The last of the groups constituting the New American Poetry was the New York poets, who included Ashbery, O'Hara, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler. The New York poets were associated with the avant-garde art world of New York City, and especially with the Abstract Expressionists who had made Manhattan the center of the international art scene. The New York poets - some of whom worked in the art world as curators and reviewers - wrote in an abstract and witty style that combined literary and artistic influences to create a new postwar aesthetic. Unlike the academic poetry ofthe period, their work incorporated such elements as gossip heard at parties, the lives of Hollywood stars, and the ironic humor associated with homosexual "camp." Their experiments with language - influenced by the French Surrealist poets, the Abstract Expressionist painters, and the work of American avant-gardists such as William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein - were among the most radical of the postwar era, and led to the even more programmatic experiments carried out by the Language group.
The most charismatic and influential member of the New York school -up to the time of his accidental death in 1966 - was Frank O'Hara. After serving in the navy during World War II, O'Hara attended Harvard, where he met both Ashbery and Koch. The late 1940s was a golden age of poetry at Harvard (among the other poets studying there at the time were Robert Bly, Robert Creeley, Donald Hall, and Adrienne Rich) and its heightened intellectual climate encouraged young writers like O'Hara and Ashbery to scour both American and European poetic traditions for examples of innovative writing. After O'Hara moved to New York City in 1951, he took a job selling books and postcards at the Museum ofModern Art, where he eventually became a curator of exhibitions. O'Hara's involvement with the New York art world, and especially with the Abstract Expressionists, was crucial to his development as a poet: Abstract Expressionism provided O'Hara with the idea of art as process rather than as finished product: the poem was to be "the chronicle of the creative act that produces it." Like the paintings of Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock, O'Hara's poetry would be one of richly varied surfaces instead of symbolic depth. Rather than the layers of meaning provided by symbols or "deep images," O'Hara sought a language that resisted interpretive strategies based on reading "behind" the words. Unlike poets such as Lowell and Bishop, who labored over many drafts of a poem before considering it finished, O'Hara often composed his poems very fast, achieving a verbal and emotional energy through the speed of his composition.
In its emphasis on energy and spontaneity, O'Hara's poetics resembled that of the Black Mountain poets, though O'Hara found Olson too serious in his proselytizing for a new poetry; O'Hara would in fact parody "Projective Verse" in his own mock-manifesto "Personism." In the mid-1950s, O'Hara developed what was to be his distinctive style. Taking his cue from William Carlos Williams, O'Hara moved away from the surrealist-inspired language of earlier poems like "Second Avenue" (1953) and wrote poems that were more relaxed, colloquial, and evocative of everyday urban existence. O'Hara's poems of dailiness have been called "lunch poems" (referring to their descriptions of his actions and motions during the lunch hour) and "I do this I do that poems." In these poems, O'Hara goes beyond the example of Williams in recreating the routine of daily life. In "The Day Lady Died," for instance, he details his wanderings during a particular lunch hour:
It is 12:20 in New York a Friday three days after Bastille day, yes it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
It is only after he has eaten lunch and run a series of mundane errands (buying a magazine, going to the bank, etc.) that O'Hara hears the shocking news of Billie Holiday's death. The contrast between the ordinariness of everyday experience and the powerful memories evoked by the singer's death generates the poem's unique poignancy.
O'Hara also wrote a number of poems about art and artists, and was involved in collaborative projects with painters like Larry Rivers and Joe
Brainerd. O'Hara's most famous poem on the artistic process is "Why I Am Not a Painter" (1957):
I am not a painter, I am a poet. Why? I think I would rather be a painter, but I am not. Well, for instance, Mike Goldberg is starting a painting. I drop in. "Sit down and have a drink" he says. I drink; we drink. I look up. "You have sardines in it." "Yes, it needed something there." "Oh." I go and the days go by and I drop in again. The painting is going on, and I go, and the days go by. I drop in. The painting is finished. "Where's sardines?" All that's left is just letters, "It was too much," Mike says.
On one level, "Why I Am Not a Painter" is an extended verbal joke on the difference (or lack of difference) between poetry and painting. While the poem begins by suggesting that O'Hara would rather be a painter than a poet - not a surprising feeling at a time when the Abstract Expressionist painters had achieved an extraordinary measure ofboth critical and financial success - it fails either to justify this preference or to explain his decision not to be a painter. Instead, the poem takes a number of sudden and witty turns, its progress determined more by O'Hara's free association than by any narrative or poetic logic. Most of the poem concerns the activities of a painter (Mike Goldberg) and a poet (O'Hara himself), whose distinct artistic projects are ironically conflated. O'Hara uses no visual images in describing Goldberg's painting, telling us only that in its first version it contained the written word "sardines"; his own poem, on the other hand, has a title that makes it sound more like a still life painting ("Oranges"), and it is written in an indeterminate form: "a / whole page of words, not lines." Nevertheless, the opposition between painting as a primarily visual medium and poetry as a primary verbal form is made clear by the end the poem: the color orange which was the original inspiration for O'Hara's poem remains only as the title, and the word "sardines" which was originally written across Goldberg's painting is retained only in the form of random letters in its abstract composition.
On a more serious level, "Why I Am Not a Painter" is an ars poetica about the unpredictability of the creative act. The poem's rather offhanded style, casual narrative structure, and loose formal construction evoke the sense of play and experimentation that O'Hara and his fellow artists and poets saw as an antidote to the social rigidity of the Cold War era. O'Hara's refusal to provide a direct answer to the question posed by the title stands for a larger refusal to play by society's rules: the explanation of why he is a poet rather than a painter cannot be reduced to the kind of simple formula demanded by postwar America. As a homosexual and a participant in the bohemian art culture of the 1950s, O'Hara was well versed in the strategies of evasiveness, and "Why I Am Not a Painter" is not only a rejection of the kind of poetic high seriousness represented by Eliot, Lowell, and the New Critics but a camp response to the tradition of what he derided as "the important utterance." The poem is divided into three asymmetrical stanzas: the first poses the central question, the second purports to answer the question but digresses into an anecdote about going to see Goldberg's painting, and the third contains a description of O'Hara's own poetic process:
But me? One day I am thinking of a color: orange. I write a line about orange. Pretty soon it is a whole page of words, not lines. Then another page. There should be so much more, not of orange, of words, of how terrible orange is and life. Days go by. It is even in prose, I am a real poet. My poem is finished and I haven't mentioned orange yet. It's twelve poems, I call it oranges. And one day in a gallery I see Mike's painting, called sardines.
O'Hara proceeds through a series of statements - all uttered with deadpan irony - about his work as a poet. The tone of the poem is never entirely clear: like an Abstract Expressionist painting, it leaves much of the work of interpretation to the reader. On the one hand, there is an obvious joke in his proclamation that the poem "is even in / prose. I am a real poet." (O'Hara may be thinking of Pound's declaration that poetry should be as well written as prose, or celebrating the "prose poem" as the epitome of avant-garde poetry). Yet at the same time, O'Hara hints at a deeper layer of meaning in his statement that "There should be / so much more ... of how terrible orange is / and life." In his sudden juxtapositions of language, O'Hara is constantly seeking to disrupt the reader's expectations. The line break between "orange" and "life," for example, also emphasizes the lack of logical connection between the two. What is the relationship between a color (orange) and life? Is life terrible, and if so, is it terrible in the same way that orange is? Or are these statements merely intended to mock the reader's desire to find a deep message in the poem?
Formally, O'Hara's use of a combination of caesuras and abrupt line breaks creates a feeling of spontaneity: "I go and the days go by / and I drop in again. The painting / is going on, and I go, and the days / go by." The chatty repetition of words and phrases - "I go," "the days go by," "I drop in" - is clearly intended to be humorous, but it has another effect as well. In his conflation of his own actions and the creation of the painting, O'Hara seeks to break down the separation between life and art. Life, like art, is inherently unpredictable; it can be dramatic (as in "The Day Lady Died") or it can rest on a more quotidian plane, merely "going on" until something of value (a poem or a painting, for example) emerges out of it.
Had John Ashbery died in 1966 as O'Hara did, he might be remembered only as a talented but relatively minor poet ofthe postwar generation. Since his poetic career spans over half a century, however, his achievement clearly outstrips his involvement with the New York school. Ashbery was a controversial figure in American poetry, and his poems served as a kind of litmus test for the reader of contemporary verse. Some readers found his writing overrated, self-indulgent, and wilfully difficult; others considered it to be among the strongest and most innovative poetry of the late twentieth century. Ashbery was one of the few poets of his generation to be accepted both by the experimental community and by the more mainstream poetry culture. Though he abandoned a self-consciously experimental style after the publication of The Tennis Court Oath in 1962, his work continued to be characterized by its difficulty and its disjunctiveness: the typical Ashbery poem juxtaposes radically different discourses, shifts rapidly between registers of tone and diction, resists conventional explanation and paraphrase, refuses to present a coherent speaker or a unified lyric self, and avoids traditional subject matter, preferring surreal or comic-book narratives. Like O'Hara, Ashbery was more interested in process than in finished product: he claimed that his poems were less about the outside world than about the act of the "poem creating itself." Since "things are in a continual state of motion," the poem should convey "the experience of experience."
In addition to his stylistic innovations (the influence of which can be seen in the Language Poets, among others), Ashbery is noted for his ability to capture the tenor of the postmodern "information age." His major themes include the nature ofconsciousness and temporality; the fundamental instability of the self; the impossibility of closure; and the falsity of fixed absolutes. "Syringa," from his 1977 collection Houseboat Days, is one of Ashbery's characteristic and deservedly famous poems; the opening section provides a good sense of Ashbery's style.
Of the things beneath the sky. Of course, Eurydice was a part Of this. Then one day, everything changed. He rends Rocks into fissures with lament. Gullies, hummocks Can't withstand it. The sky shudders from one horizon To the other, almost ready to give up wholeness. Then Apollo quietly told him: "Leave it all on earth. Your lute, what point? Why pick at a dull pavan few care to Follow, except a few birds of dusty feather, Not vivid performances of the past." But why not? All other things must change too. The seasons are no longer what they once were, But it is the nature of things to be seen only once, As they happen along, bumping into other things, getting along Somehow. That's where Orpheus made his mistake. Of course Eurydice vanished into the shade; She would have even if he hadn't turned around. No use standing them like a gray stone toga as the whole wheel Of recorded history flashes past, struck dumb, unable to utter an intelligent
Comment on the most thought-provoking element in its train. Only love stays on the brain, and something these people, These other ones, call life.
Ashbery revisits the famous myth of Orpheus, in which Orpheus (the son of Apollo) goes to the underworld to rescue his wife Eurydice and is later torn apart by a group of women (the Bacchantes) when he refuses their advances. Orpheus is best known as a supremely talented musician who could make animals, trees, and stones follow him and who even managed to charm Hades and Persephone into letting Eurydice go. In Ashbery's revision of the myth, the Bacchantes tear Orpheus apart not because they are angered by his fidelity to Eurydice but because they are maddened by the agonizing power of his art, "driven / Half out of their minds by his music, what it was doing to him."
The title of the poem is itself a pun: "syringa" is a flower, a member of the saxifrage family, but the word is also derived from "syrinx," the Greek word for the reed from which musical pipes were made. In another myth, a nymph named Syrinx is transformed into a reed so as to escape being raped by Pan; that reed is in turn made into a musical pipe by Pan. Here the story of Orpheus overlays that of Syrinx, which is alluded to only obliquely in the poem. Both the syringa and the syrinx are important elements in the poem's symbolic structure: Orpheus represents music (and by extension poetry) and his song is compared to the "sparkling yellow flowers / Growing around the brink of the quarry." Both flowers and music break rocks: the song with its beauty, the flowers with their roots (the word saxifrage means
"rock-breaker"). But music is also associated with loss for both Orpheus and Ashbery, who laments that "it isn't enough / To just go on singing."
"Syringa" is a poem about the power of song, and it is also an ars poetica, a poem about the making of poetry. According to Ashbery, there are two modes of poetry. On the one hand, there is the high Orphic strain which is "emblematic," presenting a "tableau" or "stalled moment" oflife. On the other hand, there is the music associated with Syrinx, "In whose tale are hidden syllables / Of what happened," and who asks for no lasting artistic glory, no "stellification." When Syrinx transforms herself into a reed, she loses her individual identity and becomes part of the "flowing, fleeting" process oflife itself: "the tossing reeds of that slow, / Powerful stream, the trailing grasses / Playfully tugged at." Ashbery clearly sees his own poetry as falling into the latter mode, since "Stellification / Is for the few, and comes about much later."
While Ashbery's poem is in part a lament for Orpheus, it also makes fun of him, depicting him as an almost comic-book figure. The opening lines are written in an exaggeratedly simple style: "Of course, Eurydice was a part / Of this. Then one day, everything changed." For Ashbery, the mere fact that a story has become canonized as "myth" does not give it any special status. Unlike Pound, who sought in the myths of the past the "luminous details" that would express the essence ofa particular culture, Ashbery treats the stories of the mythic past as he would any story of contemporary life. After all, the stories of most people and their lives - even those which are important in their day - disappear "into libraries, onto microfilm," where only a few "are still interested in them." The myths of the past are by nature no more interesting than modern life or the artifacts of popular culture which Ashbery explores in poems like "Daffy Duck in Hollywood" and "Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape." In the end, the poem enacts a deflation of the Orpheus myth: the story ends halfway through the poem and we are left with the anti-climax of the ending. Like O'Hara, Ashbery resists the temptation to move toward symbolic depth. His juxtapositions of classical myth with popular culture, and of intense lyricism with flatly prosaic style, suggest an ironic detachment from any gesture that could be seen as conferring an aura of "truth" or a claim of aesthetic transcendence.
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