Friday, August 3, 2007

Frank O'Hara Tribute w/Billy Collins & Paul Violi

Madison Square Park has a great summer reading series, "Mad. Sq. Reads" which recently featured a tribute to the great NYC poet Frank O'Hara, led by former poet laureate Billy Collins and possible future poet laureate Frank Violi.

The event coincided with the relocation of 21-year-old Max to NYC, so I brought him along. The day was hot, but The Mad had a nice breeze blowing by the time we got there. I sat Max down in one of about 75 chairs and wandered off to the merch table to check out the poets' books: four titles by Collins, one by Violi and NO FRANK O'HARA BOOKS!! Borders kindly ran the table, no doubt giving the two featured poets 100% of the profits. The 60+ year old man at the table was nice enough--hell, he was way too nice! When I buy books, I don't want to be hit on! Yes, I'm busy tomorrow, and Saturday, and for the rest of your life, as well as my own! Plus he gave me incorrect information--always a BIG minus in getting me on a pity date--telling me that the shrink-wrapped book was Billy Collins most recent, when, in fact, the book, "Questions About Angels," was published in 1999. Oh, well. I bought Questions, along with Violi's 2007 tome "Overnight" despite the Borders salesman, and rejoined Max in the now-packed audience.

Collins came on first, praising O'Hara as the master of the "having a Coke" genre: poems that create beauty out of the most banal of incidents, like having a Coke at the local diner. Drawing from the astounding "Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara," Collins seemed genuinely like he was rediscovering O'Hara with each new poem, as was the captivated audience--including non-poetry-fan young Max! But when Collins quit the O'Hara and began reading his own O'Hara-inspired "having a Coke"-type poems, my mind drifted, as did a few audience members. Max began staring at the chics squatting on the edge of the fountain. It was revealing to me--maybe it was too hard for the human mind to transition from the voice of one powerful poet to another. Or maybe some poems are just better on the page. Reading through Collins book later, I was blown away by the power of the work.

Take, for example, the last few stanzas in "Forgetfulness," which demonstrates Collins at his best:

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

Fortunately, to wrap up, Collins presented the masterful "The Art of Drowning (1995)" which works on-stage and on-page with equal impact. A short excerpt:

But tomorrow, dawn will come the way I picture her,
barefoot and disheveled, standing outside my window
in one of the fragile cotton dresses of the poor.
She will look in at me with her thin arms extended,
offering a handful of birdsong and a small cup of light.

Googling the "fragile cotton dresses of the poor" line, I found one website with a beautiful sunrise photo, and another one with the quote accompanying a picture of a barefoot Kate Moss getting out of a car (! I love this planet!

Violi was inspiring as well, though during his reading the breeze died and no amount of powerful poetry--not even from Frankie--could revitalize my flagging spirits. To check out Violi, check into his latest ("Overnight" 2007, Hanging Loose Press). From the first poem on it's a real wonder: Funny, honest, clear. Sample excerpt from "Appeal to the Grammarians":

We, the naturally hopeful,
Need a simple sign
For the myriad ways we're capsized.
We who love precise language
Need a finer way to convey
Disappointment and perplexity...

...mainly because I need it--here and now--
As I sit outside the Caffe Reggio
Staring at my espresso and cannoli
After this middle-aged couple
Came strolling by and he suddenly
Veered and sneezed all over my table
And she said to him, "See, that's why
I don't like to eat outside."


As poets we need to give people words for such situations, so the temptation to use "emoticons" instead will be a cute remnant of history that soon will be forgotten.


Karen said...

Thanks for this recap. I makes me feel like I was there. The Frank Violi poem is LOL.

wendi said...

I second what Karen said! Thank you for this great start to a long day.