“The New York School Goes Country” — Daniel Kane on Timothy Gray’s Urban Pastoral

The new issue of Contemporary Literature includes a review by Daniel Kane of Timothy Gray’s 2010 book, Urban Pastoral: Natural Currents in the New York School (university subscription required for access, I believe).

As Kane notes in his thoughtful review, Gray’s book begins with an oppositional premise: the emphasis on an essentially urban, and urbane, imagination that drives so much of our understanding of the New York poets has obscured their deep and complicated investments in the natural world, the rural, and the pastoral.

As Kane writes:

Indeed, accounts of the New York school scene quite often foreground a reading of the city itself as key to understanding the New York school considered broadly … Yet could it be that we’ve been blinkered all along? Should the New York school poets (along with Beat and second-generation New York school confreres Diane di Prima, Jim Carroll, and Kathleen Norris) “be placed alongside Annie Dillard, Wendell Berry, and Mary Oliver in the ranks of contemporary American nature writers” (3)? In his book Urban Pastoral: Natural Currents in the New York School, Timothy Gray sets out to make precisely that provocative point in the service of revising both “[t]he legacy of the postwar avant-garde” and the dominant readings of New York school-affiliated poems as inextricably city-bound. Urban Pastoral is, in this sense, a book with a bone to pick. Many critics would disapprove of Gray’s even thinking of making an analogy between, say, Ashbery and Berry. However—and perhaps appropriately in light of his efforts to repaint New York school poets as modern-day Colins and Cuddies—Gray makes his argument sweetly, gently. What emerges from these pages is a generally convincing and even profoundly important reconsideration of the possibilities of the pastoral mode as it engages with New York City as a material place and as a poetics.

Kane carefully considers the strengths and limitations of the surprising, counter-intuitive, and insightful arguments Gray develops in a series of chapters that take up, in turn, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, James Schuyler and Jane Freilicher, Kenneth Koch, Diane DiPrima, Jim Carroll and Kathleen Norris.  He notes that, in Gray’s hands:

The pastoral as it plays within an urban poetics productively if oddly destabilizes and denatures standard readings of New York school poetry as “true to a city” (a phrase I borrow from the title of Jim Elledge’s book on O’Hara). The “urban pastoral” opens up new ways of reading key New York school texts and new opportunities to question and interrogate the very distinctions we make between polis and pasture … [Gray’s] unprecedented emphasis on the pastoral qualities in O’Hara, Ashbery, and others has the potential to significantly inform the way we continue to write and think about the poets’ work.

For more on Gray’s Urban Pastoral, see here and here, and, for another review of the book (in Cambridge Quarterly), see here.

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