In Which We Read a Few Good Books, Connect Some Dots, and Have Ourselves a Very Fine Time
I enjoyed David Lehman’s Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man so much when I read it in April that I decided to try my luck with another of his several works of nonfiction. I almost picked up Perfect Murder: A Study in Detection, but I’ve been in a gung-ho poetry mood lately, so instead I opted for The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets, a group biography of Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, Kenneth Koch and John Ashbery. I encountered this Ashbery quip earlier today in the book, and was going to share it as a power quote, but that’s not really in the spirit of Ashbery, besides which now I want to talk about something else, too. Anyway the quote goes like this:
Recklessness is what makes experimental art beautiful, just as religions are beautiful because of the strong possibility that they are founded on nothing. We would all believe in God if we knew He existed, but would this be much fun? (p. 39)
Now, the second thing I want to talk about isn’t really connected with that quote–which I like for its own sake–but it does also have to do with John Ashbery. A good 72 pages after the above-quoted, Lehman quotes the painter Fairfield Porter, who “characterized Ashbery as ‘lazy and quick,'” which Lehman points out is an unlikely pair of descriptors. He goes on to explain why (and how) it applies to Ashbery, but that’s not what caught my eye. Two other things did. I wonder if they caught yours? First, that I’ve ripped through better than a quarter of this book in a single day, and after I finish typing this up I’ll probably dig in for another hour or two. Second thing is about the particular turn of phrase. Lehman’s right, of course, it’s a very odd pairing–but the funny thing is that when I encountered it, I knew instantly that I had seen it before, and because of the extraordinary impression it had made on me the first time, I knew exactly where that original sighting had been–in a context the literary equivalent of a world away from the New York School. Does anyone out there know, too? If you’re playing along at home, this is the time to scribble down your guesses.
Inside at the walnut bar leaned the disambulatory god of the lake. The man was both lazy and quick. Many sought him out.
This is the complete first paragraph of the Prologue to Yonder Stands Your Orphan, Barry Hannah’s 2001 novel, and the book that would turn out to be the last one published during his life. Porter’s quote is taken from a poem he wrote called “I Wonder What They Think of My Verses,” which itself is designed as a kind of group portrait of Ashbery, O’Hara and company. Now it is of course possible that this is a pure coincidence–“lazy” and “quick” being, after all, not the absolute strangest of words, and their pairing forming an unlikely but hardly inconceivable little paradox–and the only book I can seem to find which quotes the poem is Material Witness: The Selected Letters of Fairfield Porter (the poem is quoted in the introduction, which happens to be by none other than David Lehman) which wasn’t published until 2005, four years after Yonder came out. But that doesn’t mean that Hannah couldn’t have seen the poem in whatever magazine it originally appeared in (assuming it did), or encountered the quote somewhere–he may have even read it in The Last Avant-Garde, which was published in 1998. It’s also worth pointing out that the title of Yonder Stands Your Orphan is itself a quote–the first half of a line from Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” And were you to complete the line yourself–“yonder stands your orphan, with his gun”–you’d have a pretty good preview of the mayhem that awaits the community around Eagle Lake, Mississippi.
Let’s push this a little bit further–despite the abundance (or, perhaps, superabundance) of plot in Yonder Stands Your Orphan, the book is ultimately less about what happens than it is about the people that it happens to–Yonder boasts an enormous cast of primary and secondary characters, and though their Southern-fried loves and violences have little in common at the level of content with the New York School coterie, the spirit of manic geniality and urgent dreaming that pervades Hannah’s novel seems to me absolutely in keeping with the spirit of O’Hara, Koch, de Kooning, Pollock, et al. It makes sense, furthermore, that Hannah would have been a fan of the New York School–both he and they made great use of humor, irony, fragmentation, and of course the act of quotation itself.
At the end of the day, all three works under discussion here–Lehman’s book, Porter’s poem, Hannah’s book–seem to be undertaking the same project: to paint a portrait of a community, in all its triumph and disarray. It’s enough to send me back through Yonder with a fine-toothed magnifying glass, in the hopes of teasing out or spotting what may well be a trove of allusions, inspirations, and borrowings. Maybe someday soon. Right now, though–the poets!