Monday, July 07, 2008

Andrew Epstein’s Reply

A Wall

Another letter (dated 3 July 2008, by Andrew Epstein) regarding the unplublish’d O’Hara piece, replying to Tony Towle’s letter of the first. It may be that conjecture’s about to lose both its Roman sandals in the quicksands of reiteration, without any more recent archival dirt to stand on, or push off of—one longs for a burgeoning stream of researchers to the Koch and O’Hara papers partout, reconnaisance brigades, coded reports, letters spit forth verbatim after being committed to memory (the way one “commits” any dangerous individual). I know that if O’Hara’s letters (in particular) fail to assemble themselves into a book soon, I’m likely to hie myself (and tie myself) to the “holdings” to do my reading in situ. Here’s Andrew Epstein:
Dear John,

At the risk of cluttering up your blog, I wanted to just take a moment to respond to your latest post about the unpublished O’Hara poem. First, I’m very grateful to Tony Towle for the thorough and careful response you posted today. I’m pleased to be having this exchange about a document (and a poet) I find fascinating, and I’m glad that it has provoked some discussion.

Although Mr. Towle’s comments about the artistic merit of the poem are very interesting, I find that I just don’t agree with his conclusion that the inferior quality of the poem means the poem is not actually by O’Hara (setting aside the question of who else on earth would’ve written it, because it was surely not Kenneth Koch). As you yourself noted, John, as wonderful as so much of O’Hara’s work is, there are quite a few missteps and clunkers in O’Hara’s vast oeuvre (as I’m sure he would’ve been the first to admit!), so I don’t know why the deficiencies of this poem, which he evidently chose not to publish or share widely, would disqualify it from being an O’Hara poem! At this point, I guess I’m happy to agree to disagree with Mr. Towle about the quality, the “O’Hara-ness,” and the provenance of the poem.

But I do want to address one part of his response, where he discusses whether O’Hara is actually “supporting” his friend LeRoi or not in this poem. I think the context of where this poem appears in my own book, Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry—i.e., the actual reading of the poem that I provide there—is relevant to the argument Mr. Towle is making here. My analysis of this poem comes in the midst of a larger argument (which forms the thesis of my entire book) about the way both O’Hara and Baraka (Jones) treat friendship itself, and their own friendship, with great complexity and ambivalence. (It specifically comes in the middle of an analysis of the dynamics of the O’Hara-Baraka relationship). Rather than simply supporting one another and reveling in the collectivity of friendship, I argue that O’Hara and Baraka use their poetry to express the conflict, ambivalence, and disappointment of friendship as well as its abundant pleasures. So, no, I agree with Mr. Towle—I do not think the poem is a completely supportive paean to Baraka: that’s actually my whole point in using it! I think O’Hara’s poem expresses his regret (“I am very sorry anyway / at how things have turned out”)—about not being able to reach Baraka (represented by the “horrible silence” that greets him when he tries to call LeRoi) or, more broadly, to help him in any real way. And as such, I argue that the poem is really, implicitly, a recognition of the limits the kind of cross-racial friendship Frank and LeRoi shared, and a kind of eerie foreshadowing of the collapse of their friendship (which stung O’Hara extremely deeply) that occurred when Baraka left the Village and his white friends behind 4 years later.

If you don’t mind, I’m just going to copy here the extended passage in my book (p. 202-204) where I discuss “Finding Leroi a Lawyer.”
For O’Hara and his vision of friendship, Baraka in some ways embodies both the inspiring possibilities of person-to-person communication (“the only truth is face to face,” he puts it in his greatest poem about interracial concord, “Ode: Salute to the French Negro Poets”) and its limitations (CP 305). This doubleness is borne out in an apparently unknown, unpublished O’Hara poem about Baraka that can be found among the O’Hara papers in the Kenneth Koch archive at the New York Public Library, entitled “Finding Leroi a Lawyer.” Again turning to the phone call as a central trope for friendship, O’Hara portrays Baraka as a friend with whom connection is both terribly important yet also perennially disrupted, frustrated. This long-buried “I do this I do that” poem captures the aftermath of Baraka’s 1961 arrest on obscenity charges, and it is yet another poem in which O’Hara stages the complications and burdens of friendship. Here is the poem in full:

Finding Leroi a Lawyer

So you’ve finished the Locus Solus poster, Jane,
and I must write to Richard Miller, thanking him
for his having done it for nothing—we could use more of that! but meanwhile
I stop in a flowershop on 8th Avenue and buy Patsy Goldberg a print by Hokusai
(they knew the meaning of snow in those days!) and also I look,
a little, into the opened cups of the flowers, don’t get fresh! and I realize that Norman is probably out of booze
by now, so I stop in Parente’s Wines Whiskey Spirits
and buy him a little schmootz, it will go well with the tomato paste
he likes so much to use in his smaller paintings. And I go to the newsstand
to get Joe his copy of Pash, Bill his Opera Guide, and Joel Oppenheimer a pack of Gauloises,
even though I have by now a lot more than I can possibly carry
since I have been shopping for people for hours, and I am beginning to feel very Machado-esque
like having little chapters instead of trotting about all day in one big museum
and I run to the nearest phonebooth
which is hot and sweaty, I think because you are not in it, Vladimir
Ussachevsky, and I pull off the mouthpiece but not the receiver, which I will give to Leroi Jones
because he is in trouble
over something the postoffice says is obscene in The Floating Bear and I know that he needs one,
although he does not need the receiver, but when I try to call him
there’s nothing but the horrible silence, which is Dietrichesque,
and when even screwing the mouthpiece back doesn’t do any good
I decide that nothing will, and I take a drink of the schmootz
which tastes like the vodka I put in Stevie River’s Koolade the night Fabian collapsed in Hoboken
and which I wrote a poem about which Ned Rorem set, but I am very sorry anyway
at how things have turned out, and I discover, besides, when I am outside the phone booth
that I have lost my shopping list. Well, if nothing happens to me in the next two minutes
I can stop here and make another.

The poem almost reads like an intentional parody of O’Hara’s famous shopping trip in “The Day Lady Died,” here exaggerated to highlight the vexing problems of friendship. In this later poem, the poet is so burdened by buying gifts for his friends that he can barely walk: “even though I have by now a lot more than I can possibly carry / since I have been shopping for people for hours.” Overextended, even hobbled, by what he calls in another poem “wanting to be everything to everybody everywhere,” he is most bothered by the fact that a close friend, Baraka, faces a serious crisis and he is utterly unable to help (CP 331). Knowing that Baraka needs a “mouthpiece” (a lawyer), O’Hara rather urgently tries to call him, only to be greeted with a broken payphone and “nothing but the horrible silence.” This would seem to spell the ironic undoing of the phone call metaphor of “Personism,” where O’Hara realized he “could use the telephone instead of writing the poem”; here, he has to write the poem because the phone is inoperable. It is the antithesis of the “presto” moment of connection we saw earlier in O’Hara’s poem about speaking to Kenneth Koch on the phone (“Poem (The fluorescent tubing burns)”). It suggests that friendship—perhaps interracial friendship, especially—stretches across an unbridgeable chasm. It hints at an inability to connect with Baraka in particular, and at the despair and impotence this failure causes (“when even screwing the mouthpiece back doesn’t do any good / I decide that nothing will”). The poem ends on a poignant note of regret for the fate of friendship and the self’s difficult progress through this social universe: “I am very sorry anyway / at how things have turned out.” With Baraka unreachable, friendship—symbolized by the now lost shopping list, the totem which would enable the speaker to fulfill the needs of all his companions—gives way, dissolves, at least until he can regroup and again attempt to sustain the ties that bind him to all these other selves.

As intertexts in each other’s writings, as friends deeply intertwined with one another’s lives and poems, O’Hara and Baraka exemplify the way friendship and poetry criss-cross in postwar American poetry. Like O’Hara’s “Finding Leroi a Lawyer,” Baraka’s writings find him articulating again and again the severe ambivalence and confusion he feels about the friendships he had fostered with a circle of brilliant, ambitious, creative white friends at a moment when everything in his life and times seemed to be spinning wildly out of control.
I hope that offers some context to explain how and why I am using this poem. I’d encourage anyone who would like to see more of the full argument, and how this poem fits in, to check out the book.

I very much hope that Mr. Towle will be able to make the trip over to the NY Public Library. As I now live in Florida, making such a trip is logistically tough for me (although this recent discussion has made me think that I will try to visit the collection the next time I’m in NY). I’d be very eager to hear what he finds if he does get a chance to visit the archives.

Thanks again to both of you for the lively discussion.

Take care,

P.S. As far as I know, O’Hara doesn’t refer to Patsy as “Patsy Goldberg” in any other poems, though I’m not sure what the import of the fact would be.

P.P.S. I’d be happy to send Tony Towle a copy of my book, if he’d like.

Waiting for the Plumber

Is ne’er so glorious’s being with
you in the Parc de
Vincennes Sofitel, thieving cutlery &
ersatz chandelier bangles. Nor ne’er so
snugly as watching Pretty in Pink
with you in a just-bang’d-together Hotel 8
in Charlottesville whilst the local drug-
kingpins rage against wisdom & all its territories
in the wild corridors.
                                  Truth is, it is barely any fun
at all to wait for
anything or any-
body, though I do recall
with a sweet seizure of torturous burn delight
“Waiting and making the other
one wait” in a book by Violette Leduc, that &
“moist as the air of
a cowshed,” and involuntarily cup
my hand to retrieve such a palm-
tickling “realm,” a tiny fertile kingdom, reassuring
in its pungency and lapse.
                                            That kind of
thing’s liable to make itself into a
reverie of the way the screen-crosshatch’d light
of the sleeping porch mottled one single shy
breast allowing something like love
to complete itself in a drowsy midday orb
as whole as you were except there’s the damn
plumber now ready to rout out
the tub, persnickety or recalcitrant or dishonest who knows.

Frank O’Hara at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1965
(Photograph by Renate Ponsold Motherwell)