How quickly December seems to have come around – and with it, time for a new featured poet! I remember going to the Sheffield launch of David Attwooll’s pamphlet, Surfacing (Smith/Doorstop 2013) and now I have the great pleasure, and good fortune, of being able to feature his work on the blog. Not only has he allowed me to put one of my favourite poems of his, ‘Port Meadow’, here for you all to read, but he’s also provided a great commentary on one of his poetic influences, Frank O’Hara – just what’s needed to dispel the gloom of these foggy days.
By the way, his pamphlet would make the ideal Christmas gift!
David Attwooll has published poems in various magazines and anthologies, and was a winner of the 2013 Poetry Business competition with Surfacing (smith/doorstop). He collaborated with the artist Andrew Walton on a record of a year exploring the topography, history, and changing aspects of a floodplain bordering the Thames, which was published as Ground Work (Black Poplar 2014). His first full collection, The Sound Ladder, will be published by Two Rivers Press in April 2015. He lives in Oxford where he works in publishing and drums in a streetband.
‘A faire felde ful of folke’ (Piers the Plowman)
This long, low, and flat landscape is where Oxford goes all Dutch,
down to the kitsch January skaters whistling along
with hands neatly folded behind their backs, and little
summer sails almost below the horizon among
the slow clouds in a huge sky, suffused with a muted light.
The flora and fauna here are in a pared-down palette
of greys, browns, and sludge green; the horses, waterbirds, meadow
all conspire with the soft floodplain scene. It’s a peopled place
of course: painted landscapes often need, somewhere, a red smudge.
And we trace our own filmy overlays: the black rainbow
bridge is really chalky pink here, zigzags capping
a wild and tangled world, reflected in a fisheye
distorting lens; the flashbacks that frame family picnics
on the small beaches, barefoot avoiding cowpats; walks
from the Perch to the Trout; a friend playing a farting
sousaphone, lyrically, to curious cows; and the birthday
when we drifted low in early morning mist, transparent
paper-thin wisps over river, grass, the silence broken
only by the balloon’s gasps. Secular, we didn’t ascend,
instead there was a long sigh as the land fell away.
Frank O’Hara: Lunch Poems
(City Lights, 1964)
I was a student in the late 1960s, excitedly discovering (among other things) contemporary American poetry and jazz. There was much of it that I found intriguing but often inaccessible (as I did the more academic poems of the then youngish and local J H Prynne). But O’Hara’s voice in Lunch Poems jumped off the page for me: conversational, witty, and rhythmic.
I loved (and still do) the urban jumble of high and low culture; its sense of freedom to write about anything in a direct way, open to sense impressions and personal vulnerability without being ‘confessional’. It seems improvised on the spot, yet re-reading reveals its subtlety and technical skill, like a lyrical Miles Davis solo of the late 1950s.
In his mock manifesto ‘Personism’ O’Hara wrote ‘You just go on your nerve’: his poems enact the processes of his mind and perceptions as they experience reality, as it were in real time. His friend John Asberry wrote ‘Frank O’Hara’s concept of the poem as the chronicle of the creative act that produces it was strengthened by his intimate experience of Pollock’s, Kline’s and de Kooning’s great paintings’. O’Hara’s work at MOMA in New York and his friendships (and affairs) with Abstract Expressionists and painters such as Jasper Johns, Larry Rivers, and Robert Rauschenberg deeply affect both his subjects and the way he wrote his poems.
O’Hara once wrote: ‘for most of us non-academic and indeed non-literary poets in the sense of the American scene at the time, the painters were the only generous audience for our poetry…The literary establishment cared about as much for our work as the Frick cared for Pollock.’ The fact that O’Hara and many of his friends were openly gay as well as culturally non-conformist in 1950s America added to this sense of outsider /avant-garde energy. O’Hara worked on ‘The New American Painting’ show which introduced Europe to Abstract Expressionism, and this title was borrowed for Donald Allen’s influential anthology The New American Poetry(1960): I still have my much-thumbed student edition.
Painting apart, the cultural influences on and references in O’Hara’s work are wide but never pompous, always colloquial and gleefully mixed up with pop culture: surrealism and poets such as Apollinaire, Reverdy, and Mayakovsky; and also music. O’Hara studied music and at one time considered becoming a concert pianist. He called writing ‘playing the typewriter’. As for painting, music provides both a recurrent subject (from Rachmaninoff to jazz) and a profound influence on his style, with varied registers, flexible syntax, and syncopated rhythm. I think that’s what I find most attractive in his poetry, alongside the collage-like juxtaposition of startling images – his playfulness and exuberant rhythmic variations.
The book is organized, in an appropriately matter-of-fact way, in chronological order spanning poems written (and dated) from 1953 to 1964. In their different ways all three of the following poems are ‘praise’ poems, expressing a kind of knowing and self-deprecating affirmation.
This is a short lyric (as the title suggests) with a characteristic mixture of wit and seriousness. Its laconic internal dialogue punctuates a sort of exploded villanelle in praise of risk-taking, the necessary compromises of city life and love, and generosity of spirit.
The Day Lady Died (1959)
A classic ‘I do this; I do that’ list poem full of trivial ephemera and cultural clutter, with a powerfully serious punch-line that affirms the emotional value of individual talent and authentic culture. Mostly unpunctuated and breathless, this is a rhythmic tour-de-force.
St Paul and All That (1961)
A wry and joyful gay love poem that enacts the process of thinking aloud, with corrections and clarifications as it progresses down the page. Or across the page, since the layout is adventurous too, with short lines jumping to long lines with varied indentation, effectively using space on the page instead of punctuation. A double-entendre seasons the qualified optimism of the last line.
The Day Lady Died
This (now famous) poem was the first one I read in Lunch Poems. I had a girlfriend who introduced me to the bitter-sweet music of Billie Holiday, for whom this is an elegy. In a cascade of names throughout the poem she is unnamed, except via an inversion in the title of her nickname ‘Lady Day’.
O’Hara moves from a syncopated and dizzying catalogue of specific times in the first stanza to timelessness in the last lines; from a series of trivial choices to an event where there is no choice; from a flip, self-mocking tone about cultural consumerism to deadly seriousness and deep emotional engagement.
The switchback rhythms in the earlier lines echo an edgy, upbeat jazz tune then stretch and slow into a lyrical ballad theme by the close, almost in pentameters. Holiday was able to bend notes subtly like a saxophone player, and stretch and compress intervals between notes, so it may not be too fanciful to hear this and the celebrated catch in her voice in the texture of this poem.
Although there are no ‘formal’ rhymes, half-rhymes and assonance recur throughout. In the powerful last stanza, the present participles ‘sweating…thinking…leaning’ of the poet’s physical presence lead up to the climactic last word ‘breathing’, and internal rhymes propel the last gasp of what effectively is a single sentence poem – ‘lot’/ ’SPOT’/ ’stopped’; john’/ ’song’/ ’along’/ ’Waldron’/’everyone’. There are also strong visual rhymes in the repeated names in capitals in all but the first stanza.
After skimming along on the surface with all the metropolitan flotsam until the last five lines, O’Hara takes a plunge into a genuine engagement with the moment ‘she whispered a song along the keyboard/to Mal Waldron’. Waldron was something of a ‘pianist’s pianist’ and the musical O’Hara presumably identified with him, so the song was whispered directly to the poet. Billie Holiday was just 44 when she died. O’Hara was 33 when he wrote this, and he was killed, bizarrely, in a dune buggy accident in 1966 when he was only 40.