Friday, January 11, 2013

Two O’Hara Letters and a Translation

Fairfield Porter, “Frank O’Hara,” 1957

Frank O’Hara, writing to Fairfield Porter:
                                                                                                            June 25, 1954*

Dear Fairfield,

      How are you weathering it alone? If I were less heedless I would have like to wish Anne good adventure on her trip, but I realize that she must by now have departed. I simply, in such a heat, cannot type you René Char’s great long and questionable lyric Exploit du Cylindre à Vapeur but I have collated the promised A*** and hasten to add another gem:

                              Le premier venu.

which I translate as follows:
                              To be
                              The first comer.
                                                            Do you agree with my interpretation? This poet, you will certainly agree, is far more fun to do into English than the loquacious Mallarmé. In addition when I see you I will have a sumptuous divertissement by Jean Genet Un Chant d’Amour (it’s easy to see what’s on our minds these dog-days) which JA has pronounced one of my best works—I hope this doesn’t mean that it’s a terrible translation, but can’t figure out what else it could mean. There you are, he giveth with one hand and taketh with the other.
      There is supposed to be an enchanting movie The Holiday of M. Hulot which the gang saw recently but I haven’t yet. Edwin and Rudy recommend it too so it must be our dish. I came rather late to the party (back from dinner) but it was fun at Grace’s ne’ertheless; I’m sorry you didn’t either come earlier or stay longer. My activities lately indicate that soon JA will be forced to give over the title Larry assigned him “Last of the Gay Blades” to me—but then John should rest this summer anyway. Baudelaire had the funds to be a dandy but the most I can manage is to be a petit boulevardier.
      What do you make of Joan Mitchell? Really, I found her rather grumpy that night at Grace’s though she kept announcing how friendly she was feeling. At other times I have found her charming when she was terribly self-announced-depressed and had everyone else fleeing in droves. I guess it’s not her, then. Mike and I are having dinner tonight but it’s so hot I rather think we should forget it. Maybe we’ll just eat Ice Cream. I always eat that on Friday because of my upbringing.
      Is the eldest of your sons, I mean Lawrence, that is, at home yet? And if so will you present my compliments? I saw a copy of the Harvard Alumni Bulletin which John has in the bathroom and I must say it is more disgusting almost than the McCarthy hearings, complete with a photo of Lyon Phelps at Hazens with two Radcliffe admirers. It must be wonderful to be an elder poet at 29, with all of the pretentions and none of the mistakes. (As you see, my spleen is fresh as a daisy and cool as a cucumber.) JA received a note from Jimmy which was sweet and had that I-really-should-be-working tone common all to all us pros so I guess he is digging in without much trouble.
      This letter started out of the vain desire to write you a letter, but I don’t dare keep it up having just reread it.

      Call when you get in and give my love to Katy.
                                                                                                [signed] Frank
“The promised A***” (with O’Hara’s translation campily misattributed):

Te es mon amour depuis tant d’années,
Mon vertige devant tant d’attente,
Que rien ne peut vieillir, froidir
Même ce qui attendait notre mort,
Même ce qui nous est étranger,
Et mes éclipses et mes retours.

Fermée comme un volet de buis
Une extrême chance compacte
Est notre chaîne de montagnes,
Notre comprimante splendeur.

Je dis chance, ô ma martelée;
Chacun de nous peut recevoir
La part de mystère de l’autre
Sans en répandre le secret;
Et la douleur qui vient d’ailleurs
Trouve enfin sa séparation
Dans la chair de notre unité,
Trouve enfin sa route solaire
Au centre de notre nuée
Qu’elle déchire et recommence.

Je dis chance comme je le sens.
Tu as élevé le sommet
Que devra franchir mon attente
Quand demain disparaîtra.

                                                          René Char. Inédit. 1950.

                                    To . . .

You’re my love for so many years,
My dizziness in the face of so much waiting,
That nothing can age, can chill,
Not even what’s awaiting our death,
Not even what’s alien to us,
And my eclipses and my returns.

An extremely compact chance
Closed like a boxwood shutter
Is our chain of mountains,
Our compressed magnificence.

I say chance, O my hammered one;
Each of us can receive
The mysterious part of the other
Without spilling the secret;
And the grief that comes along with it
Finally finds its parting
In the flesh of our unity,
Finally finds its solar route
At the center of our cloud
Which it tears and begins again.

I say chance as I feel it.
You have raised the summit
Which my waiting must surmount
When tomorrow has disappeared.

                                                          (Trans. by Franz Liszt)
Fairfield Porter’s undated reply:
Dear Frank: I just got your letter this afternoon, and read it while walking to the station with Katie (her choice) and Anne was packing for herself, Kitty, Jerry, and Grace. Laurence is at home and working at Schur’s. At the station a drunk made friendly passes at Kate, showing me that there are always new problems and that little girls must be protected without causing them alarm. When I came back I found a sarcastic note from Anne in the typewriter about the cracker barrel touch system motto in the typewriter, “It is work that gives flavor to life.” Anne will leave about Thursday with Katie and Jerry, leaving L and me.

I felt as you did about Joan Mitchell. She seemed unfriendly to me, but then I expect painters often to be mad at me, so I mistakenly took it to myself alone.

It is typical of JA to give and take at once. Thank you for remembering To ****, which seems a prefect translation, but which I prefer in your English, I suppose that is a compliment to the strength of the original. As to L’Amour, it contains the open secret of my feared and attained failures.

We had a beautiful note from Jimmy, whose sweetness follows from the fact that his politeness directly expresses his true feelings, and is never a cover but the outward expression of exactly what he thinks. We also had a heart-warming letter from Janice.

The picture of Kitty is done. The portrait of John is a good likeness. I hope it does not stiffen up. He has to pose again. He seems to have made up his mind to endure a certain amount of boredom. Maybe if he doesn’t come out next weekend, he will come under your chaperonage later.

I will telephone when I come in town. I did very much enjoy the other day with you.

                                              [signed] Fairfield
O’Hara (in Cambridge, Massachusetts) to Anne and Fairfield Porter:
                                                                                                            January 26, 1956

Dear Anne and Fairfield,
      I was happy to get Kitty’s note, especially the day it came as I had been reading her poems the day before and off and on since I got here and was wondering how the prettiest poet in America is.

      It has seemed very odd to be here but now I am fairly well adapted to it. There has been snow on the ground and replenishing flurries ever since I arrived, which I like, and I have a room quite large with eaves, on the third floor of Molly Howe’s house. She is in the theatre des poètes and also is the one who adapted FINNEGANS WAKE for their production. She is nice and amusing and rather Irish and thinks I’m even Irisher than she is (which is doubtful since she acted in the Abbey Theatre and has a great appreciation of the mournful interpretation of trivial things—she compliments people in the following general form, for instance: “Isn’t it a shame! Bunny was so wonderful on stage last night, and she just doesn’t do anything serious with it, she doesn’t act enough!”). She told Bunny after a reading I gave with Roger Shattuck, without saying a word to me about it though I see her every day, “Frank is the real thing, all right, but he has the terrible affliction of the Irish—he doesn’t trust his heart.” About John’s play, THE COMPROMISE, which I brought up, she said in her written comment: “Wonderful, it’s obviously one of the best things we’ve had a chance to do—but a joke that lasts three acts makes me so nervous. Of course, it may be the American IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST.” Now don’t you think she’s more pessimistic and therefore more Irish, than I am? She’s very nice anyhow.

      Anne, before I forget, did you ever finish the translation of Supervielle’s LA BELLE AU BOIS (does au have an x?)? If you did nor plan to, I know The Poets’ Theatre would be interested in seeing it and probably giving a reading of it, if not a full production. I’ve read several scripts of the pile they have submitted to them and so many of them tend to be heavily formalized, rhetorical, full of verse and empty of poetry, with an insight every 75 lines, as if most of the poets had just gobbled up a History of the English Drama that ended in 1850. I think it would be of enormous benefit to the people who choose plays for production (a board of about 8) as well as the other writers here, to have the Supervielle brought to their attention both as a beautiful work and as a kind of play which is more poetry than those filled with verse that limps along about incest or the impossibility of communication. Richard Eberhart has several pieces here which have terribly expert versification but are two-thirds taken up with long speeches by the author to the audience about how the theatre is more real than life; or is not as real; and how hard the author is striving to find a new form. The form he is striving to find, of course, is the didactic poem, and there is no reason for it to be read in a theatre, it seems to me.

      I met Lawrence, who I take it is called Larry now, when I was having lunch with Roger Shattuck at Dunster House on Tuesday. He looked very well but a little pale with studying for exams. Roger is his tutor in French and likes him very much. Roger is very nice with a quiet, pleasant manner and an apparently vast knowledge of the Dada period—his special loves seem to be Apollinaire, Jarry and Char; in some poems he showed me done recently he seems to be influenced by Eluard quite a bit in a very nice way. His wife Nora is a great beauty and Patricia Wilde’s sister and she teaches dancing classes here and a lot of his poems are about how much he loves her, the best ones I’ve seen are, anyway.

      The Poets’ Theatre itself is quite small, about the size of Julian Beck’s place at 100th and Broadway, but prettier and more comfortable. It seats about 80 people and there is a gallery on the same floor to which people go at intermission. Next door there is the studio of a charming old man who looks like someone in Dickens and is a painter. His name is Morris Pancoast and he used to be a theatrical cartoonist (Otis Skinner in KISMET, he says, and Ethel Barrymore). His paintings are very sweet Impressionist things in the manner of the American-Franco-Impressionists, sort of solidly sensitive with a hint here and there of the indigenous buck-eye. He says they were all done “in the 20s”—he painted in Paris, I think he was there before the 1st World War, but maybe not—and he loved Paris above all things, apparently. A couple of years ago his wife died but he never moves any of her things and his place has heaps of atmosphere. Everybody adores him and he goes to all the plays and readings with gentle enthusiasm and the actors go over to his place and chat with him when they’re off stage. Then afterwards he goes out with them to a bar and drinks gin-and-tonics. Everyone is always trying to get everyone else to buy one of his paintings. He often hangs the best ones on the brick wall of the alley leading to his studio and if it rains, it rains. The first one, a nice blue-ish landscape, I saw while it was snowing. He likes ART NEWS very much, especially because they printed a letter of protest he wrote about a year ago, but I forget what it was about. It seemed very reasonable, though, and he is very humorous. He told me abstract painting seemed a little too simple, to him.

      Since getting here I’ve written one poem** and a little play in 3 scenes called “The Moon Also Rises”—do you think that title is too sappy? It’s about the slightest play ever written but unaccountably lasts for 20 pages. I thought of calling it “The Oriental Weekend” because all the characters get rather nutty over this Japanese translation that’s read to them by their host, does that sound better? It’s a comedy, and Bunny’s the only one that read it and she was lukewarm. But then she read it when she was supposed to be here having a drink with two other people and I realized later she didn’t even keep track of who was saying what, so her reaction wasn’t much use. I’m afraid it’s more like “The Houses at Falling Hanging” than “Mourning Becomes Electra,” and the latter is, I suspect, what THEY up here would like to get, only in verse—ugh! Diary entry: “My art shall be wrought of my own essential frivolity, insincerity and superficiality.” No matter how much I try to be like a Russian genius, it always turns out I’m a French nitwit. What is that gleaming on the horizon? It must be the Indies! Smell that grass? And an albatross just flew by with a poet in its beak.***

      How is your work going? Are you all ready for your show? Why don’t you both send me poems to keep warm here-in-the-snow by? Write soon!

                              Love to you both and to Kitty,
                                                                                        [signed] Frank

PS   I’ll enclose the mimeographed sheet they did for the reading. I think you know the two poems I have on it, Harbormaster and Invincibility, but the Shattuck will be new—the two French things he read aloud and then translated.
* According to a note in The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara “Meditations in an Emergency” is “Dated June 25, 1954” with “the earlier title: ‘Meditations on Re-emergent Occasions.’”

** Likely “Cambridge” (“The hot plate works, / it is the sole heat on earth . . .” and “I may freeze to death / before I can get out into the white rain. I could have left / the window closed last night? But that’s where health / comes from! His breath from the Urals, drawing me into flame / like a forgotten cigarette. Burn! this is not negligible, / being poetic, and not feeble, since it’s sponsored by the greatest living Russian poet at incalculable cost.”)

*** The mock-Columbus / Coleridge lines “What is that gleaming on the horizon? It must be the Indies! Smell that grass? And an albatross just flew by with a poet in its beak . . .”—though veering quickly off into humor—re-sounding the high chthonic bravado note of “In Memory of My Feelings” (or its 17 June 1955-dated ur-text): “I am an Indian / sleeping on a scalp / and my pony is stamping in the birches, / and I’ve just caught sight of the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. / What land is this, so free?”