and sat opposite Ashes in an enormous leather chair in the Continental
it is all enormity and life it has protected me and kept me here on
many occasions as a symbol does when the heart is full and risks no speech
a precaution I loathe as the pheasant loathes the season and is preserved
it will not be need, it will just be what it is and just what happens

(from “Joe’s Jacket”)

The lesson that poets can learn from these guys is an immense one. This has to do with a permission to be yourself -- bubbling, melancholy, daft, whatever, and to use poetry and not let poetry use you. In other words, the New York School poets know and knew all about traditional forms and where it all comes from, but utilize the knowledge to move forward into a realm which is completely individual and self-contained. Let the world catch up, is what they say. But writing of this kind requires enormous self-belief and trust. It’s also a recipe for disaster, of course. Finally, I guess, you can’t wilfully write “New York School poetry”. For one thing, there is no such thing. The poets are too various for it to be only one thing. For another, it would be like writing to please your workshop tutor, which is a crock. New York School poets write out of themselves to please themselves, and for the one or two people who understand them. Any other people who get it are a marvellous bonus. And, of course, the joy is that when one writes like this, so freely and truly and purely, then lots of people get it. They are not bored by it, as they may be bored by the latest workshop fixated magazine page-sized competition aimed effusion.

When I read this poetry I am amazed by life. I think that’s a pretty cool thing for poetry to achieve. For me, the poetry touches something true about the world that I can only understand somewhat through the nervous system. Not through the academic, literary critical analytical system, or poetry as some kind of fine pastime of the chattering classes. It touches what I sometimes laughingly call my soul. The very processes by which it is made and conjured are so closely aligned with the only reason I can find that makes it worth being alive – how, notwithstanding the sadnesses and the heartbreaks and the catastrophes, life is, somehow, remarkable, and it’s the remarkable which makes it worth being alive and ploughing on, and finding those moments of, to use a word favoured by Frank O’Hara, grace. Which perhaps sounds like a load of hogwash, but it isn’t. There’s not a hell of a lot of poetry I’ve read written in the last 100 years that makes me happy to be here. This poetry does exactly that, though.

This anthology, published by Carcanet (who have published these guys over recent years and should be thanked for that) and edited by Mark Ford, who is a chum of John Ashbery’s and knows what he is talking about, is ideal for the reader new to these poets. It brings together many of the most familiar and anthologised poems, as well as some of the less well-known ones. Ford’s articulate and lucid but mercifully brief introductions to the book as a whole and to the individual poet’s selections are as good as one could ask for. He says what needs to be said, but by being brief lets the poems do the talking.

This review was first published in Stride

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