In ‘Also a Poet’, a search for Frank O’Hara and Peace With Dad

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You could forgive Schjeldahl a bit of hubris if he didn’t seem so willfully oblivious to intellectual commonalities with his daughter, even those he helped forge. “I didn’t know you were a fan of Frank O’Hara,” he remarks when Ada announces his intentions, though years ago he gave her a copy of “Lunch Poems.” “To me, it felt a bit like not knowing your child was vegan or theosophist or allergic to bees,” Calhoun writes.

He didn’t recognize and even outright trashed the books she gave him as gifts, asked her to cook for a group of Harvard acolytes (one of whom moved into his room) and possibly most gallantly grown a surrogate son and protege, given the pseudonym Spencer. here. When Ada studied Sanskrit, Schjeldahl was so disgusted at the thought of her being an academic that he slammed a kitchen cupboard (though he’s otherwise been known to leave cupboards open). When Spencer took up Sanskrit, Schjeldahl bragged about him “extending his scholarship in all directions!”

The hissing through Calhoun’s teeth in the face of his dad’s fumbling are terrific, as are the tapes: snippets of poetry in themselves. “At that time it seemed to be snowing more,” recalls Barbara Guest, another poet from the so-called New York School, dreamily recalling walks down Sixth Avenue with O’Hara. “We came home in the snow and laughed and laughed and laughed.” Gorey, also in the gang, admires O’Hara’s ease, how he would “sit down and tweedle, tweedle, tweedle, write another three-page poem, then go to the movies.”

Lucas Matthiessen, as Calhoun a bruised child of the stage – the son of writers Patsy Southgate and Peter Matthiessen – remembers having tomato and pear fights with O’Hara, and Allen Ginsberg’s partner has masturbated on a patio during O’Hara’s decadent funeral reception: “Total madness.” A drunk-sounding de Kooning struggles to stay on topic as birds slam deadly against his studio windows. And Granville-Smith responds to Calhoun’s overtures. We hear his radiant ambivalence – “distress, distress!” – throughout a long conversation, available here thanks to a tour de force of shorthand transcription by Calhoun.

“Biography is not a good idea,” Granville-Smith wrote in a letter. To which Calhoun mischievously wonders “who would break the news to Ron Chernow”.

“Also a Poet” is presented as a love triangle: father, daughter and O’Hara. It is in fact a tetrahedron from which arise all kinds of creative characters. It’s a great valentine to New York City’s past and present, and a contribution to soul-melting literary scholarship.


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