But my development as a poet was independent of Paul. Unlike most of my poet-friends (some intimate friends, others less so) — Paul’s contemporaries Armand Schwerner, Jerry Rothenberg, Toby Olson, Jackson Mac Low, George Economou, Rochelle Owens, Robert Vas Dias, Clayton Eshleman, Robert Kelly, Joel Oppenheimer — and contemporaries of mine whom it would be fair to call his disciples — Paul Pines, Brad Stark, Harry Lewis, Susan Sherman, Chuck Wachtel, and poets less directly influenced like Chuck Stein and Harvey Bialey — I had never met Paul — he had always been away from New York when I was there and vice versa, our peripatæas, curiously, never overlapping. By the time I became aware of his work he had already died.
And Joan too was still in shock — when Paul had died four years earlier after a year and a half of increasing disability during which time she had been in daily and constant attendance, her grief and resentment eating at her but rarely expressed, he had left her a sheltered 24-year-old with a 2-year-old child and no experience of the world, certainly nothing that could point towards a way to support them. It was in fact Sara, the second of Paul’s three wives, who had found Joan the job that she still held when I met her, answering letters to the editor at Sports Illustrated, the letters that didn’t make their way into the magazine, which she did rather well despite a complete lack of interest in sports. Sara, one can presume, knew what Joan and almost no one else could have, that even healthy he was a problematic husband.
So ‘Zefiro Torna’ came out of competition but also out of angry protectiveness towards my new loved-ones, whose great hurt and grief, which I was powerless to assuage, had become a mysterious place in my own life. As Paul himself had. It was then and remains a strange experience reading his work, and since then until this last few weeks I’ve read only the occasional poem. But preparing to write this little note I’ve reread The Cities, Against the Silences, and The Journals and big chunks of the rest, and I’ve found myself looking through his eyes, if not his sensibility: I know intimately all the places, got drunk in the same bars, and almost all the people, even one of the cats — almost everyone, in fact, but the protagonist. And I know what a lot of them thought at the moments recorded in the poems, things that Paul himself never knew, secrets confided that will never be told because the people he loved I also love and would not betray. And of course I know the end of a lot of stories that Paul didn’t live long enough to see. I’m thinking of Joel Oppenheimer and Armand Schwerner, dead themselves by cancer now.
So my reading was and is conditioned by all this. I’m an interested party here.
Many of Paul’s companions experience The Journals as a falling-off, a sort of betrayal — Paul the voyeur, the flâneur, is the figure they want to remember, infinitely charming, infinitely sexual. And, because of his death, eternally youthful. Although there are wonderful poems among them I found, and find, many of the poems collected in The Cities slight, their charm dependent on their music alone, and often disturbing in their relentless leering. But rereading The Cities now, in one long sitting, I began to see a repeated pattern, a strange geometricity. The poet wherever he stands records simple vectors of sound or motion, occurring simultaneously, building into a sort of frenetic polyphony — lines defined by glances, the flight of birds, a woman walking, a pacing priest, workers, a line of trees or cars, a cat crossing a roof. In ‘The Watchers’ he actually creates a typographic map, but schematics of this kind pervade the book. So, in ‘The First Two Days,’ sun, clouds, shadow, ‘sounds of roller skates, bicycle bells, children’s/ voices in the street/ A telephone rings somewhere,’ and ‘the birds sail singly or in pairs, their/ shadows move against the brick and disappear.../ The shadow of a flock swings down ...’ There’s a series of snap-shots or tape-loops of the New York of the 50s and early 60s that I recognize from my childhood and adolescence, as vivid as the other New York that O’Hara was sketching in his very different way — Paul invites us to see through his eyes, to stand in for him, O’Hara is always there with us. And in Paul’s city we never know where the trajectories have begun and where they’re going to end. What we get are the trajectories themselves.
This is very different from the New York presented by Charles Reznikoff or Joel Oppenheimer, as committed to the moment as Paul was but with the native’s easy comfort in a known environment. They have the knack, which I think Paul never learned, of focusing totally on the one thing and participating in it, to the exclusion of all of the other intrusive phenomena, perhaps because they knew from birth how to keep the periphery at once at bay and within quick recall. Paul’s, for all the years he lived there, remains an outsider’s experience, the 11-year-old thrust into the world of the streets that he had to make sense of pretty fast, but who also never lost his sense of the wonder of it, the exhilaration of overload. He’s constantly positioning himself, reducing complex textures to discrete, comprehensible detail, then rebuilding complexity by combining the different lines of movement occurring simultaneously. A vertically-structured moment, a great chord. But also the newcomer’s need to triangulate, to situate, to check the exits, because the environment threatens to swallow one up, there’s no obvious organization, the tracing of the vectors the only information available.
In most of these poems there’s little sense of the people on the streets as independent beings. Everyone is seen, of course, from the outside, as we do see them, but what Paul selects to show excludes any guess at an inner life beyond the mechanical gestures of mating. Building, tree, pigeon, cat, woman, insect, are given the same value. A way of looking that I think was in the air — this is also Camus’ time — but that no one, I think, in North America was doing as well. This is certainly illuminating, and it was an antidote to the mawkish confessionalism that dominated and still does our poetry. But it has its obvious limitations. We gather our individual worlds from the raw data of the senses, but our internal landscapes, which we people with what and who we’ve seen on the street, are equally a part of the world, and it’s where our guesses about the other worlds housed in those exteriors live. We navigate an external world in which others act independently upon us by means of those guesses, which means that the world and our actions within it are both compromised and more complex even than Paul’s grand chords.
These are the poems of a young poet. Paul was forty when The Cities was published, and some of the poems were already over ten years old. In our culture we tend to mature late, as people and as poets. The Yale Younger Poets series tacitly recognizes this by extending its definition of youth to age 40. For many of us maturation seems to proceed according to what evolutionary theorists call ‘punctuated equilibrium’ — a fancy way of saying that there’s usually a crisis involved. To borrow from a couple of other sciences, major change seems to require an utter collapse of defenses, which means that the internal preconceptions and strategies that we’ve developed no longer serve as guides or protection. One is alone — even the reflected face in the mirror no longer appears familiar. One has entered a liminal state with no sense that there’s another stage to be reached or how to reach it. The ordeal lasts as long as it lasts, and one emerges in a different place than one entered.