Whenever I hear the words “New York School,” I reach for my funny bone, my thinking cap and my johnson all at the same time. Since I’ve only got two hands, this becomes a Three Stooges imitation of a Hindu deity, a blur of imaginary arms grasping at the rays of poetic enlightenment emanating from a spot somewhere between the eyes of Daffy Duck in Statue-of-Liberty drag. Well, that’s the effect on an otherwise reasonable person of reading the inspired madness known as New York School Poetry. And 2001, aside from being one of the strangest years on record, has brought to bookstores some excellent adventures in publishing that recall the glory days of said movement in American writing.
Ushering in the second half of the ’60s with a rush of poetic chutzpah was Angel Hair magazine, which turned out six issues from 1966 to 1969 and continued with books, pamphlets and broadsides until 1978. Edited jointly by poets Anne Waldman and Lewis Warsh, who devoured literary and art connections with the endless energy of youth, the project brought together work by New York School ür-poets John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Barbara Guest et al and their second- and third-generation successors — among them, Ted Berrigan, Bernadette Mayer, Ron Padgett, Clark Coolidge, Lorenzo Thomas and dozens of aesthetically whacko others — with art by the likes of Joe Brainard, Philip Guston and George Schneeman. As Padgett and Tom Clark wrote in their collaborative poem sequence, “Bun,” published by Angel Hair Books:
Will we, in twenty years,
Look down at these pages
Well, The Angel Hair Anthology might just inspire such a reaction, if you’re poetically inclined and get turned on by verbal genius. This huge selection is chock-full of same, along with lyrical wildness, crazy humor, syntactical audacity and other unexpected pleasures.
One of the more consistently great figures in the New York pantheon was the late Joe Brainard, an artist who never met a visual style he wouldn’t appropriate for his own amazing combines, collages, comic reimaginings and floods of luscious color. But he was also a touchingly funny poet, the creator of the “I Remember” series in which he turned his memoirs into liberating takes on nostalgia, e.g.:
I remember “God is Love is Art is Life.” I think I made that up in high school. Or else Ron Padgett did. At any rate I remember thinking it terribly profound. (I recently asked Ron about this and he said that neither one of us made it up. That it came from an article in “Life” magazine about beatniks.)
Brainard collaborated with other New York poets on “poetry comics,” produced countless hilarious variations on the “Nancy” comic strip and generally stood nose-to-nose with the art world, staring it down over the issue of “identifiable style,” choosing instead to follow the path of attitude, concept and spontaneity. All of this is made amply clear in Joe Brainard: A Retrospective, a catalog of his art and writing that’s also graced with essays by Ashbery, Constance M. Lewallen and Carter Ratcliff. It’s the kind of coffee-table book that won’t just lie there looking cool, because folks will constantly be devouring its radiant innards.
Actually, when it comes to Ron Padgett’s book of writings on poetry, I lied — it was published in 2000, but no matter. The Straight Line will have you laughing all the way to enlightenment, with poems about poetry, prose works and essays on teaching writing. From his long association with the Teachers & Writers Collaborative in New York and as editor of the Teachers & Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms, Padgett has made the education of young creative writers one of his top priorities. But The Straight Line is pedagogical in the friendliest of ways, like an invitation to sit, think, chuckle and sip some joy juice while you realize the most wonderful things about writing, e.g.:
This license certifies
That Ron Padgett may
tell whatever lies
His heart desires
Until it expires
In luminous essays on French authors Blaise Cendrars and Pierre Reverdy, New York poet-dance critic Edwin Denby, and “The Care and Feeding of a Child’s Imagination,” Padgett reveals himself to be that rarest of individuals, a brilliant writer whose compassion far outshines his sense of self-importance. This is perhaps the most generous, most entertaining tour that anyone will ever offer through the poetry landscape, with a guide who keeps handing out one after another pair of insight-binoculars: the crazy pair, the weird pair, the horselaugh pair, the tender pair, the pair shining with delicate realization.
Since Padgett so often believes in leaving ’em laughing, it’s appropriate to close with his minireview of fellow New York poet Joseph Ceravolo’s “Wild Flowers Out of Gas”:
Joe Ceravolo’s poems are like the old lady who helps a Boy Scout across the busy street. They are also like the truck driver who stops his truck to let them cross safely, toots his horn, and waves. They are also like the nickel in the Boy Scout’s pocket that was not bent by being run over by the truck.
The New York Poets are in love with life and its words. Like Walt Whitman, their illustrious progenitor, and the city they call home, those impetuous wordiacs embrace it all.
George Tysh is Metro Times arts editor. E-mail him at [email protected].