James Merrill and … the New York School?

James Merrill is not often mentioned in the same breath as poets of the New York School. He is usually viewed as a consummate formalist and genteel New England poet, celebrated for his elegant style, refinement, and restraint, who operated at some distance from the avant-garde of his day.

It has therefore been easy to overlook the fact that Merrill actually spent the formative, early years of his career very much in the midst of the New York art and poetry world of the 1950s and 1960s and had significant ties to the poets and painters of the New York School.

Fortunately, the massive new biography of Merrill by Langdon Hammer called James Merrill: Life and Art — which has been receiving favorable reviews in places like the New Yorker, the New York Times, and the New York Times Book Review — chronicles this important chapter of Merrill’s career.

As Hammer notes, Merrill’s first contact with the world of New York poets and artists in the 1950s came through John Bernard Myers, the eccentric co-founder of both the Tibor de Nagy gallery (home to many of the younger New York painters) and the Artists’ Theatre, with director Herbert Machiz.  The Artists’ Theatre staged Merrill’s play The Bait in 1953 alongside plays by John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, and Kenneth Koch. Hammer writes that during the summer of 1953, Merrill

took classes in Machiz’s school for actors; he played the part of John in a workshop performance of O’Hara’s Try! Try!  Myers and Machiz meanwhile were hosting the ‘best’ parties that Merrill ‘ever went to.’  Among the assembled, he especially liked Ashbery.  He soon felt the influence of the slightly younger, Harvard-educated poet’s work on his own poems, which made him uneasy, and he was shy in Ashbery’s presence.  They would remain friends and admirers of each other’s poetry for the rest of their lives, with a subtle undercurrent of rivalry.

More surprising than the Merrill-Ashbery connection, however, is the link between Merrill and the painter Larry Rivers, whose style Merrill apparently emulated:

Larry Rivers was easier to befriend, although, or perhaps because.  Merrill had much less in common with this ebullient saxophonist from an immigrant Jewish family.  In 1954, Merrill bought a big landscape by Rivers, painted in Water Mill, near Southhampton.  Robin Macgowan described it as a picture of ‘cows, grass, and clouds rendered with the freshness of an ex-jazz musician from the Bronx discovering the countryside for the first time.  In 1955, Rivers made oil portraits of both [Merrill’s lover, David] Jackson and Merrill; in his, Jimmy looks like a junior Merrill Lynch executive in his glases, button-down shirt, and striped tie.  Robin, who met Rivers through his uncle in 1956, noted that ‘Jimmy then longed to write the way Larry painted': loosely and casually, with confident self-display and ‘colloquial exuberance.’  The big Water Mill landscape was a kind of aesthetic challenge to Merrill, daring him to loosen up.

Despite these affinities, and ample time hanging out at the San Remo cafe with the poets and painters, Merrill never became a full-fledged member of this or any other movement; Hammer argues that “he was too proud, too skeptical about claims for artistic innovation, ever to enroll in the New York School.”

Another important point of contact between the New York School and Merrill came in the form of financial support.  Merrill was, of course, famously wealthy: in his recent review of Hammer’s biography, Jay Parini writes that “some people are born with a silver spoon, but the poet James Merrill — son of a founder of Merrill Lynch — had whole place settings jammed down his throat.”  In the 1950s, Merrill also became a generous supporter of other writers and artists.  As Hammer notes,

Around this time, Merrill began to contribute money specifically to encourage artists, writers, and musicians in their work.  In 1953, he gave Rivers $2500 that enabled him to buy a house in Southhampton, where the painter set up a studio … ‘Personally,’ Merrill explained, ‘I want to give to groups or individuals whom nobody else is as yet willing to risk helping. That seems to me far more valuable than swelling by a fraction of 1 percent the annual revenue of the Metropolitan Opera (much as I love it) or the United Hospital Fund (worthy though it be), or Amherst College.’ This was the vision behind Jimmy’s establishment of the Ingram Merrill Foundation, which gained tax exempt status in 1955.

The Ingram Merrill Foundation would, over ensuing decades, give grants to Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, James Schuyler, and Joe Brainard, along with a very long list of other writers, artists, and organizations.

Merrill was embedded in the New York School’s network of friendships and affiliations. For example, in a 1957 letter to John Ashbery, Schuyler discusses a friend being “bemused and thrilled to hear you have a mustache” and then adds “Jimmy Merrill described it as very French: otherwise he spoke very well of you, and made you sound as handsome as the dawn over Parc Buttes Chaumont or whatever it’s called.”  Frank O’Hara’s letters casually mention “Jimmy and David” coming over for drinks, and refer to Merrill visiting Schuyler after one of his psychological breakdowns and offering his generous assistance.

Literary history likes to divide writers and place them in somewhat artificial categories and movements that often obscure the complex reality of affiliations, friendships, and influences.  Fortunately, we now have Hammer’s biography to flesh out some of the details and remind us of the intriguing set of connections between Merrill and the poets of the New York School.

Posted in Frank O'Hara, Herbert Machiz, James Merrill, James Schuyler, John Ashbery, John Bernard Myers, Larry Rivers, Tibor de Nagy Gallery, Visual Art

The Collages of John Ashbery and Guy Maddin


John Ashbery, “Morris” (2014)

John Ashbery has been making collages on the side, as it were, since he was in college, and in recent years, he has begun exhibiting them.  Currently, there is an exhibition at the Tibor de Nagy gallery in New York showcasing collages by Ashbery and the experimental filmmaker Guy Maddin.  As the gallery notes

Maddin and Ashbery were mutual fans from a distance until they were introduced a few years ago. Soon they were collaborating. Ashbery wrote his own adaptation of the long-lost Dwain Esper exploitation film How to Take a Bath, which Maddin then filmed. The finished film, a short, is now included in Maddin’s latest feature The Forbidden Room, which has been described as “a film treatment in collage”.

When talking about their shared love of collage-making, Maddin remarked “…I suppose this gluey and scissory medium is where the sensibilities of each other’s chosen fields come closest…where we unroll for the public the secret blueprints for the little visual collisions…”

It’s not hard to find parallels between Ashbery’s poetry — with its love of fragments, its startling juxtapositions of tone and image and language, its delight in pop culture and eccentric ephemera, its magpie sensibility — and his playful, wry, evocative collages.  (This 2008 piece by New York Times art critic Holland Cotter does a good job of tracing some of the points of contact).

In a number of the works in the show, Ashbery seems to be playfully hinting at connections between his poetry and his collages.  For example, one collage, titled “To Greet You,” seems to allude to the last line of one of Ashbery’s own poems from the 1960s, “The Chateau Hardware” (“And turning out the way I am, turning out to greet you”), and possibly the oft-quoted lines from the climax of his most famous poem, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror: “Therefore I beseech you, withdraw that hand,/ Offer it no longer as shield or greeting,/ The shield of a greeting.”


John Ashbery, “To Greet You” (2014)

With “The Painter,” Ashbery seems to deliberately evoke the title of a well-known sestina that appeared in Ashbery’s first book.  The collage juxtaposes the famous self-portrait of a despairing Gustave Courbet with a very cheerful logo for Dutch Boy paint:


John Ashbery, “The Painter” (2014)

Also included in the exhibit is the beautiful collage that adorns the cover Ashbery’s new book, Breezeway:


John Ashbery, “Breezeway” (2014)

Another is titled “Bingo Beethoven”:


John Ashbery, “Bingo Beethoven” (2014) (collage on vintage bingo board)

It’s a pleasure to see that Ashbery’s collages, like Maddin’s equally enticing works, are suffused with the same charm, wit, beauty, and strangeness of his poems.  The exhibition continues through July 31.

Posted in Art Exhibit, Guy Maddin, John Ashbery, Tibor de Nagy Gallery, Visual Art

“I carried Ulysses with me for luck:” Frank O’Hara and James Joyce, on Bloomsday


Soon after Frank O’Hara discovered James Joyce’s writing in high school, Joyce quickly became one of O’Hara’s heroes.  In his biography of O’Hara, City Poet, Brad Gooch details O’Hara’s early infatuation with Joyce, which carried through his teenage years, to his time in the Navy during World War II, and throughout the rest of his life: “When he went on board the destroyer U.S.S. Nicholas, he couldn’t fit Dubliners in his duffel bag so wrote asking his father to type out and send the last paragraph from ‘The Dead.'”  Gooch writes:

During his high-school years, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was O’Hara’s favorite work by Joyce.  He identified with Joyce as the Irish-Catholic renegade who had deserted his Jesuit training to become a writer, who had decided not to pursue the religion of Mary Mother of Jesus but rather to pursue the religion of High Art.  O’Hara often felt he was in the position of Joyce’s protagonist in Portrait, Stephen Dedalus, a parochial student who sat through an endless fire-and-brimstone sermon much as O’Hara had sat through so many lectures at St. John’s…. O’Hara’s favorite scene in Portrait was the pivotal one in which, as he paraphrased it in a letter to his parents, ‘Stephen is out on the beach watching a girl wading, and realizes his vocation is to be an artist.”

As O’Hara explained it in a letter home, “in some places Joyce’s character is uncannily like me — remarkably so in the passage where he goes down to the beach and ‘finds himself.'”

In a piece called “Lament and Chastisement” that he wrote during college, O’Hara recalled that during his time in the Navy “I carried Ulysses with me for luck.  I read it in high school because a friend who was preping [sic] for West Point sent it to me because it was so dirty.  Then I read it from the beginning and it was about something else entirely.  In my locker: Ulysses for luck, and oh my god didn’t Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man say everything?  Should I sent it to all my friends so they’d understand me?”

O’Hara remembers that during combat in the Pacific, “I reread Ulysses, needing to throw up my sensibility and Joyce’s art into the face of my surroundings; I found that Joyce was more than a match.”

Joyce remained a touchstone for O’Hara throughout his career.  References and allusions to Joyce occur throughout O’Hara’s writing.  In “Leafing Through Florida,” he writes:

It is sad and unimaginable that I can be
happy outside Fla. and it is just as sad
that you can and I hope you are but how
lovely it was under the low moon crooning
about hurricanes and cane chairs and Ulysses
and sand bags and wet washing and magnolias

And in “Poem Read at Joan Mitchell’s”:

Yesterday I felt very tired from being at the FIVE SPOT
and today I felt very tired from going to bed early and reading ULYSSES
but tonight I feel energetic because I’m sort of the bugle,
like waking people up, of your peculiar desire to get married

I can only imagine O’Hara must have been pleased by the coincidence when he came across this sentence near the end of Ulysses, when Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus are in the back garden at 7 Eccles Street, about to relieve themselves:

What visible luminous sign attracted Bloom’s, who attracted Stephen’s gaze?

In the second storey (rere) of his (Bloom’s) house the light of a paraffin oil lamp with oblique shade projected on a screen of roller blind supplied by Frank O’Hara, window blind, curtain pole and revolving shutter manufacturer, 16 Aungier street.

If only we could all have our names appear in our favorite book.  Happy Bloomsday!

Posted in Fiction, Frank O'Hara, Influences on the NY School, James Joyce

Ornette Coleman (1930-2015), Frank O’Hara, Amiri Baraka

This morning brought the sad news that the groundbreaking jazz musician Ornette Coleman has passed away at 85.  There will surely be many obituaries and testimonials to Coleman’s importance and legacy, but I wanted to just note some the important points of contact between Coleman and the New York School and the postwar avant-garde.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Coleman became a central figure in the downtown avant-garde scene, beginning with a legendary ten-week residency at the Five Spot jazz club in New York, which was a regular hangout for Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones), Frank O’Hara, and other young New York poets. Coleman’s landmark 1961 album Free Jazz famously featured a painting by Jackson Pollock on the cover, underscoring the connections between experimental jazz and avant-garde painting.  

Coleman became friendly with the young Baraka and other writers in Baraka’s lively bohemian circle, which included O’Hara and other poets of the New York School.  O’Hara was taken with Coleman and his music, referring to him in his letters and including a reference to him in the experimental film he made with Alfred Leslie, The Last Clean Shirt (which includes the exclamation “Ornette!” at one point) (at 32:15 to be precise).

The most detailed treatment of these intersections can be found in Michael Magee’s excellent article “Tribes of New York: Frank O’Hara, Amiri Baraka, and the Poetics of the Five Spot” (which can also be found in Magee’s book Emancipating Pragmatism).  Here’s an excerpt in which Magee writes about Ornette Coleman, O’Hara, and Baraka:

O’Hara was very excited about Ornette Coleman. Part of the occasion for that excitement was the affair going on between Coleman and O’Hara’s friend Diana Powell. In a letter telling Don Allen about the affair, O’Hara underscores Coleman’s name as “ORNETTE COLEMAN!!!” and in a contemporaneous letter to Vincent Warren he notes seeing Coleman at the Five Spot, prompting Warren’s memory by describing the group as “the one with the little trumpet [Don Cherry’s pocket trumpet] and sax.” While the references are typically gossipy, and while O’Hara’s interest in Coleman included his usual lack of distinction between the artistic, the personal, and the sexual, they lead in the direction of a provocatively different version of O’Hara than the one commonly invoked.  As Baraka has recently explained,

Frank dug the music, went to the 5 Spot often. We were all hit with the heavy impact in G[reenwich] V[illage] of Ornette C[oleman]. He was a New Thing, in that era of new things … Jazz was New York! It was urban, new, hot, revelatory, &c, it was the anthemic back and foreground of the art denizens of the then and there. Like language and city sounds … Frank was always looking for inspiration. The music inspired him. (Letter)

Baraka goes on to suggest what it was about Coleman that would have inspired O’Hara: “Jazz is Democratic in form, it basically is collective improvisation. It is about singular and collective spontaneity, and composition, both formal and mise-en-scene.”

As Baraka suggests, Ornette Coleman was “a New Thing, in that era of new things,” and his bold and exciting music had an indescribable impact on Baraka himself, on O’Hara, and on the shape of jazz, and so much else, to come.

Posted in Abstract Expressionism, Alfred Leslie, Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), Frank O'Hara, Jackson Pollock, Jazz, Music, Ornette Coleman

John and Elizabeth’s Excellent Adventure: Bishop and Ashbery


It’s well-known that Elizabeth Bishop was a major influence on John Ashbery and that he adored her work.  The two poets even got to know each other as well, before Bishop’s death in 1979.

But who knew that their mutual admiration for each other’s work extended this far? Andy Webster’s brief review in the New York Times of a new documentary on the life of Elizabeth Bishop called “Welcome to This House” includes a detail that caught my eye:

“The poet John Ashbery mentions her asking him over to roll a joint, on the eve of her receiving a Neustadt Prize.”

Oh, to have been a fly on the wall for that visit to Elizabeth’s!

Posted in Elizabeth BIshop, Film, Influences on the NY School, John Ashbery

Dan Chiasson on John Ashbery’s Breezeway (and William James)

John Ashbery’s new book, Breezeway, has just been published, and Dan Chiasson has written one of the first substantial reviews of the book for the New Yorker.  With the clever title “American Snipper,” the characteristically perceptive, beautifully written review stresses that Ashbery’s poetry is “composed partly of language foraged from everyday American speech. The effect is sometimes unnerving, as though somebody had given you your own garbage back as a gift, cheerfully wrapped. Ashbery is nearly eighty-eight; more than ever, his style is a net for the weirdest linguistic flotsam … His game is to make an intentionally frivolous style express the full range of human feeling, and he remains funnier and better at it, a game he invented, than his many imitators.”

I was happy to see Chiasson connect Ashbery to the philosopher William James, who he calls “a profound influence on Ashbery” — and a bit surprised, as well, as I sometimes felt a bit lonely arguing that Ashbery has deep ties to James and pragmatism in my book Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry.  Chiasson writes:

Ashbery’s style prizes such mistakes and misapprehensions, as though looking for the word on the tip of the tongue. William James described consciousness as the “alternation of flights and perchings,” suggesting that we tend to overvalue the “perchings,” the nouns or the primary verbs in a sentence that steal the spotlight from the little words, like “in,” “and,” “but,” “or,” and “of.” It was James, a profound influence on Ashbery, who coined the term “stream of consciousness,” and who insisted on what he called a “reinstatement of the vague and inarticulate to its proper place in our mental life.” James’s “flights” and in-between zones find, in “Breezeway,” a breezeway: a structure between structures, a place to rest that is not a resting place, a “long Q & A period” before the big event is adjourned—a period marked, as in the title of one poem, by deliberate “Andante and Filibuster.”

As Chiasson notes, the poems in Breezeway are “late poems, working alertly within the uncommon genre of poems written in extreme old age, a genre they in turn significantly expand. The poems anticipate death but hold it off—they filibuster—by transfiguring it into comic forms.”

Asserting that “the finest lyrics in this book rank with Ashbery’s best short poems,” Chiasson discusses Breezeway‘s final poem, “A Sweet Disorder” (which I also discussed briefly here), and concludes:

“From his current vantage point, monitoring the past with a gift as big as any American poet has ever controlled, keeping an ear alert for the invigorating ironies of the present, Ashbery must know he is one for the ages.”

Posted in Book Review, John Ashbery, pragmatism, William James

James Schuyler, “May 24th or So”

“James Schuyler,” by Fairfield Porter (1955)

Here, because it’s May 24th or so, is a poem by James Schuyler:

Schuyler May 24th



Posted in James Schuyler, Poems