Biblio File, Poetry Month
Experiments with the New York School of Poets
“I cannot possibly think of you other than you are,” began Frank O’Hara’s poem The Critic. Borrowing this line, our four-week poetry writing workshop at Mid-Manhattan Library began writing poems in March. We traveled our own memory lanes to call up a friend, a lover, a favorite actor, or a foe to give a line to in our notebook, a public address to aid in immortality. Our March workshop, led by poet Hermine Meinhard, discussed the New York School of poets, their influences, their style, and their writing habits as it captured the spirit of the 1950s and 60s in New York City. Taking some of these habits, we wrote poetry, trying for a slice of life or a walk down a New York street, using drips and splashes of collaged ideas.
The New York School of poets began in the late '40s with a group of poets interested in art, especially the Abstract Expressionists, and urban life. Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery and Barbara Guest were among the originals to this group and we devoted a session to discussing each of them and then writing poetry inspired by their style.
Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems had us walking around Midtown “among the hum-colored cabs.” We took up this theme our first week and tried walking the city and recording what we saw. O’Hara helped us let our writing go wherever our mind was wondering that day, whether it was to honey bees, to Easter, to AIDS, or to our neighbors in the city.
With John Ashbery’s work, we collaged bits of phrases and words from his poetry with imagery from a dream we had had. We entered his poem And Ut Pictura Poesis is Her Name through text rendering and called out phrases or words from the poem in class in order to rearrange the lines and gain a greater understanding of the words. We went around the room randomly speaking words and lines out loud in flashes. Participants commented that this exercise was “freeing” in that our writing was permitted to digress into whatever came to our minds.
In week three, Kenneth Koch provided us with a mantra to keep us going, “Remember your obligation is to write.” Looking through art books and responding to the Abstract Expressionist painters with notes on our feelings and about what we saw, we tried repeating a line at least three times in our poems. And Koch’s Wishes, Dreams and Lies, about teaching school children in New York City to write poetry, set us off to write a poem made up of lies.
During our final class, we looked to Barbara Guest’s use of words and language for the effects they produced with rhythm and spacing on the page. The mystery in her poems was complemented by the structure and textural elements they brought to the writing. We used pictures sourced from the Library’s Picture Collection of evocative black and white landscape photography as a starting point to write from this week. The open spaces in these pictures mirrored the haunted language of Guest’s poetry.
The combination of a specific artistic movement, the New York School, with the opportunity to improve our own poetry writing allowed for the discussion and use of many resources available in our library collections. Here are a few:
Abstract Expressionist Painter’s monographs that we looked at included:
- Jackson Pollock (visit his exhibition at MoMA through May 1)
- Hans Hofmann
- Lee Krasner
- Joan Mitchell
- Robert Motherwell
- Mark Rothko
- Franz Kline
- Arshile Gorky
- Willem De Kooning
- Helen Frankenthaler
- Adolph Gottlieb
- Clyfford Still
- Barnett Newman
- William Baziotes
- Richard Pousette-Dart
Works of Poetry and criticism that aid in the understanding of the New York School:
- The Vermont Notebook by John Ashbery and Joe Brainard
- All Poets Welcome: The Lower East Side Poetry Scene in the Early 1960s by Daniel Kane
- The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets by David Lehman
- In the Process of Poetry: The New York School and the Avant-Garde by William Watkin
- Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions by Maggie Nelson
- New York School Collaborations: the Color of Vowels edited by Mark Silverberg
Do you have a favorite New York School poet or poem? Please share it with us!