New York School

October 28, 2010


The New York Poets Wiki


The New York School

The “New York School” generally refers to a group of artists and painters living and working within New York City within the 1950s and 1960s. Of the poets, these included John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, John Schuyler, Barbara Guest, and Kenneth Koch. The New York Poets were influenced by both surrealism and modernism; their work is often ironic and strives to incorporate both art and pop culture within its text.

These poets were a close-knit community, often working collaboratively on each other’s work and journals, as well as promoting one another. Of the group, Koch said, “We inspired one another, we envied one another, we emulated each other, we were very critical of each other, we admired each other, we were almost entirely dependent on each another for support. Each had to be better than the others but if one flopped we all did” (Lehman 5).
When describing the poets it is equally important to describe their close relationship with the painters of the movement; they were heavily influenced by Abstract Expressionism and the works of Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Robert Motherwell.
A second generation of the New York School often refers to Joe Brainard, Alice Notley, Ted Berrigan, Ann Waldman, and Dean Young.

The Name

The New York Poets have seemingly resisted the name “New York School of Poetry,” bestowed on them in 1961 by John Bernard Myers. By making them a “school,” rather than a “movement,” there was a suggestion of stasis rather than the fluidity and romanticism that the poets wished to reinforce in their work. Furthermore, few of the core poets felt ties to New York. Ashbery left New York City for Paris in 1955 and lived there for the next ten years—the highlight of the New York School. Schuyler spent the better part of his time in Maine and Southampton. However, O’Hara wrote profusely and intensely about the city (Lehman 28) and Guest fondly remarked that New York, “seemed like civilization [after] coming from the West Coast” (poetryfoundation).
However, the name “New York School of Poetry” is not so much about the city. Rather, “New York” embodies a certain mindset to which the poet would like to be in or escape to (Lehman 28). The imagination is a means to escape, and the poet provides that vehicle.

Perhaps another reason the city embodies the name of the movement is that the close proximity and community of the artists, musicians, and writers during the time was what largely made it possible. They formed a large network of support and inspiration for one another.

Relationship with Painting

The New York School poets and painters (abstract expressionists) maintained a friendship, and a dialogue through their work. The "heavy hitters" of this group were Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko, Klee, Kandinsky, Clifford Still and Franz Kline, among others. They began what is called "action painting," which is a technique that allows the subconscious to make the artistic decisions. The artistic movement began because Surrealist painters moved to NYC, where the New York School was taking place and influenced the indigenous with new methodology, thus the automatic method was born. This post WWII movement branched away from representational art because of the development of the camera took away some of the need for the artist as a documenter. The art movement is significant because it is the first US based art movement– all others had been centered in Paris. (Dreiss)

Jackson Pollock action painting: action-painting.jpg

Kenneth Koch on the relationship between the NY School poets and painters: "We poets and painters hung around a lot together, showed each other our works, and were made by this camaraderie very (or more than otherwise) ambitious, envious, emulous, and, I think lucky. Everyone had an immediately available audience that had no reason not to be critical or enthusiastic."

O'Hara poem that illustrates the closeness of poetry and visual art:

I am ill today but I am not
too ill. I am not ill at all.
It is a perfect day, warm
for winter, cold for fall.

A fine day for seeing. I see
ceramics, during lunch hour, by
Miro, and I see the sea by Leger;
light, complicated Metzingers
and a rude awakening by Brauner,
a little table by Picasso, pink.

I am tired today but I am not
too tired. I am not tired at all.
There is the Pollock, white, harm
will not fall, his perfect hand

and the many short voyages. They'll
never fence the silver range.
Stars are out and there is sea
enough beneath the glistening earth
to bear me toward the future
which is not so dark. I see.

de Kooning

Jackson Pollock Painting

Mark Rothko Painting

The Music

Towards the final years of WWII, a new style of Jazz was emerging from the underground scene of 52nd street New York. Breaking away from the standard and commercialized sound of popular jazz, young musicians like Charlie "Bird" Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were creating a fresh sound out of the original archetypes of jazz music; a style of jazz that focused on the individual expression or virtuosity, coined "bebop." The New York School artists, as well as their literary counterparts, embraced this new sound. (Jackson Pollock was obsessed with jazz). It was wild, flamboyant, and revolutionary, and it meshed well with their own artistic ideas. Bebop embodied the spirit of the new in the musical realm, and influenced later styles of jazz and even popular music that was to come in later years. (Larson)

A link to the famous recording "Ko-Ko" by two innovators of Bebop: Charlie Parker (alto sax) and Dizzy Gillespie (trumpet).


Frank O'Hara's poem on Billie Holiday's death,

The Day Lady Died
It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly new world writing to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days

                                    I go on to the bank

and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the golden griffin I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness

and for Mike I just stroll into the park lane
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a new york post with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 spot
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing


The poets of the movement stressed avant-gardism and experimentation, fixating on the “idea that poetry could be reinvented from head to toe” (Lehman 5). The New York Poets rejected previous and classical poetry, believing that “approved American poetry” was overly conventional. They also rejected confessional poets; poetry was a “linguistic engine” (Lehman 8) rather than a well of experience. Instead, they created parodies and spoofs, as well as ad-hoc forms and unorthodox self-assignments (such as “translate a poem from a language you do not understand”). They adopted the Surrealist “exquisite corpse,” a one line poem which is comprised of a group of words each contributed by a separate person. The New York School also made references to movies, comic books, music, avant-garde drama, and modern art.

A Whitman's Birthday Broadcast With Static

Homosexuality and The Gay Rights Movement

The emerging gay movement in the 1960’s played a key role in the work of the New York Poets. Many things about the gay culture, including the way gay people identified themselves, as well as the language used to refer to homosexuality, changed drastically during the time of the New York Movement. Prior to the gay liberation movements and the Stonewall Riots of the late 1960’s, most people did not see homosexuality as an identity, but merely as a sexual deviation. (Reis 199) The new development of this identity and movement heavily influenced the members of the New York School. Many of the major figures in the New York School, including John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara and James Schuyler, were gay.

While the Beat Movement was also tied to the gay rights movement, the New York School wrote more explicitly about it, and the content of their poetry was concerned more with homosexuality than the Beats. Frank O’Hara, recognized as the third overtly gay poet (after Alan Ginsberg and Paul Goodman), wrote several poems that openly discussed homosexuality (Diggory 229). His poem “In the Movies,” is an explicit account of oral sex occuring in a movie theatre,

"I bought a ticket so I could be alone. With the plumes.

With the ushers.

With my own prick.

and with my death written in smoke

outside this theatre where I receive my mail.

Guts? my gut is full of water, like the River Jordan."

(Collected Poems, 206)

Other poets, such as Schuyler, were more covert in their homosexual references. In Schuyler’s poems written to Bob Jordan, a lover, the fact that the addressee is a man is only vaguely hinted at. In Ashbery’s poems many critics have commented on the possible significance of the lack of homosexual content. (Diggory 229)

Even those that were not gay however were looking for an alternative to the mainstream culture. The emerging gay subculture provided the perfect network for the movement to use. One particular subculture that the movement became heavily involved in was known as “camp.” This culture functioned in several different ways. First, it provided a way for the artists and poets of the movement to connect. The Tibor De Nagy Gallery was a famous meeting place for members of the movement. The gallery promoted the exchange and collaboration of poets and artists who were interested in the subculture. The second way camp influenced the movement was in language. There is a particular style of humor and wit associated with camp, and it was used by the poets, both gay and straight. Kenneth Koch, who was not gay, was known for having picked up this style rather well (Diggory 228).

John Ashbery's statement about the Tibor De Nagy Gallery

Frank O'Hara's Poem 'Homosexuality'

New York City Atmosphere

To truly get a feel for the poets' work, it is important to understand the look and feel of New York City in the 1950s and 1960s--the time that so closely shaped their community and lives. Included are videos and pictures of this era.


Works Cited

Contemporary Poets. Gale, 2001. From Literature Resource Center.

Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2008. From Literature Resource Center. Contemporary Poets. Gale, 2001. From Literature Resource Center.

Diggory, Terence. "Encylopedia of the New York School Poets." Infobase Publishing: New York. 2009.

Dreiss, Joseph. "Abstract Expressionism." 2010 University of Mary Washington.

Elledge, Jim. Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia of American Literature. George B. Perkins, Barbara Perkins, and Phillip Leininger. New York: HarperCollins, 1991. p801. From Literature Resource Center.

"Greenwich Village Sunday."1960. Youtube. 26 October 2010.

House, George Eastman. "E. 2nd St." Photograph. New York. 1967.

House, George Eastman. "St. Mark's Pl." Photograph. New York. 1968.

House, George Eastman. "Tompkins Square." Photograph. New York. 1967.

Larson, Thomas. History and Tradition of Jazz. Dubuque, Iowa. Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company. 2008.

Lehman, David. "The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets." Doubleday: New York. 1998. print.

Manousous , Anthony. American Poets Since World War II. Ed. Donald J. Greiner. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 5. Detroit: Gale Research, 1980. From Literature Resource Center. Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2006. From Literature Resource Center.

"new york 1960s." 29 April 2008. Youtube. 25 October 2010.

Reis, Elizabeth. "American Sexual Histories." Blackwell Publishing: Malden, MA. 2001.


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One Response

  1. I enjoyed reading about this movement and its ties to the world of art and music. I especially enjoyed the example of the O’Hara poem “Digression On Number 1, 1948”

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