Wednesday, May 23, 2007


J.O. LECLERC Reviews

Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara
(The Pocket Poets Series # 19, City Lights Books, San Francisco, 1964)

A Retrospective Appreciation

I was born in 1946 -- 20 years after the poet Frank O’Hara’s birth, and a year or so after O’Hara served as a Sonarsman aboard the destroyer USS Nicholas in the Pacific Theatre of World War II. During my early childhood, O’Hara attended Harvard on the GI Bill, roomed with Edward Gorey, met a guy named John Ashbury, and published some of his poems in The Harvard Advocate.

About the time my family moved to Roslyn, New York (about an hour from Manhattan via Northern Boulevard), and my father was teaching me how to play Catch, O’Hara got his M.A. in English Literature at the University of Michigan (my late sister Carol took her Masters at Ann Arbor about 10 years later).

In the fall of ‘51, O’Hara moved to Manhattan with his friend and lover Joseph LeSeur. After settling into his new apartment, Frank got a gig working the front desk at The Museum of Modern Art. By the time I got my first pair of glasses, and the New York Giants swept the Cleveland Indians in the 1954 World Series, Frank O’Hara’s brilliant career was well underway.

O’Hara was a man of energy, intellect, wit, and warmth. He made friends with hundreds of the flowering petals that populated the wild, beautiful, effulgent garden of art that was Fifties New York. That was the City of Abstract Expressionism and its spark points: The Janis Gallery, The Cedar Tavern, the lofts of Lower Broadway, Duane Street, and Coenties Slip (there was no SOHO, no TRIBECA in them thar days). Among that crowd, O’Hara had friends like Bill DeKooning, Joan Mitchell, and Larry Rivers. Painter/Horn man Rivers connected O’Hara to Big Apple Jazz and its great downtown haunts: The Village Vanguard, The Half-Note, The Five Spot.

From O’Hara’s "The Day Lady Died"

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

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

The last five lines of the poem live as elegy and homage to the great Billie Holiday. O’Hara saw her in her decline -- drug and booze wasted. Fated to die under police arrest in a lonely hospital bed.

But the preceding 25 lines tell about a day in New York City -- Mid July -- 1959 (the baseball Giants and the Dodgers have skipped to California since O’Hara has found his rightful home in Gotham). Shortly after noon, O’Hara gets a shoeshine (men did that in New York then) because he’s got a train to catch later on in the afternoon. He walks muggy streets and gets a hamburger and a malted (no fast food franchises then -- just Horn & Hardart’s Automats and Luncheonettes, and their poor cousins “Greasy Spoons“ -- otherwise you went to a “real” restaurant. He buys a literary magazine formatted in paperback book style called “New World Writing” -- he wants to know what the writers in Ghana are doing (magazines like that no longer exist, but then, neither does Frank O’Hara). He goes to a bank and then to a little bookstore The Golden Griffin. He buys a gift book for “Patsy” by Verlaine, with drawings by Bonnard.

He also considers books by Hesiod, Jean Genet, and the then darling of the White Horse Tavern, Brendan Behan (people still read Hesiod and Genet, but Behan’s up yours boyo charms are now faded Irish mist). The death of Billie Holiday becomes the catalytic center of whirling, spindrift memories. Memories of 1959 imprinted like the images of Bogart and Veronica Lake recall the ambience of the Forties. As the image of Louise Brooks makes vivid the now historical 1920s.

Prior to his military experience, O’Hara was a conservatory trained pianist. He would remain an excellent musician all of his life. He wrote articles for Art News in its glory days. The magazine contained scintillant essays and beautiful reproductions on the art of Pompeii, the Venetian Masters, and the Avant-Garde that found its true home and sanctuary in O’Hara’s New York. The “Avant-Garde” has long since transmogrified into “New Products” from corporate brain trainers, but when O’Hara lived, Jackson Pollock flung his articulate skeins of “energy made visible” (O‘Hara wrote a great monograph on Pollock -- one of Braziller’s Great American Artists Series) , John Cage made silence audible, “Modern Dance” met “Off-Broadway Theatre” met “Free Jazz” met “The New York Poets” met “Abstract Painters Painting Stage Sets”. The magnetic draw of New York was felt throughout the United States. Three Tulsa school buddies from Oklahoma came to the Apple to meet O‘Hara. Ted Berrigan - who would himself become a major figure in the downtown poetry scene - spread the “I do this, I do that” Gospel according to Frank. Okie Ron Padgett also saw O’Hara as a mentor and went on to a distinguished career as a poet and translator. Joe Brainard, whose 30 image cover for the 70th Anniversary Issue of Art News is a masterwork of modernist iconography, would find his footing with O’Hara and become one of the great draughtsmen, collagist, and set designers of his time. O’Hara was also a playwright, and Brainard designed sets for him.

In 1960, Frank O’Hara was made Assistant Curator of Painting and Sculpture Exhibitions for the Museum of Modern Art. In September of 1960, I became a Freshman at Roslyn High School (four years behind Roslyn Basketball hero, Mike Crichton -- another guy bound for Harvard. Crichton didn’t shine in college hoops, but he did graduate Summa Cum Laude, was Phi Beta Kappa and became an M.D. He also guest lectured on Anthropology at Cambridge. As I write this review, Crichton has written 25 successful novels and has established himself as a film and television director and producer. He never became a Doctor, but he did create ER.

One of Crichton’s classmates was my buddy Bill Miller’s brother Chris. He went to Dartmouth. A sentimental education in New Hampshire turned out to be lucrative for Chris Miller. Based on his rowdy college experiences, he wrote the screenplay for a movie called Animal House. As far as I know, the party is still going on (Chris was Dartmouth Class of ‘62). Little did J.O. know that the tall guy and his pal’s brother were destined to be Titans of Pop Culture -- But Freshman LeClerc (very shy with all those strange but very desirable creatures in mini-skirts) had found a passion that he could put his hands on. His first high school sweetheart was Poetry.

Rather than study my Algebra and Russian (Cold War at the Freezing Stage), I buried my myopic head in Oscar Williams’ anthologies and tried to stop thinking about GIRLS (!) But the babes were in Oscar’s books too! Willie Yeats was tortured forever by his obsession -- Maud! Lorca (I didn’t know then the guy was gay. I did know he was great). The first poem of Lorca’s that knocked me out was "Preciosa" and the "Wind". The wind was howlin’ in the moonlight for Preciosa. She ran to the English Consul’s house. Preciosa wept and told her woes to her British protectors. But the wind was still bangin’ on the Brit’s White Towers. I knew how Preciosa felt. But I knew how the wind felt too.

‘Twas Ezra Pound and Wallace Stevens that truly made me think poesy was the cat‘s pajamas. Pound’s Canto II (“Hang it all Robert Browning, etc”) and Steven’s Peter Quince at the Clavier -- which had to do with Susanna and the Elders (The story from the Apocrypha -- but you knew that) both blew me away with their word magic. I didn’t have the slightest idea what they were about -- but -- that didn’t matter! What mattered was the magic -- and I was on it like a hound dog on a fox.

My curiosity in things poetic, musical, and erotic compelled me to get on a Long Island Railroad train and get off at Penn Station (that’s 34th Street for you outtatowners). I would hang around midtown and go to movies like All Fall Down with Beatty and Saint, or Cape Fear with Mitchum and Peck, or La Notte with Moreau, Mastroianni, and Vitti.

From O’Hara’s "Ave Maria"

Mothers of America
               let your kids go to the movies!
get them out of the house so they won’t know what
                              you’re up to
it’s true that fresh air is good for the body
                               but what about the soul
that grows in darkness, embossed by silvery images
and when you grow old as grow old you must
                              they won’t hate you
they won’t criticize you they won’t know
                              they’ll be in some glamorous country
they first saw on a Saturday afternoon or playing

My soul grew with the silvery images of Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player, Pasolini’s Accattone, Hitchcock’s Marnie. And the plastic bonk honk of Ornette Coleman’s Doctored Sax with Don Cherry (he of Oklahoma City) on Pocket Trumpet. The Stones roll in not to fade away (not gently into that Good). Trane and Eric WAIL at Philharmonic Hall on New Year’s Eve, 1963 -- and while they play India, I’ve got my raven-haired long-legged GIRL FRIEND(!) sitting next to me. Just short of two months before, the day I’m supposed to play Lysander in The Royal Crown Players Production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream, a guy blows Jack Kennedy’s brains out in Dallas. Welcome to The United States of America.

A month before Marnie, I graduate (thanks to Dexedrine and the Biology Regents Exam) with an Academic Diploma from Roslyn High School. I head to Manhattan and sublet an apartment on West 10th right across the street from The Ninth Circle bar. My roomie is Chris Miller’s brother Bill. Within days we transform a sparkling little pied-à-terre into an animal house. Bob Dylan sings “Hey Mr, Tambourine Man” at Newport. My father gets an executive management gig out in LA with Capitol Records. The summer is very hot. My hair grows to a length midway between Mick’s and Brian’s. Come September, LBJ sends me a letter that says “Greetings”. Wham Bam Vietnam.

Remember, this is the “Make Love, Not War” generation. Unlike Lee Marvin, Paul Newman, Neville Brand, and Frank O’Hara, a lot of us long-haired fair-skinned rockers were not buying into The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution or The Domino Theory. A lot of crew cut white boys and many, many of the Brothers y Los Hermanos joined up for the jungle rumble. But we had guitars, Marine Band Blues Harps, and sparkle red drum kits. Women tend to like musicians. Later for you, Lyndon. Hello Christie, Ginny, Patti D., Francesca, Michelle, Elaine, Kelly, Faith, Muffy and Rachel. My buddy Bill splits to Utica College (Jesus!) I move to Alphabet City and start playin out with my pal Wes (Guitar & Harp -- Blues, Blues, Blues). We’re hanging out at the Village Gate one Friday night and two of Les Femmes known to us come in with Brian Jones and Bill Wyman. I wind up in an all-night loft party jam with Wyman and a great, now not much remembered guitar player named Sandy Bull. Wyman has small hands, black leather chaps, and an amazing sense of pitch. We play R&B till the moon goes down.

What I describe above are not simply recollections of reckless youth. It’s a time of tectonic shift. The Beau Monde that O’Hara entered with the best possible preparation has now been rent five ways crossways blind by Presidential murder and a vain, and, therefore, doubly immoral war. O’Hara’s conservatory life, his service on a U.S. destroyer, his adventuring years at Harvard, at Ann Arbor, his arrival for Autumn in New York, his glory entry level job at MOMA -- all of that was now impossible for the youngbloods of my generation. There would be no April in Paris after the Battle of the Ardennes.

Toxic racial fumes explode. Watts. The welfare scramble to New York and the destruction of black families and black baptist churches. Martin and Malcolm both know they’re in somebody’s cross-hairs. “We Shall Overcome” is now not heard above the noise of urban collapse. The community of jazz masters becomes a battleground. Furious Black music counters the sterilities of peau blanc serialism and an end to a belief in “Europe” as the center of World culture. O’Hara’s world -- still grand enough to fill his senses -- is beginning to deflate. JFK (and “Jackie”) gone. And with them, gone is the world of Pablo Casals at the White House. Gone the progressive cadence of ‘racial integration”.

The Art Market is still huge -- but “Art” starts its retreat from the center of American life. Arthur Miller tucked away comfortably in Connecticut, Tennessee Williams drugged and drug down in Key West. “Broadway Drama” is becoming just another cracked and curling sepia photograph.

Here’s a connective to the good young days: Frank the aesthete par excellence contemplating a saw mill. If O’Hara’s in the woods, can Frost be far behind?

From O’Hara’s "Poem En Forme De Saw"

if I stay right here I will eventually get into the
like Robert Frost
willow trees, willow trees they remind me of Desdemona
I’m so damned literary
and at the same time the rivers rushing past remind
                              me of nothing

Willow trees as Othello’s wife. Tragic? Strangled by Iago’s inexorable hatred? Such are the rushing rivers of Frank O’Hara’s meditations. Tumbling over the rocks and timber of last night’s cocktail party thoughts. As the sixties start to become “The 60s”, Hartigan and Frankenthaler are paid less attention. Warhol and his Factory workers will labor at the marriage of beauty and Capital. Donald Judd will have us contemplate the Isness of blonde wood, of aluminum geometry spray-coated with industrial hues.

I formed a Rock and Roll Band in 1965 (just like 10,000 other young men and women did). We recorded Bo Diddley’s Who Do You Love? And Chuck Berry’s You Can’t Catch Me at a NYC recording studio for Chess Records. Somewhere black vinyl discs step down their half-lifes. We rejected the contract that Chess offered us. Our drummer was busted and strung out. We re-grouped. Somewhere we recorded a song about astronauts called Gemini Blues. Twang, bang and Gus Grissom sleep in the black platter mystery tomb. That group broke up. I studied jazz piano with John Mehegan and Lucia Fitzpatrick. One day, Marian McPartland showed me how to play Willow Weep for Me. I started working blue collar. I was thinking about going to Mexico.

In the wee hours of July 24th, 1966, Frank O’Hara stood still as a beach buggy drove toward him. O’Hara didn’t move. The buggy didn’t stop. Frank died the next day. He was 40 years old. I was 19 -- going off on a tear.

From O’Hara’s "Five Poems"

I seem to be defying fate, or am I avoiding it?

I have made some progress in life -- and I have been lost in dark woods. I’ll always have the poetry of Frank O’Hara in my heart.


J.O. LeClerc is a writer and musician who lives in the Hudson River Valley.