A Frank O’Hara Notebook, Bill Berkson, No Place Press, 2019, 278 pp, £35.00 (hardcover)

Frank O’Hara’s poetry has previously been described as being written like entries in a diary, his work more like an autobiographical depiction of his daily life than a solemn portrait of life itself. The scenes of his life as a central figure in the ‘New York School’ of poets, writers and painters are sketches, brief experiences of a life cut short in its prime. Poignant and yet slightly unassuming, he sets apart the banality a solipsism that sets into much of high-life poetry and found a voice that was truly independent.

The book’s subtitle, ‘Life on Earth’, is an accurate description of the content. It contains various clippings from Berkson’s life, moulded around the central idea of O’Hara’s legacy, and his ever-present ghost. The actual poetry is only mentioned in passing, with no real analysis of ‘Having A Coke With You’ or ‘To The Harbormaster’. One has to consider that in his life O’Hara was simply one among many in the New York School, his death at the age of forty being a moment that gave him independence as a writer, lost to the past. (Although presumptive deaths were not uncommon among the group, as Bill Berkson says, V.R. Lang, John La Touche and Jackson Pollock all died young.)

Bill Berkson could well be called a devoted acolyte, becoming a poet in his own right and a member of that ‘set’ which included Kenneth Koch, Larry Rivers and James Schuyler. This book, which is a notebook transcribed and introduced, describes his experiences, and the eclectic ideas that a man such as O’Hara produced. Speaking of his first encounter with his subject, Berkson says ‘Kenneth took made aside & said there was going to be party … He added that Frank O’Hara would be there … “He’ll probably become something of a germ in your life.”‘

In some ways, O’Hara comes across as a germ in Berkson’s life. Initially planning to write extensive work on him, Berkson simply created a file of extensive references, with the amount of formal text left very small. ‘What Frank O’Hara Was Like’ is a brief overview of his experiences of him, whilst the ‘Frank O’Hara File’ he collected on his works is a rather tedious collection of his works and acquaintances. The book contains only a small introduction to the New York life as such – much of the later part of the notes is a collection of poems and book cuttings, from Sartre to Dickinson. Various correspondences and seemingly unrelated notes are included; the whole effect easily rends the reader confused, left perplexed and yet also impressed by Berkson’s immense understanding. Thus, as in O’Hara’s ‘Having a Coke with You’:

In the warm New York 4 o’clock light we are drifting back and forth
Between each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles

It is noted that although Berkson knew O’Hara well, the further away from his death in 1966 that he got, the less clear the project of writing a book on him became. As Ron Padgett says in the introduction, ‘as time went on he felt he understood O’Hara the man less and less, the writing more and more, and my sense is that Bill found it difficult to write about Frank in any manner other personal or informal.’

The importance of painting to O’Hara is a dimension that is often lost in stature to the relatively small amount of poetry that he produced. As a Curator of the Museum of Modern Art and a writer for ARTNews, he was embedded in the art and literary scenes of New York. Indeed, the first page of the book is Elaine De Kooning’s lugubrious portrait of O’Hara, who ‘occurs in the painting’. The avant-garde movement that started in earnest with Duchamp had captivated the New York scene and the School that O’Hara was a central figure in espoused the new ideas that illuminated the 1960s. It was a kind of bitter irony that one person with the most vehement mindset of a soixante-huitards died before the cultural and political catharsis of that year.

The New York Group were remarkable by the variety of talents that their members possessed. There were writers and poets such as O’Hara, Berkson and Koch. In the 1950s there were composers such as John Cage (who was also influential in the rise of postmodern dance) and Morten Feldman. In the emerging world of abstract expressionism, there was Willem De Kooning, Mark Rothko and Philip Guston. This movement encapsulated the radicalism of the post-war years, and O’Hara’s image as a pivotal force in this as a man is somewhat overshadowed by his now impressive reputation as simply a superb poet. This element of O’Hara, not just as a poet, but as an integral make-up of a movement, is surprisingly not discussed at any length by Berkson. Much of the book centres around plans for a biography, and to those outside of the cognoscenti, much of the latter part will be baffling. Personal emails go side by side with excerpts of Keats and film adverts; a wash of information, seemingly unrelated, that is all intended to bear relation to O’Hara’s life and works.

In the afterword, Berkson’s widow Constance M. Lewallen tells of how she only once heard of the notebook on her late husband’s most influential friend. After he died, Lewallen found and published the compilation, left perturbed by the ‘Life on Earth’ title. The enigmatic nature of that title is repeated throughout this meandering, yet poignant collection of notes, adverts, letters, posters, poems and paintings. It is still often entertaining and enlightening, giving a unique perspective of a writer still in awe of someone who inspired, and yet was gone so soon and, for Berkson, for so long. As James Fenton, a poet who has treaded near the shoulders of giants and silently equalled them, wrote so bitingly in A German Requiem:

It is not what they built. It is what they knocked down.
It is not the houses. It is the spaces between the houses.
It is not the streets that exist. It is the streets that no longer exist.
It is not your memories which haunt you.
It is not what you have written down.
It is what you have forgotten, what you must forget.
What you must go on forgetting all your life.

This poignant message bears much relation to O’Hara, a writer who joined the impressive club of those taken during their glory and still manages to be as invigorating as they were in a forgotten heyday.

Words by Patrick Maxwell.
To buy A Frank O’Hara Notebook by Bill Berkson, visit No Place Press.

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