Christopher Schmidt’s New Book on the Poetics of Waste in Ashbery, Schuyler, and Others

We tend to think of waste and garbage as civilization’s abject “other,” the marginalized and repressed excess produced by the machinery of capitalism.  Then why does it seem to be everywhere in American poetry?  A new book by the critic and poet Christopher Schmidt examines the preoccupation with trash and detritus in twentieth-century poetry.  The Poetics of Waste (just out from Palgrave Macmillan) has excellent chapters on James Schuyler and John Ashbery, as well as extended discussions of Gertrude Stein and Kenneth Goldsmith, plus a dazzling bit on the movie Wall-E.

Schmidt uncovers a line of poets who embrace waste and detritus as a source of value, fascination, pleasure, and, most importantly, queer identification.  He argues that this recuperation of waste defies the pernicious cultural logic that has long associated queer and other marginalized identities with degradation, garbage, and mass culture.

It’s a great book, and I was happy to be able to provide this blurb for it:

“In this remarkable, illuminating study, Schmidt explores the ‘mysterious charisma of waste,’ the magnetic pull it exerts on a vital strain of modernist and contemporary poetry . . . Schmidt’s brilliant, incisive argument gives us valuable tools for understanding key features of avant-garde poetics — such as fragmentation, collage, excess – in a fascinating new light: as complex, subversive methods of ‘waste management.’ A timely, provocative, and important book.”

Schmidt’s chapter on Ashbery examines one of the poet’s strangest, most intriguing, and least discussed works, The Vermont Notebook (1975), a volume in which Ashbery’s own writings are paired with drawings by Joe Brainard.  Schmidt reads The Vermont Notebook as “a ‘waste book’ in which the poet collects scraps excised from other poems and recycles them into new ‘anti-lyric’ form.”  He argues that “the book establishes what I call a ‘queer nature,’ in which waste—a growing concern during the overpopulation fears and nascent environmentalism of 1970s—undermines the false boundary between the natural and the cultural.” Ultimately, Ashbery replaces “landscape with landfill, as if to suggest that nature and environment are as much produced by human presence as perceived by it.”

In his chapter on Schuyler, Schmidt draws attention to what he calls “Schuyler’s camp poetics.”  He argues that the “poet’s brazen identification with waste—much more direct than that of any other figures in the book—suggests that his rag picking is a form of sexual and economic recuperation.”  He argues that Schuyler’s work “addresses economic imbalances by mirroring and exaggerating the excessive consumption encouraged in capitalism—a consumption that Schuyler represents in campy performances of
overeating and profligacy—and by revealing the damage wrought on consumers compelled to gorge themselves on the excess.”

Here is the description from the publisher:

Since the modernist period, waste has functioned as a potent symbol of cultural decline and environmental damage, in artworks ranging from T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ to Pixar’s Wall-E. In The Poetics of Waste: Queer Excess in Stein, Ashbery, Schuyler, and Goldsmith, Christopher Schmidt argues that before we demonize excess out of hand, we ought to attend to the many possibilities for artistic innovation and literary experiment that detritus, garbage, and excrement have afforded artists and writers throughout the twentieth century. Schmidt looks at modernist and postmodernist writers who resist such biases, developing poetries that are formally excessive and preoccupied with waste’s transgressive aspects. This lineage stretches from the counter-modernism of Gertrude Stein to the New York School poets John Ashbery and James Schuyler, who grapple with and resist ideologies of Taylorist efficiency, cold war ‘containment,’ and phobias associating queer bodies with mass cultural waste. The book ends with a consideration of more recent conceptual poetries and asks the question, do these twenty-first century writers reanimate modernist prejudices against gender politics and queer sentimentality?

 Check out the book on Amazon here, and from the publisher here.  As Daniel Kane puts it in another blurb for Schmidt’s book, “We’ll never think about poetry — or garbage — in quite the same way again.”

Posted in Books, Criticism, James Schuyler, Joe Brainard, John Ashbery

Mark Halliday on Kenneth Koch and the “Fun of Being a Poet”

Kenneth Koch in the 1970s

The poet and critic Mark Halliday, who has written several good, important essays on Kenneth Koch in the past, has a new essay in the Summer 2014 issue of Pleaides, which was posted by Poetry Daily a couple days ago as one of their prose features.

In this essay, Halliday focuses on Koch’s profound commitment to the sheer fun and pleasure of poetry — reading it, yes, but especially the joy involved in being a person who writes it.

He writes:

Perhaps no important poet has more consistently acknowledged the manifold pleasures of the vocation than Kenneth Koch (1925-2002). Throughout his amazingly, indeed almost bizarrely various poetry,  we can always hear Koch’s charismatic voice urging us not to deny the fun in poetry—the fun in writing it, reading it, arguing about it, daydreaming about it, knowing it is in the world.

This aliveness to the pleasure of being alive poetically was something Koch shared with his friend Frank O’Hara (1926-1966). In a 1995 interview with Jordan Davis, Koch said: “I love the quality in Frank’s work that makes its message always that life is so rich, so full of variety and excitement that one would be crazy to think that anything else was the theme and crazier not to participate in it as much as one could.” O’Hara, though, died at the age of forty, having already written some poems in which melancholy yearning undermines the ebullience; Koch lived on through another three and a half decades of middle age and early old age, decades in which the splendidness of being young and brilliant naturally tends to give way to other truths of disappointment, regret and loss. Thanks to Koch’s honesty, that concession is a crucial part of the story presented by his work across the years. However, what never disappears from his poetry is the palpable and contagious feeling that to be a poet is great luck. The poet’s vocation often induces anxiety, yes, but the anxiety is part of an adventure not to be missed.

To illustrate this vocational happiness in Koch’s work, countless examples could be offered; I’ll look mainly at passages from four poems representing different phases of Koch’s long career. My hope is to evoke a profound healthiness that flows through his oeuvre and invites other poets to acknowledge their own vocational good fortune and take heart.

Halliday goes on to trace and analyze this theme in “A Time Zone,” “The Pleasures of Peace,” “Days and Nights,” and “The Artist.”  Check out the whole essay here.

Posted in Articles, Criticism, Kenneth Koch, Mark Halliday, Uncategorized

New Frank O’Hara Plaque Unveiled in New York

A few weeks ago, I posted a piece about the four New York apartments Frank O’Hara lived in.  I discussed the plaque that has long been above the front door of his apartment at 90 University Place, and a new plaque that the Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation was soon to unveil at the building O’Hara lived in at 441 East 9th Street.

I had mused about what the new plaque might say, since the old one on University Place oddly emphasizes Jackson Pollock more than O’Hara himself.  This one fortunately strikes a much better note.  Here is a photograph of it:

Also, here is a clip of the unveiling ceremony that was held on June 10, 2014, which featured readings and remarks by poets Edmund Berrigan and Tony Towle. Towle, a friend of O’Hara’s, offers some reminiscences and recalls that he moved into the same apartment right after O’Hara moved out, living first with Frank Lima, and later with Joe Brainard.  (Among other tidbits, he mentions that after O’Hara moved out, the rent went up from $53 to $56 per month!):

In a long piece on O’Hara just published at the Brooklyn Rail, Tim Keane describes this event in more detail:

O’Hara lived at 441 East 9th Street from 1959 to 1963, years that have been thought to be his most productive. In addition to summing up his career as poet and art critic, the commemorative plaque unveiled earlier this month designates O’Hara as “one of the last avant garde.” That unfortunate final clause proved to be the only major false note during the ceremony, brushing aside as it does the subsequent decades of experimental American poetries. Poet Edmund Berrigan read O’Hara’s poem “Avenue A,” a few yards from that very street. All who were present—small barking dogs, curious bicyclists, and the saleswomen at the local boutiques that now flank the poet’s former doorway—shared a street-fair solidarity as the orchestral sway of “Avenue A” conveyed us “far from our small selves and our temporally united / passions in the cathedral of Januaries.” Poet Tony Towle, a protégé and friend of O’Hara, took over that apartment, along with poet Frank Lima, in 1963, and Towle was on hand to recall his mentor, noting that “it was here that O’Hara wrote much of the work that made up Lunch Poems, almost all of the contents of Love Poems, many of which he wrote for Vincent Warren, and also the unique ‘Biotherm,’ for Bill Berkson.” Towle reminisced about living and working at poetry in that building, when the cockroaches “paraded” through the apartment, the crosstown bus fumes were far worse than they are today, and the rent was $56 a month (which, adjusted for inflation, comes out to about a mere $394 a month in 2014 dollars). Towle then read the iconic poem “The Day Lady Died,” which eulogizes Billie Holiday and celebrates her music as a form of rapture, as O’Hara’s persona is described, “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.”

Posted in Event, Frank O'Hara, New York, Tony Towle, Video

Tim Keane on Frank O’Hara, at the Brooklyn Rail

Yet another piece on Frank O’Hara and his relevance to today’s culture and poetry has just been published — this one by Tim Keane at the Brooklyn Rail.  It’s a good, smart, substantial overview of O’Hara’s work and career, as well as an account of some of the recent signs that O’Hara’s “influence on both contemporary American poetry and on pop culture is greater than ever.”  Keane notes that “evidence of this is everywhere,” before giving a good rundown on recent events, like the republication of Lunch Poems, the huge group reading of Lunch Poems at the Poetry Project at St. Marks, the unveiling of a new plaque on O’Hara’s East 9th St. apartment, and the upcoming O’Hara festival on Fire Island (“On July 12, The Fire Island Pines Arts Project, to be moderated by poet Adam Fitzgerald, has assembled yet another roster of distinguished guests to read from O’Hara’s works, including the prolific American novelist Edmund White and Pulitzer-Prize winning Irish poet Paul Muldoon”).

Along with some good general observations about O’Hara and a summary of his biography, Keane pushes back a bit on the notion bandied about lately that O’Hara’s poetry is prophetic of today’s culture of Twitter and Facebook:  “Although we are up to our necks in torrents of information age ephemerae, and collating data in the service of social status and the literal ‘like,’ O’Hara’s poetic instants are the opposite of such indiscriminate documentation or point-and-click narcissistic absorption of the outside world. He’s busy in the next room cavorting with strangers and doesn’t care if you like his posts or unfriend him.”

The piece also provides a detailed description of the recent group reading of Lunch Poems at the Poetry Project:

Erica Hunt kicked off the session marvelously, breaking into song during the poem “Music” giving it an exhilarating gospel lift—“clasp me in your handkerchief like a tear, trumpet / of early afternoon! in the foggy autumn.” Sharon Mesmer deftly handled the relatively long prose/verse hybridity of “Alma,” perhaps the only poem ever to blend Arthur Rimbaud’s hallucinatory visions with the deadpan style of an encyclopedia article. Edwin Torres turned in the most histrionic reading of the evening, for “Image of the Buddha Preaching” which involved props like a FedEx box and a singing bowl for meditation. His stop-and-start performance played out brilliantly, like a scene from a Beckett play. Hettie Jones, former wife of the recently deceased Amiri Baraka (born Leroi Jones), took the occasion of “Personal Poem,” written by O’Hara the day after her 25th birthday, to speak eloquently about his unflagging encouragement of her fragile vocation as a writer. “Personal Poem,” typifies how his poems evade the safe-distancing of memory while delineating the affective power of one’s surroundings, so that a construction shed near the Seagrams Building thwarts him as vehemently as does the shocking news that, “Miles Davis was clubbed 12 / times last night outside BIRDLAND by a cop / a lady asks us for a nickel for a terrible / disease.” If poetry is news that stays news, it requires this kind of bloody precision to maintain its urgency. His poetry has a political dimension, too, in how its instantaneous precision sustains, rather than passes over, the trauma-inducing blows and impact of the indifferent American social machinery.

As the marathon reading with its polytonal voices showed so well, O’Hara’s poetry oscillates between states of inspired confusion and creative adaptation, with each poem unveiling a newer and always intrepid self. As poet Cedar Sigo puts it, there is in these restless cadences, “the expectation of being an entertainer [that] sometimes reminds [the reader] of drag. How liberated we feel in the grip of such queer diction. The performer has to move against the fact that it is impossible for the poem to contain all of New York’s energy.” Yet he tries to match and even outmatch the city’s energy. Take the poem “Steps,” read by former Umbra poet and Jimi Hendrix biographer David Henderson which features a persona who preempts the flattening effect of the city’s grind by getting high on its oddity the very second he walks out his door: “How funny you are today New York / like Ginger Rogers in Swingtime / and St. Bridget’s steeple leaning a little to the left / here I have just jumped out of a bed full of V-days, (I got tired of D-days).”

You can read the whole piece here.

Posted in Articles, Event, Frank O'Hara, Uncategorized

Patti Smith: Horses “Evolved Organically From My First Poetry Reading”

Via the Poetry Project at St. Marks, I came across this brief video posted by the music site/magazine NME featuring Patti Smith, called “My First Gig: Desecrating a Church with Electric Guitar.”  Smith talks about her first performance “worthy of remembering,” which was a poetry reading she gave on February 10, 1971, at the Poetry Project at St. Marks.

Smith also writes about this reading as a life-changing event in her celebrated memoir Just Kids.  There she explains how Robert Mapplethorpe helped arrange the reading for her, by asking Gerard Malanga if Smith could open for him at a reading he was giving at the Poetry Project, and Malanga “generously agreed.”  At that point the Poetry Project was “shepherded by Anne Waldman,” and, Smith writes, “was a desirable forum for even the most accomplished poets.”  In the interview, she says St. Marks was “a very classic poetry venue, where Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs and all of our poets performed and it was quite an honor to perform there.”

Smith’s reading that night was quite unusual and controversial, as it included an electric guitar punctuating her poems and also featured her singing some songs.  As she tells it in this interview: “I was quite young in my early 20s with extreme amounts of agitated energy. I wasn’t content to just stand there and read poetry. I wanted to perform my poetry in the way that I was learning from Jim Morrison or Jimi Hendrix or the great Beat poets, and also I liked to sing a little, so I injected a little song within my poems.”  She asked the guitarist Lenny Kaye to add a little “interpretive electric guitar” in the midst of a poem of hers about a car crash.

“It was a bit controversial,” Smith notes, “because we had sort of desecrated the hall of poetry with an electric guitar, but on the other hand it got quite a strong reception.”  She says “No one had ever done that in this church, certainly not a girl, and certainly, well, no one had brought an electric guitar in the church before and it caused a bit of a stir.”

In Just Kids, she writes: “It was a night of nights. Gerard Malanga was a charismatic poet-performance artist and drew much of the creme of the Warhol world, everyone from Lou Reed to Rene Ricard to Brigid Berlin to Andy himself … Poets like John Giorno, Joe Brainard, Annie Powell, and Bernadette Mayer… Anne Waldman introduced us. I was totally wired. I dedicated the evening to criminals from Cain to Genet.”

In the NME interview, she points out that Horses, her landmark debut album, often considered one of the greatest rock albums of all time, actually grew directly out of the pieces she performed at St. Marks that night in 1971: “A lot of these poems that I performed in 1971 found their way into Horses.  The opening line of ‘Gloria,’ ‘Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine,’ was in a poem called ‘Oath’ that I read that night in 1971.”

In case anyone has ever doubted the connections between the New York School of poetry and at least one powerful strain of rock music, Smith puts it pretty bluntly: “So Horses didn’t just come out of the air.  It evolved organically from my first poetry reading.”

(Note: Patti Smith’s February 1971 reading is also discussed in detail in Daniel Kane’s terrific in-depth exploration of Patti Smith and the Poetry Project, which appeared in the collection Among Friends: Engendering the Social Site of Poetry.  Philip Shaw’s book on Horses for the 33 1/3 series also opens with a detailed description of the event.  Some of Smith’s early performances can be found at UbuWeb, here, though not this one. However, a recording of the February 1971 performance is available on CD).

Posted in Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol, Anne Waldman, Beats, Gerard Malanga, Lou Reed, Music, Patti Smith, Poetry Project at St. Marks, Video

NY Times Sunday Book Review notes 50th anniversary of Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems

From a piece in this upcoming Sunday’s New York Times Book Review by John Williams:

‘Lunch Poems’ Turns 50

Two years ago, the WNYC radio host Leonard Lopate asked his listeners to vote for 10 objects that best told the story of New York. (The Greek coffee cup and the subway token were Numbers 1 and 2, respectively.) The only work of art to make the list was Frank O’Hara’s collection “Lunch Poems.” The San Francisco-based City Lights published a 50th anniversary edition of the book earlier this month. It contains a preface by John Ashbery as well as reproductions of letters between O’Hara and the publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who is now 95.

On Sept. 25, 1963, O’Hara sent Ferlinghetti the poems, some of which had been in the works for a decade. He wrote: “I hope you realize that the long delay does not indicate any lack of gratefulness for your interest, which I have appreciated enormously through all my various doubt-seasons.” In another letter nearly a year later, he joked about the book’s future: “I like the contract a lot and am very cheered by the movie clause — if Terry Southern gets interested tell him he doesn’t have to stick to the plot at all, just send green.”

Posted in Frank O'Hara

BBC on Frank O’Hara as a Poet of Our Moment

O'Hara 2

The recent surge of attention to Frank O’Hara and the 50th anniversary of Lunch Poems continues with a substantial BBC piece by Jane Ciabattari.  Don’t be scared off by the attention-grabbing headline — “Frank O’Hara: Poet of the Mad Men era”  – and photo of Don Draper reading Meditations in an Emergency.

This is, thank god, not another piece proclaiming that Mad Men rescued O’Hara from oblivion (we’ve had enough of those, thank you).  Unlike many other recent pieces, it even makes the obvious point that “O’Hara’s work has remained consistently popular with readers for six decades and has never been out of print.”

It’s an intelligent, informative piece, complete with good quotes from Brad Gooch, Robert Polito, Stephen Burt, and Adam Fitzgerald.  (Among other things, it passes along this exciting bit of information: Gooch’s biography of O’Hara, City Poet, “is now being developed as a film by producer Donald Rosenfeld”!).

Ciabattari writes:

O’Hara’s mystique, and the seductive power of his work, have lingered, and in recent years have grown even stronger. What distinguishes O’Hara’s poetry?  It is not just a remarkable grasp of the zeitgeist but the way his poems manage to feel contemporary, no matter what the year, the ways in which he broke new ground.

She quotes from Polito:

“When I was a young writer, O’Hara scared me,” says poet and scholar Robert Polito, president of the Poetry Foundation.  “A book like Lunch Poems made it all look so easy, when in fact the elegance, the precision, and the improvisatory sexiness of what he did has proved almost impossible for anyone else to capture, although many still struggle to imitate him. His ability to stay inside the moment of an experience, enthusiastic, surprised and surprising, is one of the qualities that make him so original. There’s also so much generosity there and empathy in the classic sense of his deeply imagining himself into the dynamics of other lives.”

… “Every great O’Hara poem creates a sort of eternal present,” says Polito. “Whenever you read those poems, the time is always now. That’s an astonishingly subtle effect. He operates at the absolute inverse of nostalgia – which is why it’s so funny that because of a show like Mad Men he’s sometimes associated with a sepia cartoon of the early 1960s. Don Draper might read Meditations in an Emergency, but I suspect O’Hara would have been slyly sardonic about the wistful, tip-of-the-old-fedora world Draper embodies.”

And Stephen Burt on what O’Hara means for poets today:

O’Hara’s influence on generations of younger poets has grown over the years, says poet and critic Stephen Burt. “He is turning out to be one of the most widely influential poets of his era – certainly canonical, someone whom poets admire and imitate, and someone whom casual fans, people who don’t read that many recent poets, also read.”

Why is that? “He’s fun!” says Burt. “He chronicled a life that at least looks attractive, and in language as agile as the social scene he depicted. He wrote well about love and friendship and even good sex – and he also wrote well about the loneliness and the weirdness and the frustration underneath even an apparently successful life.”

And Adam Fitgerald on why O’Hara’s poems still seem so vital, even prophetic of contemporary culture:

Why does O’Hara endure, inspire and remain fresh? “His work might read like it tumbled forth instantaneously and haphazardly, but that’s part of the effect, one of his greatest cons,” says poet Adam Fitzgerald, who will moderate the O’Hara festival. “Many of his poems have the immediacy of a consciousness formed by the internet: fragmentation, collage, name-dropping, checking in, quotations, gossip, scandal, click bait and trends, laconic witticisms and gushy, full-breasted rants. Call him a prophet of the internet. He continues on his poems because, in the face of all that noise and distraction which he loves and courts, he is so immensely vulnerable. And that sticks with people, on some human level.”

In a Frank O’Hara poem, Fitzgerald adds, “there’s a whole cityscape of being alive that thinks fast, acts fast, but lingers and broods, and knows ultimately there are few things in the world as intimate as hearing how another person looks dead at you, no one else, and talks.” O’Hara was not simply of his time, or ahead of his time. In the magical way of poets, he was both. He captured the essence of time.


Posted in Frank O'Hara, Mad Men