Andrew Sean Greer’s “It’s a Summer’s Day” and Echoes of Frank O’Hara

                       Image result for frank o'hara

In this week’s New Yorker, there is a story by Andrew Sean Greer which quietly takes its title from a poem by Frank O’Hara.  Oddly enough, this isn’t the first time I’ve posted about a recent New Yorker story taking its title from a poem by Frank O’Hara: a few years ago, the magazine published Don DeLillo’s story “Midnight in Dostoyevsky,” which is a phrase DeLillo borrowed from O’Hara’s “Meditations in an Emergency,” as I wrote about here.

The title of Greer’s story, “It’s a Summer’s Day,” alludes to the last lines of Frank O’Hara’s wonderful 1954 poem “Homosexuality,” which one of the characters quotes at the story’s climax: “It’s a summer day, / and I want to be wanted more than anything else in the world.”

The story centers on a hapless, insecure “minor novelist” named Arthur Less who has travelled to Italy to attend an award ceremony for a prize he is certain he will not win. He reminisces about an affair he had years earlier with a celebrated, much older poet named Robert Brownburn.  There are a few hints scattered throughout the story that Robert may be loosely modeled on John Ashbery — for example, Greer mentions Brownburn’s “Library of America photograph,” a telling detail which may remind one of the oft-mentioned fact that Ashbery is the first living poet to ever be published by that esteemed series.  The story also mentions that Arthur “once found Robert’s exertions on the tennis court amusing” (perhaps a very subtle nod to Ashbery’s famous early book The Tennis Court Oath?), and features a pivotal moment when Robert learns that he (like Ashbery, for Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror) has won the Pulitzer Prize.

At the end of the story, Arthur recalls a conversation with Robert on the day of his Pulitzer ceremony, which is studded with several allusions to Frank O’Hara (who was, of course, one of Ashbery’s closest friends). In this extended riff, Robert muses about the folly and allure of literary prizes:

“Prizes aren’t love. Because people who never met you can’t love you. The slots for winners are already set, from here until Judgment Day. They know the kind of poet who’s going to win, and if you happen to fit the slot, then bully for you! It’s like fitting a hand-me-down suit. It’s luck, not love. Not that it isn’t nice to have luck. Maybe the only way to think about it is being at the center of all beauty. Just by chance, today we get to be at the center of all beauty. It doesn’t mean I don’t want it. It’s a desperate way to get off, but I do. I’m a narcissist; desperate is what we do. Getting off is what we do. You look handsome in your suit. I don’t know why you’re shacked up with a man in his fifties. Oh, I know, you like a finished product. You don’t want to Add-A-Pearl. Let’s have champagne before we go. I know it’s noon. I need you to do my bow tie. I forget how because I know you’ll never forget. Prizes aren’t love, but this is love. What Frank wrote: ‘It’s a summer day, and I want to be wanted more than anything else in the world.’”

When Robert says “Maybe the only way to think about it is being at the center of all beauty.  Just by chance, today we get to be at the center of all beauty,” he is clearly referring to O’Hara’s “Autobiographia Literaria,” which memorably ends with the exclamation:

And here I am, the
center of all beauty!
writing these poems!
Imagine!

Then, to sum up his deep affection for his lover, he directly quotes from the poem “Homosexuality,” O’Hara’s great poem about taking pride in queer identity and same-sex love — merely mentioning that it’s something “Frank” once wrote (without giving the poet’s last name, seemingly to suggest Robert’s intimacy with O’Hara).

I just wanted to note this set of echoes in case other obsessive O’Hara-watchers like me out there might be interested to know about this close connection between Greer’s funny and compelling story and Frank O’Hara (and perhaps John Ashbery as well).

The New Yorker has also published a brief interview with Greer (which mentions the O’Hara connection) here, where you can also listen to him read the story.  The story is also an excerpt from Greer’s forthcoming novel, Less.

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Posted in Andrew Sean Greer, Fiction, Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, NY School Influence | Leave a comment

Book announcement: “Attention Equals Life” (with discount code)

 

Book Cover

As I’ve mentioned a few times here before, my second book, Attention Equals Life: The Pursuit of the Everyday in Contemporary Poetry and Culture, was recently published by Oxford University Press.  Although it is not strictly a study of the New York School of poets, the book has a great deal in it for anyone interested in the movement.

Attention Equals Life focuses extensively on several poets central to the New York School, with chapters devoted to James Schuyler and Bernadette Mayer (and an array of poets influenced by her).  Most broadly, the book explores one of the New York School’s most distinctive features — a fascination with using poetry to capture daily life in all its dailiness. I also borrowed my title from a remark of Frank O’Hara’s — “attention equals Life, or is its only evidence”– and O’Hara himself hovers over the whole book as a kind of guiding spirit.

You can purchase the book from Amazon here, but if you order it directly from Oxford University Press, here, using the following discount code, you can receive a 30% discount:  AAFLYG6

If you’re interested, you can hear me discuss the book and read some portions of it on this podcast, a recording of a reading I gave in Tallahassee, Florida a few months ago.  Also, a brief excerpt from the chapter on Bernadette Mayer was published by Berfrois.

Here is a description of the book, followed by the blurbs and some of the comments from reviews, along with the book’s table of contents:

Poetry has long been thought of as a genre devoted to grand subjects, timeless themes, and sublime beauty. Why, then, have contemporary poets turned with such intensity to documenting and capturing the everyday and mundane? Drawing on insights about the nature of everyday life from philosophy, history, and critical theory, Andrew Epstein traces the modern history of this preoccupation and considers why it is so much with us today. Attention Equals Life argues that a potent hunger for everyday life explodes in the post-1945 period as a reaction to the rapid, unsettling transformations of this epoch, which have resulted in a culture of perilous distraction. Epstein demonstrates that poetry is an important, and perhaps unlikely, cultural form that has mounted a response, and even a mode of resistance, to a culture suffering from an acute crisis of attention.

In this timely and engaging study, Epstein examines why a compulsion to represent the everyday becomes predominant in the decades after modernism and why it has so often sparked genre-bending formal experimentation. With chapters devoted to illuminating readings of a diverse group of writers–including poets associated with influential movements like the New York School, language poetry, and conceptual writing–the book considers the variety of forms contemporary poetry of everyday life has taken, and analyzes how gender, race, and political forces all profoundly inflect the experience and the representation of the quotidian.

By exploring the rise of experimental realism as a poetic mode and the turn to rule-governed “everyday-life projects,” Attention Equals Life offers a new way of understanding a vital strain at the heart of twentieth- and twenty-first century literature. It not only charts the evolution of a significant concept in cultural theory and poetry, but also reminds readers that the quest to pay attention to the everyday within today’s frenetic world of smartphones and social media is an urgent and unending task.

* * *

“A book of enormous breadth and ambition, Attention Equals Life is at once astonishing and reaffirming, challenging and clarifying. It engages more broadly than its scholarly focus would suggest. Epstein (Florida State Univ.) explores contemporary poetry’s obsession with the quotidian, setting that obsession in literary context (both historical and current) and identifying it as contemporaneous with cultural interest in the ordinary, the commonplace, the “real.” His argument is persuasive, the information is abundant and compelling, the endnotes and bibliography are extensive if not exhaustive, and the style is accessible. This book has something for everyone—poets, critics, teachers of literature and contemporary culture, fans of contemporary poetry, and even those who think that no poetry of value has emerged in the US since Robert Frost. The book is demanding in that the author consults and embraces theorists and practitioners from many fields. Though it is not for everyone, Attention Equals Life will richly reward those willing to take up the challenge.  Summing Up: Essential. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty. — J. A. Zoller, Choice

“Theoretically adept, poetically alert, and socially perceptive–serious about ethics as about aesthetics–this book reveals how the quotidian and its immersive immediacies are fundamental to contemporary cultural practices. Epstein keenly traces the anti-sublime practices of skeptical realism with acute attention.” –Rachel Blau DuPlessis, author of Blue Studios: Poetry and Its Cultural Work

“Andrew Epstein has written a wonderful book that sensitizes us to the way that a strain of experimental poetry has sought to attend to daily life in all its complexity and obscurity without desiring to transcend it. Theoretically nuanced, historically compelling, and politically astute, Epstein writes about the skeptical realism of everyday life poetry with energy, wit, and perspicacity.” –Ben Highmore, author of Cultural Feelings: Mood, Mediation and Cultural Politics

“Is poetry the most potent remedy for our Age of Distraction? If so, Andrew Epstein argues, then it works most effectively not through escaping into transcendence or imaginative transfiguration but through a rigorous attention to the everyday. In Attention Equals Life, he demonstrates brilliantly how several generations of American poets (from James Schuyler and A.R. Ammons to Bernadette Mayer, Ron Silliman, Kenneth Goldsmith, and Claudia Rankine) join together with theorists of the everyday (the American Pragmatists and continental thinkers such as Benjamin, Wittgenstein, Lefebvre, Debord, and de Certeau) to probe the promise and limits of the quotidian. By inventing a variety of constraints, techniques, and projects, the poets succeed in revealing directly what the theorists can only assert: that the ordinary is extraordinary.” –Stephen Fredman, author of Contextual Practice: Assemblage and the Erotic in Postwar Poetry and Art

“[An] expansive new book… A significant contribution to the study of post-World War II literature and western thinking.” —Journal of Poetics Research

Here is the book’s table of contents:

Introduction: The Poetics of Everyday Life Since 1945

Chapter 1: The Crisis of Attention, Everyday Life Theory, and Contemporary Poetry

Chapter 2: “Each Day So Different, Yet Still Alike”: James Schuyler and the Elusive Everyday

Chapter 3: “The Tiny Invites Attention”: A. R. Ammons’s Quotidian Muse

Chapter 4: Writing the Maternal Everyday: Bernadette Mayer and her “Daughters” (Hoa Nguyen, Susan Holbrook, Laynie Browne)

Chapter 5: “There is No Content Here, Only Dailiness”: Poetry as Critique of Everyday Life in Ron Silliman’s Ketjak

Chapter 6: Everyday Life Projects in Contemporary Poetry and Culture (Kenneth Goldsmith, Claudia Rankine, Brenda Coultas, Harryette Mullen)

Conclusion: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Beyond

I hope you’ll check it out!  Again, you can receive a 30% discount if you order the book directly from Oxford University Press, here, using the following promo code: AAFLYG6.

Posted in Bernadette Mayer, Claudia Rankine, James Schuyler, Kenneth Goldsmith, Ron Silliman | Leave a comment

For Allen Ginsberg’s Birthday: Making it Up with “Gingsberg, Koch, Padgett”

Image result for ginsberg koch making it up

Allen Ginsberg would’ve turned 91 yesterday, and the flurry of tributes and social media love reminded me of an event I attended over 20 years ago — one of a handful of times I was fortunate enough to meet Ginsberg in person.

On March 25, 1995, there was a book party at the Poetry Project at St. Marks in New York, to celebrate the publication of a slim volume called Making It Up, which had just been published by the (very) small press Catchword Papers.

The book is a transcription of an event that had occurred at the Poetry Project many years before, in 1979 — an evening that featured Ginsberg and his old friend Kenneth Koch collaborating on the spot, making up poems spontaneously, in front of a large audience. Ron Padgett served as moderator, providing some rules and prompts and gently guiding the poets through their antic improv.

Not surprisingly, given the humor and brilliance of these two poets, and the long, close friendship they shared, the results are hilarious, fun, surreal, and silly.

In the preface to Making It Up, Padgett gives some background on the unusual event, noting the surprisingly large crowd the performance drew and the excitement it produced:

Rarely, if ever, had two famous poets made themselves so vulnerable in public. The spontaneity of immediate collaboration cannot be faked: both Allen and Kenneth were on the verge of laying bare not only their compositional patterns, but also, to some degree, their very minds.  That night, the audience followed every rise and fall, every twist and turn, every bump and run of this daredevil performance.  They also laughed and applauded enormously.  Their energy seemed to radiate into the poets, who loosened up and let their generous inventiveness burst forth in brilliant, entertaining, and friendly poetic combat.

Padgett mentions that before the event he came up with a series of assignments to surprise the poets with, including prompts such as “Dramatic dialogue in blank verse,” “A poem with each line contradicting the line before,” and “Ballad” (with suggested topics that include “William Blake and Popeye have a disagreement and fight to the death”).

The poems Ginsberg and Koch spontaneously composed together are charming and strange, and rather dazzling considering the difficulties of composing poetry on the spot in a room full of admirers.  They are also intriguing examples of the art of collaboration — a topic of great interest in studies of the New York School.  Like most collaborations, beneath the humor and camaraderie, these spontaneously composed poems often tell us a good deal about the poets and their work, the nature of their bond and friendship in general, and the thin line between mutual inspiration and competition and one-upmanship.

Here, for example, is the beginning of a series of couplets in iambic pentameter, with the poets trading off lines:

AG: Today the nuclear bombs arise in mind
KK: Allen sees danger to all human kind

AG: Kenneth delights him, feels but a flower
KK: I only think it, though, at a late hour

AG: But morning comes, and dawn with a ruinous blast
KK: Revives me, and makes me worry very fast

AG: Evening shadows steal with radioactive shadow
Evening shadows steal with radioactive shade
KK: Full many a tune on this machine is played

AG: The hydrogen jukebox repeats the old prophecy
KK: And many’s a poem writ by you and me

There is also a rollicking drama in blank verse featuring Ginsberg in the role of Woody Woodpecker and Koch as The City of Paris, a deliberately bad poem, twenty-nine improvised haiku, several zany sestinas, and much more.

The whole little-known volume, with its lovely Larry Rivers cover collage, is a delight and worth tracking down.  Fortunately, you can also hear a recording of “The Ballad of Popeye and William Blake” on this funny clip posted on PennSound.

I’m unsure whether the event I attended in March 1995 was simply a book party or a reading (if anyone who was there recalls, please refresh my memory!), but it did provide me with an artifact I treasure, especially now that two of the trio are no longer with us — all three poets signed my copy of Making It Up:


I recall that just after Ginsberg drew one of his trademark Buddha and skull drawings in my book, Koch cheekily insisted on adding a crudely drawn bunny to his signature (playfully competing and teasing one another to the end).  (I don’t know why Koch wrote February, since it was, as Ginsberg noted, definitely on March 25!).

I think it may have been several days later when I discovered that the book’s spine had a glaring typo:

“GINGSBERG, KOCH, PADGETT”!  When I showed this to Koch several days later, he was miffed at the error for a moment, but then seemed to think it was fittingly absurd and hilarious.  Apparently, no one else had noticed (and I don’t know if anyone else ever has!).

So that’s my treasure: a mostly unknown, very small book with a big typo, and inscriptions from three wonderful writers.

Happy birthday to Allen Gingsberg!

 

 

Posted in Allen Ginsberg, collaboration, Kenneth Koch, Larry Rivers, Poetry Project at St. Marks, Ron Padgett | 8 Comments

Laura Kasischke on Alice Notley’s “Descent of Alette”: “radioactive, dangerous, addictive, all-consuming”

Image result for descent of alette notley

Each month, Poetry magazine posts a “Reading List,” in which contributors to the current issue share some books that held their interest.  In the May installment, Laura Kasischke offers a rave review of Alice Notley’s masterful, book-length poem, The Descent of Alette (1996).

This caught my eye both because the praise for Notley’s powerful feminist epic is so strong (and warranted), and because Kasischke may not leap immediately to mind as a member of “The Tribe of Alice,” which simply underscores how wide-ranging Notley’s influence has been.  Here is Kasischke on Notley:

This winter I had the pleasure, not for the first time, of teaching The Descent of Alette and finding myself once again in Alice Notley’s terrifying underworld of subway passengers, spirits, witnesses to the Tyrant on a journey narrated by the disembodied voice of our guide, Alette. Like Alette, when I read this book, it is as if “one day, I awoke” “& found myself on” “a subway, endlessly.”/ “I didn’t know” “how I’d arrived there or” “who I was” “exactly.” This is both epic poetry and hypnotism. There’s really nothing that has been written in my lifetime that intrigues me, mystifies me, calls me back to it with such force as this poem. I find myself unable to read it as often as I would because I find it radioactive, dangerous, addictive, all-consuming. There are a lot of books on my nightstand and books on my shelf that I return to weekly, or monthly, but The Descent of Alette isn’t one of them. It’s a book I save for sharing, or to which I return when I need to be reminded of what it is to read something with so much gravity that it requires a total surrender.

If you’re interested in hearing more about The Descent of Alette, check out this wonderful recent conversation between the poet Rachel Zucker and Notley herself, which is part of Zucker’s terrific podcast series called Commonplace.  Zucker explains just how life-changing that particular book was for her, and the two discuss it at length in illuminating ways.  (For another post in which Zucker pays tribute to Notley’s influence as well, see here).

Posted in Alice Notley, Interview, Laura Kasischke, Podcast, Rachel Zucker | Leave a comment

Look What They’ve Done to The San Remo

There is no shortage of opportunities to feel nostalgic for the good old days when rents were cheap, bars were smoky and filled with intellectual chatter, Kafka was the rage, and New York was a haven for rebellious artists.  Nor do you have to work very hard to get depressed about how expensive and antiseptic the city has become.  I’ve even written about this feeling before from time to time, but this piece in the New York Post about the re-boot of the old San Remo Cafe is particularly nauseating.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the San Remo — on MacDougal and Bleecker, in the very heart of Greenwich Village — was one of the most important and romanticized literary hangouts for the bohemian set.  The young New York School poets met there to drink and socialize, and Jack Kerouac used the San Remo as a central setting (rechristened as “The Black Mask”) for The Subterraneans, his speed-fueled 1953 novel about the underground scene.

In an essay, Frank O’Hara recalled the bar’s importance to early days of the New York School of poets:

We were all in our early twenties.  John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, Kenneth Koch and I, being poets, divided our time between the literary bar, the San Remo, and the artists’ bar, the Cedar Tavern.  In the San Remo we argued and gossiped: in the Cedar we often wrote poems while listening to the painters argue and gossip.  So far as I know nobody painted in the San Remo while they listened to the writers argue.

In one poem, O’Hara reminisces about a typical night of carousing at the bar with John Ashbery: “I remember JA / staggering over to me in the San Remo and murmuring / ‘I’ve met someone MARVELLOUS!'”

The NY Post article, titled “Where Models and Tech Billionaires Party to Avoid New Yorkers,” describes the new bar — which is in a different location in the Village, on Lafayette St. — as a playground for the obnoxiously wealthy.  It is also awkwardly trying to use the aura of the old haunt to promote itself:

San Remo Cafe is named after the Greenwich Village watering hole that was frequented by legions of creative types such as Jack Kerouac, Miles Davis and Tennessee Williams.

Its newest iteration, which had a soft opening last Friday, pays homage to the original cafe, which shuttered in 1967. During the day, its storefront coffee shop is open to the public, serving $3.50 espressos under globe lights.

The backroom bar, which opens after 7 p.m., features a retro décor of corrugated mirrors, lacquered tables and moss-green couches, and is now home to yuppies and downtown scenester types.

During opening night, Katya Taran, a svelte Russian model wearing a see-through turtleneck, ripped jeans and YSL bag, uploads a photo of herself on Instagram, praising the new space with a caption, “‘Hip without being slick, intelligent without being corny,’ Jack Kerouac put it best.”


Hmmm…. In his memoir about Frank O’Hara, Joe LeSueur recalls the San Remo as “a dark, smoky, cramped establishment with a big espresso machine, loud jukebox, and crowded tables, whose patrons — seedy literary types, grubby bohemians, quiescent queers who shunned screaming gay bars — mainly drank fifteen-cent glasses of tasteless draft beer.”  It doesn’t sound like one would find too many starving artists and impoverished writers arguing about The Cantos or Gertrude Stein there these days.

Sitting with the cool cats, though, can be costly: A table at San Remo’s has a bar-tab minimum of $5,000. Menu items include a $2,800 bottle of Champagne Salon and a $1,275 bucket containing Johnnie Walker Blue Label and mixers.

“You have to know someone to get in,” Sean Nasiri, a partner at the bar, says. “You won’t know about [the place] unless we want you to.”

Non-bottle spenders make their way to the granite bar at the end of the room, which offers $16 cocktails like Bashful and Green, containing green-tea vodka and Caribbean sweet syrup, as well as La Traviata, a blend of prosecco and grapefruit…

“Everyone’s so well-dressed, and it’s supertrendy,” says 24-year-old stylist Shalimar Ortiz, who’s based in the West Village. “I’ve finally found a great place to be among people like me.”

Oh for the days of “seedy literary types,” “grubby bohemians,” and fifteen-cent glasses of tasteless beer!  But as O’Hara puts it rather cryptically at the end of his 1954 poem “On the Way to the San Remo”:

Yes you are foolish smoking
the bars are for rabbits
who wish to outlive the men

Related image

William S. Burroughs (left) and poet Alan Ansen outside the San Remo Cafe

 

Posted in Barbara Guest, Beats, Frank O'Hara, Jack Kerouac, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, New York, William S. Burroughs | Leave a comment

Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1933-2017), Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch

Yevgeny Yevtushenko, 1972

The great Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko died yesterday at the age of 83. A towering figure in post-World War II Russian poetry, Yevtushenko was, as the New York Times obituary put it, “an internationally acclaimed poet with the charisma of an actor and the instincts of a politician whose defiant verse inspired a generation of young Russians in their fight against Stalinism during the Cold War.”

But as a poet working within and against the Soviet state, Yevtushenko also had a complicated reputation and legacy:

He was the best known of a small group of rebel poets and writers who brought hope to a young generation with poetry that took on totalitarian leaders, ideological zealots and timid bureaucrats….But Mr. Yevtushenko did so working mostly within the system, taking care not to join the ranks of outright literary dissidents. By stopping short of the line between defiance and resistance, he enjoyed a measure of official approval that more daring dissidents came to resent.

While they were subjected to exile or labor camps, Mr. Yevtushenko was given state awards, his books were regularly published, and he was allowed to travel abroad, becoming an international literary superstar.

Some critics had doubts about his sincerity as a foe of tyranny. Some called him a sellout. A few enemies even suggested that he was merely posing as a protester to serve the security police or the Communist authorities. The exiled poet Joseph Brodsky once said of Mr. Yevtushenko, “He throws stones only in directions that are officially sanctioned and approved.”

This ambivalence towards Yevtushenko and his work may remind Frank O’Hara fans of his 1963 poem called “Answer to Voznesensky and Evtushenko.”

O’Hara’s withering poem attacks the pair of young Soviet poets as little more than pale shadows of the great Vladimir Mayakovsky and Boris Pasternak, two writers at the very top of O’Hara’s long list of personal heroes: “We are tired of your tiresome imitations of Mayakovsky,” the scathing poem begins.

Although O’Hara loves nothing more than Russian literature and culture (“we poets of America have loved you / your countrymen, our countrymen, our lives, your lives”), he seems to have had enough.  O’Hara was particularly furious that Yevtushenko and Voznesensky had the gall to criticize American society on the basis of what O’Hara saw as ill-informed claims about American racism.

we are tired
of your dreary tourist ideas of our Negro selves
our selves are in far worse condition than the obviousness
of your color sense

….You shall not take my friends away from me
because they live in Harlem

(In defending America and its promise of diversity and interracial dialogue from these Russian interlopers, O’Hara’s poem notoriously traffics in some unfortunate racial stereotypes itself, but that’s a discussion for another day).

In O’Hara’s eyes, Voznesensky and Yevtushenko completely misunderstand race in America, while being lifeless imitators of the great Russian avant-garde:

                                    you are indeed as cold as wax
as your progenitor was red, and how greatly was loved his redness
in the fullness of our own idiotic sun!  what
“roaring universe” outshouts his violent triumphant sun!
you are not even speaking
in a whisper
Mayakovsky’s hat worn by a horse*

It’s worth noting that O’Hara’s anger at the young Russian poets may have been more a product of the complicated politics of race, nationalism, and Cold War allegiances in 1963, than a blanket dismissal of Yevtushenko and his writing.

In later years, he may have felt quite differently — it seems that O’Hara’s friend Kenneth Koch did.  Yevtushenko’s death immediately reminded me of an event in 1996, when Kenneth Koch invited Yevtushenko to read at Columbia University as part of the F. W. Dupee Reading series.  At the time, I was helping Koch run this series, so I happened to be involved in coordinating and advertising Yevtushenko’s reading.  I recall Koch’s enthusiasm leading up to the visit, and remember the rousing introduction he gave the Russian poet.  Yevthushenko proceeded to give a vibrant performance of his poems, dramatically gesticulating and stalking the stage as he read in a booming voice.  I remember Koch’s being half-bemused and half-inspired by Yevtushenko’s thundering performance and also being shocked that I (a young grad student kid) was invited to a little champagne reception afterwards with these two poets and other VIPs …

I hadn’t thought about this event in a long time, but digging around, I just found a brief article about the reading in the Columbia Spectator. The Spectator reports that in his introduction, Koch said Yevtushenko “seems indifferent to nothing and responsive to everything … His poems of private feelings are as radical as the others.”   The article goes on to describe the reading: “Yevtushenko presented, in English and Russian, both prose and poetry, often making large gestures with his arms and whole body and wandering across, and off, the stage as he read and recited his work.”

Here is a picture of the two late poets, Koch and Yevtushenko, on that night in 1996.

Kenneth Koch and Yevgeny Yevtushenko (Columbia University, 1996)

*As usual, the spacing of these lines is all off because Word Press makes it impossible to reproduce poetry that has any indentations or unusual spacing.  My apologies.  You can find the poem here, in O’Hara’s Collected Poems.

 

Posted in Frank O'Hara, Kenneth Koch, Russian literature, Yevgeny Yevtushenko | 1 Comment

“On Rachmaninoff’s Birthday”: Frank O’Hara and the Russian Composer

Image result for "rachmaninoff"

Today is the birthday of the Russian composer and virtuousic pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) — a date which held special significance for Frank O’Hara. Across the course of his life, O’Hara wrote seven different poems titled “On Rachmaninoff’s Birthday” — including one titled “On Rachmaninoff’s Birthday #158” and another “On Rachmaninoff’s Birthday #161,” which playfully suggests that the series might have been infinitely extendable.

Oddly enough, some of these poems were written on or around April 1, while others were written months away from the composer’s birthday, in July.  (In his Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara, Joe LeSueur notes  “It is of no great moment, I suppose, but Frank seems to have been confused about or uncertain of what day and month the great Russian composer-pianist’s birthday fell on … I don’t know what to make of this — do you?”).

O’Hara was a gifted pianist who seemed destined for a career in music before shifting his allegiances fully to poetry during college, and he enjoyed tackling Rachmaninoff’s extremely complex pieces.  His father played the piano as well, and (as Brad Gooch relates in his biography of O’Hara, City Poet), Rachmaninoff was his father’s favorite composer: O’Hara, “influenced by his father, tried to get his parents to hang a portrait of the Russian composer in the den.”

Gooch mentions that “during O’Hara’s senior year a story circulated at Harvard that he had played once for Rachmaninoff at the New England Conservatory and that the Russian pianist and composer had advised him that his hands were too small for ultimate success.”  (One can only imagine, then, what Rachmaninoff would have said about our current president’s chances of being a concert pianist!).

“O’Hara drew on this story years later when he wrote one of his ‘On Rachmaninoff’s Birthday’ poems”:

Good
fortune, you would have been
my teacher and I your only pupil….
Only my eyes would be blue as I played
and you rapped my knuckles
dearest father of all Russias.

Gooch continues: “While such a session may never have taken place, the conclusion that he was physically unsuited to excel at a concert hall career helped to dissuade O’Hara from a career in music.”

In his memoir, LeSueur points out that the dream of being a musician never entirely left O’Hara: “I truly believe that Frank’s early desire and ambition to be a pianist remained with him throughout his life, not in any practical or realistic sense but as a dream or fantasy one stubbornly clings to, knowing all the while that what one longs for has always been out of reach, never obtainable.”

Here is probably my own favorite from O’Hara’s “Rachmaninoff series.”  This one was written in 1953 (in July, not on Rachmaninoff’s actual birthday) and first appeared in Evergreen Review in 1957 and later in Lunch Poems in 1965:

On Rachmaninoff’s Birthday

Quick! A last poem before I go
off my rocker.  Oh Rachmaninoff!
Onset, Massachusetts.  Is it the fig-newton
playing the horn?  Thundering windows
of hell, will your tubes ever break
into powder?  Oh my palace of oranges,
junk shop, staples, umber, basalt;
I’m a child again when I was really
miserable, a grope pizzicato.  My pocket
of rhinestone, yoyo, carpenter’s pencil,
amethyst, hypo, campaign button,
is the room full of smoke?  Shit
on the soup, let it burn.  So it’s back.
You’ll never be mentally sober.

 

Posted in Frank O'Hara, Music, Poems, Sergei Rachmaninoff | 2 Comments