By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
|Photo by Koch/Doubleday 1998|
and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing
All this is gleaned from "The Day Lady Died," the brief (29 lines), almost documentarian elegy O'Hara wrote in Holiday's honor. Its originality as an elegy lay in the way it answered the question "What were you doing when you heard that so-and-so died?" four years before anyone started asking it. Now, four decades after it was written, it reads not only as an elegy for Holiday, but also for a time.
It is a time that David Lehman, author of The Last Avant-Garde, an intelligent and entertaining critical and biographical study of the "New York School" of poets (O'Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch and James Schuyler), seems nostalgic for. "It is no secret," he writes in the book's introduction, "that our own times are inimical to the imagination. Technology has put art to the rout . . . Poetry consists of irreproachable sentiment rendered in bite-size pieces, doggerel for an inaugural . . . Or perhaps it is something in the air of a hip, dark underground cafe that can sell blue jeans." Though Lehman, who is the series editor of the annual The Best American Poetry, does go on to say that he is convinced "of the high quality and enduring value" of our best contemporary poetry, his introductory remarks cast the rest of his book in a warm, late-afternoon glow: Poets (perhaps all creative people) had it better back then.
Today it often seems as if every other person in America is some sort of bohemian, but the '50s were of course notoriously straight. Consequently, as Lehman points out, the avant-garde had something to be avant-garde against. With Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso & co., this took the form of drugs, mysticism and a lot of wild writing. The poets of the New York School wore ties, held jobs and preferred cocktail parties to demonstrations. For them, language was a playground, an adventure, a place to discover things, and all this at a time when, as Koch wrote,
One hardly dared to wink
Or fool around in any way in poems,
And Critics poured out awful jereboams
To irony, ambiguity, and tension -
And other things I do not wish to mention.
Like most "schools," the New York School was one only because someone said it was, and the label stuck. Nonetheless, its members had plenty in common. All four poets were friends, all were interested in obscure French writers like Pierre Reverdy and Raymond Roussel, and all were deeply committed to the revolutionary paintings being done by Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning and the other Abstract Expressionists. But in most ways they were very different. O'Hara was electric and charismatic, with a gift for friendship that struck his contemporaries as almost superhuman. (At his funeral in 1966 - O'Hara died at the age of 40 after being run over, improbably, by a dune buggy - painter Larry Rivers claimed that 60 people in New York thought of him as their best friend.) Ashbery, on the other hand, was mysterious and evasive. (In a telling anecdote, Lehman recalls seeing Ashbery buttonholed at a party by the art critic Peter Schjeldahl, who tried to draw him into an argument. "You can't argue with me," Ashbery told him, "because I don't exist.") Koch, the only heterosexual in the group, was anything but a straight man on the page. Ashbery nicknamed him "Dr. Fun," and Lehman calls him the funniest poet in America. ("The best way to conquer women in different cities," Koch once advised, deadpan, "is to know the mayor or ruler of the particular city/And have him introduce you to the women [perhaps while they are under the influence of a strong love-making drug."]) The odd man out, if there was an odd man out, was James Schuyler, the only one who didn't go to Harvard and the last to join the group. Prone to schizophrenia and depression, he spent much of his time living at the home of the painter Fairfield Porter in Southampton, Long Island. ("He came to lunch one day and stayed for 11 years," Porter's wife said.) Schuyler was the least acclaimed of the four initially, but his reputation has grown enormously since the 1980s. His characteristic tone is intimate and direct, as in this elegy for a friend: "Look out/the win-/dow/cluck:/it's real,/it's there,/it's life./Look/at/your hand./It's real/and so/is death./Mike,/so long!"