Tuesday, July 15, 2008

David Shapiro’s Letters

Brick’d Up

David Shapiro—who turns out percipience with alarming insouciance and innumerable typos (here silently suppress’d) writes regarding Kent Johnson’s remarks pertaining to the authorship of Frank O’Hara’s “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island.” I never cease to picture Shapiro as a quizzical kid in horn-rims and crew-neck sweater, still intently studying the tribe, sitting with a tousled Gerard Malanga, intense LeRoi Jones, golden-boy Bill Berkson, skeptical Frank Lima, and atilt O’Hara (the eyes suggesting the pre-speechifying scotch is wearing off) at Wagner College in 1962. How align that against Shapiro’s offhandedly stunning remark in one note about the O’Hara poem—“Maybe the sun itself wrote it, as early photographers used to say about their pictures.” Though I’ve correct’d the typos (often against my purer whimsy—I’d grown quickly to love the unraveling discombobulate texture they lent the “proceedings”), I kept focus’d on Shapiro’s jocular, “edit them and show me, and I would pay you for keeping to my voice not my typos.” First, some lines to Johnson himself:
This letter to you is public. I would really like you to use it whole . . .

I don’t want to say anything crude, because I think your provocations are significant. And I teach attribution and connoisseurship over the last 30 years and it would be a lie to make it seem all trivial. Your work is not trivial. It rouses me like Menard. (I wrote that entire short story when I was only 10—amazing, hunh?)

Yes, reading “Pierre Menard” as an early work of David Shapiro gives a new meaning to Cervantes, to Bolaño who admired my work, and to Pierre Menard who was really the beautiful daughter of Bioy Casares. I met her once, only once, as she worked in a bookstore.

Now dear Kent, remember this:

Kenneth desperately wanted and got a nice cool Ovidian eros in the prose of his essay-poems. And obviously in his late Odes he also invented different tones. But NEVER was the tone of Kenneth close to the lyrical mysticism that concludes the Sun poem. Nor do I think Kenneth needed those special lines about Africa. Kenneth once huffed a bit that Frank was having blues played at a party. Kenneth thought the music was a cliché. I was ambivalent. But I’ve always been pleased that I got around to sending Safe Conduct back, and since that gift, I have bought maybe 30 copies of it on many continents.

Kenneth was Heifetz; O’Hara very early was Menuhin.

Reread Frank’s poems on Mayakovsky, or “Second Avenue” dedicated to Mayakovsky, or poems on Rilke or of Rilke.

It’s Frank who had such a good prose taste. I wish I could show you the people he urged Johns to read—many of them sharp prose writers. His particular prosey elegance comes out of an utter knowledge of the pressures of poetry and prose.

What would be interesting would be a good essay—still doesn’t exist—about the wild differences between, say, Kenneth and O’Hara. I’m willing to write 500 pages if interviewed.

By the way, did you know how much of Whitman is from Emerson: same reliance on the aphoristic; huge pantheists in love with Spinoza; and two who almost acknowledge the crime. Oh Ern Malley! Oh Spectra Hoax! Oh “Mending Sump.”

Did you guess that a lot of H.D. comes out of Duncan AND Aldington at different times? It’s all the topic in Santa Fe.

Ludic twistiness of the who’s zooming whom cavort and logroll? One wonders. After I ask’d Shapiro if I could post the remarks above, he wrote to me (dated 13 July 2008):
John, I’ve had almost less than an electron of time to say hello. Kent has made me aware of his position for a long time of teasing the attribution of Frank’s poem. One day I wrote him about 10 letters with remarks on connoisseurship and other matters. And I hear arguments made that I am very skeptical of, even on both sides. But one day I hope to be brave enough to call you and just tell you some things I think, or if I have time to be a writer—typos become my disease in the letters to Kent—he accepts them—anyway, I don’t want to embarrass you. But just secretly know that

1. The poem to me needs 50 more perspectives before I think it by KK or anyone else.

2. Having known this poem for more than 30 years and teaching it beside other O’Hara poems, with their constant development, is utterly convincing.

3. Talking to the Sun would be extremely unKennethy to hold in confidence over the world. If KK had written one of the 100 greatest poems of American history, he in no way would have treated it as a Frank poem. He revered Frank and also knew him fraternally eternally. All this is assertion but by one who knew both and memorized their tones.

4. Aside from agnosia, most of us recognize certain faces and tones quickly. For example, is it Kent who says there is no other poem with the mysticity of this. Not true. “To the Harbormaster,” one of the best and most mature of the early works, unless you dwell too much on Larry Rivers’s penis as Polish rudder, which no reader must know. “To the Harbormaster,” I again say, is like a terrifying elegy of fate and drowning, sad as Johns’s “Diver”: “And, if it sinks, it may well be . . .”

I won’t [go] over it but those waves are very much or exactly like the tone of Frank in “Talking.” Kenneth didn’t use this self-destroying tone, he mocked me for it, and Frank said he called a James Dean poem (the one in the Allen) sentimental. When Frank liked a love poem of mine to a girl, where I changed “To Betsy” in the title to “Elizabeth” in the first line, Kenneth said to me: “Frank’s all heart and I’m all art.” Not true, but the greatness of both is in very different tones. Kenneth didn’t like collaborating with people if their tones were too close. He told me again and again.

5. Mayakovsky is part of Pasternak’s vision and Frank’s for their whole lives. Look at all the references in and throughout Frank’s poems.

6. Anyway, I can produce maybe about 1000 more strong points for this as a great poem by Frank. If the controversy makes more people read it, great and good. If it makes many think that Frank’s poetry is like a Spectra Hoax, that is sad. I argue this with Rembrandt scholars who think Rembrandt couldn’t have used that much red or didn’t do The Polish Rider.

7. As I also think: Kent is a master of proposing situations where certainty is not utter. So are most murder cases unsolved for years. But walnut in a simile is more KK than anyone in the world. Mistakes are made. Good critics are needed. A poem of my own, titled “A Heavenly Humor” in Poems from Deal, was found in Frank’s desk and thought, until I made a correction, to be by Frank. It was published as a Frank masterpiece when frankly it was imitation of Ashbery and just in Frank’s desk. One can’t begin to be precise said Whitehead in a way that is beyond the question’s purview. We will never possibly know whether Shakespeare wrote Pericles, but it gets much better when he seems to have come in. And the Hamlet—what great other poet painted that?

Love to you.

If this wants to be published and you’d be willing to edit it, it would be at least a squib on the question.

Now I sleep. You could ask Kent for say the last 10 of my fragments on this and maybe edit them and show me, and I would pay you for keeping to my voice not my typos. I am drowned in work but I’m sure are.

Let’s ascend together.

Look at his poem against V and Yevtushenko where he appeals to Mayakovsky and the sun. And hates them for revising the revolutionary spirit of Pasternak and Mayakovsky. Frank’s first gift to me was Safe Conduct and its wild images to the death of Mayakovsky. As when he sees his life walking down the street and near it the State.

Frank came by, took my life down from the shelf, and blew the dust away. He is as good a poet as Lorca and I hear him in every syllable of his poems, even despite other qualities, and in his great poems his voice and intelligence are never distant. His “intimate yell” is like Mayakovsky’s if a fortissimo becomes a piano. If only any of us could have written at that level of plainness and adornment, better than Lawrence. If only . . . but we are lucky to have known Frank at all.

Certainty of which Whitehead said: there can be false precisions. Don’t ask me how I know your E-flat is terribly sharp. By the way, Meyer Schapiro’s trialogue with Heidegger and Derrida covers much the same territory. But Meyer is treated very whimsically. Read all of his work to note the delicate balance between skepticism of certain dogmas and his enthusiasm for the genius (still using that word) of the irreplaceable artist. Let’s find out everything about the poem, particularly if it leaves us loving the poem that much more and seeing its qualities. This was a theme in all of Meyer’s work. We shouldn’t be like Berenson and make authorship seem like a good financial transaction. I have enjoyed the taste from some of a true investigation of tone. Without agnosia, I proclaim that I see Frank’s face in the “Harbormaster” and “Talking.”
It’s Monday evening and there is Shapiro’s Monday notes to go and I am both completely put into a trance by the words and uncertain whether permission is clearly there to post. Another list, received 14 July 2008, in a note identifying such as “ten nuances on a sunbeam.” “I you think they might help,” Shapiro adds, and admits “I’m isolated as a Luddite.” He titles it “A New Account of Frank O’Hara Writing in the Sunlight”:
1. I have heard that some people don’t believe the end of “Talking to the Sun” is like any other in Frank’s work. It’s true that every masterpiece is a new genre, as has been said many times. If you find things in Hamlet not found anywhere else, it is not the time to make a de-attribution. Anyway, here’s a convincing (for me) counter-example: the end of “To the Harbormaster” is full of mysticism, proleptic, prophetic diction (forget the rudder as Rivers’s penis, Frank didn’t beg for that reference at all). “and, if it sinks”—how much closer can we get to that mysterious “they” than the waves that keep us from hearing Frank hearing.

2. What about KK and his imaginary poets? . . . Kenneth, as many know, loved to parody, imitate, and pay homage all at once. But he never produced one character that I ever had the smallest second of trouble over hearing Kenneth making the imitation. He taught imitation as a teacher at Columbia. But he never told me he liked faking a poet—he did love the mixture of truth and illusion in Borges, but actually was fairly conservative about his taste for hoaxes, literary or bulletproof. The LeRoi poem sounds more like a KK parody.

3. The tone: If the people who heard in viva voce were gathered—and I speak to many—not one will challenge the tone of this as Frank. Kent once asked me if he ever had such lyrical programme of dialogue. Well, he even has two avenues talking to each other. Very like.

4. Diction: I can only see Frank and not even a genius imitator alluding to ghettoes and tundras, Africa, etc. This is the poet who spoke to me always of political matters.

5. If. If KK, as I knew him every day for maybe 20 years or so, and twenty when it wasn’t every day—KK is in no way the poet who would have written the masterpiece, one of the ten best poems in the American language, and said it was Frank’s. He was very tough about credits to himself. He signed, after all, his imitations. They were HIS shtick. Signature, if you could find it, would be important. The fact that we have not yet seen the original typescript doesn’t make me feel any better about being skeptical. Quite the reverse. It’s up to the skeptics to tell me who really wrote Hamlet—some other greatest poet who never did it again . . .

6. It is true that after Frank’s death Kenneth sometimes tried a poetry of the personal (“To Marina”) that was heartbreaking. But even with references to Frank and maybe as it were reference to his “style,” I have never thought for one second of those poems, “Circus II,” say, and others of nostalgia and friendship—never is there a doubt of hearing Kenneth speak.

7. Biographies are almost always false. The reason? A hundred, but one is that it is very hard for biographers who have never interacted with the person to pick up the thousand cues that make a person and a style. I find LeSueur very close to aspects of Frank’s tone, and why shouldn’t he be? He lived with Frank and knew his tone by heart. I tried over 5 years to memorize everything he told me, as I did Johns and just a few others. If someone tells me the tone of Frank is not within the passage about free embrace and appropriate embrace, ridiculous. It comes out of love for Lawrence.

8. If anyone is amazed by the Mayakovsky image, what about the fact that Frank gave me Safe Coinduct, great Pasternak ode to Mayakovsky and his death. Also, that there are many other references to Mayakovsky, one being the immense putdown of Yevtushenko and V: Mayakovsky’s hat worn by a horse. I will eat a Mayakovsky hat as salad if that isn’t an O’Hara topos. Also, for those who don’t read as carefully as Frank should be read, the last lines of that poem are all about the energy of the sun, the red sun of Mayakovsky and a definite allusion for anyone awake to the “Account.” Kenneth always told me that Frank was like a revolutionary (maybe without a war, but) and Mayakovsky was the perfect poet of the heart.

9. There are many discoveries to be made—I recently found that one of Frank’s poems about Dean, was almost a line for line homage to Rickert’s song, “I Have Lost Touch with the World.” I have told this only to a few people. It’s in a way like finding a new kind of masterpiece—and yet isn’t this homage to Mahler, and Rickert, etc., exactly like the homage to M in his counter-irritant “Talking.” It’s not in the new Selected, but I think everyone can find it as one of a sequence of poems. Jarmusch (my wonderful ex-student and now master) put in the melody of Mahler into the last act of Cigarettes and Coffee, and presumably Phil Kline of Columbia suggested the music to him of Baker singing. I find that Frank’s sister speaks of his love of Mahler, and I found at least one allusion on the internet to a dance that Balanchine seems to have done to the Rickert lieder.

10. Frank should never be seen as the mere expert of I do this I buy that. The joke used to be that that was him and I am this I am that was JA. It is many times more difficult. There is the dedication to Mayakovsky of “Second Avenue,” or am I doddering. There is the great Dean ode from the Allen Anthology now not placed in the Selected. It’s true that I loved it at 13 and Frank told me he was glad I did, because Kenneth had called it sentimental. When I mentioned another love poem of mine that Frank liked, Kenneth said: “Frank is all heart and I’m all art.” Not true, but I find it impossible to believe that Kenneth’s tone is in “A True Account.” Does anyone suppose a Jimmy Schuyler poem about a rose was also written by the flowery Kenneth? Ridiculous. Certain tones are shared by Frank, and KK, but not in the “Talking to the Sun.” And of course I agree that the person in connoisseurship who doesn’t accept the authorial norm—that person has a tremendous onus to prove it if thousands have not seen it. I remember Meyer Schapiro giving a long lecture on method and being a bit amazed at the positivist beginning: first to try to be sure of dates and authors and artists. In this case, and this is not the Kennedy assassination, it is a very great poem whose tone, construction, topic, discovery, etc.—are all rather convincing. The idea that the story is weird doesn’t seem a true account to me.

RSVP: Here’s another problem. Because Kent has made one of his great provocations a topos, that is, he loves and I think he has there right as in any fiction to provoke others through skepticism. But if I take him philosophically and poetically at his word, I would call it “false precision,” when he doubts, and a lot of almost Derridean extremes in his contest of wills. I worked with Derrida, and he actually and finally came out of his neo-Nietzschean corner and believed in radical refuge, forgiveness, etc. I hope poets can realize that those who fight over attributions are not all knaves and slaves to an idée fixe. But it is also true that a person who finds a Stradivarius in the morning labeled John Doe, should be less believed if he finds a great poet in an atomic attack speaking of Spicer. I remember loving the poetry in APR and being very vexed over the allusions. And I know my own poems came out of a desk of Frank’s and were thought to be by him. But, but: If you find a Leonardo in the morning, and all his swains commend it, you better have very strong reasons to tease me about the Giorgione you found at Cooper-Hewitt Museum later in the afternoon.

Some art historians are called enlargers, some shrinkers. I’m balanced enough to know lots of fakes come in the Met’s door and stay. But if a person has made their living from de-attributing, we have to think that as in Borges, Bolaño, and Pierre Ern Malley himself—it is the negative that is hardest to prove.

First Kent said he couldn’t find an early transcription of the poem. Then he did. Then I hear he thinks or others the ending is unique. The vessel sinks.

I think we all owe a debt to the skeptics, but they must find some time to retreat from Shakespeare-as-Bacon arguments and let’s also return to loving the density of the masterpiece, which for me and teaching it for 30 years at Cooper Union and Columbia—I find to be as strangely beautiful as anything in Rauschenberg and Johns—two whom we also ought not to blur. Roommates do not always end up collaborators.

A person told me once that he had dialed Dial-a-Poem and gotten Frank’s voice, though Frank was dead. The voice was so obviously Frank’s that the person had to shudder at the living dead. I love John Forbes for saying that he had a dream in Australia that Frank was dead but still writing poetry. He says in his poem something like: “What a guy, dead and still making new poems.”

Who killed Frank O’Hara? No one could, even with their shriveled arrows.

Who tried to keep on the outs? You know all the louts.

Who tried to sneak him in? The joking genius djinn.

Who tried to kill you, Frank?

Like Joe Hill, I’m still alive, Frank said. I can die and write as well, etc.

And here in this wretched anger, I am not speaking of Kent.

Let our common monument be poetry built in battle (allusion to M.)
How, wholly unintentional, one supposes, the reiterations (variations on a theme) mimic those of Kent Johnson’s “Reply to Tony Towle . . .” How breathless it all makes me, for David Shapiro is “all heart.”

That done, the gears beginning to grind in the posting machinery, I receive a late addition (15 July 2008). Shapiro writes:
And enfin, I called Maureen, O’hara’s sister, and she told me she had a letter from Frank that might solve all the chatter about whether he wrote the poem or not and when.

She read from a letter that is dated immediately after the weekend spent with Hal Fondren. In it Frank is terribly witty and proposes that they start a gallery together, which would be less physical effort says O’Hara but bound to . . . fail. He ends the incredibly sweet letter of thanks with a smoking gun report: He has forgotten to give the poems that he wrote at Hal’s to him. Two poems are enclosed. Maureen has the letter but not does like to enter controversies. The wittiest part of the letter, which Kent and others can love, is the statement that these poems might be corrected here and there but maybe, he says, maybe Hal will want to do the editing himself, for his greater reader’s pleasure.

The poems weren’t written by Hal. They were written by Frank O’Hara. They didn’t mysteriously appear in 2008 or in 1966. “A New Account of Talking to the Moon” by me will follow me one day. Of course, instead of believing me, some will have to write to Maureen Granville-Smith and, if she pleases, hear or read this dazzling letter. Few will want to make any changes on True Account(s).

PS: And what is the truth in poetry? Even a poem by me looked to some like a Frank poem when it was discovered in his desk.

Be careful when you take down one’s life from the desk and think you blow the dust away.

Pierre Menard did NOT write more than a sentence of Don Quixote.

Gerard Malanga, LeRoi Jones, David Shapiro, Bill Berkson, Frank Lima, and Frank O’Hara at Wagner College, 1962
(Photograph by William T. Wood)