- The New York School Goes Country
When we think about Frank O'Hara, Barbara Guest, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler, it's pretty safe to say that many of us think almost immediately about New York City. Frank O'Hara's poetry alone represents a kind of time capsule of 1950s and 1960s midtown Manhattan. A tour through O'Hara's poems is a tour through the Five Spot jazz club, the Gotham Book Mart, MoMA, Bergdorf's, and the Mayflower Donut Shop. A casual reading suggests that these places aren't tallied in O'Hara's poems in order to make some kind of metaphysically sublime point; rather, they are there to attract, jostle, delight, and disrupt our attention in the same sort of way that we get distracted walking down a busy Manhattan street. "Everything," O'Hara announces, "suddenly honks" (emphasis added).1
Indeed, accounts of the New York school scene quite often foreground a reading of the city itself as key to understanding the New York school considered broadly. Just the titles of Geoff Ward's Statutes of Liberty: The New York School of Poets, Morton [End Page 397] Feldman's Give My Regards to Eighth Street, and Brad Gooch's City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O'Hara, to choose three of many, give us an indication of how crucial visualizing the streets of New York alongside the strophes, brushstrokes, and musical notes of the New York school has been to audiences and readers over the last few decades. Whether it's fair or not, we know what Allen Ginsberg meant when he suggested that some New York school poets were a bit too caught up in "a narrow New York Manhattan Museum of Modern Art artworld cocktail ballet scene."2
Yet could it be that we've been blinkered all along? Should the New York school poets (along with Beat and second-generation New York school confreres Diane di Prima, Jim Carroll, and Kathleen Norris) "be placed alongside Annie Dillard, Wendell Berry, and Mary Oliver in the ranks of contemporary American nature writers" (3)? In his book Urban Pastoral: Natural Currents in the New York School, Timothy Gray sets out to make precisely that provocative point in the service of revising both "[t]he legacy of the postwar avant-garde" and the dominant readings of New York school-affiliated poems as inextricably city-bound. Urban Pastoral is, in this sense, a book with a bone to pick. Many critics would disapprove of Gray's even thinking of making an analogy between, say, Ashbery and Berry. However—and perhaps appropriately in light of his efforts to repaint New York school poets as modern-day Colins and Cuddies—Gray makes his argument sweetly, gently. What emerges from these pages is a generally convincing and even profoundly important reconsideration of the possibilities of the pastoral mode as it engages with New York City as a material place and as a poetics.
The book is essentially a collection of essays on the subject, though an interesting narrative arc links them together. Beginning in chapter 1 with a detailed illustration of O'Hara as a country boy aching ambivalently for the Grafton, Massachusetts, pastures of his boyhood, Gray continues over the course of the next six chapters to slowly graft the religious significations of the [End Page 398] word "pastoral" onto his reading. By the final chapter, organized around a surprising reading of poet and memoirist Jim Carroll (part-time Catholic, former heroin user, and Warhol habitué) alongside a reading of poet Kathleen Norris (committed Christian, former drug user, andWarhol habitué, now writing popular books on Christianity), we realize we've been reading a book that argues for the New York school as an inherently spiritual group of writers.
This isn't to say that Gray loses sight of proving his most basic point, that New York poets were performing a kind of social function in identifying pastoral moments amidst the throng of Gotham. "When [James] Schuyler equated a yellow...