A Brief Guide to the New York School

Year

2004
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The New York School of poetry began around 1960 in New York City and included poets such as John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, Kenneth Koch, and Frank O'Hara. Heavily influenced by surrealism and modernism, the poetry of the New York School was serious but also ironic, and incorporated an urban sensibility into much of the work. An excerpt from Ashbery’s poem "My Philsophy of Life" demonstrates this attitude:

Just when I thought there wasn't room enough
for another thought in my head, I had this great idea--
call it a philosophy of life, if you will. Briefly,
it involved living the way philosophers live,
according to a set of principles. OK, but which ones?

Abstract expressionist art was also a major influence, and the New York School poets had strong artistic and personal relationships with artists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem DeKooning. Both O'Hara and James Schuyler worked at the Museum of Modern Art, and Guest, Ashbery, and Schuyler were critics for Art News. O'Hara also took inspiration from artists, entitling two poems "Joseph Cornell" and "On Seeing Larry Rivers' Washington Crossing the Delaware at the Museum of Modern Art." O'Hara's poem "Why I am Not a Painter" includes the lines "I am not a painter, I am a poet. / Why? I think I would rather be / a painter, but I am not."

A second generation of New York School poets arose during the 1960s and included Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett, Anne Waldman, and Joe Brainard. These poets were also influenced by art, and their work contained much of the same humour and collaborative spirit. Their scene grew up around downtown New York and was associated with the Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church, a poetry organization started in the mid 1960s.

The New York School continues to influence poets writing today. Recently published books such as Daniel Kane's All Poets Welcome: The Lower East Side Poetry Scene in the 1960s and David Lehmans The Last-Avant Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets are important histories of this poetic movement that still captures readers nearly fifty years later.