Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Bill Berkson’s Letter

A Wall

In the ongoing “Finding LeRoi” saga, Bill Berkson’s register’d some clarificatory history and on-the-spot intelligence in a letter (Re: “O’Hara Poem”) dated 7 July 2008:
Dear John,

Apropos the piece called “Finding Leroi a Lawyer,”* which Andrew Epstein seems determined to establish as a “long-buried” work by Frank O’Hara:

Firstly, Andrew Epstein should know that there are, or were, a least four sets of the O’Hara papers photocopied by Kenneth Koch and me a year or so after Frank died; I still have my set, and can testify that the work in question is not in any of the envelopes of poems copied, numbered and in some cases, annotated by Kenneth and me, and intact behind me in this room as I write. (By the way, to put to rest Kent Johnson’s folderol about who wrote “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island,” that poem was salient among the poems Kenneth and I discovered—“Hey, look at this!” I distinctly recall Kenneth saying—as we sorted through Frank’s manuscript files at the copy machine.)

Someone quite witty, but off pitch (and not a little disdainfully ironic) wrote this very awkward parody of Frank’s occasional poems—at first, I thought it might have been Kenneth Koch but the irony seems rough for him. Ted Berrigan comes to mind, but Berrigan lacked access to the more upper-crust cultural references (Lucia, Vlad, Richard Miller, Ned Rorem et al.) involved; of the younger poets, only Tony Towle was knowledgeable enough in that way then (and he’s out, having jumped in right after John Latta to question Epstein’s attribution); further, of Frank’s immediate circle, James Schuyler would be a candidate, although at the time he was pretty much absent from both New York and poetry (and anyway, parody was never really in Jimmy’s line). Therefore, I am at a loss to guess who the real author might be; but I feel strongly that it is definitely not O’Hara.

There are various clues, beside the misspelling of LeRoi and the rare instance of calling Patsy Southgate by her married name (which neither she nor O’Hara ever used in my hearing)—among them, the following: very un-O’Haralike locutions: “booze” (he tended to either name the drink or just say “liquor”), “don’t get fresh!,” “schmootz” (which is even un-New York, unlike Frank!), “Stevie” for Steven Rivers (who by then was well beyond the “Stevie” stage, and anyway is referred to in a couple of O’Hara letters at the time as “Steven,” plain and simple). A further point in question is, why would O’Hara have anything to do with thanking Richard Miller (Tiber Press) for printing a poster for Locus Solus? In 1961 only Koch and Ashbery, in succession, had anything to do with editing that magazine—O’Hara never did.

Other clues: the absence of any mention of either Vincent Warren (who is mentioned in the majority of the “I do this I do that” poems in—at least through the summer of—1961) or myself. (I was collaborating with Frank on “St. Bridget” poems & others during this period, which was also probably the period of greatest intensity in our friendship, and so got mentioned in the poems a lot.) The “Bill” mentioned here is the translator and opera critic Bill Weaver, whom (if the poem, as Epstein believes, really was written in October 1961) both Frank and I were to see very soon in Rome: Frank and I traveled together to Europe—Paris, then Rome—in late October 1961 and stayed into late November.

Actually, now that I look at “Finding Leroi a Lawyer” alongside the poems O’Hara did write in 1961, the closest any of them come (in both format and tone) to resembling “Finding Leroi...” is “On a Birthday of Kenneth’s” dated February 28 of that year. Although LeRoi’s run-in with the Law didn’t happen until October, perhaps Kenneth, exercising a little late payback for Frank’s rather arch birthday salute, became the author of “Finding Leroi...,” after all.

On October 18, 1961, Jones and Diane Di Prima were arrested on obscenity charges for printing Burroughs’s Roosevelt Inauguration “routine” and a section from Jones’s System of Dante’s Hell in the June issue of The Floating Bear. Earlier, in June—and prior to the arrest—O’Hara took part in the first of two benefits for the Bear at the AG Gallery. As Diane herself recalls: “The Bear started in February 1961. We were arrested for issue #9 [of] June 1961 . . . (LeRoi and I were both arrested, by the way, but only one was allowed to testify before the Grand Jury—and LeRoi did that gig.) We didn’t need to find a lawyer for Roi—he already had Stanley Faulkner, staunch Communist Party guy, lined up.” The case went to court on April 25 and 26, 1962; the grand jury voted not to indict.

So LeRoi didn’t need a lawyer, which O’Hara would have known. Well, it’s all very speculative on everyone’s part, and what we have here is hardly worthy of some Rembrandt/Not-Rembrandt-Committee shouting match. This is not the first time a poem has been incorrectly attributed to O’Hara: Donald M. Allen inadvertently included a poem by V. R. Lang in the first edition of the Collected Poems, and he passed along to me a poem he thought to be by Frank, which I rather hastily ushered into an issue of Big Sky, and which turned out to be by David Shapiro. Beside the fact that no manuscript of “Finding Leroi...” has turned up in any O’Hara papers I’ve been privy to, everything I know of O’Hara’s poetry tells me O’Hara did not write this one—not because he was incapable of writing a bad poem, but because almost all of its parts, bad and not-bad, ring up as uncharacteristic. Someone else—someone familiar with O’Hara’s “I do this I do that” poems, as well as his social connections and LeRoi Jones’s legal problems—wrote it. If Epstein feels otherwise and wants to stand by his initial assertion, clearly that’s his business.

Bill Berkson

*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.
For a succession of earlier pertinences, see here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Bill Berkson, Bolinas, 1985
(Photograph by John Tranter)