Wayne Koestenbaum’s Excitement: Essays on Schuyler, O’Hara, and Ashbery

Wayne Koestenbaum

A new book has just been published that will be of interest to fans of the New York School — My 1980s and Other Essays by the prolific poet and critic Wayne Koestenbaum.  It’s a collection of “personal and critical essays” on a wide range of topics, including figures like Susan Sontag, Roberto Bolaño, Diane Arbus, Cindy Sherman, Andy Warhol, Brigitte Bardot, Roland Barthes, and Lana Turner.

Although I haven’t gotten a chance to check out the book as a whole yet, I see that the collection contains several previously published pieces on New York School poets: brief essays on Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery, a close reading of James Schuyler’s terrific and under-appreciated art criticism (“Schuyler’s Colors”), and “Epitaph on Twenty-Third Street,” a longer essay on Schuyler.  This last piece was originally published in Parnassus, but thankfully will now be more easily available — I say thankfully because the essay is one of my favorite pieces on Schuyler and, for my money, one of the most perceptive and original essays on his work.

In a recent review of My 1980s in the Chicago Tribune, Michael Robbins observed that

Koestenbaum writes from the perspective of a “hyper-responder,” bouncing around the theater of his mind, which is crammed with artifacts and images and texts. He writes in bursts and spurts, hyperactive fragments, suggesting a less rigorous Sontag with an attention deficit. He knows this. “Being distractible … intensifies consciousness,” he claims … This means that Koestenbaum isn’t a critic you turn to for close reading; he’s too impressionistic, too breathless. Hyper-responsiveness would seem to preclude argument or analysis.

I don’t find this to be particularly true of Koestenbaum’s Schuyler essay –which is anchored in its own idiosyncratic, highly personal, and, yes, impressionistic brand of close reading and analysis (of, for example, Schuyler’s line breaks) — nor of Double Talkhis groundbreaking lit-crit study of collaboration (from 1989).  But I do see where Robbins is coming from with his overall argument about the pleasures and limits of Koestenbaum’s distinctive style.

Koestenbaum’s essays on poets (like his biography of Andy Warhol) are fun and energetic, charged with enthusiasm.  But they’re much more than that: they can also illuminate unexpected corners and features of a poet’s work and style with surprising, funny, and sometimes unabashedly personal aperçus and aphorisms.   Here are a few examples from the short essay on Ashbery included in My 1980s:

A John Ashbery poem behaves like a lazy Susan.  Spin it and get whatever condiment you want, without having to say ‘pardon my reach’

Consider each Ashbery poem an instruction manual on how to spend time fruitfully by wasting it, by growing distracted, blurry, foggy, garrulous, horny, contrapuntal.

Ashbery’s poems forgive the inner stoner.

The Baudelairean flâneur may have been a decadent, but he was always moving into the future.  John Ashbery’s flâneur is an apostle of going nowhere.

In “Frank O’Hara’s Excitement” (which can also be found here) he writes:

A Frank O’Hara poem begins with a bang. That bang—that crash of self-announcement (“I’m here!”)—may be followed by some whimpers, some lists, further bangs, and then an instantaneous disappearance.

The quick and the “now”: O’Hara’s poems stage a devotion to the “now,” which resembles orgasm’s erasure of past and future.

I’d hate to fall into the trap of saying that O’Hara is in love with the world. Yes, he’s excited about things because they are beautiful—but he also holds that excitement lightly in his hand as a mirth- and tone-bestowing practice, and he is aware that beautiful (or faux-beautiful) things fall away from him, detach themselves, refuse his embrace.

The Schuyler essay is a tour-de-force.  Its stitched-together fragments track what happens when the critic’s urgent need to tell the world about Schuyler’s subtle, elusive poetic genius collides with a Schuylerian recognition that expressing things precisely is an impossibility, that all writing is a kind of wonderful failure.  A few excerpts:

Schuyler loves the marmoreal possibilities of the instantaneous, the slow duration of the nothing-in-particular.

[The poem “Salute”] concerns collecting, the failure to collect, and the desire to include failure in the poem … Schuyler salutes the poems he never wrote, the thoughts he never had, the lovers he never adequately cherished, and the vocation he never entirely occupied.

The line break is, aesthetically, an endangered species.  In the neglect surrounding poetry, hear the death of the line break; hear a culture’s decreasing solicitude toward the line break’s fortunes.  The lost line break is a little match girl, a degraded relic.  For Schuyler, it is ballast: The heart of his poetics is erratic, tender, skittering enjambment.  Truism — each line break is a little death, which Schuyler faces stoically and serenely.

[Schuyler’s is] a poetics on the verge of not emerging; a poetry on the verge of not being able to exist.

An inveterate enthusiast, voracious for culture and experience, Koestenbaum is a terrific guide to the New York School, and so much else.  His excitement, like his hero O’Hara’s, can be downright contagious.

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