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Toni Bentley's reading list

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Q&A with Toni Bentley on what she's been reading.



BOOKS: What are you reading?

BENTLEY: I am just starting Edith Wharton’s short story collection from the 1930s, “Human Nature.” I’ve been reading only Wharton for the last 2½ years.


What are people here reading this summer?

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I've been reading Marie Antoinette- the journey by Antonia Fraser. I was fortunate to visit Versailles on a free day when I was with the Harkness Ballet. I am fascinated by that era- the book has been a good history lesson as well.

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Fraser's biography of Mary Queen of Scots is really good, a spirited if not altogether convincing defense. I also liked her biography of Charles II (another spirited if not altogether etc.). Her Cromwell book is...mixed, but in my experience she's always fun to read. What is her view of Marie Antoinette overall?

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I found that Fraser's view of Marie Antoinette is very sympathetic towards her- dispelling the many myths about her- how the "let them eat cake" was completely out of character , how she developed from an inadequate fourteen-year-old bride to a very different mature woman, years later. I always thought that she was quite frivolous and silly- maybe I was influenced by the film with Kirsten Dunst

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Just read an exceptionally good novel by Aleksandar Tišma called "Uses of Man,” set in Yugoslavia during and after the second world war, with resonances perhaps with Ukraine today. We follow three attractive students of a German language teacher referred to only as “Fraulein,” whose diary figures in the story. The students’ lives, in awful but fascinating ways, get intertwined with events of the war. "Vera had the feeling that the diary contained a whole human being – someone unknown to her til now ... Was it possible for the content of a whole life to vanish so easily, so completely?"

Also read the beginning of the perplexing memoir by Ada Calhoun about her discovery of research materials for a book on Frank O'Hara that her father failed to complete and that she comes to rescue. Led me to O’Hara directly – and to Marjorie Perloff who says that O'Hara took his voice, the voice that lands so lightly from this direction and then that, from Vladimir Mayakovsky.

Mayakovsky’s ”Cloud in Trousers,” which George Balanchine liked to cite, goes: No gray hair in my soul, no doddering tenderness. / I rock the world with the thunder of my voice, strolling, look good – twenty two. (O’Hara:  I embrace a cloud / but when I soared / it rained.)

Many references to City Ballet circulate throughout the poems: Poisson Pas de Dix style Patricia, ten steps of Patricia Wilde, the clouds imitating Diana Adams, watching Maria Tallchief while the swan boats slumbered, Liebeslieder Walzer over and we’ll have that regret too to hold us and cheer us.  A kind of binding that binds together lovers, friends, and experiences but only momentarily.

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 Marjorie Perloff who says that O'Hara took his voice, the voice that lands so lightly from this direction and then that, from Vladimir Mayakovsky.

Thank you for that, Quiggin. I hadn't heard that but it makes a lot of sense.

And of course his "Ode to Tanaquil Le Clercq":


......you were always changing into something else

and always will be

always plumage, perfection's broken heart, wings


and wide eyes in which everything you do

repeats yourself simultaneously and simply

         as a window "gives" on something


it seems sometimes as if you were only breathing

         and everything happened around you


because when you disappeared in the wings nothing was there

         but the motion of some extraordinary happening I hadn't understood

the superb arc of a question, of a decision about death


because you are beautiful you are hunted

and with the courage of a vase

      you refuse to become a deer or a tree

and the world holds its breath

       to see if you are there, and safe


                     are you?


I wonder if O'Hara was the "troubled New York poet" who told Edwin Denby, "I could see it every day, it's so deliciously boring" ( speaking of Balanchine's Nutcracker).

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On 7/7/2022 at 6:23 PM, Dégagé E. said:

Good choice, miliosr. Dos Passos’ Easter Island: Island of Enigmas (1970) is a personal favorite.

I could never get into Dos Passos but I have not tried that one or The Best Times. Maybe it's time to give him another chance.

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4 hours ago, dirac said:

I wonder if O'Hara was the "troubled New York poet" who told Edwin Denby, "I could see it every day, it's so deliciously boring" (of Balanchine's Nutcracker).

Funny comment about the "boring" Nutcracker, though I wonder if it could have come from someone like John Ashbery, whose poetry for me seems to always begin on a lyrical note and then slide into melancholy self-correction. O'Hara seems so upbeat all the time, perhaps too much of the time. When Larry Rivers refers to O'Hara's "glorious self-pity" in his poems, O'Hara says,

That's odd / I think of myself / as a cheerful type / who pretends to / be hurt to get / a little depth into / things that interest me.

Joe LeSeur talks about Denby's disposition, sweet but somewhat passive-aggressive (they gather to talk after City Ballet performances at Denby's nearby apt). One night out of the blue, Denby cryptically tells LeSeur that he never should have left his former boyfriend for O'Hara, leaving LeSeur to puzzle out what he meant.

Interesting podcast on the Yanks O'Hara and Ashbery at the LRB:


Such nice lines on Le Clercq.

Edited by Quiggin
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On 7/9/2022 at 1:38 PM, dirac said:

I could never get into Dos Passos but I have not tried that one or The Best Times. Maybe it's time to give him another chance.

I found the first three chapters of The Best Times slow-going. But it really picks up in Chapter 4 when Dos Passos starts writing about the bold-faced names he encountered in Paris and the south of France during the Roaring Twenties: e e cummings, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gerald and Sara Murphy, and Pablo Picasso. Dos Passos' account of those times is like a more forgiving (and probably more truthful version) of Hemingway's A Moveable Feast; a book in which Hemingway derided his former friend Dos Passos as "the pilot fish".

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"The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”

Trying to grasp the most important implications of John Milton's astonishing, superlative quote from Paradise Lost —a quote constantly in my thoughts.

Composed when he was blind(!), Milton's epic poem is undeniably magnificent. However, the 17th century English language, the numerous references and allusions, the powerful yet convoluted descriptive passages all make it a chore to read. Frankly, my post is a means of prodding myself into rereading it. For certain, though, Milton's imagination is truly awe-inspiring!

All physical entities, from elementary particles to the entire universe, can —at least in theory— be measured. Yet, how does one measure the breadth of the human mind/imagination/soul?

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I finished The Best Times this weekend.

At times, it was too discursive for my tastes. Dos Passos writes at length about his travels and what he saw and who he encountered along the way. His recollections of his travels were mildly interesting but, honestly, I found myself drifting a bit mentally during much of it.

But just when I was ready to give up on The Best Times, my mind would snap back to attention when Dos Passos delivered a particularly insightful view of the very creative people he met in the 1920s and 1930s:

On Pablo Picasso:

"[I]f he had the gift of compassion, he would have been as great as Michelangelo."

On Scott Fitzgerald:

[S]cott was meeting adversity with a consistency of purpose that I found admirable. He was trying to raise Scottie, to do the best thing possible for Zelda, to handle his drinking and to keep a flow of stories into the magazines to raise the enormous sums Zelda's illness cost. At the same time he was determined to continue writing firstrate novels. With age and experience his literary standards were rising. I never admired a man more. He was so much worse off than I was that I felt I ought to be sitting at his bedside instead of his sitting at mine."

[Indirectly] On his friendship with Ernest Hemingway:

"The troubles that arise between a man and his friends are often purely and simply the result of growing up."


"As a man matures he sheds possibilities with every passing year. In the same way he sheds friendships."

I wouldn't rate The Best Times as a classic of its kind. But I would recommend it as a counterpart to Hemingway's A Moveable Feast. As I wrote earlier in this thread, The Best Times is more forgiving. On that basis alone, it deserves to be read.

Edited by miliosr
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Peter Schjeldahl's daughter Ada Calhoun writes a book about O'Hara and her own relationship with her father.


For O’Hara and his peers, poetry was lived rather than composed. As Schjeldahl explained in one of the taped interviews he passed on to his daughter, O’Hara provided an “option for a lifestyle for poetry that had not existed up to that time. At that point, the only lifestyle was the university.” As he went on: “I’m a poet. Dropped out of college. I came to New York. And I’ve made my living writing art criticism ever since, which was an option created by Frank and John [Ashbery]. It didn’t exist before.” It’s a vision of arts and letters that is increasingly hard to sustain in the era of wildly fluctuating Manhattan rents—the idea that you can produce uncommercial work while still managing to live in a stable, comfortable apartment, spend a large part of the day unprofitably reading and writing, and still afford regular nights out at the local bar with your friends.


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