Early Summer: Reading John Ashbery while walking on Hampstead Heath

Out on Hampstead Heath earlier this morning, the first time this week; bright, strong sunshine – a tad too strong for my personal taste, too warm – and clear skies. When I first enter the Heath from Millfield Lane – a good vantage point close by the men’s swimming pond – I can see less than a dozen people, all walking, mostly with dogs, save for one man sitting on the wooden parapet overlooking the pond itself.

At the next pond over – historically called the Boating Pond – my dad and I once proudly sailed our yacht there, only for it to be marooned close to the centre, waiting for a wind – I sit a while and watch the occasional ripples caused by fish rising close to the otherwise calm surface. Some walkers, making a circuit of the pond, nod their head or mumble a greeting, others stride on in steady concentration.

When I move on, it is up a well-trodden incline, thankfully none too steep, that takes me onto the meadow opposite, rich with buttercups. A hundred yards or so and the land has levelled out and I’m within sight of the tumulus, pleased then to find that one of the benches that surround it is free. The view south-east is towards the Olympic Park and beyond; due south and hidden by the trees, the centre of the city will be silhouetted against the sky. After some moments I take from my pocket a new book, purchased just yesterday: Something Close to Music – a selection of John Ashbery’s writing about artists such as Joan Mitchell and Jane Freilicher, together with some of his own poems and several playlists the editor has made from the two thousand records, CDs and cassette tapes that were in Ashbery’s collection.

The music is mostly what would have been classified, I think, as Contemporary Classical – John Cage, Elliott Carter, Morton Feldman, Arvo Part, John Adams – maybe it still is – with a few outriders thrown in – Bernard Herman’s soundtrack for Hitchcock’s Vertigo; Brian Eno’s Music for Airports; John Zorn; Bill Frisell and Evan Parker playing Gavin Bryars. The writing about artists’ work is detailed and generous – a good number, such as Freilicher, were close friends and an integral part of the New York Poetry & Painting scene held together (loosely, but held nevertheless) by Frank O’Hara.

The book, as a whole, is a small delight; one of a growing number of well-designed, easily pocketable collections of writing about visual art published by David Zwirner Books, and available, as far as I can see, wherever good books are sold. I bought mine at the London Review Bookshop, though had I been in Nottingham I would have bought it, doubtless at Five Leaves Bookshop.

Sometime in the next few days, I’ll post a listing of the music I was listening via my MP3 player during the final third of my walk …

Frank’s Friends

Celebrations of Frank O’Hara’s life and work, both, of course, closely entwined, continue apace. Last Saturday’s colloquium at the ICA – Frank O’Hara and Friends – broadened out those celebrations to include references to the work of some of the other poets and painters of the New York School with whom O’Hara was closely associated. One such, the artist (and sometime jazz musician) Larry Rivers, contributed the collage, based on his own nude portrait of O’Hara, used on the cover of the 1974 Vintage edition of O’Hara’s Selected Poems, edited by Donald Allen, and shown below. And today, it  should be noted, marks the 89th birthday of one of the foremost of the New York poets, John Ashbery.

O'Hara 1

The ICA event was, as those occasions tend to be, a mixture of the interesting and entertaining with the academically obscure and self-serving, the first keynote speaker, Geoff Ward, Principal of Homerton College, Cambridge, being all of the former and none of the latter.  Jess Cotton, a PhD student from UCL, talked interestingly about the relationship and cross-influences linking O’Hara and fellow poet James Schuyler, and Eleanor Careless (great name!), studying for a PhD at Sussex, spoke of the connections between O’Hara and the painter Helen Frankenthaler and his poem/her painting Blue Territory in the context of “gendered risk”.

Last night’s event at Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham, organised by Leah Wilkins, was an altogether less grandiose affair and none the less enjoyable for that. Some fifty people crowded into the store, taking up all the available chairs and filling all the nooks and crannies between bookstands, to listen to largely unexplicated readings of O’Hara’s poems by, amongst others,  the poet and lecturer, Matthew Welton; the newly in place director of Nottingham Contemporary, Sam Thorne; gay literature historian, Gregory Woods; and founder of Mud Press, Georgina Wilding. As I said when someone commented kindly on my reading of The Day Lady Died, that poem is so close to perfect that being given the opportunity to read it aloud feels almost like stealing.

O'Hara 2

 

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