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New York School Poets

New York School Poets

The New York School refers to an American group of poets and artists, part of the post-modernism literary movement, who lived in New York City and produced work during the 1950s and 1960s.

Post-modernism: a literary movement that arose in the mid-20th century as a reaction to the limitations of modernist thought. The movement was characterised by scepticism, fragmentation and isolation.

The New York School Movement

The New York School's namesake is the École de Paris, which included artists such as Henri Matisse and Picasso. As a term, the New York School was cemented in literary studies by Donald Allen's The New American Poetry: 1945-1960 (1960), a poetry anthology that presented post-World War Two poetry in a number of selective groupings including 'San Francisco Renaissance' and 'New York School'.

École de Paris: A pre-World War Two group of painters who lived and worked in Paris between 1900 and 1940.

As reflected by its name, the New York School originated in New York City. This movement is not associated with a literal school, instead it refers to a creative community with similar artistic styles and subject matter.

New York School: A group of poets who lived in New York City and produced modernist poetry during the 1950s and 1960s.

Much of the poetry produced by writers associated with the New York School was focused on everyday events and topics, featuring references to popular culture, conversational language, and humour. As a sub-genre of the post-modernist literary movement, the New York School sought to break away from traditional styles associated with academia. This movement can be considered the antithesis of confessional poetry, discussing contemporary issues in a light-hearted rather than serious manner.

Confessional poetry: A poetry style that originated in the USA during the late 1950s that focused on serious or taboo issues such as personal trauma and sexuality.

Famous New York School Poets

The New York School is commonly divided into two generations of poets. Let's take a look at the most famous poets from each of the generations.

New York School, first generation

Frank O'Hara, James Schuyler, Kenneth Koch, and John Ashbery were all early members of the New York School of poets. They moved to, and lived in New York during the 1950s.

At this time, events such as the Second Red Scare and the Korean War were influencing the American political culture and social discourses. The fear of communism, generated by the Second Red Scare led to censorship and intellectual suppression. Through their poetry, this group of writers attempted to find their own escape from the suppressive culture of the time, creating pieces that reflected on current issues and broke traditional poetic conventions.

Second Red Scare: A period of ten years (1947-1957) in the United States of America, during which the widespread fear and persecution of communism was promoted by the government.

Korean War: A conflict between the Communist North of Korea, backed by the Soviet Union, and the Democratic South of Korea, backed by the United States of America, which lasted from 1950 to 1953.

Frank O'Hara

Frank O'Hara was an American poet and curator at the Museum of Modern Art who lived from 1926 to 1966.

O'Hara wrote poetry about his own personal experiences. Through his work he sought to capture the rhythms and realities of everyday life and present them in a life-like way to readers, stating that poetry should be 'between two persons instead of two pages.'1

John Ashbery

John Ashbery was a critically acclaimed American poet who lived from 1927 to 2017. During his lifetime he won multiple awards including the Pulitzer Prize, the Yale Younger Poets Prize, and a MacArthur 'Genius' Grant.

He is best known for his 1975 collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize.

Ashbery's poetry is characterised by how it pushed the boundaries of typical structures in verse. For instance, The Tennis Court Oath (1962) contained multiple poems which broke away from traditional forms and expectations. The longest poem in the collection, 'Europe', was divided into three sections, and contained references to the 1917 novel Beryl and the Biplane by William Le Queux, among other popular media.

James Schuyler

James Schuyler was a poet who lived from 1923 to 1991. In 1981, Schuyler was awarded a Pulitzer for his poetry collection The Morning of the Poem (1980), prior to this, Schuyler received the Longview Foundation Award in 1961 and the Frank O'Hara Prize for Poetry in 1969.

During the 1950s he shared an apartment on 49th Street in Manhattan, New York, with Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery. He was known for his 'window' poems, which act as accounts of the view from Schuyler's apartment at the time of writing. For instance, in his poem, 'February' (1954) Schuyler describes the street 'at five p.m. on the day before March first.'

Alongside producing a number of poetry collections, Schuyler worked as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art and wrote for the publication Art News.

The first generation of the New York School was influenced by the abstract expressionism art movement. This influence can be linked to many of the School's prominent poets working in art galleries. For instance, both Frank O'Hara and James Schuyler worked at the Museum of Modern Art.

New York School, second generation

The second generation of the New York School was not as tightly linked to New York City as the first generation. For instance, Alice Notely, Ted Berrigan and Bill Berkson all studied at the University of Tusla in Oklahoma.

Similar to the first generation, these poets broke the traditional rules of poetry. It has been argued that the second generation was more influenced by the pop-art movement than by abstract expressionism.2

Alice Notley

Alice Notley was one of the prominent poets of the New York School's second generation. Born in 1945, Notley has published a total of 40 poetry collections during her lifetime, her work added another aspect to the New York School, exploring aspects of womanhood in everyday life. Notley's poetry collections include; 165 Meeting House (1971), When I Was Alive (1980), and The Descent of Alette (1996).

Ted Berrigan

Ted Berrigan was an American poet and the husband of Alice Notley up until his death in 1983. Berrigan's work was heavily influenced by the Beat Generation, taking an expressionist style. He believed that poetry should not be limited to expressing one idea or subject but instead should follow the mind's stream-of-consciousness. Berrigan's most famous work, The Sonnets (1964), was privately published at first, before being reissued in 1966 by Grove Press.

The term 'stream-of-consciousness' was coined in William James' theory of consciousness, presented in his 1890 work Principles of Psychology. This theory argued that our minds work in a continuous, uninterrupted flow.

William James (1842-1910) was an American philosopher and phycologist, who is known as the 'father of American psychology'.

In literature, stream-of-consciousness refers to a narrative style that parallels the continuous flow of an individual's mental processes.

Beat Generation: a literary movement characterised by a rejection of traditional poetry forms and structures, focused on exploring American culture and the human condition.

The New York School Artists

The New York School doesn't just refer to a group of poets, the term also refers to the art scene in 1940s New York, following the Second World War. As an art scene, the New York School is characterised by individual expressionism which broke traditional expectations of art. This style of art came to be known as abstract expressionism.

Abstract expressionism: A style of art that appears spontaneous, characterised by mark-making and expressive brushwork.

Famous New York School Artists include:

  • Jackson Pollock (1912-1956)

  • Mark Rothko (1903-1970)

  • Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)

New York School Poetry Examples

Although all of the poets associated with the New York School movement were influenced by expressionism, their styles were not constrained to a strict set of characteristics or techniques. Therefore, the poetry produced by the poets of the New York School is defined by individualism, representing the writer's own experiences and thoughts.

Both Frank O'Hara's 'Why I Am Not a Painter' (1957) and Ted Berrigan's 'Wrong Train' (1971) are written with stream-of-consciousness narratives. However, while 'Why I Am Not a Painter' follows the speaker's own thoughts on why he is a poet rather than a painter, 'Wrong Train' explores a more existentialist topic, following the thoughts of a speaker as they wait for a train to the afterlife.

'Why I Am Not a Painter' (1957), Frank O'Hara

Frank O'Hara's use of simple language, direct speech, and free verse in his poem 'Why I Am Not a Painter' causes his work to appear more as a piece of prose than verse. The poem takes a conversational tone, exploring why O'Hara is a poet, not a painter.

Free verse: A form of poetry which is free from a regular rhythm, meter or rhyme-scheme.

For instance, in the poem's second stanza O'Hara's makes use of direct speech contributing to the sense that this poem is a piece of prose rather than verse;

I drop in.

“Sit down and have a drink” he

says. I drink; we drink. I look

up. “You have SARDINES in it.”

“Yes, it needed something there.”

Direct speech is commonly used in novels rather than poems. By utilising this technique in his poem O'Hara produces a conversational tone, reflective of everyday life and experiences.

'Wrong Train', Ted Berrigan (1971)

Ted Berrigan's poem 'Wrong Train' presents the experience of someone waiting for a train to the afterlife. The poem's narrative is structured to portray the speaker's steady realisation that they're waiting for a train to the afterlife.

Berrigan makes use of caesura and enjambment to create a fragmented rhythm, as though the speaker is noticing aspects of the scene around them;

Caesura: A break in a line of verse created with punctuation.

Enjambment: When a sentence carries on from one line of verse onto another.

& hits me with a billyclub!" A fat guy

Says. Shut up. & like that we cross a river

Into the Afterlife. Everything goes on as before

Here the caesura of 'Says. Shut up. & like that' creates notable pauses in the rhythm, indicating that the 'fat guy' is speaking in a harsh and blunt tone. The use of enjambment between 'we cross a river' and 'into the Afterlife' continues Berrigan's use of pauses, emphasising the speaker's realisation that they are journeying to 'the Afterlife'.

New York School of Poetry Characteristics

The poets who made up the New York School did not subscribe to a set style of writing, their work aimed to subvert and break free of the traditional expectations of poetry. This common goal resulted in each poet associated with the New York School developing their own individual style. However, there are a number of general characteristics which shaped the poems of the New York School:

Observational subject matter

The majority of work produced by the first and second generations of the New York School of Poetry sought to provide a commentary on social and political issues at the time of writing.

Due to the observational nature of these poems, an element of spontaneity characterised the style of writing, as the poets would react to daily events and happenings. Many poets utilising stream-of-consciousness narratives to create an 'in the moment' feel.

For instance, in 'People of the Future' (1977), Ted Berrigan creates a conversational tone through simple language and enjambment;

People of the future

While you are reading these poems, remember

you didn't write them,

I did.

Here, the enjambment allows the poem to stop and start in a natural way, as though the poet is considering their next words. The poem is not confined to a set rhyme-scheme, or structure, instead, it functions similar to a conversation.

Witty tone

A witty and humorous tone characterised poems produced by the New York School. This style of poetry developed in opposition to the traditional, melancholic, and serious approach taken by World War Two poets when discussing current events. Although poems from the New York School dealt with serious issues, they did so in a conversational way, with moments of humour.

Experimental punctuation

Some poems from the New York School utilised direct speech, involving speech marks while others used little to no punctuation at all. This varied and experimental use of punctuation allowed the poets of the New York School to convey their perspectives and emotions by disrupting the traditional rhythms and rhymes associated with poetry.

For instance, in '30th Birthday' (1993) Alice Notley indents her lines, limits her use of punctuation, and utilises enjambment. This use of structure creates a choppy rhythm, with pauses between each line, creating the sense that we are reading the speaker's internal dialogue.

May I never be afraid

especially of myself

but

Muhammed Ali are you telling

the truth?

Well you’re being true aren’t you and

you talk so wonderfully in your body

that protects you with physique of voice

raps within dance

May I never be afraid ('30th Birthday', Lines 1-10)

New York School - Key Takeaways

  • The New York School refers to an American group of poets and artists, part of the post-modernism literary movement.
  • As hinted by its name, the New York School originated in New York City, it was prevalent as a literary movement during the 1950s and 1960s.
  • The New York School consists of two generations, the first generation includes Frank O'Hara and James Schuyler, while the second generation includes Alice Notley and Ted Berrigan.
  • Key characteristics of the New York School include; observational subject matter, witty tone and experimental punctuation.

References

  1. American Council of Learned Societies, 'Frank O'Hara' in American National Biography, 1999
  2. Terence Diggory, Encyclopedia of: New York school of poets, 2009

Frequently Asked Questions about New York School Poets

The New York School is part of the post-modernism literary movement. It was heavily influenced by the expressionist and surrealist art and literary movements. 

Examples of New York School poets include; Frank O'Hara, James Schuyler and Alice Notley. 

An American group of poets who lived in New York City and produced work during the 1950s and 1960s.


Early pioneers of the New York School were Frank O'Hara and James Schuyler. 

Although the poets who made up the New York School did not subscribe to a set style of writing, their main focus was on expressing individual experiences, key characteristics of the New York School are observational subject matter, witty tone and experimental punctuation. 

Final New York School Poets Quiz

Question

True or false: The New York School is part of the post-modernism literary movement?

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Answer

True!

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Question

What is the namesake of the New York School?

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Answer

The École de Paris.

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Question

What is the New York School of poetry?

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Answer

A group of poets who lived in New York City and produced modernist poetry during the 1950s and 1960s.

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Question

Which movement was the New York School the antithesis of?

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Answer

Confessional poetry

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Question

How many generations is the New York School divided into?

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Answer

Two

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Question

What were writers from the New York School's first generation trying to find an escape from?

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Answer

The censorship and intellectual suppression present in American society and politics at the time.

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Question

What is John Ashbery's most well known collection of poetry?

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Answer

Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), for which he won a Pulitzer Prize. 

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Question

Which poetry collection was James Schuyler awarded a Pulitzer for?

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Answer

The Morning of the Poem (1980).

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Question

What type of poem's did James Schuyler write?

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Answer

'Window' poems

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Question

True or false: The first generation of the New York School was influenced by the abstract expressionism art movement.

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Answer

True! This influence can be linked to many of the School's prominent poets working in art galleries. 

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Question

Which art movement was the second generation of the New York School influenced by?

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Answer

Pop-art

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Question

Which generation of the New York School are Alice Notley and Ted Berrigan part of?

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Answer

Second generation. 

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Question

Which of these characteristics are not associated with the New York School?

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Answer

A serious or confessional tone

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Question

Who wrote 'Why I Am Not a Painter' (1957)?

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Answer

Frank O'Hara

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Question

Which poem by Alice Notley uses limited punctuation and indented lines?

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Answer

'30th Birthday' (1993)

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