‘One need never leave the confines of New York to get all the greenery one wishes’ (Frank O’Hara).
Photo by Martin Spychal, Lower Manhattan, 2018
IN THE MIDDLE OF A PLACE
The term ‘New York School of Poets’ describes a group of five experimental poets and friends – Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Barbara Guest, and James Schuyler – who began their careers during the 1950s and 1960s, in New York, and closely associated with a number of experimental painters. It also describes a much larger school, or movement, made up of poets with similarly overlapping lives in the broad lineage of this so-called ‘first generation’ – a ‘second generation’ of poets whose work consciously and unconsciously explores, expands, and complicates the irreverence, collaborative-ness, and attentiveness to environment pioneered by the original five. Key second generation figures include Alice Notley, Anne Waldman, Bernadette Mayer, Ron Padgett, Ted Berrigan, Lewis Warsh, Maureen Owen, Michael Brownstein, David Shapiro, Bill Berkson, Frank Lima, Tony Towle, Tom Clark, Aram Saroyan, Eileen Myles, and, of course, Joe Brainard.
The term is slippery and implies linkage by little other than geography – and while this is partly true, the geographical connection is by no means insignificant, and denotes both the place where the original New York School poets met, and, later, as the ‘New York School’ became more geographically diverse, a shared aesthetic. ‘I learned to be a poet in New York’, Eileen Myles has said: ‘as an aesthetic it means putting yourself in the middle of a place and being excited and stunned by it, and trying to make sense of it in your work’.[i] As Ted Berrigan asserted,
I had an idea that the New York School consisted of whomever I thought. And I could have that idea, see, because there was no New York School. I didn’t have to consult John Ashbery to see if it was alright to think Philip Whalen from the West Coast was in it too.[ii]
THE NEW YORK SCHOOL AND ART
The term ‘New York School’ was first used in the early 1960s, by John Bernard Myers, the co-founder of the Tibor de Nagy gallery. It was popularized by Donald Allen’s groundbreaking anthology, The New American Poetry: 1945-1960, which presented a range of experimental poetry written since the Second World War, with the poets arranged in distinct groupings (‘Beat’, ‘New York School’, ‘San Francisco Renaissance’ etc.). The name riffed on the equally loose collective of the New York School of Painters – also known as action painters or abstract expressionists, and including Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Joan Mitchell, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Robert Motherwell. The term ‘New York School of Painters’ was, to borrow from Mark Ford, both a ‘provocative assertion of New World supremacy over the School of Paris’ and ‘immensely effective in promoting the innovations of post-war New York artists to both national and international audiences’.[iii] As Ford continues. ‘Myers no doubt reasoned a similar tactic might help raise the profile of these hitherto neglected experimental poets, who were all interested in avant-garde painting’.
The term is at once convenient and misleading – and, like many movements, often denied or rejected or subverted by those supposedly associated with it (Ashbery: ‘This label was foisted on us … I don’t think we ever were a school’).[iv] The poets had little in common, poetically-speaking, other than friendship with each other, either an affinity for or residence in New York City (even this was a somewhat tentative connection – though most of their friendships were forged there), and a desire to avoid high seriousness in their writing. They were also inevitably immersed in what Schuyler called ‘the floods of paint in whose crashing surf we all scramble’.[v] The prevailing (and, to the first generation New York School poets, most appealing) mode of creativity, around the time they began to write seriously, was in physical materials – paint – rather than in words. Postwar New York, the recently ascendant capital of the art world, was a realm of paint and materiality in which, as Saul Bellow’s protagonist notes in Seize the Day, ‘there were fifty thousand people … with paints and brushes, each practically a law unto himself. It was the Tower of Babel in paint’.[vi] John Ashbery spoke of the coveted freedom of creativity enjoyed by the New York School painters, for instance, which proved inspirational to the poets:
Artists like de Kooning, Franz Kline, Motherwell, Pollock – were free to be free in their painting in a way that most people felt was impossible for poetry. So I think we learned a lot from them at that time, and also from composers like John Cage and Morton Feldman, but the lessons were merely an abstract truth – something like Be yourself – rather than a practical one – in other words, nobody ever thought of scattering words over a page the way Pollock scattered his drips.[vii]
The freedom of experimentation enjoyed by the artists, and their attendant success in the wider circles of culture, represented an ideal for the New York School poets: artists like Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, in particular, succeeded at arresting the gaze of the cultural world whilst simultaneously remaining true to themselves and to their ideals. They also seemed to be having more fun than their literary counterparts; as Ashbery noted, ‘no one with a sense of adventure was going to be drawn to the academic poetry that flourished at the time’. It therefore seemed both rational and exciting to the New York School poets to approach poetry with a corresponding sense of adventure to the painters, in order to try to liberate themselves from the restrictive bonds of literary tradition and the tedious ‘politics of getting into never-to-be-heard-of anthologies’.[viii]
The poets – both first and second generation – had no programme or manifesto, and they embraced a range of forms and styles. They were unified instead by their avant-garde sensibilities (a love of modern painting, maverick American poetry, and the European avant-garde), their spirit of independence (and fun), their referential strategies, and their belief that anything was suitable material for a poem: in other words, by shared ‘attitudes, values, and preoccupations’.[ix] Furthermore, as Yasmine Shamma writes, they ‘made it possible to be conversational, funny, urban, personal, quotidian, elusive, allusive, sincere, cosmopolitan, confessional, lyrical, and performative, often within the space of a single poem’.[x] Impatient with prevailing academic conservatism, they initially formed each other’s audiences, as well as collaborating with each other, exemplifying a productive tension between individual qualities and collective sensibilities. The second generation increasingly gravitated toward both informal and formalized non-academic centers of learning and performance, based in local communities, such as the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, where they organized and engaged in poetry and music performances, workshops, lectures, protests, and more.
The New York School – as a movement, an aesthetic, a range of loosely-overlapping lives – continues to evolve. There exist third and fourth generations; and, arguably, anyone writing in or about New York City since the early 1950s might be included in the broader New York School. As Andrew Epstein writes: ‘I prefer to see the New York School as a very loose constellation of poets, artists, composers, etc., that spans several generations, and that has tentacles in many different spheres of culture and in different time periods’.[xi]
Joe Brainard by all accounts holds the record for textual and visual collaborative activities with fellow New York School writers during the 1960s and 1970s: his conversational aesthetic both shaped and provided the imagery for numerous publications and artworks, from the cover and margins of poetry collections and little magazines to flyers advertising readings at the Poetry Project. He relished the informal and illuminating practice of connecting (or disconnecting) images and words, describing the process of working collaboratively with writers as both ‘fun’ and ‘arduous’, and as requiring a lot of compromises and a willingness ‘to totally fail and not be embarrassed by it’ (Collected Writings, p. 513). In a journal entry written in 1969 he reflected that ‘most of his friends’ were poets. Brainard described Ashbery as his favorite poet (though in classic Brainard fashion qualified this by also including Frank O’Hara, Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett, Kenward Elmslie, and ‘a lot of people too’).[xii] He was ‘especially good’ at ‘“drawing for” words’, he wrote, before clarifying: ‘I don’t like that word “illustrating”’. In the same entry, he mused:
Doing cover designs and drawings for books and poems is something else entirely. This I love doing. And I do it very well. I know how to work with or against words in a good way. I don’t think I ever fall into the ‘elegant’ trap. Or the ‘arty’ trap. (Too beautiful.) (For the coffee table.) (Etc.) There is always something slightly unprofessional about my graphic work. Which is probably the best thing about it. (Collected Writings, pp. 248-9)
For Brainard, the chance to be ‘unprofessional’, and to experiment, was important. His attitude in this sense was very much of a piece with the New York City milieu in which he produced most of his work. Many second generation New York School artists and writers were less concerned with ambitions of aesthetic perfection than with suggesting that mistakes or inconsistencies were best understood as evidence of progress and creative growth – and, indeed, evidence of the artists’ presence or partnership in (rather than behind) the work.
A wealth of great books and articles have been written about the New York School. If you’re looking to learn more, check out work by Marjorie Perloff, Yasmine Shamma, Maggie Nelson, Catherine Gander, Hazel Smith, Andrew Epstein, Timothy Gray, Susan Rosenbaum, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Reva Wolf, Andy Fitch, Libbie Rifkin, Lytle Shaw, Daniel Kane, Mark Ford, Mark Silverberg, Alexandra Gold, Terence Diggory, Nick Sturm, Geoff Ward, David Lehman, William Watkin, Robert Hampson, Will Montgomery, Rona Cran, Ben Hickman, Richard Deming, Nick Selby, Olivier Brossard, Ron Silliman, Jordan Davis, and Sam Ladkin (among many others). See also the Encyclopaedia of The New York School Poets by Terence Diggory (2009), Andrew Epstein’s brilliant blog, ‘Locus Solus: the New York School of Poets’, and Rona Cran and Yasmine Shamma’s ongoing project New Work on the New York School.
[i] Frances Richard, ‘Never Real, Always True: An Interview with Eileen Myles’, Provincetown Arts (2000), pp. 24-29.
[ii] Ted Berrigan, Talking in Tranquility: Interviews with Ted Berrigan, ed. Stephen Ratcliffe and Leslie Scalapino (Avenue B/O Books, 1991), p. 91.
[iii] Mark Ford, introduction to The New York Poets: An Anthology (Carcanet, 2004), p. ix.
[iv] Ashbery, ‘The Art of Poetry XXXIII’, interview by Peter Stitt, Paris Review 90 (Winter 1983): https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/3014/john-ashbery-the-art-of-poetry-no-33-john-ashbery
[v] Schuyler, quoted in David Lehman, The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets (Doubleday, 1998), p. 2.
[vi] Saul Bellow, Seize the Day (London: Penguin, 2006 (1956)), p. 35.
[vii] Ashbery, ‘The New York School of Poets’ (1968), in Selected Prose (Carcanet, 2004), p. 115.
[viii] Ashbery, ‘Frank O’Hara, 1926 – 1966’ (1966), Selected Prose, pp. 78-80.
[ix] Mark Silverberg, The New York School Poets and the Neo-Avant-Garde: Between Radical Art and Radical Chic (Routledge, 2010), p. 11.
[x] Yasmine Shamma, Spatial Poetics: Second Generation New York School Poetics (Oxford University Press, 2018), p. 2.
[xii] Brainard, interview with Tim Duglos, 26 September 1977, in Joe Brainard, Collected Writings, p. 504.