On Wednesday evening I rode to the first 20th Century US Literature class in three weeks. It had been reading week the week before and before that our instructor had been sick.
As I rode up O’Hara, four teenage skateboarders came rumbling down, all in the middle of the avenue.
It was still warm out but I brought my extra scarf and my winter gloves because I suspected that by the time class was out it would be quite a bit colder. It was also nice that there was now enough daylight to get from my place to school without having to use my flashers.
When I arrived, the doors of the classroom were closed. There was only one student from our class sitting outside. I was thinking of opening the door to see if the prior class had left but I thought of talking to the young woman and pointing out that we’ve been in three different courses together. She nodded and told me they were Children’s Literature, the Short Story and this one. It turns out that she’s taking her time going through university like I am. Another student came, opened the door and found out that our class was already inside, so we entered.
Our instructor, Scott Rayter was fifteen minutes late for class, but there’s construction on the main floor and the hallway between his office and our classroom is blocked off so it seems he has to detour through the basement to get to us. He was wearing that same piece of brown yarn hanging out of his right back pocket.
Since we’d lost a class due to his illness we had to cover two poets that night. We started with Frank O’Hara, who was a museum curator by profession at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Though not a painter himself he had many good friends that were painters and some of them did nude portraits of him, one of which was displayed in the museum. Scott showed on the screen a selection of photos and paintings of O’Hara, including one in the nude except for cowboy boots. O’Hara made the careers of many painters.
O’Hara died in 1966 at the age of 40 late at night on a beach on Fire Island, New York. He was waiting for the tire of the beach taxi he’d been riding in to be repaired and had strolled away from the vehicle when a jeep, trying to avoid the taxi, slammed into him. Scott showed a painting by Alfred Leslie called “The Loading Pier” which depicts some of O’Hara’s friends laying down his body in an image reminiscent of The Deposition, which shows Christ being taken down from the cross.
No one knew how much Frank O’Hara had written until after he died because he would write poems and then just stuff them into drawers. He thought his life was perfect as it was and so he didn’t try to become well known. The inscription on his memorial stone reads, “Grace to be born and live as variously as possible”. “Grace” here has a double meaning because it is also one of his many name drops. In his original poem there is a line break after “Grace”. I think that he means living a life of variety is the most graceful way to live.
Scott had us split up into different groups, each with a different poem to talk about together. The nearest people to me were Steve (Stephen) on my left and Christine Day behind me, so we became a group. Steve is in his early 30s but he looks a lot older and I think Christine is about my age. Next to me she raises her hand to speak up in class more than anyone else and her observations are usually intelligent and astute. We looked at the poem, “A Step Away from Them”. I took messy notes of our thoughts on the poem, which we had to hand in at the end of class for participation marks. Christine observed that the poem is like a series of vignettes. I pointed out the name-dropping that O’Hara does. Steve wondered if O’Hara was trying to put something over on us. I didn’t think so. Christine mentioned the reference to women’s skirts blowing up over subway grates was reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe’s similar scene in the Seven Year Itch. She looked it up on her phone and told us that the film came out a year before O’Hara wrote the poem. There was a line about a sign blowing smoke over his head and Christine suggested that he might be blowing smoke over our heads.
After a few minutes we looked at each poem as a class. In the poem, “Radio”, O’Hara refers to a loud painting called “Summer Couch” by Willem De Kooning, who is the second most famous abstract expressionist painter after Jackson Pollock. O’Hara says the painting fills his ears better than what’s on the radio.
Scott said assigning sound to colour is synesthesia, which sometimes happens during a stroke. But synesthesia is actually when the experience of one sense is experienced as another. So seeing sound as colour is a type of synesthesia but it’s actually called chromosthesia.
Scott told us that Wagner is why people are quiet at the opera. He was interested in the idea of the total work of art or “gezumptkuntzwerken”. Wagner’s approach to opera was outside of the norm because before him opera composers hired a librettist, but Wagner did everything including the direction.
O’Hara’s communicating that it’s important to be open to something more.
The poem “At Joan’s” refers to Joan Mitchell, one of the most well known female abstract expressionist painters.
Someone offered the view that the poem looks like someone struggling with writer’s block.
This type of poem is an occasional poem, based on the idea that any moment can serve as a poem.
He ends the poem with “What shall I do”. He’s feeling sorry for himself but making fun of himself over it at the same time.
Scott asked someone to read “You Are Gorgeous and I’m Coming”, so I volunteered. There is no punctuation, except for the period at the end.
It’s an acrostic poem. The first letters of each line spell the name “Vincent Warren” who was O’Hara’s lover, though they never lived together. O’Hara never hid anything from anyone.
The poem is turgid, wordy and surrealist. It’s like a minor Howl.
“I’m coming” obviously indicates an orgasm.
We looked at “A Step Away from Them”.
I read out loud some of the things that our group had discussed. Scott liked the idea about the poem being a series of vignettes and asked who had thought of that. I pointed to Christine. He said, “Nice going Christine!”
Pierre Reverdy, the poet mentioned at the end of the poem was the lover of Coco Chanel.
It’s from a book called “Lunch Poems” that was published by City Lights, which also published Howl. They are “I do this, I do that” poems. The poem is the experience. The poet is just a camera open to everything. Jackson Pollock said of his paintings that they were actions and events.
I pointed out how casual the poem is in that it just depicts the observer strolling around in a relaxed manner. Scott said the word for someone like that is a flâneur and that Baudelair coined the term to describe a passionate wandering urban spectator.
O’Hara’s poems are personal without being fully confessional. They are chatty and distracted.
“hum coloured cabs” is another example of chromosthesia. He is saying that the cars look like bees.
Parallelism – he checks out the construction workers while writing about everything else.
Christine pointed out the Marilyn Monroe reference and Scott confirmed that O’Hara had just seen “The Seven Year Itch” before writing the poem.
O’Hara drinking papaya juice is notable because of how rare it was to have access to papaya at that time. It had to do with a sudden trade that the United States had in Guatemala after the CIA helped to overthrow the communist government.
From talking about stopping for a cheeseburger at Juliet’s Corner to referencing Giulietta Masina, the wife of Frederico Fellini is an example of (and here Scott used a word that sounded like “metonymy” or “monotonony” for lateral thinking, neither of which mean that so I don’t know what he said.
The poem mentions that Jackson Pollock has just died and in fact Pollock died the day before. O’Hara honoured him even though Pollock used to call O’Hara “a fag” to his face.
I brought up all the name dropping that is in most of these poems and commented that it kind of throws the reader off balance to not know who some of these people are. Scott agreed that the names distance us but at the same time give us the illusion of intimacy.
Scott played a video of Frank O’Hara reading “Having a Coke with You”. Afterwards Scott declared it one of the great 20th Century love poems. Ordinariness is elevated. This is not Celine Dion singing “Climb Every Mountain” (I don’t think she ever sang that. Maybe he meant “River Deep Mountain High”). It’s conversational. There is a campy, jokey quality and it is self-ironic. If you’re writing the poem you are not with the lover. He is never sentimental and yet the poem is full of sentiment.
There is a reference to Futurism.
The immediacy of the poem is incredible.
Who is a love poem for? Is it for the lover or the reader?
We took a break and afterwards started looking at the poetry of Pat Parker.
Pat Parker died at the age of 44 of breast cancer. She was the director of the Women’s Health Network in San Francisco, and it was rare for a Black woman to have such a position (According to Wikipedia she was actually the medical coordinator for the Oakland Feminist Women’s Health Centre”). She had also been in the cultural wing of the Black Panthers.
“The Taking of Miss Janie”, a play by Ed Bullins is about the alleged rape of a white woman by her black friend after years of knowing each other. I don’t remember why Scott mentioned the play at this point.
Being a Black, gay woman, there were no spaces that allowed Pat Parker to be fully herself.
She travelled with Judy Graham and Audre Lorde to read poetry at coffee houses.
She said of her poetry, “Just because it sounds simple doesn’t mean it was easy to write.”
She wrote a collection of poems about the Jonestown massacre.
Black people do not commit suicide as much as white people. Less than one percent of Black women kill themselves.
We were going to look at Parker’s last poem, which Scott said was written in 1977 when he was seven years old. But we read “Goat Child” instead.
It begins with “You were a mistake”.
It’s an epic poem.
Parker always uses a small “i” to refer to herself.
A goat is ugly, stubborn and a traditional sacrifice. I looked it up later and found that Parker was born in the Chinese year of the Goat.
The lines that list her marital duties such as “to cook – to fuck” show sex as just another duty rather than a joy. The phrase “to cook to fuck” makes an unpleasant staccato sound.
The poem was written at the time of “Black is beautiful” but Parker doesn’t essentialize the Black woman.
Rape was casual.
The poem is raw, honest and political.
She inserts two African symbols between her poems. The fern shaped one is called the “Aya” and it’s a symbol of defiance. The twisted one is called the “Nkyimkyim” and it symbolizes changing oneself or playing many parts.
Parker’s work is situational and contextual.
We looked at “For the White Person that Wants to Know How to Be My Friend”.
I offered the view that it’s a bit condescending but Scott disagreed. He said it’s sarcastic, tongue in cheek, funny and ironic but still communicating.
There is a double consciousness to everything Parker wrote.
Scott told us that she used to apologize when she asked someone if they wanted their coffee black because she thought it might be politically incorrect to say the word “black”.
The poem “Movement in Black” is rhymed and metered like a ballad or nursery rhyme. A movement is a musical piece.
Gertrude Stein said there is no repetition, just insistence.
In “My Lady Aint No Lady” there is funny identity politics and a turn of gender.
Our final poem was the last poem that Pat Parker wrote: “It’s Not So Bad”. There is a turn. She may be trying to convince herself. I pointed out that if something is “not so bad” that means that it’s still bad.
After class I chatted with Scott and the woman that I’d spoken with previously in the hall. We talked about in-class tests. I told him that I used to stress out about them until I took The Philosophy of Sex. Scott said, “That’s a great course!” He also knows the instructor, Ronnie de Souza. I declared amicably, “He’s crazy!” Scott confirmed in the same tone, “He is crazy!” I said that we were about to write our exam for the Philosophy of Sex when Ronnie urged us to “Have fun!” I took it to heart and since then I don’t stress about in-class essays.
When I walked outside I was glad that I’d brought the extra scarf and my winter gloves because the temperature had dropped considerably.
When I got home I made guacamole and ate it with spicy plantain chips while watching The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. It was an interesting suspense story in which there was a woman being preyed upon but it was hard to tell whom the real predator was. She was alone in a beach house during a thick foggy night while her husband was away on business. A Hispanic man came to her door and asked to use the phone but she said she couldn’t let him in. She said that he could walk to the gas station that was only two miles up the road. He told her that he had a girl in the car that was hurt and he didn’t want to leave her in the car. He got increasingly insistent and tried to push the door before she was able to close and lock it. After several minutes she heard a woman screaming outside and the sound of a car driving away very fast. Later the police arrive with the Hispanic man to confirm his story that he’d knocked on her door earlier. It turned out that while he was walking to the gas station the woman in the car had been attacked and she was now in the hospital fighting for her life.
The next day the fog lifts and the sun is shining and the woman goes surfing with three young beach boys that she hangs out with sometimes. Meanwhile the girl in the hospital dies and the Hispanic man blames the woman in the beach house for her death. He swears he is going to make her pay. That night when the fog comes back the Hispanic man sneaks into the beach house and hides upstairs to wait for his chance to kill her. But her lonely author neighbour comes by to visit and begins to try to force himself on her. She fights him off and then he runs upstairs and hides when there is a knock on her door. It’s the three beach boys and she is glad to see them. They help search the house but the author has left and the Hispanic man is very good at hiding. While the Hispanic man is at the top of the stairs listening the surfers sit in the living room with her and begin to tell her that it was them that had attacked the girl in the car the night before and that now they are going to have their kicks with her. Just as they begin to try to rape her, the Hispanic man, now knowing whom he really should blame, intervenes, gets hold of her gun and shoots one of them. He knocks another one out and the third escapes to the beach but he is tackled by the author. Then the Hispanic man catches up and is about to kill the last beach boy but thinks better of it.