New York School Analysis


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The New York School of poets was born in the United States in the late 1950’s. Its central members—Frank O’Hara (1926-1966), Kenneth Koch (1925-2002), James Schuyler (1923-1991), and John Ashbery (born 1927)—shared common experiences and interests, which provided their mutual affinity with the momentum necessary to make their writings seem like a movement. O’Hara, Koch, and Schuyler had served in World War II. Schuyler had lived with and worked as a typist for W. H. Auden, on whose poetry Ashbery wrote his senior thesis while an undergraduate at Harvard, where he met O’Hara and Koch. All of them were enamored of the French Surrealists. O’Hara and Ashbery were knowledgeable devotees of the New York art scene and moved in its circles, guaranteeing the influence on their poetry (and drama and criticism) of the ideas and methods at work in the paintings of New York expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.

Indeed, it was from the New York School of painters that gallery director John Bernard Myers took the New York School name and applied it to the poets in 1961 in an overt act of public-relations strategy. However, it was probably inevitable that such a moniker would adhere to the poets. One reason that the poets who make up the New York School, as well as critics, have regarded the New York label as spurious is that, for its founding members, only some of them had grown up in or near the city and some of them lived there only intermittently. About its role as a state of mind common to the poets, however, there has been little dispute. The city, with its intricate network of universities, publishing houses, public-reading forums, and bohemian cachet served as the physical and metaphorical fulcrum of their activity. Its energetic cosmopolitan rhythms and heightened artistic atmosphere, redolent as they were of endless activity and stimulating innovation, enlivened their work and linked even the movement’s most stylistically disparate participants.

Despite its beginnings in the underground avant-garde, the New York School saw its more persistent and prolific members embraced by the mainstream literary community. None was embraced more than Ashbery. Nineteen years after winning the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1956, his book Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975) won the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and a Pulitzer Prize. From 2001 to 2003, he served as the poet laureate of New York State. Schuyler became the second New York School alumnus to win the Pulitzer Prize, in 1981, for his book The Morning of the Poem (1980). Koch, who after Ashbery was probably the best-known member of the New York School, did not receive a major award until he won the Shelley Memorial Award in 1994, followed by the Bollingen Prize in 1995 for One Train (1994). He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and enjoyed a long career as a popular university instructor. From 1953 to 1958, he was a lecturer at Rutgers University. In 1959, he was hired as an assistant professor by Columbia University, and he became one of its most popular teachers during his nearly forty-year tenure.

Some observers trace the gradual unraveling of the New York School of poets to 1966, the year that O’Hara was killed by a dune buggy on Fire Island. Certainly O’Hara’s death struck the movement a blow, but by then, the movement he had helped launch had taken on a life of its own. With the publication in 1970 of An Anthology of New York Poets, edited by Ron Padgett and David Shapiro, the New York School had grown to include too many poets for one volume to encompass. In the decade that followed, the members of the school “graduated” into various careers that in many cases led them well beyond the city.

The central figures among the New York School of poets wrote in a variety of other genres. O’Hara, Ashbery, Koch, and Schuyler wrote plays. O’Hara published four volumes of art criticism. Ashbery translated the work of French poets. Koch wrote a well-received series of books intended to interest students in writing poetry. Schuyler was a novelist. The school’s less famous members were equally diverse. Barbara Guest (1920-2006) wrote plays. Kenward Elmslie (born 1929) wrote for the musical theater. Edwin Denby (1903-1983) was best known as a ballet critic. Aram Saroyan (born 1943), the master of the one-word poem, developed into a writer of prose. Ed Sanders (born 1939) became famous as the leader of the Fugs, a psychedelic folk band. Taken as a whole, the poets of the New York School considered no literary genre to be unsuitable for the exercising of their talents.

An Anthology of New York Poets

An Anthology of New York Poets, a six-hundred-page volume that has come to be regarded as the Bible of the New York School of poets, contains 374 poems written by twenty-seven poets over a period of two decades. Judging from the preface by editors Padgett and Shapiro, the process of deciding which poets and which of their poems to include must have resembled, admittedly on a lower metaphysical scale, the selecting of canonical texts. There was a sense that the book would come to represent not only the best work of the individual poets but also the movement as a whole. Some of the poets (Ashbery and Koch in particular) would publish works that superseded the poems included in this anthology. However, for the majority of the poets involved, even those who continued to write prolifically, inclusion in this anthology would represent their only moment on the national stage.

Padgett and Shapiro seem to have been guided in their selection in part by a desire to represent the movement’s diversity. There are one-word (even one-letter) poems by Saroyan and traditional sonnets by Denby, playfully transparent poems by O’Hara, explication-defying fragments by Clark Coolidge, plainspoken journal-like poems by Ted Berrigan, and buoyantly lyrical fantasias by Elmslie, “found” poetry by John Giorno, prose poetry by Schuyler, haiku-like elegance by Bernadette Mayer, and frank profanity by Sanders.

The diversity was no ruse. The poets did, however, share common elements, the most obvious of which might be the sense that they were not bound by any of the rules that had accumulated during the previous five hundred years of Western poetry. A poet of the New York School could observe convention, play with it, pillage it for parts, or ignore it altogether. The same freedom applied to subject matter. From baseball and sunglasses (Tom Clark) to highbrow allusions (Shapiro), nothing was off limits.

In a sense, the poetry represented the fulfillment of Walt Whitman’s all-encompassing vision. Unlike Whitman’s poems, however, the bulk of this anthology’s verse has not aged well. Much that no doubt seemed liberating, spontaneous, and fresh in the 1950’s and 1960’s now seems puerile, insular, and slapdash, the writing of poets so afraid that all work and no play would make them dull boys that they opted instead for all play and no work.

The World Anthology

The World was one of the periodicals most responsible for publishing the works of the younger, lesser-known poets of the New York School. Deliberately amateurish in appearance—its pages were typewritten, mimeographed, and stapled together—its very look invited an experimental informality...

(The entire section is 3043 words.)

New York School Bibliography

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Herd, David. John Ashbery and American Poetry. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001. Less a biography of Ashbery than an analysis of what he as a poet has in common with a quality of intellect and thought traceable to the eighteenth century. Herd attempts to understand the irony that Ashbery is simultaneously one of the West’s most celebrated poets and one of its least understood.

Kane, Daniel. All Poets Welcome: The Lower East Side Poetry Scene in the 1960’s. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. An evocatively detailed description of the anything-goes atmosphere that prevailed in New York City’s lower East Side when...

(The entire section is 521 words.)