Monday, June 30, 2008

Logan’s Run

Some Fish

One hardly believes William Logan’s “Up Front” squib in the 29 June 2008 New York Times Book Review that “there are moments, when writing criticism, when I’d rather be writing poetry—I can’t say I’ve ever found it the other way around.” For what he relishes is the clever jab, critical writing reduced to a series of ho-ho zingers whilst it skitters here and there like a crawfish, backpedaling, leaving a slurry of wayward and incomprehensible tracks, effaced (he wagers) by each subsequent crack. Logan’s poems, in comparison: listless, spindly, overgrown and -work’d hothouse things. Consider the review of the new Mark Ford-edited Selected Poems, by Frank O’Hara, a book one shrugs off as mere re-packaging, wondering why it’s needed, what with the Collected available, and the 1974 Donald Allen Selected, still plenty serviceable. (I notice of late a pattern of such mercenary pickings along the pike: I think of FSG’s recent Micahel Almereyda-edit’d Night Wraps the Sky: Writings by and about Mayakovsky, a scrapbook, with a fine stash of photographs, here and there poems and snippets, packaging for the age of disorder’d attentions.) Logan’s review moves dartingly: after calling O’Hara “a poet whose genius shone as intermittently as a firefly” (a perfectly ignorant remark: male fireflies “shine” bioluminescently at variable rates, flying in search of female mates. Periods of spontaneous synchronicity occur—whole hundreds in a field flashing in unison. On a hot and busy summer night—up to fifty or so light ups (blinks) per hour can by observed—reminding one of the golden years of cigarette consumption in the Cedar Tavern . . .)

Logan generally proceeds with the archest of manoeuvres, attempt’d pummeling by one-liners. O’Hara sounds like “Wallace Stevens at the soda fountain”; he’s “elated as an eel” (?); he scatters “exclamation points like penny candy”; O’Hara’s lines are “broken like breadsticks” (?); he want’d the poems to look “easy as a sewing machine” (?); O’Hara’s genius was “to stop trying to have a point” (a little like re-packaging “Selecteds”); one poem “sounds like Ezra Pound on happy pills.” Showy lines, mostly; on examination, idiotic. (Why say lines “broken like breadsticks”? What could that possibly mean or add to anything? One supposes Logan’s proceeding by sound, music—br, br—something I mightily “counsel”—here it simply clunks, queerly inept. Logan tries (repeatedly) to kill two birds with one stone: riddles the “piece” with innuendo, slights to the left, slights to the right. So, “late Ashbery” gets a smack-down—the “insouciant nonsense” he made into a “charming anti-literary manner” is compared to something “O’Hara soon grew bored with.” So the minor school of stand-up comics (the perfectly harmless Billy Collins-infect’d glad-handers and wits; in another “age” they’d be the genial bonhommes of stereo showrooms) get they minor comeuppance: “O’Hara never condescend to the reader, unlike some slapstick poets now.” Allen Ginsberg, in a gratuitous aside, proves “slightly lugubrious about sex.” The poor bloggers, too, associated with O’Hara’s purport’d “preoccupation with the trivial, with the nothing of life that is nothing” (?), get blast’d for good measure: since O’Hara “began to make poetry from whatever happened around him”—“today, he might have written a blog.”

Considering Logan’s history of critical writing, any “use” of him by an editor can only be calculated (the man’s probably never written a wholly favorable review—“we’re looking for a hatchet job”) or cynical (“summer’s slow—how about a controversial hit man to boost the readership a little”) or both. One of Logan’s problems is that he apparently’s got no ear whatsoever for tongue-in-cheekiness, or cheekiness tout court. He reads the back cover copy of Lunch Poems (almost assuredly written by O’Hara himself) wherein the poet’s seen “strolling through the noisy splintered glare of a Manhattan noon” only to pause “at a sample Olivetti to type up 30 or 40 lines of ruminations” and straight-facedly declares it “most unlikely.” Worse, he repeats O’Hara’s terrific bathos-on-high lines of how the Lunch Poems author ’d “withdrawn to a darkened ware-or firehouse to limn his computed misunderstandings of the eternal questions of life” as if it record’d a method (“as close to an ‘Ars Poetica’ as the poet ever made.”) Illiteracy and dunderheadedness raised up to a method.

What Logan fails to perceive about O’Hara shows up early when, stage-setting, he reports on the “heady atmosphere of postwar Manhattan” where “young poets holstile to the philistines surrounding them . . . envied the technical bravado and rebellious invention of the Abstract Expressionists.” Envy replaces admiration in Logan’s universe: all is struggle and strife, with others and with words. He makes much of the importance of labor (both its necessity and the necessity it be, finally, unseen, hid—a peculiar combo), sign of a poem’s authenticity, quoting Yeats’s “A line will take us hours maybe / Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.” It’s a Puritanical axiom, one even the laziest of the “post-avant” like to edict and decree.

I suppose the crux of Logan’s problem is in the remark that O’Hara and buddies “seemed to jettison everything—meter, the calculated symbol, the grave poetic tone—associated with the manners of the art.” Astounding that “gravity” ’d make an appearance, or “manners.” Logan is presumably concern’d with “the art” only as it conceivably exist’d in some drawing room in late Victorian or Edwardian London for a period measurable with something considerably less than Eliot’s “coffee spoons.” Sour-mind’d prestidigitations of a pre-modernist. The Times ought to be ashamed.

Frank O’Hara, 1958
(Photograph by Harry Redl)

Friday, June 27, 2008

Alessandro Porco and Caroline Knox

Flatbed Debris

Alessandro Porco writes (in “Hieronymous Tugnutt in Love,” out of the brilliant Augustine in Carthage and Other Poems (ECW, 2008):

In Boschland
did Tugnutt knock nock,
and in hogeye bacchi
winkel and wame
the quimwig quimbush;
fuzzymuzzy yawns
of the city, world-wary—
too, too much so
to ginch, zither or futz
with any impression of dee-
light: jutsum just some,
I would weary, bid
thingamy, and good-blite!

[. . .]


whelk zouzoune,
the Musée des Poontenanny
schmoya of Goya fl-
unked by
gammon of Lautreamont and
Matisse mapatasi,
twat blivvets—the like
of which dollup off cooch rides
whipped by gimcracks
Yum-yum, Pum-pum,
Spadger, and Stinkpot streets.
And in Caroline Knox’s equally stunning Quaker Guns (Wave, 2008), two pieces in a contrapuntal face-off bilingue:

Dreyken fabe, wer ingete dreyken
(dor droy rittavittastee orn canar).
Preb. Refen ingete inget. Preb.

Santona nofa Xeroc;
Ter quittz mivin movip.
Morm faria greel Florida
faria greel pandeck.


We took our bathrobes ad stuck them in the washer.
(Ritta put hers in the blue laundry machine.)
I said, “Refen ingete inget.”

Nocturnes are hard to Xerox;
birds follow the glare of water.
We prepare tax returns for people in Florida,
People in Florida whom we have never met.

              (Translated by the author and Carline Knox)
Howsoever much the approaches here differ (considerably, I wager), there is, au fond, a sense of language in excess, skittering (gleefully) out of control, uncontainable, dictating its own terms. Which is, of course, exactly how all worthy writing works, conduit’d, drawn down out of the thundery black night by the poor human lightning rod. Against any temptation to go off into completely giddy self-effacery and nonsense stands deeply-soak’d-in and censorious habit (in the case of most of us): we surmount the ineffable stream with prejudicial garb and barb (“That’s not a word!”). One forgets (dodges) the fact that every human utterance is a “sounding through”—L. personare, whence “persona,” “person.” (See Nabokov’s Hugh Person, as if Hugh—or you—had a choice.)

(Insert argument between glossolaliack’d model as render’d above and “closed set” model—see Elizabeth Sewell’s The Field of Nonsense, wherein (as quoted by Hugh Kenner) she argues against the blurry spew and for a more discretely analytical approach (talking about Lewis Carroll): “The process is directed always towards analyzing and separating the material into a collection of discrete counters, with which the detached intellect can make, observe and enjoy a series of abstract, detailed, artificial patterns of words and images. . .” Which sounds like what Ron Silliman label’d James Joyce’s “fatal mistake” in Finnegans Wake: “that Joyce uses a 19th Century conception of language as philology as the ground for the work that is built on it.” An odd complaint for a plodding foe of things expressivist, untaint’d by system. To point to a specificity: is something like Porco’s invention, the Musée des Poontenanny arrived “at” by the pre-sorting out—and subsequently “consider’d” combinatory move—of, say, poontang and hootenanny, or is it a reckless “in flight” discovery by one willing a fine gibberish over “any irritable reaching”? The philological underpinnings comprehendible in the immediate aftermath: blink of the eye following the trigger pull.)

Porco’s work in Augustine in Carthage and Other Poems isn’t all so neologistically “ripe” as “Tugnutt” is—though the beasts Lewis Carroll (“winkel and wame” bastard son of “gimble in the wabe”), John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester, and Joyce himself do hold heavy sway. He’s able to make—amongst other truculently moribund formal standbys—even the limerick seem new, “doable.”

Caroline Knox’s “Dreyken”-sprecht mayhaps arrives less “sluicingly” (that is, it feels less like my moments of vocalic sprezzatura shying into ur-language, or post-speech, or pre-speech, whatever. Perhaps I see it that way only because it looks Dutch-Finnish-Indic-pharmaceuticals rather than my own bebop-Francophoneries. I like how the translation forces one to commence pondering the grammar of the invent’d language. A condensary grammar. “Morm” apparently equals “we prepare tax returns”; “pandeck” referring to “things we have never met”? The repeat’d “Preb” indicative of one’s own speech, a kind of modify’d punctuation mark (quoting, the way, talking, some say “quote” thingamy “unquote” aloud, or hang two claw-digits in the air (I can only think of Nixon). I suspect that Caroline Knox’ll eventually become a marker of the “era”—she is consistently restless, inventive, unalign’d. In the early ’eighties I print’d several of Knox’s poems in a couple different issues of Chiaroscuro. One (titled “Where”) ended:
Rustic solutions abound, but so do cavalier judgments
The Homestead Act should not be confused with the Volstead Act
Using the language (exclusively) of an arcane discipline to describe life as tolerable
bores everyone, at all times, and eventually reveals a latent maudlin

Sensible people close with astringent concern
deeply immured in which is a kind of daring
exemplified by women who put raspberries in their hats
(as it were migrants, which they are) not bothering what people will think

Confederate Fort in Centreville, Virginia with Quaker Guns, 1862
(Photograph by George N. Barnard)

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Le bavard accroupi

A Red Belt

I am, rather dutifully (that is, without the effortlessness Exuberance or its occasional mistress Variety ensconces one in) reading the first volume (subtitled I: The Young Genius, 1885-1920) of the new Pound biography, A. David Moody’s Ezra Pound: Poet (with the additional clarifying clattery tack’d on of A Portrait of the Man and his Work) (Oxford University Press, 2008). Title page info-glut miasma of the sinking heart. Some parts of the book, I admit, gnaw that same bone of doggedness. (“Duty” falls down out of disgruntlement, is waylaid futility, one thinks. I read the Noel Stock biography when still the merest slip of a boy in my Dingo boots. I grutch’d through the Humphrey Carpenter piece of butchery—Carpenter plainly disliked Pound; one wonders why he bother’d.) Moody notes (regarding A Lume Spento) that the “covert but ambitious plotting is of greater interest now than most of the poems in themselves,” adding that “Only a third of them would be preserved in the definitive collected poems of 1926.” The claim being that “the revolutionary intent and the bold ambition implicitly declared in certain poems” is “most of all” found (though “unnoticed ever since”) “in the arrangement of the collection as a whole.” Bold enough. However: next comes a brace of pages of (mostly) one- and two-sentence “synopses” of the individual pieces:
In the next poem, ‘In Epitaphium Eius’, it seems we have the poet himself speaking Cino’s epitaph. This takes a flatteringly philosophical view of his libertine passion, presenting him as one who ‘loved the essence tho each casement bore / A different semblance than the one before.’ Then ‘Na Audiart’ has another troubadour, Bertran of Born, putting together his unique lady by taking a trait from each of several ladies of Langue d’Oc—a variation upon Cino’s supposed loving the One in the many.
(Isn’t that the rough plot of a Lawrence Durrell novel, maybe one of that oddball pair, Tunc and Nunquam? Constructing a woman? Or what’s that A. R. Ammons poem about Louise (I think she’s at a McDonald’s)—Ammons, in a mere twenty-or-so lines burlesquing a blason—(“a blason praises a woman’s beauty part by part in anatomical order from head to foot, concluding with praise of her inner beauty, of the perfection of her soul or heart or mind.” Invention, apparently, of Geoffrey de Vinsauf, 13th century.) (Love that “soul or heart or mind.” Constructing a woman, basic model.) (Long fossick and whinge) oh, here it is:

I drove down to Aurora
at 4:15 and picked up
Louise from work
and Louise’s hair, what a deposit,
and her eyelashes and teeth,
her shoulders hung
with all that seemed to be
getting away with her sweater,
and I suggested McDonald’s
for dinner but thought we
should stop off somewhere
first and get it over with:
Louise and I love relaxed
dinners and that’s the
kind we had: Louise’s
shiny fingers pulled
french fries out and her
stomach and hips and thighs
appreciated the hamburger: by
then I was feeling real loose
and easy and thought as we
left of Louise’s ankles and
toes getting her out of the
place and of the way her
mind put it all together
without even thinking.
Parodic and sly. Is it only because of my recent rambunct with O’Hara that I see O’Hara all through “Louise” (the rev’d up nigh constant speed of the thing with perfectly put end stop / line break at “get it over with”; the tick of the horologe of “4:15”; the echo of “The Day Lady Died”’s “and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of” in Ammons’s “by / then I was feeling real loose / and easy and thought . . .”)

Drifty. Warn’t I talking about the Moody biography? Warn’t I going to bother the Poundian (drifty or determined, in Venice circa 1908) note that “All art begins in the physical discontent (or torture) of loneliness and partiality . . . It was to fill this lack that man fist spun shapes out of the void. And with the intensifying of this longing gradually came into him power, power over the essences of the dawn, over the filaments of light and the warp of melody.” (Against the intense “naïve purity” of that stance, one’s got to put Pound’s barrage of commands to poor Homer at home, father and bankroller of the boy’s jaunt.) Gearing up for A Lume Spento, he instructs:
Whang—Boom—Boom—cast delicacy to the winds . . . The American reprint has got to be worked by kicking up such a hell of a row with genuine and fake reviews that Scribner or somebody can be brought to see the sense of making a reprint. I shall write a few myself & get someone to sign ’em.
New meaning to “I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman—” So: at what point is Pound’s expressivist stance of “naïve purity” dismantled? Hugh Kenner’s got an essay titled “Art in a Closed Field” that argues for literature’s parallels to the mathematical concepts of General Number Theory. Simply: the usage of word “field” in literature descends out of number theory terminology; “A field . . . contains a set of elements, and a set of laws for dealing with those elements”; and the “concept of the field is a device for making discoveries.” One writes a poem using a limit’d vocabulary of four hundred words. Kenner points to precursors Flaubert and Mallarmé: “Flaubert . . . defined the element of the novel as not the event but the word; just as it was Mallarmé who said that poems were made of words, not ideas.” Though: is a blason a field? Is a sonnet? Is it possible to use the form of the blason (or sonnet) for “making discoveries”? Is one more apt to do so within the strictures of a “new” form? One writes a poem using a limit’d vocabulary of one-syllable words. One indulges in bavardage, chatter. Sous la bave, le blague . . .

Ezra Pound, 1885-1972

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Andrew Epstein on Finding “Finding LeRoi a Lawyer”

“Some Revisions”

In the wake of Tony Towle’s letter of 9 June 2008 mentioning my (earlier) express’d doubts regarding the proposed authorship (by Frank O’Hara) of a poem titled “Finding Leroi a Lawyer” print’d in Andrew Epstein’s Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry (Oxford University Press, 2006), Epstein himself wrote a defense and excursus (dated 16 June 2008, under the subject, “Finding ‘Finding LeRoi a Lawyer’”:
Dear John,

I just noticed a recent post on your blog (which I read fairly regularly and always with much enjoyment) in which you quote from some correspondence you had with Tony Towle about O’Hara’s work and Kenneth Koch. Towle refers back to an earlier post of yours regarding my book and particularly to my discussion of the poem “Finding Leroi a Lawyer.” Since both you, and now Towle, seem to strongly doubt that this poem is actually by O’Hara, I wanted to offer my take on this, something I’ve been meaning to do for months, ever since I read your original post on the subject. I know that part of the impetus behind your recent doubting stems from Kent Johnson’s, well, bizarre (and Kent-ish-ly playful) view of the provenance of “A True Account . . .” (which I won’t take up here), but beyond that, I just wanted to address the fact that both you and Towle felt very skeptical that this poem was by O’Hara.

Back in ’07, you wrote: “At the risk of sounding like ‘some aficionado of [O’Hara’s] mess’ by saying it, I question whether Epstein is correct in assigning ‘Finding Leroi a Lawyer’ to O’Hara. I say, ‘“That’s not like Frank!”’ with the merest whiff of evidence, and no way of ascertaining it. (I do note that Kevin Killian calls it the ‘singlemost dumbest poem O’Hara ever put to paper,’ my reaction, too, and there’re some clunkers here and there in the ‘opus’ for comparison.) . . . My bet: a Kenneth Koch spoof” and “. . . I am curious: a handwritten copy? Typed? Whose typewriter?”

As you know, I found this poem in the Kenneth Koch archives at the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection. The Berg Collection does not let you photocopy documents, but when I first discovered it (back in about 1997), I transcribed it by carefully typing the poem onto a laptop. The poem was in a folder labeled “Frank O’Hara” (Series IX, Box 182), among many other folders of O’Hara material. The poem was typed, not handwritten. In answer to one of the questions you asked, I have no idea “whose typewriter” it was typed on (I’m no expert at deciphering “kernings” or whatever they’re called, to be honest). But, as I recall, it looked no different than any other typed poem or letter by O’Hara, of which I saw countless pages. My notes, which I just checked, also say that there was “one pencil correction.” I don’t recall what that was, but at the time I was pretty immersed in O’Hara stuff and would’ve probably recognized if it were someone else’s handwriting. (I of course wish I had a photocopy of the letter, but I don’t—only my notes and transcribed version—but I might add that years later, in 2002, when I was in the process of revising my dissertation into a book, I made another trip back to the NYPL to once again see this letter and to double-check that I’d transcribed it correctly).

As for the spelling of “Leroi”—it’s definitely possible that I transcribed it wrong and that the actual typescript says “LeRoi.” (I even mention elsewhere what Koch called O’Hara’s “exactitude for ephemera” and small details, so I agree with you and Towle that such a misspelling is uncharacteristic for FO’H). For whatever it’s worth, in researching Baraka for my book, I found it was not uncommon for contemporaries to refer to him as Leroi. In his letters, O’Hara usually refers to him as “Roi,” of course, but where he does use his full name, I see from my notes it’s always “LeRoi.” So as I said, it’s very possible I transcribed this wrong myself and then stuck with my own error in printing the poem in my book, thinking that I was reproducing the poem exactly as I found it. Although I hope I didn’t make this mistake, it is more likely than the idea that this misspelling is a sign that the piece was written by an imposter or someone other than O’Hara.

Just FYI (since I had fun looking back at my notes and thought this might be of interest and also useful to this discussion): other boxes and folders in Koch’s archives contained extensive correspondence with O’Hara, things like Koch’s own notes on O’Hara’s poems, and other miscellaneous O’Hara-iana (including a receipt for $20 made out to Koch to pay for a private nurse for the 11pm-7am shift, for O’Hara’s stay at Bayview Hospital on 7/25/66—eerie) and a copy of the poem “Radio” which has the last line “more than the simple ear can hold” with the word “simple” x’d out (thank god O’Hara didn’t believe in first thought, best thought).

According to my notes, some of the other stuff in that particular box (labeled “O’Hara II”) was:

—a handwritten (and very amusing) rejection letter from Theodore Weiss, poet and editor of Quarterly Review, to O’Hara, explaining why he couldn’t possibly find any poem of O’Hara’s that he liked enough to publish in Quarterly Review (the batch apparently included the wonderful poem “Music,” about which Weiss says: it “appeals to us for its courage in dealing with the domestic properties it does and the end is somehow finely sinister / sinisterly fine. But as a whole it seems rather formless (its music uneasy?) to us.” Hah!

—a manuscript of the poem “Invincibility” (my notes say that there was an epigraph from Auden crossed out in pencil and other corrections, slight, in O’Hara’s hand and dated ’53)

—many copies and original manuscripts of other poems (such as a xerox of “Autobiographia Litteraria” with a handwritten note by Koch on it)

—a program for an O’Hara-Norman Bluhm poem-painting exhibition in 1967 at NYU

—a program for “Hartigan and Rivers with O’Hara” exhibit at Tibor de Nagy in 1959

My point is that the folder containing this document is filled with things of this nature—all poems or documents related to O’Hara that somehow ended up in Koch’s possession. I believe Koch presented his archives to the NYPL with some kind of organization (he had gotten together all of his papers for them in the early 90s when I was working with him: I think Jordan Davis may have helped him get all the materials in order, but I can’t remember if that’s true. I just remembered that I was given a task of going through the books in his apartment living room and office at Columbia to make a giant list of all the ones that were inscribed to him). And as I recall, the library had been organizing, and was in the process of further trying to organize, the mass of materials, the last time I was there (in ’02). So as I said, this particular box and folder was filled with drafts of poems by O’Hara and other pieces of O’Hara memorabilia. There just are no signs that Koch wrote this poem or that anyone else did, and as I said, I would’ve probably known if it were Koch’s rather than O’Hara’s handwriting in the small handwritten correction on the typescript.

So, I guess my larger point is that I don’t see any reason to doubt that this poem is a poem by O’Hara that ended up in Koch’s possession but was never published. As you know, O’Hara constantly sent poems along with letters to friends (I don’t know for a fact that some of them never made it into Poems Retrieved, but I seem to recall from my days in the archives that there were at least a few poems that seemed to have fallen through the cracks (although I don’t recall which now). So when you look around in Koch’s archives and in Ashbery’s archives at Harvard there are many, many manuscripts of poems by O’Hara, many of which seem to be originals (i.e., actual documents typed by O’Hara). I see no reason to think that this piece is any different.

Then there’s the poem itself: as I argue in the book, I do think it’s a kind of intentional self-parody and not a particularly good poem. (I see in my original notes, I jotted down “it’s like a bad ‘Day Lady Died’”). I don’t agree with Kevin Killian that it’s the dumbest O’Hara poem in the universe, but it’s clearly not on par with his best—perhaps one reason why it never saw the light of day. But to my eyes and ear and my sense of that historical moment in O’Hara’s life, everything about it (the tone, the details, the references, as well as the material evidence) makes it seem like something O’Hara would’ve written. I just can’t imagine any reason to think the poem was written by Koch, trying to write in O’Hara’s voice. If, and when, Koch did try to imitate O’Hara, I agree with Towle: it would’ve come out looking very little like this poem.

In other words, it may not be good O’Hara, but I can say (completely unscientifically) that it almost certainly feels to me like an O’Hara poem, with all the references plucked straight out a day in the life of Frank O’Hara in October 1961, at the moment LeRoi had been arrested for obscenity charges because of Floating Bear. It does not read like anything that would ever have popped out of the imagination of Kenneth Koch—either at that time (when the idea of him writing a poem, even a parody of O’Hara, about the troubles of LeRoi Jones is pretty inconceivable!) or years later, when the sheer specificity and ephemerality of the poem’s references would’ve been very unlikely for Koch to have recreated.

Baraka’s arrest on obscenity charges was a very big deal for the NY poetry and art circles in October of 1961. As you know, O’Hara was very close with Baraka at this moment, and he was genuinely very upset about his arrest; it would seem that this poem was written in the days after this incident and expresses O’Hara’s wish to help a pal in trouble. It’s relevant that O’Hara wrote an open letter in defense of Baraka and Floating Bear on 10/21/61 (calling Baraka’s System of Dante’s Hell “certainly the finest piece of American prose since Kerouac’s first publications”). So again it seems more than likely that O’Hara would’ve written this poem in October 1961, and not at all (to me) like something Koch or anyone else would’ve written.

Since there was no evidence that it wasn’t by O’Hara and plenty that it was, I came to the conclusion that it was a poem by O’Hara that no one had ever commented on before. I admit it may be a stretch to say this with 100% certainty, but I still feel very comfortable with my assertion.

In the letter from Tony Towle that you posted, he mentions that he previously corresponded with you about this and expressed his feeling that “it’s clear to me (for the reasons I gave you after you printed it) that this could not have been a poem of Frank’s.” I’m quite curious why Towle is so convinced that it’s not by O’Hara—do you recall what his feelings about this were? And would you mind sharing this, or conveying my thoughts about this, with him?

I just wouldn’t want the impression to linger for you or for Towle (whose work I respect immensely) that I falsely, or without good reason, attributed this poem to O’Hara without some sense of the fuller context and my reasons for thinking it really is a long-lost and quite interesting O’Hara poem.

[. . .]

Take care,
I reply’d by sending Epstein a copy of Towle’s note to me, written 23 August 2007, shortly after the original Isola di Rifiuti “yatter” regarding the issue. Towle’s note reads:
Dear John,

You are definitely onto something, that “Finding Leroi a Lawyer” could have been Kenneth doing a takeoff on “The Day Lady Died.” I think it is more than possible. It is most unlikely to have been written by Frank. Aside from the misspelled LeRoi (which by itself is just about proof enough) there is the length: too long for Frank in his “headlong” style, but Kenneth liked to play a theme out as far as he could. Also, the inclusion of the last names of two of the people mentioned is a tip-off of inauthenticity: Leroi [sic] Jones himself, and Patsy Goldberg. Frank refers to her simply as “Patsy” in “The Day Lady Died”—written in July 1959—and to her husband as “Mike.” One could argue that this poem predated “Lady,” and is a sort of warm-up or precursor; but the reference to The Floating Bear, the magazine edited by Jones and Diane di Prima between 1961 and 1963, pins down the chronology (and it could be narrowed down further by researching when the magazine had the trouble with the postal authorities). It is not credible that Frank would have written a loose and inferior version of “The Day Lady Died” at least two years later. And even as a self-parody, he would not have used Patsy’s full name, or misspelled Roi’s—how he usually referred to him—as he was at least as close to both of these people in the early ’60s as he had been in the late ’50s.


Tony Towle
Here’s (the substance of) Epstein’s reply (dated 24 June 2008):
Seeing Tony’s initial note to you further provoked me to want to defend my attribution of this poem to O’Hara. The objections he raises are:

—the misspelling of LeRoi. I addressed this in my previous note, and suggested that this was probably an error of transcription on my part. Towle also mentions that O’Hara usually referred to Baraka as Roi. This is often, but not always, true in his letters, but in his poems he refers to him as “LeRoi”—for example, in “Personal Poem” and “F. (Missive & Walk) I.” Also, see “Personism,” where O’Hara refers to him as both “LeRoi” and “Roi.”

—the length: he claims that “Finding LeRoi a Lawyer” is probably not by O’Hara because it is “too long for Frank in his ‘headlong’ style.” I disagree. This poem is 384 words. The poem “Rhapsody,” as good an example of O’Hara’s “headlong” style as any, is 413 words. Other “headlong” poems are even longer: “Joe’s Jacket” is much longer than “Finding LeRoi a Lawyer,” and “Poem (Khrushchev . . .”) and “Adieu to Norman . . .” are just about as long. I can’t fathom how the length of the poem would suggest that this is not a poem by O’Hara.

—Towle says that the use of last names is “is a tip-off of inauthenticity” because “Frank refers to her simply as ‘Patsy’ in ‘The Day Lady Died’—written in July 1959—and to her husband as ‘Mike.’” Although I recognize that O’Hara very often refers to his friends by their first name only, this is by no means true of all his poems. As the examples below show, this generalization simply has no basis in fact, so to use it as a reason to disqualify this as an O’Hara poem seems wrong.

First, to just take the examples of Patsy and Mike:

—in “Why I am Not a Painter,” Mike Goldberg is, famously, referred to as “Mike Goldberg / is starting a painting”

—in “To Richard Miller,” O’Hara writes “Where is Mike Goldberg? I don’t know, / he may be in the Village far below”

—in “Getting up Ahead of Someone (Sun),” an “I-do-this-I-do-that” poem if there ever was one, O’Hara uses Patsy’s full name: “I read / van Vechten’s Spider Boy then a short / story by Patsy Southgate”

—in “June 2, 1958,” O’Hara uses Patsy’s full name: “Meanwhile, back at Patsy Southgate’s, two grown men / are falling off a swing into a vat of Bloody Mary’s” (great line, eh?)

Given these examples from other O’Hara poems from the same general time period, I just can’t accept the objection that O’Hara’s using Patsy’s full name in “Finding LeRoi a Lawyer” is “a tip-off of inauthenticity.”

Also, there are many, many examples of O’Hara using full names in his poems to refer to people to whom he was quite close—including some of his closest friends: John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Grace Hartigan, Bill Berkson, and some with whom he was very friendly (Allen Ginsberg, Edwin Denby, John Button, etc.)

Even without mentioning the many poem titles that use full names (like “To John Ashbery,” “John Button Birthday,” “Poem Read at Joan Mitchell’s”), here are some examples of lines from poems:

—although Ashbery is usually “Ashes” or “JA” or “John” he is also referred to by his last name, too: “I sit with Ashbery / in the Flore because of his poem about himself in a flower-bed” (“The ‘Unfinished’”)

—“what with my terrible hangover and the weekend coming up / at excitement-prone Kenneth Koch’s” (“Adieu to Norman . . .”)

—“I met Kenneth Koch’s mother / fresh from the Istanbul Hilton” (“Mary Desti’s Ass”)

—“see the back / of the head of Bill Berkson, aux Deux Magots” (“A Little Travel Diary”)

—sometimes Allen Ginsberg is just “Allen” (as in “Adieu” where he writes “Allen is back talking about God a lot”) but in other poems he is “Allen Ginsberg” (as in a poem written at almost the exact same time as “Adieu,” “Post the Lake Poets Ballad,” where he writes “Allen Ginsberg at the / Soviet Exposition”)

—“A Step Away from Them” obviously refers to “Edwin Denby,” as well as “Jackson Pollock” and “John Latouche” by their full names

—“Hans tells us / about his father’s life in Sweden, it sounds like Grace Hartigan’s / painting Sweden” (“Poem (Khrushchev . . .)”)

—“Paul / Taylor tells Bob Rauschenberg it’s on fire / and Bob Rauschenberg says what’s on fire . . . we go to Edwin Denby’s and quietly talk all night” (“Dances Before the Wall”)

—“there is nobody home at John Button’s1” (“Bill’s Burnoose”)

Finally, I have to add that there is absolutely no way this poem was written BEFORE “The Day Lady Died” since the incident it refers to regarding the trouble with Floating Bear and obscenity charges occurred in October 1961, over 2 years after he wrote the elegy for Billie Holiday.

Not to beat a dead horse, but I don’t see how any of these objections suggest that my attribution of this poem to O’Hara is mistaken, and I still feel there is every reason to think it was written by Frank O’Hara in October 1961.

Where’s Donald Allen when you need him?

[. . .]

Take care,
Elided out: my own interlocutory prompts and feints and faults and reiterations. (To Epstein: “You (and Tony Towle) are both far more versed in the intricacies of O’Hara than I am, I suspect. . . . I think it’s a gut feeling of clatter and sluggishness that I responded to, O’Hara is fleeter, cuts to the quick.” To Towle: “Good to know there’s a little agreement out there. . . . The book’s not too bad, with an interesting bit about how Choses passagères was likely put together with a Cassell’s dictionary . . .”) If I reread “Finding Leroi a Lawyer” now, I find I remain wholly unconvinced that it’s O’Hara’s writing. There’s something of the full-tilt gag man at work (see “tastes like the vodka I put in Stevie River’s Koolade the night Fabian collapsed in Hoboken / and which I wrote a poem about which Ned Rorem set”) uncut by O’Hara’s fierceness, sting. O’Hara’s comedy is that of the sad clown with a little bite, broodery, and sorrow, not the amphetamine’d up gagger galore. All signs point to O’Hara’s clear sense of ’s own excellence, something not necessarily disassociable from a self-deprecatory “stance”; however, the excess and over-reaching (pure lengthy self-parody, a thing O’Hara avoid’d) in that long-tumbling mock extend’d Homeric metaphor strikes a false note. Comments, readings, points of contention (or repère) welcome. All in the spirit of unraveling the poem, it’s authorship.

Finding Leroi a Lawyer

So you’ve finished the Locus Solus poster, Jane,
and I must write to Richard Miller, thanking him
for his having done it for nothing—we could use more of that! but meanwhile
I stop in a flowershop on 8th Avenue and buy Patsy Goldberg a print by Hokusai
(they knew the meaning of snow in those days!) and also I look,
a little, into the opened cups of the flowers, don’t get fresh! and I realize that Norman is probably out of booze
by now, so I stop in Parente’s Wines Whiskey Spirits
and buy him a little schmootz, it will go well with the tomato paste
he likes so much to use in his smaller paintings. And I go to the newsstand
to get Joe his copy of Pash, Bill his Opera Guide, and Joel Oppenheimer a pack of Gauloises,
even though I have by now a lot more than I can possibly carry
since I have been shopping for people for hours, and I am beginning to feel very Machado-esque
like having little chapters instead of trotting about all day in one big museum
and I run to the nearest phonebooth
which is hot and sweaty, I think because you are not in it, Vladimir
Ussachevsky, and I pull off the mouthpiece but not the receiver, which I will give to Leroi Jones
because he is in trouble
over something the postoffice says is obscene in The Floating Bear and I know that he needs one,
although he does not need the receiver, but when I try to call him
there’s nothing but the horrible silence, which is Dietrichesque,
and when even screwing the mouthpiece back doesn’t do any good
I decide that nothing will, and I take a drink of the schmootz
which tastes like the vodka I put in Stevie River’s Koolade the night Fabian collapsed in Hoboken
and which I wrote a poem about which Ned Rorem set, but I am very sorry anyway
at how things have turned out, and I discover, besides, when I am outside the phone booth
that I have lost my shopping list. Well, if nothing happens to me in the next two minutes
I can stop here and make another.

Andrew Epstein

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A Merger Afoot?

Two Ducks

Funny to see Ron Silliman trying to keep the rivers running smoothly between terribly (futilely) preconceived banks. Levity all along the levee to see a bald-head’d monkey hoisting sandbags (full of New Sentences) in massy incontinent effort to prevent a (prematurely “bagged”) legacy getting wash’d off and away by a paradigm shift. Silliman’s hubbub is that suddenly there be “two contending (contesting) approaches to the new, and that you can actually feel the discourse getting off the dime . . . clear as sunlight in spring.” Although the “contending” amounts to Kenneth Goldsmith smarming it on, and K. Silem Mohammad laughing it off, that’ll never harry the Decider. He says (in the bullet prose of a marketing newsletterist):
Flarf is Projective Verse
Conceptual Poetry is the New York School
The Flarfist groupuscule mimicks the ’fifties Projectilists, how quaintly asinine is all one registers there. Google = Jung. Muthos is a sample. One is engaged less in studying history (or hunger) and more in pawing at the greasy entrails thrown up out of the machine Moloch-Google. And the conceptualist bottom-feeders mocking the No Work School in whatever incarnation?—tell it to Elsie the Borden’s cow. Wit cow’d by constraint does rarely an Abstract-Expressionist wit make, nor a Pop one. Silliman’s like Joe McCarthy looking for Communists under rocks, looking for collectives. A history of groupuscules and other such “organs” redeems and justifies, of course, the hideously personalized “history” Silliman’s so adept at making (and, unbelievably, believing—if one’ll allow the kernel of impossibility such a construction holds in its hairy paw, single huckleberry to a bear.) The Actualists provided one summer’s fun and an anthology or two; the New Brutalists amount’d to a few fey Californians (it’s always the fey Californians) thinking they’d make a joke out of an Ashbery line, never perceiving that Ashbery’d already beat ’em to the punch (with ’s usual shy and nonchalant historical accuracy); the New Yipes appear’d on a few posters, fey and melodramatic; the Criminy collective bit the dust in the garage it inhabit’d; le collectif Zut—probably the finest formation “artistically”—left its considerable “output” (in the years before “throughput”) tack’d to the ink-splatter’d walls of its cellar print shop, North Plain Street, in Ithaca, New York. To say nothing of the Constantly Yattering Hegemonists, or the Repeat Offenders, or the Sheep in Wolf Clothing (tendency academickal)—all the collectives without signatories who “operate” (fill’d with operators they be) like precinct bosses, unchallenged. I like gaslighting the gullible just as well as the next jerk along the turnpike (that Aunt Jemima’s syrup cut with a little water in the bourbon bottle perplect’d more ’n one dancehall hombre in my day), but I’d never think to make a career of it, inserting myself (and my coevals, my “we”)—is it history’s cotter pin or history’s lynchpin—into a paltry series of half-built collective structures, most disavow’d by even the participants, isolatos by any half-exacting measure. As if la poésie court’d (count’d on) a team structure, formal sequences of collusion and contention (complete with daily calisthenics). Collective formation is mostly the refuge of the meek and mediocre, safety in numbers, the numbers demarcating the footnotes such bulky and artificial suasions’ll receive, assured in the annals of they tiny spot.

My word, as Archie Ammons liked to say, no particular ownership intend’d. What if language—what one binds oneself to, what one is pull’d by down a river whose banks, unseen, unregister’d, formidable, change mightily in the drift and haul—what if language is “homely and mysterious as grass.” Words I read in a book. Stuck in the craw of the brain (that beast, that glutton, that semblable). Language is a multiple, porous, murmurous, nebulous, fogged in by itself. See Michel Serres:
The multiple as such. Here’s a set undefined by elements or boundaries, Locally, it is not individuated; globally, it is not summed up. So it’s neither a flock, nor a school, nor a heap, nor a swarm, nor a herd, nor a pack. It is not an aggregate; it is not discrete. It’s a bit viscous perhaps. A lake under the mist, the sea, a white plain, background noise, the murmur of a crowd, time.
Language is time itself. With all the excess and pomp of its frittering, expungible and indelible à la fois. A flounce, a bulge, a turbulence, massy and particulate. Omnidirectional. (The model of Volišinov / Bakhtin in Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, the “stream of speech” one dips into, becomes inaccurate here.) So that: force (control) is inapplicable—transformation of a multiple calls for a multiple. A multiplicity of isolatos plunging into the ongoing dispersal—cloud wedding cloud. Serres:
        The real work toward transformation is not the work of the negative, for the work of the negative bolsters the old order, maintains it in its order, and makes time linear. Control confirms the role, a counterforce protects the force, and none is so conservative as the teenager who has grown old, outgrown his rebellion against the father. We suffer as much from governments born of revolution as from those that backed us into them. We suspect them of driving us to it to be able better to maintain themselves, under a second façade. What is called dialectics is a rather crude trick of the straight line’s, a logic of carefully placed invariants.
        The work of transformation is that of the multiple.
“Carefully placed invariants”: think of the phrase—undefined and repeatedly hammer’d home—“School of Quietude.” Shriners, Freemasons, B.F.O.E.’s, Langpo’s, Rotarians. Boys without clubhouses in they youth, “compensating.” (My word, as Archie Ammons liked to say, no particular ownership intend’d.)

“One Cloud May Hide Another”

Monday, June 23, 2008


Diaboli Philadelphiae

Haul’d back through scatter’d sheets of rain in Ohio, skid city, hypermiling it down the long grades of Pennsylvania, up out of Philadelphia to lumber across the Susquehanna, island-clad north of York where the turnpike scoots by. All of Pennsylvania’s a large green-pelt’d animal, dormant. Unpack in a jiffy and fall to odd reverie—“most of / the beauties of travel are due to / the strange sleeps we fall to in its aftermath.” We went to vouchsafe and ascertain the “look” of the red brick of Philadelphia, under the sway of a certain Mr. Pynchon. One souvenir: a shank of bamboo, cut and scrub’d clean in a Main Line backyard, now browning. And the inevitably confusing books pluck’d off shelves of book emporiums unaccustom’d to one’s particular dibble: how’d one explain the presence in the rucksack of Serena Vitale’s Pushkin’s Button, if not by a renegade lapse into catholicity, another beauty of travel. One’s judgment appeased by lines like:
When he wasn’t writing, Pushkin was always on edge: he couldn’t stay still for more than a few minutes, shuddered if an object fell, became irritated if the children made noise, and opened the mail with anxious agitation. At night he was stalked by insomnia and its menacing cohort of ghostly creditors: the wood seller Obermann, the wine merchant Raoult, the tailor Rutch, the coachman Savalev, the grocer Dmitriev, the bookseller Bellizard, the pharmacist Bruns, the cabinet-maker Gambs.
Though one suffers nothing of the sort, never prickled by inanities, never demanding a fatal duel, debtless, calm, a lush wood’d island Susquehanna-water’d in full sun. I did, belatedly, complete Oakley Hall’s stupendous Warlock—“The human animal is set apart from other beasts by his infinite capacity for creating fictions.” I did, too, obtain a couple of other Hall books, eye out for the neglect’d. One (of a series) with the Mexico-disparu’d journalist Ambrose Bierce in the role of detective. (Pause to consider the legions drain’d away—permanent or temporary—into the blue Mexican dusk, its long mauve feints and slants: B. Traven, Leon Trotsky, Malcolm Lowry, the inestimable Mr. Pynchon again, with Life magazine shutterbugs in hot pursuit. Bierce trying to join the insurgent Pancho Villa.) Bierce’s fine black core spit cleanly forth in The Devil’s Dictionary:
The finished product of which we are the raw material. The contents of the Taj Mahal, the Tombeau Napoleon and the Grantarium.
I did return to the tumult of the untend’d, fetch the doggo home, breeze a little with the neighbor who’s busy again hacking out Bishop’s weed, the blighter. Summer’s work is to ease away under the cover of frantic light and the confluence of gassy hysteria and quid pro quo ombudsmanship, and ease back in with a pout and a boater. That’s summer’s work. An anti-method. A voluntary voluptuousness without realm or target. (Jamming a little whilst I nose around the precincts, see if anything’s changed.)

Ambrose Bierce (1842-1913?)

Friday, June 13, 2008

Lisa Jarnot’s Night Scenes

Detroit, Late Afternoon

Night Scenes, by Lisa Jarnot (Flood Editions, 2008)

A lovely epigraph out of Robert Duncan:
O, to release the first music somewhere again,
        for a moment
to touch the design of the first melody!
It’s the tensile (tenuous) pause of “for a moment” that administers the ache there (as a nurse does a shot). And it’s a searingly potent longing: that one to return to the purity of impulse that made one first attempt to arrange words into something sayably new. One did it in a kind of idiot-rapture whilst big black and furry bees made loud in the agora (the glade) and blot’d out the sun. A buzzing in the brainbox, possibly the result of inadvertently chawing one’s own tongue in the thrill of invent and focus. I admire Jarnot’s donning so determinedly the morning cloak of innocence (and wonder); only rarely does it feel forced. Like here:

First train first day first donut first coffee first cab first avenue first one sock and then the other first fifty-first a dozen fifty-five first frog first stop first winter tree of leaves that fall first revolution of the sun first step toward science first fish up out of the sea, first eaten, first eater, first laughed at, first killed, first receiving radio signals, first to do this, first to do that, first beyond the first star in the moonlight with the fish gods in the moon, first at everything, first thing written in cement upon the sidewalk, first thing set in stone.

Where the disarmingly simple becomes a little suspect (and tedious) (and throwaway). (Anybody there is who writes like Gertrude Stein in a fit of simplicity is a trouble so that anybody is liable to think mayhaps simpleminded, simpleminded is not simplicity, simpleminded is simpleminded, simpleminded is rarely first.) (If I were ask’d for a pile of other sorts in the “seemingly forced” box: “Right Poem,” “What I Want to Do,” “Words,” “Birthday Poem” and “Bee Ode”—all to varying degrees.)

It’s a series of rhyming pieces that spall off the verbal hoard of (mostly) early Englishes (with, likely, some pure neologismic gaseous invents for sound, for play—“felbred feefs”?) in Night Scenes that please most. The mode’s a rich one—think of Pound’s floody archaisms; of the slippage in and out of pure materiality lines out of something like Gavin Douglas’s The Eneados offer (“The grond stud barrant, widderit, dosk or gray, / Herbis, flowris and geris wallowyt away. / Woddis, forrestis, with nakyt bewis blowt, / Stude stripyt of thar weid in every howt.”); think of, more recently, Martin Corless-Smith’s rhapsodic splurges to put worn lingo back into use, or Cormac McCarthy’s raiding of the grittier Shakespearean lexicon. I mug about in like clothes through (many of) the pieces in a manuscript I keep calling Some Alphabets (call it a “whole swirling promiscuous commixtion / Against th’enfeeble’d modern style,” call it “a wandrynge beastely lyfe / Goone in a dramms myster / unto playne madnes and follye.”) In a sense, I see in the bodacious skirling out of the archaic a reacting against the mendacious beggarliness of the endlessly dominant “plain style.” Too, I see the “commixtion” of other languages (patois, pidgin, invent’d, new—think of something like Cathy Park Hong’s Dance Dance Revolution or Rodrigo Toscano’s rangy dictions, from geek-speak to the vocables of the “blazing hipocratostacy”.) Literature longing for a con-temporaneity, an evidently flaw’d eliding of all periods (and all lingual markers), a layering that admits its layering, immiscible. Here’s Jarnot:

O sinning skel misclape thy lock
from frenzied felbred feefs
and longitudes of long tongued fuels
unpebble-dashed deceased.

Unpebble-dashed, unpebble-dashed,
Unpebble-dashed unrose,
up from the theme that random flaps
in news flash rancid hose.

A morning dress of morning field
redrenched upon the sun,
that reads the wobble of the
air, the weary cautious rung.

The red-black innards laid up bare
For all to see and spy,
tradition for the form of those
belingered, cheerful, nigh.
Is it only because yesterday—thinking to ram home a point about the bankruptcy of conceptualism, I search’d for images of Iraqi war dead and uncover’d gut-churning pictures of “red-black innards”—is that why I want to read the political (anti-war, the endlessly “cheerful” way the crooks-of-the-“era” make they murderous point) into “Sinning Skel Misclape”? Even with mention of those “long tongued fuels” and “news flash rancid” I cannot put it together. Night Scenes is hardly political in the way of Jarnot’s earlier Black Dog Songs with its fine vicious “Dumb Duke Death” chant against Dick Cheney. In lieu of anger and sass, one finds a kind of pastoral contentment (“o calm sheep in the field asleep / be quiet while my husband sleeps” or “I’d like to live unfurled / inside a yurt on clovered cliffs / with three cats, one man, and a squirrel”). Night Scenes is a mostly domestic book—of friends, dedicatees, animals, and quotidiana bemusedly spoke (“have a wheely-cart for my luggage”).

One final poem (largely because, in typing it up, I began to question my response to it):

Normal shit
like a normal person
yo normal person
under the sun
carcass haven of
cats and dogs
crossword puzzles
have coworkers
I can operate
a Xerox machine
have a
nervous spot
used to be eighteen,
was once born
a fan
in the
kitchen window
go out and
live in the woods,
build a small fire
have a hatchet
and a rabbit lair
away from
police men, garbage trucks,
and under the
temporary moon,
and under the
temporary moon.
I list’d “What I Want to Do” amongst the “seemingly forced” wondrous innocence pieces—and yet. I like the emergence at the end with the repeated “under the temporary moon” of an Edward Lear echo (“They danced by the light of the moon, / The moon, / The moon! / They danced by the light of the moon.”) Which is one final tonal jump in a poem full of tonal jumps—into an owl and pussy-cat runcible spoon world at severest distance from “police men, garbage trucks.” And yet: how place that tone against the jittery procession of tones that preceded it? Is “Normal shit / like a normal person” direct, un-ironic, (is it possible to say “normal person”?); surely the info that one has “a / nervous spot” and “used to be eighteen” is funny, making a mockery—of what?—the “normal”? However, to “go out and / live in the woods, / build a small fire” sounds nearly sincere (sincerity interrupt’d by “rabbit lair”). What to make of the “yo” punctuating it all? I probably trouble the whole thing (to excess) out of a sense that figuring out “what to do” is central to one’s writing. All arrangements temporary, all possibly “abnormal.”

Off again next week, Pittsburgh and points east: “To the land where the Bong-tree grows.”

Lisa Jarnot

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Concept of Kenneth Goldsmith

The Spectacle of a Drip

Michel Serres in Genesis (translated by Genevieve James and James Nielson): “Indetermination is of two kinds: it is either chaotic or blank.” Too full, info-satiated, noisy; or skint, featureless, void: all and both delivering up a null signal. With all the imperturbability (inscrutability) of white noise. Under the subheading “Money” Serres adds:
        Sometimes one reads pages that are full. So full, so saturated with meaning that they are noisy with it. No one understands the chaotic, no one understands pure singularity. Those pages cannot be exchanged.
        One sometimes reads pages that are empty, so light in meaning that they circulate with ease. One has seen and one sees ultimate pages, as if at zero meaning, the pages of money. Blank pages, null and void of meaning, indeterminate, they are pure capacity. Money is the general equivalent, it is worth everything and it is worth itself, money is the joker, it has all values, it has all meaning, having none, smooth as a subject, white as a whore, an abstraction, a politician.
        The text nearest money is the one that is blankest.
        Money is what one writes when one no longer has anything to write, money is what one sends to people when one no longer has anything to say to them.
        Money is indeterminate, it is everything, a kind of general equivalent, it is nothing, a kind of blank meaning.
        Information, as blank meaning, is in the process of taking its place, as general equivalent.
That circa 1982. A quarter of a century later, the lines fit perfectly “our” (us four percent in the rampant and rapacious imperium norteamericano who’re busy “appropriating” some forty percent of total world resources—our daily aching belly hunger is, no doubt, what moves us to call for “nutritionless” texts, ja?) current crop of untroubled aesthetes (aesthetes, by definition, remain ludicrously untroubled; they are egregiously self-satisfy’d, and all their vanity—they are exceedingly vain—is swamp’d by effluvial smarm). One notes how the pure insensitivity of “our” concept-freight’d latest “avant” riles my Dictaphone, makes my savage rejoinders jump off they tracks. Spittin’ cotton, is what I am. (Here is the paradox of writing, human writing: that it defies its agency, it mocks the human will. A blood slippery in its platelets, it will not clot. The constant struggle between human intent (ah, that conceptual jism) and writing’s own spunk, determined to befoul and thwart and tender its musicks howsoever it shall—that incompliancy and refusal of simple complicity—isn’t that what writing is?)

I’d say Kenneth Goldsmith is a kind of money, with precisely the moral dimension of money. It’s a gay day in paradise when one is so blithely ready to see the world turn’d to nothing beyond a pile of info-pixels, all, apparently, equal, each “white as a whore, an abstraction, a politician.” Stuck in a continuous use policy of whatever “noise” comes down the pike (distinction-making and agency verboten, Herr Commandant—“byte macht frei”)—all of it turning into a kind of slurry, a porridge keeping nobody and nothing afloat (except for Kenneth Goldsmith, bouncing along in the gooey muck of it, a cork, a corker, a narcissist, a playa). It’s all rather akin to the hula-hoop craze of 1958, or the cabbage patch kids, adorable crud to keep one’s mind off any honest-to-God problem in the world. Against the increasingly cynical stances (and methods) of such toy writers (and they ever-wuttering proprietary groupuscules and mascots), one’d put some lines out of Semezdin Mehmedinović’s Sarajevo Blues (translated by Ammiel Alcalay). Out of an interview:
The war brought a very specific state of being with it. For me, it was the first time in my life that I had a lot of time and it gave me the chance to work. I wrote. It was the first time in my life that I could just write, so I was very happy about that, and fulfilled because of it. The war also brought with it something I didn’t have before. Before the war I was filled with doubt, stops and starts, not sure about my writing—was there a purpose to it, what was the purpose of it? During the war I saw that it really did have a purpose because that primal instinct of the storyteller continuing even though the flames were all around came into play. I could see how people reacted to what came out. At first there was a passion for information, the desire to inform the world about what was going on here developing into a kind of reflex among people. But when everyone realized that dialogue with the outer world had ceased, there was an even greater need to interpret what was going on here to ourselves. An this is a way in which writers were truly enriched, by returning to this primary function. Things were read. So it turned out that the doubts I had in my work were not grounded on anything. The relationship between reader and writer was very complete.
(Of course, one could argue that American poetry is not unlike Sarajevo under siege (“dialogue with the outer world had ceased”) and so “we” mutter (snarl) here amongst ourselves, in a conceptual agony of inutility, pure supplement.) Here’s the “ego effacing” Goldsmith again: “Conceptual writing is more interested in a thinkership rather than a readership.” And Serres:
I think in general, I am a capacity to think something, and I am virtual. I think in general, I can think anything. I think therefore I am indeterminate. I think, therefore I am anyone. . . . I think, therefore I am Nobody. The I is nobody in particular, it is not a singularity, it has no contours, it is the blankness of all colors and all nuances, an open and translucent welcome of a multiplicity of thoughts, it is therefore the possible. I am, indeterminately, nobody. If I think. I am nothing and I am nobody. I think, therefore I am not. I think, therefore I do not exist. Who am I? A blank domino, a joker . . .
Two of Goldsmith’s claims—“Conceptual writing is good only when the idea is good” and “Conceptual writing obstinately makes no claims on originality” seem somewhat incompatible. If I repeat R. Mutt’s “good” “idea” of 1917 with a urinal, is that a “good” “idea”? Mehmehdinović notes that “every form of freedom is inevitably connected to risk” and proceeds to talk about a picture of four skydivers descending, join’d to make “the figure of a dancer in the air”:
They smile, overwhelmed by a feeling of freedom, conscious of the fact that they’re flying. But there is nothing angelic in this spectacle: the smiles are almost hysterical, maybe because of the packs on their backs that skydivers still have to reconcile themselves with. . . . And even though their faces are clearly different, their individual fate is wiped out by the signature beneath the photo: Produkt von Kodak What remains, then is an ad for the photo itself, for the incomparable quality of its color.
And Mehmehdinović notes how one now inhabits “an age in which advertising has definitively replaced criticism”:
        A constant discomfort derives from this—writing these sentences, or any other for that matter—I am writing an ad for the war.
        With that every utterance about freedom finishes.
Every sentence Kenneth Goldsmith (metonym alert, if one so desires, there is a bevy of other machinists and machine-mongerers out there that’d fit the “bill”) “writes” is, too, an “ad for the war.”

Michel Serres
(Photograph by A.-M. Guérineau)

Semezdin Mehmedinović
(Photograph by Gerard Rondeau)

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Tony Towle’s Letter

Some Dogs

Tony Towle wrote me a letter (dated 9 June 2008) regarding my Koch-poking flippancy of some weeks back:
Dear John,

Your offhand comment about Kenneth Koch on April 25th in Isola di Rifiuti has continued to bother me and I must say something about it. You wrote: “(. . . I suspect the piece [re: some lines of Frank O’Hara’s] is just another [. . .] later intercollocation to the Collected by the dapper and dement’d Kenneth Koch.)” Now, Kenneth was usually well dressed, in a professorial kind of way (he did teach at Columbia), but what causes you to characterize him as demented? Perhaps you are confusing extravagant imagery with the personal character of the poet—because I knew Kenneth for almost 40 years and he was one of the sanest and most cogent people I have ever met, brimming in equal measure with common sense as well as erudition.

You seem to be taking it as fact that Kenneth wrote poems and passed them off as Frank’s. This is a ludicrous and untenable assumption. The “Leroi [sic] Jones” poem found in Kenneth’s papers, and that you discussed on your blog, may or may not have been Kenneth trying out a poem in his friend’s style but, after all, it was in his papers, unsigned—he didn’t try to pass it off as Frank’s. And though it’s clear to me (for the reasons I gave you after you printed it) that this could not have been a poem of Frank’s, it is by no means certain that it is Kenneth’s, either, regardless of where it turned up. In fact, when Kenneth tried to imitate Frank, in a series of nine poems under the heading “Homage to Frank O’Hara,” published in Broadway 2 (Hanging Loose Press, 1989, James Schuyler and Charles North, editors), his style is most unconvincing. I would be happy to type these up for you (they are quite short) and you can judge for yourself Koch’s ability to take on at will O’Hara’s manner. This brings me to your link.

The another leads to a clever in parts but absurd document that you seem to endorse by default, the thesis of which is that Kenneth Koch wrote “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island” after Frank’s death (July 25, 1966), passed it off as Frank’s when he read it at the first posthumous memorial reading for O’Hara, held that September in the auditorium at New York University’s Loeb Student Center, where Kenneth and John Ashbery read Frank’s work. The argument is set forth in a presumed tape transcription by a Tosa Motokiyu, who may or may not exist, talking about it with two friends, who may or not exist, and transcribed by Kent Johnson, who definitely exists and who seems to have a penchant for inventing texts in English purportedly from Japanese writers (as per the endlessly discussed Yasusada affair).

Motokiyu supposedly quotes interviews from Joe LeSueur and Kenneth Koch from 1990, when Motokiyu was in New York, and he has LeSueur more or less agreeing with him that Frank couldn’t have written the poem. I was one of the many audience members at the NYU reading that was blown away by the beauty—there is no other word for it—of “A True Account.” No one had the slightest doubt at the time that Frank had written it—it was quintessentially him. Everyone was definitely amazed that he had never published it, but, in 1971, everyone was further amazed by how many poems he never published, and how many that no one had ever seen, not Joe, not Kenneth, not John, not Jimmy, not Bill, not Ted. This casualness about his work was one of Frank’s salient, perhaps defining, idiosyncrasies.

What defies logic and probability is that Kenneth would have known the exact date of a weekend that Frank had spent at a beach house that Hal Fondren rented at Fire Island Pines some seven years before, and used it as the basis for a fraudulent production he would have had to start on the heels of Frank’s funeral and finish up in five or six weeks. (Kenneth, with his academic credentials, was certainly responsible for the date of the reading at NYU; one would think he would have given himself more time to finish the poem!) Kenneth was not a friend of Hal’s, by the way, and if Kenneth was making up any part of the poem’s foundational mise-en-scène, Hal would have gladly revealed the deception.

Then there is the matter of sensibility. The matter-of-fact poignancy in “A True Account” is nothing that was a part of Kenneth’s literary repertory at that time—it is not until New Addresses (2000) that he can be so direct and touching. Then there is poetic ego, of which Kenneth had a normal portion. If he could have written something this powerful for such a close friend so recently deceased, he would have put his own name on it and made it an hommage. The notion that he would have spent his literary energy on perpetrating a con, and then taking that knowledge to the grave, is simply not credible.

But let’s turn to the transcript itself, to the statements that Joe LeSueur as taped by Motokiyu-san is supposed to have made. I won’t bother to list the many unlikely and absurd phrasings that never would have come out of Joe’s mouth; and then there are the casual slip-ups of fact—such as that the Cedar was in the Village, not the East Village, and that July 10, 1959 was a Friday not a Thursday (the poem was supposed to have been written on a weekend, after all)—however, when Motokiyu calls up LeSueur from a pay phone with the expectation of meeting him that same day, he makes no mention of the fact that he would have had to make a toll call to Suffolk County, as LeSueur had already been living in East Hampton for some years by 1990, a good three hours from New York by either train or automobile, so it would be most unlikely that LeSueur would have said, “Let’s meet at The Cedar at 5 PM sharp . . . but it’s the next phrase in that very sentence that totally uncovers the hoax . . . at the outside tables in the sun,” and so we did. The Cedar has never had outside tables, not in its previous location between 8th and 9th Streets on University Place, and not in the “new” location a couple of blocks north, from 1965 to a few weeks ago, when it closed its historic doors. The purported interview with Kenneth Koch is also patently bogus, for reasons I will tell you sometime if you are still unpersuaded.

Whether a Mr. Motokiyu fabricated the entire text in Japan, or (much more likely) a Mr. Johnson invented them in the Midwest, these interviews obviously have no more historical reality than the hypothesis has validity.

By baselessly muddying the waters of the authorship of “A True Account,” whoever perpetrated this irresponsible prank has done a disservice to two major poets—he has “de-accessioned” one of Frank O’Hara’s most extraordinary poems, and slandered the integrity and sanity of Kenneth Koch, who had a great deal of both.


I reply’d immediately:
Dear Tony,

“Offhand” is right, and “tongue in cheek” ought to’ve been evident, though mayhaps it wasn’t. I figured the cheekiness of Kent Johnson’s piece would buoy up that of my own. (Though, truthfully, I reread Johnson’s piece when I post’d my April 25th piece, and thought “it’s possible,” whereas earlier (my first reading) I’d thought, “there goes mischievous Kent again.” In fact, when Kent read my piece, he want’d to know if I thought he’d uncover’d something, and I reply’d that he ought to “ask Tony Towle, he’d know.”)

Shall I run your letter on Isola di Rifiuti? I’d be happy to, with a short response [. . .] probably pointing out that the modicum of whimsical sass or aspersion I toss Koch’s way (or O’Hara’s) would not tarnish even a square inch of anybody’s reputation. “Demented” I likely arrived at by alliterative speed (with “dapper”)—it’s not a particularly pejorative word in my vocabulary (I could’ve said “zany” more safely I imagine). The truth is, I’m not terribly serious about most things, including slander and repute—there are only two faults (and I learned them both from O’Hara, absolutely a hero of mine I shouldn’t need to add): one fault is over-seriousness, being too earnest particularly about one’s “work”; the other, the failure to be attentive to the world.

[. . .]

All the best,

What about a series starring a hard-boil’d New York City detective by the name of Tony Towle? Mild manner’d poet, connoisseur of the Village’s haunts and hideouts, a good man for a stake-out, ever-willing to plug a thug, even for something’s old-fashioned as honor, or a man’s memory. Sam Spade. Tony Towle. ’S got a certain ring to it.

What I did—minor sleuth myself—is, I went and collar’d that Broadway 2 number. Ran down its line-up—John Ashbery, Bill Berkson, Maxine Chernoff, the Gizzi brothers, that dangerous moll Barbara Guest—oh knock it off. What I found—the Kenneth Koch “Homage to Frank O’Hara”—made me jump like a loose budgie at the sign of a tom. Surely here’s proof of something, the whiff of Koch’s ambition so strong you could build a two-bay garage on top of it (I say knock it off—“Master thyself, then others shall thee beare”):

Sometimes it seems to me I am possessed by the
spirit of Frank O’Hara and should write his poems
as he would have written them now but
the only ones I know are ones he’s already written
and those are what these turn out to be. Oh
well! There should be more of Frank O’Hara
written at any time! Even if his are
better, why not have some of these? And I can
at least add subjects—the decease
of the Williamsburg Bridge might
have inspired him. Williams! What ever got into your steel
supports? How am I going
to get to Brooklyn to see
the nineteenth-century American
drawings at the Brooklyn Museum if you won’t
lift me? Remember you’re named for William
Carlos Williams and he didn’t just
write a few poems and collapse, did he? No! Get up!
And about that “dapper”—didn’t I attend a reading Kenneth Koch deliver’d in Paris circa 1980, rue du Dragon, the American Cultural Center, a place that seem’d slightly affront’d by my clothes that look’d slept in, and didn’t Koch read “Fate” beginning—“In a room on West Tenth Street in June / Of nineteen fifty-one, Frank O’Hara and I / And Larry Rivers (I actually do not remember / If Larry was there . . .” and containing the lines “John / Unhappy and brilliant and silly” and, too, “they / Tended except Frank to pooh-pooh / What I said about Europe”? And didn’t a squad—ravening posse or guard?—of statuesque (and wealthy-looking) women surround Koch (who look’d tan and vif and quipping—a man clearly en pleine forme), defeating my standard desire of the moment—precisely, to acquire news of Frank O’Hara in New York City in the ’fifties? And didn’t I flee, fleeting it down to Convention where I inhabit’d a ding’d up cold water room in a lone building surround’d by rubble, and where I regularly dosed (and doused) my own ambition in bottles of high-tannick’d red Arabic wine? I did. Oh I did.

Frank O’Hara, 1926-1966

Tony Towle, c. 1966

Kenneth Koch, 1925-2002
(Photograph by Larry Rivers)

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Something Bright, Then Holes

Two Frames, Red

The daily daily intercedes to gum up (or nearly gum out) the usual rhythm, Babatunde Olatunji-style. There’s the downpour of rain, the dog cowering to the thunderclaps circling the house, coming in circumferentially unhesitant, layering up a conga storm. There’s the sorry rumba of a physical, reflexes, check, tetanus booster, check, pertussis (“whooping cough without the whoop”) making a comeback in grownups, check. Plates falling off the human table, the usual squamous interceptors that work to rout the quotidian. Or make the quotidian a rout. What one dodges to (in order to) render out of a day something to spit in the brain-pan’s fires. Is it Maggie Nelson’s language or landscape (guck’d up urban wastes, unintend’d dumps and scavenge-lands, blooming with detritus) that thrills me so?
          . . . A bird shakes ashes

from its wings, a clump
of red dahlias

lies at the edge, as if
something died here

and it did. A pair of doves
picks at a rusty engine

as the sun illumines
a glut of polliwogs

moving like intelligent, brown
sperm. . . .
That out of the September part of a long and wonderful piece titled “The Canal Diaries,” in Nelson’s Something Bright, Then Holes (Soft Skull, 2007). Lyrical licks in a journal setting (like points of turquoise hammer’d into a silver band). Sudden upsuck of breath for lines like “the cement crusher’s / mean lavender dust”—is it the sudden peculiarity of the “mean” or the precision of the color “lavender”? “My lettuce-colored cup / runs empty.” Or the subject (“myself”) bluntly full of its own subjectivity, with no apology, a wuttering fat sleekit dove of subjectivity:
I charge myself with
impatience, chicanery
then call you for
the diagnosis

You say it’s just the spirit
looking out for its own
vastness, yes
But still I envy

all those who are hungry
and get fed, all those
who still use recreational drugs
Those happy & fat with child

Those who tell the truth
and delight in it, those who believe
in a compassionate
wilderness, those

whose bodies beget
an absolute forgetfulness.
Have you ever met
one of those people

who can pick out any tune
on any instrument, then
fill the night with sound?
Chicanery and vastness. Meaning, obviously “working” the Big Questions, and with a tamp’d down lingo (look at the “fit” of “beget,” “forgetfulness,” “met”—a drawstring pulling the lines taut) to assuage any splay, quell any leaning toward sprawl. There’s something fierce and fearless in Nelson’s work, the concerns hardly petty, the approach eschewing modishness, the world stuck center-stage where it ought be, unguy’d by rope or ruse.

Maggie Nelson

Monday, June 09, 2008

The Unexpress’d

Panel Truck

Writing in order to make a measurable mark in the smeary continuum of time. That Geoffrey Household book, Rogue Male, managed, in spite of my sneery asperse, to slicker me into its hole. Trajectory of a man—after muffing an assassinatory shot at some unnamed (nefarious) head of state—holed up in a corner of Dorset, become near purely instinctual, animal (oddly enough, he “returns” to the troubled marches of human initiative just at the point that a tenacious pursuer murders a feral cat named Asmodeus our hero’s come to share the hole with). I liked:
Space I have none. The inner chamber is a tumbled morass of wet earth which I am compelled to use as a latrine. I am confined to my original excavation, the size of three large dog-kennels, where I lie on or inside my sleeping-bag. I cannot extend it. . . .

Now luck, movement, wisdom, and folly have all stopped. Even time has stopped, for I have no space. That, I think, is the reason why I have again taken refuge in this confession. I retain a sense of time, of the continuity of a stream of facts.
Writing in a burrow. Blinder’d. If I think about the act of writing I see a series of burrows, continual replaceable narrowings in. One tangents out, tunneling, making for a habitat of one’s own, comes up against a wrist-thick root, impassable. Return to surface (the world). That necessity to occasionally buck up one’s optics and attend to what’s immediate, perishable, and perusable. That world-anchoring. (Addendum to the écriture caféesque noises of Friday.)

A fissiparous weekend. “Tending to break up into parts.” Launching myself against the flat front greenery in visibly moiré’d air, total humidity clampdown. Thunder constantly nigh, the dog spook’d and roaming, buckling up against me. My reading fright-wig’d out of control: too many books going for one man. Start’d (as if I need’d another) Alex Ross’s deservedly popular The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. One reads of Arnold Shoenberg’s logically accountable fuming, “If it is art, it is not for all, and if it is for all, it is not art.” Or the putting of what’s become (for the able-arm’d painter’s assistants milling about under Wittgenstein’s ladder, longing for a stab at handling the big brush) a mopey kind of mantra into a kind of context (one the hubbub of the present “day” probably ought to heed, indeed). Ross is talking about the “art of compression” of Anton Webern, Webern’s “clearing away all expressionistic cluster,” and distributing “material in clear linear patterns, rather than piling it up in vertical masses”:
Intellectuals of fin-de-siècle Vienna were much concerned with the limits of language, with the need for a kind of communicative silence. “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,” Wittgenstein wrote in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, marking a boundary between rational discourse and the world of the soul. Hermann Broch ended his novel The Death of Virgil with the phrase “the word beyond speech.” The impulse to go to the brink of nothingness is central to Webern’s aesthetic; if the listener is paying insufficient attention, the shorter movements of his works may pass unnoticed. The joke went around that Webern had introduced the marking pensato: Don’t play the note, only think it.”
(All talk of minimalism, a paring down to essentials, troubles the “soul” of one whose “natural” trajectory careens through the gaping caves where mouths of the dead collect to continue conversing—though I am a monstrously unforthcoming man myself, my brainbox is a deafening chamber . . . To skin the down’d beast down to one sinew and hock (words that surface out of the pandemonium to mimic, no doubt, sounds in hokku) always strikes me as lamentable, less a rendering that a surrendering, less nearly always being less, tout court.) Or so I argue with myself. (Nobody else around.) Too, in the Ross, there’s Igor Stravinsky (in the mid-’twenties) making familiar noises about “objectivism.” (Is the lingo “simply” a tired featurette of a particular “scientific” “era”?) Stravinsky says:
My Octuor is a musical object. This object has a form and that form is influenced by the musical matter with which it is composed . . . My Octuor is not an “emotive” work but a musical composition based on objective elements which are sufficient in themselves . . . My Octuor, as I said before, is an object that has its own form. Like all other objects it has weight and occupies a place in space . . .
Ah, sweet constructivism (or “chic formalism” as Ross’d have it; he quotes, too, Stravinsky’s later formulation—“I consider music by its very nature powerless to express anything: a feeling, an attitude, a psychological state, a natural phenomenon, etc.” and puts it deftly into a lineage—out of Jean Cocteau’s “Dance must express nothing,” out of Oscar Wilde’s “Art never expresses anything but itself.”) In a summary “our” world-beating “Red” constructivists’d do well to ponder, Ross writes: “The new objectivity was the old aestheticism.”

Found stuck in amongst the paperback fiction section in the local bookshop recently bust’d for instructing homeless gents in the art of stealing fencables: My Life by Lyn Hejinian (Green Integer, 2002). A book I’d swear on a stack of fencables (usually high-dollar fluid mechanics textbooks, ’s been my experience, over, say, a Grove Press paperback of Beckett’s How It Is) I used to own “in” the 1987 Sun and Moon edition. (Hence, kept refusing to replace.) If I reread parts of it now I find myself less snooker’d by the formal New Sentence moves (that is, by what’s in the little jumbles of lint piled up in the deep pockets between sentences), and more by the individual sentence-content itself (and its relation to “Lyn Hejinian.”) That is, the “merely” autobiographical subsumes me: “I stopped eating corn on the cob and lobster, not because I no longer liked the taste but because I disliked the mess.” One begins by being orient’d to (or disorient’d by) a writing, its formal grit under one’s heel; eventually one’s point de repère is mark’d by that no longer, or not only—one turns to the writer herself caught in the world behind the scrim. (No matter the distance between writing and source of the human pulse of it.)

Igor Stravinsky conducting “Lullaby and Final Hymn” out of the 1945 “Firebird Ballet Suite,” New Philharmonia Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall, London, 1965