Okay, I missed a day. Sorry readers. But I have yesterday’s post today.
I’ve been reading Brad Gooch’s City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara. Frank was a member of the New York School of poetry. After serving in WWII (the Big One), he availed himself of veteran’s assistance and went to Harvard. After school, he moved to NYC, got a job at the The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and began to write poetry. Wikipedia has this to say about him:
O’Hara was active in the art world, working as a reviewer for Art News, and in 1960 was Assistant Curator of Painting and Sculpture Exhibitions for the Museum of Modern Art. He was also friends with the artists Willem de Kooning, Norman Bluhm, Larry Rivers and Joan Mitchell.
This put him at the center of the modern movement of art. As Wikipedia article notes, he expanded the role of poetry from imitation of works of poetry alone to drawing on a wider canvas, including painting. This is in line with the tradition of America being the land which joins a vision of the self with a comprehensive vision (think Whitman’s Song of Myself).
WWII in Europeans had cleansed the countries of their Jews, homosexuals, and other outsiders to make way for a ‘pure’ race. They fled to the United States, where they were welcome. This affected the balance of power in the art world. Paris, which had once ruled the world of artistic taste, was passed over for the more vibrant and flexible world of America in general and New York City in particular. And Frank O’Hara, who had come to NYC after graduating from Harvard, was poised on the cutting edge of art: the avant-garde.
In the 1950s, O’Hara was able to produce an art that could bridge the world of past (Europe) and present (America). America had produced jazz. When I grew up, I was told that this was an unprecedented achievement in the history of art: a totally new form of art based in improvisation. (It wasn’t true, but I didn’t know it then.) But it was already ancient in terms of America in 1959, so ancient that its first generation was dying young. Billy Holiday, Lady’ to jazz fans, died on July 17, 1959, at 44 years old.
In response, O’Hara crafted a poem for ‘Lady,’ entitled ‘The Day Lady Died.’
It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me
I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness
and for Mike 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
Now, if O’Hara had stopped there, there would be no arguing about the role of poetry today. Granted, the poem ‘decenters’ the most monumental experience in a person’s life to one of several moments in Frank’s busy life. He is thinking about Linda Stillwagon, about strolling into the Park Lane Liquor Store asking for a bottle, and asking for Gauloises and Picayunes from a tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre. He wants to include more than just classic works of art. He wants to include the ‘new’ (which, of course we all know is shocking because we’ve been to college). This includes jazz. He also positions himself at the center of the universe. The news of her death is shocking, but it is positioned in his day as just another in a string of events.
But in the end, O’Hara positions himself as one of the knowing, one of those who has the intellectual resources to make decisions about which works should be included in the MoMA and which should be excluded. His poem still has a literary component to the experience. He thinks about buying Verlaine or Lattimore’s translation of Hesiod (he goes with Verlaine in the end).
The 1950s and 60s in New York was a great place for people with credentials from Harvard to gather. Henry Geldzahler came to New York in 1960, fresh from Harvard, and in no time flat had become he Curator for American Art at the Met, and later the first Curator for 20th Century Art at the most prestigious museum in the most preeminent city in the art world.
In a documentary entitled Who Gets to Call It Art? (Available on Netflix and well worth watching) Henry’s life is subjected to a critique. Who does get to call something art? The answer seems to be that it is not a matter for just anyone to call something art: they must have ‘it.’ And Henry had ‘it.’ And he pushed the boundaries beyond Frank O’Hara’s Hesiod-besotted world in which ‘Lady’ had died, one event among a myriad. He stripped out all the ties to the world of literature and literary influence altogether. His landmark 1969 exhibition, New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940-1970, became a sensation, because it brought works by marginal artist (artists that O’Hara had been supporting over at the lesser known MoMA) to the forefront of art world itself. And the art world has never been the same after.
Lana Turner was a movie icon, a legend. She appears in my favorite film noir of all time, as the women in white:
Although an icon in movies, in real life, she was a bit of a ditz. As Wkipedia reports:
Turner was well known inside Hollywood circles for dating often, changing partners often, and for never shying away from the topic of how many lovers she had in her lifetime.
To see what a ditz she is, watch the clip from Lana’s appearance on What’s My Line here:
This divide between reality and film is one of the things that I find so attractive in Miss Turner’s real life. Without the deeper Joycean undercurrent of myth to sustain her, what use is she, really? She’s just another ditzy idiot who draws our attention, not because she’s ‘really’ special, but because she plays someone special on TV (or in this case movies).
Lana Turner Has Collapsed
But, even before Geldzahler’s bringing forth marginal art to the center, Frank O’Hara had written a pleasant piece of verse which also stripped out all literary references and made a joke out of Lana Turner collapsing.
Watch it here, with Frank O’Hara reading and put to the music of Nirvana:
Here’s the text for you old-time readers:
Lana Turner has collapsed!
I was trotting along and suddenly
it started raining and snowing
and you said it was hailing
but hailing hits you on the head
hard so it was really snowing and
raining and I was in such a hurry
to meet you but the traffic
was acting exactly like the sky
and suddenly I see a headline
LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED!
there is no snow in Hollywood
there is no rain in California
I have been to lots of parties
and acted perfectly disgraceful
but I never actually collapsed
oh Lana Turner we love you get up
In Who Gets to Call It Art?, the wheels of art turn on a few key insiders (the documentarian would have us believe that it was Henry alone, in fact).This, in my mind, is a justification of their power. Those with insight get the most power, while the rest of us ‘low-lifes’ get little or no power. And that, in the documentarian’s mind, is okay, because he, too, has the insight to know what others in the universe don’t know. A select few get to participate in the world of art; the rest of us stand on the outside looking in.
But this inequity in power is not what America is about. America is the land of opportunity for the many, not the select Harvard few. In such an environment, most uf us are put outside by the gatekeepers of art. From this position of exclusion, people like conservatives (and not just conservative) demand entry into the world of the Harvard-educated few; but the Harvard-educated few are an exclusive club. They he had been given the entry into the world of art. Their world has set in place some very particular rules for entry. One of those rules is (paradoxically, I might add) that nothing can be left out of the world of art. And since conservatives want to wall off certain forms of art (I’m thinking of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, but there are millions more, and more offensive works of art), they remain excluded.
But from the point of view of a conservative, art is not living up to its ideals in a democratic universe. Nothing should be excluded from the world of art. But there they are on the outside looking in. They perceive the gatekeepers of art as an exclusive club led by an exclusively educated group of insiders. Those insiders tell the people that have the right to choose based on their personal taste, but in private, hidden away in their minds, art is not open to the public. It is something determined by a select few. (See the Devil Wears Prada for Amanda Priestly’s speech on views on the blue sweater Andy is wearing for an example of this).
What I don’t really like about art in America is the sense that art must travel through the senses of experts before it can be declared art. (see my section on Arthur Danto here). After all, that is not how new art was discovered by men like Henry Geldzahler. People like Henry used their curiosity about things that others had not yet discovered to make art in their image. And what is good for Henry is good for the gander and for me. Why shouldn’t I be allowed to participate in the world of art on my own terms?
The Limits of Power
As far as I can tell, nothing is stopping me. But in practice, I find a whole hoard of people telling me that I can be let in if only I will stop, turn around, and back in slowly. I’m not the stop, turn around, and back in slowly type of guy. And in the current world, a world in which people like me are not constrained by experts to behave in a certain way, I don’t behave. After getting rejected by people who know better, I will test myself on the market of ideas without the middle man to tell me no. I will publish my own book. New York, which so many people flocked to in the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and early 90s is no longer relevant.
Back to Lana
So I like Frank o’Hara’s ‘Lana Turner Has Collapsed,’ and I would not restricted poetry only to those who could connect themselves back to an extra-individual literary tradition. And this is what people like Bill Bennett and E. D. Hirsch attempt to do in attempting to connect men and women back to their ‘tradition.’ That attempt is laudable, but it is limited to those works which connect back to deep and abiding themes. Deep and abiding themes are great if all you’re looking for poetry which treats deep and abiding themes; but it takes too much art out of the picture. Television commercials, television shows, and light poems like ‘Lana Turner Has Collapsed’ are all outside of the range of that sort of poetry.
On the other hand, the elites who populate our schools are also limited in their approach to poetry. Yes, they have managed to open up the possibilities of art to include ‘Lana Turner Has Collapsed.’ But this is largely because they themselves have discovered or written such poems. They then declare that anybody can write poems on the model of ‘Lana Turner Has Collapsed.’ But the fact of matter is that such poems are light in comparison with ‘The Day Lady Died.’ When people (particularly conservatives) have asked for the distinctions (that people know in their hearts) about why ‘The Day Lady Died’ is a better poem than ‘Lana Turner Has Collapsed,’ the answer of our Harvard elites is that all poetry is equal in the eyes of the critic. There is no difference. Some people like reading one sort of poetry; others enjoy reading other sorts of poetry.
That’s fine, but it doesn’t answer the question of why (or if) ‘The Day Lady Died’ is a more important poem than like ‘Lana Turner Has Collapsed.’ It strikes me as an evasion. Maintaining that precarious balance in which everyone can have the art they want is more important than any rational intrusion, which will skew the world of art one way or another. Reason throws the balanced world of art into confusion. For that reason, reason is left out of the equation.
If, in order to include such works as ‘Lana Turner Has Collapsed’ we need maintain the balance that has served us since Harvard educated scholars celebrated the arrival of art onto American shores at the end of WWII, then perhaps the world of art is restricted to those few, knowledgeable people who the rest of us are supposed to follow because they are leading us. It only remains for the sheep of the world to know their betters and admit what the Harvard-educated elites already know.
But I for my part don’t think that the Harvard-educated elites have it altogether right. My feeling is that life is not organized around the need for balance at all, which is so prominent in their worldview. That’s an illusion fed by people in power who want to keep power for themselves. Life is competitive, and he who reaches farthest, get the most.
For my part, I believe in poetry and art. Unlike Bennett and Hirsch, I believe in including ‘Lana Turner Has Collapsed’ in the world of poetry and art. But, unlike the Harvard-educated elites, I believe in using reason to sort good poetry from bad.