Tuesday, November 04, 2014

O’Hara, Apollinaire, and the Telephone

Guillaume Apollinaire, 1880-1918

Leafing through a bound volume of the quarterly The Symposium (wherein William Carlos Williams’s 1931 review “Excerpts from a Critical Sketch: The XXX Cantos of Ezra Pound” first appeared), I find—in a Philip Blair Rice-signed piece called “A Modern Poet’s Technique: Guillaume Apollinaire”—an excerpt out of André Billy’s 1923 memoir Apollinaire Vivant:
      He [Apollinaire], Dupuy and I are seated at the Crucifix, rue Daunou, before three glasses of vermouth. Suddenly Guillaume bursts out laughing: he has completely forgotten to write the preface for Robert Delaunay’s catalogue which he promised to put in the mail today at the latest. “Quickly, waiter, pen and ink! The three of us will soon get it over with.”
      Guillaume’s pen is already moving:
Du rouge au vert tout le jaune se meurt
Then it stops. But Dupuy dictates:
Quand chantent les aras dans les forêts natales
The pen starts again, transcribing the phrase faithfully. It adds:
Abatis de pihis
Then it stops again. And it is my turn to dictate:
II y a un poème à faire sur l’oiseau qui n’a qu’une aile.
      A reminiscence of Alcools that the pen traces without hesitating.
     “Since you are in a hurry,” I said then, “why not send your preface by telephone?”
      And that is why the next verse is as follows:
Nous l’enverrons en message téléphonique.
I read that and immediately recall O’Hara’s lines out of “Personism: A Manifesto,” the jaunty report of its origin:
It was founded by me after lunch with LeRoi Jones on August 27, 1959, a day in which I was in love with someone (not Roi, by the way, a blond). I went back to work and wrote a poem for this person. While I was writing it I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born. . . .
The poem Apollinaire, Billy, and company construct is Apollinaire’s “Les Fenêtres” (found in the 1918 Calligrammes).* Surely O’Hara knew the poem, likely in both its original French and in Roger Shattuck’s translation (published in the 1950 New Directions Selected Writings of Guillaume Apollinaire). O’Hara’d read with Shattuck early in 1956 (he reports in a letter to James Schuyler dated February 11, 1956: “I must tell you a couple of cute things about the reading with Roger Shattuck which I felt was rather encouraging (no fear of this!), in the sense that when people I don’t like or admire turn out to like my work it makes me extremely uneasy . . .”) Shattuck’s translation reads:

The yellow fades from red to green
When aras sing in their native forest
Pihis giblets
There is a poem to be done on the bird with only one wing
We will send it by telephone
Giant traumatism
It makes one’s eyes run
There is one pretty one among all the young girls from Turin
The unfortunate young man blows his nose in his white necktie
You will lift the curtain
And now look at the window opening
Spiders when hands were weaving light
Beauty paleness unfathomable violet tints
We shall try in vain to take our ease
They start at midnight
When one has time one has liberty
Periwinkles Burbot multiple Suns and Sea-urchin of the setting sun
An old pair of yellow shoes in front of the window
Towers are streets
Wells are market places
Hollow trees which shelter vagabond Capresses
The Octoroons sing songs of dying
To their chestnut-colored wives
And the goose honk honk trumpets in the north
When raccoon hunters
Scrape their pelts
Gleaming diamond
Where the train white with snow and fires of the night flees the winter
O Paris
The yellow fades from red to green
Paris Vancouver Hyères Maintenon New York and the Antilles
The window opens like an orange
Lovely fruit of light
(Is there a tiny echo of Apollinaire’s “Beauty paleness unfathomable violet tints / We shall try in vain to take our ease . . .” in O’Hara’s December 5, 1959 “Poem” beginning “Light       clarity       avocado salad in the morning / after all the terrible things I do how amazing it is / to find forgiveness and love . . .”? Perhaps.)

I doubt O’Hara saw the Billy excerpt in The Symposium. Did he search out Billy’s Apollinaire Vivant (listed in Shattuck’s select “Bibliography” to the Selected Writings)? Unlikely. One senses that O’Hara’s French wasn’t impeccable, wasn’t fluent. It’s somewhat possible, though, that he investigated Matthew Josephson’s 1923 translation of Apollinaire’s The Poet Assassinated. Therein, appended to a pronouncement by the Apollinaire-styled protagonist Croniamantal (“I shall from now on write only poetry free from all restrictions even that of language”), one finds a note by Josephson that includes, too, a rendering of Billy’s report.** No proof, all wild conjectural guff, myself its “onlie begetter.” That O’Hara read either Apollinaire’s “Les Fenêtres” or anything out of Billy’s Apollinaire Vivant, who knows? It’s easy to begin to see echoes un peu partout. In Josephson’s “Biographical Notice” that prefaces The Poet Assassinated I read some quoted lines by Apollinaire’s friend the writer and caricaturist André Rouveyre, out of the latter’s 1921 Souvenirs de mon commerce:
“Vain to be astonished at his continual feast-making, at the rash exploits he undertook, at the crown of thorns he inflicted upon himself . . . He was a prodigious creator and all of his literary and social games, were of the most brilliant and lavish character, far more so than their objects. Like God, who could make man out of nothing, Apollinaire made many, with the same poverty of material.”
Gonflée, I suppose. What stopped me: the construction of “Vain to be astonished . . .” How “Grace / to be born and live as variously as possible . . .” (a rather uncommon arrangement to begin with) rings against it. Another impossibly tiny echo coming down through the receiver of the years . . .
* One of the “Poèmes de la paix et de la guerre (1913-1916)”:
Les Fenêtres

Du rouge au vert tout le jaune se meurt
Quand chantent les aras dans les forêts natales
Abatis de pihis
II y a un poème à faire sur l’oiseau qui n’a qu’une aile
Nous l’enverrons en message téléphonique
Traumatisme géant
Il fait couler les yeux
Voilà une jolie jeune fille parmi les jeunes Turinaises
Le pauvre jeune homme se mouchait dans sa cravate blanche
Tu soulèveras le rideau
Et maintenant voilà que s’ouvre la fenêtre
Araignées quand les mains tissaient la lumière
Beauté pâleur insondables violets
Nous tenterons en vain de prendre du repos
On commencera à minuit
Quand on a le temps on a la liberté
Bigorneaux Lotte multiples Soleils et l’Oursin du couchant
Une vieille paire de chaussures jaunes devant la fenêtre
Les Tours ce sont les rues
Puits ce sont les places
Arbres creux qui abritent les Câpresses vagabondes
Les Chabins chantent des airs à mourir
Aux Chabines maronnes
Et l’oie oua-oua trompette au nord
Où les chasseurs de ratons
Raclent les pelleteries
Étincelant diamant
Où le train blanc de neige et de feux nocturnes fuit l’hiver
Ô Paris
Du rouge au vert tout le jaune se meurt
Paris Vancouver Hyères Maintenon New-York et les Antilles
La fenêtre s’ouvre comme une orange
Le beau fruit de la lumière
** Rather sloppily done by Josephson, with some material elided (and a howler):
      He, Dupuy, and I are sitting at Crucifix with three glasses of vermouth. Suddenly Guillaume bursts out laughing—he has completely forgotten to write the preface to Robert Delaunay’s catalogue, which he promised to mail that evening. “Quick waiter, pen and ink! Three of us will get through with this in a jiffy.” Guillaume’s pen is off already:
      “Of red and green all the yellow dies.”
      His pen stops.
      But Dupuy dictates:
      “When the arras sing in our natal forests.”
      The pen starts off again transcribing faithfully.
      It is my turn:
      “There is a poem to be written about the bird with but one wing.”
      A reminiscence from Alcools—the pen writes without a stop.
     “A good thing to do if there is any hurry,” I said, “would be to send your preface over the telephone.”
      And so the next line became:
      “And we shall send this by the telephone.”
      I no longer remember all the details of this singular collaboration, but I can state that the preface to the catalogue of Robert Delaunay came out entire.