Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Beckett / O’Hara



“All the notes come easing out of my horn like they’d been made
Up, greased to a shine, and stuff’d into the bell. Commenced did I, to preachify
My millenniums on that high golden horn, leading all the sinners off
To Glory Land.” Ah, viper jazz. Mezz Mezzrow talking about that
Primal stick of tea. Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita, the wood
One enters is pure viscous memory, and one slips in like a poniard, a dirk.
Reefer roll’d in foot-long papers, four-handedly, in a Maryland suburb
Of the Capitol, how it drill’d a honey-yellow hole in my tongue. Content’d
Mynde here Belovv, so un-ansvverable to the Day above.
My affrightments
List’d against a blaze of clarity, sun-up in a Spic and Span scour’d sky,
And so dwindle to a heap. Self-evident finality of the big musical turn,
Orchestral murk unleashing its wee cortical storms, lining up regulars
Behind the high-hat, the foot in casual spasms of naught determining where
The nothing proceeds. So memorious, in pompes funèbres and giddy oraison
For a cavil so small, a donkey rid by a saint, a joint tuck’d in a hat-
Band, we bring our rude selves one by one into the interrogatory absorbency of

Seeing that Samuel Beckett call’d Dream of Fair to Middling Women “the chest into which I threw my wild thoughts”—and occasionally, later, raid’d—replants one of the stouter sticks of my obsessions: that of the aesthetical (anti-aesthetical) bag made of its onliest containings. (Out of Ashbery talking about O’Hara’s “Easter”—“whose form is that of a bag into which anything is dumped and ends up belonging there.”) Isn’t that the beauty of the caecum too? Its unavoidably elastic containment? (Funny thing to say about a void-regular intestinal sac.) In a tiny art-rat (tra-la-la anagramismus) outburst, Beckett writes of:
The mind suddenly entombed, then active in an anger and a rhapsody of energy, in scurrying and plunging toward exitus, such is the ultimate mode and factor of the creative integrity, its proton, incommunicable; but there, insistent, invisible rat, fidgeting behind the astral incoherence of the art surface.
Rats behind the walls in some dump of a German rooming house. A sentence or two earlier, that mind’s named a “skymole” and the sack it burrows into’s the “night firmament,” “a depthless lining of hemisphere” with “its crazy stippling of stars”: “The tense passional intelligence, when arithmetic abates, tunnels, skymole, surely and blindly . . . through the stars of its creation in a network of loci that shall never be co-ordinate.” And next: a line of enormous beauty: “The inviolable criterion of poetry and music, the non-principle of their punctuation is figured in the demented perforation of the night colander.” The night sky waywardly, emphatically, randomly prick’d by its stars, systemless puncta, godly and daft. And here, too, is where O’Hara sputters up sardonic and suave. Out of the gash in the night that is “Second Avenue”:
This thoroughness whose traditions have become so reflective,
your distinction is merely a quill at the bottom of the sea
tracing forever the fabulous alarms of the mute
so that in the limpid tosses of your violet dinginess
a pus appears and lingers like a groan from the collar
of a reproachful tree whose needles are tired of howling.
(Strangely Beckettian, that pus, that Godot “reproachful tree”—I check dates, curious—oddly enough, En attendant Godot premier’d 5 January 1953 at the Théâtre de Babylone, while O’Hara’s “Second Avenue”’s composed in March and April of that year—f. w. i. w.) What jumps up my sleeve “more”: some of the remarks O’Hara made in “[Notes on Second Avenue].” Immediately after the lines quoted here, he writes—with prior disclaimer “the remarks are explanatory of what I now feel my attitude was toward the material, not explanatory of the meaning which I don’t think can be paraphrased (or at lest I hope it can’t)”: “To put it very gently, I have a feeling that the philosophical reduction of reality to a dealable-with system so distorts life that one’s “reward” for this endeavor (a minor one, at that) is illness both from the inside and outside.” (And—irritable aside—one need only look to the self-appoint’d precinct-captains of Blogland, to witness that particular disease, ah, the petty glory-hounds with they dealable-with systems!)

Is it permissible (permissible?) to associate the much-vaunt’d line (of seventeenth-century Flemish philosopher Arnold Geulincx) Ubi nihil vales, ibi nihil velis (roughly, “Where one’s worth nothing, there one ought want nothing”), a nostum Beckett liked, apparently, to “offer” to critics—is it possible to attach that to O’Hara’s intent in “Second Avenue”? O’Hara, talking of “the verbal elements” (what else is there?) of the poem (calling to mind Geulincx’s summary execution of philosophy: Ita est, ergo ita sit (“it exists, therefore it is so”):
. . . they are intended consciously to keep the surface of the poem high and dry, not wet, reflective and self-conscious. Perhaps the obscurity comes in here, in the relationship between the surface and the meaning, but I like it that way since the one is the other (you have to use words) and I hope the poem to be the subject, not just about it.
(Fighting with an impulse to burst into asyntactic “song”-squalid prayer, some unenforceable dementia.) If Beckett is talking about a woman (and he is, one who’s rather bluntly—though humorously—dismiss’d as owning “a great deal of the predatory masochism of the passionate Quaker”) and says “The real presence was a pest because it did not give the imagination a break,” I suspect he “undergoing” a spiritual / carnal battle, the mighty distant love attainable lost at the moment of its being “sock’d in” as a rutting presence. But what if he’s talking about words and things, the loud imprecatory vengeances of the real? (Opposed to how the words “be” the real à la O’Hara.) Beckett:
The real presence was a pest because it did not give the imagination a break. Without going as far as Stendhal, who said—or repeated after somebody—that the best music . . . was the music that became inaudible after a few bars, we do declare and maintain stiffly . . . that the object that becomes invisible before your eyes is, so to speak, the brightest and best.
Perturbations of the musical analogy aside (I, myself, like music that becomes inaudible after a few beers), this is not the old dull argument for “plain speech,” or “against the evident materiality of the fug signifier,” but rather, a currying up of the mind’s own singular blub sufficiencies and vital mischiefs over and against the stuck bodily “plant” in the world. The imagination “high and dry.”

Frank O’Hara, 1926-1966