WNET – Frank O’Hara & Ed Sanders –  Frank O’Hara

Vintage WNET USA-Poetry continues. This weekend – Frank O’Hara and Ed Sanders (starting with Frank O’Hara) . This priceless footage (O’Hara died a few weeks after the shooting of the film) includes footage of him reading his ebullient, witty poem for Allen – “Fantasy (dedicated to the health of Allen Ginsberg)”.

The film begins, however, with a reading of “Mozart Chemisier” – (“Mozart Chemisier” is a poem I wrote after visiting David Smith, the great American sculptor, in his house in Bolton Landing and it’s really called.. (Chemisier”)  and the Mozart comes in because he was his favorite composer. – (“For instance, you walk in and faint..”…”I don’t have any ear-rings, you don’t have a ticket”))

Introduction: On July 1966, a few weeks after this film was completed, Frank O’Hara died from injuries sustained in an automobile accident. Frank O’Hara was an associate curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art He was a playwright as well as an art critic and was one of the wittiest of contemporary poets. He was part of the group including John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch, sometimes called the New York (School of) Poets.

F O’H: John and Kenneth and I, and number of other people later, found, that the only people interested in our poetry were painters, or sculptors, that the… you know, they were enthusiastic about the different ideas and they were more inquisitive. They had no… Being non-literary, they had no pas de prime about academic standards, attitudes, and so on. So that you could say “I don’t like Yeats”, and they would say, “I know just how you feel, I hate Picasso too” – that sort of thing, (which was) a much pleasanter atmosphere than the literary community was providing at the time – And, apart from the fact that, of course, the only people that were doing anything interesting were painters.”

[O’Hara is shown collaborating with the painter, Alfred Leslie]

One painter very much interested in contemporary poetry is Alfred Leslie, who happens to be a filmmaker as well as a painter. In his New York studio, he shows Frank O’Hara some of his current work, the best known of which is probably this larger than life-size self-portrait: 

Alfred Leslie (detail from Self Portrait (1966)]

Leslie is one of the painters who collaborated with the New York poets in various theatrical productions. O’Hara and he are currently collaborating on a film [editorial note – see also the classic 1964 O’Hara-Leslie collaboration, The Last Clean Shirt]

[Alfred Leslie and Frank O’Hara]

F’O’H: Poets in New York always sort of had some kind of a relationship with theatre. When the Artists Theatre was started, for instance, the whole point of it was to do plays of an avant-garde content, but have real artists do the sets, rather than commercial designers. The painters who collaborated with us, like Alfred, and Larry Rivers, and Grace Hartigan, and Jane Freilicher, and Elaine de Kooning, and Nell Blaine, they got the script and saw it as a theatrical event (it was not going to be made into something where you take it to Boston and adjust it, and rewrite it, and.. it’s really just the raw-material for an experience), The painters that we worked with, read the script, either liked it or didn’t like it, wanted to do it, or they didn’t want to do it, but they saw it as a theatrical event already, (which very few people in the theatre will do anymore)

[Leslie is shown, describing to O’Hara his paintings]. : “….when I was working originally on the big one..”….” the nude, yeah – You see here, you don’t have a view down , so, in order to paint these, and have the whole sense of confrontation and frontality..  Actually, there are four positions of perspective  (these are bigger, by the way, than life-size). Look at the perspective that you get when you come up, it’s almost ]

FO’H: The reason that I’m interested in movies is, not as a substitute for poetry, but who’s making it? you know.  If Al (Leslie’s) making it, then I’m interested. in the sense that I can understand what it’s going to be, or that I know that, at least, it’s going to be something interesting for me.

One of the poems in Frank O’Hara’s book, Meditations in An Emergency, published in 1957 by Grove Press, is titled “To The Film Industry In Crisis”  In part, the film-script that O’Hara is writing with Alfred Leslie is derived from this poem.

[O’Hara and Leslie are shown working on the script] 

AL: The main point is that it’s nobody’s business what anybody does when they’re alone…

F O’H: Alright, shall we just say it?

AL: ….and that these people are being intruded upon. And then if somebody else finds out what they’re doing, that, some way or another, they’re criticized, they’re condemned and it’s….. (it ain’t) nobody’s business. If we time this up to here, we have three minutes and forty seconds. In three minutes, they…  At the beginning of the film, Dorothea starts making love to Miles, and then John is laying there and he’s sort of talking about the church, and he sort of.. oh yeah..  then, at one point, just about that time, John, to her, says, “Oh, wait a minute, let me.. let me ..let me sort of engage myself a little bit with Dorothea”. And then he pulls Dorothea away from Miles.

F O’H:  Yes

AL: And then Miles gets rather cross. That’s just about the time this is happening. and, actually, for the rest of the film, Dorothea and John are making love and Miles is addressing himself to Dorothea.

F O’H (reading from his script) – “How old was I when I realized I wouldn’t enjoy anything anymore? Anxiety is just another form of entertainment. Negroes are religious; I am religious; therefore I am a negro. At least I am not white, We walked on and on hating each other (they’re on Fourteenth Street). The air was better in bed. Now my eyes hurt; I’m coughing and out of cigarettes. I looked at them on the corner of Twenty-third  Street and Seventh Avenue. I wanted to lie down and be run over. It will come anyway. We looked at the Chelsea Hotel. it seemed damaged like everything else. Two nuns walked by looking like lady wrestlers.I thought of my childhood and my dirty underwear, my socks. Pollution isn’t interesting; you can’t even see it. I’m a sight queen,, I guess. If you can’t see it, it isn’t there, until it hits you – boom – I wonder where the land of the orange trees really is. Not Southern California, maybe Nome. Maybe Pittsburgh. Maybe Nagasaki. Maybe Nome. I’m going there in the sweet polluted twilight if the sun ever goes down and if they ever go away from my quiet walk along Fourteenth Street and Seventh Avenue and Twenty-third Street . Who are they anyway? Its raining. It makes me feel sweaty like last night. I hate to feel sweaty. She doesn’t feel anything about me or him. She just wants to be accommodating. We’re all generalized like mannikins. It’s nobody’s business what people do when they’re alone. Everybody is always intruding but it never makes any difference anyway.”

AL: Yeah, terrific! – it’s going to be marvelous,  yeah, it’s gonna be terrific!

F O’H; Okay.

AL: So I kept seeing the image, and it was very very exciting!

F O’H:  But then I want to add, like…(because John does have these ambivalent feelings) …. “She thinks she’s some sort of cornball Salome, .I think she’d like to have my head”

– [At this point, the phone rings – O”Hara picks up the phone and answers the phone on camera]  oops! – hello? Jim? how are you? you have an upset stomach? what did you do you, went to the (Max’s) Kansas City, I suppose? – yeah…  This is a very peculiar situation, because while I’m talking to you, I’m typing and also being filmed for educational tv! – Can you imagine that?! – yeah.  Alfred Leslie is holding my hand while it’s happening -It’s known as performance ! – what?… yeah,  “slash and bolt” – what does that mean? – “flashing bolt”,  you mean? – oh good! – “flashing bolt” – very good! – “a flashing bolt” – is that art?, or,  what is it?. – I just laid it onto the paper!]

Frank O”Hara’s most recent book [1965] is titled Love Poems, published by Tibor de Nagy Editions, New York.

In 1959, O”Hara wrote this about his poetry [from his “Statement” in Don Allen’s anthology of New American Poetry]  – “What is happening to me, allowing for lies and exaggerations which I try to avoid, goes into my poems. I don’t think my experiences are clarified or made beautiful for myself or anyone else, they are just there in whatever form I can find them..”

[At approximately nine-and-three-quarter minutes in, O”Hara reads his poem dedicated to Allen]  – “This is called   “Fantasy (dedicated to the health of Allen Ginsberg)” –  (It depends on how angry you get as you go along, and how dissatisfied) – (“How do you like the music of Adolf Deutsch? I like it.”…. “just free, that’s all – Never argue with the movies”

This is followed (at approximately eleven-and-a-half minutes in)  by “The Day Lady Died”  – (“The Day Lady Died” – (“It is 12;20 in New York, a Friday/ three days after Bastille Day, yes..”……“…while she whispered a song along the keyboard/to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing”), and  “Song” (Is it dirty / Does it look dirty)”- (“The next poem is called “Song” (“Is it dirty?,/Does it look dirty?” …. “ You don’t refuse to breathe do you?”)

O’Hara concludes with “Having A Coke With You” – (“This poem is one of the Love Poems,  and it’s sort of like.. I had the idea of Marianne Moore, in a way, because the title is part of the poem (and, also, as it defines something, but I don’t know how).  The poem is called  “Having A Coke With You”.. (“is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, Irún, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne/or being sick to my stomach on the Travesera de Gracia in Barcelona….”…..”some/marvelous experience/which is not going to go wasted on me, which is why I’m telling/ you about it”)

Addenda – There are with this (as there are with most of. these WNET programs) significant out-takes (in the keeping of the original collection at the San Francisco State University Poetry Center).    John Latta  comments on the released and also the unreleased footage – here

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