Friday, June 21, 2013

Frank O'Hara -- sestinas

Yesterday was an unbelievably frustrating day, capped off by learning that the SFU library had suffered major flooding and some of the journals I wanted to look at had probably been damaged.  How terrible, but how frustrating that no one there could actually tell me the extent of the damage.  All the people that were responsible for cleaning up and cataloging the mess were off at some off-site meeting!  Really, SFU staff!?  It turns out the journal I want is also at the UBC library, so despite the difficulty in getting there, I expect I will make the trek out there in a week or two.

However, I was able to pick up a copy of Frank O'Hara's Poems Retrieved, which I had somewhat hurriedly browsed while in San Francisco a few weeks ago.  Imagine my surprise when I saw that O'Hara had two sestinas in the collection: "Southern Villages" and "Green Words."  And even more mind-boggling, they are both pure sestinas, and not the broken sestinas that I thought I had read (and perhaps been subconsciously influenced by).  I guess I really was skimming and not really paying attention (it is true by that point I was somewhat distracted by wondering how much longer I had to wait to meet my friends for dinner and I was starting to get hungry).  I don't recall any sestinas in his Collected Poems, but now realize I can't trust my memory for such things.*

Despite having some interesting (and challenging) key words -- fragrance, stands, lips, ears, book, eyes -- I don't think "Southern Villages" is particularly amazing as a sestina.  I think he really misses a trick by not attempting to use "book" and "eyes" as both verb and noun (which he does for "stands").  Of course, it does sometimes scan badly when lines end with verbs, which is one rationale behind my attempt to relax the sestina form slightly.

I like "Green Words" a bit more and have pasted it in below.  Even though the endings are traditional, he plays a bit more with having long lines, sometimes even stretching them beyond the stanza break.  Perhaps this was what made me think he was experimenting with broken sestinas.

"Green Words, A Sestina"

First I filled the chair with grapes
then I sat down on the sun
to watch a tree like moss escape the sky.
The cat watches me write and the cat
purrs blackly along the leaf, the strokes
which are a mystery to him and to me.

The cat finds everything mysterious but the sun,
how he purrs and claws just to watch the sky!
to lick the pen, to lie on the belly of a cat
and have it interrupt your strokes,
and push the French books into me,
which is like moss and is grapes,

isn’t that what you think of the sky?
as your white-clad ankles are scratched by the cat.
You continue as long as you can your strokes
before a white scream comes out of me
and I sit on the grapes
accidentally. It does feel like the sun,

I am pushed into the sun by a cat.
The terrible black lashings! then the strokes
which are a mystery to him and to me.
The cat finds everything mysterious but the grapes,
and now me. “Yes, it does feel like the sun,”
I say, “the sun in the sky.”

I look out over the river and the strokes
are white, they no longer hurt me.
I am bruised and acrid like the grapes
lying messily in the sun.
I no longer see any trees in the sky.
It is because I am deserted by the black cat,

his cool yellow eyes. He has left me.
Tears are breaking over me like grapes.
It is the sun.
O brilliant eyes escaping into the sky!
You are white, you are no longer cat,
why are you wet with strokes?

The grapes are drying in the sun.
And the sky is its own black cat
which it strokes, as it does me.

           [Sledens Landing, August 1953]

Of course, I am generally a sucker for things cat-related, and O'Hara was a bit cat-crazy himself.  The image below is actually on the cover of Poems Retrieved.

I wonder whether this sestina was influenced at all by Christopher Smart's unusual poem "For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffry."  Either way, this has inspired me to at least try to get back to my own sestina project, and perhaps a bit indirectly to think more seriously about acquiring a cat (or two) once firmly relocated to Toronto.

* After some digging through the Collected Poems, I cannot find any that are actually sestinas, or at least none indicate upfront that they are sestinas.  (And it was only for a relatively short period that O'Hara wrote in such traditional forms.)  However, I did learn that in 1956 O'Hara and Kenneth Koch collaborated on a sestina titled “The Mirror Naturally Stripped.” I'm having more trouble than I thought in tracking it down (doesn't appear to be gathered in either O'Hara's or Koch's Collected Poems), but it may be reproduced in an academic book on the New York School (of Poets).  I'll report back if I manage to locate it.

So I got as close as I think I'll get for a while.  There is an academic book that reprints a stanza from “The Mirror Naturally Stripped.”  So it appears the wires were crossed.  This poem isn't a sestina, but in the same journal, Koch and O'Hara published “Nina Sestina” which must be.  While it is not clear that it is actually there, SFU may have this journal in their Rare Books collection, so I'll swing by on my next visit in a couple of weeks.  On the subject of odd and/or rare sestinas, apparently Ka-Ching by Denise Duhamel contains some.  I'll have to request this once I am back from Chicago.

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