Thursday, July 17, 2008

Frank O’Hara Post Frank O’Hara


Another entry by Kent Johnson in the ongoing saga of The Frank O’Hara Story (starring, amongst others, Jeni Olin as the young Frank—“So if you see me fighting a tiger, / Go & help the tiger!”):
Quick Notes on a “Hidden” Frank O’Hara Document
“You and I make one weird team, / old buddy!”
(The Sun to Mayakovsky, towards the end of “An Extraordinary Adventure Which Befell Vladimir Mayakovsky,” the poem which inspired “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island.”)
“Go back to sleep now, / Frank, and I may leave a tiny poem / in that brain of yours as my farewell”
(The Sun to O’Hara, towards the end of “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island.”)
So odd to write this on a day (7/15) that The New York Times publishes on its front page an article about the mysteries of Fernando Pessoa’s authorships, the gaps in their record, the deep agonistics and saudade over what those gaps may mean, how they might be explained, where the gaps should “remain,” if they cannot be fully explained . . .

And to write, too, on the same day as David Shapiro’s stunningly brilliant, enthralling, and moving response here, inasmuch as Shapiro, a poetic hero of mine (the first “avant” poet I ever read, and by pure accident, at 16) and with whom I’ve long corresponded, sent me, approximately two years ago, a huge package of Pessoa memorabilia he had just brought back from a reading and lecture tour he’d done in Portugal!

Well, sentiment aside, I had mentioned (in Postscript to my “Reply to Tony Towle” a few days ago) that I was in process of looking into some intriguing archival materials intimately related to the matter of Frank O’Hara’s “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island.”

Copies of these materials came to me yesterday in the regular mail, and I’ll remark a bit now on their contents, with a view to elaborating some comments and speculations in a near-future follow-up at Isola di Rifiuti—comments and speculations that I know will not be kindly received, to say the least, by some.

But let me say, for now, however counter-intuitive the claim may seem, that even this new material I will now present does not completely close the mystery of “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island.”

No, it does not . . .

And let me say, too, against the grain as it may be to say it, and with bows to all those who entered his company, that I strongly suspect Frank O’Hara would have been perfectly delighted that true questions remain.

Well, then . . .

Following an extended and intriguing email exchange between us this past week, James Jaffe (James S. Jaffe Rare Books is the premier dealer in materials related to the “New York School” of poets—you’ve got to see his catalogue!) very, very generously sent me a Xerox copy of a four-page item he purchased last year and which he has recently placed in public sale for $6,500.

The item [#20586 in online catalogue] comprises a full-page, original transcript of signed letter dated July 19, 1958, by Frank O’Hara to Hal Fondren; two typewritten poems in carbon copy are separately folded with the letter: a French-titled and later-revised version of the soon-to-be-famous “Ode: Salute to the French Negro Poets” (dated “July 9, 1958 Fire Island”), and “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island” (dated “July 10, 1958 [,] Fire Island”)—a poem only first known, of course, in 1966, following its unveiling by Kenneth Koch, at the memorial event for O’Hara roughly six weeks after the poet’s death. “A True Account” appears in the typescript exactly as it was later published. (I do not recall seeing the early version of “Ode: Salute” in any O’Hara collections or critical studies, but my memory could be faulty.)

Upon purchase, Jaffe had sent Xeroxed copies of this item to O’Hara’s sister, Maureen Granville-Smith.

Responding to one of a series of queries from me, Jaffe indicated he did not purchase the grouped item from Fondren’s estate. Jaffe also indicated to me that he does not have complete record or knowledge of what the item’s history of ownership or location, over the years, has been.

Now, to offer a first-reply to David Shapiro (and I will aim to comment on other remarks from his post of 7/15 when I write again): No, neither poem is signed by hand.

I have been asked by James Jaffe to not quote verbatim here from the letter, which as I’d mentioned has only recently come on the market; I can say, though, that it is a delightfully engaging piece of correspondence (as Shapiro reports from his weirdly coincidental 7/14 phone conversation with Maureen Granville-Smith, who read him the contents!), wherein O’Hara begins by thanking Fondren for his warm hospitality at Fire Island the previous week, and reports that on the way back he and LeSueur had swung by the 5 Spot for a few hours to eat and get drunk.

A few more highlights, in rough summary:

In the second paragraph, O’Hara tells Fondren of a mélange of incidents and gossip in the days since the visit to Fire Island, breezily naming in process no less than fifteen people of their mutual acquaintance (including Jackson Pollock, George Plimpton, Lee Krasner, and Patsy Southgate).

In the second paragraph, as well, O’Hara apologizes for having forgotten, in the rush of departure, to leave for Fondren “the two poems” he had written over the weekend of his visit. The clear indication is that the typescripts were produced during the visit. He writes that he encloses them. The reference is to “two poems”; no mention of the poems’ titles or their contents is present in the body of the letter.

O’Hara then makes a comment on what Fondren may do with the poems, and it is a comment sure to become famous in O’Hara lore.

Kenneth Koch is one of the people O’Hara mentions to Fondren in the third paragraph. And given that the letter supposedly encloses the stunning poem Koch would first dramatically reveal to the world, reading it at O’Hara’s memorial almost exactly eight years later (a poem widely felt as a foretelling of the poet’s death), the reference to Koch is rather jaw-dropping: O’Hara casually remarks on the “very successful” nature of “Kenneth’s reading” . . .

Then, in the fourth paragraph, O’Hara proposes, and with charming arguments for the notion, that he and Fondren should start an art gallery together.

In the final paragraph, O’Hara reports that he and LeSueur are leaving to go sailing with Bob Cornell for four days; he concludes by remarking he has to get his typewriter (there are numerous machine-caused misfires in the letter) repaired.

The letter ends with a hilarious PS, concerning the costuming in the newly released blockbuster, The Ten Commandments.

Now, a few technical-bibliographic remarks:

The letter, ink-signed “Frank,” is typed on Eagle A Trojan Bond paper; all three leaves of the two poems (two pages for “A True Account”) are on Eagle A Acceptance Bond.

With an eye to equivalencies in typographic irregularities, the carbon copies of the two poems appear, clearly, to come from the same typewriter (the poems are quite obviously typed on a different typewriter—no doubt O’Hara’s portable Royal—than the one used for the letter, a fact that is no contradiction at all.)

There are no handwritten signatures, notes, or corrections on either of the poem copies. In fact, each is in perfectly “clean” copy, with no typed erasures or corrections.

The folds of the letter and poems seem to align, as Jaffe had stated to me in our correspondence. There does, however, seem to be a slight but measurable difference in the folds between the two poems, at least on the Xerox copies in my possession—though my copies are obviously not fully reliable in such regard. In any case, this is a secondary point, as folds may “match” or not, independently of the original sequence of folding, the authenticity or not of materials, etc.

I had written to ask Jaffe if the watermarks on the carbon copies could be detected and the production-run of the paper bond be thus dated. Jaffe kindly attempted to do some research on this, though he was unable to uncover information that would definitively date the paper. The answer to this potentially important question is still outstanding. It is key to note here that a later bond-run production date than 1958 for “A True Account” would obviously mean the carbon copy was inserted with the letter at a date subsequent to its first mailing (replacing another poem originally enclosed), while a contemporaneous dating of the bond to the poem’s typed date would in no way discount the possibility (a likely possibility, in fact) that clean sheets of O’Hara’s typing paper were taken along with his manuscripts and correspondence.

I will, as I indicated, write more on the topic in the near future.

Long live, Poetry comrades, the mystery of the Sun.

Kent Johnson
July 15/16, 2008—

I try to find everything Jeni Olin writes and read it because I suspect that flarf and its “practitioners” (and, truthfully, most of them ought to practice a little harder) may just be something like an afternoon’s nap wet dream canned for posterity Jeni Olin “had” one day between shifts. I try to find everything Jeni Olin writes and read it because she writes things with pizzazz and raucous humor and her line “feels white / against the tensile gloom of life / and I seem intimate with what I merely touch” (as O’Hara puts it, epitaphing a couple of variations, one about a rock “heavy . . . in my heart like an eye in a pot of humus.”) I try to find everything Jeni Olin writes and read it because she writes things like:
                          Neutrons gathered on a cocoa island
Thronged with square-boned teens
With their “succumbing to a disorderly shelf life
Like Tampax in June” tattoos, that same dorsal softness
With the first nasturtium is blooming
The still sky is a clasp for my dress
Though the days are gentle I have one of everything.
Or because she puts together a genius little chapbook call’d The Pill Book (Faux Press, 2008), eighteen riffs with pharmaceuticals for titles (“Lemictal,” “Abilify,” “Xanax”—is there honestly a pill by the name of “Abilify”? what drip of the obvious (in marketing, no doubt) invent’d that?). The eighteen plus one little one that “opens” the book:


People CAN change
If they are just willing
To drive to a pharmacy

I dash’d out and plunk’d down the dimeola for it (though its high-dollar markup—$12.50!—nearly made me falter, particularly “what with” the lousy kerning throughout, that excess spatial “blip” after every h makes for a “constantly correcting” read . . .) Though maybe that’s the result of the sling of jittery particulars and Django Reinhardt “hot swing” pacing that drives these fireballs. Olin’s poems amalgamate one-liners, (“Guess I’ll just sleep my way to the middle,” “‘The weather is here. Wish you were beautiful.’”), a rampantly arch and cunning surreal (“your kneecaps / like the skulls of inbred dogs, / Your penis which looks like a sun-burnt / Baby’s arm & smells of chlorine . . .”; “Nothing to do indeed when heaven is a seizure alert dog on An invisible lead”), genial familiars in the form of brand names (“The Hercules One Arm Bed-to-Bed Transfer,” Popeye’s Chicken, the Morton Salt Girl, “Eileen Myles looks like a Kennedy”), and tiny ambuscades of sentiment (“Angel Gabriel stand on me // When I pass from this earth / In the zip code 10022 & if you should ever leave, // Remember someone, This One, / Remembers you—perfectly.”) It is these latter that provide the girders of “heart” without which the whole edifice buckles and comes down in a heap of irony’s common debris. Here’s one (compleat):

I felt more at home on this pill in the bucolic shire
In the Hamptons amid the piss-colored braids
Of wheat on a metamucil can, milkweed & sneeze drops,
Never checked out in the orangeade foam of dawn
Glistening like a brow in an aspirin ad on the telly
I’ve got a brain like soaked coral.
I’ve got a tongue like a baby’s penis.
I’m Bruce Willis in THE SIXTH SENSE—I’m dead
But I don’t know it.
My pen, my eskimo blood spilled
Cheekily over “good & dear people . . .”
I managed to write this by myself.
When I said “Oh get me away I’m dying,” I meant I wanted
A cigarette and a problem child on a peony-filled evening.
In the dry heat of photocopy fans,
Making Easter cards with the, uh, terminally ill,
You hold the retinal scanner to my heart.
“Now I know how Joan of Arc felt
As flames rose to her roman nose &
Her hearing aid began to melt”
And in the darkened underpass I gave
Blood and now my French is shaky.

Jeni Olin