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A N DR E W E P S T E I N

“Street Musicians”: Frank O’Hara


and John Ashbery

Today John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara are generally regarded as two of
the most important and influential American poets to have emerged since
World War II. This was certainly not always the case: both poets started out
“barely tolerated, living on the margin,” as one of Ashbery’s poems puts it,
writing strange and experimental poems that were often met with incom-
prehension and ridicule.1 Along with Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, and
Barbara Guest, O’Hara and Ashbery formed the nucleus of an avant-garde
movement that emerged in the 1950s and came to be known as “the
New York School of poets.” Together the young writers set about rejecting
the poetic mode then ascendant by resisting its closed, traditional forms
and somber, mythic subject matter in favor of a more open-ended and
playful poetics. Less a literary “school” than a collection of friends with
shared tastes, obsessions, and poetic strategies, the New York School has
nonetheless come to be viewed as one of the most influential of the many
movements that sprung up in the period following World War II – shining
more brightly today than the Beats and the Confessional poets who once
overshadowed them.2
The emergence of O’Hara, Ashbery, and the New York School is a sig-
nificant chapter in the evolution of American poetry because it represents
a distinctive fusion of influences that has proven to be a unique and lasting
contribution to American letters. Finding existing, approved traditions of
poetry in English largely stultifying, they defiantly turned elsewhere, to alter-
native and less sanctioned sources of inspiration: they cast aside the domi-
nant mid-century mode, promoted by T. S. Eliot and his disciples among the
formalist New Critics, took up some of the more marginal strains of modern
American poetry (Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens,
and Gertrude Stein), and turned, especially, to the European avant-garde of
Cubism, Futurism, Dada, and Surrealism. The New York School’s achieve-
ment was to merge a profoundly American sensibility with the liberating
formal experimentation of modern European painting; the French poetic
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tradition from Arthur Rimbaud to Guillaume Apollinaire, Andre Breton,


and Pierre Reverdy; the Russian poetry of Vladimir Mayakovsky and
Boris Pasternak; and key avant-garde methods like collage, appropriation,
abstraction, constraints, and collaboration.
At the same time, the New  York School poets were particularly
inspired by the preeminent school of postwar American painting, Abstract
Expressionism, and sought to adapt its emphasis on spontaneity and art-as-
process to poetry. They saw this as a way of escaping the constraining notion
that a poem must be a “well-wrought urn” or exquisitely crafted, symmet-
rical object  – a shift in orientation that had a dramatic impact on ideas
about form and craft in American poetry.3 They found another model in
avant-garde classical music, especially in John Cage’s exploration of chance
methods, randomness, and the music of everyday sounds. They embraced
the movies, comic books, and, to a lesser extent, jazz, breaking new ground
by prying open the narrow confines of poetry to let in the gaudy glory of
American pop culture – in the process, opening the door to the blurring of
“high” and “low” culture that became one of the hallmarks of postmodern-
ism. They also were united in the belief that New York City itself offered
boundless opportunities for inspiration and artistic community, bringing a
new urban and urbane sensibility to American poetry.
Deeply enthusiastic about one another’s work but wary of sounding too
much alike, O’Hara and Ashbery deliberately moved in different directions
in their poetry, as I  will show. But their writing also shares a great deal,
including a tendency to yoke the absurd and surreal with an attentiveness
to the everyday, a refusal of over-seriousness and pomposity, a fondness
for chatty and colloquial language, and a love of verbal play and arti-
fice. They are also both fascinated by the concept, drawn from Abstract
Expressionism, that a poem could be what Ashbery calls “the chronicle of
the creative act that produces it.”4 On a fundamental level, they also share
a philosophical outlook that grows out of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the
pragmatism of William James, characterized by an anti-foundationalist
skepticism of absolutes, a resistance to all forms of fixity, and a generally
affirmative response to a world they view as marked by absurdity, loss, tran-
sience, and contingency.5
The poetry of O’Hara and Ashbery – once seen as too outrageous, too
lightweight or lacking in high seriousness, too deliberately difficult  – has
been gradually assimilated into the canon, like so many other radical works
of the avant-garde, and now seems to speak in vital and memorable ways to
central concerns of our time. From the vantage point of the early twenty-first
century, the influence of O’Hara and Ashbery can be seen virtually every-
where across the variegated landscape of American poetry.6
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The New York School

Frank O’Hara
From the early 1950s to his tragic death in 1966 at the age of forty, O’Hara
was the charismatic core of the New York School group, as poet, art critic,
museum curator, and all-around dynamo. Like virtually all of the poets asso-
ciated with the New York School, O’Hara grew up far from Manhattan’s
buzzing, crowded streets and glittering skyscrapers and only made his way
there in his twenties, seeking art, culture, and personal liberation. Born in
1926 in Baltimore, Maryland, raised in the small, rural town of Grafton,
Massachusetts, and “sent against my will to Catholic schools,” O’Hara was
a precocious, artistic child whose first love and ambition was to be a pia-
nist and composer.7 After graduating from high school, O’Hara enlisted in
the Navy and served in the Pacific during World War II. Upon returning,
he attended Harvard University, thanks to the G.I. Bill, where his interests
quickly shifted from music to literature, as he met fellow poets such as Koch
and Ashbery, fell in with an artistic and literary crowd, and began writing
poems. After receiving an M. A. from the University of Michigan, he fol-
lowed in the footsteps of his poet friends as quickly as he could and moved
to New York in 1951. Almost instantly, O’Hara found himself at the very
center of a dynamic New York art world of painters, dancers, composers,
and poets, during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism, a moment of great
excitement and creative ferment in the arts.8
No other American poet has ever been as deeply connected to major
currents in visual art as Frank O’Hara. Soon after arriving in New York,
he landed a job as a front desk clerk selling postcards at the Museum of
Modern Art in order to simply be around art as much as possible. Rather
remarkably, within a few short years, he had worked his way up to become
an influential associate curator at the museum. He grew close to many
painters, both those already famous (Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline) and
others soon to be (Larry Rivers, Robert Rauschenberg), and began publish-
ing fresh, perceptive, sometimes rhapsodic art criticism, including one of
the first monographs on Jackson Pollock, an artist whose work he revered.
O’Hara delighted in playing the role of friend, supporter, and catalyst to
the most exciting artists of his day, just as one of his heroes, Apollinaire, did
for Picasso and the Cubists. O’Hara posed for portraits, dropped in on art-
ists’ studios, wrote reviews, helped mount landmark exhibitions as a curator
at MoMA, and even collaborated directly with artists, creating mixed-media
“poem-paintings” (most famously in the series of lithographs he completed
with Rivers titled Stones).9
O’Hara’s web of connections extended far beyond the art world, as he fos-
tered close ties with figures from the worlds of poetry, fiction, drama, music

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(classical, avant-garde, and jazz), dance, painting, and sculpture. O’Hara


saw no distinction between friendship and artistic creation and was always
ready, even eager, to blur the lines between them by diving into collabora-
tive ventures with his companions. Rejecting the traditional image of the
American poet as a solitary genius, O’Hara and the New York School poets
embraced the practice of collaboration, relishing the competitive interplay
with other writers and artists as an exciting and unpredictable method of
generating creativity.10
A notable feature of O’Hara’s life and work was his refusal to abide by
the strictures of the closet, even at the nadir of the McCarthy-era persecu-
tion of homosexuals. During one of the most virulently anti-gay moments in
American cultural history, O’Hara wrote openly about his sexual identity,
treating it as just another facet of his daily life (“I live above a dyke bar and
I’m happy”) and refusing to see homosexuality as “deviant” or abnormal
(286). It was virtually unthinkable that a poet in 1954 could bestow the
title “Homosexuality” upon a poem, let alone proudly proclaim in the piece
that “it’s wonderful to admire oneself / with complete candor” (182) or be
brazen enough in 1957 to publish a piece that exclaims “Now there is only
one man I love to kiss when he is unshaven. Heterosexuality! you are inexo-
rably approaching (How discourage her?)” (197). Not surprisingly, O’Hara
has become an important model and inspiration to legions of gay poets and
readers and a subject of considerable interest for scholars of queer theory
and literature.11
In July 1966, O’Hara was killed in a bizarre accident when he was struck
in the middle of the night by a dune buggy on a beach on Fire Island,
New York. At the time of his death, he had published only two full-length
collections of poetry and was largely seen as an art world fixture and a cote-
rie figure with an underground following among young bohemian poets.
Indeed, upon his death, the New York Times obituary read, rather shockingly
given his posthumous reputation, “MUSEUM CURATOR: Exhibitions Aide
at Modern Art Dies – Also a Poet.” Because O’Hara was notoriously casual
about collecting and publishing his works – perhaps because he was always
more interested in poetry as process and experiment than as a set of finished,
polished products – it was not until after his death, when the monumental
Collected Poems was published in 1971, that the full range and power of his
ambitious oeuvre became clear.
O’Hara’s poems fuse surrealistic, rapidly shifting imagery with a chatty,
conversational voice, creating a distinctive tone that fosters an unusual
degree of intimacy with the reader. Shedding the “Waste Land” pessimism
of Eliotic poetry, O’Hara’s poems are riddled with exclamation points and
display an infectious, campy joie de vivre. Temperamentally allergic to
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The New York School

dogmatism and absolutes, resistant to all forms of fixity and stasis, and
deeply wary of the metaphysical and transcendent (“I am . . . the opposite of
visionary,” he writes), O’Hara’s philosophical disposition might be thought
of as an affirmative skepticism: a pragmatist embrace of the here-and-now,
a belief in the inherent value of concrete, empirical experience in all its plu-
ralistic variety, and a relatively cheerful response to doubt, contingency, and
mortality (256).
To put this philosophical stance into practice, O’Hara develops what
Marjorie Perloff refers to as an “aesthetic of attention” – an alert respon-
siveness to the immediate particulars and absurdities of daily life, a com-
mitment to tracking the “emergency” of ordinary experience as it unfolds
moment by moment.12 As O’Hara wrote in an essay, “attention equals Life,
or is its only evidence” (Standing 184). In the early poem “Today,” O’Hara
offers a young poet’s declaration of purpose:  thumbing his nose at those
who would police which subject matter is appropriate or “serious” enough
for verse, he proclaims his commitment to the quotidian, to an art deeply
rooted in the immediate present; as another early poem puts it, he wants
his writing to be “the inexorable / product of my own time” (49). “Today”
begins on a characteristically giddy note, joyfully enumerating a series of
odd, concrete things: “Oh, kangaroos, sequins, chocolate sodas! / You really
are beautiful!” and ends by insisting that “These things are with us every
day / even on beachheads and on biers. They / / do have meaning, they’re
strong as rocks” (15).
As the poem’s quiet reference to “beachheads” and “biers” suggests,
beneath the charming, bright surfaces of O’Hara’s work run strong under-
currents of irony, sadness, anxiety, and awareness of time’s passing. As
David Lehman observes, “O’Hara’s distinctive tone” is “two parts melan-
choly, three parts joy,” with both parts of that ratio essential to his work’s
potency (Last 170). A  recognition that loss, defeat, and death lie around
every corner lends O’Hara’s poems a gravity and density that is even more
effective because of their exuberance and their often humorous and seem-
ingly offhand qualities.
During the first phase of his work, O’Hara’s poetry displays the most
direct impress of surrealism and Abstract Expressionism on his writing,
especially in several radical longer poems, such as “Second Avenue” and
“Easter,” where O’Hara experiments with smashing conventional syntax
and using dreamlike, violent, and scatological imagery. After these liberating
experiments in aggressive disjunction and surrealism, O’Hara’s work grows
increasingly interested in rendering the dizzying variety of daily experience
in a disarmingly conversational idiom. As Kenneth Koch noted in an essay
about the evolution of his friend’s work, O’Hara’s poems “move in general
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from being experience-inspired outbursts of imaginative creation to being


imaginative illuminations of ordinary experience,” although it is worth not-
ing that these two sides of his work remain in play and in tension from
beginning to end.13
O’Hara’s most famous piece of prose, the hilarious mock manifesto
“Personism,” displays many of the crucial ingredients of his mature work.
Composed in 1959, the piece is a send-up of Charles Olson’s influential,
didactic essay “Projective Verse” (1950) and a host of other manifestoes that
lay out goals and promise a revolution in art or literature as we know it.
In it, we see O’Hara’s breezy insouciance and wit, his irreverent impatience
with dogma and the tendency to treat poetry with pretentious solemnity,
and his unwillingness to rank high and low cultural forms (“I like the mov-
ies too”) (498). Less an essay than a bravura performance of his aesthetics,
the piece both articulates and puts into action O’Hara’s credo of spontane-
ity and improvisation, as it proclaims: “I don’t care for rhythm, assonance,
all that stuff. You just go on your nerve” (498).
The idea behind the mock movement “Personism” itself also speaks to
central concerns of O’Hara’s work. He explains that he thought of this
new movement (which is so new it has yet to gain a single follower) when
he began writing a poem for his new love interest only to realize “that if
I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem” (499).
Although he is only half-serious here, the notion of a mode of poetry that
emerges from the push and pull of the writer’s friendships and personal
relationships, where “the poem is at last between two persons instead of two
pages,” underlies O’Hara’s entire body of work, including his penchant for
writing poems addressed to specific friends and lovers (499).
It also indicates O’Hara’s fascination with friendship itself, which
becomes one of the great themes of his work. He writes about and to a
particular community, pens poems for specific friends on specific occasions
(birthdays, weddings), and notoriously fills his works to the brim with the
proper names of pals one has never heard of, opening up American poetry
to what his friend Allen Ginsberg called, in an elegy for O’Hara, “deep gos-
sip.”14 However, as I have argued elsewhere, O’Hara’s poems do not simply
celebrate his own coterie or traffic in name-dropping and inside jokes; his
work also engages in a sophisticated and moving investigation of the nature
of friendship itself, both its pleasures and its discontents, the thrill of finding
like-minded collaborators and the need to maintain one’s independence and
solitude.15
In the later 1950s, O’Hara perfected what came to be his best-known
mode: the kind of pieces he called his “I do this, I do that” poems. Diaristic
and chatty, often written during and after his lunch-break walks around
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The New York School

Manhattan (many collected in the 1964 volume Lunch Poems), these works
are primarily responsible for O’Hara’s well-deserved reputation as the quin-
tessential poet of New York City. Poems like “The Day Lady Died,” “A Step
Away From Them,” “Personal Poem,” “Steps,” and dozens of others chron-
icle the vertiginous experience of daily life within the mundane swirl of his
beloved city. The poems track the speaker’s thoughts and actions as he moves
through the jumbled, dynamic urban environment and revel in the cultural
collisions of contemporary urban experience, where sweaty construction
workers jostle with rich women in furs, and where white and black, high-
brow and vulgar, foreign and native, beauty and ugliness all intermingle.
Although he is best known for these urban “lunch poems,” O’Hara’s
work is richer and more varied than it is sometimes taken to be. Alongside
his “I do this, I do that” poems, O’Hara composed a number of expansive
longer works, the most important of which are “Ode to Michael Goldberg
(’s Birth and Other Births)” and “In Memory of My Feelings” – ambitious,
philosophically rich experiments in writing the self and renovating the
Whitmanic American long poem. “In Memory of My Feelings” is a pivotal
poem for O’Hara, in which he most fully expresses his influential vision of
the self as radically protean and multiple, his belief that it is “Grace / to be
born and live as variously as possible” (a line now inscribed in granite on
O’Hara’s gravestone) (256).
Also worth noting is O’Hara’s series of “movie poems,” which include
“An Image of Leda,” “For James Dean,” “To the Film Industry in Crisis,”
“Poem (Lana Turner has collapsed!),” and “Ave Maria” (“Mothers of
America!,” the poem begins, “let your kids go to the movies!”) (371). At
a time when many intellectuals and authors were anxiously fretting about
the rapid spread of mass media and its negative effects, O’Hara provoca-
tively declares it is “you, Motion Picture Industry, / it’s you I love!” (232).
His movie poems display an infectious love of Hollywood cinema and a
campy but genuine enthusiasm for its stars, mingled with a quite serious
and ambivalent consideration of the pleasures, effects, and downsides of
this new media and the dawning of celebrity culture.16 By blurring, or eras-
ing, the boundaries between high and low culture, O’Hara anticipates one
of the hallmarks of postmodernism across the arts and paves the way for
the widespread engagement with pop culture to be found in contemporary
poetry today.
In the decades since his death, O’Hara’s reputation has soared. Marjorie
Perloff’s 1977 book, Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters, did a great deal
to legitimize O’Hara as a writer of significance and drew the attention of
literary scholars to his poetry and its connections to painting. Over the past
two decades, there has been an explosion of critical interest in all aspects of
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O’Hara’s work and milieu. In recent years, critics have been particularly eager
to situate O’Hara’s poetry within its cultural and historical contexts – they
have considered, for example, O’Hara’s poetry in terms of gender and queer
identity and have examined its relation to Cold War politics and postwar
American culture, including such issues as race, class, consumerism, capital-
ism, the modern city, the visual arts, cinema, jazz, pop culture, and issues of
community and identity, both national and personal.17 Immediately appeal-
ing, daring, and ahead of his time, in contact with so many criss-crossing
currents of mid-twentieth-century American culture, O’Hara continues to
fascinate readers and writers of American poetry decades after his death.

John Ashbery
O’Hara’s poetry, of course, screeched to a halt in 1966, leaving readers to
ponder the mystery of how his writing might have developed over time.
Fortunately, John Ashbery’s work has continued to appear and evolve over
the half-century since his friend’s death. Even though he found some early
success when W. H. Auden chose his debut, Some Trees, for the 1955 Yale
Younger Poets prize, it was not until after O’Hara’s death that Ashbery’s
reputation truly took off, reaching its pinnacle in the 1970s when he entered
the upper echelons of contemporary literature. Widely considered to be
the most important living American poet, Ashbery has loomed large over
American poetry for the past several decades. However, his work remains
controversial and polarizing, with the response to it divided between those
who regard him as a preeminent poet whose challenging work has altered
our definition of what poetry can be and detractors who find him willfully
difficult and overrated.
Nevertheless, because the central themes and obsessions of his work are
so closely in sync with the philosophical and cultural temper of the times,
Ashbery is often seen as an exemplary poet of the age. Grappling with the
uncertainty and randomness of life in an absurd, chaotic universe; explor-
ing how language and consciousness work (and do not work); probing the
blurry lines between “reality” and fiction and “truth” and image; confront-
ing the multiplicity of identity in a media-saturated culture where we are
constantly bombarded with information and images – Ashbery is in many
ways the embodiment of postmodernism in poetry.18
Like O’Hara, Ashbery was born several hundred miles away from
Manhattan, in Rochester, New York, and grew up on a rural farm in nearby
Sodus. Extremely bright and interested in art, poetry, and classical music
from an early age, Ashbery had a rather isolated childhood, marked by
the haunting death of his nine-year-old brother when he was thirteen. He
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The New York School

too attended Harvard, where he began to write poetry in earnest, and met
O’Hara and Kenneth Koch, who would become his closest friends and artis-
tic allies. He also steeped himself in the writers who would influence his
work, such as Auden, Stevens, and Stein, as well as French poets of the
avant-garde, from Mallarmé and Rimbaud to the surrealists. After gradu-
ating in 1949, Ashbery moved to New York, where he earned an M.A. in
English from Columbia University and became a central member of the
thriving community of New York School poets and painters.
Despite the proclivities Ashbery shared with O’Hara and the other
New York poets, the writers deliberately cultivated their own poetic styles,
aesthetic concerns, and personalities, creating bodies of poetry that are quite
distinctive yet closely interrelated. From the start, he and O’Hara saw their
work as mining adjacent but different territories. For example, Ashbery
quickly began to define his own writing as less interested than O’Hara’s
in presenting autobiography and personal experience and more drawn to
the realms of imagination and dream. In contrast to his friend’s materialist,
empirical, and personal poetics, Ashbery developed his own idiom – a more
overtly philosophical, meditative, and teasingly elusive poetic mode.19
Ashbery’s poetry has always provoked strong reactions because of its
experimental handling of language and poetic form: his poems resist con-
ventional explanation and paraphrase, refuse to present a coherent speaking
self that can be identified with the poet, and lack traditional subject matter
and easily grasped significance. As he points out, rather than addressing “a
particular subject and treating it formally in a kind of essay,” “my poetry . . .
has an exploratory quality and I don’t have it all mapped out before I sit
down to write.”20 Ashbery readily admits that this quality leads his poetry
in unpredictable and even bewildering directions but defends such unset-
tling journeys into the unknown as an integral part of his work’s raison
d’être: “my intention is to communicate and my feeling is that a poem that
communicates something that’s already known by the reader is not really
communicating anything to him and in fact shows a lack of respect for him”
(Packard 112).
Unlike many poets, Ashbery is less concerned with relating a specific event
than with conveying what he calls “the experience of experience”: “the par-
ticular occasion is of less interest to me than the way a happening or expe-
rience filters through me . . . I’m trying to set down a generalized transcript
of what’s really going on in our minds all day long.”21 Rather than refer-
ring to friends by name, like O’Hara, and allowing the swirl of daily life in
all its particularity into his poems, Ashbery chooses to fashion what I call
“vague allegories” of his own life: skewed and indeterminate narratives that
hint indirectly at the contours of his poetic career, his life, his friendships,
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and love affairs but that also suggest the shape and progression of any life.
For example, Ashbery describes “Soonest Mended” (1969), one of his most
highly regarded pieces, as “my one-size-fits-all confessional poem, which is
about my youth and maturing but also about anybody else’s.”22
Certain stylistic features run through nearly all of Ashbery’s work, includ-
ing the use of intentionally vague and shifting pronouns (which he has said
helps “to reproduce the polyphony that goes on inside me”); the creation
of indeterminate, rapidly changing, often surreal narrative situations; the
collaging of various voices and discourses, including clichés and slangy con-
versational speech; and a wild mix of tones and diction that can swing from
the high poetic to the ridiculous in the space of a line, as when he writes
in an early poem “In a far recess of summer / Monks are playing soccer”
(Packard 123–124).23 Furthermore, because he, like O’Hara, is more inter-
ested in process than any finished product, the actual subject of his poems
is often the “poem creating itself,” the process of its own coming into being,
which means that his work is intensely self-reflexive and filled with metapo-
etic commentary (Poulin 251).
One of the trademarks of Ashbery’s work is a tantalizing elusiveness in
which possible meanings and potential epiphanies are invoked but continu-
ally deferred or undermined. Creating the uncanny sensation that the poem
is always on the verge of revealing something that trembles just out of reach
has been a characteristic effect of his work from the very beginning, as can
be seen in the closing lines of the very first poem in his first book, Some
Trees: “In the evening / Everything has a schedule, if you can find out what
it is.”24
In 1955, W. H. Auden chose the manuscript of Some Trees for the Yale
Younger Poets prize (selecting it over O’Hara’s submission), an award that
effectively launched Ashbery’s career. While these poems are still relatively
traditional, showing the strong influence of Stevens, Auden, and French
poetry, they feature Ashbery’s characteristic voice, verbal brilliance, and
range of concerns. Among them are the much-anthologized poem “The
Instruction Manual,” an uncharacteristically straightforward revery about
escaping from a dull publishing job on an imaginary trip to Guadalajara
on the wings of poesy, and the title poem, a gentle yet oblique piece about
covert and illicit love.
Ashbery recalls that in the early 1950s, he “went through a period of
intense depression and doubt” that was linked to the stifling cultural atmo-
sphere of the repressive McCarthy years, in part because he had gone on
record as a homosexual to avoid being drafted for the Korean War, which
left him terrified of persecution. Unlike O’Hara, who was brash and open
about his sexual identity, Ashbery was understandably anxious about such
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The New York School

self-revelation at a time of rampant homophobia. Critics have recently con-


nected this discomfort to the evolution of Ashbery’s distinctive poetic strat-
egies, not least the slippery, maddeningly unstable sense of self one finds in
his work, and have begun to examine issues of sexuality and queer identity
more broadly in his poetry.25
Also in 1955, Ashbery received a Fulbright Scholarship to study in France
for a year, but he enjoyed living there so much that he extended his stay
for most of a decade. In France, he researched the eccentric French writer
Raymond Roussel for a doctoral dissertation he never completed and began
writing art criticism steadily, which he would continue to do for many years.
In 1962, Ashbery published his controversial second volume, The Tennis
Court Oath, a book comprised of highly experimental and radically disjunc-
tive poems written at a time when Ashbery was “baffled as to what to do in
poetry” (Packard 116). In works like the long collage poem “Europe,” with
its fragmentary phrases and isolated words, Ashbery was self-consciously
“taking poetry apart to try to understand how it works.”26 While some
of his most ardent supporters, such as Harold Bloom, view the book as
a regrettable detour on Ashbery’s path to greatness, the volume has been
extremely influential on later experimental poets, such as the Language
poets, who take it to be a foundational text of postmodernist poetry and
the poet’s most groundbreaking book. Although Ashbery himself sees The
Tennis Court Oath as transitional and feels less close to it than to his other
works, there is no doubt that the volume stands as a significant moment in
his evolving aesthetic.
In Rivers and Mountains (1966), his third book, Ashbery began “trying
to fit [poetry] back together” in arresting new formations after the rigorous
“dismembering of language” in his previous book (Osti 95), with poems like
the dense, swirling “Clepsydra” revealing his growing interest in “how time
feels as it is passing.”27 The long poem “The Skaters” signals a departure
from the austere and fractured poems of his second book and can be seen as
Ashbery’s breakthrough into full stride. This expansive and exuberant mas-
terpiece, in which the questing poet is seen paradoxically “continuing but
ever beginning / My perennial voyage,” is, by turns, conversational, lyrical,
parodic, and meditative, as well as highly self-conscious about the process
of its own composition (Mooring 204).
Ashbery finally returned from France in late 1965 to live in the United
States permanently and, once again in New York, began working as an exec-
utive editor for Art News. Following the death of his father (1964) and the
shocking loss of O’Hara (1966), one of his closest friends, Ashbery’s poetry
became increasingly elegiac and concerned with temporality and transience,
as exemplified in the ruminative, lyrical poems in The Double Dream of
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Andrew Epstein

Spring (1970), one of Ashbery’s finest volumes. “In a way the passage of
time is becoming more and more the subject of my poetry as I get older,” he
explained in an interview (Packard 122).
By the end of the 1960s, Ashbery had again grown restless with his
poetry and decided to break new ground with a triad of long poems in
prose, the critically praised volume Three Poems, which appeared in
1972. One of Ashbery’s major achievements and a favorite of his, this
innovative sequence is a central expression of his philosophical and aes-
thetic outlook. By creating “an open field of narrative possibilities” in
the poems’ onrushing, serpentine language, Ashbery expanded the pos-
sibilities of both the American long poem and prose poetry and hit on
a more inclusive, discursive, and meditative style that would become his
dominant mode.28
The ecstatic response to Ashbery’s next book, Self-Portrait in a Convex
Mirror (New  York:  Viking, 1975), marked a crucial turning point in his
career:  although he had been gradually gaining acceptance after years of
indifference and even hostility from reviewers dismayed by the difficulty
of his work, the 1976 National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize, and National
Book Critics Circle Award suddenly vaulted Ashbery into relative stardom.
The book’s long title poem is regarded by many to be Ashbery’s masterpiece,
although the poet himself has often commented disparagingly about the
poem and its celebrity. A brilliant and moving contemplation of a painting
by the sixteenth-century Italian painter Francesco Parmigianino, the poem
considers the problems of rendering the contingent self in art while musing
on the complexities of subjectivity, perception, time, and the vexed relation-
ship between art and life.
After reaching this pinnacle, Ashbery continued to write at the height
of his powers. His equally masterful next book, Houseboat Days
(New  York:  Viking, 1977), features a number of frequently anthologized
gems (such as “Syringa,” “Street Musicians,” “The Other Tradition,” and
“And Ut Pictura Poesis is Her Name”), only to be followed by yet another
bold experiment with form, the long poem “Litany” in As We Know, which
appears in two parallel columns and is “meant to be read as simultaneous but
independent monologues.”29 The recipient of countless awards and honors,
Ashbery eventually retired from art criticism, taught at Brooklyn College,
and later became the Charles P. Stevenson Professor at Bard College. He has
remained remarkably productive through his sixties, seventies, and eighties,
publishing a new book practically every other year, each filled with provoc-
ative poems. Highlights of this later phase include his longest poem to date,
the book-length poem Flow Chart (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1991), a mas-
sive compendium of Ashberyean concerns with an autobiographical slant.
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The New York School

In the 1970s, Ashbery found his work championed by one of the most
prominent literary critics of the day, Harold Bloom, whose advocacy vir-
tually assured the poet’s canonization as a major American poet. Bloom
removed Ashbery from his origins and connections to the New York School
and the avant-garde and proclaimed him the rightful inheritor of the long
Romantic tradition that stretches from the British Romantics and Whitman
through Wallace Stevens to Ashbery himself.30 However, Ashbery’s work
was soon hailed in very different terms by scholars of the avant-garde, such
as Marjorie Perloff, who connected him to a French lineage of “indetermi-
nacy” stemming from Rimbaud, as well as by younger experimental writers,
such as the Language poets, who saw him as an innovative trailblazer.31 This
set the stage for an ongoing tug-of-war over the nature of Ashbery’s accom-
plishment: while some critics and poets deem him a master of the meditative
Romantic lyric, proponents of a more experimental Ashbery have warned
against such efforts to “normalize” him by taming his writing’s more radical
qualities.32
The divided nature of this response may be due to Ashbery’s perfection
of what he has called “a kind of fence-sitting / Raised to the level of an
esthetic ideal”:  his inclusive aesthetic, like O’Hara’s, remains open to the
impulses and techniques of the avant-garde and to the resources of poetic
tradition at once (SP 88). From the first, both poets were as stimulated by
the avant-garde’s energy and innovations as they were skeptical of its pre-
tension and rigidity, its macho heroics, and its strident claims that it could
remain “pure” or unabsorbed by the culture it critiques. This dual stance,
this ambivalence and shape-shifting, helps explain why O’Hara and Ashbery,
unlike so many other members of their illustrious generation, have managed
to appeal to both sides of the divide that has, for better or worse, struc-
tured the reception and practice of American poetry since the mid-twentieth
century – the split between the “experimental” and “mainstream” or what
Robert Lowell once referred to as “the raw and the cooked.” In that sense,
O’Hara and Ashbery stand as models for the “American hybrid” poetics
that has moved to the fore in the early twenty-first century:  a mode that
attempts to reconcile and synthesize the oppositional aesthetic camps of the
last half-century.
When one considers some of the most familiar features of contemporary
American poetry – for example, a chatty, unpretentious, and self-deprecating
voice, or a breezy familiarity with all registers of culture, from highbrow to
pop  – it is the influence of O’Hara, Ashbery, and the New  York School
of poets one senses. The lightning-fast shifts of voice and scene, the resis-
tance to lofty pronouncements and tidy conclusions, the presentation of
self and narrative as slippery and elusive, the use of goofy surrealism and
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Andrew Epstein

dream logic, the devotion to dailiness – all these elements of the poetry of
our moment stem, at least in part, from O’Hara and Ashbery and their
boundary-breaking reconception of what poetry could be, their aesthetic
and conceptual daring, and their memorable and moving poems.

N OT E S

1 Ashbery, Selected Poems (New York: Penguin, 1985): 87. Hereafter cited paren-


thetically by page number.
2 The most comprehensive group portrait of the New York School poets to date
is David Lehman’s The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School
of Poets (New York:  Doubleday, 1998); the book is hereafter cited parentheti-
cally by page number. For more on the New York School as a whole, see Ward,
Watkin, Silverberg, Nelson, Kane (All Poets), Gray, Diggory, and Miller’s collec-
tion of essays, Scene of My Selves, and Diggory’s Encyclopedia; these, and all
other essays and books mentioned in footnotes, are listed in the Further Reading
section appended to this chapter.
3 The phrase appears in the title to Cleanth Brooks’s 1947 classic (in the New
Critical vein) The Well-Wrought Urn:  Studies in the Structure of Poetry
(New York: Reynal and Hitchcock).
4 Ashbery, introduction to The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, ed. Donald
Allen (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971): viii–ix. This edition, from
which quotations of O’Hara’s poetry are drawn, is hereafter cited parentheti-
cally by page number.
5 For more on the poets’ pragmatist sensibility, see my Beautiful Enemies, as well
as Epstein (“Crisis, Possibility”), Poirier, Magee, and Herd.
6 Examples of their influence are too numerous and diverse to list here, but for a
mostly negative, recent take on the pervasive influence of the New York School,
see Tony Hoagland, “Blame it on Rio:  The Strange Legacy of the New  York
School Poetics”: “As of our present moment, the New York School of poetry,
like the alluvial fan at a river mouth, has widened and stretched out into mul-
tiple strands of influence, including shoals of post-Language ‘compositionalist’
work, playful surrealism, urban walking-around poetry, campy literary ‘per-
sonalism’ poetry, mildly dissociative party-poetry, post-Beat, etc.,” The Writer’s
Chronicle (September 2011): 78.
7 O’Hara, Standing Still and Walking in New  York, ed. Donald Allen (Bolinas,
CA: Grey Fox, 1975): 30. Hereafter cited parenthetically by page number.
8 For more on O’Hara’s life, career, and milieu, see Brad Gooch’s biography, as
well as works by Perloff, Lehman, and LeSueur. For memoirs, poems, and paint-
ings that suggest the extraordinary range of O’Hara’s friends and admirers, also
see Homage to Frank O’Hara (Berkson and LeSueur). Other important studies
of O’Hara’s work include Shaw, Breslin, the essays collected in Elledge, and the
recent volume of essays Frank O’Hara Now (Hampson and Montgomery).
9 There has been a great deal of attention to O’Hara and art. For example, see
Perloff’s Frank O’Hara, Ferguson, and Shaw.
10 On collaboration and its importance for O’Hara, Ashbery, and the New York
School, see Epstein (Beautiful Enemies), Smith, Herd, and Silverberg.
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The New York School

11 For more on O’Hara, sexuality, and queer identity, see Crain, Kikel, Ross,
Herring, Jarraway, and Smith.
12 Perloff, Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters (Austin: University of Texas Press,
1977): 1.
13 Koch, The Art of Poetry: Poems, Parodies, Interviews, Essays, and Other Work
(Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996): 27.
14 See Ginsberg, “City Midnight Junk Strains (For Frank O’Hara),” Collected
Poems of Allen Ginsberg (New York: Harper, 2007).
15 See Epstein, Beautiful Enemies.
16 On O’Hara and cinema, see Epstein (“I Want to Be at Least as Alive”), Elledge,
Goble, and Kane (We Saw the Light).
17 For example, see works by Davidson, Glavey, Rosenbaum, Friedlander, Clune,
Shaw, Gray, Silverberg, and Magee (“Tribes”).
18 Important works on Ashbery include book-length studies by Shapiro, Shoptaw,
Herd, DuBois, and Vincent; essay collections edited by Lehman (Beyond
Amazement) and Schultz; and articles and chapters by Bloom, Vendler, and
Perloff.
19 See Epstein, Beautiful Enemies for more on Ashbery and O’Hara relationship.
20 Packard, ed., The Craft of Poetry:  Interviews from the New  York Quarterly
(Garden City, NY:  Doubleday, 1974):  117. Hereafter cited parenthetically by
page number.
21 A. Poulin, Jr., “The Experience of Experience:  A  Conversation with John
Ashbery,” Michigan Quarterly 20.3 (Summer 1981): 245. Hereafter cited paren-
thetically by page number.
22 John Murphy, “John Ashbery,” Poetry Review 75 (August 1985): 25. Despite the
widespread feeling among critics that Ashbery eschews the personal and inter-
personal, I argue that he is, much like O’Hara (albeit in very different ways), a
great and moving poet of friendship and love. See Epstein, Beautiful Enemies,
especially chapter 4, and see also Mohanty and Monroe, and Altieri.
23 See Peter Stitt, “The Art of Poetry 33,” Paris Review 90 (Winter 1983):  30–59.
Ashbery, Selected Poems (New York: Penguin, 1985): 12. Hereafter cited paren-
thetically by page number (with the abbreviation SP).
24 Ashbery, The Mooring of Starting Out: The First Five Books of Poetry (Hopewell,
New Jersey: Ecco Press, 1997): 3. Hereafter cited parenthetically by page num-
ber as Mooring.
25 On Ashbery and homosexuality and queer identity, see Shoptaw’s extensive and
provocative book, Imbriglio, and Vincent (“Reports of Looting”). For a dis-
cussion that contrasts how O’Hara and Ashbery approach their sexual identity
in their poetry, see Epstein, Beautiful (especially 241–246); the 1976 interview
in which Ashbery speaks of his “period of intense depression” is also quoted
therein (43).
26 Louis Osti, “The Craft of John Ashbery,” Confrontation 9 (Fall 1974):  95.
Hereafter cited parenthetically by page number as Osti.
27 Richard Kostelanetz, “John Ashbery,” Old Poetries and the New (Ann
Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1981): 101.
28 Ashbery, Three Poems (New York: Penguin, 1972): 3.
29 Ashbery, As We Know (New York: Penguin Books, 1979): 2.
30 See, for example, Bloom’s “Charity of the Hard Moments.”

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Andrew Epstein

31 See Perloff’s chapter on Ashbery in Poetics of Indeterminacy.


32 “Normalizing John Ashbery,” Jacket 2 (January 1998), available on the web.

F U RT H E R R E A DI N G

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Sky, 1988).
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Press, 1982).
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Choice,” PMLA 120.1 (January 2005): 181–196.
Crain, Caleb, “Frank O’Hara’s Fired Self,” American Literary History 9.2
(1997): 287–308.
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(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).
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on New York School Poets (Orono: National Poetry Foundation, 2001).
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File, 2009).
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Press, 2006).
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Michigan Press, 1990).
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(New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).
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James,” Fulcrum: An Annual of Poetry and Aesthetics 5 (2006): 184–204.
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Ferguson, Russell, In Memory of My Feelings: Frank O’Hara and American Art (Los
Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art/University of California Press, 1999).
Friedlander, Benjamin, “Strange Fruit:  O’Hara, Race, and the Color of Time,” in
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Glavey, Brian, “Frank O’Hara Nude with Boots: Queer Ekphrasis and the Statuesque
Poet,” American Literature 79.4 (2007): 781–806.
Goble, Mark, “ ‘Our Country’s Black and White Past’:  Film and the Figures of
History in Frank O’Hara,” American Literature 71.1 (1999): 56–92.
Gooch, Brad, City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara (New York: Knopf, 1993).
Gray, Timothy, Urban Pastoral:  Natural Currents in the New  York School (Iowa
City: University of Iowa Press, 2010).
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the New York Poet (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2010).

406

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Herring, Terrell Scott, “Frank O’Hara’s Open Closet,” PMLA 117 (2002): 414–427.
Imbriglio, Catherine, “ ‘Our Days Put on Such Reticence’: The Rhetoric of the Closet
in John Ashbery’s Some Trees,” Contemporary Literature 36.2 (1995): 249–288.
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in Acts of Mind: Conversations with Contemporary Poets, ed. Richard Jackson
(Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1983): 69–76.
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(Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).
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(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980).
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Writing (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004).
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Social,” Diacritics 17.2 (1987): 37–63.
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City: University of Iowa Press, 2007).
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Press, 1977).
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Poirier, Richard, “Reaching Frank O’Hara,” in Poirier, Trying it Out in
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(Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1995).
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Press, 2006).
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MA: Harvard University Press, 1994).
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Art and Radical Chic (Burlington: Ashgate, 2010).
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Topography (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2000).

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Vendler, Helen, “Understanding Ashbery,” in Bloom, Ashbery, 179–194.


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Queer Poetics,” Twentieth Century Literature 44.2 (1998): 155–175.
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