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New York School Movement

Century: 20th

The New York School was an informal group of poets active in 1950s New York City whose work was said to be a reaction to the Confessionalists.


The “New York School” generally refers to a group of artists and painters living and working within New York City within the 1950s and 1960s. Of the poets, these included John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, John Schuyler, Barbara Guest, and Kenneth Koch. The New York Poets were influenced by both surrealism and modernism; their work is often ironic and strives to incorporate both art and pop culture within its text.

These poets were a close-knit community, often working collaboratively on each other’s work and journals, as well as promoting one another. Of the group, Koch said, “We inspired one another, we envied one another, we emulated each other, we were very critical of each other, we admired each other, we were almost entirely dependent on each another for support. Each had to be better than the others but if one flopped we all did” (Lehman 5).

When describing the poets it is equally important to describe their close relationship with the painters of the movement; they were heavily influenced by Abstract Expressionism and the works of Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Robert Motherwell.

A second generation of the New York School often refers to Joe Brainard, Alice Notley, Ted Berrigan, Ann Waldman, and Dean Young.

The story of the New York School of poets is a study in friendship, artistic collaboration, and the bliss of being alive and young at a moment of maximum creative ferment. It is also the story of the last authentic avant-garde movement that we have had in American poetry.

When John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Frank O'Hara, and James Schuyler first lived in New York, the Korean War was in progress and McCarthyism was the scourge of freethinking intellectuals. It was the era of Levittown and the "silent generation," when the original Guys and Dolls was on Broadway, suburban flight was in progress, New York had three baseball teams and at least one of them played in the World Series every year. In an age of split-level conformism, the poets of the New York School put their trust in the idea of an artistic vanguard that could sanction their deviations from the norm. The liberating effect of their writing became increasingly evident in the passionate, experimental, taboo-breaking early 1960S, when the nation's youngest president was in office, men discarded their hats, women started using the Pill, the acceleration in the speed of social change seemed to double overnight, and America finally left the nineteenth century behind.

In his book The Banquet Years, Roger Shattuck characterized the avant-garde in Paris in the golden period before World War I as an "artistic underground" dedicated to "heterodoxy and opposition." The artists maintained "a belligerent attitude toward the world and a genuine sympathy for each other." They lived and worked "in an atmosphere of perpetual collaboration." The avant-garde "was a way of life, both dedicated and frivolous," generating tremendous excitement. Guillaume Apollinaire, a poet, was the "impresario of the avant-garde," the champion of Cubism and the man who gave Surrealism its name. Apollinaire's "magnetic presence" and his "expansive, volatile nature flowed inexhaustibly on and left behind it poems and lyric texts which seemed to flower effortlessly out of his enthusiasms."

Substitute Frank O'Hara for Apollinaire and Abstract Expressionism for Cubism, and you get an eerie fit. The poets of the New York School were as heterodox, as belligerent toward the literary establishment and as loyal to each other, as their Parisian predecessors had been. The 1950s and early '60s in New York were their banquet years. It is as though they translated the avant-garde idiom of "perpetual collaboration" from the argot of turn-of-the-century Paris to the roughhewn vernacular of the American metropolis at midcentury.

While the four core members of the New York School did not set out to recruit disciples, never issuing public statements or devising a group program in the manner of the French Surrealists, they had a close sense of community and an awareness that their destinies as poets were intertwined. They shared much else besides, including the conviction that they were heading for greatness. Witnesses to what Robert Motherwell called "the greatest painting adventure of our time," they strove for the same excitement in poetry, looking to the painters as the agents of artistic change. "New York poets, except I suppose the color blind, are affected most by the floods of paint in whose crashing surf we all scramble," Schuyler wrote in 1959, summing up a decade and more of unprecedented artistic turbulence. "In New York the art world is a painters' world; writers and musicians are in the boat but they don't steer."

The poets took their lead from the Abstract Expressionists (also known as the Action Painters and as the New York School of painting) in several key respects. From Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, they learned that it was okay for a poem to chronicle the history of its own making--that the mind of the poet, rather than the world, could be the true subject of the poem--and that it was possible for a poem to be (or to perform) a statement without making a statement. From the painters, too, they understood that acceptance was not necessarily a blessing, nor rejection a curse. "The literary establishment cared as much for our work as the Frick cared for Pollock and de Kooning," O'Hara wrote defiantly, pushing the analogy between poets and painters. Like painting, writing was properly understood to be an activity, a present-tense process, and the residue of that activity could not help referring to itself. All poetry was the product of a collaboration with language. While mimesis, the imitation of nature, remained a goal of art, the abstract painters had redefined the concept by enlarging the meaning of nature; "I am nature," Pollock said. This, too, was a liberty the poets could take. Like abstract paintings, their poems originated not in a Platonic conception of their final form but in an engagement with the medium of expression itself.

Still, the poets meant to honor the great example of Abstract Expressionism not only by absorbing its principles but also by veering from them as their own development required. In this exact regard, they paralleled their closest friends among the so-called Second Generation of New York School painters--Fairfield Porter, Jane Freilicher, Nell Blaine, and Larry Rivers among them--who strove to learn from Pollock, de Kooning, and the rest, without the slavish fidelity of epigones. The Second Generation painters veered by returning to figuration at the very moment when the critic Clement Greenberg, the ayatollah of Abstract Expressionism, declared that painting had to be abstract and "flat." The poets veered in an equally fundamental way. In place of the high seriousness that engulfed the Abstract Expressionists, they opted for aesthetic pleasure. They were ironists, not ecclesiasts. They favored wit, humor, and the advanced irony of the blague (that is, the insolent jest or prank) in ways more suggestive of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg than of the New York School painters after whom they were named. About everything, including the ideals and pretensions of the avant-garde, the poets could be jubilantly irreverent, as when Frank O'Hara collaborated with Larry Rivers on "How to Proceed in the Arts," their satirical "study of the creative act" (1961) "Youth wants to burn the museums. We are in them--now what? Better destroy the odors of the zoo. How can we paint the elephants and hippopotamuses? Embrace the Bourgeoisie. One hundred years of grinding our teeth have made us tired. How are we to fill the large empty canvas at the end of the large empty loft? You do have a loft, don't you, man?"

The poets liked hoaxes and spoofs, parodies and strange juxtapositions, pseudotranslations and collages. On the ground that the rules of all verse forms are at base arbitrary, they created ad hoc forms (requiring, say, an anagram or the name of a river in every line) and unconventional self-assignments ("translate a poem from a language you do not understand; do not use a glossary or dictionary"). They adapted the Cubist collage and the Surrealist "exquisite corpse" (a one-line poem composed by a group of poets, each of whom contributes a word without knowing what the others have written). Apollinaire's café poems, "Les Fenêtres" and "Lundi rue Christine," taught them that a poem could originate in snatches of overheard conversations. You could cull lines at random from books. Or you could scramble the lines in an already written poem to produce a disjunctive jolt. Many works would be improved if you simply deleted every second word. Poems didn't have to make sense in a conventional way; they could discover their sense as they went along. The logic of a dream or a word game was as valid as that of empirical science as a means of arriving at poetic knowledge.

Freely experimental and fiercely intellectual, the poets were at the same time resolutely antiacademic and antiestablishment even as they began to win acceptance in establishment circles. Some of their more radical productions neither looked like nor sounded like poems. Since acceptance or rejection of these works was an indication neither of success or failure, the poets looked to each other as ultimate arbiters. "John and Frank and I were almost like a mutual admiration society," Schuyler said. But they also competed fiercely, each trying to outdo the other. "It's wonderful," Koch said many years later, "to have three good friends that you think are geniuses." The poets were "like the members of a team, like the Yankees or the Minnesota Vikings," Koch elaborated. "We inspired each other, we envied each other, we emulated each other, we were very critical of each other, we admired each other, we were almost entirely dependent on each other for support. Each had to be better than the others but if one flopped we all did." They were prolific. In addition to their own work in several genres, they collaborated with painter pals on collages and lithographs and comic strips. Collaborating with each other, they produced poems, plays, a novel, and four issues of a literary magazine they called Locus Solus, the very model of an avant-garde journal, which they named after a prose masterpiece by Raymond Roussel, the ultimate avant-garde writer. The whole period was, in Koch's phrase, "fizzy with collaboration."

All this activity was predicated on the idea that poetry could be reinvented from top to toe. Everything was up for grabs. "It came to me that all this time / There had been no real poetry and that it needed to be invented," Koch writes in "Days and Nights," one of several of his poems that look back to the seminal l950s. The approved American poetry of the time was crusty with convention. "There was no modern poetry in the sense that there was modern painting," Ashbery asserted. The avant-garde writer had the advantage of beginning with a clean slate (or the illusion of one). The rejection of the acceptable poetry of the age made it possible to pursue a grander ambition "to write poetry that is better than poetry," in Koch's words. It is not that Ashbery, Koch, O'Hara, and Schuyler were ignorant of poetic tradition. On the contrary, they were voracious readers. But they recognized that tradition is a vast passing-away and renewal, and they had enough respect for the past not to copy it lazily but to adapt, alter, and adjust the tradition through the application of their individual talents. They understood, too, that a poem no less than a picture could be "a hoard of destructions," in Picasso's phrase. And so they favored avant-garde methods of composition that inverted the received order of things. The aim was the liberation of the imagination, and any and all means to this end were valid.

Forty years after Pound and Eliot made the first modernist revolution in poetry, the New York poets were the first to extend that new frontier. They were intent on widening the framework of American poetry; they wanted to be read not in the narrow context of the Anglo-American poetry of midcentury but with reference to other arts, earlier periods, alternative traditions. The poets were unusually responsive to modern music and to poetry in other languages as well as to modern art. They favored a tradition of literary outsiders--what Ashbery has called "an other tradition"--and felt that, in Ashbery's words, "modern poetry gave the poet the license to be strange." They admired the deliberate "derangements" of Arthur Rimbaud, the artificial contrivances of Raymond Roussel, the peripatetic musings of Guillaume Apollinaire; they learned from the expatriate experiments of Gertrude Stein and Laura Riding as well as from such neglected homespun originals as David Schubert, Delmore Schwartz, and John Wheelwright. French poetry since Baudelaire and the Symbolists put it through the paces of the modernist revolution had a particularly salubrious effect on the New York poets. By adopting unconventional methods and models, they were able to reject the academic orthodoxies of the New Criticism, then the dominant mode of literary interpretation, which seemed to have a stranglehold on midcentury verse. Enlarging the sphere of the poetic, they revitalized poetry at a moment when it seemed that everything that could be done had been done. (It always seems that way.) They took Pound's old dictum to heart: They made it new.

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Excerpted from The Last Avant-Garde by David Lehman. Copyright © 1998 by David Lehman. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.