Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Frank O’Hara’s “Ode: Salute to the French Negro Poets”

Aimé Césaire, 1913-2008

It’s entirely likely that Frank O’Hara found the story* of Picasso’s telling Max Jacob “There is no style” in Yale French Studies No. 21, an issue titled “Poetry since the Liberation,” and dated “Spring-Summer 1958.” Therein, L. C. Breunig writes, in an essay called “Picasso’s Poets”:
According to one biographer Picasso after a strenuous evening of work would occasionally pass in front of Max Jacob’s window on Montmartre around two o’clock in the morning and call in, “Hey, Max, what are you doing?” and Jacob, sitting at his table with its oil lamp, would answer, “I am looking for a style!” Picasso would walk on, shouting over his shoulder, “There is no style!”
(And, too, quotes Pierre Reverdy—sounding rather like Ezra Pound—writing of Picasso in 1924: “Genius . . . is creation in its most absolute, its purest form: the act of gushing forth. All else in all branches where the highest qualities of mind enter into play is only arrangement, clarity of ideas, development and organization of means, faculty of production, talent and craftsmanship. It is the difference that exists between inventors who supply the first word of great discoveries, the germ of the most important inventions, and the ingenious adapters who perfect them.”) Of note in “Poetry since the Liberation”: an essay by François Hoffmann called “French Negro Poetry.” Is it likely that O’Hara, writing “Ode: Salute to the French Negro Poets”** (dated “July 9, 1958” in manuscript, with the original title “Ode en salute aux poètes nègres françaises”), had recently read the essay, perused the number? Hoffman quotes the Martiniquais Aimé Césaire thus (out of “Les armes miraculeuses”):
Le grand coup de machete du plaisir rouge en plein front il y avait du sang et cet arbre qui s’appelle flamboyant et qui ne mérite jamais mieux ce nom-là que les veilles de cyclone et de villes mises à sac le nouveau sang la raison rouge tous les mots de toutes les langues qui signifient mourir de soif et seul quand mourir avait le goût du pain et la terre et la mer un goût d’ancêtre et cet oiseau qui me crie de ne pas me rendre et la patience des hurlements à chaque detour de ma langue

The great machete slash of red pleasure right in the forehead there was blood and this tree which is called flamboyant and which bears that name never more deservedly than on the eve of cyclones and sacked cities the new blood red blood and all the words in every tongue that mean to die of thirst and alone when dying had the taste of bread and the earth and sea a taste of ancestor and this bird which screams to me not to yield and the patience of bellowings at every deviation of my tongue
The sort of full-blown breathless assault I see echoed in O’Hara’s poem. Possibly pertinent, too, to O’Hara’s “Ode”: Hoffman’s quoting of Césaire’s lines (out of “Cahier d’un retour au pays natal”) “Sang! Sang! tout notre sang emu par le coeur male du soleil” (“Blood! Blood! All our blood stirred by the sun's male heart”) and (out of “Ex-voto pour un naufrage”) “Roi nos montagnes sont des cavales en rut saisies en pleine convulsion de mauvais sang” (“King our mountains are mares in heat seized in the full convulsion of bad blood”)—see O’Hara’s odd “blood! blood that we have mountains in our veins to stand off jackals . . .” Hoffman, too, quotes Césaire’s refusal of what Hoffman calls any attempt “to codify laws for writing politically efficient and esthetically successful poems.” Césaire:
. . . Je pense que si le poète s’engage de manière véritablement totale dans le poème, je pense que sa poésie, s’il est africain, ne pourra pas ne pas être une poésie africaine; que si le poème est bon (. . .) [il] ne pourra pas ne pas porter la marque du poète (. . .) c’est à dire la marque nationale.

. . . I believe that, if the poet gives himself in a truly total way to the poem, his poetry, if he is African, cannot fail to be African poetry; and that if the poem is good . . . [he] cannot fail to bear the insigne of the poet . . . that is to say, the national insigne.
Thus O’Hara’s “for if there is fortuity it’s in the love we bear each other’s differences / in race” and the terribly fierce final line “and dying in black and white we fight for what we love, not are.” O’Hara’s solidarity with Césaire (“the darkness I inhabit in the midst of sterile millions”) akin to Césaire’s own (quoted by Hoffman out of “Et les chiens se taisaient”): “Il n’y a pas dans le monde un pauvre type lynché, un pauvre homme torturé, en qui je ne sois assassiné et humilié.” (“I am assassinated and humiliated in every single man who is lynched, in every poor victim who is tortured.”)

Final note. I wonder if O’Hara’s evoking of Whitman (“my great predecessor”—somewhat coincidentally, Breunig’s piece includes the phrase “the great 19th-century precursors”) and something of the form*** of “Ode: Salute to the French Negro Poets” didn’t arrive out of Hoffman’s quoting of the Whitmanesqueries of the Sénégalese poet Léopold Sédar-Senghor (out of “Chant de printemps”):
Ecoute le bruissement blanc et noir des cigognes horizontales à l’extrème
      de leurs voiles déployées
Ecoute le message du printemps d’un autre âge, d’un autre continent
Ecoute le message de l’Afrique lointaine et le chant de ton sang!

Hear the white and black rustling of the horizontal storks at the extremity of their unfolded sails / Hear the message from the springtime of another age, another continent / Hear the message from distant Africa and the song of your blood!
O’Hara’s “to make fecund my existence / do not spare your wrath upon our shores” a furious call. Jean-Paul Sartre, quoted in Hoffman’s epigraph: “La poésie noire de langue française est de nos jours la seule grande poésie révolutionnaire.”
* Related to Edward Lucie-Smith in an interview in 1965. See.

** O’Hara:
Ode: Salute to the French Negro Poets

From near the sea, like Whitman my great predecessor, I call
to the spirits of other lands to make fecund my existence

do not spare your wrath upon our shores, that trees may grow
upon the sea, mirror of our total mankind in the weather

one who no longer remembers dancing in the heat of the moon may call
across the shifting sands, trying to live in the terrible western world

here where to love at all’s to be a politician, as to love a poem
is pretentious, this may sound tendentious but it’s lyrical

which shows what lyricism has been brought to by our fabled times
where cowards are shibboleths and one specific love’s traduced

by shame for what you love more generally and never would avoid
where reticence is paid for by a poet in his blood or ceasing to be

blood! blood that we have mountains in our veins to stand off jackals
in the pillaging of our desires and allegiances, Aimé Césaire

for if there is fortuity it’s in the love we bear each other’s differences
in race which is the poetic ground on which we rear our smiles

standing in the sun of marshes as we wade slowly toward the culmination
of a gift which is categorically the most difficult relationship

and should be sought as such because it is our nature, nothing
inspires us but the love we want upon the frozen face of earth

and utter disparagement turns into praise as generations read the message
of our hearts in adolescent closets who once shot at us in doorways

or kept us from living freely because they were too young then to know
what they would ultimately need from a barren and heart-sore life

the beauty of America, neither cool jazz nor devoured Egyptian heroes, lies in
lives in the darkness I inhabit in the midst of sterile millions

the only truth is face to face, the poem whose words become your mouth
and dying in black and white we fight for what we love, not are

*** Hoffman writes: “Senghor composes in long, full, majestic verses where intensity of sentiment is enhanced by dignity of form.”