Ut pictura poesis was our flame
Two things of interest this week.
First, Jordan Davis, in his conversation of Some Math by Bill Luoma, has some general comments about the 90s, and now, that I think could be considered outside of the specific poetry under consideration:
There were a few years in the mid-nineties when it looked like the poets gathering in New York might fuse a thousand disparate styles and beliefs and wishes into a single beam of classical beauty, rude comedy and what can only be called zen clarity (New York School, Beat, and Black Mountain)—the Newer (American) Poetry. If you have a copy of New Mannerist Tricycle lying around the house, I don’t need to persuade you that this is a true statement, and yes I know one third of that chapbook was and is D.C. based—in the mid-nineties D.C. was part of New York.
I was a baby poet and therefore an unreliable witness, but it seemed to me that of all the stoned geniuses circulating in the time before the hanging chads and falling bodies, Bill Luoma gave off this glow most consistently. His chapbook My Trip to New York City (collected in Works and Days) recounted a series of buddy movie misadventures pitched somewhere between Kerouac and South Park (this was before South Park) that like Ted Berrigan’s masterpiece “Tambourine Life” changes suddenly from picaresque to elegy. It beaned me. A few other chapbooks of roughly the same vintage struck me as similarly serious—Katy Lederer’s Music No Staves, Anselm Berrigan’s They Beat Me Over the Head with a Sack, Lisa Jarnot’s Sea Lyrics. Thinking back on them now (without actually getting hold of my copies of them) I imagine what they had in common was a Jules et Jim light-heartedness, with hard-earned awareness of the effects of gravity.
What most of those poets also had in common, at that point anyway, was a devout commitment to incantation, to a more or less regular, hypnotic cadence.
And then he goes on a bit later to add this:
Poetry has been mistaken so long for an all-or-nothing proposition that it sometimes feels like more of a hierarchy than the A.P. College poll. If a poet isn’t ranked in the top twenty-five, the feeling goes, why read him or her. Maybe I’m imagining it, this consensus-seeking chasing after the current number one with a bullet; maybe it’s real but also only a reflection of the larger culture. Most of the time I remember to forget it.
The second is Richard Deming’s essay on The New York School, reprinted this week on Poetry Daily:
In 1961 . . . “Frank O'Hara . . . published” For the Chinese New Year & for Bill Berkson." In that poem, O'Hara writes, “It’s a strange curse my 'generation' has we're all / like the flowers in the Agassiz Museum perpetually ardent.” [. . .] Still, what is somewhat prophetic about O'Hara's lines describing his peers as flowers in a museum is the fact that the New York School increases in influence and importance with every passing year. [. . .] The School has become an institution.
But what is the curse that O'Hara mentions? Is it because the flowers are not wild or transient but are representations made of delicate and precise glass and on display, kept vivid artificially, at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology that makes being like them a curse? Given that Koch, O'Hara, and Ashbery all were undergraduates at Harvard, there is a specific and prevailing nostalgia encoded in O'Hara's metaphor, as if the poem suggests that their passion and joie de vivre reified at the moment of inception. The possibility of being always already imbued with nostalgia would be a horror. As different as each of the poets was, as dissimilar as their work is in terms of form, content, and poetics, they all prized a certain immediacy and wrote (or in Ashbery's case, still write) poems that seek to maintain a vivid, complex sanguinity, an intensity open to the flow of daily life, poems that do manifest, at their best, a kind of ardor. Yet that ardor, like any ardor, is often fraught, complicated—is never assured.
In that sense, the curse O'Hara's generation wrestled with is the possibility that in work striving for spontaneity, the emotional life, by being on display, becomes in reality an exquisite representation, ever fragile, and ever pointing to some other thing. Ut pictura poesis.
The joy that is so often seen as the defining characteristic of the poets of the New York School needs to be measured against their sadness or even anxiety that the time for immediacy and its corresponding necessary intimacy is always just past. To miss that gap between the ideal and the art is to miss that the spontaneity is never fully achieved, and that what might be called a desperation inflects the attempts of these poets to make life real and present. Or as Schuyler once wrote in his beautifully heartbreaking poem "Daylight," "And when I thought / 'Our love might end' / the sun / went right on shining." It is a lovely juxtaposition, until we realize that the sun doesn't actually engage with the possibility of whether that love might end. The human and the natural world are juxtaposed. And since all things must end—we know this and we know the poet knows this—the sense of denial within the uncertainty is that much keener because "the sun [will go] right on shining" in its certainty. That tension to go on despite the fact that an end will come to all things is where Schuyler's poetry places its stakes in humanity as well as its faith in art. The curse that O'Hara refers to might be, then, that art's semblance of life, however precise, is never life itself—and that exquisite failure is what remains forever memorialized. Call this their aesthetics of affinity.
The legacy of the New York School is, finally, not the gossip or parties or self-celebration, nor even the identity politics. From the early days at Tibor de Nagy to Padgett's newest book, what marks this body of work, taking it in toto, is the persistent sense of wonder that each word we say contains possibility, and that poetry depends not on a particular diction or a magisterial stance or some unblinking look at "the human condition." In the hands of Schuyler, Padgett, and the others, poetry manifests a vivid attention to our own dailiness, and the countless shocks, sadnesses, and joys that constitute a fully human life.
These two struck me as a fascinating duo of Post-New York School, New York School thinking. Or re-thinking. Davis’s 1990s “beam of classical beauty” and Deming’s (O’Hara’s) 50s-60s curse of museum flowers are both part of the architecture now. The “persistent sense of wonder” and the feeling of being just past; the feeling that “a thousand disparate styles and beliefs and wishes into a single beam of classical beauty, rude comedy and what can only be called zen clarity” is/was just about to happen.
This is a feeling that I still see around in many styles. The joy + anxiety. I see it strongly in Heather Christle’s work, for instance (which I mention at random as I’m reading her The Difficult Farm this week). This tradition, as Wallace Stevens once said about the tradition of the Irrational in art, is still unfolding. But it’s changing, of course, as all things must. I wonder where it’s going, as contrary to Tony Hoagland (and others), I see it as healthy and plural.
It doesn’t need to be one thing. It doesn’t need to be the new thing, the old thing, passing, emergent, or passé. As Davis reminds us: “Maybe I’m imagining it, this consensus-seeking chasing after the current number one with a bullet; maybe it’s real but also only a reflection of the larger culture.” I’m also growing more and more tired of the lists, even as I have a shelf of my favorite books in front of me. Yes. But outside of what’s in or out, worthy or dismissed, then or now, these desires remain. And this rough strand of American poetry continues.