Saturday, July 05, 2003

The first time I saw “Biotherm,” my impulse was to squint. As published in A Controversy of Poets, the 1965 anthology edited by Paris Leary & Robert Kelly that attempted to put School of Quietude poets (selected by Leary) alongside New Americans (chosen by Kelly) side by side, Frank O’Hara’s “long” poem for Bill Berkson appears in 6 point type. Six points is really what graphic designers call “mouse type,” a font size used for material in an ad you are compelled to print (usually for regulatory reasons) but which you really don’t want anyone to read. The width of O’Hara’s page when slotted into the volume’s mass market paperback format is no doubt what forced the issue – Olson’s ”Letter to Melville 1951,” which immediatly follows O’Hara, manages to function perfectly well at 8½ points, the standard “body text” font for the volume, requiring only a few hanging indents.


The result is that on the first page of O’Hara’s poem, the title itself – “Biotherm (for Bill Berkson)” – looks huge in its standard 9 point font, O’Hara’s name, at 9½ points, looks like a billboard. Contrasted with these, the body of O’Hara’s text produces a sort of vertigo, as though one were looking down from a great height. As I’ve noted before, I didn’t really connect with Frank O’Hara’s work until I saw him in Richard Moore’s brilliant USA Poetry PBS documentary in 1966, in which O’Hara is something akin to the Tasmanian Devil cartoon character, writing, drinking, smoking, talking to the camera, to friends in the room & to someone on the phone simultaneously with an ease & grace that was jaw-dropping, the typewriter keys clattering on at an almost alarming rate. I bought the Kelly/Leary anthology at Cody’s as a result of seeing Louis Zukofsky in the same series – it was the only volume in Cody’s that had any work by Zukofsky at all. But I don’t remember if that was before or after the O’Hara show. I already had seen O’Hara’s work in the Allen anthology, but it didn’t click with me there – I suspect that it must have looked too “easy” or casual & I was a very serious teenager indeed. So “Biotherm,” even in that itty-bitty type (or just possibly because it required that itty-bitty type), was really the work through which I began to first take O’Hara as a poet seriously.


All of which is just to note that there is a terrific essay on the poem in Sal Mimeo #3 by none other than Bill Berkson himself. Part memoir, part close reading, part meditation on the aspects of genre, with an exceptional seven-page glossary of references to the topical & situational references in O’Hara’s poem (itself only twelve pages in original manuscript), Berkson’s piece originally was composed  “for a booklet accompanying the deluxe Arion Press edition of ‘Biotherm’,” published in 1990. With 42 lithographs by Jim Dine, that volume is still available new at a mere $2,750. (A second suite of eight Dine lithographs selected from the illustrations to Biotherm goes for ten grand.)


Larry Fagin’s Sal Mimeo – which looks photocopied to me, in spite of its title – presents Berkson’s material in a more workmanlike setting. It’s one of several “historic” pieces in the current issue. Others include a 1988 interview with the late John Wieners, poems by Richard Kolmar from the 1960s & others by Alan Fuchs from his 1971 chapbook, Before Starting. Part of what makes Sal Mimeo so much fun is that it balances not only the historical with the new, but also the widely known with the still emerging. Some of the poets certainly are the New York School folks with whom Fagin traditionally has been associated: Berkson, Ron Padgett, Tony Towle, Bernadette Mayer. But, as with Carla Harryman’s work discussed here on Tuesday, Fagin goes further afield than one might expect. There are collaborations by Lyn Hejinian & Jack Collom, a marvelous suite of poems by Michael McClure, work from Bolinas poet Larry Kearney. There are also poets whose work I frankly don’t know, such as Richard Roundy, Daniel Nohejl, Chris Edgar, Eileen Hennessey and more. It’s definitely worth a read or, better yet, a subscription. Fagin can be reached at 437 E. 12th St., # 18, NYC 10009.