Critical Attachment to Geniuses: Ada Calhoun’s Also A Poet

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What initially drew me to Ada Calhoun’s memoir were the uncanny parallels between her life and mine. She loves poet Frank O’Hara; I, too, adore Frank O’Hara. She grew up in an apartment on St. Marks Place in New York City; I once lived in an apartment on St. Marks Place. She had an immensely talented but self-absorbed father who preferred his art-world friends to his family; I have a presumably loving but flawed father who never remembered any of my friends’ names and on occasion forgot to drop me off at school. Calhoun and I could have been friends, I thought. We could have hung out at CBGB or grabbed lunch at Odessa together.

But we couldn’t have. We are worlds apart, not only in age but also in terms of our backgrounds. Calhoun’s father is the famous art critic (and, as the title suggests, also a poet) Peter Schjeldahl. By contrast, my parents don’t speak English well enough to understand what I write most of the time. She lived on St. Marks when it was cool and edgy, whereas I moved to St. Marks in a time of gentrification, when hippies had been replaced by hipsters. Still, these differences didn’t stop me from developing a parasocial connection with Calhoun. She has a way of sustaining readerly interest and attachment.

One might argue that the memoir as a whole is a meditation on attachment. More specifically, it is a meditation on how to simultaneously develop a deep curiosity about cultural icons and maintain a critical distance from them. What prompted Calhoun’s project was her discovery of some taped recordings of interviews conducted by her father when he was doing research for a Frank O’Hara biography. This project was aborted after her father lost the permission to use O’Hara’s materials. Going through these materials, Calhoun decided to pick up where her father left off—a decision that led her to reassess the relationships in her life and work. This includes Calhoun’s bond with her father, her father’s connection with the downtown art circle centered around Frank O’Hara, and last but not least, her ambivalence towards the art world.

The main emotional arc in Also a Poet is Calhoun’s coming to terms with her father, who presents himself as a tortured but brilliant writer and yet is known to his family as a somewhat difficult man. The cruelest moment in the book is perhaps the chapter where her father expresses his wish to name his newish friend-cum-protégé Spencer—instead of her or her mother—as his literary executor, with no ostensible regard for her feelings. Listening to her father’s taped interviews adds a whole new dimension to Calhoun’s frustration. She finds herself yelling at the recorder because her father is such an insensitive interviewer and a bad listener. At some point she laments, “My father met Frank O’Hara and what did he take away from it? Only his own reaction.” Nevertheless, Calhoun finally makes peace with her father when she recognizes that, by sharing his interview tapes and his failed book project with her, he is doing his best to show his vulnerability. The book concludes with not a traditional reconciliation but a renewed attunement to her father’s love language.

By bringing her father’s interviews to light, Calhoun also helps us cultivate a healthy and critical distance from bohemian artists who are touted as genius. There was a general sense of solidarity among cosmopolitan artists and writers who were perceived as misfits in the 1960s and ‘70s. Many of the New York School writers and artists received their formal training in uptight elite colleges but found their voices and their friends in the downtown scene. Nevertheless, there was also callousness. For instance, writer-illustrator Edward Gorey opined that “[O’Hara] never seemed to realize or never seemed to want to admit that anything he did had any consequences beyond the immediate.” The same chapter reveals that Gorey might have upset O’Hara by telling him a “grim vision” about his death, but Gorey had no recollection of this episode. It is almost ironic that Gorey astutely assessed O’Hara’s tendency to disregard consequences but failed to recognize the potential repercussions of what he had said. By pulling back the curtain, Calhoun shows us some of the hurt feelings in the New York School orbit. These revelations are entertaining, even liberating. In my teenage years and even in college, I was naïve enough to worship any author with a Wikipedia page or a long introduction on the Poetry Foundation website. This blind worship also created the impression of an unbridgeable gap between us. Frank O’Hara was a god, and I a mere mortal! Now I’m relieved to find out that he and I are both flawed creatures of this flawed world.

However, flaws were what Maureen Granville-Smith, O’Hara’s sister and executor, couldn’t tolerate. Granville-Smith terminated Schjeldahl’s biography project by withdrawing her permission on O’Hara’s materials, and years later, during a heated phone call with Calhoun, Granville-Smith outright dismissed the value of the “hearsay” or gossip about O’Hara and sneered at amateur criticism. I felt compelled to take a side—Calhoun’s side. I’m of the opinion that seemingly frivolous information can enrich our understanding of someone’s work in unexpected ways.

For readers and lovers of contemporary poetry, Calhoun’s memoir is fascinating because it offers clues that provide alternative ways into O’Hara’s poetry. The information she reveals enables a kind of joyful and frantic interpretive approach that isn’t always encouraged or authorized in the classroom. I was most struck by the recording of a conversation between Schjeldahl and George Montgomery that focuses on the important literary topic of cigarettes. They fondly reminisced about O’Hara’s favorite cigarette, Picayune, referring to it as the “literary cigarette.” O’Hara mentions Picayune in his poems “The Day Lady Died” and “On A Mountain,” which I reread after finishing Calhoun’s book.

In “The Day Lady Died,” O’Hara recalls buying “a carton of Gauloises and a carton / of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with [Billie Holiday’s] face on it” from a tobacco store.  In “On A Mountain,” O’Hara declares his love for Picayune more vocally: “I’m smoking a Picayune / ‘the worst cigarette’.” The second line alludes to his friend and painter Jane Freilicher’s take on Picayune; in it, O’Hara re-enacts a scene where Freilicher smokes and jokes about the cigarette. Conventional wisdom has it that imitation is the highest form of flattery; in this case, imitation is a form of intimacy. “Picayune” emerges as not only an identity statement for a certain type of intellectual, but also as an inside joke and a token of longing.

The college student version of me would have read the reference to Picayune as an attempt to invoke a contrast between high and low culture, between the old guard and the new. After all, Gauloises is well-known as a favorite among European intellectuals (most famously, Jean-Paul Sartre), and Picayune on the other hand is a humble cigarette from the New World. I would have written a term paper about how these two cigarettes symbolize the way Billie Holiday brings together high and folk culture. What’s worse, I would have been proud of that paper. But Schjeldahl’s interview from Calhoun’s book, along with other anecdotes about Picayune, give me a better grasp of the tone of O’Hara’s poems. They are witty and cheeky, in typical O’Hara fashion, but they are also endearingly sentimental, which is easy to miss because irony is almost always the top note in O’Hara’s writing.

Having finished Calhoun’s memoir, I became preoccupied with the question of “legacy,” which is a cause for anxiety for many in the book, including Calhoun’s father and O’Hara’s sister. They so desperately want to protect their own or their family’s literary legacy. But safety is a fantasy. Paper can be burned, tapes can be corrupted, and ideas can be debated, challenged, and changed. Granville-Smith insists that Calhoun is not up to the task of writing about O’Hara’s life and work. And yet, oddly enough, by writing in an energetic, humorous, and accessible style, Calhoun is honoring O’Hara. That is perhaps better than a proper biography.

Weishun Lu is a doctoral candidate in Literary Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is also an editor at Edge Effects, an environmental studies magazine. More from this author →