Why I Am Not a “New York School Poet”: Ron Padgett edition

Ron Padgett

There is a long and hallowed tradition of poets associated with the New York School disparaging the idea of labels for movements and schools and disavowing their own connections to any entity known as the New York School.

Even before the world had ever heard of the “New York School of poetry,” Frank O’Hara and Larry Rivers quipped “schools are for fools” (in their hilarious collaborative essay “How to Proceed in the Arts”).  John Ashbery, too, has famously and repeatedly distanced himself from the idea and the name, as when he told an interviewer “we were not a school; we were people who happened to know each other through the circumstances that I’ve told you about.  And there were enormous similarities and dissimilarities in our work.”  Or in the following remarks, from 1968:

“I think on the whole I dislike the name because it seems to be trying to pin me down to something. That’s the trouble with all these labels like Beat, San Francisco School, Deep Image, Objectivist, Concrete, and so on.  Their implication seems to be that poetry ought to be just one thing and stick to it.  If you start out writing haikus, man, then it’s haikus from here on in sort of thing.”

So it should come as no surprise to hear Ron Padgett expressing some exasperation with the notion that he should be thought of as a “New York School poet.”  Speaking at a 2012 Poets Forum on the subject of “Poetic Beginnings: Beats, New York School & Language Poetry,” Padgett (in the following video clip) explains how uncomfortable he is serving on a panel as a representative New York School poet because “I don’t really feel I represent much of anything.” He dismisses the utility of such tags and labels as stuff only critics and professors, rather than poets, care about and asks the audience to “try to forget about the idea of the New York School,” mischievously adding “I guess it’s naughty of me to begin the panel by undercutting its very basis.”  

Next Padgett gives a long and interesting list of the early influences that formed him as a poet, which includes Cole Porter, Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Arthur Rimbaud, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, Kenneth Patchen, Langston Hughes, E. E. Cummings, Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie, early Amiri Baraka, Sir Philip Sidney, John Donne, Ben Jonson, Alexander Pope, and Tu Fu.  

“Does all that add up to the New York School?” Padgett asks.  “I don’t think so.”  Only after this long list, does he acknowledge that he later fell for the work of Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler, but insists “I don’t think they were as formative an influence on me as these other people.”

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