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August 2003  |  Jacket 23  Contents  |  Homepage  |  Catalog  |  Search  |

David Shapiro

in conversation with John Tranter
New York, 15 February 1984

In this issue of Jacket you can read:
button Thomas Fink: David Shapiro’s ‘Possibilist’ Poetry
button David Shapiro (in conversation with John Tranter, 1984)
button David Shapiro: Six poems (from A Burning Interior, 2000)
button Carl Whithaus — Immediate Memories: on the Poetry of David Shapiro
button Nathan Hauke: Meditations on David Shapiro: Memory and ‘Lateness’
button Kent Johnson: Poem Upon a Typo Found in an Interview of Kenneth Koch,
Conducted by David Shapiro
In Jacket 15: David Shapiro’s 1969 interview with the late Kenneth Koch.

This piece is 4,000 words or about nine printed pages long. It first appeared in Meanjin magazine (Melbourne, Australia) volume 4, 1984.
Meanjin is pronounced mee-ANN-jin, and takes its name from the Australian aboriginal word for the isthmus of land on which the Australian city of Brisbane is built. The magazine began there in 1940.

‘... Certainly one needs an audience; but perhaps the best thing in this country is to know that there is exactly, in a certain sense, none; and then to deal with that problem. ’

John Tranter: What was your involvement with the ‘New York School’?

David Shapiro: It’s a long story, and in a sense it revolves around a kind of myth or dogma: on the one hand the phrase ‘New York School’ was an epithet that was used by some art gallery people, a phrase that drew a parallel between certain poets in the 1950s and certain painters.

It didn’t necessarily mean that they came from New York, it didn’t necessarily mean that they stayed in New York, it didn’t necessarily mean that their art had anything to do with New York, nor that they all wrote like each other, or thought like each other in any way. So one of the problems with these academic labels, like the label Post-modernism, or Modernism for that matter, is that it does become a kind of false can-opener, in a way. But at any rate, sometimes it’s a decent device, perhaps, sometimes for promotional purposes in the Apollinaire sense of a group of artists who are at least going to link together.

My involvement was this: I’d begun writing very early, when I was about nine, as a violinist, and certainly by twelve I was attracted to certain things in John Ashbery’s poetry that I’d seen. Then again in 1960 when I was thirteen Donald Allen’s anthology [The New American Poetry] came out. I loved parts of it. I met Kenneth Koch when I was fifteen. I was still very much under the influence of Wallace Stevens, and many poets... including the French Symbolists. I remember that when he showed me John Ashbery’s poems I thought... in a way it struck me as horrifying, and I remember the moment when I thought ‘This is horrifying, he uses the word “I” as if it was just any other word’, and then I thought ‘How wonderful!’ So I had almost what’s called the conversion experience... that is, a kind of Damascus experience, in which I hated ‘Europe’ at least for half a day — this long, Rauschenbergian poem — then, I remember liking Theodore Roethke more — then, by the next day, as someone has said about painting after Jasper Johns, it’s as if everything else was in a kind of ashcan — not so much of history, and I still love Roethke — but certainly this newspaper collage of John Ashbery’s overwhelmed me, and the idea that you could... what people loved in the cut-ups of Burroughs, but I particularly loved, in John Ashbery.

I then started to correspond with him, and he published me in Art and Literature, and wrote me very beautiful letters, and I became more and more attracted to his poetry. It was just at this time that he was writing in a more Neo-classical vein, and when I met him he recited ‘The Skaters’ — almost an Alexander-Pope-like poem. I remember trying to convince Allen Ginsberg that he was a good poet. Allen didn’t believe it until I recited some of his poems by heart, and then Allen said ‘Hmmm.’ He’s always credited me with slightly convincing him that this poetry wasn’t completely insane.

At any rate, the poet Frank O’Hara and I became close; and I loved Frank’s more personal poems. But I particularly loved the vast odes: the ‘Ode to Michael Goldberg(’s Birth and Other Births)’, and the very extended poems that are remarkably like de Kooning...

A lot of these poets weren’t published easily... I decided to publish an anthology of New York poets, because at the time this came out — it came out a little later — poets like Frank O’Hara (who was already dead when it came out) — it was very hard to get a publisher for them. Some of the greatest poets in this country would tell me ‘Frank O’Hara, he’s bitchy, no great poet can be bitchy!’ (Said a poet who will be nameless). I said ‘What about Catullus?’

So one of the reasons I published the Anthology of New York Poets with Ron Padgett — we disagreed violently over certain poets — I wanted Barbara Guest in, for example... I was once very embarrassed by the anthology. It is said you commit an anthology, like a sin. And I thought it was much too sloppy. I had a dream of some kind of Japanese perfection. But I’m glad in a way that Ron loosened me, perhaps, towards an anthology that wasn’t quite that way.

So there are these problems with what the phrase ‘the New York School’ means. It can mean a chauvinism. I think many of us felt attracted towards certain ideas, such as keeping language in the freshest possible state, after Mallarmé, and after Pound. To me it’s a kind of second wave of experimentation in this country. The twenties, and perhaps the forties to the sixties...

The first sign of that kind of poetry that a lot of Australians saw was the collection of it in Donald Allen’s anthology. How do you see the relationship between the New York group of writers and the other groups of writers in that anthology?

Well, when I was working on the anthology, I remember going through a period when — at least for a brief moment — I would like almost any poet that I read, in a kind of schizophrenia. Sometimes it would only take a week to be influenced by, to admire, then to hate, revile and renounce certain poets. I remember loving Charles Olson’s work, and now I like very little of his work except for the variations in which he used Rimbaud. I didn’t like what was merely a corollary to Pound. And I think there were poets who were closer than the so-called Black Mountain poets. Frank O’Hara had a strong personal affinity for Allen Ginsberg — he introduced me to Allen, and to Diane di Prima (who published me), and Leroi Jones was very close to Frank O’Hara, and will still speak well of him despite what one might think Imamu Baraka might say [Leroi Jones changed his name to Imamu Baraka.] I still remember Imamu walking me to subways because they were dangerous.

But I think there were differences. One of the things that is always said about James Schuyler — a very reticent poet — and Frank, and Kenneth Koch, is that at the very least their concern for painting links them. But I think even more it’s the — um — decision not to make merely personal confessions, the decision not to make merely academic redivagations, as it were; and the desire to press forward with some openness to humour. Helen Vendler called them ‘cheerful Chaucerians’ when she reviewed my anthology of New York poets. She obviously didn’t like it very much. It took her a long time to care for it, and she sometimes even writes me that my poetry still seems nonsensical to her.

‘Nonsense’ is a very important concept, I think, for these poets, in the sense that things drained to zero degree of old meaning still involve these poets. Like Andy Warhol... I sometimes think they’re closer to Pop art in one way than to Expressionism, that they’re sometimes said to be linked to...

That links some of the poets, that zero degree of meaning, what I called ‘the meaning of meaninglessness’ in a rather turgid book I wrote on John Ashbery... I did want to do a life’s work of the Fool in Lear — Victorian nonsense — and at Cambridge [Cambridge University, in England] they said ‘We have too much nonsense, too much of that,’ and they didn’t want to deal with that.

But it is one thing that perhaps links New York poets that’s not usually mentioned... it’s somewhat similar to Russian Cubo-Futurism in which language speaks in the poem, as Heidegger says that language is the centre of the poem. There’s an awful lot of content in New York poets — in a way they’re very figurative and imagistic. Despite what the so-called ‘language poets’ say — a group here that thinks they’ve established this for the first time — language is almost always the subject of poetry, but perhaps — in John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch — it situated itself at the centre in a way that was very remarkable for American poetry; in the sense that the aspect that is self-reflexive in John Ashbery — what’s labyrinthine and parenthetical, in a manic way — is new in American poetry, greater than what’s pious in Eliot. It’s something that perhaps these poets get out of Wallace Stevens, who wrote to Kenneth Koch saying ‘You should celebrate more.’ But what he celebrated was language, mostly. And I think Kenneth is like our Claus Oldenberg, and John Ashbery is like Rauschenberg and Johns put together.

The saddest thing perhaps is that Frank O’Hara, who was a Rauschenberg, really should have had ten, twenty, thirty more years of life, to establish himself. But I did want to say, for everyone, that usually Frank is thought of as careless, and I remember asking him how fast he wrote his ‘Ode’, and he said ‘Months, and months!’ It’s very useful to know how hard he revised.

And I don’t think that all of our friends internationally know (because the manuscripts haven’t been published) how much Frank O’Hara revised. There’s the myth of him just sending it all out, as it were, and typing it all out at a party. But a lot of the great poems were done very slowly, and I was very moved by that when I was young, that everything was done with great care.

I think perhaps that began with Donald Allen’s editing of the Collected Poems, which had an introduction by Allen, and a note by John Ashbery, both of which mentioned that a lot of the poems were dashed off at work, or during his lunch hour... ‘Lunch Poems’... but perhaps that’s not quite what ‘Lunch Poems’ meant.

No; and I think that actually he has a lunch poem where he says ‘First Bunny died, then John Latouche, then Jackson Pollock, but is the earth as full, as life was full, of them... ’ And the care in which... The myth of the poem is that it’s written during the lunch hour. Ted Berrigan used to say ‘My poems really are written in the immediate present; that’s the difference.’ And of course at different times a poet such as Frank could ‘dash off a poem’. It then had the twenty years’ pressure behind it. So, time in a poem is always different. But a lot of times there is the sense of speed in a poem; something that de Kooning loved, but a sense of speed arrived at very contemplatively. So one has to discriminate really carefully, in an O’Hara poem, between the topic of speed and immediacy, and something like spilt immediacy. And I think the danger of the influence of the New York School has been the idea that if you just say ‘It’s 3:15, hullo!’, that you get a good poem out of cardboard.

I admire cheap materials, and I think one thing the New York poets did was to try to lower the materials, like the diction of the tribe, in the sense that some new architects use chain link as a building material; so in a way Frank was able to do that. But there are a lot of rare things stuck to that chain link, too. And... his chain link is a necessary chain link; somebody else’s cardboard is not turned into gold.

‘Speed recollected in tranquillity.’ I’m trying to focus on the difference between Lowell and O’Hara. They seem to stand for me at two points in the development of American poetry. I think Lowell’s diction determines an approach to things which is serious and heavy and committed. O’Hara’s diction determines a corresponding freedom.

I found beautiful things in Lowell. I met him at the end of his life, when he said that he found Ashbery’s poems beautiful though meaningless, or something like that. I think he was opening up. His attitude towards ‘surrealism’ was... wildly narrow. He would talk about surrealism in one of his books as just... it seemed to him just that which inverted sense. And he always had a meagre idea of the visual, it is said. But I think that he was bound by metre, in a way where Frank arose from a huge prose tradition as much as a tradition of poetry. You know, one has the advantages of one’s ignorance. Wittgenstein didn’t know Kant, and therefore could have that leverage in British philosophy by whistling with a new model of things. And I think that Frank in a way didn’t have all the echoes that someone like Lowell did have in his head, didn’t have to wrestle with some of the same problems, and then got great leverage — Copernican leverage, Archimedean leverage on the universe. But they don’t have to clink against each other.

I do know that Lowell is sometimes thought of as a horrible poet. Peter Schjeldahl writes a poem in my anthology that says ‘Let’s tell the truth, America. Robert Lowell is the least distinguished poet alive.’ And there are poems by Lowell like ‘Water’, a very quiet poem, influenced by Elizabeth Bishop, whom everyone loves — at least recently, and John Ashbery has promoted her work a great deal — and Lowell can sometimes strike a quiet mood. What I don’t like about Lowell is when he was purple, melodramatic, encrusted. But when he relaxes, which is rare, or when he translates Montale, whom I think is a wonderful poet and somehow perfect for Lowell, that works.

But it is amazing how good — for example — a poet like James Schuyler has turned out to be, who might have seemed just a tiny footnote compared to a huge Lowell. I don’t like comparing poets in the negative way; but I’m pleased that in the twenty years in which I’ve supported someone like John Ashbery or James Schuyler, to the constant ridicule of the universe, as it were, that that has turned out simply not to be the case.

That John, writing ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’, has shown how he can really take the highest kind of Eliotic tone when he wants to, and really I think in that poem, invents a kind of parody of the academic masterpiece, that really is a masterpiece, in a certain way. I don’t know how you feel about that poem...

I feel very ambiguous about it. Really, it worried me when I read that. I thought...

Because of its skull-like vanitas academic tone?

Well... I thought, this poem has been designed to win a major prize, and it won three!

I doubt that that’s true, except — It’s not true, of course — But I think it — no, but let’s say that John sometimes designs poems... he is wilful, and it’s not so much the major prize that he designs it for, as... but — there’s no doubt that one feels in John when he does something, this immense Wordsworthian confidence based, hilariously enough, on a kind of complete lack of confidence, which one likes... as in the ‘Four Quartets’, what I most like is the admission of uncertainty and failure on Eliot’s part. And at his best, John is also confessing to this complete sense of doubt.

He loves Parmigianino. He found a little book; he was lonely in New England; and just returned and returned and returned to this... and so I think that what he thinks about that poem is not so much wilful in a triumphant sense, as lingering... he once said ‘I like the lazy self-exploration of myself.’ He compared himself to (Jasper) Johns. It’s just that he can sometimes assume a tone... Fairfield Porter said it’s the tone of a man who can write the most perfect business letters. And John does sometimes dress up in that suit that reminds us of T.S.Eliot ‘dressing up like a cadaver,’ someone said, ‘to win England.’

What I’ve tried to do is to combine what I love in Eliot — because I still do love Eliot — pace Harold Bloom — I love the Chopinesque in ‘The Waste Land’ which I still can say by heart, and love... a lot of people don’t... and I love Stevens. And I’ve tried to make a poetry out of something maybe even more Russian, Jewish, something that comes out of Pasternak... one part of Pasternak. And we have had some large poets, and so one sometimes worries... is one just a footnote to a footnote, as it were? But, one does one’s best.

The worry is that between the forties and the sixties there was a large American art, as good as Frank Stella, as good as de Kooning, these large splashes of great achievement. And is it now, as it were, like let’s say Bryce Marden’s monochrome next to Jasper Johns...

I’m not sure that anyone in my generation has made a structural achievement in the way that I’m sure that John Ashbery did. Or John Cage in music. Or Elliot Carter. I know that Ron Padgett is a fine comic poet, and he’s an important comic poet in certain ways; and I think Joe Ceravalo, a poet who lives in New Jersey, is a very fine Pierre Reverdy-ish Cubist. But whether there’s this other thing, you know... I’m talking now about the second generation of New York poets, and there are some very talented people — Bernadette Mayer and Alice Notley among the women I think are extraordinary poets to follow — very talented... Too often the poets then of the second generation seem like corollaries to corollaries, as it were, to the adults. And we may just have to wait and see.

John Ashbery at one time looked like a corollary to Wallace Stevens, and a mere... something French and pretty that Auden was worried about; and so we’ll have to wait and see. But I’m not convinced yet that my generation has produced a work that will last. One would like to think one’s own work will last... I can try...

I get a feeling when I look at American poetry from the outside that there was a great argument between, say, Lowell and his ‘school’ on the one hand — and there were lots of them, and lots of them were very good — and the ‘New York School’ on the other. With a lot of other things going on as well — Black Mountain, the Beats, and so on. But it seems the major fruitful arguments were between those two approaches... and I’m wondering has there been a synthesis, has anything evolved out of that argument that we can see as the next step in American poetry?

Well, I’ll give you my sense of where things are, what the ‘state’ of poetry is today. What depresses me is that on the one hand... there has been a lot of naturalism. Some of this uses a bit of Frank O’Hara, or some of it uses a bit of one part of William Carlos Williams, in the most horrible way, that one always expected; which is simply to list the factualities that surround one. Which is the least negating, the least critical, the least intransigent. And as one of my friends said about the New York School, a lot of that collapses into fey preoccupations that are really like whimsy of the merest kind.

So it still seems to be a few individuals, who are charming and tough, and have genius enough to resist the collapse into naturalism; or the collapse, in the case of a few young people, into a kind of anti-naturalism that’s too empty. To me, the so-called language poets, who are doing ‘oink’, ‘klok’, ‘chomp’, are doing experiments like those that were done by a few concrete poets some ten or fifteen years ago. They’re whimsical experiments, and they’re not needed. They’re re-capitulations of minor duplications of minor negations of the 1920s; it’s just not needed.

So we only have still, amazingly enough, a few dark individuals; and maybe this is good. And the so-called synthesis that you see... and I would like to think, as probably one of the few who would say they have some sympathies for Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell and for Ashbery, that’s — I do attempt to weld... and it’s almost conscious — one doesn’t do it per poem, as it were, but stylistically I’m interested in a poem that’s ferocious enough to contain the strengths of everything that comes out of Elizabethan metre, everything that was in Hart Crane, and everything that could be, also, from Pound, Williams, Eliot — um — crushed, like a John Chamberlain car part, and also kept delicate and musical. Those desires are probably the desires of many poets, but it’s another thing to say ‘Can it be done?’

The thing that’s depressing is that there are no intelligent magazines... the publishers’ lists are old-fashioned, good poets are unpublished, all the complaints are still there as they were when Pound might have listed them to Olson. It’s an age of Reaganism, it’s a very sad dark age.

The St Mark’s in the Bowery group of poets seems to have a strong sense of community; it interests me that there was a particular focus for a whole mess of things over a long period of time. What did St Mark’s mean to you?

You know, I taught at Columbia for nine years, so in one sense I was ‘uptown’; I still don’t drive a car, really, and I’ve read at St Mark’s many many times, and also I’m on the Friends Committee, and I support it... while groups can be very useful, there can be problems with the very idea of a group. Some groups can be ways of ripping things down to so-called lowest common denominators. Poets like Pasternak have always been worried by parties, political and otherwise, and perhaps aesthetic. So one of the greatest problems with any centre for poetry is that poetry is exactly that which is decentered, constantly marginal. Collaboration is a different thing. Rimbaud, for example, collaborated with Verlaine, but one hardly imagines him at ease with group happiness.

But there’s a lot to learn from groups, and I don’t want to be too easily anti-group, either... to be more positive, it’s very hard for poets to have any sense that what they’re doing... as architects have, for instance... sometimes ‘noble rivalry’ among poets who know each other is very useful. Maybe the worst that happens in New York is when poets know so clearly that they’re not cared for that there’s not even the sense of a rivalry. And places like St Mark’s can make at least a little bit happen.

But my personal tendency is to be by myself, to look at the venetian blinds.

To look out through the venetian blinds...

No, to be stopped by the venetian blinds, with hopefully snow falling behind them. And New York — I think it is important that the urban situation does give — in the last thirty years — a tremendous sense of speed, of a matrix, of Broadway Boogie-Woogie, of what elated Mondrian. There’s no doubt that in New York one could meet Bill de Kooning and feel that it was worth living in this century, and that great things could be done.

But the despair is... a century, as Frank O’Hara said, that’s too entertaining, the New York that drains one into whimsy, and that produces a poetry that just looks like a minor game. I have a very intense friend who says that art is not a game, and as a Wittgensteinian I think well, it looks like one; but his feeling is that it is not exactly played for stakes, and it’s not merely amusing, it’s not a divertimento. Sometimes poets play in these centres as if... it’s a ‘fun thing to do’, and it is true that poetry is among other things fun and entertainment, but I like what — who was it, Eliot or Empson? — who said that the great poems get written because you’d go mad if you didn’t. Certain of the great poems this century weren’t written in any way to win the prizes or to be heard at the Church [St Mark’s in the Bowery].

Certainly one needs an audience; but perhaps the best thing in this country is to know that there is exactly, in a certain sense, none; and then to deal with that problem.

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