The Only Living Boy in New York

New York Poets II. An Anthology
eds. Mark Ford & Trevor Winkfield
[12.95, Carcanet]
The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan
ed. Alice Notley
[University of California Press]

The first Carcanet New York Poets anthology contained an excellent selection of work by John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Frank O'Hara and James Schuyler. This follow-up is far more diverse and surprising -- though my surprise is perhaps a mark of ignorance than the selection. I say this because whilst I would have expected poems by Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett to be included, I wouldn't have thought of Clark Coolidge or Barabara Guest as New York poets.

But this is obviously my mistake, for the editors make it clear that all the poets included, known or unknown to me, are writers 'whose work falls roughly under the aegis of New York School ideals and practices'. What these practices or ideals are, however, are never clearly articulated (by the editors or poets); the editors also disingenuously declare that the anthology does not 'attempt to represent the range of poets at work in New York in the period 1950-80'.

So what we have are an intriguing, but not representative, group of poets whose work emerged from the bustling international city of New York as art forms flourished and cross-pollinated. Here we have the confessional, a mundane exploration of the everyday, early experiments in cut-up and collage, urban lyric, chant, oulipian games, mild surrealism, and the first hesitant works that might eventually lead to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry.

Whilst in the last few years I've warmed to the intimate and personal diary poems of Paul Blackburn, along with Ted Berrigan's sonnets and New York snapshots, I don't really know what to make of much of the work in here. Edwin Denby doesn't know whether to declaim on the beauties of nature and epiphanic moments in the city, or actually engage with the modern life of dope, smoke and the subway. His work seems slight and archaic, rooted in a poetry that declaims and observes, offering slight comment all the while. Harry Mathews' work -- mostly written without the oulipian restraints and controls of his prose -- is slight and unformed, often taking the most squiblike phrase as a starting point. 'Shall I compare thee to a summer's bay'? -- I mean, come on, this is student pastiche.

Kenward Elmslie came through theatre and lyric writing to poetry, and his poems beg to be heard rather than read on the page. They are chants, full of repetition and pattern, rich in sound and energy, but lacking in subtlety or longevity. One feels bowled over by them rather than engaged with them.

        my nerves   my nerves   I'm going mad
        my nerves   my nerves   I'm going mad
        head lit up   head lit up   head lit up
                 the fitting   the poodle
                     MGM MGM MGM
                     MGM MGM MGM
                     MGM MGM MGM
                 the fitting   the poodle

and so on, goes 'Girl Machine'. Other poems read like Ginsberg with their long over-run lines and litanies of observation and desire. '
COLLAGE ME! COLLAGE ME! Turn me into jewels!' he says in 'Bare Bones'; one only wishes for more jewels among the verbiage.

Best of the bunch are Berrigan himself, with a good selection from 'The Sonnets' and some later, more freeform work, and Barbara Guest and Clark Coolidge. I know these author's later work, but here we find early examples of their work. Guest's roots in lyric and confession are more to the fore [however exprimental she got her work remains musical], and Coolidge has yet to develop his hit & run approach to collage and improvisation. Here, his work more ordinary, still attached to story and linear narrative[s].


While I was writing this, the news that Guest had died came in. Interestingly, Ron Silliman writes about Guest as a direct precedent for Coolidge. Something, again, I wouldn't have thought of. Silliman has also written about Ted Berrigan's Collected Poems, remarking how good it is to see something done right. I can but agree: The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan is a sumptuously produced big volume of Berrigan's work.

It's interesting that the kind of work Berrigan wrote -- personal, often diarylike, seemingly casual poems -- gains strength from rubbing shoulders with other poems of the same type. One is drawn into Berrigan's New York, drawn into his way of thinking, his original approach to language. [I have the same feeling about Paul Blackburn, especially in response to his journal poems -- what starts out leaving me outside the author's world actually ends up inviting me and introducing me to that world.]

'The Sonnets' remains, for me, an original, marvellous set of experimental poems which subvert both expectations and form, amuse and intrigue. The collaging, gathering and re-ordering informs individual poems elsewhere though, so that the whole book accumulates meanings both intertextual and meta. That is poems inform each other throughout the book, and the work also reaches out -- sometimes literally as a reource or footnote -- to the literary world outside. This is a witty, profound and marvellous book.

     Rupert Loydell 2006