On the New York School of poets

I probably would’ve given up on the puzzling (“Silly-Putty-like receptiveness”? “artistry reimagined as a canine sniff down every promising trail”?) NYTBR review of The Collected Poems of Kenneth Koch had I not been utterly smitten by the campy and viciously precise James Schuyler when I read August Kleinzahler’s consideration of Schuyler’s letters last month.

Koch and Schuyler were two of four members of the so-called New York School of poets. Kleinzahler’s LRB piece includes a brief history of the group:

Through the poet-friendly Tibor de Nagy gallery, which opened in a cold-water flat on East 52nd St in 1950, the year before Schuyler’s breakdown, Schuyler met John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara, who had been friends at Harvard. The ‘Harvard wits’, he called them. Schuyler had attended Bethany College, a small college in West Virginia affiliated with the Disciples of Christ, where he had devoted himself to bridge and then flunked out. The four poets became known as the ‘New York School’, a tag thought up by the gallery’s director, John Myers…. They certainly didn’t consider themselves a ‘school’, but they were smart and talented, as were the painters associated with the gallery: William de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Philip Guston, Mark Rothko, Helen Frankenthaler, Jane Freilicher, Grace Hartigan, Alfred Leslie, Larry Rivers, Norman Bluhm and Fairfield Porter.

Strangely, Schuyler doesn’t score a single mention in the Times review, which notes only that Koch’s “peers in the New York school” include “John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara and the painter Larry Rivers.”

Granted, Schuyler himself acknowledged an inspirational debt to the “floods of paint in whose crashing surf we [New York poets] all scramble,” but c’mon: how can you forget the man who called out Auden on the word “numinous” and likened a joint letter from friends to “getting a jeweller’s box with a sparrow in it that had been fucked to death by John Simon”?


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