Make your own Joe Brainard collage (out of fragments he chose but never used)

Make Your Own Brainard 1

Have you ever looked at a collage by an artist like Picasso or Joseph Cornell, Kurt Schwitters or Joe Brainard, and felt a powerful urge to immediately go make a collage yourself?  Perhaps there’s something about the tactile, playful, anyone-can-do-it premise of collage (unlike, say, oil painting) that invites us to try it ourselves.

Fortunately now you can, thanks to a delightful new interactive website called “Make Your Own Brainard,” created by the scholar Rona Cran (an expert on, among other things, collage in twentieth-century literature and art).

Not only does the site enable you to design your own collage, but rather miraculously, you can create one using actual materials that Brainard himself selected, cut out, but never used.

In an introduction to the project, Brainard’s close friend Ron Padgett tells the story of how these little fragments and cut-outs came to be digitized and accessible online: “In the summer of 2011 Pat Padgett discovered, in an outbuilding on Kenward Elmslie’s property in Calais, Vermont, a large number of paper snippets. Selected and grouped by Joe Brainard, the snippets, grouped in business envelopes, large manila envelopes, and plastic sleeves, are in the form of unfinished collages and loose bits for future collages.”

As Cran explains, although Brainard “intended them for use in his own collages, but never got around to including them, so in keeping with the spirit of generosity and collaboration that underpinned all of his work, this project and the Brainard Estate has now made them available for collage enthusiasts all over the world to use as they see fit.”

This seems just right, and in keeping with Brainard’s renowned generosity and collaborative spirit.  As Padgett notes, Brainard often sent these kinds of snippets to friends and relatives. including his brother John who used them to make his own collages.  “Over the years Joe had sent John Ashbery snippets to use in his collages, which have been exhibited at Tibor de Nagy Gallery and elsewhere. It’s safe to say that Joe would have been pleased to know that now anyone in the world wishing to use his snippets can now pick up where he left off.”

As Padgett’s comments suggest, this project is particularly fitting for an artist like Joe Brainard, whose entire aesthetic is driven by a belief in art-making as collaborative, playful, and experimental.  Indeed, Yasmine Shamma argues that “Brainard encourages his peers, in practice, presence, and publication to collage with and without him, inventing a new form of collage: collaborative collage.”  The site goes on to note that “collage itself is always a form of collaboration, and certainly collaborative collage is at the heart of this project – in putting Brainard’s tactile, material texts into dialogue with digital media and digital media users, it facilitates the creation of original collages that are also, inevitably, collaborations with Joe himself.”

In some remarks included on the site, Mark Ford concurs: “How Joe Brainard would have loved the idea that all the bits and pieces that he collected as potential material for further collages, but never got around to using, would have this strange virtual afterlife! He was a connoisseur of bric-a-brac, a devotee of detritus, and as interested – although this may sound paradoxical – in the uselessness of art as in its power to change our lives. He developed collage, that quintessential twentieth-century art form based on mixing and matching, on snipping and gluing, to dazzling new heights.”

“Make Your Own Brainard” is filled with a rich array of materials, including some interesting background on the project itself and the discovery of these left-behind materials, information about Brainard’s life and work, about the history and practice of collage, and about the New York School of poetry‘s broader fascination with collaboration, exchange, error, and experimentation.  It also features a “series of reflections by people who knew [Brainard] or who have written about or been particularly moved by his work,” including Constance LewallenCedar SigoAnn LauterbachMark FordDaniel Kane and Nick Sturm.

This ingenious site embraces the spirit of fun and the DIY ethos of Brainard and his New York School circle and takes it into a new, digital realm.  As Cran notes, “For Brainard, the chance to be ‘unprofessional’, and to experiment,” was of the upmost importance, and this project gives you the opportunity to play along.

It’s easy and fun to use, even if the experience does remind you all over again just how wonderful Brainard’s own collages are (as can be seen below), and how difficult it is to actually make a good collage yourself (as can be seen by my own humble attempt above).

I encourage you to go check out the site, mess around with the materials, and make your own Brainard.  Once you’ve done so, you can post your work in their gallery, either with your name or anonymously, download, or share it.

Joe Brainard, Carte Postale (1978)

Posted in Joe Brainard, John Ashbery, Joseph Cornell, Kenward Elmslie, Mark Ford, Ron Padgett, Tibor de Nagy Gallery | Leave a comment

David Berman, Poet Among Musicians (1967-2019)

David Berman Actual Air

Last week, tragic news hit the worlds of indie rock and contemporary poetry simultaneously.  The musician and poet David Berman, leader of the acclaimed indie band Silver Jews, had passed away at the age of 52, after a long struggle with depression and addiction.  The news carried an extra potent sting because after a decade of silence following the last Silver Jews album, Berman had recently emerged with a new band name (Purple Mountains) and an excellent new album.  He had also begun giving interviews and was about to head out on tour.  Twitter immediately lit up with stunned laments by fellow musicians, writers, and fans, and many obituaries, wonderful appreciations, and reminiscinces of Berman and his music and writing have quickly followed.

In the days since his death, Berman has been hailed for his vivid, off-kilter songs – studded with unforgettable aphorisms and sung in his not-for-everyone but deeply resonant baritone – but also for his strange and moving poetry.  This is fitting, because, unlike many rock musicians who perhaps dabble in writing poetry, Berman was the real deal: he was an English major at University of Virginia, where he studied poetry with Charles Wright, and then went on to get his MFA in poetry from the University of Massachussets, where his mentor was the revered poet James Tate.

In 1999, after garnering fame and notoriety in indie circles with the first three, terrific Silver Jews albums, Berman published a book of poems called Actual Air, which arrived complete with blurbs by James Tate and Billy Collins.  The book quickly gained a cult following, pulling in many readers who were otherwise unfamiliar with contemporary poetry, and quietly influencing a whole range of younger poets.  The impact of Actual Air on a generation of poets reminds me a bit of Brian Eno’s famous comment about the first Velvet Underground album: the banana record may have “only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.”

So I just wanted to add this small footnote to the chorus of memorials for Berman. In addition to being a hugely important and beloved musician, Berman should be seen as one of the best of a handful of figures who manage to bring the sensibility of contemporary poetry – and, particularly poetry of the New York School – to the world of music.  As I’ve written about before, the connections between indie rock and the New York School of poets are real and extensive, but among musicians, Berman surely has one of the most direct connections to this lineage, whether through his link to Tate (widely seen as a key heir to Ashbery) or simply his own reading and stated influences.

As many reviews of Actual Air noted, Berman’s poetry clearly shows the impress of Ashbery’s work.  For instance, the New Yorker’s review observed that Berman “comes on like a prankster, restocking the imperial orations of Wallace Stevens and the byzantine monologues of John Ashbery with the pop-cultural bric-a-brac of a new generation.”  And Ashbery pops up in various places in Berman’s work, like the epigraph for a piece in the Baffler about his experience working as a guard at the Whitney Museum.  (Around the same time, Berman’s close friend and collaborator Stephen Malkmus, the founder of the iconic indie band Pavement, was giving interviews in which he too identified Ashbery as a source for his own strange lyrics).

But Berman’s debts to the New York School lineage extend beyond Ashbery: in interviews, Berman repeatedly mentioned Kenneth Koch as a major influence.  When the Poetry Society of America asked him “Are there poems, poets, or anthologies that have opened up or radically altered your ideas of what can be done in poetry?” Berman responded “I always thought that the corollary to ‘make it new’ should be ‘make it not boring.’ Stephen Crane and Kenneth Koch both inspired me. One with his clarity, the other with his obfuscation.”  Even as recently as last month, in an interview with Travis Nichols for the Poetry Foundation, Berman said “I would put amusical influences down to Tate, Russell EdsonKenneth Koch.”

Interestingly enough, this ongoing conversation seems to have run in both directions: as Berman himself noted last month in a discussion of James Tate, the title of his old teacher’s final, posthumously published book The Government Lake, seems to have been from one of Berman’s own poems.

The New York School ethos and aesthetic can be found all over the place in Berman’s poems and songs, which masterfully evoke the surrealism of everyday life, take a playful, ironic stance towards experience and the self, revel in the cracked weirdness of ordinary language and the absurdities of pop culture, and experiment with a collage aesthetic.

David Berman’s death is a heartbreaking, tremendous loss, and it’s hard to know what to say beyond that. “Do you believe in MGM endings?”  he once asked in “Like Like The The The Death,”  a song about mortality with a weird, stuttering title worthy of Gertrude Stein or Ashbery himself.  I must say it feels pretty tough to believe in happy movie endings at the moment.  Berman’s song also includes these lines, which seem as fitting a conclusion as any other: “Like like the the the death / Air crickets, air crickets, air crickets, air crickets, air.”

Posted in David Berman, In Memoriam, James Tate, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Music, NY School Influence | 1 Comment

“For Will”: A Short Documentary about Robert Creeley and His Son

Robert Creeley and son Will (photo by Bruce Jackson)

A few years ago, I introduced the work of the poet Robert Creeley to an undergraduate student of mine at Florida State University named Grayson Goga.  Like so many students, Grayson fell for Creeley’s work — but unlike many students, he decided to make a film about Creeley.  For the final project for a documentary film course at FSU, Grayson tracked down the poet’s son, Will Creeley, travelled to his home to conduct an interview and film Will and his own young son and, along with some fellow students in the film program at FSU, made this moving short documentary.

The film focuses on Will’s memories of his father and his lasting legacy, as he reminisces about growing up in a world where Allen Ginsberg and other literary figures were his dad’s close friends.  It features Will reading a tender poem his father wrote for him, “Time (For Willy),” as well as another Creeley poem, “‘When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer…,'” read first by Will and then by Creeley himself.

For Will” is a touching, intimate tribute to a wonderful and influential poet.

And I’m definitely going to file this one under “Things that Make Me Very Happy to Be a Teacher.”

 

Posted in Allen Ginsberg, Film, Robert Creeley | 4 Comments

Frank O’Hara and Fashion (at the Wedding of Eugenia Kim and Christopher Lee)

eugenia-kim-and-christopher-lee-wedding

Frank O’Hara has recently been popping up in the world of high fashion and celebrity culture — for instance, he was named as one of the late designer Kate Spade’s muses and his work has inspired a luxury Lunch Poems handbag flaunted by Jennifer Lawrence.  The trend continues with a report in Vogue about the wedding of “Eugenia Kim, the CEO and creative director of her eponymous women’s accessories line—which creates hats worn by celebrities like Beyoncé—and designer Christopher Lee.”

The article traces the “meet-cute” of this high-profile couple (which had all “the makings of a Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks rom-com”) before describing the details of their carefully-planned wedding, which included a reading of Frank O’Hara’s beloved poem “Having a Coke With You.”

O’Hara’s 1960 poem — an ode to his lover Vincent Warren — has recently taken on a vibrant life of its own as a highly “relatable” social media favorite and, yes, poem read at weddings, both straight and same-sex.  For more on the poem’s complicated “relatability,” keep your eyes out for a terrific forthcoming essay in PMLA on this topic by poetry scholar Brian Glavey, titled “Having a Coke With You Is Even More Fun than Ideology Critique.” (And for more on this poem’s afterlife, see here, here, here, and here).

Here’s a bit more about the details of the wedding and the readings the couple included in their ceremony:

“The new weather development created a slightly dark mood that added to the setting and our aesthetic,” Eugenia says. “We both dislike traditional wedding music—if I have to hear ‘Pachelbel’s Canon in D’ at one more wedding!—however, we’re both very specific about our music. We were lucky to find the Joyce Hammann String Quartet, which specializes in nontraditional string music, and they wore all black including matching black leather Eugenia Kim ‘Carter’ berets—the same one I originally designed for Beyoncé to wear to the Grammys.” The bridal party processional was “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac, and the bride walked down the aisle to “George’s Waltz II,” composed by Shigeru Umebayashi from Tom Ford’s A Single Man, a song that Christopher believes embodies his love for Eugenia. There was a reading from a love letter Zelda Fitzgerald wrote to F. Scott Fitzgerald, an excerpt from a letter written from him to her on the eve of their wedding, and a passage from The Beautiful and Damned, as well as Frank O’Hara’s “Having a Coke with You.”

I have to think O’Hara would’ve been amused and pleased to have a poem of his read at the wedding of a woman known as “the milliner to the stars.”  At this point, maybe the real question is are there any fashion designers out there who don’t love Frank O’Hara?

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in fashion, Frank O'Hara, Vincent Warren | Leave a comment

Kevin Killian (1952-2019)

Killian Kevin by Daniel Nicoletta.jpeg

Kevin Killian, photo by Daniel Nicoletta 

Like so many others, I’m shocked and heartbroken to learn that the writer Kevin Killian passed away last night.  I first met Kevin in 1996, at the “Poetry of the 1950s” conference in Orono, Maine (where he gave a paper on a panel devoted to Jack Spicer and Frank O’Hara) and we soon began a lively conversation that carried on for over twenty years. Kevin’s kindness and generosity were legendary.  He had a knack for genuinely making you feel like you were the special recipient of his attention and care — that whatever you were doing, whatever you had written or said, was important and terrific.

In reading the outpouring of tributes to Kevin, it’s strange, but not surprising at all, to see how many other people felt the same way I do. Part of you can’t help but think: I thought it was just me! How could he have had so much energy and time and affection for everyone he knew? At Frank O’Hara’s funeral, one of his closest friends, the painter Larry Rivers, said “Frank O’Hara was my best friend. There are at least sixty people in New York who thought Frank O’Hara was their best friend….At one time or another, he was everyone’s greatest and most loyal audience.” It feels like something very similar could, and should, be said of Kevin — like O’Hara (whose work he adored and over whom we initially bonded), Kevin was a charismatic center of multiple communities, a person who seemed to have known and supported everyone, and to have been universally loved in return.

At O’Hara’s funeral, the painter Philip Guston put his arm around another mourner and whispered “He was our Apollinaire,” referring to the great French poet who was a central figure of the French avant-garde, the key supporter and champion for a whole network of writers and painters.  It seems safe to say that for so many of us, “he was our Frank O’Hara.”

Kevin was an ardent, early supporter and defender of my own work, when he had no reason to be, and it meant the world to me. I was thrilled and grateful when he read my first book and actually gave it one of his legendary, hilarious, insightful Amazon reviews (which have been collected in a volume called Selected Amazon Reviews).

Kevin was a fount of knowledge about Frank O’Hara, the New York School of poets, Jack Spicer, and the wider New American poetry scene, along with so much else, and like many other scholars and poets, I benefited so much from knowing him, and having him as a sounding board, cheerleader, and source of wisdom.

Kevin was also a wonderful, path-breaking, influential poet, fiction writer, and playwright, one of the central figures of the New Narrative movement, a pioneering queer writer, and the unofficial laureate of San Francisco for many years.  With his wife and collaborator, the equally amazing writer Dodie Bellamy, he edited the small literary magazine Mirage #4 / Period(ical).  He was a gifted scholar, editor, and biographer (of Jack Spicer), a voracious reader, collector of autographs, and all-around mensch. (For more on his remarkable life and career, see here and here for a good place to start).  I just can’t believe he’s gone. He will be deeply missed by so many.
Posted in Frank O'Hara, Guillaume Apollinaire, In Memoriam, Jack Spicer, Kevin Killian, Larry Rivers, Philip Guston | Leave a comment

“Ninth Street Women”: The New York School (of Painters, Mostly) Comes to TV

Left: Actress Rose Leslie (Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images). Right: Elaine de Kooning.

Those of us who have been hoping for years for a Frank O’Hara biopic or Netflix mini-series devoted to the New York School poets will have to wait, but there is exciting news in this department: Amazon just announced that the studio has optioned Mary Gabriel’s Ninth Street Women, which was a finalist for the 2018 National Book Award.  Gabriel’s book is a terrific group portrait of five remarkable women artists — Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler — who were at the heart of Abstract Expressionism, and who each had significant relationships with O’Hara and the other poets in his circle.

Better yet, Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino — the Emmy-winning creators of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Gilmore Girls — have signed on to develop the book into a series for Amazon.

From the Hollywood Reporter:

Ninth Street Women is set amid the most turbulent social and political period of modern times and chronicles five women — Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler — who dared to enter the male-dominated world of 20th century abstract painting as artists (and not muses). These women changed American art and society, tearing up the prevailing social code and replacing it with a doctrine of liberation.

As ArtNet notes, “for Sherman-Palladino, it’s the chance to do another New York period piece, set in much the same era as Mrs. Maisel, as well as to write some more lightning-quick dialogue for women.”  

Gabriel’s book is “a fascinating, hyper-detailed portrait of the post-war avant-garde art scene in New York, the book paints vibrant portraits not only of its main characters, but also of such artistic greats as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Franz Kline, Hans Hofmann, and many others.”

Of special note for my purposes: Frank O’Hara plays a significant, recurring role in Gabriel’s book, thanks to his very intimate connection to Hartigan and close relationships with Mitchell and de Kooning.  Presumably, he would feature in the television adaptation as well — a tantalizing prospect for O’Hara aficianodos.

The ArtNet piece wonders “who should play the pioneering artists” on this new show, and offers their “dream casting picks.”  They seem pretty good to me: Sarah Paulson as Lee Krasner, Christan Bale as Jackson Pollock, Rose Leslie (Ygritte!) as Elaine de Kooning, Peter Skaarsgard as Willem de Kooning (an inspired choice), Rachel Brosnahan as Joan Mitchell and so on.

So — summoning the New York School faithful and poetry fans — who should play Frank O’Hara?  What about John Ashbery?  And James Schuyler?  (They each make many appearances in Ninth Street Women).  Suggestions?

Mary Gabriel has, not surprisingly, signed on as a consulting producer for the series.  I just thought I would mention that if Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino happen to be looking for a Frank O’Hara/poetry consultant to help out with historical accuracy and whatnot, I think I might be able to find room in my schedule!

Left, Jackson Pollock (Photo by Tony Vaccaro/Getty Images). Right, Christian Bale, courtesy of IMDB.

Left: Jackson Pollock. (Photo by Tony Vaccaro/Getty Images). Right: Christian Bale (Courtesy of IMDB).

 

Posted in Abstract Expressionism, Elaine de Kooning, Frank O'Hara, Franz Kline, Grace Hartigan, Hans Hoffmann, Helen Frankenthaler, Jackson Pollock, James Schuyler, Joan Mitchell, John Ashbery, Lee Krasner, Television, Visual Art, Willem de Kooning | Leave a comment

Frank O’Hara as a Jeopardy! Clue

The list of poets who are well-known enough to appear in a question on a television trivia game show is relatively short.  Games like Jeopardy! frequently feature questions about old standbys like Homer, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron, Pound, Yeats, Hughes, Ginsberg, or Plath, but it would be pretty rare to come across a question about a Mina Loy or a Robert Creeley.

So I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised to see that Frank O’Hara’s name popped up on Jeopardy! a few days ago.  O’Hara appeared in the category “American Poetry,” alongside clues about Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, and Robert Hayden’s “Middle Passage.”  If you’re someone like me, who takes an (obsessive?) interest in tracking O’Hara’s reputation and ever-increasing influence and ubiquity, this seems like a significant little moment in his journey to mainstream recognizability.

The clue read:

Not only was it surprising to see a question about O’Hara, but also to watch the current reigning champ — the much buzzed-about, seemingly unstoppable James Holzhauer — come up with the wrong name.  “Who is Ella Fitzgerald?” Holzhauer said.  Another contestant quickly buzzed in correctly with “Who is Billie Holiday?”  This was especially notable because Holzhauer — who already, after 12 victories, holds the record for the four highest-scoring games in the show’s history, and is in second place for all-time winnings after the famous Ken Jennings (whose run was 74 victories) — almost never buzzes in with the wrong answer (he is averaging just 1.2 wrong answers per game)  Holzhauer has quickly become one of the best players to ever play the game, so I definitely am not holding this little slip-up against him.

 

 

I was expecting to be able to declare that this was the very first time Frank O’Hara has appeared in a Jeopardy! clue.  But — thanks to this fan-created archive of previous games — I just learned this is actually the second time.  It is, however, his first appearance in 32 years.  Way back in 1987, the show featured O’Hara in a clue, about the same poem no less, and then not again since: “Frank O’Hara’s ‘The Day Lady Died’ is a tribute to this black singer.”

So do any other poets of the New York School qualify as Jeopardy!-famous, in the company of the usual suspects like Wordsworth, Whitman, Dickinson, and Eliot?  Well, it turns out John Ashbery’s name has appeared in Jeopardy! too, also on only two occasions.  First, in 1998, with this clue: “This ‘X-Files’ star has expressed his admiration for the complex modern poetry of John Ashbery.”

(Answer? “Who is David Duchovny?,” who, by the way, studied literature in graduate school at Yale).

And second, in 2004, in the category “First Names the Same,” in the clue “Ashbery, Davidson, Cheever.”

According to the records, so far Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, Barbara Guest, Alice Notley, Bernadette Mayer, and Ted Berrigan have yet to appear in a Jeopardy! clue, but I’m keeping an eye on it.

 

Posted in Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, Robert Creeley, Television | Leave a comment

Frank O’Hara and Indie Punk (Having a Coke with Martha)

Longtime readers of this blog probably know I’m always on the lookout for moments when Frank O’Hara or other poets of the New York School pop up in the world of music.  O’Hara, especially, continues to haunt the history and present of popular music, leading one observer to ask: “When did Frank O’Hara become the poet of indie rock?”  O’Hara inspired the stage name of Frankie Cosmos, and songs by Rilo Kiley and Sonic Youth‘s Thurston Moore — Lou Reed even recited his work to Patti Smith while reclining in a bathtub!  Just the other day, Jeff Tweedy (of Uncle Tupelo and Wilco fame) cited O’Hara as one of his favorites, too.

An article in Rolling Stone this week on the British indie band Martha — which it calls “one of the most singular voices in indie punk” — mentioned the band’s “far-flung pop culture mentions (the Replacements, poet Frank O’Hara, the Disney classic Sleeping Beauty).”  This caught my eye — not least because I didn’t realize O’Hara counts as a “pop culture mention”! — and led me to Martha’s song “1967, I Miss You, I’m Lonely,” which was released in 2014.

After opening with a Belle and Sebastian nod, the song is chock-full of O’Hara references:

I spent a dirty weekend practicing my French
Rosy cheeked I saw my limitations there in evidence
When I invited Frank and you, back to mine for a mange tout
When I meant ménage à trois
You laughed so hard you cracked your chin against the bar

The song also nods to an O’Hara fan favorite, the closing of his poem “Steps” (“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”):

Oh God how wonderful it is
Crossing bridges in the mist

And then pulls out the big guns — a direct riff on O’Hara’s beloved “Having a Coke With You” (“I look / at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world / 
except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally and anyway it’s in the Frick / which thank heavens you haven’t gone to yet so we can go together for the first time”) — but instead of making an exception for Rembrandt’s Polish Rider, Martha makes one for a portrait of O’Hara himself by his dear friend Grace Hartigan.

I look at you
And I am confident that I’d rather look at you
Than all the portraits in existence in the world
Except possibly O’Hara by Grace Hartigan
Or something else
I’m not a connoisseur
I’m monolingual, and absurd
And I know this statement might sound phoney
But I miss you
And I’m lonely
I miss you
I’m lonely
Distance stretches on and on and on

It may be at the Smithsonian rather than the Frick, but here’s a portrait of O’Hara by Grace Hartigan.  Maybe the members of Martha can take someone they love to the museum who hasn’t been yet, so they can go there together for the first time…

Grace Hartigan, Frank O’Hara, 1926-1966, 1966, oil on linen, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Grace Hartigan, 1967.129

You definitely don’t see the painter Grace Hartigan name-checked in too many (or any?) indie punk songs, even if O’Hara continues to crop up with pleasing regularity in the some of the most interesting music of our time.

Posted in Frank O'Hara, Grace Hartigan, Lou Reed, Music, NY School Influence, Patti Smith, Thurston Moore, Visual Art | 1 Comment

The Power of Not Being Sure: John Ashbery, Jordan Ellenberg, and Math

JordanEllenberg How Not To Be Wrong

To my surprise, in the car the other day my math-obsessed 14-year-old son Dylan suddenly exclaimed “John Ashbery!” from the backseat.  It turns out he’d reached the last pages of Jordan Ellenberg’s 2014 book How Not To Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking, which he’s been relishing the past couple of weeks and has now pronounced one of his favorite books.  Very aware that Ashbery’s name is hallowed in our house, he was excited to stumble upon a reference to a poet his dad has talked and written about so much, in a book about math of all things.

“Do you know a poem called ‘Soonest Mended’?” he asked.  Do I know “Soonest Mended”?  Do I ever!  “Yes! It’s one of my favorite Ashbery poems and one of his most famous.  Why?”

“Ellenberg talks about the poem in this really interesting section about math and uncertainty.”

“Really?  How does he do that?” Dylan went on to explain the point of the passage: although we usually think of math as “the realm of certainty and absolute truth,” Ellenberg wants us to recognize math is also “a means by which we can reason about the uncertain, taming if not altogether domesticating it.”

I began to recite some partially garbled lines from the poem about action and not being sure and how we’re always coming back to the mooring of starting out, and Dylan, mildly impressed at my recall, said “that’s the part he quotes!”

Indeed it is.  In the book, Ellenberg calls “Soonest Mended” “the greatest summation I know of the way uncertainty and revelation can mingle, without dissolving together, in the human mind.” After quoting the poem’s wonderful final passage, Ellenberg writes “For this is action, this not being sure!  It is a sentence I often repeat to myself like a mantra.”  Many people view uncertainty and ambivalence as markers of cowardice, moderation, or quietism, but for Ashbery “not being sure is the move of a strong person, not a weakling,” Ellenberg argues.  “It is, elsewhere in the poem, ‘a kind of fence-sitting / Raised to the level of an esthetic ideal.’  And math is part of it.”

Math?!  Part of an ethos that embraces ambiguity and skepticism? As a decidedly math-averse person — who sometimes views my son’s preternatural prowess with numbers as a bewildering, X-Men-like mutant power — I was very pleased to hear that our worldviews might be more aligned than one might think. “Math,” Ellenberg writes, “gives us a way of being unsure in a principled way; not just throwing up our hands and saying ‘huh,’ but rather making a firm assertion: ‘I’m not sure, this is why I’m not sure, and this is roughly how not-sure I am.’ Or even more: ‘I’m unsure, and you should be too.’”

In my book Beautiful Enemies, I talk about “Soonest Mended” too, reading it as a powerful example of Ashbery’s deep connection to American pragmatist philosophy and its skepticism of fixity and absolute truths.  I argue that the poem’s ending is “a potent statement of a particularly Ashberyean negative capability – the willingness to remain in doubt, uncommitted, unaligned with any and all communities.”  The “eloquent and complex turn towards action and change” at the end of the poem suggests that, for Ashbery, “continued movement and artistic and personal health” are associated “with uncertainty itself… This is action: not aggressive gestures or declarations, not screaming slogans from the barricades, but remaining unsure, forever loose and careless, which recalls Ashbery’s frequent equation of doubt with motion.”

I would never have associated the outlook I’ve just described with math, but I’m very glad Ellenberg did.  The idea also seemed to resonate with my son, this ninth-grader deeply fascinated by math, its applications in real life and its philosophical underpinnings.

What a pleasant surprise to find this great little discussion of poetry — and Ashbery’s masterpiece no less — in a book about mathematical thinking. Among other things, this passage, like Ellenberg’s book as a whole, is a great example of how writers and thinkers might bridge the pernicious STEM / humanities divide.  It certainly appealed to both my math-focused kid and to his poetry professor dad.

So thanks to Jordan Ellenberg, not only for writing such a cool book, but for providing this little moment of math vs. literature détente and unexpected father-son bonding.  And, of course, to Ashbery for writing “Soonest Mended,” one of the great hymns to uncertainty and the power to be found in not being sure.

 

Posted in John Ashbery | 3 Comments

Falling in Love with Frank O’Hara (via Instagram)

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The writer Sinead Stubbins has a charming article in the Guardian today about how she, like so many others, came to fall in love with the poetry of Frank O’Hara.  The piece also suggests the new, digital byways that lead people to poetry today, especially to the poetry of O’Hara, which has found renewed life in the age of Twitter and social media.

“It’s probably not very dignified to admit that I first encountered the poems of Frank O’Hara on Instagram,” Stubbins writes. “I’m ashamed to say that I had never even heard of him, but I quickly learned the facts.”

She tells the story of scrolling through her feed and stumbling on the now-famous lines from O’Hara’s poem “Mayakovsky,” a passage which has taken on a new, vibrant afterlife online in the years since the passage appeared in the second season of Mad Men.

Now I am quietly waiting for
the catastrophe of my personality
to seem beautiful again,
and interesting, and modern.

Stubbins recalls taking a quick screenshot of the lines and moving on with her day, only to find she couldn’t get them out of her head:

“I couldn’t concentrate. ‘Catastrophe of my personality’ kept repeating in my head, like my brain was trying to memorise it independently of my will. I read the words out loud to myself in my apartment, letting them roll around my mouth like melting toffee, quite sure I had never read a more remarkable sentence in my life. I couldn’t decide if it was hilarious or if it made me want to cry. ‘And interesting, and modern.’ I needed to find the person who had written the words that had ruined my life.”

The freshness, humor, and clarity of O’Hara’s work seemed to cure Stubbins of her fear and loathing of poetry: “I always assumed I wasn’t clever or cultured enough to understand poetry. I love the Fast and the Furious movies, for chrissakes.”  I’m not sure if she meant the echo, but Stubbins certainly seems to be channelling O’Hara and his own attitudes about poetry here.  In “Personism,” O’Hara famously wrote “Nobody should experience anything they don’t need to, if they don’t need poetry bully for them. I like the movies too. And after all, only Whitman and Crane and Williams, of the American poets, are better than the movies.”

If you’re one of those people who, like Stubbins, always felt poetry belonged to “rich people … who were thrilled when they could tell someone that they don’t own a TV,” O’Hara would definitely be the poet to shatter that stereotype.

For Stubbins, reading O’Hara’s work seemed like finding a whole new form of poetry that was the opposite of stuffy and academic. “It felt like making a new exciting friend,” she writes.  “Frank’s poems were conversational and funny and weird in a way that I didn’t know poetry could be.”

I’ve talked a lot on this blog and elsewhere about O’Hara’s strange new role as a consummate poet of the internet age — the widespread feeling that the poetry he wrote over a half-century ago feels oddly, wonderfully of our own moment.  I also feel Stubbins is right when she says

“I don’t think Frank O’Hara would think it was silly that I discovered his work on a social media app that is primarily designed for empowering bikini selfies and laxative tea advertisements. He would probably think it was funny. In his 1959 poem ‘Naphtha’ he writes ‘I am ashamed of my century, for being so entertaining, but I have to smile’. I’m looking forward to learning more.”

I felt the same mix of emotions upon discovering that Jennifer Lawrence was recently carrying a $1500 Lunch Poems purse which the media misinterpreted as a copy of the actual book, another moment that probably would have made O’Hara shake his head and smile, a bit ashamed and a bit entertained.

Posted in Frank O'Hara, Mad Men, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams | Leave a comment