Donald Allen's The New American Poetry 1945-1960 is an enduring literary landmark, flaws and all. But another anthology, set beside it, adds greatly to our perspective on poetry from this period - yet hardly ever gets mentioned at all, despite being edited by two poets who went on to become very well-known today: Ron Padgett and David Shapiro. It's an important counterweight to Allen's collection. The 1970 book An Anthology of New York Poets, illustrated by Joe Brainard - also a figure we talk about now, most recently because of his Nancy poetry comics - was partly intended to be, and can still serve as something of a corrective to the earlier book. As Shapiro explained recently to John Tranter (in an interview worth reading in its entirety):
"I’d begun writing very early, when I was about nine, as a violinist, and certainly by twelve I was attracted to certain things in John Ashbery’s poetry that I’d seen. Then again in 1960 when I was thirteen Donald Allen’s anthology [The New American Poetry] came out. I loved parts of it. I met Kenneth Koch when I was fifteen. I was still very much under the influence of Wallace Stevens, and many poets... including the French Symbolists. I remember that when he showed me John Ashbery’s poems I thought... in a way it struck me as horrifying, and I remember the moment when I thought ‘This is horrifying, he uses the word “I” as if it was just any other word’, and then I thought ‘How wonderful!’ So I had almost what’s called the conversion experience... that is, a kind of Damascus experience, in which I hated ‘Europe’ at least for half a day — this long, Rauschenbergian poem — then, I remember liking Theodore Roethke more — then, by the next day, as someone has said about painting after Jasper Johns, it’s as if everything else was in a kind of ashcan — not so much of history, and I still love Roethke — but certainly this newspaper collage of John Ashbery’s overwhelmed me, and the idea that you could... what people loved in the cut-ups of Burroughs, but I particularly loved, in John Ashbery. I then started to correspond with him, and he published me in Art and Literature, and wrote me very beautiful letters, and I became more and more attracted to his poetry. It was just at this time that he was writing in a more Neo-classical vein, and when I met him he recited ‘The Skaters’ — almost an Alexander-Pope-like poem. I remember trying to convince Allen Ginsberg that he was a good poet. Allen didn’t believe it until I recited some of his poems by heart, and then Allen said ‘Hmmm.’"
Hmm! As Shapiro explains further, there was a complication - namely that the "New York School" moniker
"...revolves around a kind of myth or dogma: on the one hand the phrase ‘New York School’ was an epithet that was used by some art gallery people, a phrase that drew a parallel between certain poets in the 1950s and certain painters. It didn’t necessarily mean that they came from New York, it didn’t necessarily mean that they stayed in New York, it didn’t necessarily mean that their art had anything to do with New York, nor that they all wrote like each other, or thought like each other in any way. So one of the problems with these academic labels, like the label Post-modernism, or Modernism for that matter, is that it does become a kind of false can-opener, in a way."
As was explained from the get-go in the book's preface:
"Putting this anthology together has been a great pleasure, calling into play the usual range of problems, aesthetic and moral, which every editor with a conscience faces, continually, to offset his presumptuousness. Who knows why we selected whom we did? Does knowing a poet help you understand his work any better? We happen to know almost all the poets in this book (there is one we have still to meet), and most of these poets know each other as well. Obviously, as editors we're going on the assumption that these acquaintances and friendships, these sharings of tastes and affections, are going to go a long way toward giving this book a sense of solidarity. It would be facile as well as misleading to see these poets as forming a 'School,' to pass them off as a literary movement. Fortunately, most poets of any interest these days are so enlightened that they automatically reject, in their lives and work, the unhealthy idea of being part of a literary movement. Like water off a duck's back, such abstractions roll back into nothingness.
Are New York poets new realists, or dissociated from any sympathy for the wretched of the earth? Are they drifting into a penumbra? Or do their sleek attractive surfaces glide by in the light? Have they freshened up the diatribe? Have any of their collaborations produced beautiful corpses? Are New York poets a diploma elite that buries its children? Are they merely tasting the ripest apple on the table, in the air? Is it a dereglement de tous les sens? Or has it become, peculiarly Americanized, only a 'leaving-out business,' a taking-away process? Have they generated a whole vocabulary of forms, a new sestina, new collages, cut-ups? Is it 'deep gossip'? Why have the old copula been expunged?
Perhaps we do protest too much, but this is to prepare ourselves for the gruesome possibility of the 'New York School of Poets' label, one which has been spewed forth from time to time by some reviewers, critics, and writers either sustained by provincial jealousy or the bent to translate everything into manageable textbookese. Very few of the poets in this anthology were born in New York City, but many of them live here, and of these, many plan to leave, temporarily or otherwise. [...] The fact remains that New York has remained for all of them a fulcrum they continue to use in order to get as much leverage as possible in literature, a city where they met and continued their lives together, whether they came from Cleveland or Newark or Cincinnati or Providence or Tulsa. And although the New York School tag is an alarmingly useless one, it does remind one that many of these poets met in schools, at Harvard, Columbia, NYU, or the New School, sometimes as undergraduates taught by Delmore Schwartz or in poetry workshops taught by Kenneth Koch, Bill Berkson, or Frank O'Hara. The crisscrossing of friendships is surprising and inspiring, like telling someone to see a certain movie and, incredibly, they too like (or hate) it."
Let's get down to facts. Who's in the book? There are generous selections from the following: James Schuyler, Clark Coolidge, Kenward Elmslie, Ted Berrigan, Harry Mathews, Tony Towle, Tom Clark, Kenneth Koch, Tom Veitch, Lewis Mac Adams, John Ashbery, Frank Lima, John Giorno, Joseph Ceravolo, Jim Brodey, John Perreault, Bill Berkson, Michael Brownstein, Ed Sanders, Peter Schjeldahl, Frank O'Hara, Aram Saroyan, Ron Padgett, Dick Gallup, Bernadette Mayer, Edwin Denby, and David Shapiro.
Not only is this an unassailable list, it shows that the book's batting average is far better than Allen's. Yet: it's not a touchstone, not part of today's landscape of American poetry - which goes to show how reified these things get, as I've been arguing here all along. Did it suffer from the editors' generous understanding ("crisscrossing") of how poets learn from each other?
As Shapiro remarked in his interview with Tranter:
"A lot of these poets weren’t published easily... I decided to publish an anthology of New York poets, because at the time this came out — it came out a little later — poets like Frank O’Hara (who was already dead when it came out) — it was very hard to get a publisher for them. Some of the greatest poets in this country would tell me ‘Frank O’Hara, he’s bitchy, no great poet can be bitchy!’ (Said a poet who will be nameless). I said ‘What about Catullus?’
So one of the reasons I published the Anthology of New York Poets with Ron Padgett — we disagreed violently over certain poets — I wanted Barbara Guest in, for example... I was once very embarrassed by the anthology. It is said you commit an anthology, like a sin. And I thought it was much too sloppy. I had a dream of some kind of Japanese perfection. But I’m glad in a way that Ron loosened me, perhaps, towards an anthology that wasn’t quite that way. So there are these problems with what the phrase ‘the New York School’ means. It can mean a chauvinism."
"Chauvinism," that's the word I've been looking for: we need a poetry with less chauvinism.
After some considerably useful further musing, D.S. adds (and here's another connection to my recent post about Lowell and reification, about the narrowness of poetry ideologues):
"I’m trying to focus on the difference between Lowell and O’Hara. They seem to stand for me at two points in the development of American poetry. I think Lowell’s diction determines an approach to things which is serious and heavy and committed. O’Hara’s diction determines a corresponding freedom.
I found beautiful things in Lowell. I met him at the end of his life, when he said that he found Ashbery’s poems beautiful though meaningless, or something like that. I think he was opening up. His attitude towards ‘surrealism’ was... wildly narrow. He would talk about surrealism in one of his books as just... it seemed to him just that which inverted sense. And he always had a meagre idea of the visual, it is said. But I think that he was bound by metre, in a way where Frank arose from a huge prose tradition as much as a tradition of poetry. You know, one has the advantages of one’s ignorance. Wittgenstein didn’t know Kant, and therefore could have that leverage in British philosophy by whistling with a new model of things. And I think that Frank in a way didn’t have all the echoes that someone like Lowell did have in his head, didn’t have to wrestle with some of the same problems, and then got great leverage — Copernican leverage, Archimedean leverage on the universe. But they don’t have to clink against each other.
I do know that Lowell is sometimes thought of as a horrible poet. Peter Schjeldahl writes a poem in my anthology that says ‘Let’s tell the truth, America. Robert Lowell is the least distinguished poet alive.’ And there are poems by Lowell like ‘Water’, a very quiet poem, influenced by Elizabeth Bishop, whom everyone loves — at least recently, and John Ashbery has promoted her work a great deal — and Lowell can sometimes strike a quiet mood. What I don’t like about Lowell is when he was purple, melodramatic, encrusted. But when he relaxes, which is rare, or when he translates Montale, whom I think is a wonderful poet and somehow perfect for Lowell, that works."
They used to have broader minds, back when the myths and dogmas we take for granted were actually being formed. I suppose even saying so is to open a can a worms; where did I leave my false can-opener?!