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A Crooked Steeple

Dale Smith reviews

Hymns of St. Bridget & Other Writings,
by Bill Berkson and Frank O’Hara

The Owl Press, 2001, $14

Internet: http://www.theowlpress.com/
Email: asisowl@mindspring.com
Books can also be ordered from Small Press Distribution, 1341 Seventh Street, Berkeley, CA 94710 USA, Tel 800-869-7553, or http://www.spdbooks.org/

This piece is 2,000 words or about five printed pages long

I

Of five St. Bridgets acknowledged by the Catholic Church, two are famous for their generosity, piety and devotion. They are separated in time by nearly 1000 years. St. Patrick of Ireland befriended one of the Bridgets, born to an Irish chieftain and his slave-bride around 450 AD. The other St. Bridget was the 14th century daughter of the Prince of Sweden and a descendent of Gothic kings. At fourteen she married Ulfo, Prince of Nericia, bearing eight children, one also destined to sainthood.
      Prior to them both was Brigit, a Celtic fire goddess. Or, according to Robert Graves, she was a ‘Three-fold Muse,’ a goddess of poetry, identified in medieval Ireland with Mary. In Gaelic Scotland her symbol was the White Swan. In the Hebrides she was patroness of childbirth while in the Mediterranean she was associated with the moon ‘to whom votive ships were offered, and whose name was derived by the Greeks from the word brizein, ‘to enchant.’’

II

By now Frank O’Hara’s is a well-known story, recorded in poetry, paintings, biographies and critical studies. There are web sites devoted to him. He inspired and inspires still generations of poets. He is revered as a kind of father of the American urban tradition in poetry.
      The cult of Frank O’Hara is widespread, his name almost ubiquitous with some. A tragic death on Fire Island when he was barely 40 years old, his legendary charm, generosity and charisma, the seemingly effortless cocktail hour production of his own work and his curatorial role among abstract expressionist painters make him today a figure larger than life. Like James Dean or Elvis Presley, he is deified and given new life in the cult of Adonis.
      With a projection of language onto experience of similar intensity as Jack Kerouac’s, O’Hara was an active participant in his own poetry. Both writers abandoned the Anglican concerns of Eliot, Yeats and Auden for continental eruptions of the psyche. Apollinaire, Reverdy, Mayakovsky and Pasternak formed O’Hara’s poetic affinities. His robust and spontaneous pursuit of poetry and an inspired relish of the occasion of creation show him as a man of great expansive range. If he pushed himself hard with drink, work and over-extensions of friendships, he was repaid with a vitality and intuition of the urbane rhythms of art in the victorious New World nation. He is one of that period’s most representative poets because he is one of its least self-conscious. This made him a capable witness and a vigorous participant in the cultural production of his chosen city, a city that was becoming more than a city. It was the new global engine of Empire.  
      At ease in multiple roles — artist, curator, homosexual — O’Hara assumed with finesse a prominent occupation among New York City’s avant-garde in the 1950s and ’60s. His personality and its ironic deflation in many of his poems extended the creative face of the hero-artist of New York in this period. If Kerouac went on the road, absorbing experience for a later creative projection, O’Hara embodied a slightly different role of artist, one that was located centrally in New York. He was not a seeker, like Kerouac, or a howler like Allen Ginsberg, but he delighted in what he found in his urban experience and was fierce enough to engage it fully. The hustle of the New York art world demanded his attentions and he became a prominent fixture among artists like de Koonig and Pollock who helped define the period. Art for him was an extension of everything going on all the time around him. Poetry issued from the loosening of his attentions and the opening of a playful, engaging wit, charm and pleasure in naming. Invocation led toward an ultimate disclosure of absurdity for him, humorous by relation to the depth of feeling behind it all.

III

Bill Berkson, a young, confident, Brown University dropout, arrived in New York in 1959 to study poetry at The New School of Social Research with Kenneth Koch. His teacher introduced him to O’Hara who would have ‘a sublime impact’ on the younger poet. Speaking in a 1999 interview, Berkson had this to say about Frank O’Hara:  
      ‘Partly it was that Frank took me seriously. Frank was never one to act superior to the younger poets who were coming along. It was sort of like, welcome to the club, and then sort of assuming that those people were there with him. So for instance, we collaborated. He made that happen in such a way that it just seemed like a rather normal extension of our conversations. Not that it wasn’t awe-inspiring, because he was so quick. He could write 50 lines to my one. I think that there was something that happened to his poetry that had to do with me. I was crazy equally about his poetry and John Ashbery’s, the poems that Ashbery eventually published in The Tennis Court Oath. And I think Frank at a certain point maybe saw those poems through my reading of them, or maybe through the way they were affecting my poems. So he began to write some poems that had words and phrases scattered around the page in this way that some of the poems in my book Saturday Night had. But it was more like he went to my source through me and then turned it so that it could be in his language. So that was very interesting to watch....
      ‘It’s difficult in retrospect to really bring into sharp focus what it was for me or what it could have been for Frank. After all, I was way ahead of myself. In a way, I should have still been in college in 1961, and there I was collaborating with Frank O’Hara and banging around going to bars and art galleries and who knows what else. So I was 21, 22 years old, and he was a 35-year-old fully achieved character and poet. So to bring that space between the two of us into a clear focus — I don’t actually know what it all was. I know that it was thrilling. We loved each other in an interesting way — it was certainly a mysterious way for all of our friends. I know it had to do partly with my exercising a certain laisez-faire with myself, saying, well this is just the way I feel about doing this, so I’m going to do this, and who cares what it means to anybody. I was also sort of — and I think I still am — interested in dispelling, attacking anybody’s idea of a hard, fast consistency of character which you have to abide by, so that then you can be categorized as gay, straight, something, something. I absorbed a lot of Frank O’Hara into my act at that time, things that I can’t do now. Sometimes I wish I could — to read a poem of Frank’s in Frank’s voice, I can’t find that now the way I could then. Or even read a poem of mine in Frank’s voice. I used to love to tear into people the way he did. So that sort of just phased out. But it was great. It was thrilling. It was an education.’

VI

Bill Berkson’s and Frank O’Hara’s Hymns of St. Bridget was inspired by a crooked steeple of St. Bridget’s Roman Catholic church in New York City. It was located across the street from O’Hara’s apartment on East 49th near Avenue A. ‘This flaw,’ Berkson writes, ‘struck both of us as hilarious. Later that day I went home and wrote ‘Hymn to St. Bridget’s Steeple,’ the first of the ‘St. Bridget’ series, in rather clunky imitation of what Frank later called his ‘I do this I do that poems.’’
      These poems to a crooked New York steeple that embodies a name of some continuity and depth reflect an unconscious, buoyant freedom of association and word exhilaration with maximum image impact. Forget memory; think energy. Like urban experience these poems are to be lived in, read and enjoyed, not remembered or studied. They are to be committed to the heart’s strange accordion sack of word romance instead.
      Frank O’Hara is a mythic poet because so much of his work is unconscious. Speed of thought, wit and enthused devotion to the playful moment of language-in-creation make him one of the most gifted and representative poets of his post-war generation, a generation in possession of big cars, skyscrapers, bebop, abstract expressionism, television and more. Americans in the ’50s briefly lived with a wild freedom unknown to them prior. It would peak in the ’60s, when a people ‘crazed with permission,’ as Edward Dorn saw them, were forced into consciousness by assassinations, war and the political consolidations of 1968. But here in Hymns of St. Bridget, lines and stanzas of poems are stacked like frames of a hand-held super-8. The City flashes with wit, absurdities and personal and literary references.

where will we all be
on New Year’s Day St. Bridget knows
but she hasn’t sent out invitations yet
and yet and yet, as the Japanes [sic] are always
(those heathens) saying, and yet we
know, we really know, don’t we, where we’ll be
we’ll be at Clavins or Glennons or
McGiverns or McGovernsor McGillivrays
Dead drunk for St. Bridget and for doom (19).


These poems are marked with speed and compulsive image pile-ups, moving with energy and wit of urban personality. It is the erosion and transmutation of personality in these poems that stand out with significance. The young man and the mature poet volley with the sensory data of their shared desires, collective experiences, ironic hostilities or cloaked tenderness. After all, St. Bridget is no easy broad, but a goddess of mystery and highest demands.

ah yes the two natures of my personality
even as a saint, cher maître, you understand, don’t
one has two eyes, don’t one, and is not self-sufficient
and if one eye should stray slightly in emphasis
it is thrilling should stray back is even more so
I am the cushion of your soul your ambition your beauty
and I am glad and that is my hymnal next to the Bowery
that is my bower next to your beautiful Self that’s IT (27).


‘St. Bridget’s Hymn to Philip Guston,’ presents clusters or constellations of the randomness and psychic thefts of urban data. But imbedded in the nonsensical, playful delight of their sensual word rhythms are crystallized moments of clarity and vision such as

Wednesday has never been good to me

and then the sunlight fell across the
yaws in strange dusty patterns and
strong red wisps of weed flooded the
crisping sound waters as they ruffled
that daybreak was sentenced by a sound
of a plane that booming thru the air
wrested the whole island from its rest (34).


St. Bridget, whether finding voice in her urban poets or receiving their address, reunites with an earlier manifestation in Celtic and Christian lore. Her archaic European past is renewed in American experience and coalesces in these absurd, ridiculous, playful hymn collaborations. What translates is an energy and swift delight in the living condition of human experience in time. Myth for it to function is not a gathering of discrete, out-of-date tales that back some supposed moral. It’s an active expression, a quick sense of who we are based on the absorbed experiences of what we do. In this Frank O’Hara was an extraordinary poet of urban life, rich in its panoramic revelation to him. Hymns of St. Bridget comes as a brief condensation of energies, dropping lines to let us know an active present is eternal, and that it does return despite Heaven’s rotating panoply.  


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