The New York School of Poetry

The New York school of poetry was an innovative group of poets made up principally by Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, James Schuyler, and Kenneth Koch. Their poetry was experimental, philosophical, staunchly antiestablishment, and antiacademic. The group began writing in the 1950s and is closely associated with a similarly named movement in painting alternatively called abstract expressionism or action painting. The name New York school is a result of an aesthetic sensibility and writing style, more than simply a location, although all five poets did live in New York City at some point during their formative years as writers. Their poetry is steeped in the facts, events, and objects of everyday life, and it is characterized by an impulse to blur the boundary between art and life; in writing poetry that includes the discourse and details of normal human interaction, the poets conflated the differences between what is normally considered material for art and what people experience in day-to-day existence. They are also noteworthy for appropriating various aspects of French surrealism and French symbolism; they especially employed typically surrealistic juxtapositions, which tended to be combined with whimsical observations of daily human behavior and speech. Their use of ironic gestures coupled with an often casual, informal tone and style created a unique tension that characterizes their distinct poetic sensibility.

The term New York school was supposedly coined by John Bernard Myers, the director of the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York City, in an effort to connect the increasingly popular abstract expressionist painters with the then-emerging poets who were also working in New York at the time. Both groups frequently collaborated on projects or shared and argued about ideas regarding art, politics, and philosophy. The characteristics associated with the label—the New York school—emerge first and foremost from the poets’ antitraditionalist aesthetic and highly experimental style. Taking the lead from such painters as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Robert Motherwell and, later, a second generation of painters—Fairfield Porter, Jane Freilicher, Nell Blaine, Grace Hartigan, Larry Rivers, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns— these poets strove for artistic change by proclaiming poetry to be a process, not simply a product.


Frank O’Hara

The poets never collaborated together on a manifesto, nor did they construct any kind of formal school or program, but they did create a very close-knit community of writers and painters who shared a variety of strong convictions. They also lived an alternative lifestyle, which differed greatly from the dominant conservative culture of the time. Three of the five poets in the core group were homosexual (Ashbery, Schuyler, O’Hara), and all of them, in different degrees, explored culturally dominant conceptions of masculinity. Moreover, like the abstract expressionists, the poets became increasingly interested in the surface and medium of the work of art. In other words, they began to think that the language of the poem—its sounds, structures, forms, interactions of words, and textures—should be just as important as any attempt to create meaning. This was a radical departure from the mainstream poetry being practiced at the time (by academic poets, such as Robert Lowell, Allen Tate, and John Crowe Ransom), and it was also a significant departure from their peers, such as the BEATS and the BLACK MOUNTAIN SCHOOL, who were engaged in other experimental poetic movements. The New York school was different, because it created an emphatic shift away from the supposed meaning of the poem and toward an interest in the materiality of language.

The New York school had a tremendous influence on poets of future generations who have come to share a similar sensibility and style. Some of the poets who are considered to be part of the second generation of the New York school include Ron Padgett, Bill Berkson, Ted Berrigan, and Joe Brainard. Other poets who are sometimes associated with the New York school include Anne Waldman, Harry Mathews, Edwin Denby, Kenward Elmslie, Alice Notley, Bernadette Mayer, Eileen Myles, and Tony Towle. Locus Solus, alternately edited by Schuyler, Ashbery, and Koch, was the primary literary magazine that came to represent the aesthetic flavor of the first generation.

The impact of the New York school has been wide and varied. This group has been considered the precursor to various postmodern movements in poetry, especially Language poetry. In particular, the notion that anything in life is material for a poem, ranging from pop culture images and events to daily thoughts and routines, emerged with the poetry of the New York school. What are often called Frank O’Hara’s “I do this, I do that poems” (qtd. in Gooch 288), which note the everyday details of the poet’s life, exemplify this blending of the mundane with the structure and language of a poem. In one of O’Hara’s poems entitled simply “Poem” (1950), the speaker proposes to an interlocutor that they go for a stroll in inclement conditions: “if it rains hard on our toes / we’ll stroll like poodles.” The playful language here is typical. Like O’Hara, many of the poets in the New York school seem comfortable using a collage of thoughts, actions, and details from their daily experience in ways that may be surreal and complex or direct and straightforward.

Ultimately the poetry of the New York school is difficult to characterize, because it contains a tremendous variety of styles, themes, and methods. Ashbery’s poetry, for example, is often characterized as oblique, indeterminate, and periphrastic; it may have no sense of an ending, and it perpetually circumnavigates thoughts and images. His poetry is akin to the movement of consciousness itself, whereby the mental process and language serve to complicate perception and understanding, rather than creating any kind of determinate conclusions. O’Hara’s poetry can be an intriguing mixture of surrealist juxtapositions, but, at other times, it contains a very casual discourse with a conversational style that seems like a letter written to a friend. Like O’Hara, Schuyler is known for his conversational style and charm, and he is perhaps the most lyrical and musical of the group. Guest’s language is full of tonal complexity that is often rendered through shifts in sound and syntax rather than content. Koch’s poetry is replete with wit and humor, and it tends to be more narrative and direct than that of the other writers of the group.

All the same, there are some common characteristics. The most significant of these is the poetry’s sense of a process, in which a work tends to emphasize its own methods, procedures, and strategies, rather than simply the end result. In other words, the poem becomes a revelation of its own process as a specific kind of discourse, and not simply a finished product. This strategy fits effectively with the content of the poem, which is often tied to the events of everyday life. The poetry is written while seemingly moving and observing, whether through reality or through the flux of consciousness. In the poetry there exists a strong interest in intellectual and philosophical ideas, ranging from philosophical movements, such as existentialism, phenomenology, transcendentalism, and radical empiricism, to poetic trends, such as romanticism, imagism, and objectivism. However, ultimately it is the concrete and material connection to the everyday—direct human experience and language—that is the source of a poem’s unfolding. O’Hara describes this impulse in “Personism: A Manifesto” (1961): “I’m not saying that I don’t have practically the most lofty ideas of anyone writing today, but what difference does that make? they’re [sic] just ideas. The only good thing about it is that when I get lofty enough I’ve stopped thinking and that’s when refreshment arrives” (498). This “refreshment” can be characterized by a poetry that resists traditional forms and poetic devices, such as end-rhyme, meter, alliteration, and even metaphor. Even when most oblique, as in Ashbery and Guest, the poetry of the New York school stays grounded in the materiality of language.

New York school poetry is, most of all, sympathetic to the visual arts from which it draws its inspiration; indeed, the materiality important in abstract expressionism— its foregrounding of paint itself—is an obvious shared aesthetic. The five core poets, except for Koch, wrote extensively about art, especially painting. O’Hara and Schuyler wrote for ARTnews and both became curators at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Guest and Schuyler were both associate editors at ARTnews, and Ashbery established a career as an art critic, writing for ARTnews, Art in America, Newsweek, and the Paris Herald Tribune. The influence of painting is evident in their poetry through a shift in attention from symbolism, metaphor, and signification to the actual operations and materials required to write a poem. Like a painter’s interest in the canvas, paint, and individual brushstrokes, these poets became interested in calling attention to their own basic materials—words, phrases, images, sentences, and the white space of the page itself.

Schuyler wrote, in 1959, that “New York poets, except I suppose the color blind, are affected most by the floods of paint in whose crashing surf we all scramble” (qtd. in Lehman Beyond 2). A painterly poetics in this sense can be, on the one hand, involved in creating a vivid picture with intense sensory detail, concrete imagery, tonal complexity, and multivalent coloration, and, on the other hand, a poetics that is interested in detaching language from its meaning. Like the abstract expressionists who stopped using lines and color to represent things or objects, and who began visualizing the canvas as an arena in which to act out a process detached from verbal or linguistic logic, these poets began to regard writing as an activity that always refers to itself in some way and poetry as a type of collaboration with life and language. The poets, however, faced an additional paradox that the painters did not: They were working with language, the terms of which are abstract and inherently denotative. The New York school poet must turn the signifying quality of language against itself and must do so in a concrete and visual way. The images and details the New York school poets created often subordinated or even abandoned referent and meaning in favor of texture, sound, or linguistic gesture. Ashbery is perhaps most notable in this regard, as can be seen in the following excerpt from “Our Youth” (1962): “Of bricks . . . Who built it? Like some crazy balloon / Of bricks . . . Who built it? Like some crazy balloon . . . / When love leans on us.” The words create a tension that invigorates the possibilities of language by challenging causality and referentiality. Guest writes similarly in her poem “An Emphasis Falls on Reality” (1989): “Cloud fields change into furniture / furniture metamorphizes into fields.”

The poetry of the New York school was pivotal to the American literary landscape of the 20th century, because of its liberating effects on poets who could now consider a greater range and kind of material appropriate for poetry, as well as the way in which this material could be expressed. These poets demonstrated that colloquial discourse was a viable and effective means for expressing daily emotions and thoughts, as well as for expressing deeper imaginative and metaphysical challenges, such as identity formation and consciousness. This movement demonstrated that almost anything, including the mundane and ordinary, could be made exciting and intriguing within the margins of a poem.

Gooch, Brad. City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara. New York: Knopf, 1993.
Lehman, David. The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets. New York: Doubleday, 1998.
———., ed. Beyond Amazement: New Essays on John Ashbery. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1980.
O’Hara, Frank. “Personism: A Manifesto.” In The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, edited by Donald Allen. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995, pp. 498–499.
Ward, Geoff. Statues of Liberty: The New York School of Poets. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.
Watkin, William. In the Process of Poetry: The New York School and the Avant-Garde. Lewisburg, N.Y.: Bucknell University Press, 2001.

Categories: American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature, Poetry

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