In his poem, “Remembering Elaine’s,” poet Frederick Seidel recalls the literary conversations of a legendary Upper East Side hangout:
Many distinguished dead were there
At one of the front tables, fragrant talk everywhere.
Plimpton, Mailer, Styron, Bobby Short—fellows, have another drink.
You had to keep drinking or you’d sink.
Smoking fifty cigarettes a day made your squid-ink fingers stink.
Seidel goes on to add this distressing note:
Aldrich once protested to Elaine that his bill for the night was too high
She showed him his tab was for seventeen Scotches and he started to cry.
(Or was it eighteen?)
We were the scene
Now the floor has been swept clean.
This was the 1950s to 60s milieu of the New York School of poets. Switch out Elaine’s for the Cedar Tavern and George Plimpton, Norman Mailer, William Styron and Bobby Short for Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, John Ashbery, and Kenneth Koch, and you’ve got it: legendary minds with an astonishing capacity for booze hobnobbing into the late hours chain-smoking while laughing, lying, fighting, and embarking on affairs. And in the meantime, inventing a new vernacular that would reshape poetry as much as expressionism had reshaped art.
They were the New York School of poets and they represented an avant-garde response to the sober Confessional school that had dominated postwar poetry. Utilizing fragmentary imagery and an often playful spontaneity, they infused their work with a cosmopolitan wit, a self-aware irony, and—especially in the case of John Ashbery—a subjective, associative, almost-psychedelic stylization.
Painter and art critic Fairfield Porter described the new aesthetic thus: “Art does not stand for something outside itself … When an artist pays the closest possible attention to the work as it goes along, it does not escape his attention that the accident may have a place.” And so Frank O’Hara composed the breezy Lunch Poems during his lunch hour at the Museum of Modern Art, where he worked as an assistant curator, peppering each entry with conversations with his friends, references to trends of the day, and figures as wide-ranging as Jean Genet, Billie Holiday, and Jackson Pollock.
Other than O’Hara (who died in 1966 after being struck by a jeep on Fire Island), the nexus of the group was John Ashbery, James Schuyler, and Kenneth Koch. All but Schuyler had been at Harvard together, and only Koch was heterosexual, but all four shared a prankish sensibility. Koch, nicknamed “Doctor Fun” by Ashbery, delighted in parodies of D.H. Lawrence and Federico García Lorca and his “One Train May Hide Another” improvises on a railway sign he had seen in Africa, turning it into a game of formulations like, “In a poem, one line may hide another line/As at a crossing, one train may hide another train” and “In a family one sister may conceal another/So, when you are courting, it’s best to have them all in view.”
In The Last Avant-Garde, David Lehman’s history of the scene, he writes: “Poetry … was autonomous. A poem had its own organic life that the poet discovered rather than imposed. The element of chance and the element of play could be determining factors.” They injected life, in all its chattersome disorder and stray encounters, into poetry. By the mid-70s, Ashbery had ascended to the very upper echelon of American poetry (where he remained until his death in September 2016), with Three Poems—which are in fact three lengthy, free-wheeling works in prose—and the era-defining Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror.
These two works can be read as the crowning achievement of the New York School, which is not to say that Koch (with whom Ashbery wrote the poem “A Postcard to Popeye”) and Schuyler (with whom he wrote the novel A Nest of Ninnies) fell by the wayside, only that the era of constant collaboration, friendly competition, and endless drinking had crested. As much as jazz transformed popular music and pop art did for the art world, so too the New York School rewrote the landscape around them according to their inclination, and altered poetry forever.