About Me

About Me
I am a writer, editor and translator living in West Yorkshire. I have a degree and masters in Literature and Philosophy from London Universities. I obtained a PGCE in English and History and taught for two years in a secondary school in England. My writing credits can be viewed here. I have had two poetry books published and am a co-translator of Alain-Fournier:Poems (Carcanet, 2016). I work as an editor and associate publisher at The High Window Press.

(See:thehighwindowpress.com)

13.9.18



Frank O’ Hara & the Desecration of a Classic Poem

By Anthony Costello


Is there such a thing as a finished poem? In the digital age, is the erstwhile finished poem up for grabs? Until about 30 years ago and the emergence of the internet, a published book was, with some exceptions, indelibly fixed in print, bound in covers where it sat unchanged (and unchallenged) for centuries. But now many books are free to read online from sources such as The Gutenberg Press, The British Library, The American Poetry Foundation. The once hallowed words of classic texts can be easily cut and pasted, adulterated, referenced casually by anyone, used for so-called ‘found’ literature. These poems, once they reach a google doc system, can be re-worked, re-envisioned, edited. Text is not sacred anymore.

Writers, especially poets, have a habit of making changes to long-established work. Self-revision. When poets are selecting poems for a Selected or a Collected they edit, sometimes quite dramatically, sometimes for the good and sometimes for the bad, poems that had not only been deemed finished, but poems that had a fixed readership. Should a poet have the right to do this once a work has been published? They do, often against the advice of an editor and publisher, sometimes risking the chagrin of once satisfied readers. Elizabeth Bishop and Derek Mahon, Robert Graves and Rita Dove are just a few of the many poets who have made (and make) changes to their earlier work. Poetry is, seen in this light, a work in progress, something that can be continually revised. One thinks of W.B. Yeats’ late revisions of his earlier work, Robert Lowell’s radical re-working of the poems published in Notebook 1967-68, or Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass published in 1855 but constantly added to and self-revised right up to his death.

If, as Helen Vendler suggests, changing one word in the edit of a poem is a ‘complex act’ then we can understand the ramifications of wider revision. Writers edit their own work and editors edit writers’ work (again sometimes for the good or bad). Often there is a tacit agreement between writer and editor about the ‘finished’ work to be published, but what of the injudicious heavy-handed editor that does not serve the writer (or literature) well. Gordon Lish dramatically reduced Raymond Carver’s early stories to a point that could be called minimalist. There are many writers and critics who prefer the Lish-free Carver, the original ‘longer’ short prose. And what of John Taylor, the publisher of John Clare, who edits (erases) the essential natural dialect and rustic phonetic spelling of the Helpstone poet to suit a London-centric cosmopolitan readership. At least these writers were alive when changes were made to their work, they had a chance to protest. And then there is Shakespeare, seven years deceased when the First Folio of his plays were published in 1623. A Folio published from the extant quartos to achieve what scholar-editors thought was the definitive edition of his work. A precedent set.

Art and Literature is protected by copyright laws, but these are often flouted and when the copyright expires art and literature is up for grabs. In a dystopian horror worthy of H.G. Wells or J.G. Ballard, there could be a future where classic texts are re-written by readers. Teachers of literature often encourage students to copy out passages of great writing so they experience at first hand the physical embodiment of the writer’s craft, perhaps an identification with the thought process of the writer. In the virtual world the reader becomes a powerful critic, making changes to the poems they read, at will, taking away, revising. In the digital age everyone is potentially an editor.. If everyone is an editor, then everyone is a critic, everyone has judgement, taste. In the hypertextual world text is mobile, language is for everyone, an egalitarian ownership of the written word. It was in this dystopian spirit that I edited Frank O’Hara’s ‘The Day Lady Died’, a [sacrilegious] re-working of a dead poet’s work, the desecration of a classic poem.

I love O’Hara’s filmic poem, the pitch-perfect narrative (a voiceover), its roll-call of directions and images, it’s immediacy, its day-freshness, the movement of mind and body in real historical time, the casual references to art and artists and his personal friends, the restraint, the honesty, the emotional choke at the end of the last line, which leads us back to the title. However, on re-reading the poem again after twenty years I became fascinated by the indented line that starts the third stanza. Why this staggered enjambement? How fat this third stanza is compared with the others. The preceding and following stanzas are alternate six and four line stanzas and that is no accident. Despite the despotic looseness of the language, the structure is tight, regular, except for the third stanza?

I split the nine line third stanza into two quatrains with a natural break after ‘Verlaine’ at the end of each stanza and deleted the line

‘after practically going to sleep with quandariness’

before the next sestet; now, there were six stanzas instead of the original five, 28 lines instead of 29, and one deleted line. These are the changes I had in mind. Anything gained? What is lost in this experiment? I egotistically thought there might be a small gain and nothing lost. But I was wrong. I feel the edited poem is just adequate as a mixture of sestets and quatrains, but the indented line ‘I go on to the bank’ looks lost in a quatrain, the three lines underneath not weighty enough to sustain it. The structure of the edited version is solid enough, but the shape isn’t. In the deleted line the word that was reminding me of its pivotal importance was ‘quandariness’ which has something of Louis MacNiece’s ‘variousness’ and sums up the dizzying world of O’Hara’s New York in one day, until he his stopped in his tracks by a picture on the cover of the New York Post.

I also noticed the numeral balance to O’Hara’s original poem compared to the edited version. The original is on the left below:

6  6


4  4


9  4


6  4


4  6


4

I came to realise the nine line stanza is the heart and body of the poem, perfectly placed, 9 lines of 29, two equal-lined stanzas either side of it, a centrifugal weight for the thoughts and movement and feelings spinning off it. In trying to change the third stanza I saw it was the most important, central to the build up, central to the pay off. The indented line serves as a pre-echo of the dramatic pause at the end of the poem /…’and I stopped breathing’. The poem is also an historical document as well as priceless poetry. To edit this poem would be to alter history. In this sense, the poem is unrevisable. We can’t go back to the future with it. This sacred text is protected by its own creative mechanism. Frank O’ Hara, had he lived to an old age, wouldn’t have wanted to change it?