Brad Gooch

Brad Gooch: On "On Seeing Larry Rivers' Washington Crossing the Delaware at the Museum of Modern Art"

O'Hara and Rivers were both obsessed that season with the Russians. O'Hara's obsession was with Mayakovsky, who had so stridently declared that "The poet himself is the theme of his poetry" and "The city must take the place of nature," and from whom O'Hara had picked up what James Schuyler has described as "the intimate yell." (In a nasty swipe of a poem, "Answer to Voznesensky & Evtushenko," in 1963 O'Hara accused the Soviet poets of being "Mayakovsky's hat worn by a horse.") Rivers was busily reading War and Peace, about which John Myers grudgingly asked in a memoir: "And who got him to read War and Peace? Not Frank." Between Mayakovsky's "The Cloud in Trousers," O'Hara's "Second Avenue" and Tolstoy's War and Peace, the epic was in the air. So Rivers decided to make his own attempt at a large scale epic painting, George Washington Crossing the Delaware, which he has described as "like getting into the ring with Tolstoy." It was based on the original work by the nineteenth-century academic painter Emmanuel Leutze, a German-American sentimental realist known for the stage-set heroics in this tableau as well as in his mural decorations for the Capitol. O'Hara found the notion of updating this historic figure "hopelessly corny" until he saw the painting finished, his coming around later recorded in his 1955 poem "On Seeing Larry Rivers' Washington Crossing the Delaware at the Museum of Modern Art." Among the painters, however, the work--with its parodistic figure drawing--was a battle cry, thumbing its nose at Abstract Expressionism and pointing the way toward what would later become Pop Art. It was also quite revolutionary in dispensing with the lush brushwork of de Kooning in favor of thin, soaked washes. Rivers was sneered at in the Cedar, where Gandy Brodie, an abstract painter who had studied dance with Martha Graham, described him as a "phony" and one persnickety woman painter dubbed the new canvas Pascin Crossing the Delaware. The painting was a breakthrough for Rivers in finding his own breathing space in the increasingly claustrophobic crowd of young painters.

Meanwhile his relationship with O'Hara was becoming more difficult. O'Hara was making demands that Rivers felt were unreasonable. "He thought he wasn't putting pressure on me but he actually was," remembers Rivers of O'Hara's wanting to go home with him after a party "Like we'd be somewhere and I'd be enjoying myself. And he says, "Well, are we going?' Like meaning, 'Well is anything going to happen?' I wasn't in love in that sense."

From City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara. Copyright © 1993 by Brad Gooch.

Brad Gooch: On "A Step Away from Them"

"A Step Away from Them" follows O'Hara in handheld camera fashion, wearing his trademark seersucker Brooks Brothers jacket with a volume of poems by Pierre Reverdy stuck in its pocket, as he heads on his lunch hour west and then downtown from the Museum, past construction sites on Sixth Avenue, through Times Square where he stops for a cheeseburger and a glass of papaya juice beneath the Chesterfield billboard with blowing smoke, and then back uptown to work. In the writing of the poem O'Hara left a record for history of the sensations of a sensitive and sophisticated man in the middle of the twentieth century walking through what was considered by some the capital of the globe. Using a deceptively flat pedestrian voice-"it's my lunch hour, so I go for a walk among the hum-colored / cabs"--O'Hara discovered a new kind of pleasure in writing a more public poetry. As Allen Ginsberg later told an interviewer, "He integrated purely personal life into the high art of composition, marking the return of all authority back to the person. His style is actually in line with the tradition that begins with Independence and runs through Thoreau and Whitman, here composed in a metropolitan spaceage architecture environment. He taught me to really see New York for the first time, by making of the giant style of Midtown his intimate cocktail environment. It's like having Catullus change your view of the Forum in Rome."

O'Hara was fired by the challenge of finding the good in the bad, the poetic in the mundane, the ancient and divine in modem New York. His tendency, like Whitman's, was to mythologize its daily life. In "A Step Away from Them" even construction workers--staples of the midtown terrain--are made to seem mysterious and glamorous and tropically sexual:

First, down the sidewalk  where laborers feed their dirty  glistening torsos sandwiches  and Coca-Cola, with yellow helmets  on. They protect them from falling  bricks, I guess.

Likewise the growing Puerto Rican population of the city was assimilated in the poem--this latest in a series of mass migrations of ethnic groups having just peaked in 1953: "There are several Puerto / Ricans on the avenue today, which / makes it beautiful and warm." O'Hara had first sounded this theme a month earlier when he and John Button sat on a fire escape composing a collaborative letter to Schuyler written in gay slang about the recent fire at Wanamaker's Department Store to which O'Hara contributed the line, "And the Porto Ricans seem to be having such a swell time in the street outside." Kenneth Koch grounds the line to a recent incident of heckling from a group of Puerto Rican boys. "We were walking up Sixth Avenue going to Larré's to lunch," recalls Koch. "It was a really hot day. There were these Puerto Rican guys on the street who made some remarks which made me angry. I said, 'Shit. Damn it.' Frank said, 'Listen. It means they think we're attractive.'" O'Hara's libidinal fantasies and poetic fancies were equal and intertwined enough that he could see what he wanted to see, or needed to see, on the lunch hour streets.

Part of the novelty of O'Hara's poem--published a year later in Evergreen Review--was that nothing seemed made up. Reporting his stop at a greasy spoon, Juliet's Corner, O'Hara follows with "Giulietta Masina, wife of / Federico Fellini, è bell' attrice," The association had surfaced because of his viewing La Strada a few weeks earlier. "John Button and I saw one of the all time great movies the other day, La Strada and man, was it ever!" he reported to John Wieners, then at Black Mountain College. "It has Anthony Quinn, Richard Basehart (what a nice last name) and someone named Giulietta Masina who is a genius, she's the End. Also the director, Federico Fellini, seems to have a few insights into the soul not often granted by the Heavenly Hiders." O'Hara's adoration of Masina reached its peak a few years later when he met her at the home of the Italian countess Camilla McGrath, who translated as O'Hara--his hero worship always to the far side of theatrical--fell to his knees in front of the actress and gushed, "You are not simply a great artist, you are a fact of our lives!"

The true subject of the poem, though--like that of the equally ambulatory "The Day Lady Died" three years later--was revealed in its title. In "A Step Away from Them," written the day after Jackson Pollock's funeral in the Springs, O'Hara was feeling keenly the proximity of the line of death over which his three friends had so recently walked, or slid:

                                            First,  Bunny died, then John Latouche,  then Jackson Pollock. But is the  earth as full as life uses full, of them?

His reactions were not morose or baleful. Rather, the closeness of death, the personal awareness of decay and change, of "the Manhattan Storage Warehouse, / which they'll soon tear down," only made him feel more alert to his surroundings. He began to seize on moments, and street markers, and tiny objects such as wristwatches, with a new intensity in a poetry increasingly celebrating the dailiness of everyday. It was a poetry in which, as he put it in a later essay on Edwin Denby's dance criticism, "attention equals Life."

O'Hara had learned his lesson during his recent stay in Cambridge. New York was the place for his poetry and life. Settling with a newly energized commitment into his job at the Museum, where he would remain until his death, O'Hara also settled more deeply into his poetry. Writing "In Memory of My Feelings" and "A Step Away from Them" during the first six weeks of his return, he laid out the two productive directions of much of his work over the next three years. "In Memory of My Feelings" leads toward the abstract emotion and large scale of the Odes (published in 1960), and "A Step Away from Them" leads toward the smaller, more intimate "I do this I do that" poems, which most directly influenced the "second generation" of New York School poets who began showing up at O'Hara's door in the early sixties.

From City poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara. Copyright © 1993 by Brad Gooch.

Brad Gooch: On "Thinking of James Dean"

The subject O'Hara was fascinated with that fall was the death of James Dean, aged twenty-four, on September 30, 1955, in a crash in his Porsche Spyder near Paso Robles on his way to Salinas for a race. O'Hara responded by writing a number of elegies from October through the following April. "For James Dean," written the Wednesday after the crash, shows the influence of classical elegies, which the movie star's death had inspired O'Hara to read, including Milton's "Lycidas," Tennyson's "In Memoriam," and Shelley's "Mourn not for Adonais":

For a young actor I am begging  peace, gods. Alone  in the empty streets of New York  I am its dirty feet and head  and he is dead.

The next day he wrote an elegy--later included as "Obit Dean, September 30, 1955" in "Four Little Elegies"--modeled on the format of Dean's newspaper obituary that simultaneously parodied a classical invocation to a goddess--in this case Carole Lombard: "This is / James Dean, Carole Lombard. I hope / you will be good to him up there."

The following weekend O'Hara accompanied Morris Golde, John Button, and Button's lover, the pianist Alvin Novak, to Golde's simple beach-washed angular wooden home atop a dunish hill on Water Island, a secluded community on Fire Island reachable only by motorboat or beach taxi. There O'Hara plunged more deeply into a poetry of grief and anxiety about death that he hung mostly on Dean's lyrically tragic demise. One afternoon he wrote a poem in the sand that he claimed to later remember and write down verbatim:

James Dean actor made in USA eager to be everything  stopped short

Do we know what  excellence is? it's  all in this world  not to be executed

On Tuesday before leaving he wrote a fuller poem in quatrains, "Thinking of James Dean," which alluded to the poem in the sand ("A leaving word in the sand, odor of tides: his name") as well as broadening out the more general awareness of temporality that seemed to be driving these poems:

                        To reach the depths and rise, only in the sea;  the abysses of life, incessantly plunging not to rise to a face  of heat and joy again;

In the last of these elegies, written the following April, he turned into a stanza of poetry a bit of fanzine gossip gleaned from Joe LeSueur in Los Angeles--"There is an appalling story making the rounds on the West Coast now--Jimmy is not really dead but in the booby hatch, his face ruined beyond repair. Warner's, it seemed (àla Big Knife), thought it better to have him dead":

Your name is fading from all but a few marquees, the big red calling-card of your own death. And there's a rumor that you live hideously maimed and hidden by a conscientious studio.

O'Hara's fixation on, and identification with, Dean had begun gaining momentum while Dean was still alive. After seeing East of Eden in July, in which Dean plays a character as rebellious as the tender hoodlum he played in Rebel Without a Cause released later that year, O'Hara argued with Ashbery over the film's excellence. In the course of their discussion O'Hara came to realize that Dean's Cain character struck chords with his identity within his own family. Writing to Fairfield Porter, O'Hara explained, "John didn't like it and in telling me about it, it was so strange, because the main character, a sort of naughty boy wondering why he's different, I felt very illuminating and even that eerie feeling that I was being exposed to an intimate, scarcely-remembered level, whereas John identified with his brother, who is treated less fully though equally sympathetically, and didn't like the role he was put in. My own brother was not at all like John or Aaron in the movie, but the relationships and the things said were very close, especially in the father relationship. The movie takes place in California 1917 but the diction I remember in Massachusetts in 1938 was amazingly similar."

O'Hara took this analogy further in the same letter to Porter as he tried to find explanations for what he felt to be the difference between his poetry and Ashbery's, a question raised in part by the Yale Younger Poets prize. "I think one of the things about East of Eden is that I am very materialistic and John is very spiritual, in our work especially," O'Hara wrote, casting himself with reverse vanity as the James Dean of poetry "John's work is full of dreams and a kind of moral excellence and kind sentiments. Mine is full of objects for their own sake, spleen and ironically intimate observation which may be truthfulness (in the lyrical sense) but is more likely to be egotistical cynicism masquerading as honesty. I'm sorry if you're bored by this, but sometimes I think that writing a poem is such a moral crisis I get completely sick of the whole situation. Where Kenneth and Jimmy produce art, for instance, I often feel I just produce the by-product of exhibitionism. Well, chacun à son mauvais goût!"

When "For James Dean" was published in Poetry with its title advertised on the front cover the following March, a small controversy ensued. Paul Goodman complained that James Dean wasn't a suitable subject for poetry, Bunny Lang agreed, calling the poem "too out" for publication. A letter printed in Life magazine pointed out that the appearance of the poem proved "The James Dean necrophflia has penetrated even the upper levels of culture." "I was as much against his being sentimental about me as I was about his being sentimental about other people," says Kenneth Koch of his feeling at the time about the James Dean poems. "Did the world really hate James Dean because he was good-looking and energetic? I don't know. It seems exaggerated." Even O'Hara confessed in a letter to the composer Ben Weber (whose setting of the second stanza of O'Hara's "Poem" [Here we are again] was published in Folder 4 in 1956) that he felt his James Dean poems were "awfully sentimental."

However, many others were thrilled by the poem and its feel of newness and contemporaneity." Bravissimo for James Dean in Poetry," wrote Ned Rorem. Even more pleasing was LeSueur's postcard from California announcing that "James Dean on ouija says he likes poems." Despite the mixed reactions, the James Dean poems were an important marker in the development of O'Hara's poetry. They introduced a Pop element into poetry that had so far only been hinted at in the artworld through the works of Rivers and Rauschenberg. More personally they allowed O'Hara, whose poetry was no longer inspired by Rivers, to express the sort of frustrated love that seemed to keep him particularly inspired. Dean became for him a screen actor version of the tragic lyric figure personified in literary history by Romantic poets who died young such as Keats and Shelley. The result was a deepening of O'Hara's poetic subject matter to take on the twin themes of love and death with a sentimental directness that set his work apart in style from that of Ashbery, Koch, and Schuyler.

 

From City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara. Copyright © 1993 by Brad Gooch.

A Step Away From Them

"A Step Away from Them" follows O'Hara in handheld camera fashion, wearing his trademark seersucker Brooks Brothers jacket with a volume of poems by Pierre Reverdy stuck in its pocket, as he heads on his lunch hour west and then downtown from the Museum, past construction sites on Sixth Avenue, through Times Square where he stops for a cheeseburger and a glass of papaya juice beneath the Chesterfield billboard with blowing smoke, and then back uptown to work. In the writing of the poem O'Hara left a record for history of the sensations of a sensitive and sophisticated man in the middle of the twentieth century walking through what was considered by some the capital of the globe. Using a deceptively flat pedestrian voice-"it's my lunch hour, so I go for a walk among the hum-colored / cabs"--O'Hara discovered a new kind of pleasure in writing a more public poetry. As Allen Ginsberg later told an interviewer, "He integrated purely personal life into the high art of composition, marking the return of all authority back to the person. His style is actually in line with the tradition that begins with Independence and runs through Thoreau and Whitman, here composed in a metropolitan spaceage architecture environment. He taught me to really see New York for the first time, by making of the giant style of Midtown his intimate cocktail environment. It's like having Catullus change your view of the Forum in Rome." O'Hara was fired by the challenge of finding the good in the bad, the poetic in the mundane, the ancient and divine in modem New York. His tendency, like Whitman's, was to mythologize its daily life. In "A Step Away from Them" even construction workers--staples of the midtown terrain--are made to seem mysterious and glamorous and tropically sexual: First, down the sidewalk where laborers feed their dirty glistening torsos sandwiches and Coca-Cola, with yellow helmets on. They protect them from falling bricks, I guess. Likewise the growing Puerto Rican population of the city was assimilated in the poem--this latest in a series of mass migrations of ethnic groups having just peaked in 1953: "There are several Puerto / Ricans on the avenue today, which / makes it beautiful and warm." O'Hara had first sounded this theme a month earlier when he and John Button sat on a fire escape composing a collaborative letter to Schuyler written in gay slang about the recent fire at Wanamaker's Department Store to which O'Hara contributed the line, "And the Porto Ricans seem to be having such a swell time in the street outside." Kenneth Koch grounds the line to a recent incident of heckling from a group of Puerto Rican boys. "We were walking up Sixth Avenue going to Larré's to lunch," recalls Koch. "It was a really hot day. There were these Puerto Rican guys on the street who made some remarks which made me angry. I said, 'Shit. Damn it.' Frank said, 'Listen. It means they think we're attractive.'" O'Hara's libidinal fantasies and poetic fancies were equal and intertwined enough that he could see what he wanted to see, or needed to see, on the lunch hour streets. Part of the novelty of O'Hara's poem--published a year later in Evergreen Review--was that nothing seemed made up. Reporting his stop at a greasy spoon, Juliet's Corner, O'Hara follows with "Giulietta Masina, wife of / Federico Fellini, è bell' attrice," The association had surfaced because of his viewing La Strada a few weeks earlier. "John Button and I saw one of the all time great movies the other day, La Strada and man, was it ever!" he reported to John Wieners, then at Black Mountain College. "It has Anthony Quinn, Richard Basehart (what a nice last name) and someone named Giulietta Masina who is a genius, she's the End. Also the director, Federico Fellini, seems to have a few insights into the soul not often granted by the Heavenly Hiders." O'Hara's adoration of Masina reached its peak a few years later when he met her at the home of the Italian countess Camilla McGrath, who translated as O'Hara--his hero worship always to the far side of theatrical--fell to his knees in front of the actress and gushed, "You are not simply a great artist, you are a fact of our lives!" The true subject of the poem, though--like that of the equally ambulatory "The Day Lady Died" three years later--was revealed in its title. In "A Step Away from Them," written the day after Jackson Pollock's funeral in the Springs, O'Hara was feeling keenly the proximity of the line of death over which his three friends had so recently walked, or slid: First, Bunny died, then John Latouche, then Jackson Pollock. But is the earth as full as life uses full, of them? His reactions were not morose or baleful. Rather, the closeness of death, the personal awareness of decay and change, of "the Manhattan Storage Warehouse, / which they'll soon tear down," only made him feel more alert to his surroundings. He began to seize on moments, and street markers, and tiny objects such as wristwatches, with a new intensity in a poetry increasingly celebrating the dailiness of everyday. It was a poetry in which, as he put it in a later essay on Edwin Denby's dance criticism, "attention equals Life." O'Hara had learned his lesson during his recent stay in Cambridge. New York was the place for his poetry and life. Settling with a newly energized commitment into his job at the Museum, where he would remain until his death, O'Hara also settled more deeply into his poetry. Writing "In Memory of My Feelings" and "A Step Away from Them" during the first six weeks of his return, he laid out the two productive directions of much of his work over the next three years. "In Memory of My Feelings" leads toward the abstract emotion and large scale of the Odes (published in 1960), and "A Step Away from Them" leads toward the smaller, more intimate "I do this I do that" poems, which most directly influenced the "second generation" of New York School poets who began showing up at O'Hara's door in the early sixties. From City poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara. Copyright © 1993 by Brad Gooch.

Brad Gooch On "The Day Lady Died"

The news of Holiday's death led O'Hara to think back to the last time he had heard her sing. Ms fullest exposure to her had been two years earlier at Loew's Sheridan on Seventh Avenue and Twelfth Street in the summer Of 1957 when she had appeared a few hours late for her midnight show. She was forced to perform in the cavernous old movie theatre because she was not permitted--due to an arrest for heroin use--to sing in a bar that served drinks. "We didn't leave," recalls Irma Hurley, who accompanied O'Hara along with Mike Goldberg, Joan Mitchell, and Norman Bluhm. "Frank said, 'I will wait.' I think she was coming from Philadelphia. She finally arrived pretty zonked out. But she did sing." O'Hara's reaction to her performance was as exhilarated as his reaction to Judy Garland's show at the Palace Theatre, after which he had commented to John Button, "Well, I guess she'sbetter than Picasso." But the last time O'Hara had heard Holiday sing was at the Five Spot, a jazz bar on Fifth Street and Third Avenue at Cooper Square, which was beginning to replace the Cedar as the gathering spot of the artists. Like the San Remo a few years earlier, the Cedar had been picked up by the media and was now overcrowded with tourists on the lookout for Pollock-like painters, and young guys cruising for loose "art girls." At the Five Spot the painters could mellow out listening to the jazz of John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, or Charlie Mingus. Kenneth Koch and Larry Rivers had begun staging jazz-and-poetry evenings there in response to similar events in San Francisco initiated by Allen Ginsberg and Kenneth Rexroth. One night Koch had read his poems with the accompaniment of Mal Waldron, a black pianist who usually accompanied Holiday. She showed up to visit with Waldron and later in the night was persuaded to break the law by singing. "It was very close to the end of her life, with her voice almost gone, just like a whisper, just like the taste of very old wine, but full of spirit," recalls Koch. "Everybody wanted her to sing. Everybody was crazy about her. She sang some songs in this very whispery beautiful voice. The place was quite crowded. Frank was standing near the toilet door so he had a side view. And Mal Waldron was at the piano. She sang these songs and it was very moving."

O'Hara had written his poem on his lunch hour. Later he caught the train with LeSueur to East Hampton where they were met by Mike Goldberg in the olive-drab Bugatti he had bought the year before when he and Southgate were in Italy on their honeymoon. Ready with a thermos of martinis and plastic cups, both a welcoming gesture and a self-protective ploy so that he could drink while waiting for the inevitably delayed train, Goldberg explained in the parking lot, "We're eating in, the dinner was called off." On the drive to the house Goldberg was renting that summer on Georgica Pond, the only topic of discussion was the tragedy of Billie Holiday's death at the young age of forty-four. "I've been playing her records all afternoon," said Goldberg. Arriving back at the house, Goldberg put a Billie Holiday record on the hi-fi while Patsy Southgate, having finished putting the two kids to bed, brought out a tray of hors d'oeuvres. O'Hara, who had been silent about the matter throughout the trip, pulled a poem out of his pocket that he announced he had just written that afternoon and read it straight down to its concluding stanza:

and I am SWEATING A LOT by now and thinking of  leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT  while she whispered a song along the keyboard  to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

From City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara. Copyright © 1993 by Brad Gooch.

Brad Gooch: On "A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island"

Reading through the stack of poems later in his apartment on West Fourth Street, Koch came across for the first time "A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island," a poem that was to become a favorite anthology piece, which O'Hara hadn't shown to anyone while he was alive. A variation on Mayakovsky's "An Extraordinary Adventure Which Befell Vladimir Mayakovsky in a Summer Cottage," the poem had been written by O'Hara on July 10, 1958, when he was visiting Hal Fondren at his rented house at Fire Island Pines, not far from the spot where he would be hit almost exactly eight years later. The poem consists of a conversation between the Sun, who wakes O'Hara and complains petulantly, "When I woke up Mayakovsky he was / a lot more prompt," and the apologetic poet's comment, "Sorry, Sun, I stayed / up late last night talking to Hal."

"I almost fell off my chair," remembers Koch. "It was Frank talking about his own death." In the following months, Koch often read the poem at poetry readings to audiences who were invariably moved by its almost too neatly prophetic parting stanza:

"Sun, don't go!" I was awake at last. "No, go I must, they're calling  me." "Who are they?"                                                 Rising he said "Some  day you'll know. They're calling to you  too." Darkly he rose, and then I slept.

 

From City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara. Copyright © 1993 by Brad Gooch.