John Ashbery’s Annotated First Edition of The Tennis Court Oath in the NY Times

This weekend, the New York Times ran a fun and interesting feature called “First Editions, Second Thoughts.” As the piece explains, “On December 2, Christie’s will auction 75 first-edition books, each of which is a unique object that has been annotated with words and/or illustrations by its author. Proceeds from the auction will benefit PEN American Center.”

The feature presents an array of first editions of famous books, each annotated by its author — with entries from Philip Roth, Paul Auster, Woody Allen, Don DeLillo, Lydia Davis, Richard Ford, Malcolm Gladwell, Toni Morrison, Marilynne Robinson, Patti Smith, George Saunders, and many others — and allows you to click on each book cover to see the author’s actual annotation inside.

Many of them are quite interesting, but one that caught my eye was the copy of John Ashbery’s famously experimental and controversial second book, The Tennis Court Oath, published by Wesleyan University Press in 1962.

For the purposes of this benefit auction, Ashbery has added some copious handwritten notes to the title page, in which he explains a bit about the cover image, discusses why the press did not use a Jacques-Louis David drawing for his famous painting “The Tennis Court Oath” as the poet had hoped, and mentions how the late John Hollander was instrumental in the radically disjunctive book ever finding a home at Wesleyan in the first place.  Here’s an image of Ashbery’s annotations:

Ashbery Annotated Tennis Court Oath

Here is a transcription of Ashbery’s remarks:

“The picture on the jacket was supplied by Wesleyan. It seems to be a contemporary print of the event at Versailles.  I had hoped they would use drawings from Jacques-Louis David for his vast painting ‘The Tennis Court Oath.’  It was apparently his practice to draw figures without clothes first and add them later.  These drawings show naked men leaping joyfully in the air, waving their hats, which creates a bizarre effect.

I had very little input into the production and I suspect the press wasn’t at all happy with it (though it has remained continuously in print since 1962).  I had submitted it at the urgent request of John Hollander, who was a longtime supporter of my work and (just guessing here) managed to get it accepted over the objections of the other jurors.  I only met John some time later when he was passing through Paris, and would like to take this occasion to mention what a lovely human being he was, totally devoted to poetry.”

In addition to the Ashbery, there are lots of other fascinating books to check out here (although there seem to be only two volumes of poems included, a book by Rita Dove and Ashbery’s).

And, if any of you are in the market for a very special first edition of the Tennis Court Oath or many other wonderful books, be sure to head to Christie’s on December 2, wallet in hand!

Posted in John Ashbery

John Ashbery’s “A Sweet Disorder” in the New Yorker, and Herrick and Keats

Robert Herrick

The November 10, 2014 issue of the New Yorker will feature a new poem by John Ashbery called “A Sweet Disorder,” and the magazine just posted the poem and an audio recording of Ashbery reading it.

The poem borrows its title, of course, from a 17th-century poem of the same name by Robert Herrick (also known as “Delight in Disorder”).  Herrick’s poem, like Ashbery’s perhaps, is a little celebration of disorder, where “A sweet disorder in the dress / Kindles in clothes a wantonness” and all manner of error and messiness bewitches us more “than when art / Is too precise in every part.”

Ashbery’s poem also ends with a famous phrase lifted straight from Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” — “Do I wake or sleep?”  It seems as if this line — with its confusion over the border between dream and reality — has long interested Ashbery, as he has alluded to it at other points in his career.  For example, in “The Skaters” (1964), he writes:

“The west wind grazes my cheek, the droplets come pattering down;
What matter now whether I wake or sleep?”

And in “The New Spirit” (1970):

“Have I awakened? Or is this sleep again?”

An interesting footnote: in Frank O’Hara’s 1953 play Try! Try!, O’Hara had one of the main characters, who is named John and who was played by John Ashbery when the play was first performed, say — you guessed it! — the phrase “Do I wake or sleep?”

In other words, the link between Ashbery and Keats’s phrase goes back a long way, even more than half a century.

If you’re interested in thinking more about Ashbery’s playful allusions to earlier British poets like Herrick and Keats, check out Ben Hickman’s recent book John Ashbery and English Poetry for an extended study of the topic.

Here’s the final stanza of Ashbery’s poem:

My gosh, it’s already 7:30.
Are these our containers?
Pardon my past, because, you know,
it was like all one piece.
It can’t have escaped your escaped your attention
that I would argue.
How was it supposed to look?
Do I wake or sleep?

Posted in Frank O'Hara, Influences on the NY School, John Ashbery, Poems

A Real Mad, “All-American” Combination: LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka’s Salon

Last week, on a trip to the Czech Republic, I had the pleasure of meeting Josef Jařab , one of the most important Czech scholars of American literature.  Jařab is a leading Czech authority on American poetry, and he has translated and written about many American poets, including Allen Ginsberg, who he had the chance to interview in 1989.  In reading Jařab’s wonderful conversation with Ginsberg, which is collected in Spontaneous Mind, I came across a passage in which Ginsberg discusses the remarkable confluence of writers, artists, and musicians that could be found at the parties regularly hosted by Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones), and his wife Hettie Jones, in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The story of Baraka’s role as a crucial catalyst for a far-flung avant-garde community has been often told (including by me, in various places) – but I don’t think I’d ever seen this particular reminiscence before, which neatly sums up the incredible range and diversity of the crowd one could find hanging out together at Baraka’s in, say, 1959.

AG: LeRoi Jones had the grand ‘salon.’  Literary salon in the late ’50s at which you could find all the contributors to Yugen.  Three blocks away from here on 14th Street, I saw at one party, in one room, at one time Langston Hughes, Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Franz Kline, Kerouac, myself, Orlovsky, Corso, A.B. Spellman, other blacks that I didn’t know at the time; Frank O’Hara, maybe Frank’s friends, Larry Rivers and Arnold Weinstein; maybe intersecting with Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery, and others; Robert Creeley, Charles Olson; Olson wasn’t there until Creeley was around New York.

JJ: This was an amazing combination.

AG: It was a real mad combination — “All American.”  The later jazz all based on spontaneous wisdom.  The abstract expressionism, free jazz, open form poetry; or spontaneous mind poetry … There were some parties where we were all together, some beautiful moments.  That was the cultural cresting of the Beat Generation.  It was also a joining culturally of black and white.

It’s amazing to picture the scene — New York School poets (O’Hara, Koch, Ashbery) alongside Beat poets (Ginsberg, Kerouac, Corso) rubbing shoulders with and listening to radical free-jazz musicians (Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman), while Black Mountain poets (Creeley and Olson) drink side by side with Abstract Expressionist painters (Franz Kline) and the elder statesman of the Harlem Renaissance (Langston Hughes).

Ginsberg also talks in more detail about meeting Langston Hughes at one of Baraka’s parties:

I met Langston Hughes at LeRoi Jones’s party one night when Ornette Coleman was playing music and everyone was dancing.  That’s the only time I met Langston Hughes.  In ’59 or ’60.  A great touching moment in history.  When Black Mountain poets and painters, Beatniks, the Abstract Expressionists, the free-form jazz, the Harlem Renaissance, all met together in one room.

Ginsberg’s description of this real, mad, “All-American” combination provides a vivid snapshot of an amazing, short-lived moment of inter-arts and inter-racial dialogue that characterized the postwar avant-garde, especially in New York.

Posted in Abstract Expressionism, Allen Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), Beats, Frank O'Hara, Franz Kline, Jack Kerouac, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Larry Rivers, Music, Visual Art

Alice Notley Symposium: Alette in Oakland

This weekend, the Bay Area Public School is hosting a big symposium on the work of Alice Notley in Oakland, California.  The event features a great line-up of readers and speakers, including Notley herself, a keynote talk by Eileen Myles, and panels featuring poets and critics like Maggie Nelson, Marcella Durand, Kaplan Harris, Cathy Wagner, Cassandra Gillig, and Bernadette Mayer (who will be attending virtually).

Here’s the schedule, in case you’re in the Bay Area, or just so you can experience it vicariously:

FRIDAY 10.24:

7:30pm-9:00pm Introduction & Reading by Alice Notley

9:00pm-10:00pm Reception


10:00am-11:30am Panel No. 1 & Q&A

Maggie Nelson, Sara Larsen, Laura Moriarty, Norman Fischer

11:45am-1:15pm Panel No. 2 & Q&A
Allison Cobb, Marcella Durand**, Laura Woltag & Lauren Levin, Brenda Iijima**

1:15pm-2:15pm Lunch

2:15pm-3:45pm Panel No. 3 & Q&A
Kaplan Harris, Steve Dickison, Jeanine Webb, Jennifer Karmin & Bernadette Mayer**

4:00pm-5:30pm Panel No. 4 & Q&A
Becca Klaver, Trisha Low, Cassandra Gillig, Cathy Wagner

5:30pm-6:00pm Keynote Talk: Eileen Myles

6:00pm-8:00pm Dinner

8:00pm-9:00pm A performance of “Anne’s White Glove”
by Alice Notley, directed by Alana Siegel

SUNDAY 10.26:

10:00am-11:30am Panel No. 5 & Q&A
Anne Boyer** Alana Siegel, Others TBA

11:30am-12:30pm Lunch

12:30pm-2:00pm Town Hall with Alice Notley

*This schedule is subject to change

**Participating virtually

Posted in Alice Notley, Bernadette Mayer, Conferences and Talks, Eileen Myles, Event

New Book on New York School Painters and Poets: Vogue’s “Exclusive Look”

 New York School Painters & Poets

Next week, the publisher Rizzoli will be releasing a terrific-sounding, major new book devoted to the New York School painters and poets – their shared aesthetic, their myriad collaborations, their boozing and chatting at the Cedar Tavern.  Titled New York School Painters & Poets: Neon in Daylight (with subtitle borrowed from Frank O’Hara’s “A Step Away From Them“), the book is written by Jenni Quilter and edited by Allison Power, Bill Berkson, and Larry Fagin, with a foreword by art critic Carter Ratcliff.

From the publisher’s description:

New York School Painters & Poets charts the collaborative milieu of New York City poets and artists in the mid-twentieth century. This unprecedented volume comprehensively reproduces rare ephemera, collecting and reprinting collaborations, paintings, drawings, poetry, letters, art reviews, photographs, dialogues, manifestos, and memories. Jenni Quilter offers a chronological survey of this milieu, which includes artists such as Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Alex Katz, Jasper Johns, Fairfield Porter, Larry Rivers, George Schneeman, and Rudy Burckhardt, plus writers John Ashbery, Bill Berkson, Ted Berrigan, Joe Brainard, Edwin Denby, Larry Fagin, Frank O’Hara, Charles North, Ron Padgett, James Schuyler, Anne Waldman, and more.

Vogue, of all places, has just posted an “exclusive look” at the new book by Alex Frank. The piece gives a quick overview of the New York School milieu and previews what the book has to offer:

Rizzoli’s new book, written by Jenni Quilter, captures their collaborations, like Joan Mitchell painting right on top of one of James Schuyler’s poems and Philip Guston’s enthusiastic line-drawing of Frank O’Hara and his characteristically broken nose. But it also catalogues how their lives intersected at houses in Manhattan and the Hamptons, and includes intimate photos of small poetry readings, group vacations and late-night parties in small apartments, giving readers a small window into the kind of special things that happen when the right people happen to overlap in New York.

It also features a nice slideshow of fourteen images drawn from the book, some familiar, others less so, including a great 1968 photograph of Bill Berkson and Joe Brainard running and grinning.  Check it out here.  Needless to say, I’m really excited to see this book!

Posted in Alex Katz, Anne Waldman, Bill Berkson, Books, collaboration, Edwin Denby, Fairfield Porter, Frank O'Hara, James Schuyler, Jane Freilicher, Jasper Johns, Joan Mitchell, Joe Brainard, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Larry Rivers, Robert Motherwell, Ron Padgett, Rudy Burkhardt, Ted Berrigan, Visual Art, Willem de Kooning

Upcoming Bernadette Mayer Events: New York and the Czech Republic


There are a couple of exciting events coming up featuring Bernadette Mayer, both in New York.  First, this Friday, October 17, at the Poetry Project at St. Marks, there will be a 25th anniversary celebration of the terrific small press Tender Buttons, which was founded in 1989 by the poet Lee Ann Brown with the goal of publishing “the best in experimental women’s writing.”

The event marks the welcome return, in an expanded 25th anniversary edition, of Mayer’s wonderful book Sonnets (which has been out of print and hard to get a hold of in recent years).  It will also pay tribute to the publication of a new book, Katy Bohinc’s Dear Alain. 

There is quite a line-up of readers for this celebration — it will feature Bernadette Mayer herself, along with readings by Katy Bohinc, Anne Waldman, Dodie Bellamy, Laynie Browne, India Radfar, Jennifer Moxley, and video appearances / art by Harryette Mullen, Michelle Rollman, Julie Patton, Rosmarie Waldrop and Hannah Weiner.  (There will be a reception at 7 and the reading is at 8).

Second, on Thursday, October 23, Mayer will be appearing at an event at the New York Public Library as part of its “Live from the NYPL” series.

LIVE brings together Bernadette Mayer, Matthea Harvey and Dorothea Lasky for an evening celebrating the experimental and adventurous in American poetry today. Together they represent the best of American lyricism, with voices as unique as they are elusive, uncensored and surprising. In a conversation moderated by Uzoamaka Maduka, these poets come together to rethink the question of what constitutes poetry.

You can find more information about this event here.

Oh yeah — there’s one more upcoming Mayer event, but this one might be a little harder to get to.  If you happen to find yourself in the Czech Republic this upcoming week, I will be giving a talk entitled “Bernadette Mayer and the Poetics of the Maternal Everyday” on a panel on American poetry at the “Searching for Culture: International Cultural Studies Conference” at Palacký University in Olomouc, Czech Republic.  Hope to see you there!


Posted in Anne Waldman, Bernadette Mayer, Conferences and Talks, Dorothea Lasky, Event, Harryette Mullen, Jennifer Moxley, Laynie Browne, Lee Ann Brown, Matthea Harvey, Performance, Poetry Project at St. Marks

Jed Perl’s Art in America: Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and More


Art in America Perl

The esteemed Library of America has just published a massive new anthology called Art in America 1945–1970: Writings from the Age of Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and Minimalism, edited by Jed Perl, the art critic for the New Republic.

The author of New Art City, an excellent book that focuses on the New York art world during this period, Perl has always had an affection for writers of the New York School and their painter friends (he writes at length about Fairfield Porter and James Schuyler, for example, in that book). So it is not surprising that the anthology includes ample selections of writings by Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Schuyler, Porter, Larry Rivers, Edwin Denby, and others in their circle.

In this morning’s New York Times, there is a characteristically wonderful and sharp review of Perl’s anthology by Dwight Garner.  Garner points out that the sprawl and variety of this loose, baggy monster of a book is appropriate for the the lively world of mid-century American art:

“It’s a plump, unbuttoned and convivial book, streaked like bacon with gossip and cogitation. New York’s writers drank at the San Remo on Bleecker Street in the 1950s, while the artists crammed into the smoky recesses of the Cedar Tavern on University Place. It was only a few blocks to stagger between them, and heads, egos and libidos collided … He’s interested in the era’s tumult, its howls and murmurs, its wolf whistles and rebel yells. He has raided memoirs, magazines and interviews for material; he’s also rummaged through forgotten pamphlets and yellowed correspondence. This is a party that spills out onto the lawn.”

The party features a slew of poets and fiction writers contemplating art — including Ralph Ellison on Romare Bearden, Jack Kerouac on Robert Frank’s The Americans, Robert Creeley on John Chamberlain, and, as Garner enthusiastically points out, generous helpings of Frank O’Hara:

“The poet Frank O’Hara, who worked at the Museum of Modern Art, pops up all over this volume, in his own writing and in that of others. He’s consistently welcome, and he always seems to be pouring vintage champagne. Here’s his report on a night out: ‘In Claes Oldenburg’s recent exhibition ‘THE STORE’ (107 East Second Street — the best thing since L. L. Bean), you find cakes your mother never baked, letters you never received, jackets you never stole when you broke into that apartment and a bride that did not pose for Rembrandt’s famous Jewish ceremony.’”

Alongside the expected statements by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, and other giants of Abstract Expressionism and Pop, O’Hara’s painter friends also find a place at the table in Perl’s collection, including Porter, Rivers, and Grace Hartigan.

In fact, Garner points out that while some of the painters aren’t particularly good writers (he singles out De Kooning and Barnett Newman), some do have “agile voices,” and his examples include Larry Rivers — who writes of his own artistic development “I have gone from a baby to having the soul of a nail” — and Grace Hartigan, whose “journals, in particular, pop off the page. Hartigan deposed in 1952 about one of her paintings, ‘I feel like a mother who has given birth to an idiot — I know it lives so I can’t destroy it — but I hate it.’”

In addition to essays by a range of poets (William Carlos Williams,  Marianne Moore, Randall Jarrell, Robert Duncan), the volume also includes selections of art criticism by other New York School poets, like Ashbery’s essays on Andy Warhol and Joan Mitchell, and James Schuyler on Jane Freilicher.

In closing, Garner notes:

“Like a Jasper Johns painting, ‘Art in America 1945-1970′ is patriotic and subversive, filled with flags and targets. Mr. Perl’s fine book returns us to a heady, pre-hippie moment in our cultural history. ‘Instead of drugs,’ Feldman says, ‘we had art.’

Not surprisingly, Ashbery provided one of the blurbs for Perl’s book:

“In this fascinating anthology Jed Perl has given narrative shape and structure to a wide range of voices: poets, artists themselves, and various other articulate observers of the amazing metamorphoses of postwar American art. What emerges is surely one of the defining records of our artistic age.”

Posted in Abstract Expressionism, Andy Warhol, Book Review, Books, Fairfield Porter, Frank O'Hara, Jack Kerouac, James Schuyler, Jane Freilicher, John Ashbery, Larry Rivers, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Robert Motherwell, Visual Art