In January 2005, Larry Applebaum was digging through some old Voice of America tapes at the Library of Congress. He found one labeled “sp. Event 11/29/57 carnegie jazz concert (#1).” It turned out to be the only full-length professionally recorded document of the short-lived collaboration between two jazz giants. The discovery allowed critics and historians to flesh out the accepted narrative of how Thelonious Monk influenced John Coltrane.
History is like that. We work with the evidence we have, and with our recollections, and construct a story of what happened. The story can change with uncovered artifacts and with memories embraced or ignored; but as it evolves, it is always traveling farther and farther away from what actually happened. So what’s reality? When’s the right time and what’s the right distance for things to snap into true focus? Is it in the moment, an inch away, or months or years later, viewed from another planet? Maybe it’s both.
There’s a new PBS show called "The War of the World" that reconsiders the accepted narrative of warfare in the 20th century. It’s attracted some controversy for asking us to think about the implications of doing terrible things in the name of good. Some critics believe the very question is inherently unpatriotic. I haven’t seen the show (it starts tonight at 10pm and runs for two more Mondays at the same time), but I trust that thoughtful people can probably handle it.
As with music and war and every kind of history, there are different ways of looking at a literary career. You can put out an exhaustive definitive collection of work, judge it as a whole based on how it turned out, and dismiss someone like Frank O’Hara as a lightweight. The better way, suggests a recent New York Times review, at least in Frank’s case, is to cherry pick the best moments and appreciate their genuine lasting beauty. Anything else would diminish the pure connection a reader feels, in the moment, book open…
Have you forgotten what we were like then
when we were still first rate
and the day came fat with an apple in its mouth
it's no use worrying about Time
but we did have a few tricks up our sleeves
and turned some sharp corners
the whole pasture looked like our meal
we didn't need speedometers
we could manage cocktails out of ice and water
I wouldn't want to be faster
or greener than now if you were with me O you
were the best of all my days
Whatever promise those lines held was cut short in 1966 when Frank was struck and killed by a jeep. He was 40 years old.