Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems 50th Anniversary All-Star Reading

To: The Membership and Interested Parties
From: Steven Lavoie. Society Columnist for the NBBPS
Subject: Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems 50th Anniversary All-Star Reading 

Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems 50th Anniversary All-Star Reading
Friday, February 6, 2015 at the McCroskey Mattress Company, San Francisco
(As Attended By Steven Lavoie)

lp50_front_coverThe publication of Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems back in 1964 represented a significant departure for the publisher of the Pocket Poets series, a series that was already firmly established in the literary canon of the San Francisco Bay Area. It may have seemed subtle to the mainstream critics of the time who would dismiss most any volume of “free verse” produced outside of academia as somehow second rate, lumping all of the “new” poetry together as a phenomenon of the Bohemian “fad” that was characterized by bongo-drumming, free-loving, dope-crazed lie-abouts and homosexuals. But for ardent readers of the Pocket Poets, the departure was a huge one that publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti could not have been naïve about.

As a central figure of what its West Coast boosters were designating a poetry “renaissance” (as if poetry thrived at an earlier time out here and was in some kind of revival), Ferlinghetti experienced first-hand the suffocating provincial snobbery that prevailed around here. I’m not sure he would cop to it, but that would only suggest he’s in denial.

San Francisco had its own scene: its own “brand” of Modernism. It had its own jazz,(e.g., Dave Brubeck, “Free” Jazz),  its own Modern Art (e.g, Bay Area Figuration, the Ash-Can School, etc.), its own architecture (e.g., Brutalism), its own literary superstars (e. g., Eugene O’Neill, Henry Miller, Kenneth Rexroth, et al.), even its own detachment of the Beat Generation whose members newspaperman Herb Caen designated “beatniks” in his daily column. At the same time, it had its very own (and bizarre) campaign for decency that included raids on poetry readings and stand-up comedy shows that would lead to obscenity charges against Allen Ginsberg, Lenny Bruce and others, that helped to propel Ferlinghetti’s imprint into the international limelight. Nothing boosts sales in publishing more than a good old-fashioned obscenity proceeding.

It got my attention, for sure, as a young reader and I would pore through each volume of the Pocket Poets, sifting through each stanza word-by-word in hopes of encountering something obscene.

On every trip to North Beach, the bold minimalist covers of the series blared through the display windows of City Lights Books while the nipples on the garish neon representation of Carol Doda blinked above the opposite street corner. Simple geography and the mystifying anti-obscenity campaign by local law enforcement combined to give the Pocket Poets a certain element of raciness, although unlike the topless bars on Broadway, it was not a reputation it deserved.

I could find nothing arousing in my fastidious search through each of the volumes, and outside of a few gems by Allen Ginsberg and my puzzlement with “Kora in Hell” by William Carlos Williams, I was not feeling much of a connection at all with what I was reading. Before I’d gone through the first 18 volumes, I’d already learned to go elsewhere for inspiration both as a poet and as a frisky early adolescent.

Then I got to Pocket Poets No. 19. It “grabbed me” as they would say in the vernacular of the time, in a way few other selections of poetry had before that. It informed me, too, that I had all the material I needed in my mundane suburban existence to make my own high quality and engaging poems.

When I began to venture out of that world to seek out other poets and an audience for my own work, my respect and appreciation for O’Hara went with me & left its mark on my work. I had no clue that it would contribute further to my isolation, even as I reached out to peers and elders who participated in the community of poets. The New York School, I quickly discovered, was held in great suspicion, even derision, by a large segment of that community in this area & I realized that to find like-minded colleagues, I should look for fans of Lunch Poems. They were few and far between I soon discovered, but, luckily for me, a far-flung contingent just so happened to be resident right nearby. I would find others, too, along the way, feeling similar isolation in the bustle of the urban Bay Area poetry community.

I crossed the Bay Bridge with few expectations to the “all-star” reading, hoping to renew some old acquaintances and, of course, to enjoy the poems. With a different poet, artist or other creative type selected to read each of the 37 poems in the volume, a crowd of some size was guaranteed for the event, but the weather threatened to seriously suppress attendance. News headlines and broadcasts blared all day long, warning of the potential dire consequences of the Pineapple Express rolling across the Pacific and headed straight for the Golden Gate.

Many of the scheduled presenters chose to heed the warnings and stay on the other side of one bridge or the other, but as the start-time approached, the growing throng sloshing into the McCroskey Mattress Company made it very clear that this would indeed be a blockbuster event, arguably even historic. The size of the crowd was testimony enough that San Francisco is now safe for fans of Frank O’Hara. As Duncan McNaughton would say in conversation, it was “the most people I’ve seen for poetry around here in a long time” even with the Pineapple Express.

The range of poetic voices represented by the members of the “all-star” line-up scheduled for the event by its organizers, Patrick Marks of Green Arcade Books, Steve Dickison of the Poetry Center at San Francisco State University and Bill Berkson, attest to the impact of this little book. Reading through the program, I began to wonder how O’Hara’s legacy or influence fits into the work of each of these presenters, making me curious to see what the presentations themselves might reveal about this & about his impact on “San Francisco” poetry in general.

He certainly had a much different kind of influence than our local “giants” of verse, poets such as Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, Helen Adam, Philip Whalen, Richard Brautigan, et al., with whom many of the Bay Area poets had personal encounters or relationships. O’Hara’s tragic early death & his residence across the continent gave little opportunity for younger Bay Area poets to know him personally. Many of O’Hara’s younger contemporaries on this coast, including Joanne Kyger, Clark Coolidge & Michael McClure, who could have been personally acquainted with him, were deterred by the storm. This deprived the audience of some potentially fascinating anecdotes. It deprived me, too, of some very important subjects for my investigation. In the end, though, for the event to be fully successful, O’Hara’s poems would have stand on their own, just as they have in building the impressive base of interest that was reflected by the attendance at this tribute.

For many in attendance, the event would serve another purpose, and the absence of Kyger, Coolidge, McClure, et al. could do little to diminish what turned out to be an exceptional opportunity for hob-nobbery, (or is it snob-hobbery?) If, for some reason, a person hankered for the chance to meet a particular local poet, this would have been the place to be since most of the Bay Region’s poetry luminaries, of all levels of refulgence (such as that could apply to any poet in the 21-century USA), were on hand.

All else considered, though, the real pleasure of the evening came in the listening. Each of the presenters came prepared, delivering one of the Lunch Poems in a manner that reflected something that O’Hara’s work might represent to them. I listened to try to ascertain what, exactly, that might be.

As an introduction to the experience, Bill Berkson compiled a stunning sequence of projected images accompanied by a mix-tape of some O’Hara’s favorite musical pieces:  a diverse soundtrack including Russian Modernist composers, Ginger Rogers and of course Billie Holliday, with and without the horn of Lester Young or the piano of Mal Waldron. The images included portraits of the poet by his artist friends, Larry Rivers, Philip Guston, Alice Neel, Jean Dubuffet, Joe Brainard, et al., various historic photographs depicting O’Hara and other members of the New York School; even an image of a menu of the Mayflower Coffee Shop, where many of the Lunch Poems were written. By the time the program began, the growing crowd (and the bustle of hob-nobbery) made a spot for viewing increasingly difficult to find.

The program began with what represented a bold statement that the withering was complete of the historic San Francisco provincialism that at first repelled the poetics of the New York School from inclusion into this region’s literary diaspora: an appearance by Richard O. Moore. Moore, along with Ferlinghetti, is one of the two living members of the “Rexroth Circle,” a close-knit group of poets and other Bohemians associated with Kenneth Rexroth, the self-prescribed arbiter of poetic taste in the Bay Region during and after World War II

Moore would defect from that group to associate with contributors to Circle Magazine, published in Berkeley by George Leite and Bern Porter, and begin a long-standing friendship with Tom Parkinson. The work of these two interconnected groups would define both the style and the poetics of the Bay Area scene during Frank O’Hara’s lifetime, with the literary taste emanating from the Rexroth Circle becoming largely responsible for the provincialism that beset San Francisco poetics for decades to follow.

fohmooreMoore chose to reminisce on his experience producing a segment featuring Frank O’Hara of his brilliant series of 16mm educational films, USA: Poetry,” broadcast on public television in 1966.  (His personal anecdote had the effect of inspiring some of the presenters who would follow to preface their reading of a poem with their own reminisces, not always sharing Moore’s adhesion to brevity.)

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the other surviving contemporary of both Rexroth and Leite, was not able to appear in person, but his presence was made as a follow-up to Moore’s through excerpts of a conversation earlier in the day recalled by Elaine Katzenberger, his successor at City Lights Books, in which Katzenberger mentioned the up-coming events to him, to which Ferlinghetti commented, “gee, people really love that book!”

At this point, considerable time had elapsed and none of the 37 Lunch Poems had yet to be read. I’ve been through these group events before, and I know first-hand, as most of us do, how these things have a tendency to drag on & on. I was already convinced that this event might still be underway when dawn broke over the Oakland Hills.

And we still had more introductions: words from the O’Hara family back East – in the form of a “statement” from the poet’s sister, Maureen O’Hara presented by Katzenberger. Not surprisingly, the “statement” was more of an essay, but despite its length, retained its fascination throughout, by including extended passages from very sweet and intimate letters to his father that the poet wrote while training as naval sonar operator before shipping out to the action in World War II. Beautifully written, of course, the letters portrayed the poet as the energetic, musical iconoclast he was and described the city he was visiting as the charmingly provincial but uniquely hip refuge of Bohemia that it was.

Finally it was time for the book! – but, wait…not quite yet.

Kathleen Fraser, who would read “Music,” the first poem in the book, had her own first-person reminiscence that, unlike Moore’s, chewed up a significant amount of time. But she would more than make up for her bloviation with the skilful eloquence of her reading.

Crystal Sasaki and Alana Siegel were up next. Rather than a reading, of “Alma,” the second poem in the volume, the pair transformed it into a small theater piece that also went very long (and in my view, did little to help articulate O’Hara’s lines). It did, though, bring certainty to my hunch that we would be here for a very, very long time at the same time it made me seriously question the goals of my investigation. We were two poems in and I had learned absolutely nothing about what particular influence O’Hara may have had on San Francisco poetry, or the work of any of the women who’d presented so far.

But the pace picked up just as quickly as it had bogged down.

Kit Robinson came on to read “On Rachmaninoff’s Birthday,” elegantly and skillfully rendering the piece, letting the poem stand on its own, restoring hope we might actually get through the 34 remaining poems before losing the entire crowd to slumber. This would be an appropriate role for Robinson, to set a new pace for the evening. He was among a small circle of poets from Back East who arrived in San Francisco in the early 1970s with no apparent agenda but to be part of a further exploration of avant-garde poetry, regardless of the poet’s affiliations or influences. Again, his reading illustrated how he reads O’Hara’s lines. It illustrated nothing about how O’Hara influenced his own writing.

Steve Dickison filled in for Clark Coolidge, who was among the poets deterred by the storm, to read “Poem (I watched an armory combing its bronze bricks.)” He demonstrated his scholarship, too, on the poet’s work, with valuable details about the building described in the poem. We were on a roll, time-wise, but I was getting nowhere on my investigation.

Laura Moriarty brought her subdued passions to “On the Way to the San Remo” followed by Paul Hoover who read “Two poems from the Ohara Monogatari,” but not before another preface of personal anecdote:  something about driving out to a Chicago suburb (Oak Park) with Ron Padgett to visit a brother of Ted Berrigan, I think it was (my notes are SO shabby!), who owned some of O’Hara’s effects, including a document in which he gave his occupation as “exhibitionist,” a pun, of course, on his job as curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

And, Hilton Obenzinger would be next. Since he, like Hoover and Fraser, teaches for a living, I was sure we were in for another time-consuming piece of extemporaneous autobiography. Instead, he ripped into “A Step away from them,” the next poem in the volume, with great confidence and full ownership of his native Brooklyn idiom, bringing out some the understated brashness that seethes in so many of O’Hara’s lines to deliver the most powerful reading so far.

With their subsequent engaging and suitably reverent readings, Colter Jacobsen, Katzenberger, Elaine Kahn and Garrett Caples brought the event back to a reasonable progression through time. Alan Bernheimer even restored some hope that my investigation might, in fact, have some results. His reading of “Song (Is it dirty)” revealed how the breath in O’Hara’s lines and the matter-of-fact enunciation of magically sparkling phrases is now idiomatic in contemporary American poetry. At least, that’s what I got out of Bernheimer’s particularly masterful reading that proved to be a perfect preamble for O’Hara’s best-known single poem, “The day lady died.”

David Meltzer, most likely because of his significance as a poet and importance as a member of the poetry community, was given the charge to read O’Hara’s eulogy to Billie Holiday. All the understated decorum that O’Hara exhibited in his reading of his own work was cast aside & Meltzer embraced the lyric as his own. The result was a rousing rendition of one master’s work by another great master, just as the prodigious downpour from the atmospheric river flowing overhead buffeted the roof of the mattress factory, to be followed by thunderous applause from the large and by now rapt audience, that continued with such extended delirium that I found myself glancing once more at my watch.

It would be a hard act to follow. But the subsequent readers, too many to mention, failed to cower at the prospect, each exhibiting the mastery and eloquence that earned them a slot in this “all-star” lineup.

I hoped to last at least through the reading of “Five Poems,” originally assigned to Joanne Kyger. In her absence, Gloria Frym was selected to fill in, giving her a much deserved spot on any all-star line-up to deliver a confident and instinctively metered rendition, as if O’Hara were reading it himself in the sonorous voice of a beautiful and seductive woman.

Michael Palmer followed with “Ave Maria” and Jim Nisbet came next, renewing an earlier tendency to preface the reading with personal anecdote. I looked at the program and my watch and could hear that a break in the rain had come. Knowing that Tinker Green would be reading the evening’s finale, I was confident the event was in very good hands & it would be OK to leave.

ICYDK (In Case You Didn’t Know)
Short Biographical notes on the boldly named (compiled by Steven Lavoie)

Steven Lavoie moved to northern California from Duluth, Minn. when he was very young and grew up in Rohnert Park. He published Famous, a literary magazine and was co-editor of Life of Crime, the newsletter of the Black Bart Poetry Society, and the equally notorious schismatic Life Of Crime-In-Exile in the mid 1980’s.  He met Pat Nolan while they were both students at Sonoma State University (then College) because his girlfriend, at the time, Lana Michaleczko, was a friend of poet Michael-Sean Lazarchuk who Nolan knew. Lavoie (with others) coordinated reading series at the Grand Piano and New College of California in San Francisco in the 1970s. He was the last librarian at the Oakland Tribune, where he was also a columnist and editorial writer. His poetry has been published by Coffee House Press and Doris Green Editions, etc. He is currently employed by the City of Oakland, as branch manager of the Temescal Branch Library. He is a Libra and briefly played softball alongside Michael Palmer.

The complete set of the original Black Bart Poetry Society newsletters is now available under one cover as Life Of Crime, Documents in the Guerrilla War Against Language Poetry from Poltroon Press.


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1 Response to Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems 50th Anniversary All-Star Reading

  1. Great piece, gives the spirit of the evening for those who didnt make it because of the deluge. One correction: Herb Caen claimed the term “Beatnik” & popularized it in his column but it was coined by Mrs Getchoff (mother of the artist Sonia) who ran an art gallery in North Beach. Bruce Conner recalled that when he was mounting a show in 1957 (the year of sputnik) she looked at his work and say, Hey, you are not one of those beatniks are you?!

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