Sunday, March 8, 2009

On beginnings and New York and Frank O'Hara

"I can't even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there's a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life. It's more important to confirm the least sincere. The clouds get enough attention as it is..." -Frank O'Hara

I hear ya, Frank. I feel most peaceful, most happy, most myself when I'm in a big city. Even with all the noise, the grime, the shouts, the crowds - I don't particularly like those things, but they are necessary components to a city and so I embrace them. Because cities also radiate life, and music, and chance meetings. Random acts of kindness, bizarre street performers. Kinetic energy bouncing off the sides of buildings. Food and films. History, culture, whatever you're looking for and then some. I love the countryside too, don't get me wrong. But I could never live there. The countryside, the fields, the beach, the woodland - all perfect for breaks, for holidays, for recuperation. But I could never live in any of those places. With an apology to the memory of Patrick Henry - "Give me a city, or give me death!".

The overwhelming presence of New York is one of the reasons O'Hara's poetry clicked with me so instantaneously when I first read him, last year. Now, I've never been to New York. I've never been out of Europe, actually. (One day...) But it's one of those dream places. Ever since I can remember, I've been obsessed with New York, both the mythical aspect of the city and the actual reality of it. A great bulk of the writers, artists, filmmakers, musicians I love are from, or grew up, or fled to, New York. I can pinpoint exactly the time I switched from reading kid's books to reading grown-up fiction - it was when I picked up my parents' copy of Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy because it had a cool cover. I was about 13. And it blew me away. I still remember the electric jolt I felt upon reading the first line. Even though my general opinion of the book has maybe slipped a little, I still think it contains one of the best opening lines for a novel ever. This sentence is emblazoned on my brain for ever, I can recite it verbatim: "It was a wrong number that started it, the phone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice asking for someone he was not." After that teaser, how could I not devour the entire book? When I was finished, I couldn't even comprehend how a book like that could be written. It was complex, it was post-modern (the fact that there's a character called Paul Auster, who is a writer, in this book, shocked me. I thought, "Can he do that?!" It was a completely revolutionary idea for me). It was around then when I read Orwell, Atwood, Salinger et al for the first time. Of course, I also sought out and demolished every other book Paul Auster wrote. The Trilogy was a real turning point for me, in terms of fiction. I think this must have been the start of my New York dream, but other pieces of art began to accumulate too.

- The Velvet Underground, and the whole scuzzy Lou Reed thing
- Laura Nyro's New York Tendaberry album. "You look like a city / But you feel like a religion to me"
- Woody Allen films. Manhattan, obviously, but more dear to my heart is Hannah and her Sisters.
- Gershwin
- Blondie and the CBGBs crowd
- Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
- the Nighthawks painting by Edward Hopper
- Taxi Driver
oh, Sesame Street! Hah, how could I forget that? Obviously, that show came waaaay before Paul Auster, in my cultural development. I think they eventually took it off the air on Irish television, because some of the spellings and stuff weren't correct for us, and some of the road safety rules and stuff didn't apply. And while I can kind of see their point, it was still a big loss. I looooved Sesame Street as a kid. I still do. That whole early hip-hop, bright day-glo grafitti, huge white sneakers, dungarees thing just appeals to me.
- J.D. Salinger
- Joan Didion's "Goodbye To All That"

You get the picture. There's more, but those are the things that popped into my head first. Now, don't misunderstand me, I'm under no illusion that New York is some paradise place where I'll find true happiness, or any bullshit like that. It's a city, that's all. I don't want to come across like Libby Mae Brown! "My aunt brought out her atlas that I look at a lot. This big blue book and opened up to New York and it's an island, is really what it is. It's this island full of people of different colors and different ideas and I can't- It sounds like a lot of fun to me." Or, maybe I do. I kind of like her life philosophy. But what I mean is, I don't want to sound overly idealistic about the place and for some native to come along and tell me, "Oh, it ain't that great".

To be honest, I'm even fascinated by the idea of being "over" New York, to be honest. Case in point, the song on LCD Soundsystem's last album, "New York I Love You, But You're Bringing Me Down".

But I digress. I wanted to talk about Frank O'Hara! Although I suppose for me, New York was the key to liking him. I gravitate towards art that has some connection to the city and although a lot can turn out to be crap, this time I struck gold.

Like Sheila O'Malley, I would have liked to have known Frank O'Hara. He totally does not fit the traditional mold of a solitary loner poet, someone who mopes around, scribbling down lines of verse. Not that I'm denigrating those types of artist, obviously! But O'Hara was a totally different beast. He was gregarious, sociable, lively. He surrounded himself with artistic types; other poets and writers of course, but mainly painters. You get the feeling life and art were all jumbled up in a joyous mess, for him. There was no strict division like you read about in other poet's lives. He didn't divide up his day job, his poetry and his personal life and friends. Art was his life. His life was in his poetry. O'Hara worked at the Museum of Modern Art, hung around with people like de Kooning and Pollock, and wrote his poems during his lunch break, while wandering around the city or in the middle of parties, whipping out a notebook and scribbling down whatever had just occured to him. It's probably a good thing that not all poets are as haphazard and as sociable as O'Hara. We need loners and perfectionists, those who devote weeks to a single line, to finding the correct word. But it's good that there lived someone like Frank O'Hara, and the body of work he left behind is astonishing in both its size (he wrote multitudes!) and the energy they radiate. The lines of his poetry are littered with mentions of whatever culture he was inhaling at the time, they're full of paintings and moviestars and his friends and lovers and the clamour of the New York streets. They are vibrant, funny, melancholy, and they are a pertinent reminder of the way we could be living our lives, open and observant and thankful to all the art and people we encounter.

Last year, during the October midterm, I paid a visit to the library, on a mission for books for assignments I had due back the following week. I was stressed, and feeling blocked in my writing of an essay, and generally bleurgh. I collected the books I was looking for and left the library, wishing I could go home but knowing I had to get on the tram and continue on into the city centre to run a few more errands. The essay was weighing on my mind, I had a few other assignments that I had yet to begin, a headache was starting to form around my eyes. I was just in a bad mood, plain and simple. I got on the Luas, settled in for the trip into town and chose one of the books out of my bag to distract me. It was The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara, thank God. That particular tome was for one of the other assignments. My main essay was on Sylvia Plath and the Intentional Fallacy, and so I was also carrying a copy of Ariel, and I don't know if that would have done anything for my mood. But instead, I dove into O'Hara, and as I sat back and read, a change began to come over me. Everything around me, the people sitting across from me, the clothes I was wearing, became more vivid, more defined. My ears seemed more attuned to the music I was playing on my Creative Zen: Oliver Nelson's Blues and the Abstract Truth (an absolutely wonderful jazz album, by the way). And then, magically, it began to rain, heavy torrential rain. The drops slapping against the tram windows. No weather makes me as happy as rain does. So, I slowly began to relax, to forget about the pressure of the essay and the assignments, to just enjoy travelling in a city, listening to the rain on the roof and to Oliver Nelson's saxophone, and savouring the poems. My headache dissipated. Once we reached my stop, I shoved the book in my bag and literally ran to wherever it was I was going. I remember legging it across the Ha'Penny bridge, getting soaked through and sliding on the slippery cobblestones in Temple Bar, totally unfazed by the fact I had no umbrella or hood. I was just happy to be where I was, and to be alive. And I attribute that change in mood totally to Frank O'Hara.

So! I'm going to try my hand at blogging again, for a little while. We'll see how it works out. For now, I'll let Frank have the last word. He did supply the title for my blog, after all.

The Day Lady Died

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don't know the people who will feed me

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn't even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan's new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don't, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

Personal Poem

Now when I walk around at lunchtime
I have only two charms in my pocket
an old Roman coin Mike Kanemitsu gave me
and a bolt-head that broke off a packing case
when I was in Madrid the others never
brought me too much luck though they did
help keep me in New York against coercion
but now I'm happy for a time and interested

I walk through the luminous humidity
passing the House of Seagram with its wet
and its loungers and the construction to
the left that closed the sidewalk if
I ever get to be a construction worker
I'd like to have a silver hat please
and get to Moriarty's where I wait for
LeRoi and hear who wants to be a mover and
shaker the last five years my batting average
is .016 that's that, and LeRoi comes in
and tells me Miles Davis was clubbed 12
times last night outside BIRDLAND by a cop
a lady asks us for a nickel for a terrible
disease but we don't give her one we
don't like terrible diseases, then
we go eat some fish and some ale it's
cool but crowded we don't like Lionel Trilling
we decide, we like Don Allen we don't like
Henry James so much we like Herman Melville
we don't want to be in the poets' walk in
San Francisco even we just want to be rich
and walk on girders in our silver hats
I wonder if one person out of the 8,000,000 is
thinking of me as I shake hands with LeRoi
and buy a strap for my wristwatch and go
back to work happy at the thought possibly so


How funny you are today New York
like Ginger Rogers in Swingtime
and St. Bridget’s steeple leaning a little to the left

here I have just jumped out of a bed full of V-days
(I got tired of D-days) and blue you there still
accepts me foolish and free
all I want is a room up there
and you in it
and even the traffic halt so thick is a way
for people to rub up against each other
and when their surgical appliances lock
they stay together
for the rest of the day (what a day)
I go by to check a slide and I say
that painting’s not so blue

where’s Lana Turner
she’s out eating
and Garbo’s backstage at the Met
everyone’s taking their coat off
so they can show a rib-cage to the rib-watchers
and the park’s full of dancers with their tights and shoes
in little bags
who are often mistaken for worker-outers at the West Side Y
why not
the Pittsburgh Pirates shout because they won
and in a sense we’re all winning
we’re alive

the apartment was vacated by a gay couple
who moved to the country for fun
they moved a day too soon
even the stabbings are helping the population explosion
though in the wrong country
and all those liars have left the UN
the Seagram Building’s no longer rivalled in interest
not that we need liquor (we just like it)

and the little box is out on the sidewalk
next to the delicatessen
so the old man can sit on it and drink beer
and get knocked off it by his wife later in the day
while the sun is still shining

oh god it’s wonderful
to get out of bed
and drink too much coffee
and smoke too many cigarettes
and love you so much

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