The New York School’s Influence and the Case of Matthew Dickman

book cover

Nowadays, the New York School’s influence can be found all over contemporary poetry, for better or worse.  If you’re interested in the “worse” side of the argument, Tony Hoagland made that case a couple of years ago in a piece in the AWP Writer’s Chronicle: “Blame it on Rio: The Strange Legacy of New York School Poetics: An Evolutionary Story of Delight and Dissipation.”  (The essay doesn’t seem to be available online, but you can see some discussion of it here and here).

One recent example that again raises the question of whether the New York School’s afterlife is more a tale of “delight” or of “dissipation” is Matthew Dickman’s new book, his second, Mayakovsky’s Revolver.  From the title forward (with its allusion to the suicide of the Russian poet who was a hero and major inspiration to the New York School), the book wears its poetic allegiances on its sleeve.  Or to put it another way, Dickman’s heart is in his pocket, and it is Poems by Frank O’Hara (and Kenneth Koch et al).

As is often the case, such up-front baring of one’s inspirations prompts some readers to compare the acolyte with the predecessor and find him wanting.  In a characteristically caustic review of Dickman’s book just posted at the New Criterion, William Logan (who is not much of an O’Hara fan either) comes down on the “dissipation” side of the ledger:

Dickman has become a master of Frank O’Hara lite (he shares O’Hara’s ADHD, and little else)—gorging on the detritus of modern culture, cheerful in their buffoonery, his poems are sweetly unserious and often out of their depth … Even when Dickman stumbles upon an interesting idea—say, a man building an effigy of his absent lover out of her clothes—he tends to overwhelm it by jabbering on like O’Hara in his worst poems, and even some of his better.

In a piece in the Los Angeles Review of Books last week, Jeremy Butman had quite a different take.  Rather than finding Dickman to be a pale imitation, he argues that Dickman self-consciously positions himself, in interesting and fruitful ways, as a New York School descendant.  The review not only further highlights the continuing influence of Koch and O’Hara on young American poets today, but also raises some interesting questions about what happens when poets hail their predecessors in a more or less direct fashion, rather than with all that anxious swerving and troping Harold Bloom liked to talk about.

Butman argues that

Dickman’s engagement with his poetic inheritance is canny and obsessive. Though in the pitch of his voice and for his generosity of spirit he is a clear descendant of Whitman, he reserves his most vigorous interrogations for the legacy of the so-called New York School, especially the figures of Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara. In his earlier work, the tics and preoccupations of these poets are adopted by Dickman almost whole cloth. At times in All-American Poem, Dickman seems to write not like, or in reference to Koch or O’Hara, but as them.

As Butman points out, the title poem of Dickman’s first book, “All-American Poem,” can really be read as an imitation of Koch’s work:

the poem bears a startling resemblance to Koch’s “A Poem of the Forty-Eight States,” written in 1969. In that work Koch extols and mocks the States as he mulls over the anxieties and pleasures of living in their Union — just as Dickman does in his own piece. Koch writes: “Indiana! It is so beautiful to have tar in it!” Dickman: “Kansas! My yellow brick road of intelligent design!” Like any great imitation, though, Dickman does more than just adopt and breathe new life into the style of his predecessors. He also tests the boundaries of the form and pushes beyond them.

Dickman not only pays homage to the work of Koch and the New York School, Butman says, but “also radicalizes and subverts it.”  To illustrate this, he discusses 50 American Plays (Poems), a book Dickman recently “co-authored with his twin brother Michael, who is also a talented poet.”  In it, he says

the Dickmans almost aggressively call out Kenneth Koch as an influence. Some deal of the drama and poetry consists in their negotiating a relationship with the older writer. Six of the “plays” have Koch’s name in their title, and as a comedic tribute to the Oedipal drive the Dickmans feel toward him as both desired mother and father-to-kill, in each Koch is cast in a different role in a production of Hamlet.”

Turning to the new book, Butman sees Dickman’s deliberate use of Mayakovsky in the book as “evidence that he has worked through his preoccupations with the New York school and has propelled himself some distance into new poetic territories.”

I haven’t had the chance to read Mayakovsky’s Revolver yet myself, so I’m not ready to weigh in on whether this is a story of “delight” or “dissipation.”  But either way, Dickman’s book has clearly become an interesting test case for assessing the New York School’s “strange legacy.”

This entry was posted in Articles, Book Review, Criticism, Frank O'Hara, Influences on the NY School, Kenneth Koch, NY School Influence, Reviews, Vladimir Mayakovsky. Bookmark the permalink.

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