Wednesday, July 23, 2008

“With a Quaver”

Pole and Cloud

David Shapiro to Kent Johnson (dated 22 July 2008, with subject line “How criticism, attribution quarrels, etc. are good for one’s mind’s muscles”). He cc’d me, and I ask’d him if I could post it here. It largely concerns recent moves (by several correspondents, here, here, here, and here, and erupting partially out of even earlier talk about O’Hara’s hand in another poem) to identify the circumstances whereby Frank O’Hara’s “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island” got written and, beneficently, proposes several “areas for continued research”:
Dear Kent,

Paying attention will always be rewarded, but “one day.” Anyway, Meyer Schapiro once teased R. P. Blackmur and said: “When you use your mind, you don’t use it up.” “Talking to the Sun” needs attention. De Kooning said something like “A painting needs a lot of conversation around it.” De Kooning told me he wanted another visit from Meyer, they had had a great one to save an early WOMAN. The painter told me: “He tells you that what you are doing is what you should be doing not like those others who tell us not to be doing what we’re doing. Tell him to come again, tell him to come again!”

This has become a difficult case, because of all the “emotion” you mention, and for me of course (like others) part of the history of my life (and love for “the poets,” which of course you share.) Try to feel proud that you stimulated this rather vast re-reading of a poem and also a retelling of what an author is.

To answer your question about my supremely vague (I now see) comment: Kenneth Koch, either in or out of class, told me (and I’m sure some others) that he had written the first “strophe” of “When the Sun Tries to Go On” and showed it to Frank—as was these poets’ wont (me too, I loved to show what I did to Kenneth whenever I could, as when for instance a subway broke down, I was sad and KK said: “Well, now I can read your poems!”) When Frank saw it, KK told me, he suggested that Kenneth “go on,” and write a hundred more stanzas. I simply wanted to make a connection between Kenneth’s sense of scale and Frank. One might say that Frank’s comment was “in the air,” a phrase KK used a lot, because of the maximalism of American painting. (The sense of scale in “Second Avenue,” also, and perhaps the theme of scale in Mayakovsky’s amazing lyrics about his own size and scale: “In what ailing and delicious night was I sired by Goliaths I so large so unwanted”—I type the lines here without a copy about me.) Oh by the way, KK once joked that O’Hara had given him the idea of a play all about Mexico or Spain and then of course KK laughed, “he then did it himself.”

By the way, I think that the best about these questions of authorship or attribution comes not so much from the attribution itself but whether that gives us new sense of things. For example, you inspired me to think again (Tony says this too) of what genius Frank had to change from the formal “Ode” to this homage to Mayakovsky: such different styles, such Picasso-like facility in different styles. Yes, and the letters will be helpful, too, particularly if they don’t “swamp” the poems.

You ask whether Frank would have smiled, but that puts me in a difficult world. I can’t “represent” Frank or his moods and modes. When I hear myself saying, as I sometimes do, “Oh X would have loved that,” I am appropriating a whole universe, like a poor biographer filling a book with “might have beens.” I note how precise you are. I never, for example, would have considered KK, like a Chinese poet-scholar using T’ang ink, to have used Frank’s typing paper. For me, the important mystery that remains is:

1. I’d like to see that particular Mayakovsky translation(s?) that Frank used and have you write about the relationship between and betwixt.

2. I’d like someone to take me up on what I think no one has guessed, that one of the poems to James Dean is an utter homage to Rickert’s song “I Have Lost Touch with the World.”

3. Then I’d like someone to compare those homages with other “poems as homages” in Frank.

4. I would actually just like to see someone make a good normal reading say of “A True Account,” in the mood of Jarrell saying everyone thinks a good normal naturalist novel so easy, but it isn’t. Maybe everyone thinks “A True Account” is so clear by itself—but I think I have never seen a good essay on the poem and Mayakovsky, and for example, the theme of self-destruction in M and FO’H without sentimentality.

5. And then I’d like to see a good PS to that study concerning Frank’s politics. Yes, LeRoi or Amiri and both will be important here, formally, biographically, etc. I’m speaking of the Frank who turned to me and LeRoi (l962 summer) and said of a “race riot”—“The good side finally got the guns.” A statement I put into a poem (in Poems from Deal: “Tracks”) because I was so inspired by hearing an adult without shame speak of violence.

6. So to sum up: I hope that Frank wouldn’t have sneered OR smiled—his response might have been as mysteriously surprising as he always was, as when I praised (!) at fifteen or so “Hide and Seek” and Frank said: “Why do you like it?” I said tentatively and scared now: “The high colors?” He said and I couldn’t have predicted it: “Oh you should have seen it BEFORE the fire”—which in one sentence & smile demolished any sentiment towards it, added a very good bit of historical detail I didn’t know or use, and took it all for granted that a choice of taste was arbitrary and often ridiculous. He might have said: “Well, Kent, you seem to be a real fan of my poem. How’s your Russian?”

The early version I wait for, and your own “poem” of reading need never end. I sometimes catch myself thinking that you should elegantly end, but I also realize that would be a four-line poem by Bolaño, not your own: “Naked Detectives in the Sunlight.”

By the way, I awarded myself some Napoleonic crown because I suggested the relation of the “Ode to the French” and “A Talk” long before I knew or you knew that they had been written in the same weekend. Like any other critic, I wanted my laurels. But not more than the truth. I have often thought of Fire Island and Frank’s death—wrote a book with Leslie about The Killing Cycle—Al’s very good drawings of that death—some small things with words that I love even more than his (Leslie’s) gigantic cycle. (Which do look up, I have no copies, St. Louis Museum produced it.) (It has some of my senses of Frank’s poetry as well as Al’s painting.) So one result of your reading, and Tony’s geography, is that though we are not dealing with the exact spot, it is certainly hard not to mention that all this intimacy, party, etc. atmosphere, was the place for Frank’s terrible accident and a properly haunting place for Mayakovsky’s sun to give what I think is the best advice within a poem since Pessoa’s “Counsel.”

But I agree that everyone can get so caught up in thinking the other is full of evil intentions that literary disagreements and hypotheses—even Bacon as my father loved that hypothesis—are filled with rancor. Well, who isn’t? I’m actually moved that I thought about the poem hard for a month and also of Frank. It’s true that for those who know a poet there comes a time when it seems they own or possess the poet. Partly they do, because they remember that tone, face, eyes. But of course, just as I had to suffer everyone claiming a bit of the rights to the poetry, I recall Pasternak’s congruent theme: that the poet Mayakovsky was always moving ahead of him, down the street, full of death and dictatorships, and turned into the compulsory, “like potatoes in the reign of Catherine the Great.”

By the way, it was John Forbes of Australia who had a dream that influenced me in which Frank is still writing. And isn’t he? As long as poets read him and quarrel (and make up) about him. Frank once said of Art and Literature, it was very beautifully produced, you know, he said, “belles lettres and dead.” I had always loved the design till then. And I still do, with a quaver. Ron Padgett once said to me that he didn’t care what Meyer Schapiro had said about illustration, but I do want to end by saying that (I may have mentioned this in a note)—attribution, said Meyer, sometimes makes us learn something or see something we hadn’t. I was able by this controversy to learn even more the difference between KK’s tone and imagination and Frank’s. Keep that a mystery? Well also things fall and fly into focus. I keep looking for his great last 4 lines in Sophocles, but what I realize is Frank could carve in Pentellic marble, when he wanted to.

Dear Kent, I’m sure you know very well that the forthcoming election is more important than all this—maybe that would be a response. Poetry is never a waste of time (Proust’s title) but let’s not forget the Dreyfus case, either. Once I was gossiping too much for Frank and he told me the dire consequences of my being like another poet who gossiped too much. I cried a bit and left the party. The next week Frank had forgiven me or forgotten. I worshipped him, of course. I think Diane di Prima thought I was absurd to call him Mr. O’Hara, but I was 15 and he was in his late thirties (!)

One day you might want to talk to Frank Lima about Frank. Just doing your research. Don’t forget to send me the New Directions “True Account.” Imagine making a book with that and ten dull versions and then Frank’s Mayakovsky poems. With some paintings and drawings. (Rivers’s “Russian Revolution”—a big collage I didn’t like in the Jewish Museum) why is IT never mentioned? Lots of work to do.

I do think that “A True Account of Talking to the Sun” is an example of the genius of Frank O’Hara, like Mayakovsky, to bring the most vasty things into his personal-personist dialogue. Long before KK wrote odes to orgasms and stuttering—masterpieces—Frank had dazzled his friends with his seemingly natural gift, the corazón in his pocket, just as the sun counselled him, to be flexible and free, with an appropriate sense of embracing everything. It turns out that Frank (O’Hara) had Whitman’s profound sense of a new YOU, and his handprints are all over it, like his voice. I trust the sanity and magnitude of his vessel. If anyone thinks it easy or “natural,” let them try to talk to the moon and also get a reply.

Here (for reading with the O’Hara piece) is the George Reavey translation of Mayakovsky, out the 1960 Meridian Books The Bedbug and Selected Poetry. Couldn’t, today, put my paw to the 1941 New Directions in Prose and Poetry wherein a version of “An Extraordinary Adventure” apparently first appear’d.

(Pushkino, Akula’s Mount, Rumyantsev Cottage, 27 versts on the Yaroslav Railway.)

A hundred and forty suns in one sunset blazed,
and summer rolled into July;
it was so hot,
the heat swam in a haze—
and this was in the country.
Pushkino, a hillock, had for hump
Akula, a large hill,
and at the hill’s foot
a village stood—
crooked with the crust of roofs.
Beyond the village
gaped a hole
and into that hole, most likely,
the sun sank down each time,
faithfully and slowly.
And next morning,
to flood the world
the sun would rise all scarlet.
Day after day
this very thing
to rouse in me
great anger.
And flying into such a rage one day
that all things paled with fear,
I yelled at the sun point-blank:
“Get down!
Stop crawling into that hellhole!”
At the sun I yelled:
“You shiftless lump!
You’re caressed by the clouds,
while here—winter and summer—
I must sit and draw these posters!”
I yelled at the sun again:
“Wait now!
Listen, goldbrow,
of going down,
why not come down to tea
with me!”
What have I done!
I’m finished!
Toward me,
of his own good will,
spreading his beaming steps,
the sun strode across the field.
I tried to hide my fear,
and beat it backwards.
His eyes were in the garden now.
Then he passed through the garden.
His sun’s mass pressing
through the windows,
and crannies;
in he rolled;
drawing a breath,
he spoke deep bass:
“For the first time since creation,
I drive the fires back.
You called me?
Give me tea, poet,
spread out, spread out the jam!”
Tears gathered in my eyes—
the heat was maddening,
but pointing to the samovar
I said to him:
“Well, sit down then,
The devil had prompted my insolence
to shout at him,
I sat on the edge of a bench;
I was afraid of worse!
But, from the sun, a strange radiance
and forgetting
all formalities,
I sat chatting
with the luminary more freely.
Of this
and that I talked,
and of how I was swallowed up by Rosta,
but the sun, he says:
All right,
don’t worry,
look at things more simply!
And do you think
I find it easy
to shine?
Just try it, if you will!—
You move along,
since move you must;
you move—and shine your eyes out!”
We gossiped thus till dark—
till former night, I mean.
For what darkness was there here?
We warmed up
to each other
and very soon,
openly displaying friendship,
I slapped him on the back.
The sun responded!
“You and I,
my comrade, are quite a pair!
Let’s go, my poet,
let’s dawn
and sing
in a gray tattered world.
I shall pour forth my sun,
and you—your own,
in verse.”
A wall of shadows,
a jail of nights
fell under the double-barreled suns.
A commotion of verse and light—
shine all your worth!
Drowsy and dull,
one tired,
wanting to stretch out
for the night.
shone in all my might,
and morning ran its round.
Always to shine,
to shine everywhere,
to the very deeps of the last days,
to shine—
and to hell with everything else!
That is my motto—
and the sun’s!
“Rosta,” editor Patricia Blake notes, is “The Russian Telegraphic Agency, where Mayakovsky was employed drawing posters and cartoons. During the period of his most intensive work for Rosta, from October 1920 to February 1922, Mayakovsky made 2,000 drawings and 280 posters on all kinds of domestic and international events. He captioned his drawings with jingles and slogans that became famous at the time.” Another version of the poem (no translator identify’d) is here, with a copy of the Russian original, and a recording of Mayakovsky reading it. I do note that Blake, in the introduction, relates how, on some excursion or another with ’s forest ranger father, “Mayakovsky glimpsed a rivet factory stunningly illuminated in the night. ‘After seeing electricity,’ he wrote in his autobiography, ‘I lost interest in nature. Not up to date enough.’” Which “Not up to date enough” is tonally consonant with O’Hara’s famous “I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life,” isn’t it?

Pavel Tchelitchew (1898-1957), “Hide-and-Seek,” 1940-42

“Poem (The eager note...)” illustrated by Alfred Leslie, In Memory of My Feelings (New York, Museum of Modern Art, 1967)