ON THE NEW YORK POETS

The New York Poets: An Anthology. Edited by Mark Ford.

214pp, £9.95, Carcanet.

Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch and John Ashbery changed my life. I need to say that at the outset because it’s an important fact that will colour everything else I may say here. At the moment, as I sit here writing this on the coldest and wettest of June days (I’ve just put the heating on for God’s sake) at this exact moment I don’t know what I’m going to write.

There was a time when I wrote poems and the only agenda I can recall having for writing those poems was some kind of hazy idea that poems could be good. But I also thought that most if not all the modern poets who were famous at the time were dull and boring. That me and my friends could upset the applecart and replace the cloudy and the dull with zip and zest. It was a naïve, somewhat ignorant, probably stupid notion, and it was also an unoriginal notion. But it’s also one I would now regard as healthy and almost necessary for a young poet to have, with passion and fire.

My introduction to the New York poets (as I’ll call them for convenience’s sake – the whole thing about labels is just done to death) was haphazard and somewhat bemused. I think I saw Kenneth Koch read at Cambridge in 1977 or 1978. But all I can remember is Alan Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky and Anne Waldman. So he must not have made a big impression on me, unless he wasn’t there and my memory and misinformation is so fogged that this is all nonsense. But around the same time Rupert Mallin suggested I read O’Hara’s “Easter”, and I did. I didn’t get it at all, but since it seemed to be somewhat surreal and nonsensical and I quite liked the idea of being what I thought was surreal and nonsensical I took it on board, sort of. But not entirely. It wasn’t until I picked up a copy of Marjorie Perloff’s “Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters” in London’s Compendium Bookshop in, I think, 1981 or 1982, that things became clearer. I sat in my friends Stuart and Angie’s flat in Crouch End reading Perloff’s book when I should have been talking to them. And I began to realise I had found something in poetry that wasn’t admiration or awe but some kind of understanding that went deeper than the academic or the analytical. I’ve since come to find Perloff a pretty irritating critic (especially when she writes about John Ashbery) but she is also able to make you feel like you just got out of a cab with her outside 441 East 9th Street and she say’s this is where we go and see Frank and Joe, and that’s what she did that afternoon for me. There were things she said about the poets and their general attitude to poetry and life that I felt very comfortable with. It made no difference that it was pretty obvious these guys were geniuses and I was some klutz from England. I knew there was somewhere a wavelength we were all on. Somewhere. But I couldn’t articulate it. I knew, though, that where I felt, say, I had been trained at school almost as though T.S. Eliot came from another planet and was a strange alien being, these guys inhabited a world I recognised and sort of knew. They went in bars and had messy lives! They used

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