< Some Reviews



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 yellow cabs! And they also had what I knew to be a healthy disrespect for the dominant poetry of their time. This was crucial.

This was over twenty years ago. Lots has happened in the meantime. I know Eliot wasn’t an alien (give or take) and that most poets have messy lives. And I know I don’t want poetry to tell me information I already know. And I’ve read the poetry of Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch and John Ashbery over and over again. Not all of it, but lots of it. And I discovered the poetry of James Schuyler, and am glad I did. And I’ve written about them and reviewed them. And I can now count a younger generation of New York poets, people like Paul Violi, Charles North and Tony Towle, as friends. We’ve sat at dinner tables together and laughed and talked. And I feel privileged because they are lovely people, and great poets, but this is not really my point. What I’m working toward is something vaguer and yet so crucial to me I know I’m not sure how to say it.

I was in the pub a week or so ago with a friend, and we were talking poetry, and he mentioned (for the zillionth time) a poem of Ashbery’s that I introduced him to a long time ago, which mentions “the pudding people”. It’s a poem from “Can You Hear, Bird”

I knew we should have stopped back there
by the pudding station
but the pudding people were so - well -
full of themselves.

And my friend always laughs and asks me who the pudding people are, and what it all means. And we got to talking about how someone recently said to me they don’t find Ashbery interesting. They don’t find what he has to say very interesting, and how what he has to say about life is just more or less one narrow thing, which precludes him from being “great”. Now, I have no idea if Ashbery will, in time, be considered “a great poet”. I don’t care much. Sometimes but not all the time Ashbery’s poetry absolutely touches some kind of node or button in me and awakens my sleepy dormant parts into realising and noticing that life, this “life”, is this and that and the other. And I don’t know what it all means but this is how it is -- difficult and confusing, swathed in ignorance and folly, and blessed by moments of sharp insight and wonder. And he awakens in me a way of knowing the world which is the way I want to know the world but often forget about in my waking walking life. Ashbery doesn’t tell us how to live, he tells us how we live. Or, rather, shows us. It’s not instruction or information. It’s not “meaning” in the conventional sense. It certainly isn’t meaning in the same way a poem has meaning when it tells you how sad it is someone died, or how mean it is that people are mean.

There is something subliminally revelatory about this poetry when it works, which is not all the time. But when it does it’s a remarkable thing. There is also the sense that these people wrote good things, honest and good things, with no regard for what the people who run poetry world thought about it all.

My first real introduction to Kenneth Koch was through the famous poem “Fresh Air”, with its timeless and still pertinent

It is time to strangle several bad poets.

Then I found how remarkable and dazzling his world of poetry was. How his expectations of poetry and his sense of the world were so huge. I’m not sure I’ve ever quite recovered. I’ve told this story before, but in 1990-something I drove Kenneth Koch from the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival to catch a plane from Heathrow back to the U.S. It was a mad drive. Kenneth came off stage at three, and his plane was at something like 5:30. I broke every speed limit in the book until, as we finally hit the approach to Heathrow on the M4 and joined the airport traffic he turned to me and asked if it would be okay if we slowed down now. And he gave me some work that I would publish in “joe soap’s canoe”. As he handed it to me he said something to the effect of, OK Stannard, tell me what it is you like about my work. And my whole life flashed before me, and then I said, It makes me want to be alive. And he said, I guess that’ll do. Or something like that.

Koch could be a pain in the arse. In 1992 when I was working in Ipswich for the local council as their one and only community arts worker, I worked alongside Rebecca Weaver, who curated the prestigious Wolsey Art Gallery in Ipswich. We asked Paul Violi to curate an exhibition of Koch’s collaborations with artists. And then we managed to get Koch and Violi over to England for the show. After the opening of that (at which they both read) I took them off on a brief reading tour of the UK. And Kenneth could be a pain in the arse. He wanted to be the centre of attention. He wanted sometimes the moon when all he could have was Ipswich, or a reading in a room at the top of a very long and steep flight of stairs in Huddersfield. But he was also lovely, and genuine and true, and I feel honoured to have spent time with him. This afternoon I re-read the poem “Marina”. It’s a wonderful example of how Koch’s exuberance and vitality is wonderfully controlled and emotional. You should read it. You really should. The poem is ten pages or so of doomed but inspiring and exultant love. The way the language and the line is used, how the so personal reference opens up into the universal marvellousness (and its opposite) of being in love -- this is how words can be.

I read Tolstoy. You said
I don’t like the way it turns out (Anna
Karenina) I had just liked the strength
Of the feeling you thought
About the end. I wanted
To I don’t know what never leave you
Five flights up the June
Street emptied of fans, cups, kites, cops, eats, nights, no
The night was there

And something like air I love you Marina
Eighty-five days
Four thousand three hundred and sixty-
Two minutes all poetry was changed
For me what did I do in exchange
I am selfish, afraid you are
Overwhelmingly parade, back, sunshine, dreams
Later thousands of dreams

Koch isn’t, of course, renowned for the emotional. Yet he is often emotional. He is more famous because so many of his poems are the poet at play. But the poet at play allows in so much, and expands the notion of the poem so much, that everything eventually comes in: happy and sad, silly and serious, everything. It makes me want to be alive.

James Schuyler wrote beautiful poems. And I am only now coming to realise how beautiful and wonderful they are. I’m not sure yet that he touches me the way his friends do. But one of the things one learns from reading poems is that wakefulness comes at odd times. One may perhaps only begin to fully appreciate a poet after an unusual long time of acquaintance. I have not, until lately, been altogether ready in my head for the still and monumental exactitude of Schuyler’s beauty. Then, reading these poems again for the first time in a while, I was stunned. “Hymn To Life” is amazing. Nine pages or so of amazing. One gull coasts by, unexpected as a kiss on the nape of the neck.” If you would not give your life to be able to write like that then you do not want to write. I am sorry. That’s what I think. And I am not sorry at all.

And then there’s Frank O’Hara. It’s Frank O’Hara people usually mean when they say that so-and-so writes poems influenced by New York School poetry, like if so-and-so writes poems that are kind of diary-like occasions, and have a lot of the everyday in them, and are thus unpoetic in a conventional unconventional way. O’Hara is perhaps the most misread and misconstrued New York poet. He is mainly known as the poet of the “I do this, I do that” poem, knocking off poems at parties, and giving them to friends, and forgetting about them. Then those poems are discovered in their several hundreds after his death and they make a huge Collected Poems, big enough to stun more than a single ox. And it has to be said that they are not all good poems. The word “slight” comes to mind. But the good poems are so good. The somewhat over-anthologised O’Hara poems (“Why I Am Not A Painter”, “The Day Lady Died” etc….) are not all of O’Hara. One has to read more widely, and even beyond the startling “In Memory Of My Feelings”, to get a true sense of this remarkable poet, the melancholy and sadness, and the beauty

and soon I am rising for the less than average day, I have coffee
I prepare calmly to face almost everything that will come up I am calm
but not as my bed was calm as it softly declined to become a ship
I borrow Joe's seersucker jacket though he is asleep I start out
when I last borrowed it I was leaving there it was on my Spanish plaza back
and hid my shoulders from San Marco's pigeons was jostled on the
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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