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Saturday 22 December 2012

Frank O'Hara: Les Étiquettes Jaunes


 Les Alyscamps, Falling Autumn Leaves: Vincent van Gogh, Arles, November 1888, oil on canvas, 92 x 72 cm (Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Otterlo)

I picked up a leaf
today from the sidewalk.
This seems childish.

Leaf! you are so big!
How can you change your
color, then just fall!

As if there were no
such thing as integrity!

You are too relaxed
to answer me.  I am too
frightened to insist.

Leaf! don’t be neurotic
like the small chameleon.

Frank O'Hara: Les Étiquettes Jaunes, Ann Arbor, September 1950, from Meditations in an Emergency, 1957

This poem comes from Frank's Hopwood manuscript, compiled in a roominghouse in Ann Arbor during the winter of 1950-1951. The Avery Hopwood awards offered a tiny cash enticement to writers at a time when the entire idea of "creative writing" (and of cash prizes for its accomplishment) still lay blissfully unhatched, as when the Alien lay slumbering in its subterranean pod. The cash prize a small withered carrot dangling from the end of the short sharp stick of a harsh frostbound Ann Arbor winter. A few years later the same dubious enticement drew me also. A few years later still --  by now Frank was dead, run down at 39 by a dune buggy on Fire Island -- I visited Ann Arbor in the winter permafrost with Ted Berrigan, who insisted on being ushered to the sacred site of Frank's temporary residence. We labored up the hill through the hard ungiving elements, nostrils frozen together, small puffs of breath poking the frigid air out ahead of us, Ted growing less committed to the quest with each tentative step into the deep snow covering what was assumed to be sidewalk. We arrived, had a look -- an ordinary drab Midwestern roominghouse, no distinguishing features. The last leaf of autumn long since withered and gone. 


Anonymous said...

I am smiling at that it...thanks!

TC said...

Thanks, Sandra.

(Here in the monsoon zone the leaves have turned into a carpet of brown sodden mush...)

Anonymous said...

(beautiful..! I alreaday have yellow seems that the weather is violent today )



The yellow etiquette of fallen leaves, everything wet here, snow in Ann Arbor ("nostrils frozen together"), first full day of winter, more rain on the way (for days, it seems).


grey of rain cloud above shadowed green
plane of ridge, leaves moving on branch
in foreground, wave sounding in channel

expression of head and neck,
guidelines were given,

measure as it stands, which
in itself, demands it

clouds reflected in windblown channel,
tree-lined green ridge across from it

vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...

One of my favorites from one of my favorite book of poems.

Curtis Faville said...

An earlier recipient of the award was John Ciardi.

"Of all people!"

I wonder who else is on the Hopwood list, beside you TC.

How amazingly eccentric and weird those early O'Hara poems seem. Was there ever an "apprentice" period for him, or did he just burst from the head of Mayakovsky, fully formed and fledged?

O'Hara had Hart Crane's eyes--as Phil Whalen once said.

TC said...

Thanks all, on a day more than full of winter it is gladdening to hear I am not alone in seeing this poem as a small herald to hark the arrival of a genius. Particularly the tonal command, the trick of assimilating and incorporating a certain French style into the unique American wit -- and the delicate, only half-ironic wistfulness, and the romance, and of course the sense of humour.

In lines 7-8, the mastery is already evident. And in the poem of an M.A. candidate, yet! (Ann Arbor does have its autumnal beauties, before the ice storms set in.)

Curtis, Phil's observation about Frank having Hart Crane's eyes is indeed arresting. (One recalls "The Eyes of Laura Mars".)

And of course Phil and Frank did see eye to eye on many things.

And re. the Hopwoods -- over the infinite years there have obviously been many (if not myriad) winners in the various categories. The Hopwood website keeps the whole list updated, I believe, if you can bother to fiddle with the requisite PDF'ing.

Wiki lists these selected recipients:

Brett Ellen Block, Max Apple, Lorna Beers, Sven Birkerts, John Malcolm Brinnin, John Ciardi, Tom Clark, Lyn Coffin, Cid Corman, Christopher Paul Curtis, Mary Gaitskill, Robert Hayden, Garrett Hongo, Lawrence Joseph, Jane Kenyon, Laura Kasischke, Elizabeth Kostova, Arthur Miller, Howard Moss, Davi Napoleon, Frank O'Hara, Marge Piercy, William Craig Rice, Ari Roth, Davy Rothbart, Betty Smith, Ron Sproat, Keith Waldrop, Rosmarie Waldrop, Edmund White, Nancy Willard, Beth Tanenhaus Winsten, and Maritta Wolff.

Of those, Max Apple was my classmate... and the Waldrops were also on the scene, with their own basement hand press.

TC said...

BTW, our old friend Geoff Young, who knows a thing or two about good art (he runs his own gallery), comments backchannel about the image here:

"...and that Van Gogh painting: I didn't know it, and its economy of line and feeling for oil paint, and setting, and let's face it, strange overall color? are perfect."

(Those were my sentiments also, as is perhaps obvious.)

kent said...

When quizzed on what he'd learned at the 75th(?) Anniversary Hopwood by-invite-only dinner, author and past Hoppy winner Bruce Shlain replied,

Sent By:
On: Jun 06/09/10 7:06 PM

Lana Turner never did win that Hopwood, although she was discovered at Schwab's drugstore by Theodore Roethke, who was wearing the same sweater.

Mose23 said...

I love those exclamation marks. He throws the lines out joyfully, without apology. No WASPish reserve here. A voice laden with love for something so small and almost gone.

TC said...


Yes and Oh for the bright unapologetic times and tones evoked by the memoria of all that gone joy and gladness (not to mention the gentle pre-technological sadness), buried now under the endless snows of yesteryear, upon which cascade the black deluges of right now.

All my sad old man's clothes draped over a rickety plastic drying rack, dripping with the bathos.

Kent, My landlord on E. Ann St. in A2 had inherited and helpfully passed along lurid family tales concerning epic filial trauma skeletons rattling in the Roethke greenhouse closet, and these were compounded by the then current academic poet gossip concerning Teddy's amazing then-present-tense bad behaviour, reportedly permitted, even indeed possibly egged-on, by his astonishingly broadminded depot chair at U-Dub, so that...

How many of those weird memories could it take to squeeze under one sweater at the soda fountain counter at Schwab's?

But nothing is sacred any more, especially not the great cultural myths.

Academic poetry then and now, enough to cause one to wish to dive under that capacious sweater and never again come out...

Against that background, then, Frank, staying on his feet even when the deck pitched... until he didn't:

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
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

(The Old Masters, they were always wrong about the rain in California.)

kent said...

Thanks TC. Someday somehow I'll pass along my series of powerpoint "plays" inspired by Bruce's comment (yes, Teddy does get to wear the sweater) but more significantly driven by hero-worship and my extreme case of HOPPY ENVY.