“That Various Field for James Schuyler” is a pamphlet from The Figures; it contains the rare published Frank O’Hara letter, to Schuyler, dated 11 February 1956. Here are some samples, culled from between bits of gossip:
“I have been having a terribly spiritual morning bathing in Poulenc songs, 2 piano concertos and Les Secheresses which I found here. (It is greater than Tristan, so there!)”
“Lyon has a recording of the Goyescas of Granados which is enough to make the whole six months worth while. The only one of them I knew before is ‘The Maiden and the Nightingale.’ They are as beautiful as a black lace scarf lying beside a gleaming white toilet bowl. Or, as Rimbaud says in ‘Memoire,’
“George and I went to see Helen of Troy last night and liked it lots.”
“George loaned me his Art News...”
“The current production of the theatre up here is a verse drama by Hugh Armory called The Bandeirantes (bahn der ahn cheese)...”
“I’ve been reading Tennessee’s stories...”
Steve rightly points out that our own irreproducible historical moment has its portion of brilliant poets, kind poets, generous poets, and I would be churlish to disagree; with the disclaimer of course that New York City makes one churlish or at best is such a distorting lens with which to view the world that perhaps I am in no position to comment on “the world” at all.
Steve understands my nostalgia for the world Schuyler inhabited, but he doesn’t think it entirely lost; I would point out some of the things that are lost: O’Hara’s references, and his social circle, aren’t entirely literary, whereas ours are. Yes, we all go to the movies and listen to new music and immerse ourselves in culture, but 1) it’s popular culture for the most part and 2) we don’t mingle with the producers of those arts. It has to do with economics, I’m sure. Producers of popular arts are less artists than rich people; conversely, ballet seats aren’t as cheap as they used to be.
But why go to the ballet? In my case, I went this year to see some Balanchine ballets on his centenary. But it doesn’t carry the same frisson as it did back in 1956. Not only are ticket prices astronomical, but there’s no contemporary Balanchine ANYWAY. (And there’s no Denby. Is there an O'Hara....) All this to say, not only has literary culture been pushed to the margins, but all high art has, and pushed into our individual cells struggling to pay rent and get grants has made us all a little less hedonistic, a little less socially curious, and a little less great.
Actually, I do think there’s a lot of high quality poetry being written (I’ll hold my tongue on qualifications). But
1) I miss the aura of high art and the sense that music and theatre could influence one’s poetry and one’s friends.
2) I’m sad that political discourse serves as the kind of passport to alliances and friendships that aestheticism used to.
3) If I read another defense of mass culture entertainment as equivalent to art, I am going to go mad.
By the way, those Balanchine ballets I saw—Jewels, Agon, Apollo, and Orpheus—were, to use a dilapidated word, transcendent. And don’t tell me the postwar years didn’t have their share of political urgency. The political simply didn’t take up the same amount of psychic space in their artists.
Well, Steve’s valentine to San Francisco makes me wonder if Maggie agrees with him about social/artistic life there; even if it is as expensive as NYC, does the sum total of natural beauty tip the balance? Are people happier? and as a result, are their relations with one another freer?