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It’s pretty rare to find a rave from rock music royalty gracing the back of a book of literary criticism, so you can be forgiven for doing a double-take upon spotting Kim Gordon’s blurb on the jacket of this one. Gordon, bassist and singer for Sonic Youth, the ground-breaking New York indie rock band, hails Maggie Nelson’s new book of criticism for being “incredibly timely and astute.” Not only is Gordon’s praise for the book warranted, but her post-punk imprimatur feels just right, for this is a spirited, irreverent, smart study of contemporary avant-garde poetry and the gifted, pioneering women at its heart.
Training her eye on one of the most significant poetry movements to have emerged since World War II, the so-called “New York School of poets,” Nelson confronts the usual list of its “leading figures” — Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, Ted Berrigan — and bluntly asks: what happened to the women? The result is a fierce feminist reclamation project, a challenge to the all-too-easy erasure of women from the myths told about literary history, and an essential, urgently needed act of revisionist scholarship. It’s as if Nelson has walked up to an old group portrait in the Museum of Literary History depicting a gang of guys, ripped it down from the wall, and started pasting in the women’s faces that have been too long obscured.
Nelson sets out to write an alternate history that extends the lineage of this movement to include some of its most important mothers, sisters, and daughters. One of the best things about Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions is simply the fact that it lavishes valuable critical attention on a number of formidable, inspiring female artists and writers who have yet to be granted the serious consideration they deserve: the revered but often marginalized poet Barbara Guest; the wonderful, undersung Abstract Expressionist painter Joan Mitchell; the nearly forgotten writer Bunny Lang; and — in three long chapters that form the book’s second half — a trio of latter-day New York School poets, Bernadette Mayer, Alice Notley, and Eileen Myles, all of whom deserve to be better known.
Until recently, portraits of the New York School of poets almost always featured a few familiar faces, most often a quartet: O’Hara, Ashbery, Koch, and Schuyler. This is certainly the case with David Lehman’s widely-read 1998 history of the movement, the lively and influential book The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets. Lehman makes no bones about the fact that, for him, this “Fab Four” are truly the heart and soul of the New York School’s first generation. The usual narratives, like Lehman’s, tell a rousing story about four close friends and poetic allies who moved to New York in the early 1950s, immediately began opposing — or, you might say, cheerfully ignoring — the reigning conventions and decorum of postwar American poetry, and ended up sparking one of the most influential and lasting avant-garde poetry movements to flourish in the latter half of the twentieth century.
This heroic narrative, like so many tales of avant-garde triumph, clearly privileges the contributions of a series of men and runs the risk of blotting out the participation of women in the founding and perpetuation of the “school.” The impression that the movement was driven by an insular literary boys’ club has hung around the notion of a New York School of poets from the start. As Nelson notes, when two important young followers of the New York School’s first generation, Ron Padgett and David Shapiro, edited the movement-consolidating collection An Anthology of New York Poets for Random House in 1970, the roster notoriously featured a lone woman poet amidst twenty-six men.
Not surprisingly, the idea that the New York School was largely a male preserve has been a persistent source of irritation for more recent poets and critics. It has provoked strong counter-responses, like a string of recent essays that have decried the omission of the poet Barbara Guest from group portraits like Lehman’s or Geoff Ward’s in Statutes of Liberty: The New York School of Poets (1993). In recent years, books like Don’t Ever Get Famous: Essays on New York Writing Beyond the New York School (2007), a collection of essays edited by Daniel Kane, have sought to challenge the stable contours of the category “New York School,” to broaden the movement’s scope to consider crucial non-white fellow travelers, and to cast forward to examine the New York School’s second generation of poets, many of whom were trailblazing women writers.
This is the breach into which Maggie Nelson steps and the conversation which her book so refreshingly joins. She is obviously not the only critic to draw attention to such exclusions and omissions in our study of the New York School, but her book is one of the first sustained, full-length blasts at the received wisdom, at what she calls “the mythic past” and the blindnesses it has caused (xxiii). Flying in the face of what she views as an insidious nostalgia for some golden age when the “avant-garde was safely dominated by white men,” Nelson states that her goal is, rather, “to consider in depth the various contributions and critiques women have made in and around this particular milieu” (xxiii, xv).
The “critiques women have made” — Nelson’s decision to focus on this aspect of the work in question leads her to the book’s most useful and incisive contribution to our understanding of New York School poetics. In essence, the question she tackles is: what happens to all the poetic techniques, attitudes, and preoccupations we associate with poets like Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, or Ted Berrigan when they end up in the hands of a woman writer? Rather than simply demanding that women poets be slotted into open spaces in the New York School canon, Nelson’s book has a more complicated and interesting argument to make, although it only flickers into view as an overarching thesis from time to time.
She contends that these women writers, writing in the shadow of the powerful first generation, not only absorb the key poetic strategies and the obsessions closely associated with the male New York School poets, but also quickly set about extending, critiquing, subverting, and recasting them from a woman’s perspective. Nelson wants us to “pay attention to the ways in which certain New York School tropes necessarily morph when their practitioners are women,” a morphing that has sometimes “entailed a wholesale rejection of some of these tropes” (xxiv). In particular, she’s most interested in how these women have combined certain elements of New York School style with other ingredients — particularly “feminist urgency” and “political conviction” — a mixture which has yielded, in Nelson’s eyes, “some of the most alive and necessary poetry to date” (xxvi).
Although much of the book focuses on these women writers, the second chapter is a long and rather meandering, unfocused treatment of the original male figures who dominate our conception of the group. While she is hardly the first to consider it, Nelson foregrounds “the queerness of the scene and of the writing” as a way to further highlight the complex gender dynamics that were there from the start within the initial movement (50). Following other recent studies, Nelson makes it clear that even though the New York School of poets emerged in the benighted Cold War 1950s, at a time of rampant misogyny and hyper-masculinity, poets like O’Hara, Ashbery, and Schuyler were surprisingly progressive in their attitudes about gender and even feminist in temperament, especially when viewed in the context of the relatively Neanderthal-like gender politics of the other movements of their moment, like the Abstract Expressionist painters and the Beats.
For one thing, the New York poets loudly proclaimed their love for a whole slew of female predecessors (something it’s hard to imagine Pollock or Kerouac doing). For another, they genuinely respected their women artist and writer friends, like Jane Freilicher, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Bunny Lang, treated them more or less as equals, collaborated with them, and actively supported their careers by publicly singing their praises. Putting the unabashed queerness of their work and self-presentation front and center, Nelson notes their “decidedly non-macho” qualities, which are especially glaring given the Fifties hysteria about manliness and disdain for the deviant, the effeminate, and the feminine which surrounded them (54). Nelson is right to stress that any feminist revision of the New York School must take this facet of the original movement into account.
Indeed, she makes the compelling claim that one of the main reasons “so many female — indeed feminist — admirers” have been drawn to the New York School is precisely because of the poets’ refreshing rejection of misogyny and their embrace of “feminine identifications” (54).
Among the best and most accomplished of the female admirers who have been drawn to the path blazed by O’Hara, Ashbery, Schuyler, and Koch are Bernadette Mayer, Alice Notley, and Eileen Myles, the contemporary poets who Nelson focuses on in her book’s second half. The three substantial, rewarding “career studies” she offers really function as the heart of this book; it is here that Nelson’s illuminating close readings of poems help flesh out her case that the relationship between the daughters and fathers of the New York School is ambivalent and critical, while at the same time creatively generative (xxiii).
Instead of happily embracing the mantle of the New York School, these woman poets actually have decidedly mixed feelings about their own relation to the movement, its male-dominated milieu, and its aesthetic strategies, and respond with a variety of feminist and subversive critiques and interventions.
To take one particularly interesting and suggestive example, Nelson argues that women writers find the New York School’s fascination with the quotidian inspiring but at the same time deeply troubling on feminist grounds (“the everyday makes me barf,” Myles writes) (xxiv). Rather than simply aping the chatty, daily poems of their poetic fathers, these writers instead experiment with developing alternative, woman-centered approaches to the everyday. As Nelson rightly insists, a Frank O’Hara-like “I do this, I do that” poem chronicling urban everyday life simply “reads differently” when the person writing the piece is not a man — “when the flâneur becomes a flâneuse” (xxiv).
For example, Bernadette Mayer’s radical experiments — like her book-length poem Midwinter Day, which tracks the mundane details of a single day in the domestic life of a woman poet with two young children — deliberately lay bare the limitations of the male, first-generation aesthetics of dailiness by stretching it “to include the many anxieties, frustrations, pleasures, and desires which attend being or becoming a mother, mothering daughters, being a female writer, and having a female body” (101). Similarly, in her chapter on Notley, Nelson makes clear the poet’s longstanding discomfort with aspects of the group’s poetry and politics which led her to defiantly insert “the voice of the new wife and new mother” into the New York School idiom in her early work, and to turn away from the quotidian and towards her own brand of “idiosyncratic feminist mysticism” in her more recent poetry (155).
Along the same lines, when Nelson takes up the poet Eileen Myles, she argues that by writing so openly about sexuality, class identity, and the female body — and especially by adding “lesbian content” to the New York School palette — Myles’s work “has radically expanded the social and political capacities of O’Hara’s ‘Personism’” (170). In all of these cases, Nelson makes a strong case for the ways in which the New York School’s female progeny have exposed the original movement’s blindspots, expanded its purview, amped up its latent, sometimes barely audible politics, and retrofitted its innovations to better match women’s experiences.
It’s worth mentioning that Nelson is not only a literary critic and scholar — she’s an accomplished, inventive poet and memoirist, and it shows in her prose. This book is no turgid academic tome; while it offers acute insights at every turn, it manages to be vivacious, fun, and highly readable, driven by a sassy and conversational voice (as when Nelson admits that Notley has written “some pretty freaky-looking poetry”) (152). Also, Nelson’s personal connection to the poets she analyzes, and her own role within the New York School’s umpteenth generation (she previously curated a reading series at the New York School’s ground zero, the Poetry Project at St. Marks), lend the book a warmth and enthusiasm that is often inspiring — a sense that it might be possible to discover a vital community of women writers and role models right under one’s nose.
“How many years does it take for a girl to get recognized as part of a movement?” Nelson quotes Alice Notley as asking (133). “Too many,” this book clearly retorts. Narrowing that gap between women’s participation and recognition is at the core of Nelson’s polemical project.
Unfortunately, the broader, vexing issue this book pinpoints is still a white-hot one — the need to question whether women are even now being adequately recognized for their pivotal contributions to avant-garde communities and literary movements. Consider the dust kicked up several months ago in the poetry world by an exchange in the Chicago Review between two poet-critics, Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young, and a scholar of avant-garde poetry, Jennifer Ashton. The question at issue: are women today still under-represented and marginalized within innovative poetic communities, institutions, and anthologies, or has that battle largely been won? For some poets and critics, like Spahr and Young, the answer to the former is yes: even within those communities — which are so often celebrated as progressive and enlightened — division, sexism, and inequity remain, however submerged or rationalized away.
It is within this fraught context that Nelson’s book should be seen as not only a necessary recovery project, but also as a powerful “alternative to the logic of exclusion which can still underlie and perpetuate so much literary mythmaking” (xvi). As John Ashbery wrote forty years ago, “The academy of the future is / Opening its doors”: thanks to writers like Maggie Nelson and those she celebrates in these pages, the doors of this particular school will not clang shut again any time soon.
Andrew Epstein is the author of Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry (Oxford University Press), which focuses on the work of Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and Amiri Baraka. His essays and reviews have appeared in Contemporary Literature, Fulcrum, Raritan, Newsday, Lingua Franca, Boston Review, American Book Review, and the Henry James Review, and his poems have appeared in Denver Quarterly, Conduit, The Hat, Mississippi Review, Lungfull, Gulf Coast, and other journals. He is currently an Associate Professor of English at Florida State University.