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Joe LeSueur’s take on Frank O’Hara

Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara
By Joe LeSueur. Farrar Straus Giroux, 305 pages, $25.

Allen Ginsberg closed his elegy to his friend Frank O’Hara, ÒCity Midnight Junk Strains,Ó by saluting ÒO’Hara’s Òear/for our deep gossip.Ó ÒDeep gossipÓ is the right phrase to describe one of the attractive qualities of O’Hara’s poetry. His poems hold your attention the way gossip — meaty, juicy vitamin G — does. Deep gossip is what Joe LeSueur, O’Hara’s friend, roommate, and sometime sex partner, gives us in this memoir. It is an irresistible book that old and new readers of O’Hara will have to stop themselves from reading in one gulp.

O’Hara’s world — the downtown New York art world between 1952 and his death in 1966 that accommodated painters, poets, musicians, dancers, and novelists — is here. And so is his gay world as viewed by an insider. This is why LeSueur’s book gives pleasure, and it’s the source of Digressions’ value. O’Hara concentrated on the facts of his life knowing, both intuitively and as a spiritual grandson of William Carlos Williams, that the personal and the particular are universal. He wrote in an offhand way that had no time for big ideas or for bringing his poems to a precious finish. To know more about his world — his friendships, his apartments, his love affairs, his job at the Museum of Modern Art, his drinking and writing habits — is to know more about his poems. To some extent this is true of all poets, but in O’Hara’s case it is more true. Unlike his beloved Rilke and Pasternak, O’Hara did not pitch his poems above the life he led. Transcendence and the future would take care of themselves — he had to be at a gallery opening or the new Balanchine ballet, see a movie or have a drink with a great new friend.

In a short preface, LeSueur says that his book Òwrote itself.Ó It’s easy to believe that once he hit upon paging through O’Hara’s poems and taking off — digressing — from those around which memories clustered, he had his method. But it was not so easy for him to trust what he wrote. (I know this first-hand, having been in correspondence with him during the years in which he finished this book.) This is why he ends his preface by making Òno claimÓ for the value of his digressions.

Value? This book is not literary criticism. It will be mined by those who will write about O’Hara’s work, but LeSueur modestly and persistently reminds his readers that he is in no way a critic. The value of his book is that he fills out background and foreground. He permits himself tangents on, say, the painter Joan Mitchell’s character, and on what happened when O’Hara read ÒThe Day Lady DiedÓ to his friends Mike and Patsy hours after he had written the poem — tangents that foster intimacy with O’Hara’s poems. This is not close reading, but parallel reading, if there is such a thing, that illuminates the poem through attention to the life while — this is the bonus — giving a clearer understanding of why O’Hara fascinated so many of his contemporaries. Digressions is Joe LeSueur’s intimate, partial (in both senses) account of life with O’Hara, which is as it should be. This means, for example, that O’Hara’s sex life is seen as only someone with LeSueur’s complicated relationship to the man could see it. Too personal for a claim to be made about the book’s value? Not at all.

What you will not get in Digressions is anything like a full account of O’Hara’s life and work. LeSueur has little or nothing to say about great poems like ÒMusic,Ó ÒJoe’s JacketÓ (O’Hara and LeSueur were the same size and often wore each other’s clothes), and ÒIn Memory of My Feelings,Ó or about O’Hara’s work before they met. That this book is so modest and open gives it credibility. O’Hara wrote that he tried to keep Òlies and evasionsÓ out of his poetry. LeSueur seems to have followed the same principle. I never felt that he was laying it on a bit thick or remembering more detail that anyone could possibly recall. All who care for O’Hara’s poetry and/or for what the composer Morton Feldman called O’Hara’s Òall-pervasive presence that seems to grow larger and larger as he moves away in timeÓ will be delighted and instructed by this book. Dead at 40 in a dune-buggy accident on Fire Island, O’Hara left a big what-might-have-been. It is sad that Joe LeSueur died in 2001 and cannot now enjoy the publication and the reception of his digressions.

Issue Date: July 11 - 17, 2003
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