Washington Crossing the Delaware by Larry Rivers (1953). Courtesy the Museum of Modern Art, New York City.
Every day I learn I don’t know anything even when I’m in the middle of learning something new.
Yesterday I learned about the painter Larry Rivers.
Now I feel like I know too much about him.
But I didn’t learn about him only from that Vanity Fair article. I was reading Robert Sullivan’s My American Revolution, an enjoyable, John McPhee style exploration of the landscapes of New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania where the main action of the War for Independence was concentrated. Sullivan looks at what’s there now, tells about what was there then, and chronicles what happened in between. For the chapter I read last night, he visited the spot on the Delaware River where Washington and his troops pushed off from to begin their assault on Trenton. Sullivan writes about the copy of Emanuel Leutze’s iconic painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware displayed in the museum there and about the yearly re-enactment of the crossing and in between he writes about Rivers and his painting Washington Crossing the Delaware, which I’d never seen or even heard of.
So I googled.
Googling turned up the Vanity Fair article.
But it also turned up this.
So I read this:
Now that our hero has come back to us
in his white pants and we know his nose
trembling like a flag under fire,
we see the calm cold river is supporting
our forces, the beautiful history.
To be more revolutionary than a nun
is our desire, to be secular and intimate
as, when sighting a redcoat, you smile
and pull the trigger. Anxieties
and animosities, flaming and feeding
on theoretical considerations and
the jealous spiritualities of the abstract
the robot? they're smoke, billows above
the physical event. They have burned up.
See how free we are! as a nation of persons.
Dear father of our country, so alive
you must have lied incessantly to be
immediate, here are your bones crossed
on my breast like a rusty flintlock,
a pirate's flag, bravely specific
and ever so light in the misty glare
of a crossing by water in winter to a shore
other than that the bridge reaches for.
Don't shoot until, the white of freedom glinting
on your gun barrel, you see the general fear.
And that was the second poem by Frank O’Hara I read yesterday. I read the first much earlier in the day, while noodling about the internet, reading stuff that had nothing to do with Larry Rivers, George Washington, or even Frank O’Hara.
The first O’Hara poem was also about painting.
It’s called “Why I Am Not a Painter.”
I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,
for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
"Sit down and have a drink" he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. "You have SARDINES in it."
"Yes, it needed something there."
"Oh." I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. "Where's SARDINES?"
All that's left is just
letters, "It was too much," Mike says.
But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven't mentioned
orange yet. It's twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike's painting, called SARDINES
Frank O’Hara I did know about.
But I didn’t recall having read either of those poems.
And I didn’t know he was considered a brilliant art critic or that he worked at the Museum of Modern Art or that he was friends with Larry Rivers (which, how could I, since I didn’t know Larry Rivers was there to be friends with).
So I learned a lot of stuff yesterday.
About Larry Rivers. About Frank O’Hara. About George Washington. About the American Revolution. About the New York School. About hanging out at the Cedar Tavern in the 1950s and about how drinking there was different from drinking at the White Horse Tavern.
Mostly, though, like I said, that I don’t know anything.