.
Look at it talking to you. You look out a window
Or pretend to fidget. You have it but you don’t have it.
You miss it, it misses you. You miss each other.

The poem is sad because it wants to be yours, and cannot.

It ends with this gesture of intimacy and connection: “And the poem / Has set me softly down beside you. The poem is you.”

Burt explains that he decided to deploy this Ashbery poem as both lead-off batter and title because it “does double duty as an invitation to read challenging, slippery poetry and as a claim about the connection between poet and reader, between ‘you’ and ‘me,’ that all poems at least attempt to make.”

Ashbery’s Whitman-like address to an elusive “you,” who may or may not be the reader, has long been a central, recurring feature of his work — from classic works of the 1960s, like “A Blessing in Disguise” (“I prefer ‘you’ in the plural, I want ‘you,’ / You must come to me, all golden and pale”) to the winking title of his late volume Your Name Here.

As Burt notes, Ashbery’s poem solicits our participation in the act of reading, asking us to converse with the poem, and the poet, and to enter into a strange kind of communion.  In the introduction, he explains

“My title — ‘The Poem Is You’ — means not that all the poems here reflect you exactly (not even the poems you might write yourself can do that) nor that all the poems will speak to you; instead (as the first essay in this book explains) it means that the poems invite you to try out, or try on, or simply encounter, the identities, the kinds of language, and the ways to see the world, that each poem opens up.”

The first essay then walks us through “Paradoxes and Oxymorons” in more detail, arguing that the poem is much more ambiguous and slippery than it first appears, playfully confronting us with a series of — you got it — paradoxes and oxymorons about the nature of poetry and our efforts to understand and possess it.

“Ashbery’s almost jocular late-summer non-sonnet is an ars poetica, a poem that designs to tell us what poetry — this kind of poetry, his kind of poetry — does.  It presents both a warning and an invitation, like a sign at the entrance to an amusement park ride: you must be at least this able to tolerate double and triple puns, irresolutions, cases in which a meaning is really a tease.”

Just as the poem reaches out and invites “you,” the reader, to join in this shared experience, it also “resists those things, pushing the reader slightly away; we are told as clearly as Ashbery ever tells us anything that what the poem means for one reader cannot be quite what it means or does for another.”

In this way, Burt sets up his conclusion, which opens outward from Ashbery to the book’s overall outlook on poetry itself:

“For all that it is an Ashbery poem, a foxy, teasing, slippery New York School poem, ‘Paradoxes and Oxymorons’ thus resembles (and tells us that it resembles) and introduces (and tells us it introduces) many other kinds of poems, even poetry in general … Critics can — I can — guide you into their workings, help them make more sense, show you some of their intricacies, invitations, special abilities; but the rest is up to you.”

Throughout the book Burt rightly stresses the almost bewildering variety and diversity of contemporary American poetry.  But he also clearly, and understandably, positions John Ashbery as a central poet of our age.

For more on Burt’s The Poem Is You, see here.

* Fans of the New York School may also be interested to note that in addition to Ashbery, The Poem Is You also includes commentary on poems by other poets associated with the New York School, including Bernadette Mayer (“To Sleep”) and John Yau (“Modern Love”).

Posted in Bernadette Mayer, John Ashbery, John Yau, Stephen Burt, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Frank O’Hara’s “For Bob Rauschenberg,” on His Birthday

Robert Rauschenberg, “Estate” (1963)

Today is the birthday of the groundbreaking painter Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008), who would’ve turned 91 today.  Rauschenberg, who Frank O’Hara once called “the enfant terrible of the New York School,” was of course both a good friend and inspiration to O’Hara, Ashbery, and their circle in the 1950s and 1960s.

This link is nowhere more apparent than in a wonderful poem by Frank O’Hara called “For Bob Rauschenberg” (1959), which I’ve always felt should be better known.  Here it is in its entirety:

For Bob Rauschenberg

Yes, it’s necessary, I’ll do
what you say, put everything
aside but what is here.  The frail
instant needs us and the cautious
breath, so easily drowned in Liszt
or sucked out by a vulgar soprano.

Why should I hear music?  I’m not
a pianist any more, and in truth
I despise my love for Pasternak,
born in Baltimore, no sasha mine,
and an adolescence taken in hay
above horses —

                        what should I be
if not alone in pain, apart from
the heavenly aspirations of
Spenser and Keats and Ginsberg,
who have a language that permits
them truth and beauty, double-coin?
exercise, recreations, drugs –

can heaven mean up, down, or sidewise
who knows what is happening to him,
what has happened and is here, a
paper rubbed against the heart
and still too moist to be framed.

In this poem, O’Hara suggests that he has made a choice to throw his lot in with Rauschenberg and the new aesthetic the painter was developing in the late 1950s. “Yes, it’s necessary,” he concedes. “I’ll do / what you say, put everything / aside but what is here.”

O’Hara indicates that he too will pursue an art devoted to the immediate, the concrete, the small and transitory, rather than other, grander, or more metaphysical aspects of experience.  The poem sets this materialist, empiricist, quotidian impulse against a more romantic, spiritual approach to the world that O’Hara feels is foreign to him (after all, in another poem he refers to himself as “the opposite of visionary”).

For O’Hara, the afterlife is elusive, even fictive; it pales in the face of “what has happened and is here.”  With its skepticism of “the heavenly aspirations” of other, more Romantic poets, like “Spenser and Keats and Ginsberg,” with its incredulity towards the language of “truth and beauty” and “heaven,” this poem declares its commitment instead to the here and now and to daily life.

In 1955, Rauschenberg had written of his own everyday aesthetic: “painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made.  (I try to act in that gap between the two).” The striking image  O’Hara uses to close his poem for Rauschenberg

paper rubbed against the heart
and still too moist to be framed.

suggests that close attention to “what is here,” to the immediate and daily, results in an art object that is poised, uneasily and paradoxically, in the gap Rauschenberg describes — between art and life: a piece of paper glistening with the raw, red blood of experience, still too wet, too fresh, too much a part of “life” itself to be fully captured in a traditional artifact.

O’Hara’s poem “For Bob Rauschenberg” seems to be a central statement of the profoundly influential aesthetics of everyday life the two figures shared.  This is one reason why I was so grateful that I was able to use the painting above, Rauschenberg’s “Estate” (1963), for the cover of my new book, Attention Equals Life: The Pursuit of the Everyday in Contemporary Poetry and Culture, which takes its title from O’Hara and explores the broad fascination with the quotidian O’Hara outlines in his poem for Robert Rauschenberg.


Posted in Frank O'Hara, Poems, Robert Rauschenberg, Uncategorized, Visual Art | Leave a comment