Peter Riley on New York School poetry (Guest, Ceravolo, Schuyler)


The British poet and critic Peter Riley has just published a very wide-ranging and insightful review essay on the New York School poets in the Forthnightly Review.  Riley discusses Barbara Guest’s Collected Poems (2008), the massive new Collected Poems of Joseph Ceravolo, and James Schuyler’s Other Flowers (the gathering of previously unpublished poems that was published 2011), but he also uses the occasion to meditate on the fate of New York School poetry in general, especially what happens to it in the hands of these three remarkable and very different poets.

Riley offers a detailed assessment of Guest’s entire body of work.  At one point, he notes that

The almost constant levity, or twinkle, in her diction doesn’t alter the fact that in her sense of mission Barbara Guest was the most serious and the most difficult of the New York poets of her generation. Not for her the jaunty “I-do-this-I-do-that” mode cultivated at times by O’Hara and Schuyler and later seized on by Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett … there is a rich investigation of experience through scenes and people, fictions, paintings, and sometimes narratives, dedicated not to revealing their meanings but to uncovering the verbal possibilities of their existence, which is a meditational process seeking to hold them against the world itself through language.

Also welcome is Riley’s extensive discussion of Ceravolo’s strange and wonderful work, which has only lately been given the attention it deserves thanks to the terrific new edition from Wesleyan.  Riley finds it somewhat surprising, as do I, that this volume exists at all:

Ceravolo’s Collected Poems is in some degree a surprising event – I would not have thought his reputation had reached this stage yet, though I am glad it has.  It was thus a bold venture on the part of editors and publisher. It is also a revelation of a body of work of which the most meticulous devotee can hardly have suspected the bulk or the range.

Just as a sidenote, Riley points out his shock that Ceravolo could have developed the style of his extremely disjunctive early book Fits of Dawn as early as 1961:

it is astonishing that he located from somewhere (Dadaism?) this extreme textuality at such an early date, before even Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets (1964), the “classic” second generation work of wildly disordered language which is actually far less obstructive.

I would think a more proximate source than Dadaism would be Ceravolo’s exposure to the more extreme experiments of the first generation New York School poets — When the Sun Tries to Go On by Kenneth Koch (his early teacher), O’Hara’s “Second Avenue,” and the poems that would soon be collected in Ashbery’s Tennis Court Oath.  To me, at least, it’s not all that astonishing to find a young poet who had been blown away by those works writing in the manner of Fits of Dawn (“mumbbler of gash-/ compel / Rice!  hold you / festive running    Choose!”).

Riley praises many aspects of Schuyler’s Other Flowers, like many of the other reviews that appeared when these fugitive works were published in 2011: The first thing to be said is that there has been no barrel-scraping. These are all finished poems from right through his career preserved by Schuyler but never published, and discovered in his archive. They stand as equal to most of his previously known poems.”

In his conclusion, Riley contemplates the legacy of the New York School of poetry as a movement and historical phenomenon:

I find it impossible to know what the balance will finally be between recognition of the remarkable, original, moving and sometimes profound poetry made possible in this unusual context, and a verdict which considers it as all little more than a set of aestheticist gestures, 1890s style, thrown up by a manipulated market. But there is no doubt that all three of the poets under review used the situation they were in to extend the conceptual bounds of poetry on the basis of quite traditional lyrical skills which always show through the dazzling web in one way or another.

He closes by comparing all three of the poets under discussion, ultimately deeming Schuyler the most important of the bunch, by not by much:

For me, Schuyler’s work might in the end prove the most valuable as, having grasped the opportunities of New York poetry in a virtuosic but entirely genial way, he then cultivated the art of staying where he was, while the other two were pushed further and further into a linguistic avant-gardism turned to an intellectual purpose (Guest) or tangled with the need to escape from it (Ceravolo). The opportunity offered by these books to obtain a comprehensive view of what was done is invaluable.

The whole review essay is well worth checking out here.

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