The Poetry Years [excerpt]

Written by

Phillip Lopate
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Year

2014
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Though I am known today mostly as an essayist, occasionally as a fiction writer, for about fifteen years I wrote poetry. I published poems in countless little magazines, gave readings all over, earned a living of sorts as a poet in the schools, teaching the art to children, and put out two collections: the first in 1972, the second in 1976. When I look back at those years during which poetry formed such an important part of my identity, I am tempted to rub my eyes, as though recalling a time when I ran off and joined the circus; yet at the time it seemed a logical enough pursuit.

How had I started writing poetry in the first place? I can honestly say I had no ambitions to be a poet when I was younger. True, in elementary school I was by default the class poet, just as there was a boy who drew horses well and another boy who ran the fastest at Field Day. When Thanksgiving approached, I would be expected to craft a few stanzas about the pilgrims' feast. In junior high I wrote several tortured poems under the influence of the Beats. But by high school I had forsaken poetry for prose: if I had any literary ambitions, it was to be a novelist.

In college, joining the literary circle around Columbia Review, I befriended a number of emerging poets, including Jonathan Cott and Ron Padgett. Jonathan was my best friend and was highly cultivated, drawn to such serious, demanding authors as Holderlin, Lowell, Roethke. The Oklahoma-born Padgett and I had heard of each other before ever meeting, circling each other like gunfighters; he had even put the word out that he was going to break my butt. I, having hailed from the streets of Brooklyn, let it be known cockily that he was welcome to try. Of course when we finally met the conversation was amicable and respectful; he showed me a brilliant paper he had written about Pound and the medieval troubadours. Padgett had precociously started a poetry magazine back in high school, writing to poets he admired for contributions; and he came to New York to attend Columbia as part of a Tulsa émigré gang (which included Ted Berrigan, Joe Brainard, Dick Gallup) who affixed themselves immediately to the New York School of Poetry.

The magnificent comic poet Kenneth Koch was the Pied Piper who had lured Padgett and others to Columbia, where Koch taught in the English Department. I attended the lunchtime readings Koch gave of his own poetry, and a memorable one of 19th Century Bad Poetry, which he delivered with robust oratory, cracking up every so often. Koch embodied what seemed to me at the time a zany poetics that incorporated Donald Duck, mock-epic parodies and neo-Dada game structures. I would later come to revere him as one of the most reflective, wide-ranging poets of our era, and in the last ten years of his life we became friends; but as an undergraduate I was too intimidated to take a course from him. So I settled for becoming a hanger-on in the New York School of Poetry scene, with entrée provided by Ron Padgett, all of us worshipping at the shrine of Koch, Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery.

The one whose poetry appealed to me most in that period was O'Hara, partly because of his unapologetically urban, movie-mad sensibility, partly because of his doctrine of Personalism. His example gave casual permission to construct a poem out of anything at hand, from a friend's remark to a movie star's collapse to a headline or honking car or sudden mood change.

Just as there was a politique des auteurs among film buffs, so a sort of politque des poètes existed, with battle lines drawn between the more Establishment-respected and prize-winning poets of the day, such as Robert Lowell, Richard Wilbur, John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Eberhart, Anthony Hecht, Anne Sexton, and so on, and the New York School, who drew their inspiration from the French modernist poets and the painting of Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Larry Rivers, Jane Freilicher, etc. Koch's poem "Fresh Air" was a manifesto against everything solemn, high-minded, ethically worrying—"academic," in a word—and called for a poetics of sensuous, experimental linguistic play.

Of course these divisions grew fuzzier the closer you examined the matter: Koch himself taught in the academy, as Ashbery later would, and who could be wittier or more linguistically playful than Wilbur? But there was still this seeming antagonism between opposing teams, the one (the "established" poets) using poetry as a criticism of life, the other (the New York School) as a celebration of art. I remember visiting second-generation New York School poet Ted Berrigan in his East Village pad, and being told by him that he never mixed life with art. Art came from art, he said, not life. Anyone reading Ted's heart-breaking, autobiographical Sonnets would be hard-pressed to concur with his assertion; but that was at least the party line.

When I first began dipping into the poetry of Berryman, Lowell, Bishop, Sexton and Sylvia Plath, I felt guilty, like a Catholic reading books on the Index, and even guiltier for liking them so much. Lowell's Life Studies was a revelation for me; Berryman's Dream Songs and (much later) Love & Fame a grim delight. Surely it was possible to like both anguished confessional and breezy diaristic poetry? But I kept my taste for the former under wraps.

I remember attending a brilliant reading by Ashbery at NYU, when he premiered some of the poems from Rivers and Mountains. Perhaps trying to distance himself from the oracular, baton-beating style of Robert Duncan or the shamanistic intoning of Allen Ginsberg, Ashbery read his own poems with a curious ironic disdain, as if he had just bent down and picked up a piece of paper that had some improbable gibberish written on it. I hung around long enough to get invited to the cocktail party afterwards.

At parties after New York School poetry readings, you would receive your literary marching orders. Reading tips were offered within an acceptably avant-garde framework that included such writers as Gertrude Stein, William S. Burroughs, Ronald Firbank…I remember talking to Ashbery after the reading: he recommended De Chirico's Hebdomeros and Raymond Roussel's Impressions of Africa, both hieratic texts in a Surrealist vein. On other occasions he might steer you to a set of unsung poets such as F. T. Prince, John Wheelwright and David Schubert. I always suspected he was throwing acolytes off the scent, and that he himself had been more deeply influenced by Wordsworth and Auden.

Myself, I could not get enough of Rivers and Mountains, and read it until the spine cracked. Later, after I began writing poetry, I spend a fruitless summer trying to imitate Ashbery's weary, elegant opacity. (No one could have shown less aptitude to write like John Ashbery than I, given my penchant for straightforward transparency; but he was the most influential poet of the period, and so I had to give it a try at least.)

In the last analysis, what I took from my days as a New York Poetry School fellow-traveler was less aesthetic than social. I had the privilege to watch the way a lively poetry scene mushroomed at St. Marks' Church on the Bouwerie, in the East Village, under the nurturance of Anne Waldman. This was the closest I would ever come to the Banquet Years, and though I have always considered myself a literary loner, it gave me a glimpse of how a circle, a generation, a movement, a bohemia functioned. I accepted the poets' generous invitations to parties, to passed joints, to publications in mimeo magazines, to friendships and acquaintanceships. What they made of me I have no idea. My first wife Carol and I lived way uptown, at the northern end of Manhattan above the Cloisters: one time we threw a party and invited the St. Mark's crowd to it, though they seemed wary ever of venturing above 14th Street. They arrived late, having brought with them on the A train enough reading matter for an ocean crossing, and immediately headed for the bedroom to get stoned, ignoring my other literary friends in the living room. But if the St. Marks poets were insular, they were also warmly loyal. I was fascinated by the way they supported each other. I once asked Ron Padgett how he and Ted Berrigan critiqued one another's poems. "I just say, ‘That's totally terrific, Ted,' and when I show him mine he says ‘That's totally terrific' to me."

Whether this was actually true I have my doubts, but the lesson seemed to be that critical fussiness was passé. Another time I was visiting the poet (and future art critic) Peter Schjeldahl in his apartment, and I commented with surprise that he kept a top 40 rock station on all the time. What did he do when bad songs came on the air? Schjeldahl said obstinately, "There are no bad rock songs today." Was he pulling my leg, or did he really believe that? I felt like a visitor from the 19th Century.

I also watched with surprise and maybe envy how the poets and their wives (or husbands) swapped partners. Ted Berrigan read a poem at St. Mark's Church that went something like: "When you sleep with your best friend's wife / She gets fucked / He gets fucked / And you get fucked." Loud titters from the cognoscenti, who knew the poem's other referents, both present in the audience that night.

As eye-opening as all this was, it did not necessarily make me want to be a poet. That came about another way.

From At the End of the Day by Phillip Lopate. Copyright © 2010 by Phillip Lopate. Published by Marsh Hawk Press. Used by permission.