“Street Musicians: Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery” in The Cambridge Companion to American Poets

I just wanted to announce a new publication that may be of interest: the new Cambridge Companion to American Poets, edited by Mark Richardson, features an essay of mine titled “Street Musicians: Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery.”  In general, it looks like an excellent and useful volume, spanning the gamut from Anne Bradstreet and Phyllis Wheatley to Jack Spicer, Sylvia Plath, and recent poetry.  The collection features David Reynolds on Walt Whitman, Joan Retallack on Gertrude Stein, Jonah Raskin on Allen Ginsberg, Alan Golding on the Black Mountain School, David Kirby on contemporary American poetry, and two dozen more.

Here’s the description from Cambridge:

The Cambridge Companion to American Poets brings together thirty-one essays on some fifty-four American poets, spanning nearly 400 years, from Anne Bradstreet to contemporary performance poetry. This book also examines such movements in American poetry as modernism, the Harlem (or New Negro) Renaissance, “confessional” poetry, the Black Mountain School, the New York School, the Beats, and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry. Its reputable host of contributors approach American poetry from perspectives as diverse as the poetry itself. The result is a Companion concise enough to be read with pleasure yet expansive enough to do justice to the many traditions American poets have modified, inaugurated, and made their own.

And the table of contents:

1. ‘The first shall be last’: apology and redemption in the work of the first New England poets, Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor — Charlotte Gordon
2. Phillis Wheatley — Carla Willard
3. The historical epic, women’s poetry, and early American verse — Kerry Larson
4. The first this time: Longfellow, Lowell, Holmes, Whittier — Christoph Irmscher
5. Ralph Waldo Emerson — Mark Scott
6. Edgar Allan Poe — Kevin Hayes
7. Walt Whitman — David S. Reynolds
8. Melville the poet — Robert Faggen
9. Emily Dickinson — Martha Nell Smith
10. Paul Laurence Dunbar — Joanne M. Braxton and Lauri Ramey
11. Edwin Arlington Robinson — Henry Atmore
12. Robert Frost — Mark Richardson
13. Gertrude Stein — Joan Retallack
14. Wallace Stevens — Eleanor Cook
15. William Carlos Williams — Ian Copestake
16. Ezra Pound — Alec Marsh
17. Marianne Moore — Celeste Goodridge
18. T. S. Eliot and American poetry — John Cooper
19. Hart Crane’s visionary company — Robert Bernard Haas
20. The new Negro Renaissance — Steven Tracey
21. Langston Hughes — Henry Atmore
22. Elizabeth Bishop — Susan McCabe
23. Gwendolyn Brooks — James Smethurst
24. The three voices of Robert Lowell — Steven Axelrod
25. The Black Mountain School — Alan Golding
26. Jack Spicer — Daniel Katz
27. Allen Ginsberg: irreverent, reverential, and apocalyptic American poet — Jonah Raskin
28. Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and confessional poetry — Melanie Waters
29. ‘Street musicians’: Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery — Andrew Epstein
30. Adrienne Rich: the poetry of witness — Wendy Martin and Annalisa Zox-Weaver
31. An ’empty prescription’: pleasure in contemporary American poetry — David Kirby.

You can find out more about the book here.

Posted in Books, Criticism, Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery

Frank Lima’s Ode to the New York School of Poets

The poet Frank Lima, who passed away in 2013, was an important yet undersung member of the New York School of poetry’s second generation.  Although he was close with Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, David Shapiro, and many other poets of the first and second generation, who enthusiastically endorsed his work, Lima remains in what Guillermo Parra has called a “marginal, semi-invisible position within the New York School.”  

Fortunately, the current issue of Poetry magazine includes a feature devoted to Lima’s work.  It consists of an excellent and informative introduction by Garrett Caples and a selection of previously unpublished poems, which will presumably be appearing in a new collection, Incidents of Travel in Poetry: Selected Poems, to be published by City Lights Books this winter.

Caples’ introduction lays out the intriguing story of how Lima — who was born in New York to a Mexican father and Puerto Rican mother, endured a rough and difficult childhood, and struggled with drug addiction — came into the orbit of the New York School poets.  Lima was especially close to Frank O’Hara, who quickly took the much younger poet under his wing: as Caples notes

“O’Hara offered drinking and companionship, bringing Lima everywhere from the symphony to the Cedar Tavern. O’Hara took an interest in Lima’s personal well-being, allowing him, during a period of relapse and homelessness, to sleep on the couch at the East Ninth Street apartment the older poet shared with Joe LeSueur. O’Hara went as far as organizing an art sale through Tibor de Nagy to raise money for Lima to see a psychotherapist. The two Franks also collaborated on a play, Love on the Hoof, intended for an unrealized Andy Warhol film project called ‘Messy Lives.'”

Despite his close ties to O’Hara and the New York School, Lima resisted identifying himself too closely with the movement, or any other label or identity category:  “I do not align my lifestyle or work with the second generation New York School,” he once told Parra. “I do not want to be a ‘Latino’ poet. . . . Art is much bigger than that. My poetry is much bigger than that.”

Nevertheless, Lima’s work and career do intersect with the New York School in fascinating ways.  One place where this is especially clear is in a rousing long poem titled “Incidents of Travel in Poetry” that appears in the Poetry feature and will lend its title to the new collection of Lima’s work.  The poem is a tribute to Lima’s poetic lineage and an ode of sorts to the New York School of poets.

Bearing the epigraph “Happy Birthday Kenneth Koch / Feb 27,” Lima’s poem seems to deliberately echo the tone, the spirit, and the playful references to literary forbears found in O’Hara’s great poem “Memorial Day 1950.”  Much like O’Hara’s poem (which has many lines like “And those of us who thought poetry / was crap were throttled by Auden or Rimbaud”), Lima’s “Incidents of Travel” takes us on a dizzying and surreal tour of literary history: “We were piloted by Auden who became / Unbearably acrimonious when dropped of Senghor into the / steam skies of his beloved West Africa … We are met by Rilke / dressed in his Orpheus uniform wearing white sonnet gloves / that once belonged to a stone angel.”

After nodding to Yeats and Rimbaud, Whitman and Dickinson, Stein and Stevens, Apollinaire and Mayakovsky, Pound and Eliot, the poem finally builds towards figures associated with the Beats and the New York School, poets who were of exceptional importance to Lima’s life and work.  First we hang out with Ginsberg:  “we went over to Allen’s for some microbiotic poetry.  As / usual, Allen was rolling incense and howling at America.”  Next we encounter the New York School poet David Shapiro, before turning to Frank O’Hara and his friendship with Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones):

                                 Beauty was Frank O’Hara talking to Second
Avenue with a diamond in his head. We were the personal
details in Frank’s harem of private lives when LeRoi insisted on
becoming black, abandoning us for a noble cause, according to
Frank, who loved Imamu Amiri Baraka. We were the details in
Frank’s poems and living one’s life was a detail in Frank’s life.

Next, it’s Ashbery’s turn:

John Ashbery arrived from Paris on a plane made of expensive
suits, shirts, and ties. Like his poems, he was sparkling and
squeaky clean, dressed in elegant language. He is the
daydream that had become a poet. His subject is to have no
subject. Perhaps a casual reference to someone special. He is
a poet of the less obvious in life: the sestina made of clouds.

Finally we arrive at Kenneth Koch, to whom the entire poem is dedicated:

Kenneth, on the other
hand, has a paper cup full of wonderful poems. He can write a
poem about a cathedral living in a paper cup. Kenneth travels
everywhere with his paper cup. At a certain time of day,
Kenneth finds room in his paper cup for perfect days and
perfect moments

Lima bestows incisive, somehow apt images and epithets for each poet and friend, in a way that recalls O’Hara poems like “Day and Night in 1952” (“Kenneth continually goes away and by this device is able to remain intensely friendly if not actually intimate”) or “Poem Read at Joan Mitchell’s” (“I think of … John and the nuptial quality of his verses (he is always marrying the whole world)”).  He refers to David Shapiro as “the Djinn of subatomic poetry,” suggests that O’Hara’s famously wide circle of friends become part of his “harem of private lives,” calls Ashbery “the daydream that had become a poet,” and rightly notes that “his subject is to have no / subject,” and praises Koch’s ability to write a “poem about a cathedral living in a paper cup.”

The poem closes with a lovely paean to those moments of perfection Koch’s expansive poems find room for:

Perfect moments when Frank spoke to us.
Perfect moments when Allen spoke to us.
And they sang to us
with human wings
upon which we sleep.

Lima’s homage to his own personal canon ends with an image of inspiration — of being spoken to and borne aloft by the voices of poets who we’ve known and been moved by — that reminds me of the ending to O’Hara’s “Ode to Michael Goldberg (‘s Birth and Other Births)”:  “and one alone will speak of being / born in pain / and he will be the wings of an extraordinary liberty.”

You can check out the whole feature on Frank Lima and a number of other previously unpublished poems in the November issue of Poetry here.

(from l to r): Gerard Malanga, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), David Shapiro, Bill Berkson, Frank Lima, and Frank O’Hara, at Wagner College, 1962


Posted in Allen Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), Beats, David Shapiro, Frank Lima, Frank O'Hara, Guillaume Apollinaire, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Wallace Stevens, Walt Whitman

Drunk on the Poetry of a New Friend: John Wieners and Frank O’Hara


John Wieners

It’s been heartening to see all the recent attention to the poetry of John Wieners, whose moving, strange, and powerful poems deserve to be better known.  Wieners, an important but lesser-known figure within the post-World War II avant-garde scene known as “New American Poetry,” is having his overdue moment because two welcome books have just appeared: Wave Books has just published Supplication: Selected Poems of John Wieners, which brings a generous selection of Wieners work back into print, while Stars Seen in Person: Selected Journals of John Wieners recently appeared from City Lights Books.  

This past June, Poetry magazine included a special section, edited and introduced by Michael Seth Stewart, featuring seven of Wieners’ letters.  Reviews and reassessments of Wieners have recently appeared in the Critical Flame, the Boston Globe, Publishers Weekly, and now, this week, in a review by Dan Chiasson in the New Yorker, which surprisingly pairs Wieners with fellow Bostonian John Updike of all people. (Chiasson rightly acknowledges that “no two human beings seem more different than Wieners and John Updike”).

Much of this commentary has focused on Wieners’s status as a pioneering queer poet, as a student of Black Mountain College and disciple of Charles Olson, as a Beat poet relaying tales of sex, drugs, and madness, a chronicler of the San Francisco demimonde, and a poet of Boston.  However, as some reviews have mentioned but not stressed, Wieners was also an important affiliate of the New York School of poets.*

Even while Wieners does not fit easily into the New York School or any of these movements and groupings, he enjoyed a significant friendship with Frank O’Hara, who deeply admired his poems and championed them loudly in print.  The two poets met in 1956 when O’Hara was briefly living in Cambridge while on a fellowship at the Poets’ Theatre.  As Brad Gooch relates in his biography of O’Hara, City Poet, O’Hara was “struck by Wieners’s unusual poetry, its visionary exaggerations jiving with his darkly ‘beat’ personal style. ‘I think Wieners had a special appeal for Frank, especially his madness,’ says Barbara Guest to whom O’Hara had mailed a batch of Wieners’s poets as she was then an editor at Partisan Review.”

O’Hara and Wieners quickly became ardent fans of each others’ work.  Wieners published a portion of O’Hara’s landmark experimental poem “Second Avenue” in Measure, the little magazine he edited, and wrote poems for him, like “For F O’H / After meditations [in an emergency]” and, following O’Hara’s death, the elegy “After Reading Second Avenue (for Frank O’Hara),” which begins: “As a jar of Tibetan snow, you melted / at mid-summer.”  The elegy ends:

Behind my eye-lids,
I have your books, your mouth to remember me as well.

For his part, O’Hara paid tribute to Wieners in a series of poems, which together suggest that Wieners meant more to him than readers of either poet have often recognized. These include “To John Wieners,” written soon after they met in 1956, and another poem from 1957, titled “A Young Poet” (a note on the manuscript indicated its subject was Wieners).  The piece describes the title figure as “full of passion and giggles,” one who “brashly erects his first poems / and they are ecstatic / followed by a clap of praise / from a very few hands / belonging to other poets.”  O’Hara writes of Wieners: “he is tired, / hysterical, / he is jeered at by thugs / and taken for a pervert / by police / who follow him / as he should be followed, but not by them.”

There is also another, less well-known appearance of Wieners in one of O’Hara’s poems, “Poem” (1956, later published in Lunch Poems) which begins

Instant coffee with slightly sour cream
in it, and a phone call to the beyond
which doesn’t seem to be coming any nearer
‘Ah daddy, I wanna stay drunk many days’
on the poetry of a new friend

The new friend was, of course, Wieners, who is also the author of the line that O’Hara quotes about staying drunk many days.**

Intoxicated by the poetry of his new friend, O’Hara went around telling everyone who would listen how amazing Wieners’s work was.  This tendency is reflected in O’Hara’s most famous reference to Wieners’s work, which appears in the 1959 poem “Les Luths,” where he wryly reflects on his own role as taste-maker among his friends by ostentatiously name-dropping the title of Wieners’s first book:

everybody here is running around after dull pleasantries and
wondering if The Hotel Wentley Poems is as great as I say it is

As Marjorie Perloff observed in her early book on O’Hara, “one can see many similarities between Wieners and O’Hara.  Both loved to parody established genres; both wrote bittersweet lyrics, at once formal and colloquial, about homosexual love; both regarded all Movements and Manifestoes with some suspicion.”  In his review, Chiasson notes their shared proclivities too, but adds that Wieners is “like O’Hara with the lights dimmed, the music shut off.”

Wieners maintained relationships and correspondence with other poets of the New York School, including James Schuyler — two of his letters to Schuyler can be found in the June 2015 issue of Poetry that I mentioned earlier.  And he exerted a sizable influence over later New York poets, such as Ted Berrigan, who riffs on some lines borrowed from Wieners in his own well-known poem “Words for Love.”  In “A poem for painters,” Wieners wrote “My poems contain no / wilde beestes, no / lady of the lake music / of the spheres.”  In his poem, Berrigan responds:

My poems do contain
wilde beestes. I write for my Lady
of the Lake.

The recent surge of interest in John Wieners will hopefully pave the way to further studies exploring the important links between Wieners and Frank O’Hara and the New York School.*

*One of the few extended critical pieces about Wieners and O’Hara is an excellent essay by Andrea Brady called “The Other Poet: Wieners, O’Hara, Olson,” which was first published in Don’t Ever Get Famous: Essays on New York Writing After the New York School, edited by Daniel Kane, and then republished by Jacket.

** The line “ah daddy I wanna be drunk many days,” which O’Hara slightly misquotes, is taken from Wieners’s poem “With Mr. J. R. Morton.”  The poem (which is included in the new Wieners selected, Supplication) first appeared in the small magazine Semi-Colon that was edited by John Bernard Myers.  As Wieners recalls in his memoir about O’Hara, “Chop-House Memories,” it was O’Hara who convinced Myers to print the poem, which was Wieners’s first published poem.

Posted in Barbara Guest, Beats, Charles Olson, Frank O'Hara, Influences on the NY School, James Schuyler, John Bernard Myers, John Wieners, Marjorie Perloff, NY School Influence, Ted Berrigan

Garth Risk Hallberg and the Formative Influence of Frank O’Hara and the New York School

Garth Risk Hallberg

The literary world has been abuzz recently over the publication of City on Fire, Garth Risk Hallberg’s massive new novel about New York City in the 1970s.  The 36-year old Hallberg received a jaw-dropping $2 million advance for the book (his first novel!) and has been hailed as a “literary sensation” and author of “the most anticipated novel of the year.” With all that hype and expectation, it’s not a surprise that we’ve been inundated with feature stories, interviews, and now, a stream of high-profile reviews.

Much of the discussion surrounding the 900-page novel has focused on Hallberg’s connection to, and depiction, of New York City itself.  One intriguing detail that has come up repeatedly is Hallberg’s affection for the New York School of poets, and Frank O’Hara in particular, who he has cited as a source of his fascination with the city.

The son of a novelist and college professor father and a mother who taught high school English, Hallberg grew up in North Carolina.  By the time he was a teenager, he felt like a fish out of water in Greenville, NC — he recalls being “the resident beatnik of North Carolina,” devoted to the Beats, avant-garde poetry, Patti Smith, and punk.  Early on, he had aspirations to hit the New York streets and channel O’Hara:

“His first visit to New York inspired him to write a Frank O’Hara–style poem cycle. ‘I had one week in the fall of 1996,’ he says, ‘where I was like, “I’m America’s greatest living teenage poet.”‘ To natives, New York was becoming safe, denatured, but to the young writer and his friends, it still felt feral.”

In interviews, Hallberg acknowledges that reading the New York poets fostered his sense of the city as a romantic beacon and refuge:

“Thanks to the likes of Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery, New York took on mythic status. ‘That’s the place where the books are made, I thought. That’s also where Allen Ginsberg offered a friend of mine a Fig Newton outside a deli in the East Village. By the time I first came to New York, I was already half in love.'”

In another interview, Hallberg recalls his early immersion in the music of Patti Smith, Lou Reed, and the Velvet Underground and then adds “also I was a big reader of the Beats and the New York School poets. I always thought I was going to be a great poet, and go and live in New York, where the great poets lived — you know, where Whitman had walked the streets.”

It’s interesting to note that one of the biggest novels of the year — which has been hailed as a quintessential epic of Manhattan,  “a fresh vision of New York that is more dream­scape than reportage” — has its roots in Hallberg’s formative, life-changing exposure to O’Hara, Ashbery, Ginsberg, and the poetry of New York.

Posted in Allen Ginsberg, Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, Lou Reed, NY School Influence, Patti Smith, Velvet Underground

Roger Federer and Frank O’Hara


In a piece in this Sunday’s New York Times, Gerald Marzorati examined the “mob-loud and unruly” support Roger Federer enjoyed at the recent U.S. Open.  To try to explain why the tennis star has such a passionate, devoted following among New Yorkers, Marzorati made a surprising comparison — Federer actually embodies the spirit of Frank O’Hara’s poetry:

Federer has been loved by New Yorkers for years, of course. Just ask Andy Roddick, who heard the cheers for Roger when, as America’s best tennis player, he faced him (and lost to him) in the Open final of 2006. Federer was urbane, and has grown only more so. During his stay in New York for the two weeks of this year’s Open, he ventured from his suite at the Carlyle to attend a performance of “Hamilton,” view “China: Through the Looking Glass” at the Met and eat sushi at Kappo Masa. His tennis self, too, has always been debonair and, just as crucial (and sophisticated), open to reinvention. With a racket in his right hand, Fed is the on-court embodiment of that free-verse epigram from Frank O’Hara, the ur-New York School poet of contemporary cultivation, etched for eternity on his East Hampton gravestone: “Grace/to be born and live as variously as possible.”

Marzorati casts Federer as something of a New York School poet himself — urbane, sophisticated, cosmopolitan, with a “tennis self” as protean as the ever-changeable selfhood O’Hara’s poetry presents.

I have to say, even though I’m a fan of both Federer and O’Hara, I didn’t see that one coming … but am definitely happy Marzorati made the connection.


Posted in Frank O'Hara | 3 Comments

Frank O’Hara Reading his Poem “September 14th, 1959 (Moon)”

Here’s a poem Frank O’Hara wrote on this date in 1959:

September 14, 1959 (Moon)

Serenity lopes along like exhaustion
only windier and silver-eyed
where fragments of distress in hunks
lay like the plaster in the bedroom
when the bed fell down, greenly
murmuring a phrase from the Jacksonville
Chamber of Commerce of the Pacific
yes no, yes no, yes, yes, yes

an agate breeze pours through the gate
of reddish hair there is a summer
of silence and inquiry waiting there
it is full of wildness and tension
like a gare, the warmly running trains
of the South escape to sweet brooks
and grassy roadbeds underneath the
thankful and enlightening Russian moon

Posted in Frank O'Hara, Poems

John Perreault, “Polyartist” of the New York School (1937-2015)

John Perreault, by Philip Pearlstein (1975)

The New York Times reports today that the poet, artist, and art critic John Perreault has passed away, at the age of 78.  In Terence Diggory’s Encyclopedia of the New York School Poets, Perreault is described as “an emblematic figure when it comes to the sensibilities of the New York School; he is, as Richard Kostelanetz would call it, a ‘polyartist,’ someone more interested in making art than in classifying his work into any particular genre. Perreault is an art critic, curator, poet, fiction writer, and visual artist, and his fusion of different media is indicative of the way the arts often commingle in the New York School.”

Perreault came into the New York School orbit when he took a formative class at the New School with Kenneth Koch in the early 1960s.  His work was included in the second issue of the New York School house journal Locus Solus, and his first book featured an introduction by John Ashbery.  By the later 1960s, Perreault had become an influential art critic for the Village Voice and had begun creating works of conceptual and performance art as well.

From the New York Times obituary:

John Perreault, an art critic at The Village Voice and The SoHo Weekly News who was an early champion of feminist art and the craft-oriented pattern and decoration movement in the 1970s, and who later held senior curatorial positions at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center on Staten Island and the American Craft Museum, died on Sunday in Manhattan. He was 78.

The cause was complications of gastrointestinal surgery, his husband, Jeff Weinstein, said.

Mr. Perreault started out as a poet and painter, but after being recommended by the poet and art critic John Ashbery, he began writing criticism for Art News. In 1966, The Village Voice made him its chief art critic, and he used the position to make the case for new art and work outside the mainstream, especially the creations of feminists like Judy Chicago; photorealism; art with gay content; and the pattern and decoration art associated with the Holly Solomon Gallery.

On Artopia, a blog on the website Arts Journal that he started in 2004, he described his interests as ranging “from Minimalism and Earth Art to realist painting; from pattern painting to performance art; from street works to ceramics and design.”

Mr. Perreault’s reviews were required reading for anyone trying to make sense of the swirling, often confusing, art scene of the 1970s, when movements and trends vied for attention.

As an artist himself, he became friends with many of the subjects he wrote about.

Alice Neel painted him, nude, in a portrait shown at her 1974 retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. In“The Turkish Bath,” Sylvia Sleigh painted him — nude again — with his fellow critics Lawrence Alloway and Carter Ratcliff. Depicted from the chest up, this time wearing a shirt, he was the subject of a 1975 portrait by Philip Pearlstein.

John Lucas Perreault (pronounced per-ALT) was born on Aug. 26, 1937, in Manhattan and grew up in Belmar, N.J., and other towns along the Jersey Shore. His French Canadian father, Jean, parlayed his experience cooking on merchant marine ships during the war into a series of restaurant jobs…

After studying briefly at Montclair State Teachers College (now Montclair State University), he enrolled in Kenneth Koch’s poetry workshop at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan. His first poetry collection, “Camouflage,” was published by Lines Books in 1966, with an introduction by Mr. Ashbery. He was also the author of the collections “Luck” (1969) and “Harry” (1974).

In the mid-1960s Mr. Perreault began exhibiting his paintings at One Eleven Gallery in Greenwich Village. He soon turned to conceptual and performance art. For the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church-in-the Bowery, he recited a long poem, “Hunger,” as color slides were projected on his back. He also did a series of street projects with Vito Acconci and, with Hannah Weiner and Eduardo Costa, organized the Fashion Show Poetry Event, which featured clothing made by Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Alex Katz and other artists.

Perreault Street Music

Perreault Street Works 2

Posted in Andy Warhol, Bernadette Mayer, John Ashbery, John Perreault, Kenneth Koch, Visual Art, Vito Acconci