It's been a great week for the kind of sustenance I get only from the creative work of others.
Last Wednesday evening poet and friend John Ashbery came to my hometown, South Orange, to give a reading at Seton Hall University. When I was a kid, it was a college with only a handful of buildings on a small campus. And one of those was a boys' prep school. The latter moved to another town, and the college became a university, and many more buildings were constructed, so that now it's a crowded little campus.
John read in a lecture auditorium in the science building. Somehow seemed appropriate. I hadn't seen him in a while, but he was as warm and gracious and funny as he always is with me, and was the same with the audience when he read. He was also, as he always is, straight forward, answering a question at the end about how he composes a poem as clearly and simply as I've ever heard any poet or other kind of artist do. Most don't want to give away their secrets or are superstitious about letting people in on their process, or can't articulate it, but John referred directly to some of the approaches he uses, including waking up in the morning with a phrase or line already in his head, or hearing something on the radio or TV and finding it, even if familiar, somehow newly distinctive, and so incorporating it into the poem he's writing or planning to.
He called his method of putting these kind of found phrases and inspired ones together "managed chance" (a phrase I found accurate and original, though he may have said he got it from John Cage).
He read from his last book, A WORLDLY COUNTRY, and from an upcoming book (the title of which eludes me at the moment, wait I think it's PLANISPHERE), poems that were at once mundane yet profound, accessible yet mysterious and illusive, hilarious yet deeply serious, or at least evocative of the kinds of serious thoughts that age and experience, with all its loss and disappointment as well as wonder and appreciation, can bring. But all in that uniquely John Ashbery voice and style.
Anyway, I can't do the reading or his poems justice, but it was a delight to experience them in the town where I grew up.
Then on Sunday, late afternoon, at the Bowery Poetry Club there was a reading to celebrate the publication of Michael O'Keefe's book of poems, SWIMMING FROM BENEATH MY FATHER, at which Michael had asked some friends to read a few poems from the book, as well as reading some himself.
The first friend to read was Mary Louise Parker, who I can report is even more beautiful in person. I got to sit beside her on stage and felt blessed to be illuminated by her radiance. I know that sounds over the top, but that's how I felt. She had to split after she read, but she was followed by Saul Rubinek (I remember him mostly for his terrific performance in Eastwood's UNFORGIVEN as the reporter) who read a poem ("His Thumb Hooked Me") with dialogue, including a "Romanian" accent, and turned it into a mini-play so alive and perfectly rendered it left you feeling fortunate to have experienced it. Portia, a terrific New York actress whose stage work I've seen and am totally impressed by (as was The New York Times), gave the few poems she read a unique voice, and then I read a poem about "love" that was a lot more.
Michael ended by reading several poems in the book about his difficult but rich relationship with his father and moved the audience to shouts and applause. Another great poetry experience at the Bowery Poetry Club, which included seeing some old friends and making some new ones.
Then today, meeting my old L.A. friend (though originally a New Yorker and still is despite her address) poet artist and screenwriter Eve Brandstein at the Met, catching up in one of the cafes in that vast institution, and then checking out the Robert Frank exhibit, including many original prints of the photos from THE AMERICANS that made his reputation (and plagued him for years with its success, much as his friend Jack Kerouac, who wrote the preface for that book, felt about the success of ON THE ROAD).
Unlike paintings, which sometimes don't live up to the images I fell in love with when first encountering them in art books or art magazines, photographs almost always look even better in person, which was true in this case as well. Stunning. And the memories they evoke, of a different time and ways of being in the world. A great great show, well worth it if you can catch it.
And before we saw the Robert Frank photos, we checked out the Vermeer on loan to the Met of "The Milkmaid"—a surprisingly small painting so delicately and precisely crafted it was like a match to Frank's photographs of a moment in time captured so perfectly you feel like you're there. And in this case much more impressive in person than any reprint or photo, especially getting close enough to see the way the paint was applied to create the effect Vermeer obviously was striving for (that light!) and accomplished.
That was more than enough, as has been this whole week, an antidote to the loss of my niece and so many others this past year or so. Poetry and art, they continue to not just bring me pleasure and satisfaction, on every level, and so much more, but ultimately, they continue to save my life.