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Sunday, 27 February 2011

Frank O'Hara: Written in the Sand at Water Island and Remembered (Little Elegy for James Dean)


James Byron Dean (8 February 1931-30 September 1955): studio publicity still, c. 1955

James Dean
made in USA
eager to be everything
stopped short

Do we know what
excellence is? it's
all in this world
not to be executed

File:James Dean in East of Eden trailer 2.jpg

James Dean as Cal in East of Eden, 1955: cropped screenshot in trailer for the film: photo by Sir James, 9 March 2010

Frank O'Hara: Written in the Sand at Water Island and Remembered, 9 October 1955, from Four Little Elegies in Collected Poems, 1971


aditya said...

Also sounds like a very terse justification for the man's death.

Ed Baker said...

our TRUE avant guard (mythical "Heros") ... Rebels Without a Cause...
not like those French "anarchists"...

they made DADA & Surrealism

while we/our avant guard made movies and money or
disappeared into Academic Sameness...or into {edited out}-ness

TC said...

The weekend after James Dean's death in Paso Robles, California in an auto accident at age 24 (Dean had been driving his Porsche Spyder to Salinas for a race), Frank O'Hara accompanied friends to a beach house on Water Island, a secluded community accessible only by boat from Fire Island. There he is to have written down this poem in the sand.

As to its terms -- in particular, "excellence" -- the following comments by Brad Gooch may be helpful.

'O'Hara's fixation on, and identification with, Dean had begun gaining momentum while Dean was still alive. After seeing East of Eden in July, in which Dean plays a character as rebellious as the tender hoodlum he played in Rebel Without a Cause released later that year, O'Hara argued with Ashbery over the film's excellence. In the course of their discussion O'Hara came to realize that Dean's Cain character struck chords with his identity within his own family. Writing to Fairfield Porter, O'Hara explained, "John didn't like it and in telling me about it, it was so strange, because the main character, a sort of naughty boy wondering why he's different, I felt very illuminating and even that eerie feeling that I was being exposed to an intimate, scarcely-remembered level, whereas John identified with his brother, who is treated less fully though equally sympathetically, and didn't like the role he was put in. My own brother was not at all like John or Aaron in the movie, but the relationships and the things said were very close, especially in the father relationship. The movie takes place in California 1917 but the diction I remember in Massachusetts in 1938 was amazingly similar."

'O'Hara took this analogy further in the same letter to Porter as he tried to find explanations for what he felt to be the difference between his poetry and Ashbery's, a question raised in part by the Yale Younger Poets prize [which Ashbery had won]. "I think one of the things about East of Eden is that I am very materialistic and John is very spiritual, in our work especially," O'Hara wrote, casting himself with reverse vanity as the James Dean of poetry. "John's work is full of dreams and a kind of moral excellence and kind sentiments. Mine is full of objects for their own sake, spleen and ironically intimate observation which may be truthfulness (in the lyrical sense) but is more likely to be egotistical cynicism masquerading as honesty. I'm sorry if you're bored by this, but sometimes I think that writing a poem is such a moral crisis I get completely sick of the whole situation. Where Kenneth [Koch] and Jimmy [Schuyler] produce art, for instance, I often feel I just produce the by-product of exhibitionism. Well, chacun à son mauvais goût!".

Frank O'Hara was killed by a dune buggy on Fire island at the age of 39.

Anonymous said...

"I just produce the by-product of exhibitionism. Well, chacun à son mauvais goût!"

That's great.