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Frank O’Hara at frankohara.org & at poetryfoundation.org.

Frank O’Hara

By Ted Berrigan

Winter in the country, Southampton, pale horse
as the soot rises, then settles, over the pictures
The birds that were singing this morning have shut up
I thought I saw a couple kissing, but Larry said no
It’s a strange bird. He should know. & I think now
“Grandmother divided by monkey equals outer space.” Ron
put me in that picture. In another picture, a good-
looking poet is thinking it over, nevertheless, he will
never speak of that it. But, his face is open, his eyes
are clear, and, leaning lightly on an elbow, fist below
his ear, he will never be less than perfectly frank,
listening, completely interested in whatever there may
be to hear. Attentive to me alone here. Between friends,
nothing would seem stranger to me than true intimacy.
What seems genuine, truly real, is thinking of you, how
that makes me feel. You are dead. And you’ll never
write again about the country, that’s true.
But the people in the sky really love
to have dinner & to take a walk with you.

Ted Berrigan, “Frank O’Hara” from The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan. Copyright © 2005 by University of California Press. Reprinted by permission of University of California Press. [via]

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The annual HOWL! FESTIVAL kicks off today in the East Village.

Opening day, this year, coincides with the 85th anniversary of Ginsberg’s birth. Per tradition, the poet Bob Holman will lead a group reading of Howl with a cast of friends and fellow poets. From the website:

Each year we commence the open air festivities in NYC’s Tompkins Square Park with a group reading of Allen’s ground-breaking 1956 poem, HOWL, just before dusk, conducted in a symphonic manner by Bowery Poetry Club mastermind, Bob Holman. The line up of poets lending their voices to bringing Howl to life this year (in no particular order) include: Darian Dauchan, Alice Whitwham, Nicole Wallace, Curtis Jensen, Julie Patton, Fay Chiang, Miguel Algarin, Andy Clausen, Eliot Katz, Bob Rosenthal, David Henderson, John Giorno, Hettie Jones, Steven Taylor, Ed Sanders, sick prose, Elisabeth Velasquez, Helena D. Lewis, Eliel Lucero, Nikhil Melnechuk, & Jon Sands.

I plan to be there with my undergrad Downtown Scenes class. (It’s our final day today; we opened the course with Howl, so this seems a fitting way to close.)

As much as I look forward to the reading, I think I’d rather listen to Patti Smith read Ginsberg than just about anyone else but Ginsberg. Here she is with Philip Glass reading Ginsberg’s “On the Cremation of Chogyam Trungpa Vidyadhara” (1987) at a memorial for Ginsberg. From Dream of Life:

That spittle at 2:50 is, I think, one of the most moving moments in the history of punk performance.

I also like her piece “Spell,” which incorporates G’s Footnote to Howl:

The same piece as included in Dream of Life:

Follow the Howl! Festival on Twitter. Follow @HowlTweeter too.

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by Herman Melville

Skimming lightly, wheeling still,
The swallows fly low
Over the field in clouded days,
The forest-field of Shiloh —
Over the field where April rain
Solaced the parched ones stretched in pain
Through the pause of night
That followed the Sunday fight
Around the church of Shiloh —
The church so lone, the log-built one,
That echoed to many a parting groan
And natural prayer
Of dying foemen mingled there —
Foemen at morn, but friends at eve —
Fame or country least their care:
(What like a bullet can undeceive!)
But now they lie low,
While over them the swallows skim,
And all is hushed at Shiloh.

more on Memorial Day poetry here.

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Somehow I doubt this will ever be turned into a Levi’s advertisement:

via @Parches

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James Franco’s Ginsberg

Howl, directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (previously best known as the documentarians behind The Celluloid Closet [1995]), opens in limited release today, showing at Angelika, Clearview Chelsea, and Lincoln Plaza. I managed to catch a preview last Monday, part of a fundraising evening for Brooklyn College’s MFA program, where Allen Ginsberg taught for ten years before his death and where the film’s star, James Franco, just completed an MFA in creative writing last spring.  Here’s the trailer, followed by a few preliminary thoughts — preliminary because I do plan to see it again.

I can’t say that the trailer or other early clips I’d seen inspired a lot of confidence. Franco, though I was a big Freaks and Geeks fan and certainly respect his ability as an actor, seemed, well, too pretty to be Ginsberg. But I jumped at the chance to see the film early, even though the price tag was a little hefty, because he and the directors would be taking questions after and because I planned to take my 16-year-old daughter, also a big Freaks and Geeks fan, who has had a crush on Franco since the 4th grade and occasionally refers to herself as the Future Mrs. James Franco.

And I was more than pleasantly surprised. The film toggles between three primary structural sequences: a smart if celebratory reading of the poem (accompanied by animation based on Eric Drooker‘s visual collaborations with Ginsberg before he died); a compelling take on the poem’s autobiographical content, cobbled from published sources and delivered as an interview Franco gives to an unseen interviewer; and a clever use of Ferlinghetti’s trial for peddling obscenity by selling Ginsberg’s poem, the dialogue drawn entirely from court transcripts. The latter winds up doubling as a classroom setting for the audience to consider just what poetry is, how it can be read and misread, and why reading and writing poetry matters, fifty years ago and now. The filmmakers very wisely decided not to flesh out the trial’s participants as characters, a la Capote. The focus, that way, remains on the poem, large portions of which are featured two or three or maybe even four times — in Franco’s voice, in courtroom dialogue, in the interviews. Even viewers who aren’t familiar with the poem — my daughter, say — should walk away being able to identify key features. (We had a great conversation on the train home.) The film isn’t a Ginsberg biopic in any traditional sense; it puts the poem first, its place in Ginsberg’s life next (reading it as part of a coming-of-age story as well as a Bildungsroman), and its place in American culture last.

Franco himself is quite credible as Ginsberg. If he comes off as a little buttoned-down in the recurring sequence set at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, 7 October 1955, it’s a useful reminder that Allen didn’t always look like a hippie prophet wandering the streets. And Franco clearly prepared for the role: in Q&A he described taking a full year to work with the directors, prepping by reading Ginsberg bios, journals, and the myriad interviews from which much of the screenplay is drawn. He has also clearly listened to a lot of tapes and watched a decent amount of video, though the latter only exists for Ginsberg’s older incarnations. All of this for a film shot in 14 days. Franco has Ginsberg’s mannerisms and tics down so well that, especially during the interview sequences, it’s not hard to forget this is him and not AG. In Q&A he had smart things to say about the poem and the process of making the film: sounding a little like a literature grad student (which he is, as of this semester, when he begins Yale’s PhD program in English), he said that he found the autobiographical reading of the poem to be surprisingly productive, but that it was important to remember it’s just one way to read the poem, not the final word. I would agree with him on both counts: I also found the autobiographical reading to open up some portions of the poem I’d not really paid much attention to, but in the end it would be a mistake to reduce the poem to a psychological milestone in Ginsberg’s development as a poet and a person: clearly it’s resonated on a much larger scale for over half a century.

The film isn’t perfect. I was skeptical of the animated sequences, especially since they begin with a cringe-inducing visualization of “Negro streets at dawn,” but as they progress the animated parts (I use the word “parts” advisedly, since the animation features a proliferation of penises) even themselves out. The score is a bit heavy-handed, if not outright maudlin, especially at moments of key growth for Franco’s character. The Six Gallery reading seemed a little tame to me, at least tamer than Michael McClure’s famous descriptions of Kerouac chanting “GO!” in cadence with Ginsberg’s delivery, but you do get the sense from those scenes that Ginsberg’s initial audience encountered the poem as something incredibly new, a decisive moment of change, of no turning back, as McClure also described it. In its finale, with the “Footnote to Howl” the Six Gallery reading takes on a slightly anachronistic feel: we can only be as introspective about the intensely personal meaning of some of those lines from the perspective of decades passed. I wanted a more raucous and less lyrical delivery of those lines. Something more like this, but by that point the autobiographical reading has pretty much determined that references to Kerouac, Cassady, Solomon, and especially to Naomi Ginsberg, will mean that Franco’s delivery slows to an introspective, hushed conclusion. Perhaps it’s a fitting finale for this particular reading of the poem. Let me know what you think once you’ve seen it.

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When I posted about Ginsberg yesterday I had no idea Peter Orlovsky, Ginsberg’s long-time lover and a Beat poet in his own right, had passed on May 30. He was 76.

The Times doesn’t have an obit up yet, same with the Voice (it’s shameful!), but here’s one from the Washington Post and another from the LA Times‘s Jacket Copy blog.

Here’s Peter’s poem “Frist Poem” (sic). The typo in the title was, if not intentional, then at least ratified by being published that way. As you’ll see, Peter’s spelling was idiosyncratic and he seems to have made a point in not letting other people (or himself) clean it up. The poem was written in 1957 and collected in his Pocket Poets Series volume Clean Asshole Poems & Smiling Vegetable Songs (City Lights, 1978). You’ll find a couple other poems at Brian Nation’s page on Orlovsky, which is where I clipped this one:

FRIST POEM

A rainbow comes pouring into my window, I am electrified.
Songs burst from my breast, all my crying stops, mistory fills
    the air.
I look for my shues under my bed.
A fat colored woman becomes my mother.
I have no false teeth yet. Suddenly ten children sit on my lap.
I grow a beard in one day.
I drink a hole bottle of wine with my eyes shut.
I draw on paper and I feel I am two again. I want everybody to
    talk to me.
I empty the garbage on the tabol.
I invite thousands of bottles into my room, June bugs I call them.
I use the typewritter as my pillow.
A spoon becomes a fork before my eyes.
Bums give all their money to me.
All I need is a mirror for the rest of my life.
My frist five years I lived in chicken coups with not enough
    bacon.
My mother showed her witch face in the night and told stories of
    blue beards.
My dreams lifted me right out of my bed.
I dreamt I jumped into the nozzle of a gun to fight it out with a
    bullet.
I met Kafka and he jumped over a building to get away from me.
My body turned into sugar, poured into tea I found the meaning
    of life
All I needed was ink to be a black boy.
I walk on the street looking for eyes that will caress my face.
I sang in the elevators believing I was going to heaven.
I got off at the 86th floor, walked down the corridor looking for
    fresh butts.
My comes turns into a silver dollar on the bed.
I look out the window and see nobody, I go down to the street,
    look up at my window and see nobody.
So I talk to the fire hydrant, asking "Do you have bigger tears
    then I do?"
Nobody around, I piss anywhere.
My Gabriel horns, my Gabriel horns: unfold the cheerfulies,
    my gay jubilation.

Nov. 24th, 1957, Paris

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When I first thought of teaching an intensive summer seminar on New York’s downtown scenes — which I just wrapped up last Friday — I planned only to teach the 1970s. Gearing up to write my 33 1/3 volume on Television’s Marquee Moon, I wanted to immerse myself in a broad range of materials from the period detailing a number of overlapping downtown arts scenes.

I quickly realized, though, that much of what I wanted to do with the 70s in class required some understanding of the area’s arts scenes in the 1960s, and so I decided to expand the timeframe to 1960-80. When the final reading list was drawn up, I’d reached back even further: I had a hunch that the work of some particular downtown arts pioneers who created seminal works in the 1950s — Allen Ginsberg and John Cage, especially — would become threads that would weave through the entire course.

Turns out I was right in both cases, but especially in Ginsberg’s. (Other people whose work proved to have lasting effects on the downtown scenes we discussed include O’Hara and Warhol.) Almost without fail, Ginsberg turned up in every day’s discussion over the course of our two weeks, either as a direct influence, a character, a mentor, or a commentator. His appearances ranged from the goofy parka-wearing, pot-smoking version of himself in Pull My Daisy to the author of Howl (which in turn authorized The Fugs’ memorable “I Saw the Best Minds of My Generation Rock”) to the prophet wandering in the background of Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” in Pennebaker’s Dont Look Back. Jonas Mekas captured him plotting with Barbara Rudin and other LES lefties in the 1960s (we watched the second reel of Walden) and as a fixture on the LES poetry scene he popped up in several of the pieces we read by our friend Daniel Kane. Ginsberg offered astute commentary on Dylan’s lyrics in a PBS documentary on the history of rock and roll. He provided a very memorable scene in Jim Carroll’s memoir Forced Entries, worked with — and claimed to deflower — the downtown composer and scene-crosser Arthur Russell, and befriended Patti Smith. He lived in the same building as both Russell and the members of Television. (Richard Hell still lives there.) In Steven Sebring’s Patti Smith: Dream of Life, which was the very last thing, along with Smith’s Just Kids, that we considered for this course, we see Patti’s very emotional reading at a Ginsberg memorial; later in the film she chants the “Footnote to Howl,” offering all the evidence anyone should need that even Ginsberg’s most idiosyncratic work holds up under someone else’s voice.

I’m still trying to work out exactly what it was that made Ginsberg’s legacy so unique in the materials we discussed. Although I opted not to show it to the class, I privately viewed a late-1980s odd-ball documentary on East Side poetry, Maria Beatty’s Gang of Souls: A Generation of Beat Poets, in which nearly every poet interviewed, including younger writers and musicians such as Richard Hell, Lydia Lunch, and Jim Carroll, singles out Ginsberg as the towering figure of twentieth-century New York writing. Cage’s influence on musicians and artists, by contrast, was subtle, almost imperceptible, though still very much in place. Perhaps Ginsberg seemed to matter because he offered such a clear model for how to make a scene and how to canonize one’s comrades. But he also seemed to matter because he was, quite simply, on the scene for so long, taking an interest in younger writers’ work (and more), offering advice, continuing to read in public. O’Hara mattered as an icon in his early death (and a pioneer of a poetics that clearly took hold among other New York School poets); O’Hara also drew young, aspiring poets to the city, but that hands-on influence was cut short. Warhol mattered as a media mastermind and behind-the-scenes manipulator. But Ginsberg just seemed to be there wherever we turned, presiding, prodding, provoking. In the history of late-twentieth-century New York writing it’s difficult, I’m finding, to come up with someone whose life and work had broader impact.

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It’s been a decent week for NYC poetry. Amiri Baraka read at St. Mark’s on Wednesday. Taylor Mead reads next Monday at Bowery Poetry Club. And tonight John Giorno, a fixture of the city’s poetry scene since the 60s (and star of Warhol’s film Sleep), presents new paintings and reads poetry tonight in Chelsea. Here’s a taste of his performance style. He’s reading “Thanks for Nothing”:

Friday, May 21, 7 pm
Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery
526 W. 26th Street, No. 213
New York, NY 10001
gallery@nicoleklagsbrun.com
P. 212.243.3335
F. 212.243.1059
nicoleklagsbrun.com

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Starting my morning over coffee by looking for clips of Frank O’Hara reading his own work. Wound up getting sucked down a rabbit hole of Man Men blogs. (Getting ready to teach O’Hara today has been more fun than getting ready to teach most things. Maybe it’s just that I don’t teach this stuff all that often and so it still feels fresh.)

First, O’Hara on O’Hara:

If you want to start making sense of O’Hara’s poetry, you could do worse than to think about his tongue-in-cheek manifesto “Personism” (1959).

Two: I found something sweet about the idea of a 15-year-old Jim Carroll dogging O’Hara’s steps one afternoon in an attempt to see everything he was seeing, so as to be able to identify, at some future date, the poem O’Hara was about to go home and write:

And finally, the Mad Men episode. I had forgotten the use of Meditations in an Emergency at the opening of Season 2. Don encounters someone in a bar reading the poems over lunch (heh, heh: lunch poems, get it?). He later winds up sending the volume to an unspecified lover, probably Midge, his bohemian girlfriend from the first season who had finally blown him off. (Too bad, too — I kind of liked the midtown/downtown tension of that relationship more than the similar function of Paul Kinsey’s beard or the pot-smoking punks brought in to help the firm reach a younger demographic.) The actual sequence from the end of the first episode of the second season has been disabled by request. Here’s the voiceover with a fan montage of scenes, which has the over-the-top effect of making the poem even try harder to get at Don’s particularly shifty interiority, but also extends the “emergency” to the rest of the cast:

“Grey” in the poem calls up the idea of “grey flannel suits” quite effectively.

For kicks, here’s where the Man Men blogs took me. One post noted that in the commentary track for the DVD release of the season, the series creator described how accidental his encounter with O’Hara was, and how chance the use of that specific poem (“Mayakovky”) was as well:

Matthew Weiner was at an exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York where there were snippets from Frank O’Hara’s poetry on the walls. The poetry he saw that day was from a different O’Hara book, Lunch Poems. Weiner wanted to use this book in the show, but it had not yet been published in 1962. Instead, he chose Meditations in an Emergency, seemingly without having read it. When Weiner had finished the script for “For Those Who Think Young”, he and a co-worker looked at the last poem of the book out of curiosity and found that the last poem, “Mayakovsky”, fit perfectly with what Don was experiencing in the episode. This is how they came to have Don recite the poem as he walked to the mailbox in the last scene. Not the brilliant creative decision I had expected, but an interesting case of serendipity.

The folks at AMC’s house blog, though, have pushed a more academic approach, suggesting just how brilliant the creative decision was. They enlist David Lehman, the collective biographer of O’Hara and the other New York School poets, to tease out the “hidden messages and literary motifs” in the episode. Lehman obliges:

“‘Mayakovsky’ has the phrase ‘the catastrophe of my personality,'” Lehman explains. “It is part of O’Hara’s charm that he uses such self-deprecatory humor, and I think that charm extends to the voiceover. Also, the ending of that poem implies a split in the speaker’s personality: ‘It may be the coldest day of / the year, what does he think of / that? I mean, what do I? And if I do, / perhaps I am myself again.’ Note the difference between ‘I’ and ‘he.’ Does Don ‘feel like’ himself?”

Well read! Though I can’t help but note the sharp difference between O’Hara’s reading style, which camps everything up, and the gravity of Hamm’s delivery. Maybe that’s another point to be made: how the poetry can’t help — perhaps especially because O’Hara died so tragically young — but be more serious than his own delivery suggested.

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Over on our Twitter feed we’ve been hosting a little chatter about people’s favorite New York poets, in honor of the soon-to-be-past National Poetry Month. Among the favorites people have suggested are Frank O’Hara, Edgar Allan Poe, Allen Ginsberg, W. H. Auden, Edna St. Vincent Millay, W. S. Merwin, Robert Lowell, Ken Koch, Ted Berrigan, Bernadette Mayer, Jim Carroll, John Ferris, F. G. Lorca, and Langston Hughes. I had suggested that people not list Whitman, since it’s hard to imagine how he wouldn’t be the presiding poet in any reckoning.

Are there others you’d add to the list?

By way of a longer post observing National Poetry Month, I thought I’d point readers to a couple anthologies of NYC-related verse. I’m linking to Amazon, but wouldn’t it be nicer of you to ask for these titles at your neighborhood bookstore?

The most obvious recent anthology, perhaps, is I Speak of the City: Poems of New York, edited by Stephen Wolf and John Hollander and published by Columbia University Press in 2007. It has quite a range, from the 17th-century Dutch poet Jacob Steendam to Tuli Kupferberg’s “Greenwich Village of My Dreams” to work by half a dozen poets who were under 40 when the book came out. These are “poems of New York” rather than poems by New York poets, if you’re splitting hairs. The entries explicitly take the city as their topic and affirm, as the authors suggest in their introduction, the Whitmanian idea that the city itself is a great poem. (For another collection in this vein, see Poems of New York, the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets volume edited by Elizabeth Schmidt and released in 2002.)

Another title to suggest, and one we’ve used in past versions of our Writing New York course, is Miguel Algarin and Bob Holman’s Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe (Holt, 1994). The legacy of one of the city’s multi-faceted downtown scenes of the early 1970s, the Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe has always done more than just poetry — in addition to its ongoing slams, it also features film events, a theater program, and jazz and hip hop — all ways of pushing poetry’s limits. The anthology includes work from 1990s then works back to “founding” poems from the movement’s 70s origins, and also includes work drawn from “The Open Room,” the ongoing weekly open mic session in which “poetry in all stages of gestation” finds an audience. As Algarin’s introduction makes clear in its moving evocation of the poet Miguel Piñero’s Loisaida funeral, the Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe reveals the power of words to organize, preserve, and memorialize community.

Finally, to broaden your view to include an outer borough — the one most centrally identified with ongoing arts scenes at this point — check out Broken Land: Poems of Brooklyn, edited by Michael Tyrell and Julia Kasdorf and published by NYU Press in 2007. Beginning with Whitman, then looking back to the Lenni Lenape Indians, the cast of poets will, in many instances, overlap with the volumes above, but the subject matter here is specifically BK. “It’s so full of the sights and sounds of Brooklyn streets,” the editors write, “that it’s the next best thing to being there.”

When the volume was new, co-editor Michael Tyrell participated in a series of Q&As via the Times‘s City Room blog. As part of the Q&A, one reader want to push the relationship of poetry to place even further — to the level of the neighborhood rather than the borough:

Question:

Are there any good poets from Midwood, either well-known or under-appreciated?

— Posted by Edo

Answer:

Brooklyn College in Midwood has long been a hub for excellent poets and poetry. Its Master of Fine Arts program is particularly strong, and alumni include the poet and novelist Sapphire, and Anselm Berrigan, Ted Berrigan’s son and a fine poet in his own right. Allen Ginsberg, who was on the faculty of the M.F.A. program, wrote a charming and funny poem called “Brooklyn College Brain,” which conveys the awkward humor of being a famous poet and a writing teacher. In a third-person voice, it offers a series of instructions: get an identity card, workshop poems in the “Bird Room,” and “have some office hours.” I would also recommend a poet named L. S. Asekoff, who is also on the M.F.A. faculty; his poem, “The Widows of Gravesend,” along with Mr. Ginsberg’s, appears in “Broken Land.”

I threw in that extended quotation just in case any of our readers were miffed that we’ve lacked in Midwood literary coverage on this blog.

Other favorite volumes you’d recommend?

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