Thursday, July 14, 2011

Writers in love: walking in New York and the light of Los Angeles

In the past two months Flavorwire has collected bouquets of literary love letters to America’s two largest cities—and we couldn’t let them go unrequited. In May Kathleen Massara assembled memorable quotes from F. Scott Fitzgerald, E. B. White, Ralph Ellison, Gary Shteyngart, Colum McCann, Joseph O’Neill, Patti Smith, John Steinbeck, Don DeLillo, and Zadie Smith on different facets of New York City. The quote from Patti Smith’s Just Kids conjures with “Frank O’Hara territory” and reminds us of the long tradition of New York “walking around” poems that began with Walt Whitman. Phillip Lopate traced some of this history in his introduction to Writing New York: A Literary Anthology, the LOA’s motherlode of New York love:
Once Whitman perfected the catalogue or list, it became a favorite technique among New York poets for conveying sensory saturation. Whitman’s impact on later peripatetic city poets (such as Frank O’Hara, Charles Reznikoff, and James Schuyler) was vast, partly because the all-embracing, synthesizing persona he developed offered a solution to the problem of integrating the random stimuli of modern life. The walk poem is a species of travel literature in which the writer puts himself through culture shock in his own city.
Here is Whitman not just walking but traversing time in a passage from “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”:
It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever
        so many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look at the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright
        flow, I was refresh’d,
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift
        current, I stood yet was hurried,
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships and the thick-
        stemm’d pipes of steamboats, I look’d.
In poems like “A Step Away from Them” and “The Day Lady Died,” Frank O’Hara built on Whitman’s walk poem to create “diary poems” that, in Lopate’s words “found some larger resonance in the trivia and detritus of the passing moment. You can hear Frank O'Hara, Patti Smith, and others read some “walking around” poems on this Poetry Foundation UbuWeb podcast.

Last week Massara paid homage to the other coast’s big city with Literary Love Letters to Los Angeles. Enjoying quotes from Joan Didion, Christopher Isherwood, Raymond Chandler, Steve Erickson, Karen Tei Yamashita, Charles Bukowski, Bret Easton Ellis, James Ellroy, Nathanael West, and the bicoastal F. Scott Fitzgerald, we were delighted to find that seven of these ten are among the seventy-seven contributors to Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology. One commenter found “all of [the quotes chosen by Massara] pretty damning” and, for a corrective, we immediately turned to Lawrence Weschler’s luminous essay “L.A. Glows” in which he interviews artists, poets, scientists, cinematographers, environmental engineers, art gallery directors, and even Vin Scully, the veteran Dodgers announcer, to probe the ethereal quality of L.A.’s light. Here’s a taste from his session with writer and public information officer D. J. Waldie, author of Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir:
It seems to me, actually, that there are four—or, anyway, at least four—lights in L.A. To begin with, there’s the cruel, actinic light of late July. Its glare cuts piteously through the general shabbiness of Los Angeles. Second comes the nostalgic, golden light of late October. It turns Los Angeles into El Dorado, a city of fool’s gold. It’s the light William Faulkner—in his story “Golden Land”—called “treacherous unbrightness.” It’s the light the tourists come for—the light, to be more specific, of unearned nostalgia. Third, there’s the gunmetal-gray light of the months between December and July. Summer in Los Angeles doesn’t begin until mid-July. In the months before, the light can be as monotonous as Seattle’s. Finally comes the light, clear as stone-dry champagne, after a full day of rain. Everything in this light is somehow simultaneously particularized and idealized: each perfect, specific, ideal little tract house, one beside the next. And that’s the light that breaks hearts in L.A.
Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Writing New York: A Literary Anthology (includes “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” and the two O’Hara poems); Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology—ON SALE: $9.95 (includes William Faulkner’s “Golden Land,” Lawrence Weschler’s “L.A. Glows,” and an excerpt from D. J. Waldie’s Holy Land)

1 comment:

  1. That Waldie quote is beautifully phrased, but speaking as someone who lives in LA, I can tell you it is a bit...romanticized. Trust me, our light is just like anyone else's, it's the traffic that'll break your heart.

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