Last week I read Marjorie Perloff's Frank O'Hara: A Poet Among Painters, a critical study of O'Hara's work in the middle of which I felt unhinged and suddenly able to read a few contemporary poets in a new way, poets like John Ashbery and Sarah Vap. I might call this moment Opening a Broken Door, or
The Moonlight is a Window. My first loves fall into two camps, poets like James Wright and Ai, with a modernist flare for the lyric line, and Jean Valentine, whose lyric is abstract--a meditative consciousness full of oblique reference. Mark Doty's essay "Ghost Sonnets" published in Jean Valentine: This-World Company, part of the University of Michigan's Poets Under Discussion series, sheds some rhetorical light on why so many of her poems have a classical resonance for me; their music is clear if their subject is not.
As ever, there are too many books, and not enough time to read them--much less time to write about them. Just now the California Fall has swept in, something off the coast is washing the leaves of the Chinese Banyan and my windows are open on a half moon outside, the spruce across the street are stabbing the night with a darker, softer, more mellifluous passion, life and death belong to me. They steer and bend forward like great sails. I want to walk. I want to be alone.
Perloff's book-length study explores O'Hara's realism, his relationship with the abstract painters of the 50's and 60's, painters like Motherwell and Jasper Johns and Grace Hartigan and Norman Bluhm and Helen Frankenthaler and Jackson Pollock, placing his approach to the poem in context with Abstract Expressionism and in reaction to Lowell's confessional mode. O'Hara has less in common, I'd say, with Michael Burkard and Sarah Vap and with Jean Valentine, than John Ashbery, though I feel as though reading Perloff's explanation of O'Hara's "Personism" helps me as a reader to approach these other poets, their momentary meditations, the consciousness that moves in their poetry without narrative, their mindfulness.
In the final chapter to the book, Perloff makes a smart comparison, contrasting the metaphysical restraint of Ashbery's sentences to the exclamatory jargon of O'Hara's syntactic ambiguity and phrasing. How often have I tried to read a whole book of Ashbery's and found myself drowning suddenly in a comical phantasmagoria without a horizon? Reading Perloff's assessment of O'Hara reminds me that life is like that too, a sequence of external experiences. Full of meaning, and meaningless. Today online the new 9 gigapixel zoomable picture of 84 million stars in the milky way, jeweled and clouded with galactic dust. What a silly void, full of such bewilderment, mesmeric and glittering filth. But it's ours. O'Hara is a poet of surfaces. The poem for him is a canvas of action, of contrary tensions in which Time is fluid, and cubist. It happens all at once.
To John Ashbery
I can't believe there's not
another world where we will sit
and read new poems to each other
high on a mountain in the wind.
You can be Tu Fu, I'll be Po Chü-i
and the Monkey's Lady'll be in the moon,
smiling at our ill-fitting heads
as we watch snow settle on a twig.
Or shall we be really gone? this
is not the grass I saw in my youth!
and if the moon, when it rises
tonight, is empty--a bad sign,
meaning "You go, like the blossoms."
One criticism of O'Hara's collected is that it's full of little useless moments too, and I might make that same claim for some of these other poets--what do we call them? Post-post-modern? Post-confessional? Hybrids? Whatever. "So much depends" on so little, after all. My own work is too sentimental and garish, but I like a violent splash of color, an offense, my little stain.
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This is a an imaginary diary of facts, confessions, or messages. This is a notebook of working but broken ideas, lines, images, notes on books I'm reading, writers I admire, and brief fantasies of language. Here unfiltered all mannerings pseudo-private, publicized, ur-. Here I am art and unrevealed: poetic, political and pop. These are my moonlit rough beginnings and should not be taken literally, directly, truthfully, reliably, and none of it is legally binding. These lies are all choreographed, but only haphazardly. Beware.
My work has been awarded the Katherine C. Turner Prize from the Academy of American Poets, a Swarthout Award, and has twice been nominated and shortlisted for the Pushcart Prize. My first book, A Book Called Rats, was selected for the Blue Lynx Prize for Poetry (Eastern Washington University Press 2007). I'm curating editor for the online journal of poetry: PISTOLA and my poems and reviews most recently appear in Massachusetts Review, Beloit, Ploughshares and RAIN TAXI. I currently teach writing and literature at Santa Monica College in southern California.
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