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Peter Riley’s Thorough Read of Three New York School Collecteds

By Harriet Staff

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Peter Riley has given seriously comprehensive looks to the New York School–or three brilliant aspects of it–for the UK’s Fortnightly Review. Riley looks at the recent Collecteds of Barbara Guest, Joe Ceravolo, and James Schuyler. On Guest:

Not that the early work is conventional. There is a range of commitment to unorthodox procedures, some original but many of them related to the New York poets she is mainly associated with (Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery and James Schuyler) and their attachment to earlier French poetry, especially in her case Surrealism. She was in fact the eldest of these (born 1920) but didn’t publish her first book until 1960. But always, even in the most New-York-ludic pieces, there is a sense of pressing forwards quite earnestly, both in the progress of the poem towards a true ending, and in metaphors that reach further and further out into the unknown. Even the most unproblematic writing, such as this very early example–

I just said I didn’t know
And now you are holding me
In your arms,
How kind.
Parachutes, my love, could carry us higher.
Yet around the net I am floating
Pink and pale blue fish are caught in it,
They are beautiful,
But they are not good for eating.

even here, there is a reticence, an unwillingness to present a given situation, a disregard for circumstance, a delicate disconnection at times, and somewhat strange moves such as the ambiguous syntax of the sixth line, which may or not be figurative, and of course there is the bathetic caution about the inedibility of the fish. These mild disjunctions and distractions are held in a steady verse movement, and one feels that a series of poetical moves is given priority over any full account, or emotional declaration, while the tone remaining authentic, and this is confirmed in the paradoxical ending to the poem: “I am closer to you / Than land and I am in a stranger ocean / Than I wished.” The comfortable surface is rippled throughout by signs of uncertainty and apprehension but the poem is more than the depiction of an emotionally ambiguous condition because of curtailments (such as the first line) and excrescences.1

The first two decades of her writing produced a collection of attractive poems varying among themselves in the degree to which they transgress rational discourse, some of them outwardly straightforward, some decidedly dark, and all of them rewarding in the detailed skill of the writing, the just word-placement, the intuited metrics. They mostly mimic the speaking voice, giving an account which claims and then abandons its own intent and transcends its own singularity in search of a truly poetical and artistic summation.

That’s just on the early work. “She leave traces of lyricism so imaginatively acute that a moral rectitude is the precipitate,” Marjorie Welish wrote on Guest’s later work. As for Ceravolo: “I [find it] hard to think of a chronologically ordered collected poems which begins so impressively as Joseph Ceravolo’s does,” sayeth Riley. More:

Ceravolo is generally mentioned as a “second generation” New York poet (born 1934) and obviously he found his initial impetus in the procedures established by the older poets, indeed he attended a writing class run by Kenneth Koch. But he also kept himself to some extent separate, not least by living outside the city and being employed all his life as a civic engineer. The question of how he would develop the mode of Transmigration Solo thereafter raises itself acutely, but unfortunately he didn’t. He shot off into something completely different, in the long text Fits of Dawn, which was actually written in 1961, therefore concurrently with “Transmigration Solo”. It’s all like this:

mumbbler of gash-
compel
Rice!  hold you
festive running    Choose!
Leap confide ballad
positional
ashame, oh stump!
moons of drimp confuse.
Tiens corner tien
shed compel

(Everything sic.)

I generally find it best not to comment on this kind of writing, which many still value highly, except in this case to note that the emotional charge now has to be supplied by exclamation marks. It is anyway clearly a move to push the volatile figuration of New York poetry as far as it will go in the wrong direction, where no thought process can possibly take place in either poet or reader and no autonomous artistic “place” can be created except one which is uninhabitable. Such is obviously the intention (rather than simply the failure) and it is astonishing that he located from somewhere (Dadaism?) this extreme textuality at such an early date, before even Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets (1964), the “classic” second generation work of wildly disordered language which is actually far less obstructive.

A good point on the later work: “With Hellgate Ceravolo’s relationship to the reader changes, and this concerns all the many (over 300) poems which fill up the rest of the book.” And an excerpt from Riley’s piece on Schuyler:

There is felt to be something elusive about the quality of Schuyler’s poetry; more than once I have seen the question put “How does he do it?”, especially regarding the unfailing vitality of so many poems. I can’t answer this question but I can suggest two possibilities. One might lie simply in the qualities of “good writing” as such, in prose or poetry, which he could have mastered early in his career and never abandoned – his first published book, in 1958, was a novel. This would be a matter of clarity and completion in large or small, helpfulness towards the reader, the dramatic organisation of a sentence or passage to project its point, and so forth.

Secondly, Other Flowers, by presenting more of his work from the 1950s than we are used to, shows that among the various modernistic or New-York-ish forms he practised there were also intermittent exercises of a different kind, such as the poem “Beautiful Outlook” (1953), which begins–

Passersby see it as prison, grave or den
into which their fear of what they fear lurks there
could drive them. Within, the walls are hung with light
like any room, meals are punctual and time
speeds, goes slow, does not exist, to suit the need
of each victim of the other side of love.

This is a direct address on a given subject, concerning one of the hospitals which Schuyler periodically had to enter because of his mental ill-health, a subject from which it does not deviate and behaves in just the writerly way I have spoken of. It shows, of course, how outright in his discourse and thoughtfully serious he could be, in this tone as in others. But if the lines have the feel of a classical measure, that is because it is the first stanza of a formally perfect sestina. There are two other sestinas in the book, a “sonnet” in couplets and other incursions into traditional form, some fragmentary. You do not, I would think, write a poem like “Beautiful Outlook” without studying formal metrics and it is arguable that this reveals another source of his notable confidence in moving around within a poem. The poem ends in the obligatory triolet–

A hospital is not a den. The men in there,
the sick, saw light shatter, heard the tick of time.
Each man had his ugly need, each deserved love.

Riley concludes with some thoughts on the New York School’s particular relationship to art: “…I find it impossible to know what the balance will finally be between recognition of the remarkable, original, moving and sometimes profound poetry made possible in this unusual context, and a verdict which considers it as all little more than a set of aestheticist gestures, 1890s style, thrown up by a manipulated market. But there is no doubt that all three of the poets under review used the situation they were in to extend the conceptual bounds of poetry on the basis of quite traditional lyrical skills which always show through the dazzling web in one way or another.”

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Posted in Poetry News on Monday, July 1st, 2013 by Harriet Staff.