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):

February 
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).

 

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

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

Image result for frank o'hara            22

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

Frank O’Hara (read by David Sedaris) and John Ashbery on the new Paris Review podcast

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John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara, in a still from the film “Presenting Jane” (1953)

The latest episode of the Paris Review’s new, eclectic podcast features a few items of interest for fans of the New York School: there are readings of poems, originally published in the Paris Review, by both Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery, along with a poem by Roberto Bolaño, whose status as a New York School fan himself I’ve written about here and here.

First up, you can listen to David Sedaris, of all people, read O’Hara’s beloved (and much-discussed) poem “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island.”  Later in the episode (after the sublime Mary Louise Parker reads a story by Joy Williams), you can hear John Ashbery reading one of his masterpieces, “Soonest Mended,” in a recording from 1986.  He also offers some brief but interesting opening remarks, and the whole poem is accompanied by a new composition by musician Steve Gunn.  The episode’s title, “An Occasional Dream,” is taken from a line in “Soonest Mended” as well.

This isn’t the first time the Paris Review podcast has featured the poetry of the New York School (which has a long and substantial association with the magazine) — on episode 1, Eileen Myles reads James Schuyler’s “In earliest morning.”  You can find that episode here.

Posted in Eileen Myles, Frank O'Hara, James Schuyler, John Ashbery, Roberto Bolaño, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

“Neon in Daylight” — New Novel Borrows Title from Frank O’Hara

Another day, another work of fiction borrowing a title from Frank O’Hara’s poetry.  I’ve noted examples of this phenomenon before — such as Andrew Sean Greer’s story “It’s a Summer’s Day,” Emma Jane Unsworth’s novel Animals, and Don DeLillo’s short story “Midnight in Dostoyevsky,” all of which borrow their titles from O’Hara.

Add another to the list: Neon in Daylight, a new novel by Hermione Hoby, who, like Emma Jane Unsworth, is British.  Hoby has lifted her title from one of O’Hara’s most famous poems, “A Step Away from Them,” where he attributes the remark to his friend, the renowned dance critic and poet Edwin Denby:

Neon in daylight is a
great pleasure, as Edwin Denby would
write, as are light bulbs in daylight.

For O’Hara, the pleasure of seeing neon on a sunny day suggests the gratuitous abundance and excess of his beloved New York.

In her review of the novel in the New York Times, Parul Sehgal notes the O’Hara connection, and links it to the book’s evocation of the city:

The title comes from one of Frank O’Hara’s “Lunch Poems” (“Neon in daylight is a / great pleasure”), his collection of odes to New York, a great dispensary of pleasure and strangeness. Hoby shares O’Hara’s keen eye for the city’s grubby beauty, for how, as she writes, “a low-slung sun burned all the day’s dirt into gold,” for its hum and heat and clatter. On her first day in the city, Kate is woken from a nap by the din of a nearby restaurant reaching her third-floor apartment: “The sounds she woke to were so rude and immediate that it seemed as though all the sidewalk tables of the cafe had levitated — that the whole tableau of chairs, plates, glasses were suspended right outside this window, with freshly showered men and women dining while their feet dangled happily in the air.”

Sehgal returns to O’Hara at the end of her review, quoting from “Steps,” another poem about the delirious pleasures of New York:

We can see what these characters cannot. Their lives seem so particular, so painful and noisy to them. But under the city’s “merciless” skyline, in the wake of a hurricane, how similar they suddenly are, how small, how human. “In a sense we’re all winning,” goes another poem by O’Hara, “we’re alive.”

I haven’t read Hoby’s novel yet, but it sounds great.  The title is also yet another sign of Frank O’Hara’s vast and ever-growing influence, which continues to spread, well beyond the confines of poetry, to TV showrunners, indie musiciansvisual artists, soda corporations, filmmakers, and, yes, fiction writers.

Posted in Don DeLillo, Edwin Denby, Fiction, Frank O'Hara, NY School Influence, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

“New Year’s Eve”: A Collaborative Poem by John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch

John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch

In keeping with my semi-regular tradition of posting New Years-related poems here, I thought I’d share this rare piece — a collaborative poem by John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch called “New Year’s Eve.”  The poem was part of a cluster of six wild and zany Ashbery-Koch joint productions which appeared in the now-legendary second issue of Locus Solus, a special issue that Koch edited in 1961, devoted to collaboration across the ages.

Playful, absurd, and effervescent, “New Year’s Eve” begins in surreal fashion:

Water flowed slowly over the bridge in Danbury
On New Year’s Eve, while a Chicago of chocolate milk
Formed in Zurich.  The root beer went floating by.
You could see the coke on the dazzling mountaintops of Trieste.

and doesn’t really let up for three pages. Like the other collaborations in this series (including the better-known “Crone Rhapsody”), the poets seem to have set up what Koch called “amusing intricate rules” and arbitrary constraints to generate the poem (and the fun).  In “Crone Rhapsody,” Koch explained, “every line contains the name of a flower, a tree, a fruit, a game, and a famous old lady, as well as the word bathtub; furthermore, the poem is a sestina and all the end-words are pieces of furniture”).

In the case of “New Year’s Eve,” the requirements seem somewhat less strict and elaborate, and it’s not entirely clear what they are, except it seems as if each line must contain a reference to a drink and a place.  (Also, in his book My Silver Planet, Daniel Tiffany notes that Ashbery wrote the odd lines of this poem and Koch the even ones).

The poem whips us through a rollicking narrative that (sort of) follows a woman named Anna across the globe on New Year’s Eve, as she encounters an assortment of odd characters: “‘Happy New Years!’ thundered the Ethiopian pineapple juice. / ‘Happy New Year!’ screamed the Mexican hat. ‘Good luck!’ whispered the chocolate pear-juice.”

It closes on an image of the two collaborators themselves, tipsily toasting the new year on January 1st:

We drank the cognac in Florence.  It was New Year’s Day!

Here is the whole poem, which, as far as I know, can still only be found in Locus Solus 2, published in 1961 —  “New Year’s Eve,” by John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch:

Happy New Year!

Posted in collaboration, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Locus Solus, Poems, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Vincent Warren, love of Frank O’Hara’s life, passes away at 79

Sad news for readers of Frank O’Hara: Vincent Warren, the ballet dancer who has often been described as the true love of O’Hara’s life, passed away on October 25 at the age of 79, some 50 years after O’Hara himself.  In the years after his intense, early relationship with O’Hara, Warren settled in Canada and became a celebrated dancer and dance historian.  Although his death has been covered in the Canadian press and in dance circles, I haven’t seen any notice of it in the world of American poetry or among Frank O’Hara fans.

As the obituary in The Globe and Mail puts it:

“He was a gifted dancer with a gripping stage presence, a stunningly beautiful young man who drew comparisons to Rudolf Nureyev. He danced for Igor Stravinsky, had a love affair with the American poet Frank O’Hara and played the title role in the landmark rock ballet of The Who’s Tommy.”

If you’ve ever read O’Hara’s “Having a Coke With You” and wondered about the person lucky enough to be the recipient of such a tender, funny, and beautiful love poem, it was Vincent Warren, the handsome young ballet dancer Frank O’Hara fell in love with in 1959.

As soon as they met that summer, when O’Hara was 33 and Warren was 20, the dancer began appearing in O’Hara’s poetry.  He quickly became the subject of some of the best love poems I know of, including “Poem (A la Recherche d’Gertrude Stein,) “Les Luths,” “Poem (So many echoes in my head),” and, of course, “Having a Coke With You,” which refers to Warren’s grace as a dancer in the line “the fact that you move so beautifully more or less takes care of Futurism.” And then there’s “Steps,” with its Twitter-beloved closing lines that are also an ode to Vincent Warren: “oh god it’s wonderful / to get out of bed / / and drink too much coffee / and smoke too many cigarettes / and love you so much.”

Although Warren is their subject, many of these poems do not mention O’Hara’s lover by name, thanks to Warren’s fear that his mother would read them and discover he was secretly gay.  This is the reason behind O’Hara’s decision to playfully encode Warren’s name down the left-hand side of the acrostic “You are Gorgeous and I’m Coming.”  There is a long list of such poems to Warren, many collected in the volume Love Poems (Tentative Title), which was published in 1965.

Many commentators feel O’Hara’s love affair with Warren helped trigger what is often considered the pinnacle of O’Hara’s achievement — the annus mirabilis of 1959.  O’Hara’s friend/lover and roommate Joe LeSueur makes this case in his book Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara, noting that “the deluge began immediately after” the O’Hara and Warren met.  “Take a look at the Collected Poems, pages 329-406, and my case is made, for these marvelous poems testify to what finally came together for Frank, what he at long last experienced, love and the reciprocation of love — physical, sexual, romantic love, fully and deeply realized… They are among Frank’s finest works, and the poems I find most moving.”

Warren’s obituary in The Globe and Mail discusses the importance of O’Hara to the dancer’s life, as it notes that during his time in New York, Warren “met Mr. O’Hara, leading poet of the postwar New York School and the love of his life. Mr. Warren served as Mr. O’Hara’s muse, inspiring his poems, while in turn Mr. O’Hara introduced him to his circle of artist friends, including Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock… Although a striking dancer, Mr. Warren admitted he often coasted on his good looks and Met credentials. That changed in 1966, when Mr. O’Hara was killed in a jeep accident on New York’s Fire Island. His lover’s death devastated him, but it was also the turning point that pushed him to become a serious artist.”

Rest in peace, Vincent Warren.  Here is the conclusion to O’Hara’s poem “Les Luths,” written for Warren in 1959:

and I am feeling particularly testy at being separated from
the one I love by the most dreary of practical exigencies money
when I want only to lean on my elbow and stare into space feeling
the one warm beautiful thing in the world breathing upon my right rib

what are lutes they make ugly twangs and rest on knees in cafés
I want to hear only your light voice running on about Florida
as we pass the changing traffic light and buy grapes for wherever
we will end up praising the mattressless sleigh-bed and the
Mexican egg and the clock that will not make me know
how to leave you

And here is “Poem (A la recherche d’ Gertrude Stein),” also written for Warren in 1959, (and which my wife and I liked so much that we read it our wedding many years ago):

When I am feeling depressed and anxious and sullen
all you have to do is take your clothes off
and all is wiped away revealing life’s tenderness
that we are flesh and breathe and are near us
as you are really as you are I become as I
really am alive and knowing vaguely what is
and what is important to me above the intrusions
of incident and accidental relationships
which have nothing to do with my life

when I am in your presence I feel life is strong
and will defeat all its enemies and all of mine
and all of yours and yours in you and mine in me
sick logic and feeble reasoning are cured
by the perfect symmetry of your arms and legs
spread out making an eternal circle together
creating a golden pillar beside the Atlantic
the faint line of hair dividing your torso
gives my mind rest and emotions their release
into the infinite air where since once we are
together we always will be in this life come what may

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Vincent Warren (c. 1960)

Posted in Frank O'Hara, In Memoriam, Jackson Pollock, Vincent Warren, Willem de Kooning | 10 Comments