I just posted on my Facebook page a video of Anne Waldman and Ted Berrigan reading their historic collaboration, Memorial Day, and I thought I'd try to express a few thoughts about what it is that the New York School means to me as a poet in 21st century Manchester.
Firstly, they are for me the great enablers. Every poet needs enablers: poets whose work you read and identify with immediately, who make it possible for them to write the poems they want to write. For many, it might be Thomas Hardy, or Philip Larkin, or even Simon Armitage. Thomas Hardy, however, never struck me as someone who spoke my language. I have no complaint with anything he wrote; I just never got struck by its lightning the way I did when I first read Frank O'Hara. For awhile, I wanted to be O'Hara: a gay man in New York, meeting great artists and going to lots of parties. Of course, I'm neither gay nor do I work for the Museum of Modern Art; but I learnt more than I know from him about how to structure a poem, about how to hold several thoughts into one line and how to go on your nerve.
Secondly, and I see it in the performance of Anne Waldman and Ted Berrigan, there is a seriousness about the New York School that is leavened with humour, irony and a deep awareness of the world around them. I say humour; but it's not 'comic verse'; although Koch for instance can be hilarious, he's also intensely aware of language, of love, of despair. These poets are not putting on an act; but neither are they taking themselves so seriously that they fall over into bathos.
Thirdly, there's a freedom in their verse that I think we can all learn from. They're not constrained by the thought-policeman that says that you can't put that in a poem. Take Ron Padgett's silly little poem:
I will sleep
in my little cup
- that's the whole poem. Just that. No attempt at making some poetic epiphany, or "myself am hell" self-dramatising. Just a little daft quip; and instead of hiding it in his notes, he puts it in a book. It's in his Selected Poems along with a whole bunch of more 'serious' verse that is much more involving and deep! Daftness is OK! And sometimes I like to be daft.
I spent an awful lot of my writing life trying to be something I'm not. the New York poets stopped me from trying to be whatever that was. They opened up the world of urban writing to me. I live in a city, not the rural England of Thomas Hardy; and the New York poets showed how it was possible to be a poet in the city. Not simply by 'writing about it'; but by hearing the energy and the music of the city. Or wherever you are; it's about being in the 'now' not the 'then'.
Hardy, for me, is all about 'then'. O'Hara was about the 'now'. The New York poets made it possible for me to escape the lure of 'then' and write about my 'now.'
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