Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Scene

An Ofay’s Indirect Address to LeRoi Jones

The Press of Freedom: An Ofay’s Indirect Address to LeRoi Jones
March 4, 1965

Four men — each a well-known practitioner of one of the arts — appeared on a recent Monday night in the small basement room of the Village Vanguard to address an overflowing crowd on the grandly entitled subject “Art vs. Politics.” The men were Larry Rivers, painter; Archie Shepp, musician; Jonas Mekas, film-maker; LeRoi Jones, play­wright. The audience was predominantly — predictably — white, liberal, middle-class. They had come to be entertained and instructed. They stayed to be­come serious or delighted. They left in a roar of confused frus­tration, feeling as though they had, with unexpected stunning, been dealt a kick in the stomach and a few swift blows to the side of the head. For LeRoi Jones and Archie Shepp, whose evening it was, had told them repeatedly, “Die baby. The only thing you can do for me is die.”

It is almost impossible for me to train total recall on a con­versation which developed with the bewildering speed of a bar­room brawl. But here’s the gist of it:

Larry Rivers led off, reading from a prepared statement. Speaking of the artist’s relation to his audience, Mr. Rivers traced that changing phenomenon through Courbet, the Im­pressionists, the Futurists, the Surrealists, coming at last to the present time, in which, he concluded, the artist is his own audience; this not merely in the sense that a painter works for himself, but in the broader sense that in our time the art­ist’s greatest urge is to emphasize the similarity between his own fundamental desires and those of every other member of society. He put it something like this: I want to eat good, fuck good, work good … just like everybody else.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720824″ /]

Uneasy Stir

Archie Shepp, the next speaker, gaped for a moment at Ri­vers, seemed a bit nonplussed, muttered something about “Art, art. What the hell is all this talk about art?” and, with a shrug of the shoulders, launched into a comparatively mild ram­ble about a book he’d been reading the other night which described the first passage of slaves to this continent, a passage in which two-thirds of those slaves had died in the hold — and if this (Shepp’s) life and work didn’t represent an attempt to pay the homage of eternal remembrance to those two-thirds, well then … He ended by looking out at the au­dience and telling them that while he didn’t particularly want to put them down for the ofays they obviously were, still they couldn’t hope to understand what he was talking about.

Rivers’ head went back; the audience stirred uneasily (what was this? they were here as partisans — was this how you talked to partisans?); LeRoi Jones laughed softly and said “Take it easy, Archie. We’ve got all evening.” (The man is a veritable prophet.)

Mekas then struggled through a vague and rather incoherent speech (unfortunately because I suspect his point was, ultimately, the most worldly of them all) about how the experiences of wartime Europe had led him finally to understand that man’s only valuable occupation was his struggle to fashion for himself a more beautiful soul.

Theatre of Victims

Then Jones took the stand. He read a piece entitled “The Re­volutionary Theatre” (a piece, he informed the audience, which had been commissioned by the New York Times and then re­fused). In language of  poetic and highly imaginative insistence Jones claimed that it was the business of the theatre to reflect life … to stir up such hatred and such feeling that when the curtain comes down the theatre seats are soaked in the blood of split heads (needless to point out whose blood and whose split heads). This, he maintained, is a theatre of victims; by Western standards (sneer) perhaps a theatre of heroes … but victims all the same. He went on to quote the famous Oxford professor Wittgenstein as having said: “Ethics is aesthetics” and to point out that the white world has never understood or accepted this pro­position, intimating that the new Negro artist does understand it and will make damn sure that the whites do before they die.

In the long give-and-take (to be generous about it) that then ensued among the panelists, the dominance beat was one of unflagging insult from Shepp and Jones to the audience, the city, the country, the world — that is, to that section of it which was white, pure white. Nor did the other (white) panelists get off the hook. Mekas, who had been describing an interview between himself and Jack Smith and Mike Wallace, was suddenly asked by Jones: “Tell me, of you can, what is the difference be­tween Jack Smith and Mike Wallace.” To which Mekas had enough humorous composure to reply: “Mike Wallace would never be interviewed by Jack Smith.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”721631″ /]

The Different

But it was Larry Rivers who bore the brunt of the assault:

Shepp would turn to Rivers every now and then and say: “Man, you don’t know what the hell I’m talking about.” And then: “They hire YOU at the Five Spot; they don’t hire me; that’s the whole difference, right there.” And then: “How do you feel about that? I know how I feel. How do you feel? What would you lay your ass on the line for? Nothing! That’s what. Or you? (To the audience, now.) You wouldn’t lay your asses on the line for shit!”

Jones told Rivers he was the exponent par excellence of the middle-class white world: “You aspire to the society of those faggoty uptown art dealers. You paint for them … ”

A round of protesting noises now went up from the audience. “What are you talking about?” cried a woman.

Shepp spoke with elaborate disdain or open anger of the pain with which he lived every day of his Negro life. Finally, in an eloquent outburst, he spoke of James Chaney, the young Negro who was murdered last summer In Mississippi:

“They beat him until unrecognizable. Unrecognizable! They only KILLED Schwerner and Goodman, but they beat Chaney to a pulp. They beat the humanity out of that boy. And in that act, in that heinous crime, in that unspeakable crime they accepted Schwerner  and Goodman and refused me. Even in death they are embraced and I am refused. Even in death America accepts its own. You” — he swung on the audience —  “you accept your own —and refuse me. And in that fact lies my pain.”

A boy in the audience, agitated now beyond endurance, jumped up and screamed, “Oh shit!”

[related_posts post_id_1=”563435″ /]

‘World ot Pain’ 

Shepp turned a glance of loathing on the boy. “Oh man,” he sighed,  “sit down. Just sit down. You hear that?” he ask­ed the audience, ”you hear that? Between me and that ‘Oh shit’ is a world of pain.”

“Oh shit, baby,” the boy screamed again. “I’ve been up tight for a year because of you!”

“Man,” said Shepp, “I don’t want to hear your life story. Will you listen to that? We’re getting a confession here.”

Then LeRoi Jones made a re­mark of stunning contempt. “His life story?” he sneered. “Why, you can turn on the TV set and get it any day of the week on ‘The Guiding Light.’ ”

From that instant it was cry­stal clear that the night be­longed to Jones — and had from the very beginning. (One had the feeling that Shepp had been tak­ing cues all along.) His anta­gonists multiplied by the min­ute … and, with incredible ease, he swung like a beam of light from one to another; his retorts came with deadly speed and precision; it was no sweat for him, no sweat at all, because it was abundantly clear that there were no separate faces in that audience for him. (For when it suits his purpose, Jones produces in his mind a vision of the “homogeneous American soul,” a soul whose only relevance consists in the fact that it dwells in a white skin.) The distinctions of age, sex, background, occupation were as though they never existed. Jones was talking to The Man and only The Man.

[related_posts post_id_1=”674380″ /]

What to Do

A small, round, bespectacled man, shaken with emotion, rose: “As a Jew and as a white man, I hear you.” (“Could you pos­sibly hear me in any other way?” interjected Jones.) “You say we are all guilty. What do you want us to do? What on earth do you want us to do?”

“Do, man? Do? There’s noth­ing you can do!” The malicious pleasure in his voice was thick enough to cut with a knife.

A woman with a contorted face and an eerie fluff of sil­ver-blonde hair shrieked: “What about Schwerner and Goodman? Don’t you care about them?”

“Absolutely not,” rapped out Jones. “Those boys were just artifacts, artifacts, man. They weren’t real. If they want to assuage their leaking consci­ences that’s their business. I won’t mourn them. I have my own dead to mourn for.”

A civil rights worker, his eyes popping behind his glasses, yelled: “These are not the facts! Maybe we are guilty be­cause we’re white. But God­dammit, we’re not all equally guilty. Some are more guilty than others.”

“Sort of like being ‘almost pregnant,’ Isn’t it?” laughed Jones.

A Women Strike for Peace type lady called out: “This af­ternoon 400 people marched on the U.N. to protest the bomb­ing in Vietnam. There wasn’t one Negro among them.”

“Why didn’t you send buses down to the garment district to collect some Negroes if you wanted to be all nice and representative? I mean, man, man, when were you marching? At three in the afternoon?” An answer for all eventualities.

[related_posts post_id_1=”715433″ /]

Clowns and Gorillas

A roar of anger began to fill the place; out of it Jones was suddenly saying: “You’ve all elected a Texas cracker to represent you, all of you!”

A sandy-haired man dressed in denims jumped to his feet. “Now that got to me,” he said in a soft Southern voice. He be­gan a rambling retort on the variety of pains to be suffered in this world, blurting out: “Man, I’ve paid my dues. And you know it, LeRoi.”

No-mercy Jones, a little tired now: “So you’ve been in jail and you write your confessions for the Saturday Evening Post.”

“I don’t write for the Satur­day Evening Post!” the blue-­jeaned man cried. “Just ’cause they buy it, don’t mean I write for ’em. I write for people … ” (Thus is passion seduced by farce.)

Casting a cold eye on the increasingly infuriated audience, Shepp said (straight into the mike): “Look at them. The clowns who come to throw peanuts at the gorillas. Only in this case it’s gorillas throwing peanuts at humans.”

Well, why go on with this? By now the direction of all this was obvious. By the end of the evening the audience was reduced to a screaming plead­ing, degraded, bewildered mob: Jones goal from the very beginning, of course.

[related_posts post_id_1=”563262″ /]

LeROI JONES LOOKS into my ofay face with cold steady eyes and in a soft, seductively rea­sonable voice accuses me:

  • You can never — but NEVER — understand the nature of my pain. To wake up in my skin, fall asleep in my skin, and live all the hours in between in my skin — this you can never know. There is nothing on earth you will ever experience that will give you the remotest clue to my life …
  • All whites are equally guilty — ALL — of the unforgivable crime of attempting to destroy my humanity.
  • The world under white au­thority has become a disgust­ing place: weak, shallow, cow­ardly. When we Negroes are in command things will be differ­ent. Your sins, your failings, your mistakes will be unknown among us; we will prove to be a better people.

As to the veracity of the first accusation: who is there to say him nay? Certainly not I. His pain, he claims, is relevant, and mine is not. I believe him. I believe every word of it. His ex­perience will remain forever foreign to me. This too I believe. Every now and then one looks into a man’s face or overhears an exchange or reads a page of print or sees a photograph and for one hideous instant there is revelation: blind, wordless, over­whelming. You stumble in your tracks, you have difficulty breathing, there is a terrible pressure in your head. That is the most, I think, that we who pass for white can ever know. That is the closest I can get to realizing the words of a young Negro woman I once knew — the intelligent, restrained, pro­foundly bourgeois daughter of a Harlem doctor — when she said, in an unbearable moment: “There are mornings when I get up and walk out in the street wishing I had a rifle with which to mow down every white face I see.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”721686″ /]

Lines Broken

As to the second accusation: where does one begin — in the name of reason and justice — to unravel the half-truths and the painful falsehoods? Now­here. Here the lines of communication are entirely broken down. Thus every white works now (in or out of the civil rights movement) on the side of the Negro does so in the knowledge that he is committing an act of conscience, an act which is essentially lonely and which to a large extent is unwelcome, unrewarded, unremarked. And rightfully so. The Negroes who tell us: “You’re doing this for yourself, baby, not for me,” are right. Or at least they should be. So now, in America, white men of conscience find themselves in the same ironic position that the Russian Jews who fought in that remote Revolution found themselves in. Anyone with half a brain could see that in anti-Semitic Russia, comes the revolution, the first ones to be purged as counter-revolutionaries would be the Bolshevik Jews … and sure enough. But what choice did those Jews have? By the same token, many white men know now that when the barricades are thrown up in the streets of this country, they will have no choice as to the side they find themselves on, even though comes the revolution, they too will probably be in the first purge.

In Jones’s eye there is blood and in his system a raging bile. The burning sword at his side (or is it the hatchet inside his breast pocket to which he continually and ominously alludes?) is his blanket indictment of white America. For him now there is only passion … which is not always the same as truth. His effectiveness as a revolutionary lies in the emotional power with which he seeks to wrest his humanity from his oppressors by in turn denying them — every last one of them — their humanity. From this wretched vantage point in these bloody terms, I supposed we ARE all guilty. Who is there to give the final judgement?

[related_posts post_id_1=”720803″ /]

Naive Belief

It is to the third accusation that I most strenuously address myself — this utterly wrong-headed insistence that when the Negro’s turn comes to rule, he will do things differently. Under his authority the precious fluid of the human spirit contained in a chalice broken in white hands will be scooped up and treasured as the white world never knew how to treasure it. In the lifetime of Negro authority a particular level of spiritual decrepitude, moral rot, and demeaning weakness will vanish. The human race will develop a lovelier form, occupy a handsomer skin. The Negro will, once and for all, show the white world how a man can and ought to live.

This entire speculation turns on the incredibly naive belief that suffering has ennobled the Negro, that his pain will continue to exert an influence over him even long after it has passed from his life.

What rubbish! The sad, sad point about suffering is that there is no point at all. The lesson to be learned is that there is no lesson. It is simply a fact of life which has no after-life. While it endures it is the entire universe. On the very instant that pain ceases, the process of forgetfulness already begins. (And this is an element of white experience that no Negro can comprehend for the simple reason that while a man is suffering, he is unable to en­vision a time when it will have no meaning for him.) The scars begin to fade, the memories be­gin to dull, the relaxed hand can hardly remember the shape of the clenched fist. If there is any single great lesson to be learned from the 20th century it is this lonely and barbarous fact (witness “Hiroshima, Mon Amour”), which is at once the salvation and the irony  of our lives. If we retained the memory sharp and clear of every  wound ever inflicted on us, we surely could not survive; and the fact that we do not remember our wounds makes or our lives a primitive and unexalted thing. For all men in all conditions at all times this has been true. It is therefore hardly likely that it will be less true for the Amer­ican Negro. When it’s all over but the shouting, the American Negro will lose along with his soul-destroying fury the memory of that fury; his spirit, in time (in a generation, in two generations,) will become as flimsy and as shapeless and  as impoverished as the spirit of that decadent white bourgeoisie he now so comfortably despises.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721386″ /]

‘Starting Point’

Poverty of the spirit has nothing whatever to do with the life of a race. It has to do with the seduc­tion of men’s souls at the hands of that prosperity. For men do not thrive on the good life; they are, rather, atrophied by it. Thus very few men are in possession of the middle-class life; mainly they are possessed by it. And for the most part there is no escaping it. For the point is not so much that the nation has aspired to the middle-class life, but rather that, in the absence of certain specific tensions, it has acquired it. Without war, without depression, without foreign troops in occupation, without social oppres­sion, without combat with the elements … what is one left with? One is left with what nine­-tenths of the world spends its life fighting for: freedom from want, the so-called starting point of life. But freedom from want is not enough. Not enough? It doesn’t even come anywhere near the mark. The demons are still with us, in fact they loom larger than ever, and oddly enough, they even get harder and harder to identify. Thus freedom has become a desperate affair. Freedom from what? Toward what? FOR what? Very few men have the talent or the imagina­tion to know what to do with themselves once they have achieved the good life. They never did have it — in no class and during no age. In some remote and distant time (say, 50 years ago?) there did exist a belief in a unifying structure of principle, a perception of contin­uity, a conviction that he lived at the center of his universe, which allowed a man to live out his life relatively unshaken in his faith in the validity of the pursuit of life. In our time those principles have been shattered, and we have been left with nothing — nothing but the rotten hoax of he good life and the contemplation of futility. And so in the Land of Peace where the Meaningless is King, there exists an insatiable hunger, an unfillable emptiness, a numbing aimlessness — in response to which we open more supermarkets and more psychoanalysts’ offices. In a frenzy we seek the orgy of accumulation: the accumulation of more goods, more personal loyal­ties, more uncommitted opinions. The result, of course, intolerable isolation, so that instead of being the master of his split-level dovecot, a man finds himself wandering about its rooms as though under house arrest. And still he will not open his doors to strangers …

[related_posts post_id_1=”718477″ /]

There is no one in this country who understands the meaning of this condition better than the American ex-radical. What des­troyed him was his insight into the paltriness of the political vision, that long look down the road to Utopia which told him suddenly that the enemy was inside us, not outside us. The passion of the American radical was certainly as whole-souled (and as naive) as that of the Negro revolutionist, and the loss of that passion drove half of them into existentialism and made of the other half gibbering idiots, men terrified of the void, who — in the most literal sense of that word — copped out after 1938 by simply refusing to take further note of the world’s changing knowledge.

It is one of the bitterest ironies of our life that the tension that keeps men alive in their nerve­-endings and equipped with a sense of urgency is the tension of deprivation. And deprivation is what — with an imperative need  — we work to rid ourselves of. Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer have both written with understanding about the first half of this proposition. It is on the second half that they screwed up. To romanticize oppression in order to stimulate waning passions is a disgusting perversion, and the yearnings of these two finely confused men for the Ne­gro’s life-sense (knowing it is based on his unspeakable condition) are on a parallel with the Japanese tale of the businessman who encouraged an affair between his wife and a young doctor and then spied on them while they were making love in order to awaken his own failing sex­uality. It was with obvious truth and in perfect justice that James Baldwin declared that should Kerouac or Mailer get up on the stage of the Apollo Theatre and recite one of  their white Negro hymns, they would be stoned to death. If there is justification on any level for the Negro’s contempt for the white liberal, it is certainly on this one. Norman Mailer sitting in his Columbia Heights mansion, drawing thousands in royalties, complaining of his lost appetites … Christ!

[related_posts post_id_1=”419403″ /]

Rewards and Payments 

The point is that this is what we are stuck with. The rewards and the exacted payments of Western culture are the accumu­lation of goods and the existen­tialist’s sense of loss. “Western culture!” LeRoi Jones sneered the other night. But it’s ridiculous. After all, who the hell does the man think he is? He’s not a Chinese communist or an African soldier or a Hindu religious. He is a Western man, and the shape of his anguish and of his longings has been determined by Western culture. When he says he wants his, what he means is that he wants his share of this life — and no other. And he will reap the rewards and the losses of this life just as every other American has. For Negroes are, indeed, men like all other men, which means that for the most part they are weak and greedy and anxious, of limited imagination and hopeless mediocre ambition. While suffering depresses their spirits and causes rage to flare up in them, it is true that their sensibilities are dipped in fire. But when that suffering ceases (and as sure as the sky is blue and the grass is green, it will cease), the fire will die down, the holocaust will pass, its former existence will be marked only by ashes which eventually will be kicked into oblivion … and Negroes will live exactly — but exactly — the same lives as every other American now lives.

In answer to all of which LeRoi Jones will beyond a doubt reply: “Yeah, baby. But I want my chance. My time is coming, and I want my chance. You dig?”

I dig. And he will get his chance. He’ll get more than that, he’ll get everything he is now straining for. And then he will live, to his everlasting sorrow, to look up one day, aged 75, at his grown grandchildren, leading utterly ordinary lives — absorbed in taking Johnnie to the dentist and not opening the door at night to strangers and telling a psychoanalyst once a week, “Doctor, I don’t know what’s the matter with me. No matter what I do I have this strange feeling of emptiness … ” — and, remembering these draining days, he will say (as OUR revolutionary grandfathers have said to US): “Is this all? Is this what it was all about?” And his grandchildren will answer, with affection and mild irritation, “Oh, for good­ness sake, Grandpa! This is 2005, not 1965. All that stuff is over and done with!”

Like the man said: “That’s the way it is, man. That’s the way it really is.”

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Lives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Frank O’Hara: He Made Things and People Sacred

It was 3 a.m. of a Saturday night on Fire Island, pitch black on the beach except for the head­lights of a disabled taxi and those of another jeep headed its way, sloughing through deep ruts at maybe 25 miles an hour.

Frank O’Hara, one of nine tem­porarily stranded passengers, stood alone off in the darkness, his companion and friend J.J. Mitchell wasn’t sure just where. Within inches of the crippled taxi, the second jeep churned past. Evidently O’Hara was just turning to face a blaze of its lights when it ran him down.

Panicked, Mitchell rushed to him. O’Hara stirred, then muttered something. He was in a rage. His delirious fury made it hard to hold him still during the efficient relay from jeep to police boat to ambulance to tiny Bayview Hospital in a place called Mastic Beach. There he subsided, however, and was examined, then laced with innumerable stitches. The doctor was encouraging: contusions, gashes, shock, and a badly smashed left leg, but nothing ostensibly lethal.

Then around dawn O’Hara’s blood pressure fell. Pints of rare RH-negative blood began arriving at the hospital by police car every few minutes. The exploratory operation that afternoon, when enough blood was on hand, revealed a partly ruptured liver and some damage to the kidneys, among other things: The liver, now a good deal smaller, was sewn shut; the kidneys were left for later.

Meanwhile, the New York art world was collectively thunder­struck. In 15 years as a poet, playwright, critic, curator, and universal energy source in the lives of the few hundred most creative people in America, Frank O’Hara had rendered that world wholly unprepared to tol­erate his passing.

[related_posts post_id_1=”416843″ /]

So Much Grace

The next day, Monday, July 25, the day of his death, he seemed to be holding his own, even improving. A very few friends were let in to see him, a few seconds apiece. In his speech at the funeral two days later, Larry Rivers, incensed at fate, said O’Hara “lay in a bed that looked like a large crib” and that he resembled “a shaped wound.” He said he had always expected Frank to be the first of his friends to die, but “romantically,” somehow, voided by his generosities and done in by his methodical excesses, not shattered by a jeep on a white sand beach. Willem de Kooning found O’Hara in terrible pain. “When I spoke his name he opened his eyes and he said, in that way of his, ‘Oh Bill, how nice!’ With such elegance! He had so much grace, that man, even through all the delirium and agony.”

At about 8:50 p.m., very suddenly, he was gone. He was 40 years old.

The sketchy obituary in the Times next morning barely mentioned his poetry, focusing on his role as an assistant curator at the Museum of Modern Art, responsible for the recent Motherwell and Nakian shows. It also rehashed the notoriety of a certain nude portrait of O’Hara (after Gericault, plus combat boots and erection) done by Rivers 11 years ago. The account of O’Hara’s funeral, in Thursday’s Times, led off with an exaggeration of people’s shock at Rivers’ speech, proceeded to misspell 10 of the 25 names it mentioned (uncorrected in later editions) then invented the presence of “many bearded, tieless friends of Mr. O’Hara,” a funny thing to lie about.

Nor did the Times note poet and dance critic Edwin Denby’s remark that O’Hara had been America’s greatest living poet; nor did it refer to poet and art critic Bill Berkson’s eulogy: “Frank was the most graceful, quick, courageous, sometimes terrifying intelligence. Often, no matter how intimate or involved you might be, you could only begin to imagine what and how much he was feeling. It was electric, full of light and air and blood, amazing, passionate, and full of sense. As a poet, a genius, just walking around, talking, he had that magic touch: He made things and people sacred…”

Indian Sutras

Rivers, in his speech, said, “There are at least 60 people in New York who thought Frank O’Hara was their best friend.” Before the funeral, Reuben Na­kian had a member of O’Hara’s family attach to his coffin a terra-cotta sculpture from the se­ries “Voyage to Crete” — work that had moved and excited O’Hara in his preparation of Na­kian’s show. After the funeral, Allen Ginsberg stayed to intone Indian sutras over the grave. Ginsberg: ”I never realized un­til now how attached I was to the presence of that man on Earth.”

His friends, in attempts communicate the breadth of their loss, almost inevitably allude to Guillaume Apollinaire. It’s a na­tural. Both poets were patron spirits of the avant-garde liter­ature, painting, theatre, music, and dance — indeed, the sensibility and moral vision of their times. Both had enormous per­sonal charisma. Both revised the aesthetic assumptions of poetry, leaving poetry changed. And both died horribly, at the height of their powers, leaving life changed.

Another dark parallel, one that O’Hara himself might richly have appreciated, takes in Jackson Pollock. O’Hara’s first major work of art criticism was a book on Pollock, a massive retrospective of whose work he was just beginning to assemble when he died — two weeks short of the 10th anniversary of Pollock’s death, also in an auto accident on Long Island. The two men’s graves, in the little cemetery of the Springs, are a few yards apart.

Such references correspond to a certain essence of the man. O’Hara’s life was measured out in a sort of endless homage to his heroes — the great exemplars of personal and artistic integrity like Pollock, Franz Kline, and especially Boris Pasternak; the ­revolutionaries of poetic attitude and style like Apollinaire and Mayakovsky, and the forms of emotional identification, the movie stars like James Dean, Carole Lombard, and so many others, whom he celebrated bril­liantly without embarrassment and with only the slightest, functional trace of irony.

[related_posts post_id_1=”84282″ /]

Every Area

This attitude of reverence and enthusiasm may in part account for the virtual mystique O’Hara generated around himself, for it extended into every area of his life, attaching to whatever and whomever he found in the least admirable or delightful — and triggering responses so intense his oldest friends do not affect to understand them. Everything about O’Hara is easy to demonstrate and exceedingly difficult to “understand.” And the aura of the legendary, never far from him while he lived, now seems about to engulf the memory of all he was and did.

Little is generally known about his early life, except that he was born in Baltimore on June 27, 1926, and raised in Grafton, Massachusetts, serving with the Navy in the Pacific from 1944 to 1946, when he entered Harvard. The one member of his family to whom he was close, a younger sister (now Mrs. Maureen Smith of Brooklyn Heights), respects his unwillingness to speak of those years.

In the spring of 1949, when O’Hara was a junior at Harvard, John Ashbery was a senior. As an editor of the Harvard Advocate, Ashbery had published some of O’Hara’s first literary efforts (mostly in prose) but knew of him only by his reputation as a hotshot intellectual with something of an undergraduate following. One afternoon in a bookstore, Ashbery heard a voice behind him airily expounding on the then almost totally unknown French composer Poulenc. Fascinated, he eavesdropped. The voice said: “Let’s face it, ‘Les Secheresses’ is much greater than ‘Tristan.’ ” Ashbery instantly turned and introduced himself; and their friendship was joined. “That,” he recalls, “was the sort of thing NOBODY said in those days. It didn’t matter that he was wrong.”

O’Hara’s first visits to New York, while finishing at Harvard and getting his M.A. at University of Michigan (where he also won the prestigious Hopwood Award for poetry), were suitably auspicious. In Ashbery’s Jones Street apartment and at gathering places of what would be known as the New York School “Second Generation” painters, he met Kenneth Koch, Larry Rivers, James Schuyler, Jane Freilicher, Mike Goldberg, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and scores of other young artists and poets, all engaged in a kind of vertiginously euphoric life and activity which O’Hara’s presence seemed just naturally to grace with point and inevitability. He was the first of the young New York poets to start reviewing for Art News (to be followed by Ashbery, Schuyler, and Barbara Guest) and in the fall of 1951 he was hired by the Museum of Modern Art, a tenure he was never, save for one two-year hiatus, to relinquish.

Exclamation Point

Frank O’Hara’s body was small and lean — classically “bantam” — and was topped by a face organized around a preposterous Roman nose, like a falcon’s beak. He had a smallish, sensuous mouth; a high, freckled forehead, and limpid blue eyes of a certain hypnotic charm. His every movement bespoke will and self-assurance, poise, and a kind of unmannered courtliness. His physical presence in a room was like that of an exclamation point on a page. That presence quickly became one of the most sought-after, and one of the most freely granted, in the city. The painter Helen Frankenthaler says personal invitations to parties in the ’50s often carried the information “Frank will be there” — the ultimate inducement to attend.

O’Hara seemed to be every­where at once. He attracted no­tice even on the Olympian heights of “The Club” on 8th Street, fabled clearinghouse of the New York School. De Kooning recalls: “I liked him immediately, he was so bright. Right away he was at the center of things, and he did not bulldoze. It was his manner and his way.

“There was a good-omen feeling about him.”

Delmore Schwartz had given O’Hara his first professional poetic acceptance in 1950, taking a poem for Partisan Review and strongly encouraging the young poet who was to outlive him by two weeks. His first book, A City Winter, was published in 1952 by John Myers at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, then virtually the only showcase for the overshadowed young talents of the “Second Generation” — among them, Miss Frankenthaler, for whom O’Hara’s effulgence of creative and emotional excitement “smacked of Paris scenes in the ’20s, their principle of passionate involvement with one’s comrades. As the circles and dimensions of our thing grew, everybody had moments of feeling intensely close to Frank. He climbed into your life.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”594260″ /]

Secret Continuum

Ashbery: “He gave you the feeling of belonging to an exclusive club with him, as if you had hooked into some big, secret continuum of life. Frank had a personal kind of idea about things, which made you feel you could think independently too.”

Ginsberg: “His feelings for me seemed to vibrate with my feelings for myself. I think he saw my ideal self-image; he articulated it and made it sound right.”

Berkson: “If you were one of Frank’s friends, you were given a grand permission to be direct and interesting, to be full of ideas and feelings.”

Collaboration, a direct extension of O’Hara’s mode of living, is a good metaphor for the manner of his relationships — an intimate competition in which each participant goads the other toward being at his best. Among the artistic collaborations: poems with Ashbery, Koch, Berkson, and the French language (before he learned it); the famous “Stones” lithographs with Rivers; painting-collages and the book “Odes” (Tibor, 1960) with Mike Goldberg; comic strips with Joe Brainard; “Four Dialogues for Two Voices and Two Pianos” with composer Ned Rorem; the movie “The Last Clean Shirt” with Al Leslie (shown at the New York Film Festival), and innumerable others. In his life, something of the same impulse was everywhere at work — ­to the ultimate dismay of some friends. Not everyone could cope for long with a mind that leapt at everything and missed noth­ing. Berkson: “I never heard Frank say ‘I don’t know what I feel about that.’ He could sum­mon a response, not just an opin­ion but a real emotional re­sponse, for anything.”

Goldberg: “If you were close to him, Frank forced you to live at a terribly high intensity. You were always scrambling to keep up with him. He ran through people; almost everyone fell by the wayside at one time or an­other. It was his incredible ap­petite for life…”

If O’Hara had a motto, it was perhaps his own summary of his approach to poetic composition: “You go on your nerve.” Or, meaning the same thing, a line of Pasternak’s: “It’s past, you’ll understand it later.” At any rate, O’Hara was not always tolerant of friends whose nerve failed them, who looked back. On rare occasions, drunk at some late hour, he would mount titanic and vituperative personal rages. He could instill misery and dread to the same extent that he habit­ually evoked affection and joy. Yet, in the words of a young poet who knew him, “No matter what he did, he never lost that movie-star quality, in the best sense. He never seemed less than glamorous and heroic.” Most people saw, at very least, a certain “rightness” to even his wildest tirades, perhaps because, as Goldberg says, “Frank almost always concealed the side of him that was deeply hurt and suf­fered; you only knew it must be there.” So his anger had the inexorable “justice” of a vol­cano. And when he demanded a return on the love he usually lav­ished, it had, with whatever an­guish, to be credited.

Tactic of Survival

For a man who, in the words of one friend, “indulged every feeling he ever had,” this may have been the simple tactic of survival.

If “other people,” Sartre’s Hell, were O’Hara’s element and atmosphere, other people’s art was his constant source of inspiration and delight. Jewish Museum Director Kinneston McShine, who worked with him at the Modern, speaks of O’Hara’s “amazing clarity” in instantly perceiving the special, most in­teresting aspect of any work. Painters, poets, and musicians speak of the quality of his con­cern. He was, on the pattern of Apollinaire, “a poet among the painters,” an artist whose do­main was all of art.

Elaine de Kooning: “He had a sense of what painters are after, he helped you see what you wanted to do.”

Rorem: “What amazed me most about Frank’s interest was that he really wanted you to be good, he really wanted to like your work.”

Ginsberg attributes to O’Hara’s persuasive enthusiasm his own first whole-hearted appreciation of the poets Peter Orlovsky, John Wieners, and Gregory Corso: ”He had the genius’s insight into other genius, plus total lyrical sympathy and magnanimity.”

And perhaps no poet since Apollinaire was the subject of so many portraits.

It is generally agreed among the current crop of young “New York poets” that whatever sense they may have of common identity, and of identification with the older, established poets, is due largely to O’Hara. Certainly his loft at 791 Broadway — as, earlier, his apartment on East 9th Street — was a depot for poets re­gardless of age, clique, or stylis­tic allegiance. Koch: O’Hara acted as though “being an artist were the most natural thing in the world.” Also, he acted as though the art and literary scenes were really for artists and poets, any artist and any poet who wanted to move in them. He held parties expressly for the purpose of bringing peo­ple together; at one such he in­troduced dozens of young writ­ers to the venerable Italian poet Ungaretti. His personal, direct (never patronizing) warmth had a way of melting one’s feelings of intimidation at the threshold to his world. Now, it seems, all that may be gone forever.

[related_posts post_id_1=”715273″ /]

Uncanny Ability

Unquestionably O’Hara’s continuous involvement with others hurt his own poetic production, though to balance it he had the uncanny ability, as Koch tells it, “to write while other people were talking, or even to get up in the middle of a conversation, get his typewriter, and write a poem, sometimes participating in the conversation while doing so.” Moreover, there was in principle no absolute cleavage between his social and artistic spheres. To a degree more radical than that of any poet before him, O’Hara made his whole life, his milieu and experiences and friends, the raw subject matter of his work.

To Donald Allen’s endlessly influential 1960 anthology, “The New American Poetry” (in the assembling of which he was a main force and arbiter), O’Hara contributed 15 poems and a “statement on poetics” which reads in part: “What is happening to me, allowing for lies and exaggerations I try to avoid, goes into my poems… My formal ‘stance’ is found at the crossroads where what I know and can’t get meets what is left of what I know and can bear without hatred… It may be that poetry makes life’s nebulous events tangible to me and restores their detail; or, conversely, that poetry brings forth the intangible quality of incidents which are all too concrete and circumstantial. Or each on specific occasions, or both all the time.”

Human Perceptions

As it is written, O’Hara’s poetry is tough, dazzling, supple and fast, very funny but incipient with the deepest feelings, aglimmer with linguistic and human perceptions, and subject at any moment to lyric eruption or the breakthrough of intelligence.

Ashbery: “His poetry, more than anyone else’s, reconciles all sorts of conflicting material. In it, things exist in a sort of miraculous emulsion.”

Ginsberg: “Of course he had a tremendous sensitivity for style, for chatty campy style and also for real high style… He was at the center of an extra­ordinary poetic era, which gives his poetry its sense of historic monumentality… And he integrated purely personal life into the high art of composition, marking the return of all author­ity back to person. His style is actually in line with the tradi­tion that begins with Independ­ence and runs through Thoreau and Whitman, here composed in metropolitan spaceage architec­ture environment.

“He taught me to really see New York for the first time, by making of the giant style of Mid­town his intimate cocktail en­vironment. It’s like having Cat­ullus change your view of the Forum in Rome.”

O’Hara’s major books are “Meditations in an Emergency” (Grove, 1957), “Lunch Poems” (City Lights, 1964), and “Love Poems (Tentative Title)” (Tibor, 1965). His reputation, as Ted Berrigan suggests in an article in the current East Village Oth­er, will probably ultimately rest on such poems as “Second Aven­ue,” “In Memory of My Feel­ings,” “For the Chinese New Year (and for Bill Berkson)” and “Rhapsody,” but already a handful of his short poems, em­bodiments of unique and perhaps unprecedented ways of thinking and feeling about things, seem destined for a kind of immor­tality — e. g., “The Day Lady Died” and “Why I Am Not a Painter.” His best plays include “Awake in Spain!” and “The General Returns from One Place to Another.”

And much of O’Hara’s work is yet to be published, exactly how much is not immediately clear.

O’Hara did not, while he lived, win a very extensive poetic reputation. For one thing, his preference for the “commercial” world of art over the academic “community of letters” cut him off from the latter’s well-oiled media of (relative) fame. The New York Times, as it has again so eloquently indicated, is innocent of poetry unless informed of it through proper channels. Beyond that, O’Hara deliberately neglected measures, such as simply sending off his work to the prestige magazines or using his influence with larger publishing houses, by which he might effortlessly have ascended into a more general view. In the early ’50s he published frequently in Poetry, for example, but never since 1956.

His reluctance to be bothered with literary renown bespeaks the confidence of a man who knew he had it coming. But, more than that, it testifies that the locus of his ambition lay elsewhere. O’Hara affirmed, in an essay on Doctor Zhivago, Pasternak’s (and his own) “belief that the poet must first be a person, that his writings make him a poet, not his acting of the role.” And what is the alchemy by which a poet is first a person? An O’Hara line: “Grace/to be born and live as variously as possible.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”1772″ /]

To the Harbormaster

I wanted to be sure to reach you;
though my ship was on the way it got caught
in some moorings. I am always tying up
and then deciding to depart. In storms and
at sunset, with the metallic coils of the tide
around my fathomless arms, I am unable
to understand the forms of my vanity
or I am hard alee with my Polish rudder
in my hand and the sun sinking. To
you I offer my hull and the tattered cordage
of my will. The terrible channels where
the wind drives me against the brown lips
of the reeds are not all behind me. Yet
I trust the sanity of my vessel; and
if it sinks, it may well be in answer
to the reasoning of the eternal voices,
the waves which have kept me from reaching you.

— Frank O’Hara