Thursday, February 07, 2013

Letter: O’Hara to Schuyler (2)

Robert Wise, Helen of Troy (1956)

Frank O’Hara’s 11 February 1956 letter to James Schuyler (out of the William Corbett and Geoffrey Young-edited That Various Field for James Schuyler) continued:
. . . George and I went to see Helen of Troy last night and liked it lots. Jacques Sernas looks heavenly: a combination of a Greek coin, Jean Marais and a rattlesnake; while Rossina Podesta has that piggish prettiness one used to admire in Angela Lansbury, gone a bit soft in the South and without the latter’s bite. Ouch! There is a greatly beauteous Aeneas who, when everyone else in Troy is acting dismal about Helen’s being brought over to start the war, passes his brother with a cheerful pat and says, “Destiny, Paris, destiny!” I loved him for it. The Greeks come off very badly in this version, since they were planning to plunder Troy anyway and Helen’s a mere Reichstag burning. It is the best spectacle of recent years, though, I thought reminiscent pleasingly of De Mille’s The Crusades. And so convincing that I absolutely LOATHED Ulysses for thinking up that Trojan Horse trick. Really! and they were having such a nice bacchanal! It does make you want to read the Iliad again because everything gets so mixed up: Paris kills Patroclus, Achilles kills Hector (right in front of everyone, it’s terrible, and then he drags him after his chariot, which made me hate him almost as much as Ulysses) and then on the ramparts, with tears in his eyes, Paris utters the prayer (from Samson et Dalile, I make no doubt: “Zeus! viens aider ma faiblesse!” and shoots Achilles in the heel with an arrow. At the end Menelaus kills Paris and takes Helen back. As she is looking for the last time at what is left of Troy, Paris’ voice comes to her saying roughly, “Nothing that is shared, like our love, can ever die.” Beautiful! Is that the way you remember it? Anyway, you probably won’t believe me, but the changes are quite agreeable. I’ve always thought Helen should be the one to say of the horse, “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts!”
      The “Love and Death” section of Goyescas is the biggest thing I’ve ever heard, including the Ring. On the sleeve the guy refers to Granados as a “miniaturist,” s’il vous me croyait! Towards the end, notes of the most exquisite imaginativeness trail along after the melody. Maybe I should write a sleeve someday and completely alienate the listener from the music by my enthusiastic ravings.
      George loaned me his Art News which I read with great pleasure, most specially your enthusiastic review of Herr Buchholz,* which made me cry out with joy when I came to the definitive sentence on German Constructivist plaques. The whole review is perfection, the “and so on dug into them” falls like water, at the same time very graphic, and the “Oddly,” is like a meaningful breath, and at the same time, again, nothing seems cross although the work sounds as if it could well make one so. I liked the Goodnough** excessively and I think you got what it is where I only emoted about what it might be—this is not to embarrass you, but I had the feeling as I read it that one sometime has when someone else has discovered the truth about something, “Of course, that’s precisely it!” How do you feel now that you’ve been initiated into the mysteries of the Kottler and Crespi entente? I don’t know how Frankfurter*** felt, but your discreet notice on Charlotte Serneaux-Gregori spoke worlds to me. I can’t wait till you get the Sculpture Center, I hope they have a lot of terra-cotta.
      Did you get to Oistrakh at all? By the way, so you won’t think I’ve lost all my sneaky ways up here, dahling, I want you to know I’m reviewing John’s Yale poems and Edwin’s book for Poetry Chi.**** Now tell me what to say, for god’s sake! I may never see THEM again. (Really, when I think of that mean bronze book end it brings tears to my eyes. You’re a genius!)
      The current production of the theatre up here is a verse drama by Hugh Amory called The Bandeirantes (bahn der ahn cheese) about two con men in Brazil who take in a young American in a scheme to do something or other in the interior that will lead to money and / or better the conditions of the natives there. It is sort of Senecan and there is a plane crash after which the survivors act Yeatsy in the jungle. There is a very touching scene in a café before the kid goes up in the Airplane when he is saying goodbye to his mistress, Marcia, who acts nicely like Garbo in Susan Lennox, “an older woman,” but the verse seems rather wooden to me. There are some beautiful speeches but much verbiage and talking around the subject. The funny thing is that the circumlocution is accomplished by quite abstruse and unnecessary references and the which may often branch into some portentous (sic) area like the Korean war, Hiroshima, death—suddenly it sounds as if I’m describing it worse than it is and this is all from rehearsals, remember (one to be exact). It may be divine, and he is very talented. That is, if talent means energy, as I’ve read somewhere. If it means ease and charm, well . . . . But the characters, save Marcia, don’t seem to feel anything about each other except the more negligible human emotions, such as pity, scorn, and cupidity. My, it does sound rather gripping, doesn’t it?
      I’ve been reading Tennessee’s stories in One Arm and, hold your hat! rather liking them, though they are terribly grey, aren’t they? Some of them would make wonderful plays, I think, particularly the black masseur one, which struck me as being genuinely sad. What a sentimentalist I am! I’ve also been reading W. C. Williams’ autobiog and refuse to stop loving him although he certainly is doing his best to discourage me.
      I hope the length of this letter doesn’t stop you from loving me! Write, come up, both, everything! Kisses to Arthur and Bobby and
                                                                                                          Love to you from your adoring,

Isn’t this beautiful—sort of like your letter in the Cantata.***** I wish it were art instead of life!
The post-signature line pointing to what looks like a newspaper clipping:

      Progressive Pilgrim—In your letter to Broken Dreams you say, “Put them dreams away.” But how can you, when every time you turn on the radio the songs make you cry? Each time you hear or see something that reminds you of the past. Did you ever go through this, or are you just trying to help—like telling a child the dentist won’t hurt. I try so hard to get back but haven’t been able to yet.

* Erich Buchholz (1891-1972), German painter and printmaker.

** Schuyler’s review of Robert Goodnough (out of the January 1956 ARTnews) reads in part:
[Goodnough] . . . shows in his new oils how strong a wedding of disjunctions can make a painting. On the one hand his pictures go after the kind of absolute balance in which each part compensates, so to speak, for another, and lets no one part come first: the whole picture would show itself in the flash of an eye, quivering tones of white, the surface is divided into angled planes and seems like looking through a prism . . .
*** Alfred Frankfurter, editor of ARTnews.

**** O’Hara’s review of Ashbery’s Some Trees, Denby’s Mediterranean Cities, and Chester Kallman’s Storm at Catelfranco appeared under the title “Rare Modern” in the February 1957 issue of Poetry. Pertinently, of Ashbery’s work:
      Everywhere in the poems there is the difficult attention to calling things and events by their true qualities. He establishes a relation between perception and articulateness which is non-rhetorical and specific; this relation is consciously desired by the poet, beyond bitterness and fatigue, and he even generously attributes it to others:
We see us as we truly behave:
From every corner comes a distinctive offering.
The train comes bearing joy;
The sparks it strikes illuminate the table.
Destiny guides the water-pilot, and it is destiny . . .

This is perhaps a day of general honesty
Without example in the world’s history
Though the fumes are not of a singular authority
And indeed are dry as poverty.
How often honesty becomes general in these poems! and it is a considerable technical achievement that the poems open outward to the reader revealing a person other than the poet, whom we admire with the poet for his courageous otherness . . .
***** Schuyler’s “A Picnic Cantata,” libretto for a composition by Paul Bowles, commissioned by duo-pianists Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale, contains a letter (out of the “Sunday paper”) “sad as a blues”:
I have a heart problem, writes E Q.

I knew this other man was married
and had a little boy.
He knew I was married
and mother of three.
But we went out together
and discovered
we had many things in common.

Before we realized it
we had to see each other
at least every other day.
We found a kind of love
we’d never known before.
I had to leave him to
come back to my husband.
I felt it only fair to
be honest with my husband.

My husband and I are planning
on moving to this town.
The other man lives there.
I know that we can never
be free to marry
each other
because of the children.
Do you think it
would be a wise move?