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New York School of Poets

An Anthology of New York Poets, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror

a name loosely applied to a number of poets working in New York between about 1950 and 1975. Two American cities have given their names to groups of poets, San Francisco and New York, and both in a somewhat ironic style. The poets of the San Francisco Renaissance mockingly adopted the name of one of their main sources of intellectual inspiration, although their activities hardly constituted a renaissance in the ordinary sense of the term, and the New York School was a name invented by a gallery director who published a series of poets from 1952 onward. The school had its origins in a friendship between Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, James Schuyler, and Kenneth Koch that began in the early 1950s, based on a common interest in painting, urban life, and recent European poetry. Emerging at the same time that New York became a centre for the artistic avant-garde in the 1950s, the name stuck although the poets themselves never tried to create a school in the usual sense of the term. Unlike other groups of poets such as the Black Mountain poets or the Language poets, they have produced little in the way of writing about their poetics. The best-known essay to emerge from the group, ‘Personism: A Manifesto’ by Frank O'Hara, is a parody of the genre.

Their poetic style is urbane, witty, discursive, surreal, and above all fascinated with surfaces of all kinds. References to popular culture, especially the cinema, abound, as well as an acute awareness of the aesthetics of their painter contemporaries. Their poems offer wonderfully inventive displays of metaphor, image, quick changes of tone and theme, and often seem devoted to a conscious celebration of the artificial inventions of the imagination. They developed a cosmopolitan voice in their poetry which concealed its artfulness so well that it became the most imitated feature of their work. A second generation soon emerged, so that An Anthology of New York Poets (ed. Ron Padgett and David Shapiro, 1970) included twenty-three poets, and even then made some omissions. Notable second-generation poets would include Anne Waldman, Ted Berrigan, Alice Notley, and Bernadette Mayer. The New York School has arguably produced a third generation in the Language Writers who originated in New York.

What has most changed the status of the New York School since the 1960s has been John Ashbery's extraordinary success as a poet since Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), a success which has taken him away culturally and stylistically from any grouping. For many poets his early book The Tennis Court Oath (1962) was the most characteristic of the school. Its poems seem to press against the limits of what is possible in poetry, notably ‘Europe’ which is a series of III short sections in which fragments of popular fiction, stray images, gnomic remarks, grids, and disjunctive phrases, seem to be united only by occasional explicit references to European culture. Frank O'Hara's early death in 1966 has also affected subsequent perception of the style of these poets, creating an aura around some of his poems, especially those that recreate walks in downtown Manhattan, that has been hard to see beyond. In some ways it is actually the least well-known of the originating poets, James Schuyler, whose brilliant poetry deserves to be much better known, and most conforms to the idea of a New York school. His awareness of New York as a city of census-takers, ‘unpedimented lions’, fire escapes, ‘capless tubes of unguents’, whose inhabitants look at nature and ask ‘is this lichen, this stuff here? | And these leaves, are they oak leaves?’ (Freely Espousing, 1969), permeates his surprisingly meditative poems.

Many of the poets were homosexual, and Geoffrey Ward argues that although homosexuality is rarely the explicit theme of their work, they employ a repertoire of poetic attitudes and devices which result from ‘seeing from the edge of things where the excluded go’. Ward's book Statutes of Liberty (1993) is the one major critical study of the school, although there are numerous books on Ashbery, and a smaller number on O'Hara.

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: New from Tartary to Frank O'connor