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Entries in James Schuyler (7)

Wednesday
Jun152011

In Which James Schuyler Demands So Little Of Us

James Schuyler, Calais, Vermont, late 1960s; photograph by Joe Brainard

A Beautiful Intensity of Focus

James Schuyler overcame a horrifying childhood (he described it as out of "a novel by Dostoyevsky") to largely self educate himself, which was in stark contrast to the Harvard backgrounds of the other New York School poets. He was an accomplished writer of verse, a sometime novelist, and a constant art critic. His work populated Art News, his friends Fairfield Porter, Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery influenced each other's tastes.

Schuyler's letters are a treasure trove of insights from an incredibly sensitive man, and all his private writing (including his magical diary) stands alongside his superb poetry and prose despite his commentary to Anne Porter that "I do not regard personal letters as literature."

fairfield porter painting jane freilicher

November 3, 1954

to JANE FREILICHER

Dear Jane,

It's raining. I hate what I've been writing. I've spent more money than I should, and wonder how I'll get through the weekend. I have a peculiar feeling in the ball of my right foot (sort of between a fish hook and a feather). An oh yes, Bill Weaver is coming by in a hour to take me to a cocktail party I don't want to go to, because I know the people are already offended with me for not having looked them up. And the electricity keeps going off. Otherwise I'm fine. How are you?

The boys are in England, after a big success in Belgium, and will be there next week. Arthur was very sick in Venice, with bronchitis — he's OK now, though really too broke down to be touring.

I meant my gloom to strike a lighter note than this — maybe it's because I went to see On the Waterfront last night, then read in bed Keats' last letters and all about his death. I bought myself some reading books, but it turns out the cheeriest one is a selected Matthew Arnold, who assures us in one verse that old age brings neither peace nor ease, just diminished powers, less sleep, and regret for the time when one at least imagined old age might be nice. Oi. What a camp that one is. A real lead shoe-nik.

But I like Rome, and so would you. Though that academy — what a bunch. They make an off-night forum at the artist's club sound like "Socrate."

I seem to be in more of a state of mind to receive a letter than to write one. What are you doing? Are you going to show this year? Does Grace continue on her fantastic course? Have any of our lads found (or for that matter, sought) gainful employment? Frank wrote me a very funny letter about an outing he took with you, Joe, John Ashbery and Hal Fondren. You emerged very well, and John was caught in characteristic poses.

Now I'll climb into my fancy Dan and go laught it up with what Bill calls some "really very chic people, and quite amusing." Help. Write.

Love,

Jimmy

Rome

July 7, 1956

to FAIRFIELD PORTER

Dear Fairfield,

After two beautiful days we had three wet cold ones. The temperature went below 60 and we were all delighted and worked hard. But today it's summer again, not warm or dry enough for the beach, but nice with a lot of Boudin clouds bumping around in the blue.

All our social life has consisted of having Larry for dinner last night, as thrillingly full of his favorite subjects, him, as ever. He and Howie have a show at the bookshop (a sign says Larry Rivers in huge letters and then in tiny letters, "and his guest Howard Kanovitz") and Larry's picture of Joseph with his socks on and his pants off had to be taken down by popular request.

In its place there is a notice that says, in effect, due to the smallness of some, others may see the shocker by asking (as Larry said, the only thing that shocks people in paintings nowadays is a "male penis"). He had also a letter from your dealer who hated Paris and loved London and says he is going to be very big for Jane next year because he has been to some museums and now gets what's she's after.

Larry had to leave early, unfortunately, because Stevie and a playmate had disappeared into Riverhead where there is a carnie show with a strip tease dancer and they still weren't home by 9:30. Guess they did make it safely back to their respective hysterical mother and grandmother or we would have heard.

Everything about the house is fine (not to say beautiful and a joy). Arthur Weinstein prowled through like a cat-detective and is already to line up a membership for you in the IDA (Interior Decorators Assoc.) My only complaint is that the stove demands so little of me.

The lilies by the barn opened yesterday in the rain, and first big daisy opened this morning. The new bed is full of beautiful delicate flowers. Although I only take my face out of the Flower encyclopedia long enough to put it in my dinner, I seem to know practically none of their names - there's sweet alyssum, and poppies, deep yellow ones and a scarlet one, but are they California, Iceland or Siberian poppies? And zinnias and bachelor buttons are in bud.

We had a charming card from Laurence, who says he likes the chaperoning job and will be here about July 27th for three or four nights. We'll be glad to see him (though it occurs to me now that I will probably be in town then reviewing). He has such elegant handwriting.

I writing in the studio (I sound like a Chinaman) - and of the pictures you left out I particularly love the one of Jerry that's given you so much trouble. It doesn't look unfinished or incomplete to me, it has a beautiful intensity of focus, first on the face, secondly on the dishes, with everything else "There" to just the degree that what's arund what one looks at is seen. And I love the living room, transparent as a water color and the snowy spring light.

I had a postcard from John Ashbery in which he says he guesses it's definite he'll be in France another year, though he will be here in September. I enclose the two poems he sent me I mentioned at Kenneth's. I'd like them back, and I'd like to see the ones he sent you, if you have them, and I'll return them.

Soon as I can pull myself together and wrap it, I'll send you a book I have for you. It's four poets, and I want to give it to you because I like Wyatt so much, and I think you might, too, and because the editor's introduction is interesting. He says some simple things about scanning five beat lines that seem to make a subject I've never much grasped a lot clearer. When I send it I'll mark the passage I mean.

When circulars come, and they do, shall we just put them in the basket by the front door?

Alvin N has decided that he and John shouldn't live together anymore, which is sad and stupid. It wouldn't surprise me though if he changed his mind later; I think in the end he is the one who would be worst off. Or benefit least, or something. Jane's comment was, "It proves again that man's inhumanity to man is equaled only by his inhumanity to himself."

The boys are going in next Tuesday to play on a TV show and will bring the lady la Rochefoucalud (sp?) back with them if she can prevail on Joe to drive out Friday for the weekend. I hope so. I'm dying to see her.

Kenneth said they were going to visit you in August. I think Great Spruce Head is the prefect place to contain him and set him off. And he can write his Katherine Kanoe Kantos.

Every second, today becomes more overpoweringly beautiful. I'd like to make an anthology of all the lines of poetry with the word blue in them, beginning with Frank's "It's the blue!" "...si blew, si calme..." "...in unending blueness...." (On the other hand I can't think of a drearier poem than the one of Herbert's that begins so marvelously about "Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so far..." (I think it is) and then points out that it won't last forever. I hate all those dusty-answer poems about how someone or something is as pretty as a peach but after a while it's going to be all awful looking. And I don't think it's Christianity that's to blame — though it might be Protestantism — Dante doesn't talk that way.)

I've been alternately reading Proust and the Divine Comedy. No comment.

And I read Measure for Measure again. When you read him, there is really no one but Shakespeare; the exhilaration, the invention, the clarity, the truth. I think I really like the late comedies the most, Measure for Measure, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest. Though my special love is As You Like It, it's so artificial, it doesn't make the faintest pretense that its existence was obliged, was called for.

Bigger works of art always seem to threaten to help one in some way or another, and therefore the fact they exist is part of the Social Good. As You Like It is just there, like the one red popppy across the lawn, pure excess of delight.

Speaking of pure excess, I've been on a diet. A few weeks ago I weighed 171, now I weight 163, and I'm not going to think about stopping until I find out how I look and feel at 155. In fact we are all on diets, and since we've been here have broken down only once, when we stormed up Main Street at 10:30 one night and had hot fudge and butterscotch sundaes. Of course we talk about nothing but food — even to the exclusion of Europe, our one other subject - and Bobby and I read antiphonally from Sheila Hibben and Tante Marie's Pastry book to an accompaniement of moans. It does seem absurd that when we open that marvelous oven great cinnamon smelling gusts don't come pouring out.

My love to Anne and Katy and Elizabeth. Were you able to get someone to help with the house work?

I hope I'll hear from you soon.

Love,

Jimmy

Southampton

schuyler's photograph of fairfield porter

Thursday Fall 1955

to FAIRFIELD PORTER

Dear Fairfield,

How delightful to find your handwriting in an anonymously addressed envelope, when I dismally thought all the mail was another throw-away. I shall go right away to see Calcagno, and Feeley too.

But how inaccurate of you to have told Frank and Kenneth that the reason you didn't call me is that it is you who always call! Wasn't it I who called you in Southampton when I heard you were back and coming into town? And I who called you the day we were moving, when you and I went downtown and you bought the beautiful white lamp that has given us so much pleasure and illumination? And often when it has been you who called, wasn't it because we had arranged it so beforehand — as often at my suggestion as yours — on the ground that you would be out during the day, and I would be in?

I did try to call you the week of John's party, and then gave it up because I was aware of the deliberateness in your silence. One's often tempted to test one's friends in these little ways — at least I am — but it's my experience that to do so is a challenge to the friend to show that he has the nerve and heartlessness to fail one; and most of us have.

Besides, I think you exaggerate the degree of initiative you take in your friendships: I know, because I'm shy, that it often takes more initiative for me to bring myself to say yes to an invitation than it took for the inviter to issue it.

While I'm at it, I'm also rather put out by this youth and age stuff. In so far as I think of you as "older," I feel honored and benefited by your friendship; but if it turns out that you feel odd in bestowing it, I feel snubbed. I don't, though, think of you as "older" so much as I do a friend who has had a life very different from mine (but if I must think about it, then I say that I think I'm a man over thirty, past which age one might hope to have gained the right to mingle with one's elders &/or betters).

watching tv with the gang in 1955

I wish I thought you dwelt a little on the virtues of your behavior: and saw that if (as I hope you do) you take pleasure in the company of Frank and Jane and Kenneth and Barbara and the rest of us, it's because your mind hasn't sealed over, that you've kept a fresh enthusiasm and curiosity, a desire to catch the contagion from your creative people and at the same time to help and instruct: equally admirable. How grateful John Button is to you for the things you said to him about his painting, and who else is there who could say them?

Someone else might OK his pictures - but that's just approval; someone his own age might criticize them in a helpful way, but that would lack the validity of experience. I cannot, literally bring to mind anyone else who would and could do it. Tom Hess wouldn't; Alfred Barr is too diplomatic; Larry would be jealous; John Myers is a dope...and so on. (I thought his paintings beautiful, and praised them as best I could; but I certainly have no painting pointers to give him!)

All I mean is that it seems to me merely another instance of American self-consciousness when confronted by one's oddness, when the oddness is what makes value. Do you think your paintings would keep gaining in quality — as I think they do — if you had been one of those dreary artists who hunt for it in their twenties, find it in their thirties and then do it for the rest of their lives? Oh the acres of Kuniyoshi and Reginald Marsh: I don't say their work was without merit, but I think it's mostly an achieved manner, and manner, en masse, makes for ennui. I wish instead of odd, you thought yourself as unique; you seem so to me, in relation to your brothers and sister, to other artists, to other men your age, to other members of the class of '28 (if that is the right year) — but then, they haven't had a long draught from the only spring that matters. You have.

I hope this doesn't seem impudent and fresh; which was no part of my plan.

Frank is not going to review anymore, and Betty Chamberlin called and asked if I'd write three sample reviews; so I shall, over the weekend. I wish you were going to be here to criticize them for me, but I shall do it the best I can and keep copies to show you.

I hope soon I can come out and visit you; since you said at Morris I knew "damn well I could." Pretty strong talk, pardner.

I'm enjoying enormously working over my book with Catherine Carver. I think it will turn out one that I will like much more than the one I submitted. It seems as thought every place where she puts her finger is one I had at some time thought myself might be a little pulpy or squashy.

I'll write more chattily another time, when you tell me that you've forgiven me for anything in this letter than needs forgiving. None of it means anything serious, in light of the joy it gave me to see your face light up when you finally saw me signaling wildly from that moving cab.

My love to Anne and Kitty and yourself. I long to hear news of Jerry.

As always,

Jimmy

P.S. Would you call me next Tuesday? I expect to be in all day.

ashbery, koch, jane freilicher, nell blaine among others

Spring 1956

to JOHN BUTTON

Dear John,

I don't know why I have to tell you this today (but I do) — perhaps it's because when I look out into the fog all I can see is the hairs of your adorable chest. I'm terribly in love with you, and have been for such a long time, ever since the first time Frank took me to your apartment. I looked around at your beautiful paintings and suddenly everything I'd ever felt about you turned into a diamond or a rose or something — anyway I went striding up and down while Frank played Poulenc and felt exactly like the Ugly Duckling the day he found he was a swan.

Then you came home and I didn't think I could ever look at you or to you again, all I could do was giggle and snort and twitch. But I've looked at you a lot since then, and there isn't anybody else in the world I want to look at; or want, for that matter.

It seems to me that I've been so GOOD that I couldn't hate myself more. I don't see why I couldn't have been born a robber baron type instead of a fool.

Now I'm going down and set 57th Street on fire to keep you warm.

This is all nonsense. I love being in love with you, it makes even unhappiness seem no bigger than a pin, even at the times when I wish so violently that I could give my heart to science and be rid of it.

with all my love,

Jimmy

Please don't tell Alvin, I don't think I could bear to meet him if I thought he knew.

The publisher and editor Donald Allen asked Schuyler for advice about an anthology he was putting together.

September 20, 1959

to DONALD ALLEN

Dear Don:

Here, from the welter of papers I've been carrying about, are a few poems; and a copy of the play that amused Frank, and (of "historical" interest), an imaginary conversation, written after seeing Frank's first book and walking up Park Avenue with him one May evening. I may send you a few more, but there aren't any I like better than "February," "The Elizabethans Called It Dying," and "Freely Expousing."

I was so interested in what Frank told me about his talk with you last Sunday. Olson may well be right, and there is a real point to putting in "background" or older poets. But if you want to represent the influence of readers as systematically omnivorous as Frank, John A, Prof. Koch and, me too, well: wow. Frank sometimes tends to cast the splendid shadow of his own sensibility over the past, as well as his friends, and while a brush of his wings is delightful, it is also somewhat heady. I thought you might be interested in what I remember people as actually reading.

John Wheelwright: particularly the poems in Rock and Shell.

Auden: like the common cold. Frank and Kenneth still profess; I grudgingly assent (though if Auden doesn't drop that word numinous pretty soon, I shall squawk).

For the greats: Williams, Moore, Stevens, Pound, Eliot. I doubt if any very direct connection can be found between Moore and anymore. I wanted to write like her, but her form is too evolved, personal and limiting. After a bout of syllable counting, to pick up D.H. Lawrence is delightful.

Eliot made the rules everybody wants to break.

Stevens and Williams both inspire greater freedom than the others, Stevens of the imagination, Williams of subject and style.

Pound I wonder about. Like Gertrude Stein, he is an inspiring idea. But a somewhat remote one. A poem like Frank's Second Avenue might seem influenced by the Cantos, but Breton is much closer to the mark.

Continental European literature is, really, the big influence: the Greats, plus Auden, seemed to fill the scene too completely - so one had to react with or against them, casting off obvious influences as best one can. In the context of American writing, poets like Jacob and Breton spelled freedom rather than surreal introversion. What people translate for their own pleasure is a clue: Frank, Holderlin and Reverdy, John Ashbery (before he'd been to France, Jacob's prose poems; Kenneth and I have both had a go at Dante's untranslatable sonnet to Cavalcanti; I've translated Dante, Leopardi and fruitlessly, Apollinaire and Supervielle (I like the latter's stories better than his poems.) But Pasternak has meant more to us than any American poet. Even in monstrous translations his lyrics make the hair on the back of one's neck curl.

Patsy Southgate, Bill Berkson, John Ashbery; seated, Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch. Frank O’Hara’s loft, 1964

But back to Americans. The horrid appearance of the sestina in our midst (K. and Fairfield Porter used to correspond in sestinas) can be traced directly, by way of John Ashbery's passion for it, to one by Elizabeth Bishop. Its title eludes me: one of the end words is coffee, and it is in her first book.

Hart Crane: very much, and perhaps for extra-poetical reasons that aren't so extra. But he has exactly what's missing in "the poetry should be written as carefully as prose" poets: sensibility and heart. Not "The Bridge," of course (not yet anyway) - I think it's impossible for anyone not to premise so overtly an "American" idea. I don't mean that I don't enjoy the poem; but there is, at bottom, a rather hick idea of America challenging Europe, when Whitman had already conquered with a kiss. But do look at "Havana Rose" in the uncollected poems, or "Moment Fugue" (I'd give the tooth of an owl to have written that) or a song like "Pastoral":

No more violets
And the year
Broken into smoky panels

What a beginning.

John and Frank not now, and Kenneth perhaps, admire or admired Laura Riding, but she won't let her poems be reprinted. I have always found them rather arid going, myself.

On reflection: I don't think I'm right about Gertrude Stein. Certainly the Becks production of Ladies Voices (on the same bill as Picasso's Desire Caught by the Tail, in which Frank and John A. appeared as a couple of dogs, night after night) in 1952 influenced me immediately and directly. To represent her by a work like Ladies Voices would be truer than to include almost anything of Eliot's.

I like Eliot but what Parson Weems was to other generations The Waste Land was to us; Pablum.

Also, in tracing influences — the important ones — there is this: that while John Wieners by chance first got word from Olson at a Boston reading (then later went to Black Mountain College) and put it to good use, it is experience unlike that of any other talented poet I know. Frank studied with Ciardi, but if another writer had been giving the course, Frank would have taken it. (Olson's own allegiance to Pound-Fenellosa can't be generalized for others - unless you have room for all of Proust, The Golden Bowl, Don Juan (very operative on Frank and Kenneth) and Lady Murasaki. All through high school one of my sacred books was Mark Van Doren's Anthology of World Poetry. (In which I first read poems by Thoreau; I'm not all that international.)

I was so delighted to hear that you asked Frank about Edwin Denby's poems; I hope you have seen Mediterranean Cities as well as the earlier book. His harsh prosody I find a relief.

There is a poet who died whose name escapes me: Frank and John admire his work very much, and I think Frank has copies of the QRL with poems of his. Perhaps Frank has already mentioned him to you.

I trust we'll talk soon. I didn't mean to go on at this length, but if you can find anything for your anthology in these maunderings, so much the better.

Yours,

Jimmy

New York

July 28, 1966

to JOHN ASHBERY

Dear John,

I still feel stunned by Frank's death. If you feel equal to it, I would like to know a little more than is in today's Times, who was he staying with? Or anything you think I might want to know. But if you would rather not write about it, don't.

I finished copying the enclosed. Please go over it carefully for spelling, pointing, accents, and anything else. If you want to change or add anything, do so. Camellia does have two ll's and Sally Lunn is singular - anything else that looks like a mistake is a mistake.

It was like a dream come true to have you here, and unfortunately as quickly passed. Joe writes that "you got some dishes' - what are they like? Also, how long does the bus trip from Vermont (Burlington?) take?

I'll send the parts of what we wrote here that you don't have soon.

I'm sorry my typewriter and I are such bum copyists.

Let me hear from you soon. My love to M.

love,

Jimmy

Great Spruce Head

with frank o'hara in 1956

The balustrade along my balcony
is wrought iron in shapes of
flowers: chrysanthemums, perhaps,
whorly blooms and leaves and
along the top a row of what look
like croquet hoops topped by a
rod, and from the hoops depend
water drops, crystal, quivering.
Why, it must be raining, in Chelsea,
NYC!

James Schuyler died of a stroke in 1991. You can find his reminiscence of Frank O'Hara here. You can find more reminiscences of Frank O'Hara here. This is the second in a series. You can find the first part here.

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For me Jimmy is the Vuillard of us, he withholds his secret, the secret thing until the moment appears to reveal it. We wait and wait for the name of a flower while we praise the careful cultivation. We wait for someone to speak. And it is Jimmy in an aside.

— Barbara Guest

The Best of Donald Allen's Poets

Kyle Schlesinger on Charles Olson

The autobiography of Robert Creeley

John Ashbery on the paintings of Fairfield Porter

Bridget Moloney's introduction to Frank O'Hara

Ed Dorn remembers Richard Brautigan

Alex Carnevale profiles Fairfield Porter

John Ashbery's conversation with Kenneth Koch

James Schuyler's essay about Frank

Jane Freilicher, as seen by John Ashbery

The letters of Bob Creeley and Charles Olson

Will Hubbard on the poetry of John Ashbery

After Frank's death, these poets eulogize him

Thursday
Jan132011

In Which Fairfield Porter Looked So Young For His Age

Insolent Love

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Use your ego as much as possible for creative efforts because though love is mostly ego, much more than it is sex, right now you are frustrated egotistically in the love direction, so you have to find some substitute. It will not make you any happier, for sublimation is not possible, but it will count in the future.

— Fairfield Porter, letter to Larry Rivers

This past summer, the Michael Rosenfeld gallery exhibited a few of Fairfield Porter's paintings of places surrounding his family's summer home in Great Spruce Head, Maine. It was a little underwhelming. For I have always thought that beneath Porter's ostensibly placid paintings lurks something more, evidence of his greatness in the form, if you know the right places to look. Although literature is often easy to enjoy without knowledge of its author, visual art is a different story, and Porter lived passionately in an interesting time and place.

The Roofs of Cambridge, 1927

He was born to a great American family in 1907. Despite the fact that half of Harvard was related to him by blood, Porter ignored his studies during his years there. He resented the introductory art class that allowed him to move on in the field, complaining to his mother that the course "was all theory about colors and so forth and we do silly little painting exercises like making circles of gray, red and blue, etc, varying in value and intensity. And I had to buy $16 worth of apparatus for even that."

with his mother in 1910

That he was failed by our country's educational system doesn't make Porter an iconoclast. Most genuises do terribly in American schools, no matter their background. Nevertheless, he continued his art history education, and near the end of his time at the school decided to become a painter.

Later he reflected on that decision, saying, "When I decided to study art, art was considered of peripheral importance; the artist or poet was thought to be outside of the mainstream of life. I remember a neighbor whom I respected very much, who was disturbed by my decision, and told me so. This man was a businessman, and at the same time an inventor and a poet. He told me that his first reaction to anyone's wanting to be an artist was the thought that this meant deciding in favor of triviality. Then he thought of the Vatican Torso, the piece of antique sculpture which Michelangelo said was his master. Triviality meant to him decorative objects."

After school, Porter immediately went to Greenwich Village. He met many influential figures in the art world, but soon grew tired of so many poseurs. Coming from a distinguished, upper-class family, he had no need to limit himself to pretending that's all he was. Fairfield was also shy. The woman who was to become his wife described first meeting her future husband:

I liked him. He was very simple and direct. Very unaffected. Most Harvard boys talked about how many beers they could hold; Fairfield and I talked about Dostoyevsky. I remember he had a penknife and he was using it on the table, working at it, trying to make the table fall apart. I remember I got on the other end to see if I could do the same. Not to be destructive, just to see if it was possible to make the picnic table fall apart.

Anne Channing also came to be disgusted by higher education, in her case, life at Bryn Mawr. She transferred to Radcliffe and finished her studies there near her parents' Wareham home.

Meanwhile, Fairfield explored the edges of his sexuality on an extended trip through Europe. He always considered himself bisexual, and many of his later friends would be homosexual poets. His first emotional love relationship with a man was with the athletic, fit Oxford student Arthur Giardelli. Much later, he wrote Giardelli reflecting on their time together in Florence:

I think of you very often. You meant a great deal to me, and it means much to me that you remember and write. I don't think that I will write more now. I would like to, but I have lost the sense of who and what you are, and any letter in such a case is like a message in a bottle. You get it but who are you now and did I ever know who you were? Does one ever know another person?

And the doubt must be greater when there is such an inarticulate intimacy as we had; we were shy with each other. I think our importance to each other came from something each of us had to give in the way of support that the other needed and had not really found before. For instance I, as an American, had no interest whatsoever in the social concerns you could not avoid as a poor boy, a scholarship student at Oxford, where as you told me your grandparents' humble origin would have made a curiosity of you if your friends knew it. And what you gave me was something equal and opposite; if you had been an American I would have been afraid of you and considered you beyond me because of your good looks and ordinary athletic abilities. I hadn't such a friend as you at home; but suddenly I had one in Florence, the unattainable became simple. For this I am always grateful. These things count, I hope you know, and I hope what I say will not seem strange to you. I loved you, and I think you loved me.

For Porter to write of this experience endured in his youth again in 1957, says that a part of him never really changed. And, indeed, Porter's combination of callousness and concern for others lasted throughout his life. He hated small talk, and received much from his intellectual equals, including the woman who would become his lifetime companion.

During his travels through Europe, Porter continued to write to Anne. He fell in love with her through her letters, and perhaps his experience with Giardelli helped in allowing him to truly empathize with another for the first time; especially one outside his social class. He was also coming into his own. A young painter named Frank Rogers recalled a chance remark of Porter's made on the high speed train: "Don't you sometimes feel that you're just wonderful? I do. Sometimes I'm so wonderful I want to tell everyone; they ought to know it. It isn't right that they don't."

In May of 1932 Porter returned to New York. He attempted to feel closer to Anne, but soon after they spent a few weeks together he told her "we aren't clicking at all." Nevertheless he proposed to her later that summer at his family's compound, in a rather annoying way. Anne recalled him asking, "Do you think if we got engaged they'd let you stay all summer?" As they pulled away from their September wedding, the car stalled.

Porter's artistic career began in earnest soon afterwards. It was the middle of the Depression, a fact that kept down their rent and buyers away from Fairfield's early paintings. Anne suffered a miscarriage, and was surprised at how little sympathy her husband showed her. Eventually the Porters found they were happier, for a time with Anne in New England, and Fairfield freer to express himself sexually and artistically in New York.

A young Trotskyite, Porter affiliated himself with various associations of artists, but when he was not in the studio, he tried to instruct himself in painting by copying the classics in the Met. Two years after their wedding, Anne had a child, John, and Fairfield was a father for the first time. Although Porter was initially attached to the child, the boy's sickness involved excessive crying, and it drove him out of the house, into various leftist political causes. Among his friends, Fairfield was a rarity — married with child while other bohemians constantly fucked around. The young family moved to the Chicago suburb of Winnetka because of their son's health situation, which would torment the family throughout his schizophrenic adolescence, and even after that.

Porter's first artistic successes came about primarily because of his mother Ruth's influence. His early work in political murals had started to give way to watercolor, however, and his development reached a turning point when he saw the work of Edouard Vuillard.

A 1938 exhibition of Bonnard and Vuillard had a tremendous effect on Fairfield. Porter later told Paul Cummings that "I looked at the Vuillards and thought...Why does one think of doing anything else when it's so natural to do this? ... When Bill was first influenced, you know, by modern art, it was Picasso he was emulating. With me it was Vuillard."

In Justin Spring's fascinating biography of Porter, he describes how the artist also felt a similar kinship with the work of Pierre Bonnard: "They say it's too nice. What do they meant by that? They mean it's too pretty. They might mean it's saccharine. They might also mean that they can't approve of the emotion it gives them." Porter's paintings began to focus on bringing out that same kind of emotion.

In 1940 the Porters returned to New York, now with two children in tow. Anne had thought herself unable to conceive again as a result of Malta Fever, but she became pregnant again. Fairfield was less than pleased by this development, finding the responsibility of the children interfered with his work. Then Porter met the beautiful, flirtatious Ilse Hamm. Hamm was a younger, more exciting version of his wife — they even looked alike. Porter never entered in serious romantic congress with Hamm, but nevertheless told his wife he loved her. (Anne was pregnant at the time with their son.) Hamm enjoyed Porter's attentions, but had no desire to sleep with him.

Fairfield's relationship with Hamm was a precursor to the many nonsexual — and sexual — intimacies he created outside of his marriage. Unexpectedly, Anne Porter and the Jewish refugee Hamm bonded as outsiders to the Porter family, and when Fairfield went to California the following summer, Anne wrote to Ilse and asked for her help with the children. Ilse Hamm later married Fairfield's friend Paul Mattick, causing Porter to slash his own portrait of Mattick with a knife. Fairfield's plan to live with Anne and Ilse "in a triangle way" had died, and then his mother Ruth did, too. 

Anne and Fairfield settled into a new life at E. 52nd Street, in a three story house. She began sleeping with another man, and Porter began pursuing the philosophy of free love. He rented an apartment in Chelsea to serve as his studio/getaway. The couple let out the upstairs rooms of their Midtown house to two black students, and the Porters began to lose some of the trappings of their previous lives, as Fairfield's interest in Communism died the true death. For a time, the house was a kind of commune.

Porter took a few lessons from the Belgian painter Georges Van Houten, but his latest inspiration was the paintings of Diego Velazquez. Of the Spanish master, Fairfield commented, "I admired what might be called understatement. Although I don't like that word, really.... He leaves things alone. He is open to it rather than wanting to twist it. I think there's more there than there is in willful manipulation.... I used to like Dostoyevsky very, very, very much. Now I prefer Tolstoy, for the same reason."

By the time Porter was 40, he and Anne were together again in spirit as well as body, for they never stopped having sex even during his affairs. A lack of recognition in the art world bothered him, but he was reassured by the attitude of his friend Willem de Kooning, who dismissed fame as the caprice of idiots and sycophants. Porter tremendously admired de Kooning and purchased many of his paintings, as well as writing the first reviews of his work that would appear in print.

At the end of the forties, the Porters moved to Southampton, buying a seven bedroom home for $25,000. The house met Fairfield's aesthetic approval and would become the scene of many famous paintings. Porter's political views and bohemian lifestyle during his youth had amounted to a rejection of his patrician background, but now he seemed to be making a move towards the bourgeois. As a nod to his former lifestyle, he rarely repaired the house or kept up the substantial grounds. As an artist, he still felt like an utter failure.

Fairfield kept an apartment on Avenue A, and began to integrate himself into the next generation of poets and artists. His attraction to the young gay poet James Schuyler verged on romance, and Fairfield began to explore his bisexuality. The younger crowd looked up to Fairfield and admired his work, and Elaine de Kooning recommended him to Art News, where he began his second life as a critic. Fairfield's politics had influenced the faux working-class realism of his first paintings, but the attraction of the art world to Abstract Expressionism was, in part, a rejection of those communist ideas. Now the painter began creating a new critical vocabulary similarly absent from political value.


Already nearing his late 40s, Fairfield was still pursuing a doctrine of free love, but in this case his target was (for a short time) the poet John Ashbery. Encouraged by his new buddies, Fairfield began writing poetry again, penning the following about Ashbery:

Young man with the narrow waist and thin
Arms, and heavy beautiful thighs of youth,
Whose green eyes under a foxy brush of
Fair hair regard me with insolent love

Porter's friendships with Ashbery and the painter Jane Freilicher would last through his life, but it was the schizophrenic Schuyler who would become a part of Fairfield's young family.

Fairfield enjoyed having the young clique at Great Spruce Head, and his children were particularly fond of Frank O'Hara. With Fairfield's six-year old daughter Katharine, Frank composed the following poem:

They say I mope too much
but really I'm loudly dancing.
I eat paper. It's good for my bone.
I play the piano pedal. I dance,
I am never quiet, I mean silent.
Some day I'll love Frank O'Hara.
I think I'll be alone for a little while.

James Schuyler
became a particularly constructive/destructive figure in the life of the Porters, in some ways playing the identical role than Ilse Hamm had filled in the family. The proverbial honeymoon was lovely, but the impoverished poet eventually took advantage of Fairfield, manipulating his affections for financial and emotional gain. Despite other people's opinions of Schuyler, the Porters continue to welcome him as a guest in their many homes.

breakfasting with schuyler in 1942

When Fairfield had an important opening at Tibor de Nagy in March of 1959, O'Hara and Schuyler didn't even show up. Porter responded to this snub by approaching Frank later and telling him, "You're a shit," according to a letter Freilicher wrote to John Ashbery. 

Like Frank O'Hara, the Porters were eventually turned off by the 'sleazy' Schuyler's need for control, although he returned to their good graces later in his life. This partial disillusionment with the poets who had been his friends seemed to force a change in Porter's life. He stopped reviewing for Art News in favor of writing for The Nation (they paid twice as much), and began to teach. He sold a few of his de Koonings for a small fortune.

Schuyler's first mental breakdown in 1960 brought him closer together to the Porters for a time, but it would ultimately only set him on a more destructive path. After leaving his New Haven Hospital, Fairfield picked him up. They would get on tolerably well until Schuyler reviewed Fairfield's 1962 exhibition from a psychological perspective. No doubt he could not help it, seeing demons even in places of light that the paintings held. Porter responded to Schuyler's article in a letter: "There is always psychological content. The psychological content may be what it seems, or it may be the opposite. There is psychological content to a slap in the face, or a smile at a baby, but it does not follow from this that there is art." Of Porter's close relationship with his critics, Justin Spring writes that, "Had Porter been more successful during his lifetime, the question of influence might have been raised. But he was not."


Politically, Porter's growing hatred of government, borne out of the way European cultural institutions were treated during World War II, resulted in him refusing a commission from the Art in Embassies program. He was relatively hard up for cash at this point, what with his wife, four children and Schuyler to support, but as was his custom, he never let common sense get in the way of his convictions. He even declined a university appointment in Illinois because he didn't like the architecture of Carbondale.

When Anne came down with hepatitis in 1963, Porter's paintings moved indoors, capturing the play of light in the interiors of his home. These were the most successful paintings of his career, both financially and artistically, feeding off the influence of the artist Alex Katz, who he admired and had reviewed. His masterpiece The Screen Porch became one of his most famous works - in the Porter family it became known as "The Four Ugly People" - and it is a frightening painting, incredibly resonant in its emotional complexity and as revealing as a church confession, with his wife outside watching her children and Schuyler in an homage to Velazquez.

Though there was some critical blowback to what some believed was Porter's bourgeois subject matter, Porter's creative process was anything but lax. He burned so many of his paintings that he had a special incinerator built for the purpose in his backyard. This was something of a blessing to history; for it is only his best works that survive, those imbued with the quiet passion of a man who could set his art in order easier than he could his own family life.

By the end of the 1960s the Porters had their fill of Schuyler and Fairfield asked him to leave the house. (The poet demurred.) His wife felt increasingly uncomfortable around the poet's depression, and made plans to replace him with a golden retriever, Bruno. Walking the dog was recommended for the aging Fairfield's health, but he tripped over Bruno's leash in 1967 and broke his arm, which temporarily limited his ability to paint. At the same time, Fairfield was reaching a mental wall. Spring attributes his lack of new work to his success - he now had money enough to live without worry, and his reputation had to a certain extent "plateaued."

napping with Bruno

Schuyler's behavior became increasingly more erratic. While staying in Fairfield's Southampton home with the poet Ron Padgett, he threatened to kill the Padgett's young son. Friends committed him to the state mental institution, but it wasn't long before he had to be escorted back there, with John Ashbery keeping him company in the back of a patrol car. Ironically, Schuyler wrote some of his finest poetry during this period, but he also wrote savage letters to Fairfield and Anne, criticizing them in the harshest possible terms and then asking them for $5,000 for his married lover's "business."

As he transitioned into old age, Porter's interests became more eccentric. His wife had become a Catholic many years earlier, baptized on the Upper East Side, but, as a subscriber to Fate, Porter's new tastes verged more on the mystic and spiritual. He viewed the rise of technology with some concern, as most seniors do, and he became interested in the paranormal. Still his command of his interests remained fully within his intellectual control. Rather than blame himself for the troubled life of his first born, he blamed science!

The Harbor - Great Spruce Head 1974

And yet when it came to the visual arts, he found much to admire in his contemporaries, harboring a special appreciation for the work of David Hockney. He wrote to a confined, drugged-out Schuyler that "I have painted several sunrises, with the sun in the picture, from the rocks below the house, except one from the porch. It works, more or less. I was trying to emulate the David Hockney painting I saw a few years ago, that amazed me." During a walk with Bruno in September of 1975, Porter suffered a massive coronary and died immediately. He had looked so young for his age of 68 that it came as something of a shock to his friends and family. Schuyler didn't attend the funeral, just as he had not after O'Hara's death in car accident.

A Sudden Change of Wind, 1975

Fairfield's dual role as an artist and critic was something of a rarity. He was as talented a writer as he was an artist, and his collection of art cricitism, Art On Its Own Terms, has become a classic in its own right. His textured renderings of light approach and even exceed the grasp of his Abstract Expressionist peers. His many admirers and friends, many of whom became more famous than he could have imagined at the time of his death, have helped burnish his reputation as an artist.

Even after Schuyler had done many, many unpardonable things to him, the Porters did much for the troubled poet. This is an impressive testament to their good nature; Anne Porter even earmarked money for Schuyler's medical care after Fairfield had passed, as did Kenward Elmslie and many others. In a way, the fashion in which the group treated Schuyler was an attempt to erase guilt that generation felt at living as they did.

Fathers improve with age, and Fairfield's later children for the most part fared better than his early ones. So it was with his painting. He got better at life over time, and this is no small thing to say about a person, let alone an artist whose talent ran against the grain of the non-representational work of the time in which he lived.

Yet calling Fairfield Porter a realist is off the mark. His work does the opposite of abandoning the spiritual, it embraces the mystical, in the everyday expressions and places of his life. He had no other. So many of the finest painters of Porter's generation were immigrants from Europe who became impressive Americans. Despite not having to strive, he strove, working towards a recognition he would achieve only in death.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He tumbls here and twitters here. He last wrote in these pages about Sofia Coppola's Somewhere.

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ashbery and schuyler at Great Spruce Head, 1966

"Down by the Water" - The Decemberists (mp3)

"All Arise" - The Decemberists (mp3)

"This Is Why We Fight" - The Decemberists (mp3)

Back row, from left: Lisa De Kooning, Frank Perry, Eleanor Perry, John Bernard Myers, Anne and Fairfield Porter, Angelo Torricini, Arthur Gold, Jane Wilson, Kenward Elmslie, Paul Brach, Jerry Porter, Nancy Word, Katharine Porter, unidentified woman. Second row: Joe Hazan, Clarice Rivers, Kenneth Koch, Larry Rivers, Miriam Shapiro, Robert Fizdale, Jane Freilicher, Joan Ward, John Kacere, Sylvia Maizell. Sitting and kneeling in front: Stephen Rivers, Bill Berkson, Frank O'Hara, Willem de Kooning, Alvin Novak. Photo by John Jonas Gruen.

Wednesday
Dec292010

In Which The Elements of Disbelief Are Very Strong In The Morning

The following remembrances of Frank O'Hara appear in Homage to Frank O'Hara, edited by Joe LeSueur and Bill Berkson. You can purchase that volume here.

Memories of Frank

with grace hartigan Larry Rivers

I began doing portraits of Frank in the fall of '52. That was after I'd slit my wrists over something. I phoned Frank, who happened to be in, and he came over and bandaged me up. Then we began seeing a lot more of each other and it was natural for me to use him as a model. Sex we got into later, when I'd already started drawing and painting him. There was always a dialogue going on during our working sessions. He gave me feedback and made me feel like what I was doing mattered, and after a while I found I needed him for my work. He was a great model. For one thing, he liked to model; he even felt complimented that you asked him to, and you ended up wanting him to like you. He had blazing blue eyes, so if you were stuck you could always put a little blue to make the work more interesting. His widow's peak gave you a place to anchor the picture, and his broken nose was dramatic and easy to get. At the time, I had no idea I was making so many pictures of him; I think I must have made a dozen portraits, and that's not counting drawings or paintings like "The Studio" and "Athlete's Dream" he appeared in. I always felt I was close to getting him but I never did, so I kept on trying.

in front of larry rivers' house in southamptonTed Berrigan

Frank O'Hara

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 talk a walk with you.

cambridge 1950 by jane freilicher Jane Freilicher

It is really a sketch painted from memory as he appeared characteristically in those days (1950, or 51) with his dark fuzzy shetland sweater, no shirt, chino pants & tennis shoes - Ivy League but rather exotic & chic in the N.Y. art world in those days. Frank was very well put together physically, the scale of his body, the delicate but irregular features of his face remind somewhat of the drawings of ideal male proportions by Dürer. He was so very pleasing to look at & I sometimes wonder if this attractiveness was one of the reasons so many painters enjoyed knowing him.

However, my painting was just an attempt to capture a fleeting sense of his physical presence as he seemed, often, to be standing in a doorway of a room, one arm bent up at the elbow, his weight poised on the balls of his feet, maybe saying something funny or charming, proffering a drink or listening attentively, alert & delightful.

Anne Waldman

April Dream

I'm with Frank O'Hara, Kenward Elmslie & Kenneth Koch visiting Donald Hall's studio or lab (live ivy league fraternity digs) in "Old Ann Arbor." Lots of drink and chit chat about latest long poems & how do we all rate with Shakespeare. Don is taking himself very seriously & nervously as grand host conducting us about the place. It's sort of a class reunion atmosphere, campus history (Harvard) & business to be discussed. German mugs, wooden knick knacks, prints, postcards decorate the room, Kenward making snappy cracks to me about every little detial. We notice huge panels of Frank O'Hara poems on several walls and Kenneth reads aloud: "a child means BONG" from Biotherm. We notice more panels with O'Hara works, white on red - very prettily shellacked - translated by Ted Berrigan. Slogan-like lines, "THERE'S NOBODY AT THE CONTROLS!" "NO MORE DYING." Frank is very modest about this and not altogether present (ghost). Then Don unveils a huge series of panels again printed on wood that's he's collecting for a huge anthology for which Frank O'Hara is writing the catalogue. Seems to be copies of Old Master, plus Cubists, Abstract Expressionists, Joe Brainards & George Schneeman nudes. Frank has already compiled the list or "key" but we're all supposed to guess what the "source" of each one is like a parlour game. The panels are hinged & like a scroll covered with soft copper which peels back.

I wonder what I am doing with this crowd of older men playing a guessing game. None of us are guessing properly the "sources," Kenneth the most agitated about this.

Then the "key" is revealed and the first 2 on it are:

I. Du Boucheron

II. Jean du Jeanne Jeanne le (wine glass)

"I knew it! I knew it!" shouts Kenneth.

We are abruptly distracted from the game by children chorusing, "da da da du DA LA" over & over again, very guileless & sweet. We all go to a large bay window which looks over a gradeschool courtyard. Frank says, "Our youth."

April 17, 1977

with elaine de kooningTerry Southern

Once I asked Larry Rivers about Frank's closest friends, who did he think was Frank's best friend, and so on.

"Oh my God," he said, "there were so many people who thought they were his best friend. I mean, he had this thing about making each person feel he was his best friend. I guess it was because he cared so much, about everybody."

Yes, I guess it was. Anyway, I know there are people who were better acquainted with Frank than I, but I'm certain there are none who enjoyed him more fully, think of him more often, or more fondly.

john ashbery’s photograph of frank o’hara, grace hartigan, allan kaprow, joe hazan, jane freilicher at george segal’s house in New Jersey, 1955

Barbara Guest

Frank and I happened to be in Paris at the same time in the summer of 1960. I was staying there with my family and had been very busy with the Guide Bleu looking at every placard on every building I could find. and I had located the"bateau lavoir" where Picasso and Max Jacob had first lived and where they had held all those studio parties with Apollinaire and Marie Laurencin. And across the street was a very good restaurant. I suggested that we have lunch there, our party included Grace Hartigan and her husband at the time, Robert Keene. We had a "marvelous" lunch, much wine and talk and we all congratulated ourselves on being in Paris and moreover being in Paris at the same time - a continuation of the Cedar St. Bar where we had formerly and consistently gathered. After lunch I suggested that we cross the street to the "bateau lavoir," a discovery of mine and one I thought would intrigue Frank. Not at all. He did go across the street, but he didn't bother to go into the building. "Barbara," he said, "that was their history and it doesn't interest me. What does interest me is ours, and we're making it now."

with allen ginsbergA Note on Frank O'Hara In The Early Fifties

by KENNETH KOCH

The first thing of Frank O'Hara's I ever read was a story in the Harvard Advocate in 1948. It was about some people drunkenly going up stairs. During the next year, when I was living in New York, John Ashbery told me that Frank had started to write poems and that they were very good. I forget if I met Frank before or after John told me he had started writing poems. Actually, as I later found out, Frank had started writing poetry a long time before, and prose was only a temporary deviation for him.

In any case, the first time I read some of Frank's poems was in the summer of 1950, just before I left for France on a Fulbright grant. John Ashbery had mailed them to me and had described them enthusiastically. I didn't like them very much. I wrote back to John that Frank was not as good as we were, and then gave a few reasons why.

These poems by Frank were somehow packed in one of my suitcases when I went abroad, and I happened to read them again when I was in Aix-en-Provence. This time they seemed to me marvellous; I was very excited about them. Also very intimidated. I believe I liked them for the same reasons I had not liked them before - i.e. because they were sassy, colloquial, and full of realistic detail.

It was not till the summer of 1952 (after coming back from Europe, I had gone to California for a year) that I got to know Frank well. Know is not really the right word since it suggests something fairly calm and intellectual. This was something much more emotional and wild. Frank in his first two years in New York was having this kind of explosive effect on a lot of people that he met. Larry Rivers laters said that Frank had a way of making you feel you were terribly important and that this was very inspiring, which is true, but it was more than that.

His presence and his poetry made things go on around him which could not have happened in the same way if he hadn't been there. I know this is true of my poetry, and I would guess it was true also of the poetry of James Schuyler and John Ashbery, and of the painting of Jane Freilicher, Larry Rivers, Mike Goldberg, Grace Hartigan and other painters too.

One of the most startling things about Frank in the period when I first knew him was his ability to write a poem when 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. This may sound affected when I describe it, but it wasn't so at all. The poems he wrote in this way were usually very good poems. I was electrified by his ability to do this at once tried to do it myself - (with considerably less success).

Frank and I collaborated on a birthday poem for Nina Castelli (summer 1952), a sestina. This was the first time I had written a poem with somebody else and also the first time I had been able to write a good sestina (my earlier attempts had always bogged down in mystery or symbolism). Artistic collaboration, like writing a poem in a crowded room, is something that seemed to be a natural part of Frank's talent. I put this in the past tense not because these things are not part of Frank's talent now, but for the sake of history - since I believe that, as far as American poetry is concerned, he started something.

Something about Frank that impressed me during the composition of the sestina was his feeling that the silliest idea actually in his head was better than the most profound idea in somebody's else head - which seems obvious once you know it, but how many poetrs have lived how many total years without finding it out?

This Nina Sestina collaboration occurred during one of the weekends in the summer of 1952 when Frank and I, Jane Freilicher, Larry Rivers, and various other writers and painters were in Easthampton. Jane and Frank were sporadically engaged in being in a movie which was being made out there by John Larouche.

Frank's most famous poem during the summer was "Hatred," a rather long poem which he had typed up on a very long piece of paper which had been part of a roll. Another of his works which burst on us all like bomb then was "Easter,"  a wonderful, energetic and rather obscene poem of four or five pages, which consisted mainly of a procession of various bodily parts and other objects across a vast landscape. It was like Lorca and Whitman in some ways, but very original.

I remember two things about it which were new: one was the phrase "the roses of Pennsylvania," and the other was the line in the middle of the poem which began "It is Easter!" (Easter, though it was the title, had not been mentioned before in the poem and apparently had nothing to do with it.) What I saw in these lines was 1) inspired irrelevance which turns out to be relevant (once Frank had said, "It is Easter!" the whole poem was obviously about death and resurrection); 2) the use of movie techniques in poetry (in this case coming down hard on the title in the middle of the work); 3) the detachment of beautiful words from traditional contexts and putting them in curious new American ones ("roses of Pennsylvania").

He also mentioned a lot of things just because he liked them - for example, jujubes. Some of these things had not appeared before in poetry. His poetry contained aspirin tablets, Good Teeth buttons, and water pistols. His poems were full of passion and life; they weren't trivial because small things were called in them by name.

Frank and I both wrote long poems in 1953 (Second Avenue and When the Sun Tries To Go On). I had no clear intention of writing a 2400-line poem (which it turned out to be) before Frank said to me, on seeing the first 72 lines - which I regarded as a poem by itself - "Why don't you go on with it as long as you can?" Frank at this time decided to write a long poem too; I can't remember how much his decision to write such a poem had to do with his suggestion to me to write mine.

While we were writing out long poems, we would read each other the results daily over the telephone. This seemed to inspire us a great deal.

Frank was very polite and also very competitive. Sometimes he gave other people his own best ideas, but he was quick and resourceful enough to use them himself as well. It was almost as though he wanted to give his friends a head start and was competitive partly to make up for this generosity. One day I told Frank I wanted to write a play, and he suggested that I, like no other writer living, could write a great drama about the conquest of Mexico. I thought about this, but not for too long, since within 3 or 4 days Frank had written his play Awake in Spain, which seemed to me to cover the subject rather thoroughly.

Something Frank had that none of the other artists and writers I know had to the same degree was a way of feeling and acting as thought being an artist were the most natural thing in the world. Compared to him everyone else seemed a little self-conscious, abashed, or megalomaniacal. This naturalness I think was really quite strange in New York in 1952. Frank's poetry had and has this same kind of ease about the fact that it exists that is so astonishing.

April 1964

Poet Among Painters

by JAMES SCHUYLER

I first met Frank O'Hara at a party at John Myers' after a Larry Rivers opening: de Kooning and Nell Blaine were there, arguing about whether it is deleterious for an artist to do commercial work. I was most impressed by the company I was suddenly keeping.

A very young-looking man came up and introduced himself (I had already read a poem by Frank in Accent, the exquisitely witty "Three Penny Opera," written either at Harvard or at Michigan.) He asked me if I had read Janet Flanner that week in the New Yorker, who had just disclosed the scandal of Gide's wife burning all his letters to her. "I never liked Gide," Frank said, "but I didn't realize he was a complete shit."

This was rich stuff, and we talked a long time; or rather, as was so often the case, he talked and I listened. His conversation was self-propelling and one idea, or anecdote, or bon mot was fuel to his own fire, inspiring him verbally to blaze ahead, that curious voice rising and falling, full of invisible italics, the strong pianist's hands gesturing with the invariable cigarette.

Frank told me that he had taken a job at the Museum of Modern Art, working in the lobby at the front desk, in order to see Alfred Barr's monumental retrospective of Matisse. Frank had idols (many) and if Matisse was one, so was Alfred Barr, and remained so during all of Frank's years of association with the museum. The first time I dropped by to see him, I found him in the admissions booth, waiting to sell tickets to visitors and, meanwhile, writing a poem on a yellow lined pad (one called "It's the Blue!").

He also had besides him a translation of Andre Breton's Young Cherry Trees Secured Against Hares (although he made translations from the French - Reverdy, Baudelaire - his French was really nothing much). Soon we were sharing an apartment on East 49th Street, a cold water flat five flights up with splendid views.

Frank O'Hara was the most elegant person I ever met, and I don't mean in the sense of dressy, for which he never had either the time or the money. He was of medium height, lithe and slender (to quote Elaine de Kooning, when she painted him, "hipless as a snake"), with a massive Irish head, hair receding from a widow's peak, and a broken, Napoleonic nose: broken in what childhood scuffle, I forget. He walked lightly on the balls of his feet, like a dancer or someone about to dive in the waves. How he loved to swim! In the heaviest surf on the south shore of Long Island, often to the alarm of his friends, and even at night when he was drunk and turn waspish. That was both unpleasant and alarming, since he would say whatever came into his head, giving his victim a devastating character analysis, as with a scalpel.

Frank's friends! They came from all the arts, in all troops. As John Ashbery has written in his introduction to The Collected Poems (nearly seven hundred pages of them): "The nightmares, delights and paradoxes of life in this city went into Frank's style, as did the many passionate friendships he kept going simultaneously (to the point where it was almost impossible for anyone to see him alone - there were so many people whose love demanded attention, and there was so little time and so many other things to do, like work and, when there was a free moment, poetry.)"

Then there were the events. Frank was in love with all the arts: painting and music and poetry, almost all movies, the opera and particularly, the ballet. Then there were the parties and the dinners and old movies on late night TV. When did the poems get written?

with franz kline at the cedar tavern in 1959
One Saturday noon I was having coffee with Frank and Joe LeSueur (the writer with whom Frank shared various apartments over the years), and Joe and I began to twit him about his ability to write a poem at any time. Frank gave us a look - both hot and cold - got up, went into his bedroom, and wrote "Sleeping on the Wing," a beauty, in a matter of minutes.

Then, his book Lunch Poems is literally that. Frank became a permanent member of the International Program at the Museum of Modern Art at the behest of the then-director, Porter A. McCray. I later wended my way into the same department and had ample opportunity to observe Frank in action.

He would steam in, good and late and smelling strongly of the night before (in his later years, his breakfast included vodka in the orange juice, to kill the hangover and get him started). He read his mail, the circulating folders, made and received phone calls (Frank suffered a chronic case of "black ear": I once called him at the museum and the operator said, "Good God!"; but she put me through). Then it was time for lunch, usually taken at Larré's with friends. When he got back to his office, he rolled a sheet of paper into his typewriter and wrote a poem, then got down to serious business. Of course this didn't happen every day, but often, very often.

with patsy southgate & kenneth koch It has been suggested that the museum took too much of so gifted a poet's time. Not really: Frank needed a job, and he was in love with the museum and brooked no criticism of it. At times, of course, he became impatient with the endless and often seemingly petty paperwork connected with assembling an exhibition, and I have seen him come from an acquisitions meeting with smoke coming out of his ears (he never divulged a word of what passed at these highly confidential affairs). But Frank had the rare gift of empathy for the art of any artist he worked with; he understood both intention and significance. And he was highly organized, with a phenomenal memory. When I say, "he got down to work," I mean it; he worked, and he worked really hard.

James Schuyler died in 1991. You can purchase Homage to Frank O'Hara here.

with helen frankenthaler

"Why I Am Not A Painter" - Frank O'Hara (mp3)

"Ave Maria" - Frank O'Hara (mp3)

"Having a Coke With You" - Frank O'Hara (mp3)

"Poem/Poem" - Frank O'Hara (mp3)

at the club  I loved him very much so quickly I wish as I'm sure everyone else does who had ever known him that we hadn't lost him.

Charles Olson