'I’ll Be Your Mirror': Lou Reed and the New York School of Poetry
Almost immediately after the world learned the dismaying news that Lou Reed had died on Sunday at 71, the obituaries and tributes started to pour in—sharp assessments of his career, recollections of the life-changing effect Reed and the Velvet Underground had on young, creative people, links to documentaries, interviews, and YouTube clips of his songs and performances. As most commentators have noted, Reed was the most literary of rock stars, one who aspired to make rock music that could stand on the same plane as works of literature, and always thought of himself, to some degree, as a poet. Indeed, many of the obituary notices refer to Reed as a “punk poet,” or “poet of New York.”
One thing readers may not see a lot of in the next few days is much attention to Reed’s serious connections to the poetry world, or his role in the history of poetry itself. But the fact is Reed and the Velvet Underground not only emerged out of the cauldron of the early-1960s avant-garde literature and art, but had close links to currents in postwar American poetry. More so than many casual music fans or aficionados of American poetry might realize, Reed’s body of work represents a crucial but overlooked instance of poetry’s rich back-and-forth dialogue with popular culture.
In fact, the Velvet Underground can be seen as one of the more unusual fruits of the broad movement known as the “New American Poetry,” named after the title of the epochal anthology edited by Donald Allen in 1960 which brought together under one banner the various avant-garde poetic communities of the 1950s, especially the Beats, the New York School, and the Black Mountain poets. This movement—and in particular, the New York School of poetry—played a surprisingly large role in the emergence of Velvet Underground, one of the most daring, original, and influential rock bands in history, and in the shape of Lou Reed’s career.
Although poetry is often mentioned in discussions of the band’s multiple and complex influences—especially Reed’s interest in the Beats and his connection to Delmore Schwartz—its importance has been downplayed in the usual narratives of the Velvet Underground and its development. At the same time, Reed and the Velvet Underground have remained nearly invisible in discussions of postwar poetry by literary critics and historians. This is a missed opportunity, since few rock musicians or rock bands have had such close ties to poets or such longstanding interests in literature. The Velvet Underground’s founder and chief songwriter, Lou Reed, was an English major in college who took creative writing classes (he would later even use one of the short stories he wrote in college as the basis for an experimental Velvet’s song called “The Gift”); its name was appropriated from the cover of an obscure novel (about kinky sex); its first album featured one song dedicated to a contemporary poet and another based on a nineteenth-century novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch; and Sterling Morrison, its lead guitarist and another English major, would go on to earn a Ph.D. in literature from the University of Texas after the band’s demise. Indeed, as Morrison once said, “we were quite intelligent. I’m sure we were the most highly scholarshipped band in history.”
One of Reed’s most important contributions to rock was his oft-stated conviction that rock could be a way of extending the kinds of literature and art he loved into another realm. “I wanted to write a novel; I took creative writing. At the same time, I was in rock-and-roll bands. It doesn’t take a great leap to say ‘Gee, why don’t I put the two together?’” When asked how he came up with the subject matter for songs like “Heroin,” Reed said:
Well, I’d been reading Burroughs and Ginsberg and Selby. I was a big fan of certain kinds of writing. I had a B.A. in English. So why wouldn’t I? It seemed so obvious and it still does. There was a huge uncharted world there. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world to do. That’s the kind of stuff that you might read. Why wouldn’t you listen to it too? You have the fun of reading that, and you get the fun of rock on top of it.
Refusing to honor any distinction between literature, art, and rock music, Reed saw the Velvet Underground as an experiment in extending both the thematic content and the challenging forms he found so thrilling in poetry, Beat writing, movies, or Andy Warhol’s art into the world of churning guitar chords, wailing feedback, and smoky clubs.
Again and again, Reed’s life and work criss-crossed the paths blazed by the New American Poetry and the New York School. Like so many of the original New American poets and their disciples, Reed found early inspiration in drugs, jazz, African-American culture, sexual experimentation, and a general spirit of nonconformity and iconoclasm. In the late 1950s, Reed fell under the spell of Beat writers like Ginsberg and Burroughs and became obsessed with the avant-garde “free jazz” of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, whose performances he repeatedly saw at the 5 Spot café in 1959, at the same moment Frank O’Hara, Amiri Baraka, and other New York poets were doing the exact same thing—leading one to imagine the tantalizing possibility that these figures brushed shoulders without realizing it.
At Syracuse University, Reed started his own literary magazine, named Lonely Woman Quarterly (after a song by Coleman), and studied creative writing and literature with Delmore Schwartz, the poet, fiction writer, and central figure in the Partisan Review crowd of New York intellectuals. Although Schwartz was a mess by the time Reed met him—ravaged by alcohol and pills, mentally ill and severely paranoid, his career in shambles—Reed has always maintained that meeting Schwartz changed his life. The older poet declared Reed to be a genuine writer, warned him to never sell out, and became a father figure, drinking buddy, and artistic mentor whose example Reed always attempted to live up to. When Syracuse University gave Reed its most prestigious award for alumni in 2007, he said in his acceptance speech:”Who would’ve believed this one? I hope, Delmore, if you’re listening, you are finally proud as well. My name is finally linked to yours in the part of heaven reserved for Brooklyn poets.” Schwartz served as a frequent touchstone for Reed early and late, and even haunts the Velvet Underground’s classic first album, in the form of the final song, a long, abrasive piece entitled “European Son (to Delmore Schwartz),” which features almost no words in deference to (or sarcastic defiance of) Schwartz’s professed disgust with rock lyrics.
Delmore Schwartz’s most important work predates and differs from the “New American Poetry,” and he was of course not a poet of the New York School. However, the degrees of separation here are surprisingly few: fifteen years before Reed met him, Schwartz was a brilliant young professor at Harvard at the same moment the original New York School poets were studying there; among his students was Kenneth Koch. As poetry editor of the Partisan Review, Schwartz published important early works by John Ashbery and O’Hara. in the 1950s. As critic Terence Diggory notes, “Schwartz loomed over the New York School as a figure of authority in person as well as in his writing,” much as he did for Reed. In other words, Delmore Schwartz—a writer from the decidedly less avant-garde precincts of mid-century literature—is one of the rather surprising, hidden links between the New York School and the Velvet Underground.
Further connections between the Velvet Underground and poetry abound. The band was born when Reed met John Cale, a classically trained viola player from Wales who was already deeply immersed in the avant-garde by the time he arrived in New York in his early 20s. Through Cale, Reed was introduced to a world far from rock and roll, where avant-garde art, music, poetry, film, and performance all intermingled. First, Cale was deeply inspired by John Cage, the experimental composer, writer, and poet, who was of crucial importance to the poetics of Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and postmodernist poetry more broadly. When the two met, Cale was playing in an avant-garde musical collective led by the maverick composer La Monte Young, a pioneer in what came to be known as Minimalism, who also had ties to the Cagean, neo-Dada avant-garde art, music, and poetry movement known as Fluxus. (One of Cale’s major contributions to the Velvet Underground was to bring Young’s experimentation with repetition and sustained droning into a rock setting). The Velvet Underground’s first drummer, the eccentric bohemian Angus MacLise (who played with Cale in Young’s group), was a publishing poet and a participant in the Fluxus group.
Shortly after forming, the band was fortuitously taken under the wing of the newly famous and controversial artist and filmmaker Andy Warhol, who offered to manage the band and produce its first album. Recent scholars have shown the importance of poetry to Warhol’s life and work, an association which colors his relationship with the Velvet Underground as well. In fact, I would go further and point to an important and under-recognized “Velvet Underground-Warhol-New York School poetry nexus.” At the center of this confluence stands the figure of Gerard Malanga. A key player in the Warhol universe, Malanga was one of Warhol’s most trusted assistants and a performer in some of Warhol’s movies. Before Malanga was introduced to Warhol—at a poetry reading given by O’Hara and Koch—and became one of the chief disciples at Warhol’s Factory, he was a young poet who had fallen under the sway of the New York School of poetry. In the early 1960s, Malanga studied poetry writing with Koch at the New School, met O’Hara and many other poets in the coterie, and published his work in the New York School journal Locus Solus. Malanga would go on to serve as Warhol’s main connection to the poetry world.
At the same time, Malanga played a crucial, even notorious role in the early days of the Velvet Underground. He quickly became part of the band’s live act, appearing onstage with the Velvets as part of Warhol’s multimedia “happening” called “The Exploding Plastic Inevitable” doing his infamous “whip dance,” which found him gyrating erotically with a leather whip while the band roared behind him. Just as he was Warhol’s primary link to the poetry world, Malanga would serve as Lou Reed’s ongoing conduit to poetry as well, urging him to publish his writing as poetry and serving as a bridge to the poets of New York School’s second generation.
Malanga was also responsible for one of the most tangible instances of the Velvet-Warhol-New York School poetry nexus. In 1968, Malanga guest-edited an issue of the literary journal Intransit with the title The Andy Warhol-Gerard Malanga Monster Issue. As one might expect, the issue contains poems by many of the leading New York School poets, including John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, Frank O’Hara, Ted Berrigan, Joe Brainard, Bernadette Mayer, and Ron Padgett. But alongside such works are written texts not only by Warhol and his Factory associates but also by Lou Reed, John Cale, Nico, and Angus MacLise. By putting together this special issue and including Warhol, Cale, Reed, and Nico as writers rather than musicians or artists, Malanga implicitly made the case that members of the Warhol circle, including the musicians in the Velvet Underground, belong within the boundaries of New York School poetry itself.
In the wake of the Velvet Underground’s implosion, Reed even temporarily gave up music for poetry. At a 1970 poetry reading at the Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church (the home of the New York School itself), Reed announced to the audience that from now on he would be a poet. He began to publish his work, including lyrics from Velvet Underground songs, as poems. In 1972, the Paris Review he published the lyrics of one of the more experimental Velvet Underground songs, “The Murder Mystery,” as a poem in an issue filled with poems by New York School poets, like Ted Berrigan, Alice Notley, David Shapiro, and Anne Waldman.
The historical record offers many such glimpses of the abundant connections between the Velvet Underground and the New York School of poets. For instance, in October 1966, the Velvet Underground played “a bash for [the] artistic/literary set” at the apartment of Lita Hornick, the wealthy patron of the arts and publisher of the avant-garde Kulchur Press. Hornick was an one of the most important patrons of the New York School of poets, since in the early 1960s, she bankrolled the avant-garde literary journal Kulchur which had on its editorial board Frank O’Hara, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), and other figures in the New York School scene. The intriguing fact that the Velvet Underground was the entertainment for a party at her Park Avenue apartment further underscores the group’s status as something of a house band for the New York School scene. Even more tantalizing is the fact that on at least one occasion, the members of the Velvet Underground hung out at the apartment the poet Lewis Warsh shared with Anne Waldman at 33 St. Marks Place (a “pad” that had become a central hangout for second-generation New York School poets), where they listened to the master of the band’s first album for the first time.
In addition to these points of contact and overlap, there are also abundant similarities between the poetics of the New York School and the Velvet Underground’s music and lyrics. Most obviously, of course, both Reed and the New York School poets share a fascination with modern urban life—especially, the look and feel of contemporary New York, with its pavement, subways, and street corners all lovingly described with concrete particulars, street names, and local detail. As one of the obituaries for Reed put it, he “seemed to embody downtown Manhattan culture of the 1960s and ‘70s and was as essential a New York artist as Martin Scorsese or Woody Allen.” It’s not incidental that both Frank O’Hara and Lou Reed have been dubbed “the poet laureate of New York City,” and both deserve the title.
Lou Reed and the New York poets also share an anti-romantic disdain for pieties about “nature,” the pastoral, and the idealization of the rural. Just as O’Hara famously said “One never need leave the confines of New York to get all the greenery one wishes—I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people don’t regret life,” the Velvets heaped scorn on the hippie movement and its back-to-nature proclivities. Lou Reed’s songs also pick up on the New York School’s dedication to the everyday and the ordinary rather than the romantic, exotic, or fantastic, and often incorporate casual references to his friend’s personal names and remarks, a trademark New York School device. Reed and some of the New York School poets (O’Hara and Schuyler, especially) were similarly candid about homosexuality: just as the New York School was one of the first poetic communities to be, at least in part, unabashedly queer during the hyper-macho 1950s, Reed and the Velvet Underground deliberately cultivateed a sexually ambiguous, androgynous image that was almost entirely unique in mid-1960s rock, and, as a result, were sometimes viewed as a “gay band,” and were critiqued in homophobic terms.
In short, Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground can be seen as a 1960s funhouse mirror version of the New York School and the broader New American poetry scene. Lou Reed was not only a “punk poet” of the urban demimonde in the metaphorical sense that is so often used in commentary on his work. Reed was actually one of the more distinctive, brilliant, and successful products of the postwar American avant-garde and a figure who deserves to be included in our histories and memories of the New York School.
Andrew Epstein is the author of Attention Equals Life: The Pursuit of the Everyday in Contemporary Poetry and Culture (Oxford University Press, 2016) and Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry Culture (Oxford University Press, 2006). He is a professor at Florida State University, and he writes about the New York School of Poets on his...