Thursday, July 24, 2008

“I Have Lost Touch with the World”

Pole and Cloud Event

The green earth is teeming, even in its throes of being much too trod “upon”—a word I rarely use. There is nothing for it except to allow its best denizens the rack and weal, to follow out directions, hints & feints, to move with the giants if the giants move us. David Shapiro suggest’d that one of O’Hara’s poems to James Dean is “utter homage” to Rickert’s (or Rykert’s, orthography’s as slippery as anise in some precincts) “I Have Lost Touch with the World,” and he repeat’d it enough that it commenced a banging in my brainbox. “Who’s Rickert?” turn’d into a clip of Kathleen Ferrier singing Gustav Mahler’s “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (out of “Fünf Rückertlieder”)—all that through the mysteries of search technologies even the giants cannot comprehend. And out of there some strong Ariadne-manufactory’d string (“I trust the sanity of my vessel”) led me to Liedermeister (I doubt the ineffability of that word) Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866), and the following:
Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,
Mit der ich sonst viele Zeit verdorben,
Sie hat so lange nichts von mir vernommen,
Sie mag wohl glauben, ich sei gestorben!

Es ist mir auch gar nichts daran gelegen,
Ob sie mich für gestorben hält,
Ich kann auch gar nichts sagen dagegen,
Denn wirklich bin ich gestorben der Welt.

Ich bin gestorben dem Weltgetümmel,
Und ruh’ in einem stillen Gebiet!
Ich leb’ allein in meinem Himmel,
In meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied!
(Easy, methought, I need only retrieve the O’Hara James Dean poems and look for lines somehow echoing “I am the world’s abandon’d, a gecko-man . . .”) I tiptoe’d about in the Cutter-number PT’s (I am a kind of quasi-librarian, quand même), volume “upon” volume of Rückert-Werke, none, alas, English’d. I return’d to the black box, the spit-joy device of the seemingly daunt’d, good (to a point) even for the technologically clubfoot’d. I scratch’d forth code. Finally, giddy, I peer’d over one hillock, white sails of a ketch galloping east, to some scrawls in the sandy beach below (“eager to be everything / stopped short // Do we know what / excellence is? it’s / all in this world / not to be executed”)—a kind of Yeatsian “The best lack all conviction” written in the sand, “and remembered” (heartbreaking be even the afterthoughts of the giants). Optics blurring (tears of relief), what I found: a straightforward Englishing of Rückert’s piece (translated by one Emily Ezust):
I am lost to the world
With which I used to waste so much time,
It has heard nothing from me for so long
That it may very well believe that I am dead!

It is of no consequence to me
Whether it thinks me dead;
I cannot deny it,
For I really am dead to the world.

I am dead to the world’s tumult,
And I rest in a quiet realm!
I live alone in my heaven,
In my love and in my song!
Home, I flopped down with my O’Hara, the indispensable Collected, preparing to inhabit that holy sepulchre for some wanton hours. And no! Nigh immediately it fell out—how right the giant Shapiro is! One of the “Four Little Elegies” (there be, actually, seven with the fourth comprised of four of its own—4A, 4B, 4C, and 4D), reads (listen for the unbearably soft flugelhorn intro):
Yes, I am no
                        longer going out
                                                into the world.
I used to be
                        with it so much
                                                of the time.
For so long, it
                        hasn’t cared to ask
                                                what is my name?
maybe it would
                        like to think
                                                I’m already dead.
But then, wouldn’t
                        it ask? Well,
                                                it doesn’t matter.
It doesn’t matter
                        that I’m already dead
                                                to it, not living,
it doesn’t even matter
                        if it thinks me
                                                among the early dead.
I can’t really tell
                        that I’m alive, except
                                                I name the world.
I can’t deny it,
                        I am among the noble
                                                dead, the famous,
most of the time—
                        and this world named
                                                them for me.
I’m not at peace
                        though I am out
                                                of this world.
I fail to find rest,
                        the place is so
                                                unnaturally quiet!
I think I am in
                        the heavens! waiting
                                                to be formed,
to have my love
                        and my self given
                                                a name, at last.
Donald Allen notes that the poem is dated February 21, 1956 in one manuscript, June 21, 1956 in another. James Dean’s death in the Porsche Spyder near Paso Robles: September 30, 1955. Age of, one shudders, twenty-four. Perhaps the earliest piece for Dean is “To an Actor Who Died”—Allen says “Probably written in late summer or early autumn of 1955 on Great Spruce Head Island off the coast of Maine.” Though one manuscript carries a “canceled earlier title, ‘To Laura Riding,’ and epigraphs: ‘I have set poetry aside’ and ‘Heaven susteyne thy course in quietness.’” Too, two final lines (coming directly after “rocks address no sun” and earlier line, “your head is clear as a rock”):
sea, star, nor swell; and I now move away from love as from
a lobster- and berry-laden table, not hungry for my time.
How the giants swarm together! Pre-echoes of Mayakovsky’s pre-fatal Russian roulette (they say he’d play’d and won twice before) deliver’d bullet-piece:
And, as they say, the incident is closed.
Love’s boat has smashed against the daily grind.
Now life and I are quits. Why bother then
to balance mutual sorrows, pains, and hurts.
The refusal to play: Laura Riding’s famous renouncement, James Dean’s surly indifference (“a spirit eager for the punishment / which is your only recognition”). The utter difference, certes, between the Rückert ditty and O’Hara’s rewrite: the poet’s insistence on “naming” (it constitutes life, it constitutes and reconstitutes the world: “I can’t really tell / that I’m alive, except / I name the world.”) And isn’t there a patter of Apollinaire there in O’Hara’s version of unshapely death as “I think I am in / the heavens! waiting / to be formed”? (See the French-Pole’s “Cortège”: “Rien n’est mort que ce qui n’existe pas encore.” Isn’t the gritty sand (the rivers! the clouds!) of Apollinaire wash’d throughout O’Hara? Where’d I read lately of the “debt”—no giant ever owes another giant a thing!—O’Hara’s epithalamiums, in particular “Poem Read at Joan Mitchell’s,” owed to the French-Pole, and the whole thing without even noting how “At last you are tired of being single” partook saucily of “Zone”’s “A la fin tu es las de ce monde ancien”?) (I begin, typing, to know not whose voice is here, Dean’s, or O’Hara’s, or Mayakovsky’s, or Riding’s, or poor Rückert’s.) The giants teem, greening the deposit’d earth. As David Shapiro, giant and legator who bequeath’d the connection to me—or anyone, such is the o’erbrmming generosity of the man!—out of the fecund metropole of a truly omnivorous and unapportion’d mind: “I care so little for these sudden discoveries that I have thought of stringing them together in a poem or story.” Here, then, is that story:
Letter to John Latta: The Melancholy and Splendor of Attributions

Here’s a story about attributions. One day I read James Shapiro, for many reasons aside from the obvious linguistic connection, and praised his new book on one year of Shakespeare’s life. I am jealous of James because he teaches wonderful kids at Columbia, where I used to think, and Kenneth thought, I would always be, except for my sentimental idea that stopping it for a few days might help (it did) in the thousand demonstrations against “the” war. Vietnam for us, now Iraq.

I didn’t think I had the right to say this, but I asked him what he might be writing about next. He said that—I hope this is no secret—he planned a book about the controversy regarding Shakespeare and the authorship. I thought it brilliant, I said, that he would not be taking sides. He again reiterated he would be writing the history without partisanship. Recall that I have spent almost every day of my life reading some Shakespeare and trying to memorize the 37 or so plays. My father, a sculptor, violist and dermatologist, became obsessive in my childhood about Shakespeare and the possibility of a shrouded “other” author. My mother before she died would often tell me this obsessive period of Shakespeare-as-X was worse even than his sudden love for guerilla warfare analysis under T. E. Lawrence. However, of course, I have always delighted in the snobbism of Clare College’s Robert Greene (say around l592?) (I went to the same college as did the DNA master Watson). But I have not agreed with Bismarck that no one but a general could write such war stories. I also have declined to agree with those who think each ballad is the Bard’s. I have come close to a mania for the “Tom O’ Bedlam” song that seems written by someone as good as Rimbaud—that poem startled me, shocked me with the tone of genius, led to a rare book by Graves, and stills seems to Uncle Harold Bloom and myself to be Bard-ish. I know no “better” poem in English. Copy that. “I know more than Apollo . . . etc.” Anyway, I was speaking to a true scholar, so I said that I thought he had himself in his book added a good punch for the de-attributors, those idiots.

He asked what I meant. I then said that in his book the Queen and others torture a playwright by saying again and again, as he twists in torture: “Who really wrote it? who really wrote the play?” etc. I said: Don’t you think if this scene is solid and researched by you, that it means that at this time it is a life-and-death matter that plays and things were not so simply authored and that a man could lose his life for a persona. James agreed and said he would footnote me in his book. He hadn’t seen it that way, and he is one of my favorite Shakespeare scholars. I only mean to say while bragging that of course, proud as I am to have seen a jigsaw in someone else’s puzzle, I did and this is what Meyer called “communal seeing.” You help me see something I hadn’t seen, like putting together the endings of “Harbormaster” and “True Account”—it matters. I still do not believe in the de-attributions. I would think sometimes that only an idiot wouldn’t hear strange tones in Pericles that seem suddenly to be arrested and Shakespeare’s tone takes over. This to me is simple, even without a computer that proves that Shakespeare hated dogs.

Dubito. But of course, as in Warhol or Renaissance studio practice, there’s nothing wrong with realizing some of the last Shakespeare plays were written with others. Let us all get such help! Paul Resika tells me that many good paintings are secretly by Hans Hoffman from his class—where he often worked over a student’s work convincingly enough, but not everyone sees it. Fairfield Porter told me he was influenced so much by de Kooning and he knew it though others didn’t. But it does mean that authorship, collaboration etc., are complex things. In China, there is a fortune to be made for scientific hoaxes. I do think that the issue of this poem was never in doubt, to me. But, as you can see, some things float into focus and some do not. As my father was a footnote in the history of dermatology, so I am now a footnote in the passion according to Shakespeare and James Shapiro, who once wrote about passion-plays.

Some go crazy on account of masks. Some love to dress up and fool others. Some are like my middle sister and cousin who teased me relentlessly sometimes in the scary basement by saying that they were not Nomi and Allan but Nomi3 and Allan4, and that their demonic transformation took place instantaneously and when I wasn’t looking deeply enough. I screamed at this early self heteronymic style.

Example: I was reading Descartes’s Meditation number 2 and came upon a phrase I remembered very well. Descartes says that God could do a thing because he was subtle, but he would not do that malicious thing because he was not malicious. Anyway, I realized that it was very much a syllogism like, congruent with The Lord is subtle but not malicious, ascribed to Einstein. I even wrote to Pais, whose book Subtle Is the Lord, used the quote in thunder. I got a reply that the scholar: thought it was an unusual example of overlapping. I do not think so. I have thought of sending it in to Princeton, where the Physics Dept. has it carved as a central theme and aphorism of gold. I have told physicists, who usually respond that they are not interested at all in Einstein’s sayings. Some paper I saw once was about the seeming plagiarisms of Einstein, but I wasn’t suggesting THAT. I just think that the Descartes is the Jewish joke (almost) opened up. There is no doubt from the literature that Einstein acquainted himself with all the normal canonic philosophers, thus Descartes. But for Descartes to say He could do this because He is subtle but won’t do it because He is not malicious . . . Hm. But I thought: What if Einstein read it in Latin? It turns out it would still be the subtilis of the joke. But it is not a joke, it is the most memorable affirmation of Einstein. How could I, little New York poet, have seen this? Because unlike physicists I try to memorize as much of the history of physics as I can. My friend Ken Snelson was ridiculed for 40 years for saying he knew what an electron might look like. Physicists laughed at me for even mentioning him. Electrons, in those days, could have no sculptural analogue. Last few years Scientific American has crowned Snelson’s work by saying it may not be the structure of electrons but explains dazzlingly the structure of cells. (Bucky attempted to allude very little to his student Snelson, who actually invented the tensegrity in sculptural terms.)

It seems to me unreasonable to suppose that Einstein got up and said, God is subtle but not malicious, which is embedded with so many possibilities at once. When one reads the Descartes, one immediately sees the same words, the same proposition, but even more, the syllogism that makes it all utterly logical and philosophical and not a Jewish joke, as if God also threw dice with words. Now, that is a last authorial thrust of mine. I retreated with the full authority of Pais, who has since died. But I assure you, when you read Descartes, you will be reading a text that was since collaged by Einstein consciously or unconsciously. Does it matter? Yes. It may make you string together without string theory Descartes and Einstein. Auden loved Scientific American. Because of the controversy over Frank’s magisterial poem, I may just have to send this off to Scientific American, with a dim hope that electrons now seem geometric and only 4-dimensional to some new theorists. I used to know that electrons behaved like waves and particles and it didn’t matter that I couldn’t see that. Snelson once told me, “Of course, physicists don’t see well enough.” So realize that the secrets of the universe may be locked up in muscular seeing, first important for catching fish. Look and think, like Frank in his “Heroic Sculpture.” For all his magnanimity and sociality, think of the loneliness of Frank O’Hara and, as the musician Feldman correctly underlined, Frank’s classical sense of limits and death. They’re calling to us in a language that is not a magazine.
One final call. Ian Hamilton Finlay knew something about rocks, & the sculptural. And, too, things “with us every day / even on beachheads and biers”; like words, “They’re strong as rocks.” Here’s something I found (in Hamilton Finlay’s The Dancers Inherit the Party, c. 1960):
Glasgow Poem

Airship poet Guillaume (Angel) Apollinaire
Wrote poetry something rer.
It was back in the Future. What the Scotch call ‘auld Sol’
He called the ‘sun airplane.’ It would drive you up the wall.

Frank O’Hara