Monday, July 21, 2008

Tony Towle’s “True Account”

“In Laura (Riding) Jackson Territory”

Tony Towle, replying to recent attributings and de-attributings (and hellishly irresponsible and inappropriate chicanery, some might say) regarding Frank O’Hara’s “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island”:
Dear John,

I have in my hand a copy of a one-page letter sent by Frank O’Hara to Hal Fondren, signed “Frank” at the bottom of the sheet. The heading reads: 90 University Place, NYC 3 // July 19th, 1958. It begins: Dear Hal, // I meant to write sooner to thank you for the lovely time I had in your country home. . . . This is the second paragraph: In the rush of leaving, martini in hand, I forgot to leave you copies of the 2 poems I wrote out there but I will send them to you now. I think I may still make a couple of changes in each so if you feel like making any for your own reading pleasure please feel free to do so.

I also have copies of the only two poems the sentence above could refer to, in the versions found in Frank’s loft after his death, the first of which is “Ode: Salute to the French Negro Poets” with the title written in French: “Ode en Salut aux Poetes Negres Francaises” (without the appropriate accent marks that would have had to be written in by hand). At the bottom is typed: Frank O’Hara // Fire Island, 7/9/58. The second, of course, is “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island,” with Frank O’Hara // Fire Island, 7/10/58 typed at the bottom of the second page. These versions (except for the title of the first) are identical to those in my Collected Poems, so they either reflect the “couple of changes,” or he didn’t make any. That Frank could have written two such dissimilar but powerful poems on successive days is remarkable, though when considered in tandem the line in “A True Account . . .” beginning: “Maybe we’ll // speak again in Africa . . .”—reads as a “carryover,” conscious or not, from the poem of the day before.

From Hal’s, according to the letter, Frank and Joe drove “back” (drove with whom? neither Frank nor Joe had a car) to East Hampton (possibly via New York; it’s not clear—though it would have made no geographic sense to do so) and spent a few days with Patsy, Mike, Norman, Kenneth, et al., before coming back to town on Friday (the 18th). He sent the two poems to Hal, and that was it. He didn’t show them, or at least “A True Account . . .,” to Joe, or to Kenneth, or to anyone else. “Ode . . .” was published relatively quickly, in Don Allen’s The New American Poetry 1945-60—Allen certainly had selected the book’s contents by 1959. He didn’t send “A True Account . . . ” to Allen then, or include it in Lunch Poems in 1964. It is hard to comprehend that someone could write something that good and then misplace or forget about it or, even stranger, choose not to publish it—yet that is what happened.

Let me give another quote from this letter that bears on a statement of Joe LeSueur’s in Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara, in the “A True Account . . .” chapter: Joe and I are trotting out to Bob Cornell’s boat Monday and returning Thursday morning, or perhaps earlier. I hope we don’t miss you here if you come in. Gee, maybe we’ll stop by Fairharbor and take you for a ride . . .

Fair Harbor is one of the 17 communities spread along the length of Fire Island (13 of them are on the western half), and is quite a few miles west of Fire Island Pines. Water Island (a community, not an island), where Frank and J.J. Mitchell were staying on that fatal weekend, is east of the Pines, so the beach taxi was taking them in the opposite direction from where the poem was written when it broke down. LeSueur is incorrect in placing Hal’s house in the Pines and “not far from the spot where he would be hit almost exactly eight years later.”

I will digress and mention that the letter to Hal clears up a minor mystery for me, personally. I and my wife (with our four-year-old daughter) were invited by Hal to visit him for dinner in one of the Fire Island communities in 1971, but I had long ago forgotten which one (I know the year because North had recently been published and I brought Hal a copy). I and my family would have been coming from the Pines, in fact, where we rented the same house for a couple of weeks every year—we must have got to Fair Harbor and back by water taxi. Joe was definitely right about Hal being a superb cook and there would have been many cocktails to go with the food, as well as conversation that was delightful and stimulating. I can say from my own experience that Hal Fondren was wonderful company.

As your readers by this time know, the original of the letter I have quoted from is being offered for sale by James Jaffe Rare Books, at 790 Madison Avenue, for $6,500. Some of the text in the letter that I have not quoted can be found in Jaffe’s description of the item, and it would seem that one could go there and see it in person during business hours.

This closes the book on the authorship of “A True Account . . .” as far as I am concerned, and I don’t intend to say anything further about it. Frank gets his extraordinary poem back and Kenneth was not demented after all.

With best wishes,

(Tony Towle quotes out of O’Hara’s letter to Hal Fondren with the permission of Maureen Granville-Smith.)

Here’s what I’d add. There is, apparently, an O’Hara “Selected Letters” (as assembled some years back by Donald Allen) in the Frank O’Hara Archive in the Dodd Center at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. I know none of the reasons why it remains unpublish’d. I do know that of all the archival materials of the New American poets and poetries, the ones connect’d with O’Hara and the New York contingent—they who so honorably refused to hammer together anything so tacky’s a manifesto, a poetics without first making obvious the bulge a tongue’ll make when lodged firmly in a cheek (“pants . . . tight enough . . . There’s nothing metaphysical about it,” etc.)—’d seem at the present “juncture” the ones most likely to steer the big ship of contemporary poetry off the ideological smutch-clad and impercipient shoals of the late-dying twentieth century, that late century’s effusion of marketeers that is dirtying up the twenty-first with its puritan constructivist regulations and dull clattery “ears” when what’s need’d (“‘mes poèmes lyriques, à partir de 1897, peuvent se lire comme un journal intime” // yes always though you said it first / you the quicksand and sand and grass / as I wave toward you freely / the ego-ridden sea / there is a light there that neither of us will obscure / rubbing it all white, / saving ships from fucking up on the rocks”) is a return to the sniggers of the “perpetually ardent”—“some . . . sign people do not totally regret life.” Or poets—the way they bend so humorlessly to they self-appoint’d tasks “et” befuddlements—either. James Schuyler’s letters allow’d a peek. What’s need’d—if I obscure it, making companionable doilies in anticipation—is, of course, that someone muster together those letters (adding late-arrivals, subtracting whatever’d misconstrue or torment), and get them publish’d. Reading Frank O’Hara: The Poetics of Coterie (University of Iowa, 2006) and noting the use of a number of pertinent excerpts out of the letters (plus an able reach across O’Hara’s omnivorously wide “milieu”), one’d think Lytle Shaw a good candidate for the job. Thus ends my public pleading to Maureen Granville-Smith . . .

A funny weekend of untidy dirty-hoof’d napping (fell’d amongst the rusty tin cans like an old goat—? I’m just jammin’—) and a relentless spate of tidying up. So completely enclabber’d in it, and by it, the various trappings, the recently-mail’d, the print-outs, the scuttled-up-for-a-looks, all the hypen’d or hyphenable detritus of a too curious soul—I had to unclutter a little. Whaled through a ream-sized stack of loose sheets that ought to’ve remain’d mere pixels in the soundless winds of cyberspace, tedious arguments of insidious intents, “Politic, cautious, and meticulous; / Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse; / At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—”; that cover’d most of it. What comes down is a stoppage—the accumulated drift of readables thwarts all excursus, all discourse: I poke at one thing, I fling away another, my commendatory (or not) utterances get muffled by drossy ambiance, by sheer blotto numbers. I cut back, I quell, I disperse. (There be the heroics of my weekend. Hence, I tell myself: the naps.)

What I proceed to read, juggling the two: Frank O’Hara: The Poetics of Coterie (University of Iowa, 2006) and Jaimy Gordon’s Bogeywoman (Sun & Moon, 1999). The latter the coming out story of a “* Unbeknownst To Everybody,” reminiscent of Nabokov’s Lolita and Violette Leduc’s Thérèse et Isabelle, particularly in its early parts at Camp Chunkagunk, Tough Paradise for Girls. And, here, seeing what the Bogeywoman learns to note of the world per counselor Willis Marie Bundgus, the camp “Wood Wiz” in charge of “Tracking” (“She had appetites—I could tell”), reminding one of Shakespeare’s King Lear:
        Dead? dead? but then I screwed down my nose and saw the corpses all over the place, everywhere I looked: crumbs of green lacewing, two links, then three more, of a salamander spine, tiny teeth, dry eggs, claws, half a beetle carapace, rust-red frass of the hornworm—a lone whisker sticking out of a bit of snout leather, all that was left of some least weasel the hawk ate—a whole skull the size of a freckle—all this carnage epochs beyond its original disturbance, part of the calm sand itself. You just had to get down there to see from the wreckage what a 20-table grange hall ham & oyster supper that sand was, what a feast run amok the whole earth was, only how could you tell the eater from the eats? You couldn’t. And what but your own greedy appetite led you out there on the bonewhite tablecloth in the first place, where every passing turkey buzzard could get an eyeful of you? It was a wonder anything ever came out of its hole—and suddenly I saw this: only merciful hunger blanks out death.
        “The whole sand pit’s an oinking boneyard,” I said.
See Lear’s great vision of the worldly stink of mortality (crown’d inseparably by rutting), how it clings to all appetite:
                Die for adultery? No,
The wren goes to’t, and the small gilded fly
Does lecher in my sight.
Let copulation thrive; for Gloucester’s bastard son
Was kinder to his father than my daughters
Got ’tween the lawful sheets.
To’t, luxury, pell-mell, for I lack soldiers.
Behold yond simp’ring dame,
Whose face between her forks presages snow;
That minces virtue, and does shake the head
To hear of pleasure’s name—
The fitchew nor the soiled horse goes to’t
With a more riotous appetite.
Down from the waist they are Centaurs.
Though women all above;
But to the girdle do the gods inherit,
Beneath is all the fiends’: there’s hell, there’s darkness,
There is the sulphurous pit, burning, scalding ,
Stench, consumption. Fie, fie, fie! Pah, pah!
Give me an ounce of civet, good apothecary,
Sweeten my imagination.
Sweeten, indeed. I’ll be doing the “Fie, fie! Pah, pah!” all day. In Lytle Shaw’s coterie book, I’ll note how Morton Feldman’s words regarding O’Hara (quoted out of the Berkson-edited Homage) mimic David Shapiro’s fine flurry about O’Hara “dead and still making new poems” (“A person told me once that he had dialed Dial-a-Poem and gotten Frank’s voice, though Frank was dead. The voice was so obviously Frank’s that the person had to shudder at the living dead. . . . Like Joe Hill, I’m still alive, Frank said. I can die and write as well, etc.”) Feldman wrote:
In an extraordinary poem Frank O’Hara describes his love for the poet, Mayakovsky. After an outburst of feeling, he writes, “but I’m turning to my verses / and my heart is closing / like a fist.”
        What he is telling us is something unbelievably painful. Secreted in O’Hara’s thought is the possibility that we create only as dead men. . . . Death seems the only metaphor distant enough to truly measure our existence. Frank understood this. That is why these poems, so colloquial, so conversational, nevertheless seem to be reaching us from some other, infinitely distant place. Bad artists throughout history have always tried to make art like life. Only the artist who is close to his own life gives us an art that is like death.

Morton Feldman, 1926-1987