Thursday, April 05, 2012

Excerpt: Frank O'Hara

Kenneth Koch, Patsy Southgate, Frank O'Hara
Here is a snippet from one of the Lost and Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative chapbooks I picked up last weekend, a letter circa Spring 1955, from Frank O'Hara (1926-1966) to Kenneth Koch (1925-2002), during the years when they were consolidating their friendship, and just beginning to publish the poetry that subsequent generations of readers now know as the earliest examples of New York School writing. I like this letter because it gives a clear sense of O'Hara's jaunty and campy sensibility and style, as well as little hints of what he (then toiling at the front desk at the Museum of Modern Art) and Koch (then traveling in Europe with his wife, Janice Elwood Koch) were up to. It mentions one of the famous episodes in American mid-century poetry history, the initial rejection of both O'Hara's and John Ashbery's (1927-) [called "John Ash" and "J A" below] first collections of poetry by the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize in 1955, a situation that the judge, W. H. Auden (1907-1973), later rectified when he asked that O'Hara and Ashbery send their collections to him directly, and he chose--though not enthusiastically, according both to his then assistant and eventual close friend and associate of O'Hara, Koch and Ashbery, James Schuyler (1923-1991), and to his somewhat disaffected introduction--Ashbery's volume, which was published the next year, in 1956, as Some Trees. The CUNY chapbook includes notes to all the references, but here are some clues if you're not familiar with these names: Larry [Rivers] (1923-2002), Grace [Hartigan] (1922-2008), and [Jean-Paul] Riopelle (1923-2002) were visual and plastic artists; Joe [Brainerd] (1941-1994) was an author, collagist, cartoonist and painter; Wystan is W. H. Auden; and Koch's two versions of "The Circus," the first one praised here, are among his best and most famous single poems). I highly recommend them.


May 9, 1955
New York

Dear Kenny,

Not knowing where you are, I'm writing you back in Paris. Doubtless you two have gone to Labrador or Aden, there's no way of guessing.

Have you see the art show we sent to the Orangerie?  and have you seen the Musée d'Art Moderne show, which has a Hartigan in it? Write me your impressions.

I'm sending you my first poem in French. If you find any mistakes please let me know. Otherwise, I hope you'll be able to get it printed in the French Vogue with a suitable decoration by Riopelle. Does it sound French, I wonder?

How is Janice? Would she like to sell me her painting of Joe by Larry I have grown passionately fond of it and would buy it at whatever price (but I know she only paid $25, honey, and ten years have not yet passed), but couldn't afford anything over $50, I don't think unless it were long-range. The money might come in handy, however, as your stay continues so let me know.

John Ash has writen a miraculous new 3 act play which takes place in the Canadian Northwest and is full of Mounties and Indians. It is more or less of an homage à Rin Tin Tin, with Pirandelloesque touches. It is full of something like fresh mountain air and has a simplicity like quicksand. You'll adore it.

We both sent books to Yale with disastrous results. Mine was returned because it arrived too late and then John's was returned because they are so stupid. And now Wystan will not see either of them. That preliminary screening gimmick is a crime--there can't be so many each year. You'd think he'd realize that no lesser person than himself should be allowed to make even the first rejections--what's the sense of his being editor if his choice is limited to the final 15 manuscripts and they are weeded out by a perfectly ordinary commercial publishing system? He was complaining before he left that there were so few interesting ones, and this certainly explains that. Oh well, who cares? But he might have liked John's enough to do it...

Are you too busy traveling to write? or writing to travel? Send me another delicious postcard, a note, some poems (I loved the ones you sent J A, especially Geography and the Circus). As you always do, give me the feeling about your works that "Alps on Alps arise" or whatever that line is.

Love to both,

From "this pertains to me which mean to you": The Correspondence of Kenneth Koch & Frank O'Hara 1955-1956 PART 1. Josh Schneiderman, editor. New York: Lost and Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative, Series 1, Number 2, Winter 2009.

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