Tibor de Nagy Gallery Painters and Poets: Celebrating Sixty Years, Douglas Crase
and Jenni Quilter
Other Flowers: Uncollected Poems, James Schuyler, edited by James Meetze
and Simon Pettet
How Long, Ron Padgett
from The Yale Review, October 2011
In 1961, the year that John Bernard Myers, owner of the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, bestowed upon a particular band of writers the label "the New York School of poets," Frank O'Hara—who in five years would suffer the group's first and most untimely death—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." In the fifty years since O'Hara wrote those lines the force of the simile has recontexualized as four of the five figures of that first, defining generation of the New York School are gone: O'Hara was killed in an accident in 1966, James Schuyler died of a stroke in 1991, Kenneth Koch succumbed to leukemia in 2002, and Barbara Guest suffered a series of strokes in 2006. Only John Ashbery is still alive, and he has become arguably the most celebrated, most influential poet of our time. 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. Each year there are more and more articles, essays, dissertations, and monographs devoted to O'Hara and Ashbery specifically, and to this group of writers as a whole. 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.
Thinking of the flowers in O'Hara's "For the Chinese New Year & for Bill Berkson," one might think, too, of the flowers that adorn the sofa in two portraits by Fairfield Porter, one of the painters closest to the poets of the New York School, and an artist at the center of the aesthetic and collaborative energy of the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, which in the 1950s and 1960s was located on East 53rd Street in Manhattan. In a relatively well-known painting from 1957-58, Jimmy and John, two figures sit on a flowered sofa. One is leaning against the right corner and looking toward the left. That is James Schuyler. The other figure, John Ashbery, looking desultory, is seated at the edge of the cushion or perhaps even on a hassock in front of the sofa, arms folded, his gaze vaguely toward the right of where Porter would have been standing to paint the work. The patterned flowers float in muted tones between Ashbery and Schuyler and mark the distance between the two writers even as the sofa's print creates a way for the eye to bind the two together. This same flowered-print sofa appears in Porter's portrait of O'Hara, and though the colors are brighter (in O'Hara's portrait we glimpse a window near the sofa, and the light of the whole painting is keyed higher), the poet looks as forlorn as his friends in the other painting.
It is an open secret that the writers connected to the New York School were competitive (with others, with one another) and ambitious (for themselves, for one another), but none of that appears in Porter's two paintings. In neither portrait do the poets put on faces geared for posterity. Instead, an intimacy and a sadness enter into their expressions and postures: the avant garde that is at last not en garde. The portraits depict in the subjects an openness to a reality just as immediate as any willed vibrancy: boredom, listlessness, melancholia. Given how well Porter knew his friends, one cannot help but imagine that he captured something important about these three writers that is often left out of their mythology. The value of these poets and the most moving elements of their work is that one's daily life, its everydayness neither evaded nor aggrandized, remains the site of struggle to acknowledge, to make real the necessity of the present tense. As the New York School and its accompanying lore continue to grow in importance and influence, there might be cause for concern that the attitude gets the attention over what the work of these poets still has to teach us about affect. It is impossible to deny the glamour of the New York School, and that can sometimes obscure the fact that their true legacy for the generations that follow lies in the ways they explore the limitations of our abilities of feeling distance and proximity, the here and now.
The mythology is of course seductive and is part of what keeps the popularity of the New York School surging forward. In biographies and anecdotes, collected correspondence, archival footage, and memoirs, the allure of the gossip, the parties, the incandescent wit, and the conversations come to dominate how the New York School is remembered. In the lore surrounding these writers, we see a love affair with the glamour of New York in the fifties and sixties, when art and expression seemed so new, so sophisticated, and when communities of writers and artists could seemingly will their importance into reality. The whole city became the place that transformed outsiders into insiders, and these writers depicted the motion and energy of Manhattan with no less resplendence than the city had to offer. Small wonder that the television show Mad Men and its florid, self-consciously perverse nostalgia for gin-soaked corporate meetings on Madison Avenue and beehive hairdos would feature some of O'Hara's verse, lines from the poem "Mayakovsky," in one of its episodes.
Porter's Jimmy and John appears in Tibor de Nagy's recent exhibition and catalogue, Painters and Poets, celebrating the gallery's sixtieth anniversary. This retrospective indicates just how important the New York School has become, and to a certain extent Painters and Poets both benefits from and feeds the mythology of that particular social and artistic formation collected around the gallery since it opened in 1950 (after spending a year or so as a marionette theater). Rather than put together a show that drew from the gallery's entire history, the current directors, Andrew Arnot and Eric Brown, chose to focus on the 1950s and 1960s, when Ashbery, O'Hara, Porter, Grace Hartigan, Larry Rivers, Joe Brainard, and a number of other figures first made their names in connection with the gallery. Indeed, the gallery published the first books by all the members of the group, a group held together by a set of shared elective affinities rather than any programmatic poetic stance, and these affinities expanded to include numerous painters as well. John Myers and his partner, Tibor de Nagy, provided a space that became a nexus for creative productivity where the poets and painters worked together directly or in complementary ways to carve out the possibilities for an imagination informed by and yet distinct from the existential monumentalism of the Abstract Expressionists, who still held sway in the small but fecund art world of New York in the mid-twentieth century.
Douglas Crase, in his elegant and informative (in fact, informatively elegant) essay included in Painters and Poets, reports that Ashbery thinks of the gallery's publication of his first book, Turandot, as perhaps his greatest publishing experience. Crase describes what has become a mutual debt: "There can be no doubt either that the warranty of the immortal achievement [of Ashbery's experience] was the gallery's invention, through Myers, of the New York School tag itself. Although every single New York School Poet has at one time criticized it as a misnomer, the label does not discriminate. It has crowned them all with inexhaustible fame." Myers labeled the group, and his gallery became a center as well as a salon—an artistic and intellectual kiln—that allowed the forces to coalesce and become a definitive scene, while the continued and even growing importance of the poets' reputations have secured the gallery's place in the cultural history of America.
Irving Sandler in The New York School, a seminal work on the art produced during this era, describes the function of the frequent gatherings and face-to-face encounters of artists, writers, and performers in New York as being one of legitimation and revelation. He insists: "There was a collective need for assurance, a need to talk out one's insecurities with one's peers; Robert Rauschenberg recalled that appearing at artists' gatherings was valuable because it allowed one to show one's face in the hope of being identified as an artist." Page after page, the catalogue for Painters and Poets provides a record of the conversation that would flow from these encounters in the form of art. Any movement needs to earn its reputation by what it produces; otherwise it remains merely a fad. In looking at the paintings and collaborations between and among Nell Blaine, Larry Rivers, Helen Frankenthaler, Ashbery, Koch, O'Hara, Porter, Bill Berkson, Joe Brainard, and the others, there can be no denying that the era was filled with possibilities of the imagination that spilled across distinctions and boundaries of medium and genre. Throughout the catalogue, one finds images in which the poets write on the paintings, and the painters help write text included in the paintings. James Merrill, Ted Berrigan, and other poets as well serve as models for drawings, prints, and paintings.
One of the most compelling pieces reproduced in the catalogue is a Color Field pastel drawing by Jane Freilicher from 1975. As ever, Freilicher's sense of color is both vibrant and subtle in a way that recharges the page's white background. Writing a review of a show of hers at the gallery in 1961, Schuyler described her colors as "cartographic," adding that they reveal "the tender accuracies that locate the places of the world." As part of Freilicher's drawing in Painters and Poets, Schuyler's "Daylight" floats in small type just beneath a dark-blue series of lines like a horizon and then a large, yellow-orange square reaching toward the page's upper edge. The drawing captures and foregrounds the vulnerability of Schuyler's poem, becoming both more plaintive and more ecstatic in the combined "tender accuracies" of text and color. Looking at the collaboration, the "our" now seems not only to reference the two friends, Freilicher and Schuyler, but also the connection between art and poetry and how neither outlasts the sun itself. The piece is relatively small and intimate next to the wilder work of Rivers (whose art dominated the show but is more balanced in the catalogue) or Alfred Leslie, and for that seems infinitely more fragile and quieter. In fact, Schuyler's work has always seemed overshadowed, at least in terms of reputation, by the formal pyrotechnics of Ashbery and Koch and the epic ambition of O'Hara, while Guest and her abstract lyricism have long been critically underappreciated.
Yet, in Painters and Poets, the love referred to by "our love" could be read as encompassing the whole of the New York School. Schuyler's intimate gesture reaches out and retouches all of that representative work—indeed all of the poems and accomplishments of his friends and colleagues—with his resonant acknowledgment of limitation. This acknowledgment isn't a resignation; instead it is the signaling that the limitations exist and humanity, happiness, all these profound states of being come out of the fact that despite limitations, people still discover the world each day. Thus, the achievement of brio of the poets of the New York School lies in the fact that they persevere despite knowing the curse of their being "perpetually ardent," just like crystal flowers in a museum.
Just as "Daylight" reminds us of what those wild experimenters and high spirits of Painters and Poets are up against, Schuyler's poems remind us more generally that the opportunities for our attention exist all around us. If O'Hara was the quintessential poet of Manhattan, Schuyler's landscape was just as often the suburbs of Long Island, where he stayed for long stretches of time with Fairfield Porter and his family. This might be one reason why Schuyler does not receive the critical and scholarly attention that his friends have come to receive—his subject is so often domestic life and domestic spaces, the places where many people actually live, rather than where people wish they could live. One might even say that those are the places most in need of wonder and music. A sign of just how persuasive Schuyler's art can be lies in the devotion of so many editors and publishers to his work. Since his death, Schuyler's art writings have been gathered and brought into print; as well, two books of selected correspondence, and even some of his diary have all been published. William Corbett, in his introduction to Just the Thing: Selected Letters of James Schuyler, 1951-1991, relates the anecdote that upon hearing that Corbett was publishing the letters, a friend of Schuyler's enthused, "Great! More Jimmy!" It is a sweet reply and suggests, I think, the role that Schuyler's work serves in terms of his circle of fellow New York writers. He is the most intimate of the five, the most given to noticing that being perpetually ardent is both a curse and a release into the world of "tender accuracies." In his poem "Labor Day," Schuyler can compare the day's "bliss" to an "unending kiss" and then confess, "what a gyp, / that there is / unendingness / but we, or / I, only get / to sense it." How complex that awareness, both intimate and unsentimental, of our limitedness is: a moment of transcendence denied that colloquially invokes ages of negotiating philosophical skepticism, all summed up in "what a gyp." One might want to have O'Hara's glamorous life, but to be able to see like Schuyler seems like a near miracle. There is no mystery why some would want more opportunities to live with the active range of Schuyler's aesthetics of affinities.
In 1993, his Collected Poems appeared, a volume that also included the last group of poems he was working on at the time of his death. Schuyler might not have been as prolific as his peers, but the Collected Poems showed just how productive he had been, and just how consistent his sense of the subtle, particularly attentive, musicality remains.
And now we have the recently published Other Flowers: Uncollected Poems, which brings together a large swath of fugitive and previously uncollected poems unearthed from the poet's archives. Indeed, more Jimmy. These poems are drawn from throughout Schuyler's career, and there are moments to be found in the book that do deepen one's understanding of this poet. For example, in "A Blue Shadow Painting," a poem dedicated to Porter, Schuyler describes seeing a painting "of an evening real as paint on a canvas," the kind that makes him "ache to dust off clichés: / not Make it new, but See it, hear it, freshly." The poem is an ars poetica in the way it offers Schuyler's reworking of Ezra Pound's dictum "make it new," which itself has become a bit of a cliché, into a new statement of value. Schuyler, enacting his very desire to see freshly, revises Pound's credo, working out the process of seeing objects and details anew in terms of acknowledgment rather than estrangement or some modernist revolutionary vision. As the poem continues, Schuyler describes the painting's lines and strokes as revealing its "orange assertions and dark there-ness," and these are "set against, no, with, living with, existing alongside of and part of / the helter-skelter of rust brown, of swift indecipherables." That gentle self-conscious doubt of these lines enables a process that moves from crisis to acknowledgment, that cites the world's final unknowability without resolving or aggrandizing it. We come to exist alongside and part of that final indecipherability. This is an affinity devoutly to be wished. The recognition in "A Blue Shadow Poem" that the world is beautiful not despite but because of its indecipherability is as definitive of Schuyler's poetics as anything to be found in his Collected Poems.
At the same time, it is hard to imagine Other Flowers as a starting point for one's acquaintanceship with Schuyler's work. Like listening to a collection of remastered bootlegs and B sides by Bob Dylan, the pleasure of this new collection of Schuyler's poems is that one can start to discern his process, to see the places where he made decisions to leave things out or to see where the poet's ear and eye go astray. Encountering an artist's less successful work humanizes him or her and makes the artist's successes seem that much more like accomplishment because we get to see the limitations that are overcome in the more fully realized work.
It is frustrating that the editors, James Meetze and Simon Pettet, arranged the poems thematically rather than primarily according to some rough chronology. Chronological order would help illuminate the narrative of Schuyler's growth as a poet. The risk of such an approach would be that the structure would become academic. Perhaps, but then the ease of Schuyler's self-consciousness keeps the poems from ever being stilted, and Other Flowers simply cannot stand on its own next to such collections as Hymn to Life and Morning of the Poem, the latter having won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981. Although oftentimes the poems in Other Flowers have dates, the dates are sequestered in the notes at the back of the book. From page to page, the quality shifts and falters because the development of Schuyler's gifts isn't projected in a straight line. Schuyler was friendly with W. H. Auden and for a time was the older poet's secretary, and there are some early poems in Other Flowers that show Auden's influence. As well, there are some sonnets, some acrostics, and various other forms that are atypical of Schuyler's general formal tendencies. 'While these poems are none of them juvenilia, perhaps, they are more exercises in apprenticeship than they are poignant works of art. What would be fascinating would be a "Complete Poems of James Schuyler" that integrated everything together and created an arc to this gifted poet's oeuvre, which still, twenty years after his death, feels like it is blossoming in our collective idea of what is possible to the art.
Yet these hesitations have more to do with emphasizing that Other Flowers is exactly what one should expect: this is a supplemental collection that, in what it reveals about the poet's aesthetic decisions, underlines Schuyler's genius for a disarming, revelatory offhandedness. Other Flowers reminds us that grace favors the poet who prepares for it through an attention to his or her attentiveness, and that is a lesson that we must go on learning.
In many ways, one of the best indicators of what lessons are to be drawn from a movement or "school" comes not from the first but rather the second generation. Ron Padgett, born in 1942, is one of the best known and most accomplished poets of those writers of the "second generation" of the New York School who drew aesthetic models and a capacious poetic sensibility from O'Hara, Koch, Ashbery, Schuyler, and Guest. Padgett's wit and the fact that he was a student at Columbia often means that he is thought of as being shaped by Koch's work, yet Padgett has always had such an impossibly gentle touch as well as an aversion to any grandly tragic gesture that he can be read as the inheritor of Schuyler's sensitivity to the everyday. Over the course of the numerous books and chapbooks that he has published since the mid-1960s, Padgett has crafted his poems with such a profound belief in the ordinary, the world at hand, that his poems never transform the everyday so much as reveal its continuous presence to us all over again. This revelation of the known is both consoling and vivifying.
"Walking with Walt," a poem from Padgett's newest collection, How Long, shows the poet thinking about that original New York School writer Walt Whitman; Padgett expresses his puzzlement that "America did not explode / when Whitman published Leaves of Grass, / explode with amazement and pride, but / America was busy being other / than what he thought it was." Padgett then turns from a kind of disillusionment born out of the gap between social realities and Whitman's dream of America back to the possibilities of a lyric time that the poet of "Song of Myself" and "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" created out of his anticipation of later generations of New Yorkers, a time that forms a perpetual present tense from the presence of a common language. Now Padgett looks retrospectively, however impossibly, at the present.
Though actually at this very moment
the trees are acting exactly the way they did
when he walked through and among them,
one of the roughs, as he put it,
though how rough I don't know I think
he was just carried away
as we all are, if we're lucky
enough to have just walking
buoy us up a little off the earth
to be more on it
The poem's engagement of Whitman evokes New York not as a grand symbol of potential power but as a place where one poet lives and where another poet once lived. Nothing more than this? Nothing less. Padgett reworks the transcendentalism of the "good gray poet" into a poetics of affinity. The trees are the same, Padgett and Whitman are both New York poets, and Padgett even chides Whitman's self-apotheosis, affectionately, noting that his predecessor was carried away "as we all are." These points of commonality are quiet but persistent elements by which we forge the ability to recognize ourselves by way of the past and how we decide to look at it, without anxiety or any Freudian agonism, but that form of acknowledgment that the New York poets at their best allow to flare up into a language of steady goodwill. For a poet of Padgett's talents, language is the means "buoying us up a little off the earth / to be more on it."
Throughout his long career (now nearing five decades), Padgett has been an impressively consistent poet, particularly in the offhand ease of his prosody, which continues to walk the edges of poetry and conversation. Indeed, it is as if by winnowing the distance between daily conversation and poetic diction, Padgett reminds us that both life and language are everywhere we find ourselves, and anywhere language is, poetry can potentially be found as well. Although Padgett's hallmark is his consistency, How Long is in many ways his masterpiece. Of course, to label this new book that way risks burdening it with a weight of tradition and literary culture that his work has always sought to escape. In How Long, however, there is a prevailing sense of the poet's own mortality that both deepens and complicates his humor and the nearly impossibly light touch of each of his poems. In "Scotch Tape Body," the first poem of How Long, the poet writes,
I never thought,
forty years ago,
taping my poems into a notebook,
that one day the tape
would turn yellow, grow brittle, and fall off
and that I'd find myself on hands and knees
groaning as I picked the pieces up
off the floor
one by one
The sentiment is a powerful one to begin a collection entitled How Long, for even the title offers a complicated sense of the poet's relation to his mortality, the mortality of his loved ones, and instead of presenting art as lapidary and permanent reveals that it exists in time as well—the material dimension of the poems turns brittle. This awareness of time and limitations means that the collection's title, How Long, can be inflected in different ways. "How long have I got?" would be one way to hear the phrase, as if it were a question. Another inflection would reveal that it is a kind of assessment of the time that has passed: "look how long it has been." In Padgett's work, both readings, both sets of responses to experience are present. If an awareness of the body's limitations and the passing of friends and loved ones is frequently a subject for poets entering the later part of their career, Padgett's difference is that a quiet, recurring sense of surprise keeps How Long from becoming a lament. The acknowledgement that Padgett's work brings into a discussion of aging and the passing of time allows for a complicated sense of the grief as well as the grace that marks a long life. This isn't to say that fear and apprehension don't have a place in How Long and its meditations on death. In "The Joke," Padgett recounts the crucifixion and reads "Why has thou forsaken me?" as Christ enacting "the story of every person who suddenly realizes / not that he or she has been forsaken / but there never was / a forsaker," and that the idea of an immortality that is "the birthright of every human being / gradually vanishes." This realization is met with a crying out.
As powerful as this insight "The Joke" offers may be, Padgett does not end the book on this note. His decision to place the poem in the middle of the collection in itself acts as a gesture, as if to say, The reason to think about death is not fear of no longer existing but recognizing that life is a kind of luck that we have each of us stumbled into, and it's worth missing. "Now that I'm officially old," the poet writes in "The Death Deal," a contemplation of how he might die, "I'm oddly almost cheered / by the thought / that I might find out / in the not too distant future. / Now for lunch." Indeed, in How Long all the responses to death and mortality find their moment.
How Long includes everything—humor and resentment, anger and ardor, pettiness and astonishment. Padgett opens the book's title poem with the question "How long do you want to go on being the person you think you are?" The poems all taken together seem to respond, "As long as it takes." And the gift of Padgett's ease is the sense that within his poetics, if one makes the decision to include everything, to accept and acknowledge without judging, there is no such thing as risk. Within such a view, the world becomes an opportunity, and it is through language, words, the means by which we fashion our community and through which we recognize ourselves, that we can open ourselves to possibility.
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.
About the Author
Richard Deming is a poet and a theorist whose work explores the intersections of poetry, philosophy, and visual culture. His collection of poems, Let's Not Call It Consequence (Shearsman), received the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America. His poems have appeared in such places as Sulfur, Field, Indiana Review, and The Nation. He is also the author of Listening on All Sides: Toward an Emersonian Ethics of Reading (Stanford). He teaches at Yale University.
Editor: J. D. McClatchy
Associate Editor: Susan Bianconi