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Untapped Poets: The Dodd Center at U.Conn January 30, 2009

Posted by jeffclef in Uncategorized.
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Storrs is what you call a college town. Not much goes on around here, so the University of Connecticut must make up the difference: beautiful spaces, high tech facilities, campus pubs, and good football. Two skateable lakes provide some majesty and diversion in the winter. But in the event of a snowstorm, the college, which sits on a sloping hill, closes down for the day. A student once got buried alive, a story that causes considerable alarm.

I’m here on break. The campus is a five minute drive from where I’m staying, but I came by bus, and I don’t have a car. For a week and at less than fifty bucks a night, I have a beautiful duplex along the state turnpike all to myself. The owner, a university professor, is subletting the place to visiting students. I’ve got my hiking boots and my North Face jacket, so as long as there’s no storm or crazy cyclists raining down the turnpike, I can sweat a mile up the bike lane to the bus station.

Four Corners, where Route 44 and Highway 195 meet, is my stop, and the most happening place in the city that is not the college. There’s a Dunkin Donuts, a Subway, a gas station, and a CVS. A diner and a market are down the street, but you need a car to get to the nearest Starbucks. A single bus line serves the entire town. At one end of the route is a Shaws and at the other, a Walmart in Willimantic—a new town. Storrs is not your shoppers’ paradise, but the serenity of its wintry rakes of trees makes it the perfect place to get some work done and have a vacation on the side.

UConn’s Dodd Research Center boasts the largest archive of correspondence by postwar American poets: names like Charles Olson, Amiri Baraka, Robert Creeley, Gregory Corso, Denise Levertov, etc. Many of these poets first appeared in cheaply edited little magazines but came to national recognition through the The New American Poetry. And many, like Ted Berrigan, decided to become poets after reading the anthology. Berrigan, for example, flocked all the way to New York, to stalk O’Hara.

O’Hara’s soul, like Berrigan’s, now lives in Storrs, and that’s why I’ve made this two-hour pilgrimage—to sift through the correspondence of my favorite poet and scholarly obsession at the moment. Not only did Frank O’Hara break out of the frame of what was acceptable to say in poetry—he was very brave for his age—he may have been the greatest authority on the totality of the arts during the Cold War. A classical pianist by training, he switched to poetry in college before taking a day job as a staff writer for Art News and later a curator for the Museum of Modern Art. He was also quite the jazz aficionado, though not in the way the Beats considered themselves to be. I’m not allowed to quote yet any of the letters I’ve read, but they are as lyrically driven as his poems. Full of gossip, chock with fights and romances. Occasionally, he lapses inexplicably into jive, speaking like a black person might in the fifties, which suggests that he was part of the same scene as the hipsters and beatniks. But if O’Hara was a hipster in any sense, he was squarer than most of his friends. As his friend John Ashbery remarked, O’Hara “was too hip for the squares” and “too square for the hips.”

O’Hara once had a horrible spat with Jack Kerouac at a poetry reading. O’Hara and Corso were reading their work, when all of a sudden a drunken Jack exclaims something to the effect of “you’re killing poetry, O’Hara.” His reading partner Corso calls him chi chi, and then a terrible war of words and battle for Corso’s affections ensues. The damage is repaired in part when Allen Ginsberg, the great mediator, helped a more sober Kerouac write some makeup haiku, because whereas we unoriginal hacks only know how to say “I’m sorry,” that’s how poets apologize. Imagine Frank as Little Miss Muffet at the opera, and you can see why he forgave them.

I also came across some interesting things about O’Hara in the university’s archives of letters by LeRoi Jones, with whom O’Hara was good friends. Jones had been running several radical presses devoted to the seemingly contradictory issues of civil rights and postwar avant-garde poetry. The appearance of cover art and painting features in the pages of these magazines led me to suspect the hand of Frank, and it turns out I was right all along. Frank would use his clout in the art world to solicit paintings from his friends as cover art for these radical magazines.

The letters of the young LeRoi Jones are just as revelatory. He very much looked up to Charles Olson and the Black Mountain Poets, whose poetry he felt was the most advanced at the time. Since 1966, when Jones took up the cause of Black Nationalism, Jones suppressed in his poetry a much more philosophical and metaphysical side of his younger years. Had he retained the image of himself as a black Wyndham Lewis creating venues for the most advanced poetry of his age and discovering unheard of black poets from the midwest. I am sure he would have a larger reputation today as a poet and promoter that transcends his race. Reading his letters, I have the profound sense of a man struggling to reconcile, like myself, his racial identity with his cosmopolitan reading. And he read everything, alerting everyone else to what was worth reading, to reviews of their work, to new social theories and philosophies. After defending Ralph Ellison, who was my scholarly preoccupation last year, I have come to the conclusion that Ellison misunderstood his fellow man profoundly. Jones was very much interested in modernism; he just happened to prefer the wild potentialities of Pollock and Kline to the institutionalized Picasso.

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