Monday, December 30, 2019
ideas about thoughts
This gray day, with snow in the forecast, finds me peering ahead into 2020 like I am asking a Magic 8 Ball to read my fortune, and all of our fates besides. Magic 8 Ball says... well, I wish I knew. I wish I had good news to report, but all I've got is my country field mouse eye view from here, which doesn't feel like much at the moment. I have high hopes for the year ahead, though, and I believe in truth, beauty, and the greater good with all my heart, so I will keep to that positive message whenever possible. I can say that today, since I'm on day six of a post-Christmas cold and just starting to take an interest in the world again, after some time of not. I felt pretty low but was never too sick not to read - to which I say hallelujah - and I am happy to report that I finished the first volume of the Library of America set of John Ashbery's poems. It was nearly 1000 pages, whew, a cascade of words, and I read the rest of Karin Roffman's book as well. They complement each other, and since finishing Roffman's The Songs We Know Best: John Ashbery's Early Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2017) I feel like I have gained a foothold-understanding, finally, of what Ashbery was doing in his work. Over and over in her book she explains Ashbery's motivations, at least in his early work, but also in the themes that developed into lifelong concerns and fascinations of his. Such as this (p.111):
"'Poem,' even in its title, suggests Ashbery's developing attitude toward poetry as a form in which to address unanswerable mysteries of private experience..."
Many of his poems, obliquely or otherwise, touch upon his difficult childhood on his family's farm in Sodus, in upstate New York, the death of his younger brother there, his abusive father, his kind mother and grandparents, his childhood friends, and his growing up and away from all of that, to make a life for himself as a poet and as a gay man in New York and later, Paris. Several times in her book Roffman mentions this. First (p.187):
"Using the singsong quality of nursery rhymes and simple vocabulary (one- and two-syllable nouns), he created an effect in which fragments of childhood memories flicker through the poem..."
And, on Ashbery hearing the performance of a John Cage piece (p.203):
"He was hearing a musical equivalent to the world of his childhood: the vast expanse of the lake, hours on the farm with nothing to do, days that were silent, melancholy, and conducive to simmering creativity. He had hated that dull world and wished to flee its many pains and constraints, but he also knew best its slow rhythms and wandering moods."
And again she mentions (p.207):
"...John's obsession with Sodus as a mythic land of strange and deeply ordinary wisdom and pain."
At one point late in her book Roffman describes the rediscovery of a short film that had been sitting forgotten in the co-director and cameraman's garage for sixty years or so. The film was never finished, but is based on a play by James Schuyler called Presenting Jane, and features Frank O'Hara (driving, typing), John Ashbery (passenger, reader), Jane Freilicher (passenger, water nymph/goddess), and Schuyler himself as a silent watcher, the outsider everyman. I'd read about his play and the missing film before, in other books. So of course I wondered if I could now see it. Of course I could. It's available on youtube as part of a 2017 talk by Roffman at Harvard (the film itself begins at 4:57). The film is black and white, and silent, and only a few minutes long. Roffman says that Schuyler's script or perhaps a piece of music was going to be added, but never was. I turned off the sound to see it with no commentary for the first viewing, then went back and watched it again with sound. Seeing it was so moving - here are these people who still live on the page, and on canvas - here they are now, alive, young and gorgeous, glamorous even, at the start of their life's work. Roffman's talk also includes footage of Ashbery and Freilicher and others watching the film for the first time in all these years, together. The old friends were then in their late 80s, and are now both deceased. Oh my heart.
After finishing Roffman's book, I now want to go back and revisit a lot of the poems in Ashbery's first Library of America volume Collected Poems 1956-1987 (edited by Mark Ford 2008). I have a list of the ones that I loved when I first encountered them, with not much context to speak of, and now want to read again with my newfound knowledge of his early life. I suppose I set aside his work for so many years because the poems of his contemporaries felt more immediately accessible and understandable, full as they are of cultural signifiers and references I recognize or could surmise easily, even when the poems themselves were not easy by any means. As with so many other great authors and books I finally read after years of feeling intimidated or not up to the task, those worries soon evaporated when I started to read. For a long time Ashbery was a secondary presence to me, there in the background, in a blurry photograph, when I read about his friends, especially Frank O'Hara, James Schuyler, Fairfield Porter, and Jane Freilicher. They were ascendant in my affections and I don't quite understand why I hadn't instictively warmed to Ashbery's work in the way I did theirs. I remember when I worked in a new-book store and would stock Ashbery's books, sell them, and reorder them, but not read them, even though I loved the music of their very titles: Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror; Flow Chart; April Galleons. I did buy a secondhand copy of his collected art reviews (Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles 1957-1987, edited by David Bergman, Knopf 1989), and read that closely, but didn't seek out or keep more of his books when I came across them over the years. How I regret that now! But I am making up for it, and it is a joy.
Collected Poems 1957-1987 is rich and rewarding. Even while it's a thicket of words. Sometimes I feel like Ashbery used all the words. All of them available in English! Like a scrambled-up dictionary or encyclopedia, rearranged into a new and less rigid order. Many poems I still cannot fathom but I feel at peace about that now. They just are. (There is almost always a beautiful line, or choice of words, or a few laughs, even.) And many do help the worried reader understand how and why they were written. This often feels like a kindly hand extended from the writer out to us, the hapless readers, lingering here on the verso of the page. As in the opening lines from his poem "The New Spirit" (p.247):
"I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way. And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer, way."
And from the poem "Ode to Bill" (p.461):
I vowed to write more. What is writing?
Well, in my case, it's getting down on paper
Not thoughts, exactly, but ideas, maybe:
Ideas about thoughts. Thoughts is too grand a word.
Ideas is better, though not precisely what I mean.
Someday I'll explain. Not today, though."
If ever! These lines also describe painting to me - how a painting can be "about" something, have a subject, yet with almost any painting, if you contemplate it long enough (or attempt to make it yourself in the first place), what the painting is really "about" is an undefinable shimmering something, beyond or behind, under or around, or through, any thoughts and ideas and specifics about what it might be. Ashbery's phrase and suggestion "...leave all out..." says it so well. Perhaps what remains and is described, is pure feeling, or experience.
Speaking of painting, a bit of shameless self-promotion is at hand. I will return to Ashbery again soon, when I finish volume two of the Library of America set, but I must mention that the arts writer and poet Carl Little (author of a slew of highly-regarded art and poetry books) came over for a studio visit this fall. We walked up the hill behind the house, too, so he could witness the logistics involved in beginning one of my paintings. His article about me and my work was just published online in the January/February issue of Maine Boats, Homes & Harbors magazine. The print copy will be out next week. I am so pleased, to say the least. If this is any indication of what 2020 has planned, well, I'll say hallelujah once again.
Tuesday, December 17, 2019
let it snow
Light flurries are just starting to fall, now. The woodstove is going, our tree is decorated and lit, the Christmas shopping is finished (mostly for my nieces and nephews at this point, oh how I love to give them books). The house is clean, which always feels like a tiny victory. The doors on the advent calendars are opening one after another, too quickly. I wish these quiet days would slow down. We went to a concert a few nights ago and heard carols in the round, by candlelight. I am humming my favorites, picking them out on the piano in the evenings, and letting the calm of winter settle into my being. I love this time of year in Maine, when the sere and bleak gives us a rest from the lushness of spring and summer. The landscape changes, and we change alongside it. The outer echoes the inner. My birthday approaches - I am turning 52 this year, and what kind of an age is that, I ask you - as does the solstice and the new year. I have all kinds of plans for 2020, some quite elaborate, some cloud-castle best-case-scenario kinds of things, because why not. Why not put the most hopeful items you can think of on your Christmas list, for your look ahead. Some of them might just come true.
But that is for the future, for the new decade fast on approach. Meanwhile here we are, about to turn the corner into official winter. My winter reading project is keeping me busy and interested. The New York School of poets and artists is satisfying to read about for many reasons, but one of the primary ones is the interleaving of lives. I read a biography of one person, all the rest are there too. I read another person's collected essays, and many of them are about the others in the group. Each book adds to the complex picture of the whole circle. Which was made up of friends, lovers, frenemies, and rivals (and often all of the above). I read about John Ashbery and discover facts about Fairfield Porter I never knew, despite having read about Porter extensively. In Porter's paintings, there is Frank O'Hara, and John Ashbery, and Jane Freilicher. I read about Frank O'Hara and there is Grace Hartigan, and Patsy Southgate, and Bill Berkson, and James Schuyler. I read Ashbery's essays and there is Jane Freilicher. I read about Jane Freilicher and there is John Ashbery. I read James Schuyler's poems and there too is "Ashes."
John Ashbery is the writer I have been focusing on for the past few weeks, after my long visit with Frank O'Hara. Ashbery has mystified me for the better part of three decades. Largely because I have never taken the time to seriously investigate his work, until now. His poetry is opaque. Recognizable narratives are largely absent, at least as far as I can tell. But I have always put his work aside instead of wondering why that is. I ordered secondhand copies of both Library of America volumes of his poetry, to see if I could get to the bottom of it:
Collected Poems 1956-1987 and Collected Poems 1991-2000, edited by Mark Ford (2008, 2017). I also found a used copy of Karin Roffman's recent book The Songs We Know Best: John Ashbery's Early Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2017), the frontispiece of which helped me immeasurably when I was feeling like I could not understand Ashbery's poems, no matter what I did. Here it is, across from the title page:
A little cut-up, a collage, a poem. A light bulb went off in my head when I saw it. OH, I thought, I think I get it, even without getting it. I knew that he sometimes collaged his poems from other sources - the newspaper, magazines, the mail I guess, but I don't really know - but the message is right there. The poem starts "Here is everything for everyone" and finishes "...tawny, tantalizing." The lines between them don't make any kind of sense, but they do contain messages, beauty, snippets of this and that, and specific words, which resonate in a nonlinear, un-thinking kind of way. When I began to suspect that this was his whole point (maybe? I mean, I am really guessing here, but will back up my guess with some supporting statements below in a moment, so please bear with me), to engage some other part of his own mind and ours, the readers', I thought OH, again, and turned back to his poems as if I were planning to read Tristram Shandy, knowing it wasn't supposed to "make sense" in any way I had thought it might. Instead of thinking I don't understand this, bah, and setting it aside, I realized that understanding it was beside the point, and I have been able to (for the most part) let Ashbery's veritable blizzard of words rush past, and let my expectations go with them. This has been a real challenge for me, a reader who loves beginning-middle-end, romantic stories, traditional narratives, understandable poems, and whole lives that resonate with meaning (not Tristram Shandy, which a few readers may remember that I could not cope with at all, and never finished).
Not pictured above is an essential volume, Selected Prose by John Ashbery, edited by Eugene Richie (University of Michigan Press 2004). I just finished reading it, and I have to say that every essay in it had me wishing to know more, wanting to read more about the people and works he deals with, even when I don't think I'd even enjoy reading their work. The essays, reviews, and talks within illuminate his own work in helpful ways, while also enabling an understanding of why he writes his poetry the way he does. Besides, pretty much every piece in this volume is brilliant. He writes about Gertrude Stein, Pierre Reverdy, Raymond Roussel, Kenneth Koch, Jasper Johns, Frank O'Hara, Jane Bowles, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Louisa Matthiasdottir, James Schuyler, Joe Brainard, Robert Mapplethorpe, Jane Freilicher, Larry Rivers, and plenty of other people I had never heard of until now, mostly writers. The pieces are mostly short and as I said, intellectually satisfying. And as I read them, more light bulbs were further brightening things up. In the essay on Joan Murray's poetry, Ashbery writes (pp.298-299):
"How did we get from there to here, and what have we been told? As so often, this remains partly or even largely mysterious. What we are left with is the sense of an act accomplished, an act of telling, and a feeling that we must take this communication away to study it; something important is hidden there. Repeated readings may not reveal it, but the mere act of reading Murray's poetry always seems to be pushing one closer to the brink of a momentous discovery."
OH. Okay, now we are getting somewhere. Earlier in the book, in writing about the poet John Wheelwright and his work, Ashbery says (p.141):
"Even while beginning to wonder what this is all about, one notes its crochety sense of conviction.... I am unsure of what is being said, but also fairly sure that it doesn't matter, that we are in the presence of something as dumbfounding as Cubism must have seemed to its first spectators and as valid as it now looks in retrospect."
Unsure, but it doesn't matter! I love that. And this, about Frank O'Hara (p.83):
"Like Pollock, O'Hara demonstrates that the act of creation and finished creation are the same, that art is human willpower deploying every means at its disposal to break through to a truer state than the present one. The work of both is in the form of a heroic question: can art do this? Is this really happening?"
AHA. I am getting closer to Ashbery's poetry. I think. I've read over half of each of the Library of America volumes and his work glimmers. For good reason. I've taken a few notes here and there, and gone back to re-read certain poems that linger in my mind. I will write more about them soon but they still feel almost hopelessly difficult. Immersing myself in his work has shown me that you can read all you want about someone and read reams of their own words but they remain essentially unknowable. I get these little flashes but that's it, in the same way I look at a Fairfield Porter painting of Ashbery and find it beautiful but inscrutable. It's too hard to put into words. I want to become more comfortable with not having to know. I look out the window here this afternoon and wonder about everything and its meaning. And the snow falls. I can't stop it, I don't want to. It is so beautiful, even as it obscures the familiar and creates a new kind of reality. I remember that things do not have to make perfect sense all the time, in fact they usually don't. Ashbery among them.
Work on my painting memoir continues, speaking of things that don't make sense. I took up the most recent draft again, after letting it sit for nearly six months, and currently I am editing, adding, and subtracting. Some sections need more, some need a lot less. These homebound winter days will help me see it through. I'd like to be able to call it finished, sometime in 2020. But. This is just one more thing I do not know. Which is a lot. My brain hurts! I'm going to go stoke the stove and make gingerbread. Cozy up, everyone! Peace on Earth, and Joyeux Noël.
Tuesday, November 26, 2019
real human beings
Thanksgiving week. This afternoon the table linens turn in the dryer, the glasses and plates and silverware sit washed and ready. I have shopped, and will shop again. Ryan and I have been near-vegetarians for two years now (eating only some fish from time to time, but no animals) so this holiday finds us getting creative with vegetables. I have pounds of parsnips, and a bouquet of long green stalks of leeks, and a bag of red potatoes, ready to be chopped and cooked. I am going to poach some salmon and bake some haddock, for ourselves and for the near relations who will soon visit our table. I am planning a spice cake with apples, a big batch of cranberry sauce from local fresh cranberries, and a casserole of stuffing. Ryan is making biscuits from his grandmother's recipe. And pie. There will be pie. I feel full already. Too full perhaps. Honestly, the day looms, and I worry, about all sorts of things far beyond my attempts at preparation. I don't need to talk about any of that here, however. Gratitude for my ordinarily quiet life pools like still November lake water. Gratitude for books anchors me, as always. My winter reading project continues. I keep wandering through the forest of Frank O'Hara's poetry, not ready to leave yet, following his lines as if they might actually lead somewhere, a path to something real. But they are real, written first by a real person, then collected in real books, which we can touch and hold like the hands of friends. They make me think and feel. They wake me up and surprise me, and offer solace, no matter what. They make me laugh. For all of that I am far beyond grateful.
Snippets from Poems Retrieved (City Lights reprint).
"I see my vices
lying like abandoned works of art
which I created so eagerly
to be worldly and modern
and with it"
"There's nothing more beautiful
than knowing something is going
to be over"
"How wonderful it is that the Park Avenue Viaduct is being rehabilitated
I wish I were too"
And a few more, from Lunch Poems (City Lights reprint).
"I can't even find a pond small enough
to drown in without being ostentatious"
"the soft air wraps me like a swarm it's raining and I have
a cold I am a real human being with real ascendancies
and a certain amount of rapture..."
Books remain. The holidays come and go, family likewise, all of us real human beings. We sit together for brief hours then scatter again and return to the regular round of our individual lives. We hold hands around the table first though, and regard each other with the fondness built on the foundation of years spent together, long ago.
Twilight now, and I have warm clean laundry to fold, and a fire to light. Hodge is asking for his supper, early. Two books arrived in the mail today, they look good! Thanks for sharing a quiet hour before the busy times begin in earnest, this week. Blessings on all our tables.
Monday, November 18, 2019
Opening lines, opening lines. How about these:
"I am ill today but I am not
too ill. I am not ill at all.
It is a perfect day, warm
for winter, cold for fall."
Oh I wish I had written them, but no, they comprise the first stanza of Digression on Number 1, 1948 by Frank O’Hara, in his poem about the Jackson Pollock painting of the same name. There is so much I could say about O'Hara, but it feels like it's all been said before. Maybe a few pictures will do the trick instead.
A few books from my New York School collection, such as it is. I recently bought the Perloff book, which I'd known of for years but had never tracked down until now - Frank O'Hara: Poet Among Painters by Marjorie Perloff (Braziller 1977). She gives us a close reading of O'Hara's poems in relation to his life and friends. Well worth reading. Several times she points to exactly why O'Hara's poems are so loved, noting their "emotional vibrancy" (p.173) and, regarding one poem in particular, which could stand for so many, "its racy, slangy, concrete language, its nervous rhythms and purposely foolish alliteration, its exclamatory fervor and intimate, personal tone." (p.193) Another book in the stack is one I've had for years now and just re-read - City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O'Hara by Brad Gooch (Knopf 1993). I bought this copy from a local bookseller-friend, secondhand, and it turned out to be author Doris Grumbach's review copy, with her old mailing address label and a publicity photo tucked inside:
I can't say the Gooch book is my favorite, but it has its moments, and sure packs a lot in to over five hundred pages, considering O'Hara's short life. The chapters on his years at Harvard, where he met poets Kenneth Koch and John Ashbery, and his first years in New York, are particularly informative. Gooch quotes from O'Hara's college diary:
"The fragility of things terrifies me!... everything fades fades changes dies when it's meddled with; if only things weren't so vulnerable!" (p.130)
Gooch also quotes John Ashbery, on first meeting O'Hara:
"'There was a sort of legend about Frank... that he was this brilliant young writer who talked sassy. Someone who looked like he was going to be famous one day.... He didn't look like a very friendly person. He had this pugnacious look with a broken nose. He wasn't someone one thought one could just go up to and say 'Hi' and start chatting with. In fact that was completely misleading as it turned out. He was exactly that type of person.'"
I think that's why I love to read his work, and read about him. It is blindingly obvious that he loved the world and his world loved him right back. He is the opposite of dry academic poetry, he is enthusiastic, romantic, kitschy, name-droppy, starstruck, funny, deadly serious, and unapologetic about all of it. I can't say I like or even understand a lot of his work - he practiced some surrealist techniques, such as cutting up lines and rearranging them, and some of his writing becomes too opaque for me - but in the main, there are poems of his I return to again and again, and my love for them continues to deepen as the years go by.
Not in the book stack above, but recently acquired, are these staplebound pamphlets:
A two-volume set, this pertains to me which means to me you: The Correspondence of Kenneth Koch and Frank O'Hara 1955-1956 edited by Josh Schneiderman (Lost and Found, The Center for Humanities at CUNY 2009). These are quite short and generally fascinating and leave me longing for more of O'Hara's letters in print. WHERE ARE THEY, I shout quietly to myself. A note in the back of Marjorie Perloff's book (p.224) says that Don Allen, who collected and edited O'Hara's poems, was working on his collected letters too. A major undertaking. What happened?? I would love to know. But I do not. Meanwhile I just bought a second copy of O'Hara's Lunch Poems (City Lights 2014) because this recent hardcover reprint celebrates its fiftieth year in print and adds a short introduction by John Ashbery and several pages of facsimile letters after the poems:
The letters are between O'Hara and City Lights proprietor and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and concern the publication of the poems for this very book, which took O'Hara years to gather together:
I love seeing the bookstore letterhead, and their handwriting, and typewriting. It all brings them vividly to life once again, and the stamps and postmarks only heighten that feeling:
As does the little scrap I find most poignant, a detail from the photo above, turned sideways so we can better read what it says:
Nothing special, just a postcard from someone who wants to publish one's poems - and thus a handy scrap of paper for jotting down a brief shopping list - cigs, olive oil, toothpaste, tp, bread. That postcard is from 1964. O'Hara will only live another two years and change, before a terrible accident takes his life at age forty. Oh my heart.
I think I will change the subject. Or try to, at least. Ryan and I had a good day out last week, visiting one of the local museums. The Colby College Museum of Art has a stunning exhibit called Wíwənikan…the beauty we carry. From their website, it is: "...an exhibition of contemporary art of the First Nations people of what is now Maine and Maritime Canada. Collectively known as the Wabanaki, the Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, and Abenaki, our people have lived in and paddled through our homeland for thousands of years. Basketmakers, canoe makers, carvers, painters, and beadworkers, the artists in this exhibition carry the beauty of their ancestors and culture into the future." The exhibit is thought-provoking, heart-engaging, sad, and joyous. I took notes from the wall texts, gazed at paintings, baskets, carvings, clothing, and objects of birchbark, wood, metal, and grass. People began living here as soon as the glaciers receded. I think about deep time a lot, and who the artists were and are in cultures past and present. And how they have been honored, or not.
We walked around the rest of the museum. One wing is devoted to the work of painter Alex Katz, who spends his summers in nearby Lincolnville, Maine. He's in his early nineties and still painting up a storm. He paints landscapes, flowers, the ocean, the pond near his summer studio, New York City at night, his family, his friends. He has given many paintings to the Colby Museum, including a freestanding one, a cut-out. It was on display when we visited. I came around the corner and saw it, and said, Oh! Hi, Frank. I forgot you were here. Of course you are here. The freestanding painting, Frank O'Hara, oil on wood, 1959-60, 2016 gift of the Alex Katz Foundation. He is 7/8 life-size. Ryan snapped me standing behind, first, so he looms large.
And then in front of. Just me, hanging out with Frank O'Hara. A regular old day, like any other. (...)
His face is beautifully painted. Especially the eye, and that nose, and the flesh of his cheek. And Katz always has a brushy way with collars and ties that I love - the snappy uniform of men of the fifties, even avant-garde poets.
The piece of wood the cutout stands on breaks my heart in one more small way. It looks like a slice of loft floor, circa 1950, when a group of young painters and poets got togther for a party one night, and carried on, and talked, smoked, drank, and laughed, and went home with each other at dawn. Am I reading too much into a little block of wood? Perhaps, but I always read too much into everything, don't I. So why not this, like another line from a city poem. Studio floor, with Frank O'Hara's feet:
I want to mention one final book I recently bought, before I sign off for now. I have both editions of Selected Poems, but I don't have the Collected Poems, and I just bought this Poems Retrieved. edited by Don Allen (City Lights reprint), which has poems that he didn't find in time to include in the Collected Poems. The cover is so great! Cats, getting right into the middle of your business since forever! I've been browsing in this and not finding a lot I really love, but rather interesting bits of this and that, alongside some truly memorable lines and poems. So it goes.
I am refusing to be distracted (too much) by current events so I find myself moving along at a fast clip in my New York School winter reading project. On to other poets and writers and painters, like Alex Katz, who loved O'Hara and has a lot to say about him, and the frighteningly incomprehensible John Ashbery. Let's leave it for now with Frank O'Hara though. His poem Having a Coke with You. That last line says it all.
Sunday, October 20, 2019
back to school?
The New York School, that is. Which I will explain in a minute. I know it's been, like, foreverrrr since I've written, but here I am once again, so if you are here as well, at least that makes two of us. I've been busy. With all good things. Maine is exquisite right now, as it always is, and has been taking my full attention of late. All the cliches of fall are doubly true here. Heirloom apples (Duchess of Oldenburg, Wealthy, Liberty, Macoun, Wolf River, and Cox's Orange Pippin are the varieties we are eating) are in bags at the organic orchard stand, and they have hot cider too, and hand-pies. Woodsmoke curls up from our chimney into the chill evening dark. Unironically. The recent nor'easter whipped the colors of the season off the trees and away down the hill, leaving the old maples in front of our house almost bare. It's downright Halloweeny out there. I'm almost ready to come indoors for the duration but am still too restless. Fall always feels twitchy to me, like I should be back in school, or getting ready for something important somewhere, or cleaning house and clearing out, but no, it's only the approach of winter that has me feeling that way. There is really nowhere I must be, and nothing I must do, except that which drives me forward in the ways I myself most want. I feel extraordinarily lucky about that, but then, I never did believe all that much in luck. I attend the church of hard work and dedication instead. And so I don't go back to school. I continue my education on my own, for my own ends and pleasure, mostly through reading, but also through the pursuit of painting, to see how far I can take it, this thing I love to do so much. Almost as much as reading! I mean, if I could just read, I'd rather do only that, but. It's not possible. I've tried in the past, but now I'm too ensnared in the messy joys of paint to look back. So on we go. But the books still pile up, and I continue to turn to them on rainy days and in the evenings, to feed my hungry brain. I love to learn. And I love to learn more, about that which I only knew of in a fairly insubstantial way. I'm a big fan of the deep dive, the what-else-is-there. To me, all that means more books, please.
For years I've been visiting on the page with a certain circle of friends, and slowly expanding my knowledge of them and their lives. I never learned about any of them when I was in school, except from one art professor, who read one Frank O'Hara poem aloud in class while we undergraduates were silently drawing, but they have since become one of my great artistic and literary loves - the group of poets, writers, and artists, primarily painters, known as the New York School. The first and second generation of them flew high and left behind a long contrail of books, objects, art, rumor, and myth, which is still scattering slowly down to earth like s.o.s. leaflets dropped from the plane in question. I have many books by and about the members of this group, who were friends and lovers (and sometimes enemies), from Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, James Schuyler, Jane Freilicher, Nell Blaine, Fairfield Porter, Anne Porter, Ron Padgett, Joe Brainard, Kenward Elmslie, Bill Berkson, John Gruen, Edwin Denby, Larry Rivers, Grace Hartigan, and more. My most recent stack of acquisitions reflects their continuing presence in the world of new book publishing:
Speaking of Powell's. Let's. It has been a long-time dream of mine to go there. I wonder if I will ever make it. I might want to move in, or apply for a job, or go for broke, so perhaps it's best if I don't, but at least I am going to order books from them from time to time. I think I've finally had it with Ama*on, after reading about what they are doing in Nashville. Ugh. Not to mention that they paid zero federal income tax this year despite monstrous profits. I've never ordered that much from them (she said defensively...), I always check Biblio first, but I used to sell some books there, and order secondhand or even new books from time to time. Well, I've spent enough money with them. From now on, if I can't find what I am searching for, between my local shops, Powell's, eBay, Biblio sellers, and Strand, I will stop looking and wait, then try all those locations again in a month or two, rather than order from Ama*on. Putting my money where my mouth is, I just bought secondhand copies of What It Means to Write About Art: Interviews with art critics by Jarrett Earnest (David Zwirner Books 2018) and Tell Me Something Good: Artist Interviews from The Brooklin Rail edited by Phong Bui, Jarrett Earnest, and Lucas Zwirner (David Zwirner Books 2017) from Strand, and they arrived promptly with free bookmarks and a most uplifting message on their excellent packaging:
I feel very fortunate to live within easy driving distance of several decent used and new bookshops, even out here in rural Maine, and I spend money regularly at nearly all of them. But sometimes no one here has what I want, and so I do what so many of us do now, and start nosing around online. Blech. Anyway, Ama*on isn't a hard habit to break, I assure you. Strand and Powell's, and all the fine used book sellers in between, all the way!
Back to the stack - this isn't my only recent stack, by any means. I meant to write here about this one from September, but that rainy day never arrived, and I postponed doing so until now:
I got that copy of Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light: 100 Art Writings 1988-2018 by Peter Schjeldahl (Abrams 2019) from Strand, too. New. Although they advertised that they had signed copies but actually *cough* didn't, oh well. But my goodness, what a book. I never did subscribe to the New Yorker so I had read very few of Peter Schjeldahl's reviews as they happened. This collection contains many essays and reviews from the New Yorker and the Village Voice, and earlier. It is edited by the (busy! he's everywhere! and he's fantastic!) Jarrett Earnest. Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light is the textbook I wish I had been assigned in art history class. But it didn't exist of course. Until now, when I assign it to myself, and get to read great sentences like these:
"An artist has lured me out of myself into an illusion of reality more thrilling than any lived reality can be." (p.309, on Vermeer)
"Her work stuns the mind while breaking the heart in two and then in four and finally to pieces." (p.321, on Helen Levitt's street photography)
"People in bad clothes were studying the show when I visited: bookstore types." (p.351, a Duchamp and Man Ray exhibit, and hey, that's us he's talking about!)
"The proof of any art's lasting value is a comprehensive emotional necessity: it's something that a person needed to do and that satisfies corresponding needs in us." (pp.372-373, writing about an abstraction exhibit, and within it a tapestry made by Sophie Taeuber-Arp, which, he says, "obliterates skepticism.")
He's so good! Maybe I should have only written here tonight about that one book! I love it so much that I tracked down another collection of his New Yorker essays, Let's See (Thames & Hudson 2008) and am currently halfway through. But now I feel like I've talked about a lot of books superficially, instead of one or two in depth. I guess that's my way, right now. I'd like to say in my own defense that I'd rather be reading at this exact minute, so I'm going to go do just that! There are others I must mention before I go, however. For instance I can't wait to read my way through, if not cook my way through, Nigel Slater's brand new Greenfeast: autumn, winter (4th Estate 2019; I splurged and ordered a signed copy from Blackwell's in the U.K. since I did the same with his earlier volume Greenfeast: spring summer). And, the other night I finished the tedious and long - we're talking almost ninety pages - preface to The Early Diary of Frances Burney 1768-1778, edited by Annie Raine Ellis (Bell 1913), and now will embark on her actual diary. And I want to start Tom Cox's new book Ring the Hill (Unbound 2019) but not until I can sit still for hours and read the whole thing straight through. I love his writing so very much, so much so that I ordered a signed copy of Ring the Hill, pre-publication, to help fund it, and now my name appears in the back of the book as a subscriber/donor, alongside everyone else who did the same. The book is available at Unbound and of course booksellers everywhere. I also pledged to support his forthcoming Notebook, which he is working on right now. Pretty much anything he writes I want to read, at this point.
Okay, that's all for now, apologies for this bookish jumble. I will continue to pursue the New York School in print, and report back in about them at a later date. This is far too long already. But there is so much I didn't even mention at all! Like this: I met the author Nicholson Baker at a university talk the other night! I was sitting in front of him, in the audience, and we spoke briefly afterwards, and that's when I recognized him! I said, brilliantly (eye-roll), "I know you...! You're Nicholson Baker!" As if he might deny it, which he looked like he almost wanted to do. Anwyay, I informed him he is represented in my book collection (again with the brilliance, um), such as it is. We only exchanged a few words but he was warm and charming. How I honor that man, that writer of books. It's so good to have wonderful, entertaining, challenging, inspiring, fascinating books to turn to, in these trying times and always. They save my soul and educate my mind and heart. Schooling of the best kind.
Thursday, August 29, 2019
stacks and stacks
Summer was way too short this year. And I have an end-of-season cold that is dragging on. I can't even. I'm already wearing jeans and sweaters and worrying that we don't have enough firewood for the whole winter. Even though it's stacked and ready. The firewood I mean, waiting to be broached, like another kind of to-be-read pile. I have a few, at the ready. This is one:
My most recent stack. There are others nearby but I have made significant inroads here. I did just finish Alive Still: Nell Blaine, American Painter by Cathy Curtis (Oxford 2019) and the monster Barry Schwabsky art book Landscape Painting Now (d.a.p. 2019), and have just begun Peter Schjeldahl's Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light: 100 Art Writings 1988-2018 (Abrams 2019). This may be some kind of record for me, reading three brand new books one after another. Usually I am decades if not centuries behind. If there is such a thing in the continuum of reading, which seems to wash in and out, back and forth, like the tide. Don't good books always feel relevant, no matter their age?
I don't need an answer to that question. Old books continue to draw me in, as they have ever since I learned to read. I took the leatherbound reprint of Thoreau's In the Maine Woods (Houghton, Mifflin 1893) on a camping trip we took for Ryan's birthday last week. And I was in an antiques barn in western Maine a few weeks ago and in one of the book rooms I saw the thin Longfellow first edition and the Dorothy Wordsworth two-volume set. I do not need these books, I said to myself as I stood there holding them in my hands. Wanting them. Story of my life, right? I already have several Longfellow collections; I already own two different versions of Wordsworth's journals. I put the books down. Then I moved along, as if to leave the room they were in. They waited patiently for me to change my mind. Which obviously I did. And I have no regrets! Longfellow's In the Harbor (Houghton, Mifflin 1882) is a little shabby but aren't we all, these days:
Such a wonderful front cover. The insides are good too. In the shop I opened it at page 79 and read the following poem:
Loss and Gain
When I compare
What I have lost with what I have gained,
What I have missed with what attained,
Little room do I find for pride.
I am aware
How many days have been idly spent;
How like an arrow the good intent
Has fallen short or been turned aside.
But who shall dare
To measure loss and gain in this wise?
Defeat may be victory in disguise;
The lowest ebb is the turn of the tide.
Phew. That pretty much did it, that and the exquisite print job by The Riverside Press.
Dorothy Wordsworth (edited by William Knight, Macmillan 1904) is in better condition, but she has problems of her own. So after proclaiming I had no regrets about these purchases I must eat my words, because I do in fact have one. A not insignificant one. Behold:
Oh good printers and binders of Macmillan, Why did you not trim the margins? To read these lovely volumes I will have to live with a paper knife in one hand, because every signature remains uncut along all the top edges and half of the fore edges. Will I actually do this? I have to wonder. The set runs to about 550 pages all told, whereas the other edited editions I have of her Journals are much shorter. Which is why I bought this set, aside from its general handsomeness. (Keep this longer set, sell the other editions - that's one way I justified the purchase.) I also love its bookplates, one centered inside the front cover of each volume, with just a woman's name printed in copperplate script on good paper, with splashes of darkening glue around the edges. I think I'll paste my own inside the back covers. Then if I never read this edition (all that slicing! I don't know if I can do it! rip rip rip!) some future booklover will wonder why two supposed bibliophiles never read this set.
But no, I do have to cut the pages, because in browsing through what little I can read of it just now, I see that volume two ends with Extracts from Dorothy Wordsworth's Tour in the Isle of Man 1828. Which I dearly want to read, being fascinated as I am with all things Isle of Man. It's been a while since I've mentioned that, I'm sure. But I am in fact part Manx and would love to visit someday. Another island in another sea. Some Faraghers emigrated in the 1850s, first to Canada, then to the United States, and my particular branch of that family tree is alive and well. Now I know that Dorothy Wordsworth visited the island when my ancestors were still there! Thrilling to contemplate. I need a sharper paper knife.
That's all I've got for the moment. The other stacks will have to wait. I have a few forthcoming books on order too, and my inner eye is beginning to focus on possible winter reading projects. Anthony Powell is still in the running but I might find someone or something more catastrophic or apocalyptic to read instead. Because I can't decide if I need something truly horrendous to remind myself that humans and the world suffer, yet here we still are, we endure, or if I want to turn away from that, toward the comforting and tender instead. Love wins, right? I've always believed that. I may have to choose the side of comfort. We seem to have enough catastrophe readily on hand. But. Chin up. When things get worse we can pack up Longfellow and Thoreau and take to the woods, can't we? See you there.
Tuesday, July 30, 2019
The cat days of summer are here. Hodge is flattened by the heat, as am I. I've been doing my best to get out and paint and live the sunlit hours fully, but the temperature today has me inside in the shade, so here I am, writing. The table next to me is mostly empty, except for the latest draft of my book-to-be, some driftwood, a shell, a few pieces of sea glass from a recent beach walk, and a pile of artists' facsimile sketchbooks, which constitute my current state of book-interest. After finishing Underland by Robert Macfarlane, and reading The Summer Book by Tove Jansson, and starting nothing else from last month's to-be-read pile - see last post; sorry Anthony Powell, your time is not yet - I turned to these instead. Can I speak coherently about books with almost no text in them? Let's find out.
The first is a fairly recent acquisition, about one of my painting heroes - Nell Blaine / Sketchbook, preface by John Ashbery (The Arts Publisher Inc. 1986):
A lovely large hardcover in its paper slipcase. This book is borderline expensive if you search for a secondhand copy, but instead I found it for sale, still new, at the Cape Ann Museum online shop. The copy I received from them states in the colophon that it came from the artist's estate. 726 copies were printed, on thick Tintoretto paper that is a delight to touch. Aside from the very brief essay by Ashbery about his friend, and a chronology and bibliography, there is no text, only drawings and watercolors. I love to flip through the pages, studying the marks she made, as if I am reading the best news of the day. But the text is fine too. Ashbery writes (unpaginated):
"Ever since she first thought of becoming an artist, Nell Blaine has kept visual diaries in the form of sketchbooks like this one. They are a parallel activity to drawing and painting: she said she always intended to use her notebook sketches in more finished works but never got around to it. So the notebooks are like the diaries of a great novelist - Virginia Woolf, for instance - in that they offer rewards of their own, similar but apart from the work for which she is best known. Since they offer a more private activity, done mainly for herself, we can feel the genius that informs her larger work here at a more tentative, spontaneous level: the work as it is just happening into being."
This makes me think fondly of one of my painting teachers, who made everyone in our class keep a visual diary. He said every serious artist he knew kept some kind of journal, image file, or diary. It was mandatory and we had to write in them, draw too, and paste images in, and they were part of our class grade. I already had the diary habit but this teacher reinforced it and I am eternally grateful. But back to Blaine and Ashbery. In the next paragraph he says:
"The sensuality in these works is backed up by a temperament that is crisp and astringent, which is as it should be, since even at its most poetic, nature doesn't kid around."
Indeed. Nature does not, even at her most beautiful. How about a few images from the sketchbook itself, after that description of Blaine and her paintings. First a floral still life, a rough version of the kind for which she is well-known:
Then a landscape panorama of Gloucester, Massachusetts, ditto:
Seemingly casual, yet not. I love these for their messy all-over-ness, their energy, their searching line, and rich marks. They bring to mind the next sketchbook I will mention, made much later, David Hockney: A Yorkshire Sketchbook (Royal Academy of Arts 2012; the sketchbook itself dates from April of 2004):
The only text is on the jacket flaps and in the colophon, not including a brushy word or two from Hockney, at the beginning and end of his drawings and paintings. A glimpse within:
His landscapes, the planes of space, the descriptive marks he makes, how I love them. Another favorite two-page spread:
For the full story on his Yorkshire painting years, I recommend the documentary David Hockney: A Bigger Picture (Bruno Wollheim 2010)- the trailer is here, take a look and see if you can resist wanting to watch the whole thing! I couldn't, I bought a copy on dvd. I particularly love the extra material at the end, the long nearly-wordless piece of film showing Hockney painting in a muddy lane over the course of a day. He shows us what is possible, how far painting can go, and how far one ego can go as well. (In a good way. Mostly. Egos are often so problematic!) Anyway, I do love this little sketchook, and the film.
How about a few more? A pair. I've had both of these for years and years, and still love them as much as I did when I first found them. If not more. Both of these have slipcases and are so well-made, with black cloth covers and thick paper. Like the Nell Blaine book they are a pleasure to handle:
Wayne Thiebaud was one of my first painting loves as an art student (after Andy Warhol, who took the cake in that regard, so to speak) and he remains in my personal pantheon of art archangels today. I ordered this sketchbook, Wayne Thiebaud: Private Drawings / The Artist's Sketchbook, selected and edited by Constance and Jack Glenn, with an introduction by Constance Glenn (Abrams 1987), about twenty-five years ago, when I worked at a new book store. I don't remember the price but I do remember it was a financial stretch at that time, art books in general usually beyond the reach of my barely-over-minimum-wage clerk job. Even with the employee discount! Well, I was poor but buy it I did, and I still love looking through it all these years later. What a fine draftsman he is, so sure of himself and his line, yet also as painterly as can be:
Still life, the figure, and the landscape - three of the great themes of art, throughout time - endlessly interesting, the closer we look. Glenn says as much in her essay, that Thiebaud's subjects are "...simply draped over the hanger of classical, formal problems that have occupied artists for centuries." She then quotes him (p.7):
"'I always think about what I call serious artists - those who are continuing and perpetual students. That particular audience,' Wayne Thiebaud concludes, 'is the one that has always interested me - those who really do believe in a sense of tradition and use it as a primary engagement in their own work.'"
Her essay is in the booklet inside the front cover:
And my Andy English hedgehog bookplate now resides inside the back cover:
There's something about putting a bookplate into a book one has already owned for decades. Perhaps it's like finally getting a marriage license after years of cohabitating? Something like that. Part honoring an important relationship, I think. And part staking a heart-claim on the tiny piece of real estate that is this book, here, now, in my hands. It's easy to imagine the artist holding it and drawing in it, or at least on the pieces of paper that make it up. Thiebaud changes the orientation of the sketchbook when he needs to:
More where that came from, one of the final images in the book, mmmm, pie:
In the smaller square Maurice Prendergast sketchbook, the painter did likewise - turned it, perhaps to more easily draw on the right side:
Now we see the upside down pencil sketch, across from the more fully rendered scene. This sketchbook is full of families at the seaside, in big hats and summer clothes. Prendergast's washy, swimming brushwork notes the quality of the day - immediate, life-breathing. I see from my notation inside the back cover that I bought this for $5 at a book sale in the year 2000: Maurice Prendergast: Water-color Sketchbook 1899, critical note by Peter A. Wick (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Harvard University Press 1960). A 20-page booklet of text is tucked in a pocket inside the back cover. In it, Wick tells us that this sketchbook only exists because after Maurice's death his artist brother Charles saved it from a fire in his own Irving Place studio, near Gramercy Park (p.11):
"In the winter of 1924/25 in the early hours of the morning with snow on the ground a fire broke out. Charles in a frantic effort to resuce the contents of the studio shattered the window glass and flung his most precious possessions out into the backyard, severely cutting his hand in the act. Many things were damaged or destroyed, but Charles succeeded in throwing clear a number of Maurice's portfolios of water colors, several small oil panels, some badly scorched, and a group of his sketchbooks. The singed corners of some of the pages of the Boston Sketchbook survive to tell the tale, but the leaves are miraculously fresh and free of water stain."
What drama! Wow! The stories behind the sketchbooks are almost as good as the books themselves. And I love the fact that these ephemeral things survived at all, and then made their way into print, as facsimiles, because the artist, friend of the artist, family member, art historian, and/or publisher believed in their worth enought to usher them through the press. The sketches they contain suit my summer mindset, which is to say they allow me to wander, contemplate, and daydream, even in the midst of the specifics they describe. I read them as if the marks are letters and words, and gain some new kind of knowledge. I'd like to find more books like these. I still think about Frida Kahlo's illustrated diary, which I once owned, then sold, and always thought I would come across again. But I haven't yet. I know there are others out there. I also think of a second Prendergast sketchbook, much larger in format, also slipcased. It sat on a shelf in local used book barn for many years. I visited it from time to time. It was priced at $95. I should have bought it, but I never did - that intersection between available monies, desire, and other books also at hand, asking to be bought instead, did not ever line up in the right way. Unusual, for me! What can I say. I guess nothing else. Except, Maybe I'll go make a few sketches...